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Does Counting Calories Work for a Fibromyalgia Diet?

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Have you heard that all you need to do is read food labels and then you can be healthy? Is it really that simple to keep your fibromyalgia symptoms at bay? Food labels show the key ingredients in any packaged food. Labels list the following items – serving size, sugar, fat, protein, carbohydrates, sodium, fiber, vitamins, minerals … and, of course, calories.

Let’s talk about calories!

I remember reading diet books in the ‘80s and ‘90s that said losing weight was as easy as “calories in and calories out.” What that meant was that as long as you burned off as many calories as needed to maintain your weight, you were doing well. Or, to lose weight, you had to reduce your calorie intake and/or increase your exercise.

Easy, right?

Have any of you ever exercised like crazy, eaten very little, and still found it difficult, if not impossible, to shift that bit of pudge around the middle? Or what about those who seem to eat much more, yet stay uber slim?

Calories are part of this equation, but does the math work out?

For many of us, it just doesn’t pencil.

Years ago, I attended a fibromyalgia nutritional workshop at a local university. I was eager to embrace what they had to offer since the topic was near and dear to my heart.

I’d recently gone through my own personal fibromyalgia transformation upon discovering the health benefits of natural and whole foods. I’d spent weeks on end at the local libraries and university libraries studying nutrition and the key nutrients known for symptom relief for inflammatory conditions. I kept notebooks full of lists, nutritional counts and healing recipes.

I was feeling better than I had in years and couldn’t wait to attend this lecture where I was sure to receive even more helpful nutritional information. I was ready to take copious notes and hoped to take home more recipes and perhaps a meal plan or guide.

But that’s not what happened.

The professor was a very kind Registered Dietitian who was introduced with a lengthy bio and considerable credentials. She started off by listing the symptoms of fibromyalgia, and everyone in attendance nodded in agreement. She then went into a long discussion of the food pyramid and how easy it was to follow. She claimed that the bulk (and I use that term intentionally) of our caloric intake should come from breads, cereals and other grains. She then spent a lot of time talking about dairy and fruits. She briefly mentioned vegetables and meat in the same sentence and that was about it.

She went on to explain how to read food labels and used a box of Triscuits as an example. She read the nutritional benefits aloud and said that they served as a great source of fiber and carbohydrates. Much time was spent discussing calorie content of foods and how many calories a person with fibromyalgia “should” consume.

At one point, I raised my hand and asked, “But doesn’t it matter where the calories come from?”

She shook her head no and said that a calorie is a calorie.

She said that a 1,500 calorie per day diet is the same if it’s made up of cereals and crackers or if it’s ice cream. But she warned that we should avoid that much ice cream because it lacked other nutrients that could be found in a healthy diet that included Triscuits.

I’m sure her intent wasn’t to say that we can just eat crackers all day either. But when I asked about the wheat/gluten issue, transfats and chemical preservatives in packaged foods, she said, “That’s not as important as knowing the calorie count.”

I’d had enough.

I left the lecture hall even before she’d finished. I was frustrated that I’d wasted my time and that I’d had such high hopes for the class. At that point, I’d already written my book, FibroWHYalgia. In it, I mention that, “A diet comprised mainly of grains and dairy is beneficial to the agricultural industry, not to most people. Follow the USDA’s food pyramid only if pyramid is your desired body shape.”

To be fair, the food pyramid has undergone a few revisions since then, and vegetables are starting to get the recognition they deserve. Also, there are many, many wonderful registered dietitians who embrace an integrated and functional approach to nutrition.

But misinformation still persists.
Especially when it comes to the topic of calories.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. I learned to trust my own knowledge, experience and inner guidance. I learned to trust my own body’s ability to increase or decrease symptoms depending on outside factors such as the foods I ate. I follow the guidelines and guidance of others, to a point. If it doesn’t match my own experience, I allow myself the latitude to follow my own path.

Of course, I still hear about nutritional experts who state that a calorie is a calorie and it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

That simply defies logic.

How could 200 calories from an avocado be the same as 200 calories from a packaged toaster pastry?

They’re not.

The avocado contains an abundance of heart and brain-healthy fats, fabulous fiber and nutrients such as potassium, calcium, and iron. It includes vitamins A and C and even some plant-rich protein.

A toaster pastry contains a whopping amount of processed sugars, chemically-processed sodium and transfats. There are added vitamins, but rather than from nature, they’re included in a synthetic and manufactured form.

Does the body know the difference?

Of course it does.

What’s more, there’s another glaring factor that plays a role when counting calories. If all calories are the same, then that completely negates the topic of metabolism. We’re each different and our metabolisms prove that point every day. One person can consume the same number of calories as another with a similar body structure, yet have completely different results.

All calories are not created equal. And they don’t paint the entire picture when it comes to any food or diet plan. But, of course, they are PART of the plan. It’s important to look at overall calories as a guideline for our personal body type, nutrition type and metabolism.

Don’t count calories –
make your calories count.

Therefore, if counting calories isn’t the answer to creating our own healthy nutritional plan, what should we do instead?

Here are Four Fundamental Foodie tips:

  1. Count the Quality – look for natural, whole, nutrient-dense and fiber-rich foods that provide the phytonutrients you need to heal and maintain health. Empty calorie and empty nutrient foods are low quality, low in nutritive value and lead to whole body inflammation.
  2. Count the Chemicals – does the food label ingredients list include chemical preservatives, additives, dyes, flavoring enhancers, thickeners, artificial sweeteners, etc.? REAL foods build up the body’s resources while FAKE foods tear them down.
  3. Count the Fiber – while there are many important nutritional benefits to healthy foods, one power-packed ingredient many of us lack is fiber. Healthy veggies are a fabulous source of this key and much-needed nutrient.
  4. Count the Ratio – pay attention to the ratio of healthy fats, healthy proteins and healthy carbohydrates (from veggies) in your meal plan. This is where the real magic happens when it comes to mastering your metabolism. Create a meal plan that includes the essential nutrients and then experiment with your own ratios. Do you need more fat and less carbohydrates? Do you need more protein and less fat? You get to decide what’s right for you.

If you’d like some help in creating your own meal plan, check out this article on how to determine your Nutrition Type and include the essential nutrients. Also, check out this one for tracking your own food sensitivity symptoms.

My favorite tool to monitor my ratios of fats/proteins/carbohydrates is the free app Lose It! I simply add my foods at each meal with just a touch to my phone or iPad and then keep an eye on my ratio. That way, I know what nutrients I may wish to increase or decrease at my next meal. I don’t use it as a rigid tracking tool, but rather as a way to keep a finger (literally!) on how I’m doing.

The good news is that as a whole, we are making better food choices.(1)  We’re taking the information given, assessing our own personal needs and making the best choice that we can at the time.

And who could ask for more than that?

At all times be kind to yourself. Be patient with your progress. Find others to support you and know that you’re doing the best you can.

Grab a fork, and bon appetit!

“You need to put what you learn into practice and do it over and over again until it’s a habit. I always say, ‘Seeing is not believing. Doing is believing.’ There’s a lot to learn about fitness, nutrition and emotions, but once you do, you can master them instead of them mastering you.” – Brett Hoebel


  1. American Adults are Choosing Healthier Foods, Consuming Healthier Diets

Sue Ingebretson (www.RebuildingWellness.com) is an author, speaker, certified holistic health care practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. She is also a Patient Advocate/Fibromyalgia Expert for the Alliance Health website and a Fibromyalgia editor for the ProHealth website community.

Her #1 Amazon best-selling chronic illness book, FibroWHYalgia, details her own journey from chronic illness to chronic wellness. She is also the creator of the FibroFrog™– a therapeutic stress-relieving tool which provides powerful healing benefits with fun and whimsy.

Do you know that breakfast has the greatest potential to contribute to your PAIN? Grab your free Stop Feeding Yourself PAIN guide here and learn why!

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