On the Table

Dieting? Simplify the number crunching

August 27, 2013 

Are you counting calories or fat grams?

Don’t let dieting by numbers get you down. Trying to be too precise about what you eat can sabotage your efforts.

It’s OK to use numbers as a guide. But most people find that rigid adherence to a diet plan isn’t compatible with the realities of daily life.

Being too tied to the numbers can turn eating into an exercise in frustration if you find the number crunching too time-consuming or tedious.

In fact, the difficulty of calorie counting – in vogue since the 1920s – has led to attempts to simplify dieting. In the mid-1990s, for example, Weight Watchers introduced a fat-and-fiber plan.

Instead of counting hundreds of calories, dieters focused on cutting fat grams and pushing fiber, both much smaller numbers and easier to track. If you met your fat and fiber goals, the other numbers tended to fall into place.

It was a good idea, though the focus on fat that followed during this time also spawned a generation of low-fat, heavily processed junk foods.

It’s easier today to monitor food numbers with an online diet tracker or one of the many calorie-counting apps for your smartphone. But even that level of diligence may be more than some people can tolerate.

If so, here are some tips for making the numbers work for you:

• Use numbers as a measuring stick. If you need to hold your sodium intake to 2,000 milligrams per day, and a cup of soup contains 750 milligrams, you may decide to avoid salty chips and salsa later that day.

• Use numbers as a built-in brake. Make a quick estimate in your head: 400 calories for a sandwich, 150 for a large apple.

Keeping a rough running total in your mind can help you slow down when necessary.

• Spot-check the numbers. Keep a food diary or let your smartphone do your figuring for you for a few days, instead of every day, and tally up anything you want to track.

Just staying aware of what you are eating – and how much – often causes people to change their behaviors. It’s a way of helping to keep you honest with yourself.

Make the numbers work for you, not against you.

Suzanne Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management and nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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