Calorie Counter is a name that most of us are familiar with. It was one of the first restaurants in Sri Lanka that focused on serving purely healthy food and has grown into well-known brand name and a successful restaurant chain over the years. The menu is extensive and offers many a tasty option, and is fool-proofed against someone even ‘accidentally’ selecting an unhealthy option.
The restaurant chain has outlets in Ward Place, Colombo 5 and Galle as well as international expansions to Maldives and Kuwait.
The story and success of Calorie Counter is interwoven with the inspirational story of its founder Duaine Peiris. We were fortunate enough to catch up for a meal and a chat with Duaine at his Ward Place Calorie Counter outlet, where he told us about his story, vision and plans for Calorie Counter.
Would you mind telling us your story and how Calorie Counter got started?
As to how Calorie Counter started, it was a personal journey of mine. About 6-7 years ago I was 135 Kilos, I used to play Rugby and Cricket in school where its five days of practice and physical exercise and then when you come into the corporate world you tend to lose out on exercise and you tend to get into an unhealthy lifestyle. I then gained a total of 30-35 kilos from my school days. At that time I was not self-aware if I had increased weight and I even have a picture of me jokingly eating fried rice on an exercise machine.
Then there was a life changing event that happened, I’ve always never liked to go to hospitals and I don’t think anyone likes to. My wife’s (girlfriend at that time) father had certain complications due to many reasons stemming from unhealthy living habits and we had to continuously be in and out of hospitals and its then that I decided that I would not want my family to go through that and decided to take a closer look at myself. I then realised that something was radically wrong with me and I realised that my chances of getting diabetes and diseases as a result of an unhealthy lifestyle are really high.
Then I started going to a gym and I realised my fitness levels from my Rugby playing days were non existent. So I persevered and for 6-10 months I worked out hard but did not see much results as I was only working out. I got the chance then to travel and be part of a forum where I met physical fitness experts and they said that a healthy diet is 80% of it. They said do a proper detoxification, diet and exercise in order to effectively become healthier.
I came back did a detox and started on the diet and I started on cutting down small things, such as white carbs, sugar and sugary drinks and gradually reduce my quantities. Then I saw amazing results where I was losing 5 kilos a month. At this point I realised that I did not have the time or the options to prepare or eat the type of healthy food I wanted to eat at home. For example if I wanted to buy a brown bread sandwich I always got it full of mayonnaise, butter and such which is not healthy.
When I lost 45 kilos I decided that I should give something back to society and give options that I did not have in terms of food when I was on my journey of transformation. I was never in the restaurant field when I started off Calorie Counter.
Money was never the main motivation, if I could transform a person’s thinking away from “I don’t have the means or need to become healthy” that was the first priority. My story is also put up at all the restaurants because we hope that it will inspire people to say that if Duaine was able to transform then anyone can.
What do you think is the differentiating factor for the food at Calorie Counter?
I would say the menu, presentation and most importantly the preparation, for example we have not brought in a single gram of sugar into this restaurant. The main differentiator for us though is that our customers don’t lose out on taste and quality over a healthy food option, because it’s throughout preparation and ingredients that we make the difference.
A lot of people are into or want to eat healthily. What do you think the main challenges are in Sri Lanka for someone to start?
People need to have a conscious decision of what a healthy diet is, you don’t need to make big changes in life but you do need to try and stick to it at least 80% of the time. One unhealthy meal isn’t going to make you unhealthy nor will one healthy meal make you healthy. It’s consistent and conscious healthy eating that will bring you to that state.
Short term goals and an understanding of why you are doing this is also important for it to be consistent. Self-discipline is key, it’s something that we owe ourselves.
A better understanding of what healthy food is, is also essential. It’s not something from a different planet. For example you can take some chicken and grill it and keep it as healthy as healthy can be but you can take that same piece of chicken, fry it, deep fry it or batter fry it with all the sauces and make it the most unhealthiest piece of chicken ever. This is what I mean by preparation.
Do you think Rice and Curry is a healthy option?
Rice and Curry is also healthy but again depends on preparation, for example white rice carbs turn into sugar faster because fibres are less than red rice or anything deep fried would be an unhealthy addition.
Historically we are a farming country, farmers were in the field eight hours a day so they needed that energy from carbohydrates. A majority of us sit in offices eight hours a day so we don’t really need that amount of carbs. Some athletes need 4,500 calories a day which is a huge amount. Like the All Blacks need 7000 calories a day and they can’t eat so much which is why they need protein shakes and other supplements.
We do need sugar which is fuel to the body. If your car fuel tank is only 60 litres you wouldn’t pump more than 60 because it’ll overflow but our body isn’t going to overflow if you over-eat. What happens is your body stores these excess calories as fat.
What is the biggest misconception about healthy eating right now?
It’s that vegan is healthy! Vegan won’t be healthy if the preparation is wrong, you can’t have a deep fried vegan burger and call it healthy. Veganism is a different ideology but you do need to understand the preparation and ingredients that go into the food and that is what makes it truly healthy.
What’s next for Calorie Counter?
When we started up Calorie Counter it became popular and soon we were able to expand to more outlets. The menu is more western oriented so that we can measure the calories of each component of the dish, and I have also asked our chefs to always use the best Sri Lankan spices in coming up with dishes so that we have plenty of flavour. Even our juices are a mix of the right ingredients (without sugar or anything artificial added) to ensure good taste.
With the increase in demand we started to think along the lines of franchising, our menu, internal and external operations are designed in such a way that it can be franchised. Our Galle outlet is the first franchise operation, and then Kuwait and Maldives.
We want to expand to every sports arena in Sri Lanka. What other franchises are for fast food we want to be for health food and our impact on people’s lives is positive so I’m confident that we can take Calorie Counter to the world.
The menu at Calorie Counter is designed so that the right three ingredients come together in terms of vegetables, proteins and carbs to give you a balanced meal. It is set up in such a way that there can be no unhealthy meal that can be had here. There are many options of mains, sandwiches, smoothies, juices and desserts at all price ranges.
This is a plus point for many of us that will go to a restaurant with the intention of having something healthy but end up having a mixed fried rice-biriyani-burger-pasta combo with a side of batter fried cuttle fish. (Yes we’ve all been there)
We started off with their Thai Spiced Grilled Chicken sandwich (brown bread), which is quite a filling sandwich stuffed with flavourful chicken, the thai spice certainly helped assuage our Sri Lankan craving for something spicy. The lack of the usual unhealthy suspects found in sandwiches such as mayonnaise was refreshing. This is a perfect and healthy on-the-go sandwich option. It is obvious that a lot of thought has gone into putting together even this simple sandwich.
The next dish we tried was the Honey Mustard Grilled Chicken (a total of 383 calories for this one), the garlic infused honey mustard was the winner here, complementing the almost perfectly grilled chicken. A few baby potatoes on the side sorted out our carb craving and pieces of pineapple balanced out the flavours just right.
Finally we tasted a juice which was the Orange energiser, a mix of orange, pineapple and ginger (zero added sugar of course), which gives a good balance of tangy and sweet.
A Healthy Wrap (up)
If one is serious about starting a regimen of healthy eating, whether you’re gymming it up or planning to lose weight, Calorie Counter is the first place that should pop into your mind. This is a place where they know what they’re doing when it comes to healthy food. The vast menu will make sure that you have variety in your meals and all of it is helpfully marked with the number of Calories.
Another impressive service offered by Calorie Counter is a monthly meal plan program, which they tailor to your needs depending on your monthly goals.
The next time you have a craving for something, do yourself a favour and go check out Calorie Counter – be inspired to lead a healthier lifestyle.
By: Ashan Sirisena
Photography By: Chinthaka Udayakantha