I have been thinking about the origins of calorie counting, or, my number-centric approach to eating. About why I needed numbers in the first place to lose 135lbs, before even seeking out Weight Watchers. It was because I needed to learn the basics of nutrition. Because losing weight long term, like learning algebra, doesn’t make sense until you learn the basics of addition and subtraction.
I was starting at a weight of chaos and imbalance and I needed to figure out what constituted the diet of a young woman at a healthy weight. What does someone who is 5’9” and small framed typically eat and do for exercise? Not a pack of brown sugar cinnamon Pop Tarts and a bacon, egg, and cheese Croissan’wich? And does a Bloomin’ Onion count as one serving of vegetables or two? Damned if I knew.
Because I lacked this fundamental knowledge and knew nothing of a balanced diet, my initial attempts to lose weight went one of two ways: Low Fat or Low Carb. In the low fat mode, I was eating anything and everything labeled “light” or “diet.” It was probably even better if food companies decided to use their their genius spelling invention: “Lite.” Someone made a cool million on that marketing. I’m sure of it.
I was eating foods that left me hungrier than when I started eating. Rice Krispies and Jello Sugar Free Fat Free Pudding. “Wait…bagels have… no fat? Get two!” These foods bring volume, but not satiety.
La vida low carb was similarly disappointing. It was dozens of hard boiled eggs and sausage links and enough cheese to keep a dairy farm running. Carbs weren’t the only thing I didn’t have. I also lacked energy and a good mood. And I think someone failed to tell me that while you can eat as much protein as you want, you might reconsider using a ladle for butter and oil. A very unfortunate realization.
When you start out like me, at 268lbs and clueless about health, you need a few days of schooling. It doesn’t have to be calorie counting, or a point system, but you need some education about what to eat, the importance of each food group, and portion sizes. Now, you can argue the merits of the standard Food Guide Pyramid and what defines a healthy diet, but I think we can all agree on the necessity of a variety of nutrients from plant and animal foods not listed on the Dollar Menu.
Calorie counting has become second nature to me. Since I’ve been doing it for a few years now, I feel like I know the nutrition information for almost every food. It’s as if my brain downloaded its own iPhone-like calorie app. I read labels, but not nearly as much as I used to. And I read them almost exclusively for the ingredient list nowadays. I believe in whole, real ingredients.
Where I once used to feverishly check the Chili’s website to find the calorie content of their “Chocolate Chip Paradise Pie,” hoping that it would “fit” into my day of eats, now I rarely look. I am loose about it. I ballpark things. I also don’t measure anything but oats these days. So calorie counting, for me, has become less of a mathematical puzzle that I’m constantly solving. I don’t need to write it down, to whip out a calculator, I don’t even want to look things up on CalorieKing.com. My counting is a mental tally, a frame to hold a day of dining. And it feels so natural I almost don’t notice it’s sitting there in my mind next to the portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio.
I have enjoyed the benefits of this method of weight loss and maintenance. It felt in many ways like a support for all these years. I knew that no food was off limits, a really important fact. With one big number in mind for a daily goal, I could freely arrange the food as I pleased. I learned portions, I learned the general size of meals that sustain me, I learned to respect foods that may be calorie/nutrient dense but are worth eating each and every time, I discovered that whole, real foods fill me and satisfy me like no diet alternatives, I learned that a calorie is not always a calorie. Now, I prize quality above quantity. I don’t figure out the calories and then decide on the meal I’ll have. I eat and the calories follow.
Yes, sometimes I felt constrained by counting. Sometimes I wondered how the hell I was planning to sandwich Thanksgiving between breakfast and dinner. And if I have to wake up earlier for some reason, do I eat earlier and just make the rest of my meals smaller to stay within my number? Can I justify that a piece of Adam’s Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory is the size of two of my normal daily meals? I guess this cupcake is my snack?
But there is no fear of that nowadays. I feel like I could write the book on nutrition (though I’ll leave that to smarter individuals) and I trust my awareness of myself to know how to eat properly. To nourish my body and my soul with the foods I love.
The point is that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, spending a month or so learning portions by measuring and at least learning the bare bones of what calories are, what fat is, what protein and whole grains are, is more worthwhile than anything I could recommend you do when it comes to the nitty gritty of losing weight. I’m not encouraging you to bring measuring cups in your purse, or obsessively calculate the calories in a stick of gum, but if you’ve never known anything of proper nutrition, you must learn. Give yourself three solid weeks of measuring portions, reading labels to get yourself acquainted with ingredients and nutrition breakdown, and then you can begin to eyeball servings and act from a place of nutritional intuition. I had no idea what two tablespoons looked like. And the realization that 3-4 ounces of chicken was the size of a deck of cards was downright startling, because I think I had been eating about 12 ounces. Learning these things will help you for the rest of your life.
As I’ve said before, I believe strongly that after you reach the weight which you deemed “your ideal weight,” you must assess your life. You must ask yourself if this is what you want for yourself. Are you truly happy here? Eating these foods? Exercising this amount? If so, then trust yourself to maintain that balance through intuition. But if you aren’t, your body will tell you. You will feel it every day, the resistance. I said to myself a while back, after losing half of me, that I was tired of feeling scared of maintenance. I decided I would eat and exercise in a way that felt lifelong and joyful, and I would fully accept wherever that choice took me. I would find happiness in the way I live my life and my weight would follow. It cannot work the other way around. It never does. Trust me, it never does.
Grilled Portobello Sandwiches with Pesto and Goat Cheese
Here is an easy weeknight meal with lots of flavor. Feel free to substitute chicken for the portobello mushroom if this vegetarian dish feels a little lacking to you.
The grilled vegetables are deliciously sweet and the goat cheese provides the perfect tang. And pesto…well please don’t skip the pesto, because it really does make everything divine.
Clean your mushroom caps and place them in a large resealable plastic bag with 1/4- 1/3 cup of your favorite balsamic vinaigrette. Seal the bag, making sure that all of the sides of the mushroom caps have been rubbed in the dressing and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
I’m lucky in Seattle to still be grilling. Heat your gas grill, a George Foreman grill, or a heavy bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Spritz a few rounds of red onion and green bell peppers with nonstick cooking spray or brush them lightly with oil. Remove your portobellos from the marinade and place them on the grill along with the onion and peppers for 5 minutes per side. If you’re using a pan on the stove top, I recommend cooking the mushroom and onion/peppers separately, as the mushroom will release water and juices as it cooks and you don’t want your other veggies to become soggy.
Place the mushroom cap on one half of the bun, followed by the grilled pepper and onion. I also added diced, fresh cherry tomatoes because I had them on hand, but I think a nice thick slice of beefsteak tomato would be better.
Top that half with a few sprigs of fresh basil. I found the perfect large leaf. On the other half of the bun, smear 2 tsp of jarred, or homemade, pesto along with 2 TBSP of creamy goat cheese.
Be prepared with napkins and/or a bib. Because bibs are classy and you know it.
Grilled Portobello Sandwiches with Pesto and Goat Cheese
- 2 large portobello mushroom caps
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup balsamic vinaigrette
- 1/2 of a medium red onion, sliced into 1/2″ thick rounds
- 1/2 of a large green bell pepper, sliced into 1/2″ thick rounds
- 2 thick slices of tomato
- fresh basil
- 4 tsp pesto
- 1/4 cup creamy goat cheese
- 2 hamburger buns, toasted (preferably whole grain)
- Clean your mushroom caps and place them in a large resealable plastic bag with 1/4- 1/3 cup of your favorite balsamic vinaigrette. Seal the bag, making sure that all of the sides of the mushroom caps have been rubbed in the dressing and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- Heat your gas grill, a George Foreman grill, or a heavy bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Spritz a few rounds of red onion and green bell peppers with nonstick cooking spray or brush them lightly with oil. Remove your portobellos from the marinade and place them on the grill along with the onion and peppers for 5 minutes per side. If you’re using a pan on the stove top, cook the mushroom and onion/peppers separately, as the mushroom will release water and juices as it cooks and you don’t want your other veggies to become soggy.
- Place the mushroom cap on one half of the bun, followed by the grilled pepper and onion. Next add a slice of tomato and a few sprigs of fresh basil.
- On the other half of the bun, smear 2 tsp of jarred, or homemade, pesto along with 2 TBSP of creamy goat cheese.
- Sandwich both halves together and enjoy!