Convalescence and counting calories

Dear readers, remember that time I said that counting calories was bullshit? Well, I still think that’s true. But now I’m just a hypocrite.

A few months ago, after six months of rock climbing and a long walk in bad shoes, I sprained my big toe. Despite being one of the lamest possible injuries, it meant that even walking was a challenge. I normally work out five or six days a week, but I really didn’t want to injure myself any worse.  I switched to a stationary bike, did push-ups as if I enjoyed doing push-ups, and tried to stop myself from complaining. I was not very successful. I thought if I just took it a little easy, my toe would go ahead and heal itself. But after three weeks, I was sort of able to walk but hadn’t gotten much better. So I went to the doctor.

The doctor told me I needed to quit doing everything for two weeks. Apparently my toe was too weak for even the friggin’ stationary bike. I realize it’s irritating for an able-bodied human like myself to complain about not being able to exercise. Feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph where I get less irritating. But I depend on exercise to keep me from being a puddle of anxiety. I also have a hard time taking breaks from exercising, which I know has so much psychological subtext that I’m not even going to go there. Instead I came up with new habits like dusting the top ledge of the baseboard and cleaning the tiny ridges in the kitchen mat. But I was a good girl and listened to the doctor.

After exactly two weeks had passed and after more than a month of only half-assedly working out, I wanted to do something to jump-start being healthy again. I don’t own a scale so I only knew how much I weighed from going to the doctor’s office. And while I hadn’t necessarily gained weight, I had lost muscle tone and didn’t feel like my normal self. I felt lethargic and sad. I didn’t want to diet because fuck diets, but I had a new set of workout videos (TurboFire, of infomercial bleached-blonde fame). And the workouts came with a (wait for it) “5-Day Inferno Plan.” Apparently this eating plan would involve going to hell. Despite my hatred of diets and my worry of becoming too obsessive about counting calories, I decided to go ahead with the INFERNO.

The plan involved eating five effing times a day: a small breakfast, a snack, a small lunch, another snack, and a HUGE dinner with some sort of meat, vegetable, and grain. But it appealed to me because it was still actual meals with actual food (and allowed both cheese and coffee). It took me several trips to get everything because the food plan is VERY SPECIFIC about portions and measurements (which I actually enjoyed because it appeals to my control-freak side), and I didn’t want to mess with the calories. It also cost me nearly $130. (And I didn’t even buy their ridiculously expensive branded protein shake, but instead pilfered some of Charlie’s protein powder.) But by then I was literally too invested, so ONWARD.

Each of the days was paired with either a 50-minute cardio video or a 45 minute cardio + 15 minutes interval training video. The point was that all that work means you should probably be eating more, and mostly protein and vegetables with some brown grains. But even with five meals a day, it only averaged out to 1,200-ish calories a day. Charlie thought it was way too little, but I figured I was a tiny little woman and it would be fine.

I started off optimistic as hell. Here are some of the things I ate in the first few days:

Tuna mixed with fat-free ranch dressing and celery; greens, tomatoes.

Turkey, tomatoes, avocado, greens, and Italian dressing on a wheat tortilla.

Adorable vegetable snack. I recommend getting cute and tiny bowls to help with your snacking needs.

Pineapple and cottage cheese breakfast.

I even got to eat bacon twice. Turkey bacon, but still. I discovered that cottage cheese with fruit isn’t terrible. Some of the recipes were actually delicious—like the egg salad pita, tuna salad, and the turkey avocado wrap. The others, not so much. The first three bites of the baked potato seemed good, considering it had cheese, sour cream, and bacon on it. But it turns out that one tablespoon of sour cream and one sad lonely slice of bacon just is NOT the right ratio for a baked potato. I ended up mostly choking down plain potato and feeling sorry for myself.

Deceptively good-looking.

I was hungry all the damn time. 1,200 calories is not a lot of food. Do you know how little four ounces of meat is? I asked the man working at the deli counter for two four-ounce pieces of salmon and he laughed at me. Look at this dinner plate:

SO MUCH BOK CHOY, brown rice, grilled pineapple, and teriyaki soy salmon.

Not only did I have to scarf down bok choy (which tastes like the insole of a sweaty shoe), but look at the proportion of actual delicious salmon to vegetable and brown rice. I COULD BE EATING A BURRITO WHAT AM I EVEN DOING.

Even though I love having recipes tell me what to do, I got tired of constantly measuring out every little thing. I became obsessed with googling things like “How big is 6 oz of flank steak?” and “How many teaspoons is 3 oz of shredded cheese?” and other such EXCITING things. I didn’t have a food scale so most of the time I was just winging it and feeling like a failure. But then I started vowing that I’d do better. I started researching food scale prices. I would measure the 1/4 avocado exactly because those precise measurements would make me look and feel good. I’d gotten sucked in, become a slave to the ounces and to counting how many almonds I was eating.

On the third planned day, one of my friends wanted to go out. She was moving away, and it was one of the last days we both had free. I texted her that I was on a VERY IMPORTANT EATING PLAN and might not be able to go out. Was she free on Tuesday, once I was done? No, she wasn’t. I spent hours agonizing over what choice would make me a more terrible person.  My friend was moving many states away, and I had no idea when I’d see her again, versus messing up the plan and maybe having some of the $130 food go to waste. I didn’t want to give up on the plan because what did that say about me? That I couldn’t even commit five days to something? I didn’t want to give up on my friend, because choosing an eating plan over a friend is insane, right?

Eventually I decided that I didn’t want to be the biggest asshole on the planet and that I loved my friend. So I decided to screw the plan for a day and instead eat tapas and drink mimosas and sangria and I didn’t regret a single fucking minute.

After the day off, I finished the rest of the eating plan as closely as I was able. I have no idea (nor do I much care) if I lost any weight. The pictures I took of myself do show a little difference, and I learned how to snack like a grownup. I also learned that some vegetables (cucumbers, red peppers, zucchini) are actually good to snack on, and that almond butter on sliced apples is far superior to peanut butter. I felt like a healthy, active person again.

But I also learned that eating one waffle for breakfast is really depressing. I learned how easy it would be to start slowly shaving calories off my allotted amount. I learned that people don’t like hearing about eating plans, and how easy it would be to lie about what I’m eating. And I learned how quickly those grams of fat and 1/3 tablespoons make you feel like a good and put-together person.

I’d rather not be that sort of person. Instead I’ll maybe try to eat more vegetables and pay closer attention to portion sizes. I will continue to work out and teach myself to take more breaks. I’ll still be proud of myself when I eat well and work out harder. But I want to continue to be the person who would choose sangria with a friend over a bowl of vegetables by myself.

Jill Kolongowski is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. When she’s not cooking, running, or reading, she sometimes blogs at Follow her on Twitter at @jillkolongowski.

4 Responses to “Convalescence and counting calories”
  1. anniecardi says:

    Extremely well said, Jill. Obviously it’s good to make healthy choices that give your body strength and energy, but there’s no reason a diet should exclude you from living a full life. Whenever I feel bad about my food choices, I try to remember that I’d rather have the memory of spending time with friends over sangria than the memory of staying home just to avoid the calories.

  2. Anna says:

    I think this is part of the problem with the perception that counting calories has to be about restriction and not eating anything you want to eat. For me, counting calories or using any sort of eating plan (currently Weight Watchers) has never been about not eating what I want to eat or not going out with friends. Does food measurement have to be obsessively accurate to make a difference? Not really, but being close helps. Over time I’ve just started to learn how much things are worth. This doesn’t mean I never eat a hamburger or fries. It just means that I’m more aware of what a hamburger and fries twice a day is “worth.” I think the key is just better awareness, especially for me.

    Because the thing is that if I don’t keep track of what I’m eating, I eat twice as much as I need to eat. I rationalize poor choices because I “forget” that I already had two sandwiches for lunch. I don’t actually need a huge amount of food to not feel hungry. If I go over one day, whatever. You won’t see me not going out to lunch or dinner because I’m counting points or calories, though, that’s for sure. Getting obsessive just doesn’t work in the long run.

    Anyway, I think the point is to find a balance between being obsessive and being aware. For me, that happens when I’m tracking what I eat by some sort of method, be it calories or points. It doesn’t break my heart if I go overboard on the occasion, but I definitely feel better than when I ate indiscriminately.

    Also, I <3 you. And I have too many opinions on this subject. My b!

  3. Michele Dyer says:

    I enjoy your articles very much. You put a unique spin on food and psyche that makes
    me chuckle.

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