Turns Out Calories Really Are Out

Are you kidding me?! The New York Times published an article this morning (“How Much Do Calories Count?” By Anahad O’Connor) heralding a new weight loss study that found that calories aren’t the be all, end all in weight loss after all. In fact, according to the JAMA study, people who “cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight.” In other words, calories don’t really matter.

I want to scream.

Ever since I was nine years old, my mother had me counting calories. I remember standing over the kitchen sink one morning in my navy blue school uniform jumper, measuring my orange juice (1/2 cup!) and then flipping through the calorie counting book to assess the damage. I then wrote down the amount on my mother’s blue and red monogrammed notepad, which I would carry around all day to record the rest of my food intake. This was in fourth grade. Looking back, I can’t decide if I’m more impressed with how I counted every bite, lick and taste or that I could do the math required to add up all the calories.

I also remember one night, decked in my “just five more minutes, please!” nightgown, bursting through the tiny jack-n-jill bathroom I shared with my little brother, where I proudly announced my two achievements of the day: sticking to my 1,000 calories and swallowing my first pill. My mother cheered! I beamed with pride. It’s one of my clearest memories.

I can still feel the stiff, yellowing pages of my mother’s “Calories and Carbohydates” book as I used my index finger to line up the columns of numbers with the foods I’d just eaten. I had to do it; calories were the holy grail. If I could just control how many of those little beasts I’d ingested, I could be skinny! I was never fat, mind you. Just a few pounds more than I would’ve liked. A little thicker around the thighs than my string bean school friends. Enough to want to do something about it.

As time went on, I followed every national weight loss trend to battle the (tiny) bulge. I fully embraced the fat-free movement, undoubtedly becoming the nation’s largest consumer of Snackwell’s and frozen yogurt. I mainlined Splenda during the sugar-free era. I peed on a stick during my Atkins phase to assess my ketone levels, eating more protein than my body knew what to do with. I went on Weight Watchers and drank the Kool-Aid (5 Points?) for years. I weighed and measured everything, seeking out the highest fiber foods I could find. My colon has never been the same. I did bizarre things like sprinkling Splenda onto cucumbers for an afternoon snack to avoid adding Points to my daily log. I ended up restricting my eating so much to achieve my weight loss goal and substituting so many real foods for wannabe versions that my hair starting falling out, I was perpetually freezing cold and I stopped getting my period. But who cares? I was a lifetime member! I’d hit my goal! I even ended up working for Weight Watchers where I regularly preached the same methodology to others: calories out, calories in. Work out more. Eat less.

As the world shifted more to green juices and kale, I gave up all my chemically enhanced food substitutes and stuck to minimally processed foods. But that didn’t stop me from inhaling baked goods at night.

I had an inkling that weight loss wasn’t all about calories after my couple trips to Europe. Whenever I went to France, I’d eat my heart out and come back weighing less. What the eff?

Last month, I heard about Weight Watchers new “Freestyle” plan. Chicken, eggs and fish were free?! All the fruits and vegetables I wanted? I flashed back to a wedding brunch I went to deep in my WW days when I looked around the buffet in a panic because the big vat of scrambled eggs would cost me too many Points and I couldn’t get egg whites. Now, eggs were fully sanctioned?

I decided to try the new system. I lost five pounds in a month eating healthy, non-processed foods — and a lot of them. I lost my craving for sugar and got in a rhythm of eating “real” foods each day. That is, until I didn’t. One piece of cake set me off a cycle of sugar inhalation that ended with me eating a bag of dark chocolate covered chickpeas in bed last night. I don’t even like chickpeas. But I had to admit that the new program had worked.

And now this article. I’m 41 years old. I’ve been dieting or starting a “healthy lifestyle” (aka dieting) for 32 years. And I’ve been doing it all wrong.

I’m glad that the latest theories will make life easier for this crop of dieters. I’m glad that Weight Watchers is now allowing teens to go for free. Some teens can benefit from learning about healthy eating in a quantified way the way WW teaches which, ultimately, still works for me. But I feel cheated learning now that what I’ve thought was something set in stone about weight loss, the one constant, is also now invalidated. Speaking of “cheating,” I’m thinking a piece of cake or two this week should be fine. If no one really knows what they’re doing, at least I’m going to enjoy life a little.