How to Manage Your Calories (Without Having to Count Them)
Post by Jenny Baker
What’s one of the best strategies for losing weight?
What’s one of the best ways to prevent people from losing weight?
By telling them to count calories.
Counting calories is one of the most reliable methods for losing weight. However, it’s also one of the worst.
Because no one wants to do it.
It’s tedious. It takes a lot of time. Not every food has a nutrition label on it. Sometimes, it’s just plain confusing.
I get it.
That’s why, unless I’m working with individuals prepping for bodybuilding contests or other serious athletic events, I don’t rely on calorie counting as an effective weight loss strategy.
But without counting calories, how can someone manage their weight successfully?
Read on to find out.
Quality First, Calories Last
If there’s one thing you do above all else on your journey towards weight loss it is this: Pay attention to the food you eat.
No, I don’t mean pay attention by standing in front of a mirror while you treat yourself to a few Hostess Cupcakes. That’s logistically cumbersome. Plus it would just be weird.
What I mean is, pay attention to what you’re eating and ask, “Does this offer any nutritional benefit?” In other words, what kind of macronutrients does it contain? Is it a protein? A fat? Carb? Is it super sweet and likely to contain a lot of sugar? Is it a direct product from the earth, or was it created through a manufacturing facility? Did it come in a box or package when it was purchased?
Chances are most of you are pretty familiar with what foods are considered healthy. However, with today’s clever marketing strategies, some foods are presented as healthy when they really aren’t. So here’s some tips for how to make sure you’re purchasing quality foods that help – not hinder – your dietary goals:
Look for Products with Minimal Ingredients
Look for foods with few – if any – additional ingredients. Do you see a protein bar on the shelf that looks kind of tasty? Flip it over and check out the list of ingredients. Are there about 100 listed? Yes? Then put it back on the shelf. Any food that has a large list of ingredients means that it’s highly processed, and unlikely to offer any nutritional value even if it claims otherwise. Avoid these as much as possible.
You Can’t Go Wrong With Farm to Table
The best way to ensure you are eating quality foods is to buy anything that is as close to its fresh state as possible. In other words, does it look like something that was plucked from a tree, dug from the ground, grown on a vine, or meandering in a grassy field prior to hitting the grocery store shelves? These are what you want to aim for. Nuts, vegetables, fruits, eggs, and meat are all great examples of “fresh” foods, and should make up the majority of your meals.
Dry, Unrefined Plant-Based Foods are Okay Too
Not all fresh foods are found in the produce or meat isles. Whole grains like wild rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, and popcorn are typically found in bags, boxes, or bulk bins. These offer nutritional benefits as well, though stay away from any products that are “ready-made” meals. Even though they may contain whole grains, they often contain a whole bunch of added ingredients too. Again, check the label to make sure there are minimal ingredients before purchasing anything that comes in a box or package.
Skip Anything Artificial
When possible, buy products that are free of, or contain minimal additives such as hormone and antibiotic-free meats, organic products, and products without added colors or sweeteners. These additives can zap out any nutritional benefit the original product may have offered and can be damaging to your health (check out my article about this here).
Recap: Eat whole foods! Whole foods are unprocessed and unrefined before being consumed. Examples include chicken, fish, sweet potatoes, carrots etc. For a complete list of whole foods check out this printable grocery shopping list from the Ambitious Kitchen.
Quality First: Why It Works
High quality, nutrient-dense foods are often naturally low in calories, yet high in vitamins and minerals. When our diets consist primarily of processed foods, we not only consume way more calories than we may realize, but we miss out on a whole lot of micronutrients that help reduce inflammation, provide energy, and keep our bodies functioning at the cellular level (read more about this here).
So if you aren’t counting calories, high-quality foods – especially vegetables – are great options for automatic calorie control.
Plus, fresh foods and whole grains are filling, satisfying, and help control blood sugar levels thanks to their high levels of fiber.
I have worked with many many clients that simply cleaned up their nutrition choices and low and behold, fat started coming off, blood markers all improved dramatically and those that were pre diabetic were no longer.
So have at it with the broccoli. Or carrots. Or bell peppers. That being said…
Portion Size Matters
The reason calorie counting is so effective is because it gives us tangible evidence of how much we’re actually eating. Let me explain.
Human beings aren’t all that different from cars; our bodies can’t operate without fuel. The fuel we use is known as “kilocalories,” though they are more widely known as “calories” (Quick fact: Calories are actually a different unit of energy, so referring to them this way is technically incorrect. However, since everyone is doing it, so will we!).
Anyway, we obtain our calories – fuel – in the form of food. How many calories we need each day is unique to each person, but the important thing to remember is this (simplistically):
You eat fewer calories than you need each day and you will lose weight.
You eat more calories than you need and you will gain weight.
You each just the right amount of calories you need and your weight will stay the same.
So whether you want to lose, gain, or maintain your weight, making sure you are eating the correct amount of calories is essential. Getting down into the weeds regarding macros (protein, carbs, fats) ratios in your diet is a whole other blog post but that also plays a part. Back to calories, the only way to understand how many cals you are taking in is to pay attention to how much you’re eating. Counting calories is one way to do this, but there are a few other methods that can be just as effective:
Intuitive eating is just a fancy way of saying, “eating until you feel satisfied.” The body has chemical messengers in place to tell our bodies and brains when we’ve eaten all that we need to; an automatic internal calorie-counter if you will. However, many of us ignore these signals, often eating until we’re stuffed. If you’re good at eating slowly and mindfully, and have a good read on your hunger cues, this will likely be a successful strategy for you.
Weigh Out Your Portions
Sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly how big a portion size is just by looking it. A burger patty you assumed was 4 ounces may actually be 6 ounces, for example. A two ounce difference can easily result in hundreds more calories consumed than you intended. One way to avoid this is to buy a food scale and literally weigh out your food portions. It doesn’t take long to do, and it’s the most accurate method for measuring portion size. That being said, a food scale does take a little extra time and isn’t something you normally would take with you wherever you go. If you eat primarily at home and don’t mind using a little extra time to put your food on a scale, this option is great for you.
Use Your Hand as a Reference Tool
Believe it or not, your hand is an excellent resource for measuring out portion sizes. Obviously, everyone’s hand size differs, so this method does not guarantee exact measurements. However, it’s pretty close, and it’s by far the easiest strategy out there. All you need to do is compare certain parts of your hand to the amount of food you’re eating to get an idea on how large the serving actually is. To better explain, here are some illustrations to help:
The palm of your hand = approximately 4 ounces of a chicken breast = 25-30 grams of protein
The palm of your hand is about the size of a 4 ounce serving of meat. Your palm is best used to measure proteins like chicken breast, steak, boneless pork chops, and fish filets. A typical serving of protein for each meal is about one to two palm size for women (4 ounces) or about 4-5 servings per day and two palms for men (8 ounces) or about 7-8 servings per day.
Your fist = approximately one cup
Your fist is best used to measure fresh and frozen non-starchy vegetables. Whether cooked or raw, a fist-sized amount of veggies counts as one serving. Aim for at least six fistfuls per day, but feel free to eat more. Non-starchy vegetables are one food group you can go hog wild on without worry!
Note: “Starchy vegetables” include peas, potatoes, corn, and squash. Try to limit these to small side dishes.
Your knuckles (when making a fist) = approximately ½ cup
The knuckles on your hand during a closed fist are best used to measure starches and fruits. This includes starchy vegetables (noted above); whole grains like wild rice, quinoa, bulgar, oats, etc; and fruits. Aim for one (no more than two) knuckle-size servings of these foods per meal.
Your thumb (from knuckle to finger tip) = approximately one tablespoon
Your thumb is best used for measuring fats. Despite fats being an essential component of anyone’s diet, they are also caloric powerhouses, so they can be super easy to overeat. Use your thumb to measure fats that are in liquid or creamy form, like butters and oils. You should aim for one thumb-size serving at every meal.
For fats that are not in creamy or liquid form, like nuts and seeds, then a serving counts as half a knuckle size (1/4 cup). Again, limit your servings to only one per meal.
Recap: Portioning is a great way to monitor intake whether it be weighing out food, using measuring cups or eyeballing with your hand. As a top priority, get in your protein. A typical serving of protein for each meal is about one to two palm size for women (4 ounces) or about 4-5 servings per day and two palms for men (8 ounces) or about 7-8 servings per day.
It’s Okay to Start Small
I know that the thought of changing your diet might feel overwhelming, so don’t be afraid to start slowly. Even the single act of changing the quality of food you eat can impact your overall health in a big way. Add portion control to the mix, and the pounds are bound to fall off. Improving your health doesn’t require mathematics or complicated food tracking apps to make it happen; all it takes is a heightened awareness of what you are eating and how much you are eating of it. The art of being mindful is key!
The most successful clients meal plan a whole food diet while getting in enough protein and veggies. Check out Meal Prep Explained.
If you’re having trouble reaching your dietary goals despite attempting the strategies listed here, contact me and I’ll see if I can help. You can also check out the GF2 Fitness and Contest Prep forum, a private group on Facebook where you can ask fitness and diet-related questions, find motivation, and get much needed support from me and others just like you.