You’ve adopted a monk-like devotion to your diet. You exercise for an hour a day. Every morning, you stand naked on the scale and pray that today will be the day… but the numbers don’t change. One day, it’s decimal points down and you’re dancing on a cloud in your skinny jeans. The next day, it’s decimal points back up and you plummet into a soul-crushing pit of defeat. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME??
For the first week of my diet, I lost about 8 pounds – and though that felt awesome, I knew it was mostly water. During the second week, I lost another 4 more. Then in the third, it stopped. Research said try a cheat day to kick your metabolism back into gear, so I went out for a steak on my birthday and lo and behold, the plateau broke – giving me another 2 pounds lost. Then, it sputtered to a halt and died once again.
This time, there was no resurrection. A cheat day did nothing. Changing up my exercise routine did nothing. Even altering the balance of carbs and proteins did nothing. I wasn’t losing weight, and to add injury to insult, I was putting undue stress on my body. For the first time in my life, I developed heart palpitations – a common side effect of physical stress, low calorie or electrolyte imbalances. I ran to the doctor and she told me not to worry. All my numbers looked good, my diet sounded incredible. I wasn’t dying. But I wasn’t losing weight either.
Am I Eating the Right Calories?
I started to really examine whether or not I was doing as good as I thought I was doing with the diet. My initial response to the low-cal stress-mode was to eat more calories. Unfortunately, there’s very few calories in vegetables… so that meant adding back in more starches and fruits.
I was also trying to emulate the Eat Fat Lose Fat/Ketogenic Diet/Paleo methods by banking on my good fats and proteins. I started cooking and eating salmon, despite a life long aversion to fish. I added extra virgin olive oil to everything. I bought iodized salt to support my thyroid and sprinkled it everywhere with wild abandon.
Then one morning, after one of those hellish 0.2 pound re-gains, I sat down with my calorie tracking app and really tried to figure out what was going on. Was I getting enough calories? Too many? The wrong kinds?
Am I Eating Enough Calories?
At first I was frustrated. After entering my planned meals and exercise for the day, I was still 750 calories below my 1200 goal. To compensate, I knocked an avocado off the menu and cancelled a workout class I’d been looking forward to all week. That got me to about 1100 calories, which is less than what they gave people in WW2 prison camps. I stared at the chart, wondering what I could possibly do differently.
The foods that compromised my meals were all extremely low cal. Salmon fillet. A can of spinach. A generous handful of turkey. A pile of bell peppers. All hovering around 100 calories each. I could eat those foods all day and it wouldn’t make a difference. The only way to get calories in was to eat carbs or more fats. But how??
Google landed me in a forum on calorie sources from fat, where posters mentioned avocados and almonds (of course)… but also olive oil. A lightbulb turned on. Oh crap, I hadn’t been counting in the olive oil I use in cooking. I wonder how many calories it has?
Apparently, a lot!
In fact, 1 tablespoon would give me 120 cals and 14g of fat – and I was probably using 2 if not more a day to cook my eggs, chicken and salmon. Here I was thinking it was just a condiment!
Am I Actually Counting All My Calories?
After adding olive oil into my daily food diary, I was surprised to find that now I was 300 calories over my goal! I considered adding back in the exercise, but I’d also read that sometimes, too much exercise can lead to inflammation and high cortisol levels. Catch 22 once more! So I started trying to see where else I could knock off calories.
I tend to snack on almonds throughout the day as my go-to buddy for curbing hunger pangs or boosting energy. For this menu, I’d packed a couple handfuls of almonds to take with me to a late-night rehearsal. This, surprisingly was the highest calorie meal of my day, clocking in at 273.
The calorie counter said 15 was about 100 calories – which seemed a lot more reasonable for a snack. So I poured the almonds back out of the baggie and counted out exactly 15. I was shocked. Fifteen almonds pales in comparison to what I thought fifteen almonds was.
That means I’d probably been eating 300 calories of them by the handful every day. Of course, on days when I need a boost before a work out, that might be a good thing. Snacking on them at a 9pm music rehearsal? Not so much.
Hidden Calories and Diet Creep
I’ve read about diet creep – this idea that eventually you start to eat slightly more or worse as you continue your diet, even as you imagine you’re still on track. There’s also the notion of hidden calories – commonly found when people misuse toppings or additives, drink alcohol or sports drinks, or binge out on ‘healthy snacks’ made with whole grains or starchy vegetables. I wasn’t eating any of those, but I was still getting my counts wrong – and didn’t even realize it.
The solution was not to banish these foods from my diet, but to measure them for their true worth. Only then could I see the accurate picture: although I eating healthy, there was just the right amount of unhealthy to keep my body doing what it does best – maintaining its weight. If I wanted to lose weight, I’d have to go even further – and since I was already eating so low cal and working out, I’d have to go after the most elusive of my calories in order to find a deficit.