So I started counting calories for a healthy summer project.

We’re a healthy eating family. My kids will eat just about everything. (Thanks to my insanity early in their early eating lives to become foodies.)

And I’m grateful to say I’m not concerned about my weight. I’m genetically tall and lean-ish, socially programmed to be high-speed, and professionally burdened to worry about appearances (as an actor).

But I’m over forty and wonder, “Will I ever be able to lose this tire around my waist I’ve had since high school? If not now, when?”

So I took on a friend’s challenge of counting calories for a healthy summer. She reminded me when it comes down to it – losing weight is simple: eat fewer calories than you burn throughout the day.

And then you lose.

But I’m not really setting out to lose weight. I don’t feel like sacrificing summertime hamburgers and booze and desserts. So ultimately, I’m getting out of counting calories exactly what I hoped: much more awareness of what and how I eat.

This is mostly gonna be, “Yeah, well, duh, you idiot.” But still – putting it all into math is eye-opening.

What I’ve learned:

1. There’s three categories of calories – 70, 120, and too much.

An vegetables, salad (un-dressed), fruit and eggs are less than 100 calories. Keep it light and abide by Michael Pollan’s 7 Rules for Eating: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants, and we’d all be golden (and always under 100 calories.)

But let’s be real.

So much of everything else is, like – 120-150 calories. A serving of chips or pretzels or even M&M’s is about 150 calories. A slice of bread is 110. A beer is 150, Coke is 140, a cocktail is even about 150. No harm done. And this salad I make multiple times/week loaded with kale, some cheese and toasted hazelnuts is about 120 calories. Nice, even playing field.

And then we get into “everything else”. Sausage? Lots of calories per serving. A single muffins? 300+. Cheeseburger? 550 calories. It’s shocking how much processed foods (and meat) suddenly catapult you over your daily caloric goal.

2. Eat less

Stick to the serving size. It’s not impossible to limit your input of Lay’s potato chips to 13 chips (160 cals). Is it too tedious to count them out? Not as tedious as trying to lose a decade’s worth of over-eating.

It’s eye-opening to know just how many chips are actually part of a healthy serving size. And that can be pretty guilt-free. So, yeah: count the Pretzel Crisps (17 at 165 cals) and Cheez-its (27 for 150 cals). Eat that amount, and then have another serving size, if you want. But teach yourself how it feels to eat a measured serving size. Talk about eye-opening. 

And yo – a ½ cup of ice cream (150+) is a perfectly fine amount. We don’t need to gorge more than that.

3. Slow down

Normally, I grab a handful of peanut M&M’s and mindlessly gobble them. But when I count out a serving size (12 M&M’s, 140 calories) I realize that

  • that’s still about a handful and that should be enough to snack
  • how about savoring each tasty candy instead of devouring them like Cookie Monster? (and hence consuming way more than I actually need?)

4. Alcohol: damn you

It’s really interesting to measure my booze intake. I was actually surprised that booze of all kind (from Moscow Mules to Sauvignon Blanc to Sam Adams) measures fewer calories than I expected. Again: everything’s about 150 calories. Give or take. Let’s not get caught up in the nuances.

But what’s really fascinating (and obvious – I’m well aware) is how quickly one drink leads to three (especially on summer evenings) and how these utterly empty calories increase your daily intake without nutritional value. It’s less the fact of having a drink a more a factor of “holy cow, this builds FAST.”

5. Holy cow processed foods really are the death of us.

My eyes almost exploded after dinner, the other night. I made a pesto pasta (already high in calories, but it’s all good; this isn’t a bowl of ice cream) plus some grilled vegetables (negligible calories…60 for a cup of veggies) and then I added some delicious sweet Italian sausage. Holy SHIT, y’all! We all know sausage is actually awful for us, right? But when you’ve been calculating everything in servings of 150 calories and suddenly sweet sausage doubles the calories? Damn. That’s too much.

6. I want to binge while binging.

What I really want to eat? Ice cream (140+ for 1/2 cup), peanut M&M’s (140 every 12), or my favorite treat: a couple tablespoons of peanut butter mixed with honey and raisins (280 calories for like less than a 1/4 cup) , I want to eat basically after 10pm. We all know it’s not great to gorge yourself just before bed, but worst of all is eating a bunch of these high-caloric, processed foods at the end of the night. They throw you WAY over your goal. It’s not hard to stick to 2,000 calories a day…but when you really want to binge 1,000 calories while binging Killing Eve, you learn rrrrrrreal fast just how you can screw up your daily allotment.

7. Exercise earns treats.

With the calorie-counting apps, you’re able to input exercise. That earns you more calories to use on drinking beer and eating chips. And it’s interesting to gauge how many bonus calories are earned through exercise. Just keeping in mind what you’re burning and what you’re consuming is eye-opening and educational. You can easily earn a serving size of chips or a beer with your lawn mowing. But keep it all in perspective.

To wit:

  • 30 min of running is ABOUT 380 calories;
  • 30 min of lawn-mowing is ABOUT 180 calories
  • 45 min of road-biking is ABOUT 450 calories
  • 30 min of yoga is ABOUT 200 calories.
A real-time blogging picture as I write about health and enjoy a Dunkin' Donuts Boston Creme
Yep – I choose not to be insane about my health. Once in awhile, a Boston Creme from Dunkin’ is just what the dadbod ordered.

Anyway – I highly recommend re-calibrating your relationship and awareness of food with these calorie-counting apps. I use My Fitness Pal which was easy (and free! – meaning they collect information to later sell all my information to some pharmaceutical company that will out me for that Dunkin’ Donuts Boston Creme I happen to be eating at this very moment – 310 cals – and then sell me some other crap, down the line.) But there are plenty of others.

My goal while counting calories for a healthy summer (and I recommend your goal) needn’t be obsessing over weight or developing an eating disorder. Let’s take smaller steps.

We Americans have a toxic relationship with food – eating too much and rushing through to our next activity.

Instead, when counting calories, I recommend educating yourself about portions, calorie counts, and just getting a sense of what everything costs. And then you can “budget” in a more balanced way.

Further, savor your food. Enjoy every one of those peanut M&M’s. And stop gobbling. Take your time and appreciate all 17 of those Lay’s.

And finally, abide by (or at least make note of) the serving sizes all of us have ignored our entire lives.

Taking time to savor, appreciate, experience and think about what we’re ingesting can only make us healthier (and probably lighter).

And that’s delicious.