Cooking my family’s ropa vieja de pollo recipe is hardly scientific.
When I first called my mom asking for the recipe, she told me I’d need some chorros of olive oil, two or three packets of Sazón Goya depending on the color of the sauce, and a few peppers and onions. There were no absolutes.
So over the years, as I tried to count calories for weight loss, converting this dish into kilocalories was always confusing. One tablespoon of olive oil has 119 calories, but how much was I using? The chicken’s calories depended on its weight, but I didn’t have a kitchen scale. Would I need to cut the plantain into perfectly sized pieces for my platanitos?
I always grew exasperated and gave up—resorting to the idea that the saucy chicken had too many calories to fit into my diet anyway. So I labeled my favorite Cuban dish, and the others I grew up on, as cheat meals. They were too big and unruly to fit into the constraints of the MyFitnessPal universe.
Calorie counting is closely tied to our understanding of nutrition and health in the United States. In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act established the nutrition labeling we’ve come to expect on our foods today—serving size, calories, and all. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even requires certain restaurants and fast-food chains to list calories right on their menus, and to make more detailed nutrition information available by request. And when we’re looking for a solution for overeating or a pathway to losing weight, calorie counting is often touted as the only way forward.
But more and more experts are questioning whether a numbers approach is the healthiest way to develop a good relationship with food and eating.
I’m a testament to all the ways in which the numbers game can go wrong. I’ve spent most of my adolescent and adult life in a standoff with calories. Joining the infamous diet plan, Weight Watchers, when I was 12 introduced me to the idea of assigning food a numerical value. But I’ve counted calories on and off since, oftentimes at the direction of a doctor.
Focusing on those numbers has only set me back on healing my relationship to eating. After years of fixating on calorie count, I’m finally learning to focus on incorporating nutritious fruits and vegetables into my diet, understanding when I’m full, and honoring my cultural traditions.
Does the 1,200-Calorie Diet Work?
The 1,200 calorie-deficit diet is arguably one of the most pervasive weight loss strategies for women in the U.S. to this day. Sites and medical professionals alike laud the 1,200-calorie diet as simple and effective.
But recently, I came across a nutritionist on TikTok explaining why this diet is detrimental to our bodies. This was news to me, as someone who’s been told by healthcare professionals and nutritionists that 1,200 calories should be my daily goal.
In her video, Kate Regan, a registered dietitian who focuses on intuitive eating, talks about how 1,200 calories is the requirement for a two-year-old and that it isn’t nearly enough for a grown adult. She goes on to say when your body is underfed, your brain will send out neurotransmitters to make you think about food more and it’ll increase the hunger hormone called ghrelin, which then increases the likelihood of overeating.
What Is Grehlin?
Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates appetite. The more ghrelin you have in your body, the hungrier you feel and vice versa. When you begin a diet, or a calorie deficit, your ghrelin levels will increase and make you hungrier. This is a natural response from your body.
I’d been struggling with this binge-restrict cycle for years. Studies have suggested that weight monitoring is associated with disordered eating and compulsive exercise in young adults. Preoccupation with food may also be a sign of an eating disorder.
When I was following a nutritionist’s 1,200-calorie diet plan, I found myself hungrier than I’d ever been. I tried convincing myself that my body was simply adjusting to appropriate portion sizes. But restricting calories only left me more preoccupied with food, making me hyper-aware of how hungry I was and how badly I wanted it to be time for my next meal.
The FDA states that 2,000 calories a day are used as a general guide for nutrition advice. This number may be higher or lower depending on factors like age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level. And according to MyPlate calculator, I should be aiming for 2,000 calories a day to achieve “a healthy weight.”
Experts are rejecting the idea that calorie counting alone can lead to weight loss or weight management. People can consume the same number of calories, yet see very different results. Why? Because how our bodies process food can depend on the type of food we’re eating, our metabolism, and even our gut microbiome. A one-size-fits-all diet or meal plan is contrary to our very biology.
A single number like our weight cannot tell our entire health story. We can turn away from calorie counting and toward other ways of nourishing our bodies that don’t carry the anxiety of weight management.
Alternatives to Counting Calories
While I’m still working to shift my health goals away from weight loss, I’m trying to live a healthier lifestyle. I’ve been incorporating fruits and vegetables into as many meals as possible, practicing intuitive eating, and exercising as a form of caring for my mental health (rather than punishment).
What Is Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating is considered a “self-care eating framework.” Instead of dieting, it’s the practice of tuning in to your body’s cues and signals. Think of it as a more holistic way of taking care of your body: eating when you’re hungry, moving your body in ways that feel good to you, and breaking free from chronic dieting.
It can be difficult to shift from a scarcity mindset when it comes to food, especially after years spent calorie counting and restricting, so it’s important to give yourself grace.
I’ve begun to look at my meals with a “what can I add” mindset. I no longer relegate the foods I grew up on to special treat days, but just look at them a little differently. I’ll add my homemade picadillo over a bed of kale in order to get more greens into my day. I’ll swap out a serving of white rice for some riced cauliflower if I haven’t eaten enough vegetables.
But some days there’s nothing like the comfort of a plate heaped with fluffy white rice and platanitos dripping in olive oil. The foods we eat can carry so much more value than what’s on the nutrition label.
Recipe: Ropa Vieja con Pollo
Cooking my family’s ropa vieja de pollo recipe helps me reconnect with happy memories surrounding food. As I sauté the chicken on my stovetop, I remember all the weeknights I’d run into the kitchen and steal a piece of chicken off my mom’s cutting board. Each time I visited during college breaks, this meal would be warm on the counter waiting for me.
While cooking the meal is an involved process, it always reminds me what good food—or comida hecha en casa, as my family would say—can do for the soul.
Time: 2-2.5 hours
Yield: 4 servings
Lots of olive oil
Around 2 lbs of chicken breasts
2 packets of Sazón Goya
2 red bell peppers
2 medium-sized red onions
2–3 medium-sized red onions
- Roughly chop up your peppers and red onions so they fit in your blender or food processor.
- Blend together peppers and onions with about a cup of water and a drizzle of olive oil until it’s a thick, smoothie-like consistency.
- Heat a large pot on medium/high heat. Place chicken in the pot and submerge it in the blended concoction.
- Add in two packets of Sazón Goya and stir.
- Cook on medium to high heat until the sauce is absorbed into the chicken and mostly dries out. This can take about 40 minutes or more until the chicken is very tender. No need to cover the pot with a lid.
- Mash chicken on a cutting board with the blunt end of a knife or the bottom of a measuring cup.
- Slice the yellow onions and halve the limes.
- Sauté mashed chicken with onions in a frying pan and squeeze lime on top. Cook for about five minutes on high heat until they get slightly brown and crispy.
- Serve with sides like white rice, black beans, and fried plantains.