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    Counting Calories

    It's the age old question for dieters: do I have to count my calories?  The simple answer to the question is, in my opinion, no, and that answer persists on a couple of different levels.  One of the reasons I believe many people have difficulty with a diet (besides the fact that the word so much resembles "die") is because they feel like they have to do some incredibly complicated things.  They have to totally abandon comfort foods.  They have to stop drinking that after-dinner liqueur.  They have to starve themselves.  They have to count every calorie they eat.  Faced with such a daunting task, the easy thing to do is just give up.  Who wants to measure and weigh every single ounce of food they eat?  Not me, that's for sure.

    So what about those calorie-counting diet programs that say "eat 4 ounces of steak with a 6 ounce potato and 4 ounces of green vegetables"?  Are they wrong?  Not really, but they complicate things far more than they really need to.  Here's a far simpler way to measure out your portions.  Hold your hand flat in front of you with the palm facing the ceiling.  If your piece of meat can sit in your hand without folding over the sides, then you're probably in good shape as far as that portion goes.  A single chicken breast, New York strip steak, whiting fillet, or pork chop could easily fit.  That's one portion of meat protein.  No counting calories necessary.

    What about carbs?  Carbs are a dietary necessity, no matter what the carb-free advocates tell you (more on that in another article).  A portion of carbs is just as simple to measure as a portion of protein.  That same hand that measured your protein portion will also measure your carb portion.  Ball your hand into a fist.  Any carb portion that is relatively the same size as your fist is a single portion.  Apples, oranges, pears, potatoes, a cup of cooked brown rice, a cup of wheat pasta - all of them are relatively the same size as the average person's fist.  No calorie counting necessary.

    What about vegetables?  With the exception of corn (which is technically a grain - a carbohydrate), you can eat most other vegetables (especially green vegetables) until you are full with little or no ill-effects to the calorie totals.  Consider that most vegetables are water-dense and the fact that water is a zero-sum intake, vegetables are the saving grace for the hungry "dieter" because they can be eaten with relative impunity.  Just keep the salt to a minimum, and no deep-frying or slathering them in cheese sauce.

    When it comes to taking in calories, counting is just an unnecessary pain in the butt.  Keep your portions in perspective, and you won't have to keep a calculator and scale handy every time you eat.

    Another place to not count calories is during cardio workouts.  A lot of people I've seen live or die in their exercise programs by looking at the 'calories burned' feature on the elliptical machine at the gym.  After 30 minutes of huffing and puffing, they exasperatedly get off the machine and say, "I only burned 300 calories.  I'm NEVER going to lose weight!"  My response to them is, "300 calories - so far."  No matter what that little indicator says, it only gives an approximation of the user's caloric burn based on body weight and the level of the workout.  What the machine cannot measure is what your body does after the workout is over and you're sitting in your car on the way home.  

    Your metabolism doesn't stop burning calories just because you got off the elliptical trainer.  During your training session, you've jacked up your body's furnace and have it going at full steam ahead.  Like a giant ship on the big-wide ocean, it doesn't exactly stop on a dime, rather it slowly coasts to a stop (well, to a slow roll, anyway).  Your body could be effectively burning calories for several hours after the workout has ended.  By the time your body resumes it's pre-workout metabolic state, you might have burned upwards of 1000 calories.  Do that a few days a week with weight training on the days you're not doing cardio, and you're looking at losing 1.5 - 2 pounds per week.

    If you spend a bit of your time during the day on the move - going up and down stairs, playing ball with the kids, taking a walk or a bike ride - then you'll burn even more calories.  The actual calorie count isn't exactly important here.  The key point is that you keep your body engaged more than it is disengaged (by sitting in front of the TV or computer).  Without having to break out a calculator, you'll begin seeing muscles showing up that you haven't seen before as your body fat percentage goes down.  Exact caloric deficits (the difference between the number of calories you eat and the number of calories you burn) aren't nearly as important as controlling your portion sizes and your activity levels.

    Be well.