Counting Calories Is A Lot of Work. Here's What I Do Instead

There are ways to get to know how your body works without hard numbers.

Feb 17 2021, 8:58pm
Sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs? A Swole Woman is here to help you be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.

Hey Swole Woman, 

I’m just getting interested in strength training as the weather gets too cold to be outside all the time and I want to keep moving/be able to lift heavy things. I’m enjoying trying new skills and exploring corners of the gym I never have, but I’m struggling with some of the food tracking and online narratives around training and “ideal” bodies. 

I’m a recovered disordered eater and have been in a really nice peaceful place with my body image and non-restrictive/intuitive eating, so using apps like MyFitness Pal and tracking calories again feels dangerous to me. But I know that my macros are important, and making sure I’m eating *enough* is also easier when I have this data. How do I build a practice and a community around strength training that embodies my feminist, anti-fatphobic ideals? 

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- Strong but Scared




Some of what I’ve learned in this respect can apply even if you’re not trying to build muscle (skip down to “how to learn to go by feel,” if that’s you). But the shortest answer possible here for would-be lifters would theoretically be: Eat. Eat a lot. Eat a lot of protein (eggs, Greek yogurt, tofu, fake meat, real meat), a serving at LEAST the size of your two palms at every meal. If you want to be strong and build muscle (or even RE-build just a basic level of muscle tone that has been lost over several aggressive dieting cycles over the years; yes, that really happens), you should, nay, you MUST eat a lot. If you are going into your workouts still drained, even after a day or two of rest, eat more than that. If still drained, eat more than that. That’s it. You don’t have to keep track, even. That’s it. That’s the end. 


But while eating “a lot” is pretty simple and straightforward, there is a fairly wide margin of error to it: If you’re eating, say, twice as much as you need, there’s a fair chance you’re getting all the protein you need. But “twice as much” might be a literally uncomfortable amount of food to eat on any given day, let alone for weeks or months at a time (This would be “set point theory” at work, at least in the short term, which you may have heard of in the context of trying to lose weight, but it does work in the other direction too.) Also, while this is a decent short-term solution, it might not be great for your health to be swinging from the rafters year in and year out. It might also be impossible, due to a disordered eating past, to “just eat a lot,” depending on triggers.

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If you eat just to the point that you’re not hungry anymore, you might not eat anywhere near close enough to the right amounts of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) or macronutrients (protein, carbs, etc.) you need if you’re just getting into heavy strength training, and that will possibly lead you to feeling bad, like the whole thing doesn’t work, and like you should give up. You might not have any idea what “hunger” feels like, which is common for disordered eaters who are used to so many other competing forces in their head steering when and how and what they eat.

At this point I will stop and say, if you have a history of disordered eating, you would almost certainly benefit from the guidance of a medical professional, like a dietitian or a sports nutrition coach, who is experienced with disordered eaters who wish to get stronger and build some muscle. While it might feel overall unfair to have to do something that feels like re-learn how to eat (like, schools/families/society should be teaching us how to feed ourselves in normal ways, instead of shoving Pop Tarts under our noses at all hours of the day and then screaming at us for weighing more than two pounds). But don’t underestimate the value of humbling yourself in front of the dumb little task of eating food. We do it three times a day, it affects how the rest of our days and weeks and months and years go, and it’s worth putting time and attention on it.

To be clear, if I think there’s one beautiful thing the process of getting stronger taught me, it’s that gaining weight and body fat, or being of a higher weight and body fat, and being somehow “unhealthy” are in far less of a lockstep than the average fitness influencer would like you to believe. The status of “healthiest person” is not awarded to the one who is the thinnest and smallest with the most visible abs. I will meet any fitstagrammer or FitTokker on the field of battle, and I will win in this matter.

At minimum, let’s say the range for “health” in terms of size and body fat percentage is much more generous than what might be pictured alongside “clean eating” plates of fruit and cauliflower rice on Instagram. Let’s also say you’re going to ignore or not take seriously my advice to seek out a medical professional for a while longer; what then?

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I want to say a piece for tracking, generally speaking. When I started lifting, I was truly broken off sideways and backwards when it came to eating right. I thought a bowl of cereal was a decent meal and/or a “good source of protein”; same for toast with a little peanut butter. When that “eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to build back wasted muscles” directive came through the roof of my lifting education, I didn’t know which way was up. I needed to track to know I was eating enough to reach the fission point of “building strength,” because neither my education nor my biological cues or cravings would guide me there. The firm hand of quantities and numbers let me understand much more quickly what “eating to fuel the constructive health and growth of my body” looked like than intuition would have. 

The idea of “tracking to eat enough” latched in my brain to the point that numbers not only didn’t trigger my restricting mechanisms, but allowed me to slowly unlearn them, and I recognize that is not and won’t be the case for everyone. It was also only the start of a long, tentative journey into unlearning fears about gaining weight. 

However, I also want to say a piece for intuitively-guided eating. Could I have felt my way there by eating more or less of certain things based on knowing the loose relationship between rough quantities and observing how I responded, or going by rougher guidelines than numbers? Almost certainly also yes; that’s essentially where I’m at now, though admittedly after years working with guardrails. It would have been slower, but it doesn’t feel like it would have been impossible (I know plenty of people who lift and get stronger and don’t track calories). I still pay attention to how I feel even when I’m actually tracking by numbers, because numbers can vary depending on our personal biology, and the quantity of food I need can actually be quite a bit higher! Calculators and precise grams are not gospel, and I still had to feel my way to an extent.

More to the point: Even some of the most revered (and expensive!) nutrition coaching services out there write their nutritional templates using rougher quantities instead of calories and grams, like the thumb-fist-palm-cupped hand measuring system. And it still works! Or at least, those companies are still in business. 

How to learn to go by “feel”

You mentioned that you’re already on board with intuitive eating. The good news is, I’ve never had anything drastically bad happen so far by following my hunger cues as I try to get stronger. As I mentioned above, I’ve put in the time to understanding nutrition basics, and I didn’t just leap into knowing what it feels like when I’m hungry because I’m trying to refuel after a workout, but my way isn’t the only way.

The most important thing with building (or rebuilding) muscle is how you feel in the gym and in life—do you feel tired and unprepared for when you wake up or when you go to do your gym session, or do you feel ready to, as we say, kill God? If the former, you’d have to think back to what you ate in the days prior and eat more than that. This is, strictly speaking, a form of tracking, though obviously not the MyFitnessPal calories-and-grams oriented type. But whether it’s something looser or something stricter, if you’re trying to do any kind of growth, your goal overall should be cultivating an awareness of how what you do makes you feel. (If you feel like you know nothing at all about nutrition, this r/xxfitness nutrition FAQ is a great place to start.)

Do you have a question about working out, eating, health, or why you shouldn't be afraid of lifting heavy weights? Send it to swole.woman@vice.com and follow @swolewoman on Instagram.

I remember being frustrated with this notion of “depends how you feel!” before I started lifting, because I didn’t know how I felt. I know now that at the time I felt bad, but at the time I had no context with which to understand that. Did that squat feel good or bad? Did I go into the gym feeling like I had energy or not? How the fuck was I to know! I’d have to have had all of these experiences before AND have been paying attention to not only how it felt in the moment, but the factors that lead up to that moment--how did I sleep? Did I eat Shake Shack for dinner, or meet some friends for happy hour and then go home and fall asleep at 9pm, failing to eat anything for 14 hours? I still feel some second-hand frustration about internal-feeling-based guidance now that “intuitive eating” has become such a trend.

So at first, you’re not going to know how you feel based on various things. That’s okay—you can learn. I thought of it as becoming a naturalist of my own life, as nonjudgmentally as possible. 

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As friend of the column Mary HK Choi once told me, everything is data. If everything feels “just okay” but I wasn’t able to lift more weight every session like you should be able to in a starter strength program, I’d think about what I ate the day before and eat a little more, an extra snack or even an extra meal. I’d see how I felt the next morning or the next time I trained. Suddenly everything is easier, you say? I’d keep going, maybe even try eating a little more. No dividends from eating way more? I’d scale it back. Lifting feels bad after eating only Doritos for a day? I’d try to mix up my foods a hair and definitely eat more protein than that. I’m feeling great when you eat the chili where you doubled the protein in the recipe? I should keep doing that. 

While there are one bazillion specific diets out there, the essentials of a “balanced diet” haven’t wildly changed over the years: eat mostly whole foods, eat some vegetables, eat your carbs for energy, eat your proteins for strength, eat some cookies for joy and sanity. These things can all exist in harmony.

You might even notice, as I have done, that one day of going way off the rails doesn’t affect you really badly at all, so then you lean into the chaos for like, a week or weeks. And then at some point you (I) realize nothing is going right, and you (I) have strayed too far from the path. But this is a useful lesson too: days and incidents don’t matter as much as weeks and months and years and basically decent habits do. 

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This is why it can help to write down what you notice about the relationship between what you do and how you feel. You might be saying “wait a minute, isn’t this ‘tracking’?” and I guess it is. But “tracking” doesn’t have to look like what a calorie counting app says it does. We can’t expect any sort of growth without observing what worked and what didn’t and making edits and tweaks and trying new things accordingly. (This all only applies if you are trying to “grow” and not just “coast,” but If you’re trying to coast, that’s valid; just keep doing what you’re doing and ignore me.) But maybe start your naturalist observational safari this way—get a notebook and every morning answer these three questions:

  • How do I feel?
  • What transpired yesterday that may have led to me feeling this way, or resulted from me feeling this way? 
  • What do I want to try today?

These entries could be really short:

I feel incredibly sore all over
I had beer and potato chips for dinner
Today I want to eat an extra protein-ful breakfast and stretch

I feel amazing
I went to the gym and then had a burger, fries, and a chocolate milkshake, and went to bed at 9pm
Today I’ll look at my program and plan on lifting slightly more weight than planned tomorrow

I feel stressed because my boss is a jagoff
I slept really badly because I was awake for several hours thinking about TPS reports
I’ll take it easy in the gym today and not expect too much so as not to add to my stress

The actual record doesn’t even matter as much as developing the habit of noticing. Because as we said earlier, you’re both learning to pay attention to yourself, and mapping out your personal physical/emotional experience matrix of the world; what takes you up, what brings you down, what you’ve figured out, and what you don’t yet understand. 

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The notion of “doing what feels right for my body” has been tragically co-opted by a lot of people who, it feels clear, are afraid to eat carbs or have similarly rigid orthorexia issues, so it feels hard now to wrest that away from them. But we have to bring in here a generous and expansive view of food, where it is both fuel and something to enjoy and savor. We also need this view for exercise, where it’s a privilege to have time and energy to take care of yourself and do something that makes you feel better in the rest of your life. 

There are limits to anyone’s ability to understand how we feel mentally, physically, or emotionally, and you might find this doesn’t overall work that well for you. But if you reach your limits, I can’t imagine trying something like this will make you worse when you eventually talk with a professional who can help you fill in the gaps. 

So does this meet your definition of “not tracking?” I hope so. While I feel a crucial component of making the whole positive feedback loop of lifting and strength training “click” is making sure you are eating enough, going by feelings and more abstract references like “two palms of protein” will probably (naturally) make it slightly trickier to find your way to what’s right for you than hitting a numerical target. You might need to be extra patient with yourself when you hit dead ends or unexpected corners in the labyrinth of “what is my body doing, what does it want, what does it know and when did it know it.”

But in terms of humbling yourself before the dumb little task of “taking care of ourselves,” I’d argue there are few things you can do better for yourself than paying attention and learning what makes you feel good, because it will pay off not just for the purposes of me building an army of strong people, but for you personally in your life, in general. 


Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.


You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.

Tagged:

eating, strength training, disordered eating, dieting, food tracking, Ask a Swole Woman

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