What and how you eat
    The Food Pyramid
    Counting calories: a key to diet literacy
    Your activity level
    The best form of exercise
    Chart your weight
    Sustainable agriculture
    Medical condition
    On hunger
    On eating out
    On cooking
    On addiction
    Food as love
    Spiritual Vegetarianism
    On temptation and resolve
    Six months report
    Dieting as meditation
 Grapevine Revisited
 Christmas Letter

This website is now published on my mobileme account. Any opinions expressed, however, are totally my responsibility.

The original website was published through the courtesy of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Jim Andris, Sept. 17, 2003.

Counting calories: a key to diet literacy

I know this will get me in to trouble with advocates of various diets which work with prohibited classes of food rather than amounts. But I intend to argue strongly for being able to count calories. In fact, I assert that counting calories is an aspect of dietary literacy, every bit as much as knowing how to making correct change is an aspect of numeric literacy. However, I am not saying that if you only count calories, you will have the diet problem licked, so to speak, anymore than I would assert that being able to make correct change is the whole story to being literate.

So why should we count calores? The short answer is that we can't ever know how much we are eating unless we can count calories, because a calorie is the scientific measure of the energy in food. Our bodies are in fact bio-machines that use fuel in proportion to the amount of work that they do. Recently, I went out on the internet and looked up the amount of calories I need to maintain my ideal body weight. It turned out that it takes 2150 calories a day for a moderately active 65 year old man who weights 180 lbs. and is 6 feet tall to maintain his body weight. I then proceeded to eat 500 calories a day less than that for three months, and I lost 10 pounds.

I admit that since I have been counting calories for 40 years, it is so second nature to me that I hardly even have to think about it any more. I just look at a plate and I can tell you within 50 calories how much "food energy" is on that plate.

You need to learn to count calories

Most people don't have even a clue of the number of calories in the food they are eating. I will guarantee you that counting calories will make you acutely aware of the benefits and dangers of eating various foods. Unfortunately, it is not easy to learn to count calories. It's a little bit like learning to speak a new language. At first, every word you hear has no meaning, and it is only after practice, practice, practice that you begin to make sense of words, phrases, and short sentences. Think about it. If you were in a strange country, and no one spoke English (or whatever your native language is), then you would need to use a language dictionary to look up everything you wanted to communicate, or you would have to just point.

My object here is not to so discourage you that you will never learn to count calories. But what are you going to do the next time you go to the Olive Garden, and they serve you a huge plate of pasta, not to mention all the bread that comes before the main course? If you know that you are probably going to blow half of your needed calories for that day just by eating that one plate, you can plan ahead and eat half of it and take the rest home for lunch the next day. Or what about the next time your sweetie gives you a box of chocolates for your birthday. Two of those chocolates can be the equivalent of one of the three meals you can have in a day, or even more.

So where can you start?

Let's try to make this simple. You can make real progress right away. Here are five suggestions.

1. Breakfast at home

Almost all of us have breakfast at home a lot, or stop at some coffee shop for a pastry and coffee. Breakfast is usually a simple meal. So, it shouldn't be all that hard to at least become aware of how much food energy we are getting at breakfast. You don't eat breakfast? You should, but skip to the next section.

First of all, I am going to tell you that breakfast should be from 250 to 500 calories. That's not a lot of food, but it will keep that spectacular brain of yours calculating for at least three to five hours, unless you are a marathon runner or a jack-hammer operator. So what would a 300 calorie breakfast look like? It could be a bowl of cereal with 2% milk and a small glass of juice. Whole grain cereal has the additional advantage of being healthy in other ways. A 350 calorie breakfast could be two poached eggs on toast, if you don't put a lot of butter on the toast and they are normal sized slices of bread. Add two pieces of sausage and you've probably exceeded 500 calories by a bit.

In case you haven't figured it out yet, I don't hate fat or cholesterol, but we can't talk about everything at once.

2. What do you eat a lot of?

Is there one food or drink that you really love, and can't imagine going much more than a day without? Ok, so fine, but find out how many calories are in that food. Just be aware of what you are doing, and the benefits will come to you. So, for example, I still love Classic Coke. A 12 oz. can of coke contains 160 calories. Let's say that I have a coke for lunch and a coke for dinner. 320 calories. And we've already said that's about the size of a good breakfast. So what should I do? Skip breakfast and have coke for lunch and dinner? Not a good idea. Diet coke? No calories, but not a good idea for other reasons, especially for women, who have to think about osteoporosis.

You love peanuts. Ok, so do I. And, you're not going to like this any better than I did. Depending on whether they were cooked in oil or not, or have honey added, peanuts will cost you about 165 calories per ounce. That's a moderate-sized handful. Again, remember breakfast. Would you rather have breakfast or two handfuls of peanuts? Actually, if you could stop with two handfuls of peanuts (maybe three), you are going to get carbohydrates, protein and fat out of them, and they will probably stabilize your blood sugar, unlike M&M's or coke.

But you get the point, I'm sure. Start by learning the calorie content for your favorite foods, and your task is much less daunting.

3. What kinds of foods do you eat?

How would you like to learn the calories in several kinds of foods and products all at once? You can. Just remember that there are different kinds of food. For example, foods that are mostly fat are easy. Butter, margerine, vegetable oil, they all are almost pure fat. And, fat is a very highly concentrated food. In fact, there are more calories in a cup of fat than in my entire daily dietary allowance of 1700 when I'm loosing weight.

But who would eat a half pound of fat, you say? Well, it doesn't take long to pile up. That piece of delicious whole wheat toast you were contemplating probably had about 100 calories on it. Oh, you say you were going to slather it with butter. Did you use a tablespoon of butter? Then add another 120 calories, for a total of 220 calories. That's right, a piece of whole wheat toast really loaded with butter and a small glass of juice is probably your breakfast allowance used up.

What's more, fat is the kind of food that is hidden in a lot of other foods. Cake and cookies, gravy, pie crust, french fries, tempura, these are the kind of food that can have lots of hidden fat—and consequently, hidden calories. Now, like I said before, I'm not anti-fat. In fact, I think these anti-fat diets are unrealistic and unwise, and I will discuss this later. However, if you are going to eat fat, then you need to be aware of the calories you are intaking through that fat.

Another big calorie source is pure sugar and pure starch. Sugar contains about a third of the calories of fat, but as foods go, sugar is fairly concentrated. A cup of sugar (syrup, honey) contains about 770 calories, and a tablespoon, about 48 calories. Flour, which is a complex carbohydrate, is found in many foods, and contains about 450 calories per cup. Pasta, which is largely flour, has lots of calories. For example, an average serving of pasta is 4 oz., and that contains about 330 calories. You can see why earlier I suggested that you might want to take half the plate of pasta home from the Olive Garden.

Finally, we shouldn't pass this way without noting that there are some kinds of food that don't have very many calories at all. You literally couldn't get fat if you gorged yourself on these. Veggies, or "ee-nies" as my daughter disdainfully called them, are generally very low in calories. Tomatoes, celery, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, green or red peppers, green beans fall into this category. That is, unless you cook them in fat. Then you have to add the calories of the fat you put in. Some veggies are more hi-cal, especially those that are largely complex carbohydrates, potatoes being a notable case here. 4 oz. of potatoes boiled contain 80 calories. By comparison, 4 0z. of french fries contain 240 calories. The fat made the huge difference.

4. Bite the bullet, get yourself a calorie guide

Yeah, that's what I did when I first started. I carried around a little tiny book that I got in the supermarket one time for about a dollar. I kept looking up calories in it, and before long, I rarely had to consult it. I guess it took about a month or two to get really good at estimating calories for me.

Nowadays, there are many excellent websites that have calorie and general diet information on them. For example, I went to a search engine and typed in "calories in food." Right away I had several excellent links that gave me the exact information I needed.

Remember, you are not doing this because you want to become some compulsive, calorie-shy nerd, who alienates half his friends and family. You are just trying to learn the language of food energy. As soon as you learn it, you can go about your daily business with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of confidence.

5. Develop a mental picture of the right serving size

Once you get into this calorie counting, it won't be long until you'll probably begin to develop a sense about when you are preparing to eat too much food. Let's go back to breakfast for a minute. If you like cereal, as I do, use the very same cereal bowl every time you have breakfast. The first few times you measure the cereal more carefully, just note how full the bowl is. Also, note where the milk comes up to on the side of the bowl. There. Now you won't ever have to measure that again, because you can see when you have poured too much cereal or milk.

We haven't talked about supper (or dinner, for some) yet, and so this is a good way to begin to do that. While there are many healthy ethnic diets that won't respond to this method, our "American" cusine for dinner tends to sport a big serving of animal flesh, a starchy vegetable (potato) or grain (rice), and possibly another non-starchy vegetable. Let's just stick with this three-sided plate for a minute. What should that plate look like when you start to eat it?

Well, provided the cook didn't put too much fat in it, the non-starchy veggie, say green beans or asparagus, shouldn't worry you too much, because it will come in at less than 100 calories. You should measure 4 oz. of a cooked veggie some time, just to see what it looks like. It's about half a cup, maybe a little bit more. The rice or potato is of slightly more concern. The way potatoes get cooked with butter or cream, probably about 175 calories. Now for the meat, poultry or fish. If it is lean, 4 oz. of animal flesh (we don't like that image, but that's what it is) is going to come in at just over 200 calories. If it has more fat, as in untrimmed chops, or skin, as in chicken, or was cooked in fat or cream, it is going to come in closer to 300 or 350 calories.

So there you have it. The best plan is to eat the most at lunch, but most people make dinner their "big" meal. This dinner plate we prepared above is not bulging with food. It is not piled high. Just 4 oz. of a veggie, 4 oz. of potato OR rice, and 4 oz. of animal flesh. This dinner weighs in at just under 600 calories. Whoops, you had a glass of wine? Add 100 calories. Whoops, you had a salad before the meal? Add 20 calories. With 2 tbsp. of salad dressing? Add another 150 calories. You had a slice of bread and butter? Now we're above 1000 calories for dinner. And you want dessert? How about a dip of vanilla ice cream for 150 calories more? Or butter pecan or chocolate chip for 250 calories? Well, clearly we're off our diet now.

But the point is not to scare you and make you think that now you'll never be able to have what you want to eat. The point is, just think of that dinner plate. 4-4-4. Three servings of about a half cup each, maybe a little more. When you're trying to loose weight, that's what your dinner should look like. No second servings. Maybe a salad. Maybe a glass of wine. And you still want dessert. Well, then let me give you a suggestion. Wait and eat the dessert before you go to bed.