The problem with embracing an eating plan without a lot of rules, such as counting calories, is that it can feel a little too relaxed. If there are no rules, how are you supposed to know what to do? How do you know if you’re doing something wrong? I can’t handle diet anarchy! I need someone to tell me what to do! AHHH!
Relax. Take a few deep breaths. Remember that there are the three things you must do when counting calories.
- Figure out how many calories your body needs
- Learn how many calories you need to eat to lose weight
- Measure and track your calories
Beyond that, yes, you’ll need to come up with your own “rules.” And yes, this is much harder than having someone just tell you what to do. But you know what? It’s worth it and you can totally do this. To help you out, I’ve written a few guidelines. Take these with a grain of salt — you need to figure out what works for you, after all — but they should be general enough to be helpful rules of thumb.
1. Maximizing Satiety
So you want to lose weight and feel like you aren’t starving. Well, that’s impossible. I suppose you want to breathe underwater and travel faster than the speed of light, too. You can’t have everything!
At least, that’s what some people would have you believe. You can’t have everything, but you can definitely lose weight without subsisting solely on diet shakes and salads. You will, however, need to rethink how you eat, since you’ll be eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight.
Vegetables, which are high-volume and low-calorie, will go a long way in letting you eat a good amount of food but without consuming a ton of calories.
A basic rule of thumb is to make half your plate vegetables, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter starches.
If this makes you blanch because you’re picturing a plate half full of steamed veggies, stop right there. When I say vegetables, this includes the kind sprinkled with cheese or in a casserole or…you know, the opposite of bland and boring.
Protein and fat will help you feel full throughout the day. Protein is great for keeping up a good amount of muscle mass. If you grew up hearing that fat is terrible for you, you’ll be glad to hear that fat is no longer the enemy. Similarly, carbohydrates/starches are a great source of energy, especially if you do a lot of cardio.
Keep an eye on how many calories you drink. Drinks can get really caloric quickly, and they won’t do much to keep you feeling full. You probably already assumed that about the unicorn fart frappuccino — or whatever the coffee confection du jour is — but did you know that beer has just as many calories as soda? Get Drunk Not Fat is a great resource on how to get the most alcohol for the fewest calories.
Drink water throughout the day. It’ll help you in between meals, and sometimes you’ll feel hungry when you’re actually just thirsty.
One more thing about being full. When you start trying to lose weight, your portion sizes will shrink, and you’ll notice that at the end of a meal, your stomach won’t feel as full as you’re used to. That’s okay. You’re retraining your stomach to think that eating less food is the new normal. There’s a spectrum of feeling full:
- Hungry -> Not hungry -> Full -> Stuffed ->Thanksgiving (explosion imminent)
In the past, you’ve probably been aiming for “full,” but that was too full. It takes a while for your brain to catch up to your stomach, so you’ve been eating a little more than you should at mealtimes. Instead of aiming for 100% full, go for 80% full, which will land you squarely in the “not hungry” section.
2. Log Everything
I mean it. Everything. We eat a lot more than we think we do, and by logging our food, we’re training ourselves to be more aware of what we put into our mouths.
Common things people leave out from their daily calorie count:
- The oil you used to cook your food
- Finishing your kid’s plate
- Snacking on ingredients as you cook
- That so-small-it’s-barely-there dollop of sour cream on your potato
- Dinner at your friend’s house because you have no idea how many calories it has. What do you look like, the calorie police?
- Any calories over what you’re supposed to eat that day
The only way tracking works is if we’re honest about what we’re eating. This way, if you aren’t losing weight for some reason, you have an honest record of what actually happened, and it can help you isolate the problem. If you fudge your numbers, it’s hard to look back and pinpoint what went wrong.
If you’d like to count the calories in your food but have no way of doing so because you’re eating at a friend’s house or in a restaurant that doesn’t list their nutritional information, have no fear. Just go into the kitchen, tie up the cook, and employ good old fashioned interrogation techniques to get them to list the ingredients they used…I’m kidding. Seriously, don’t do that.
Just guess. Aim for a plate with the portions I mentioned before – half veg, one quarter protein, one quarter starches, and approximate the calorie amount. The more you count calories the better you will get approximating. Just don’t leave it blank.
3. Log Before You Eat
Logging before you eat happens in two ways. The first is to plan your whole day either the morning of or the night before. This is incredibly helpful because it means you have to make fewer choices throughout the day. When it’s 3pm, and you’re tired and want a snack, you’re much more likely to make a bad choice if you have to make one in the moment. But if you make the choice earlier in the day, it takes a lot less willpower to stick to a predetermined plan.
It’s also a lot faster to log the whole day at once and make adjustments as you go rather than taking large chunks of time before meals to do the whole meal from scratch. Logging beforehand makes it feel like less of a chore.
The second time you should log before you eat is during impromptu moments. Let’s say someone brings banana bread to work. It looks so good that you immediately start rearranging your calories to make room for a slice. That would be, like, 200 calories, right? You can skip the bag of chips with your lunch if you have a slice of banana bread now. It’s no big deal. So you eat a slice and then log it, only to realize that one slice of banana bread is more like 420 calories. That’s highway robbery! If you had known, you probably wouldn’t have eaten it, or you’d have only had half. And that, my friends, is why you log before you eat.
The best part about making your own rules is that if something isn’t working, you don’t have to do it anymore. Instead of assuming that the whole system is broken, try isolating the problem and experimenting to see if a different method works better.
If you’ve eaten cereal for breakfast your whole life, then start counting calories and realize that the new cereal portion size isn’t enough to keep you full, you have a choice. Try ditching the cereal and having something new.
If weighing yourself every day drives you crazy, then try weighing yourself once a week.
You’re free! Don’t shackle yourself to habits that aren’t producing the right results.
4 Things Everyone Should Do Before Losing Weight
If you’re just starting to lose weight, I’ve written a guide just for you. In it, I cover the right way to weigh yourself, the importance of taking progress pictures, and more. You can have the guide emailed to you by signing up here. Downloading the guide will also subscribe you to my email list. Email subscribers get exclusive tips sent only to them, as well as a weekly digest when I publish a new article. If you ever tire of being on the list, you can unsubscribe at any time — so give it a try and let me know how you like it.
How About You?
Do you have any tips that make calorie counting easier to maintain? Let me know in the comments!
In Case You Missed It
Previous articles in the Fundamentals of Weight Loss series:
How Many Calories You Actually Need (BMR and TDEE) – Part 1
How Fast Should You Lose Weight and How to Pick a Goal Weight – Part 2
Teach Yourself Correct Portion Sizes — Part 3