You know it sucks. Admit it.
Counting calories is associated with dysfunctional eating behaviors (1). It’s less effective at managing weight long term compared to more intrinsic regulation strategies (2). Not to mention the emotional and psychological stress. But how does one actually cease counting calories if it’s an ingrained habit? If you are a detailed calorie tracker, weighing and measuring everything you consume, the logistics of going separate ways with Myfitnesspal or Myplate can be a transition of complexity on par with a Brady bunch divorce.
If you want to stop counting calories but still are, I know you probably feel some fear. No one ever started counting calorie counting for fun. I sure didn’t. I counted calories diligently for more than a decade. I did it for control, reassurance and for vanity. I thought it was essential to protect me from gaining weight. Turns out, stopping calorie counting was one of the best things I ever did. In addition to the immense feelings of relief, freedom and trust in my body, I became significantly leaner after ditching the chronic math. I’m not superhuman, I was scared too. Which is why I know you can do this, not being superhuman either.
What other option is there to know how much to eat?
Your body came equipped with sensitive hunger and appetite regulation systems. Calorie counting skews it, making us want more food all the time, but with some practice tuning in again, you’ll discover you body will guide you more accurately than calorie labels and predictive equations (3). The end goal is to feel genuine hunger for 30-60 minutes before each meal, eat until satisfied, and then go several hours before hunger returns. It won’t happen overnight if you’ve been ignoring hunger cues for years, but with practice anyone can do it.
Tips to know before you start:
- Think of hunger as an empty-hollow sensation, which may be accompanied by muscle contractions in the upper abdomen. (While often confused, hunger is not feeling tired, slowed down, a headache, or wanting to put off work)(4).
- While there’s a range of satisfaction, don’t stop eating when you are still hungry, but notice once you are satisfied and get some practice finishing eating with that signal. Between those two endpoints, eating somewhat more or less will work itself out in the number of hours until you get hungry again. If you eat to a “looser fill”, you’ll be hungry earlier than if you eat to more fullness. Some trial and error is usually needed to learn how long different meals hold you. Once you notice know how long your typical meals keep hunger at bay, you can plan accordingly to be hungry for your desired meal times, and don’t have to exist in an unscheduled limbo of “Am I hungry yet? How bout now?”
- For the most appetite satisfaction per calorie, get all of your calories into 3 or 4 meals per day. Eating only twice tends to favor higher energy intake, as does eating 5 or more times in a day. If you graze or snack between meals, you’ll add a lot of calories without additional satisfaction, favoring higher calorie intake and higher bodyweight (5-8).
- Processed foods, sugars, and alcohol provide minimal satiety, so the less of these in your diet, the better. That doesn’t mean you can never have cookies again, but if your diet is 90% or more unprocessed whole foods, your appetite and hunger cues will be much more accurate than if you choose Poptarts and Pepsi for lunch. If your current diet is more than 10% processed foods, work first on consuming more vegetables, fruit, beans, meat, whole grains and dairy products, while paring back on baked goods, chocolate, candy, sugar containing drinks, protein/energy bars and cereal.
- Calorie awareness is good, and if you’ve counted calories for a long time, you’ve gained a lot of awareness about foods which are naturally more or less calorie dense. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – consuming mostly low calorie density foods is always a good idea! Ample servings of vegetables and fruit, for example, are great habits to keep up to stay lean for life.
Let’s get started
Loosening your grip on calorie counting is a bit unnerving for most people, and there’s no rush. If you fear gaining weight, reassure yourself by weighing yourself once a week to see how it’s going. It can be a big relief to see that you are not gaining weight as you go through this process, and can help you trust your body more and more. Take as long as you need with each step.
Stage 1: Practice only eating when hungry, and getting all your calories into 3 or 4 eating episodes per day.
Get acquainted with hunger, what it feels like, and that it’s not an emergency. It’s a normal sensation like having to use the restroom or feeling sleepy at the end of the day, it’s not a sign of anything being wrong or that you have to snap into action immediately, it’s a signal that your body is ready for food sometime soon. Practicing feeling hunger for 30-60 minutes before eating each time will help you deflate fear or anxiety regarding hunger, and see that it is your ally in regulating food intake, not a “bad” sensation that must be avoided and prevented.
If you eat small meals and snacks throughout the day, boost your intake at meals so that you can get more hours between meals comfortably. Adding more food to lunch can get food off your mind for the afternoon and help you omit an afternoon snack.
At this point, it’s no problem at all if you keep weighing, measuring, and logging everything you eat for reassurance.
Stage 2. Stop weighing/counting fruits and vegetables
You probably are aware that fresh vegetables and fruits don’t contribute large sums of calories to your meals. In fact, I hope you’re in the habit of eating lots of these foods to help get full, even while limiting calories. If the idea of weighing out spinach seems slightly odd to you, being that spinach is overwhelmingly healthy and hardly a weight gain culprit, I agree with you. If calorie counting is limiting your vegetables, it’s probably holding back your diet quality and potentially increasing your total calorie intake as a ripple effect (because if you cut back the salad with your lunch – not too many tomatoes now – or limit yourself to just one cup of vegetable soup, what else are you eating when you do get hungry? Likely, more calorie dense items like nut butter, meat, grains, etc.)
If you feel ready, let go of logging the calories in your fruits and vegetables. This will mean that the calorie total you see is slightly less than what you are eating, but you’re not going to be using a certain number to eat up to anymore, you’re going to use your appetite cues, so it’s okay if that number is slightly off. Having a ballpark number can help keep you from getting too far out of your comfort zone. (And as a bonus, eating at a salad bar is much much less complicated when you don’t have to enter 32 different ingredients afterwards).
Stage 3. Lose the log after each meal.
You can keep measuring or tracking other foods, just don’t keep any permanent record. Get rid of your data at the end of the day. It often isn’t helping you in any way to have months of food intake data recorded.
What matters is here and now. I recommend setting a minimum protein and fat intake to aim for at each meal, which helps with consuming balanced meals and staying satisfied. For most people, getting at least 30 grams of protein and 15 grams of fat per meal is a good place to start for 3-4 meals a day, but for most people that will be the minimum. Then, add other nutritious foods you enjoy to round out the meal and get satisfied. Pile on the broccoli, crunch an apple, and have some quinoa if that’s what you like.
But don’t get caught up in keeping score and trying to eat less or skip meals to make up for a prior high calorie meal or yesterday’s slip up, just start at the next meal with a clean slate, reaching those minimums and adding other foods to reach satisfaction. This helps your mindset become more oriented to the present (as opposed to stressing about the past and/or worrying about the future) and gives the guilt-slinging diet mentality monster a swift kick in the teeth.
You do not need to compensate for anything. You do not need to restrict after a high calorie day. Your appetite will often do some natural adjusting so you may need to add less to your protein and fat minimums, but the intention to diet in the future often leads to compulsive decision making and overeating in the present.
Stage 4. Practice eyeballing protein portions.
After a couple weeks of planning meals to hit a target protein level, you’ll be accustomed to what foods and portions you’re commonly eating to reach it. You probably can do it in your head, and eyeball the number of ounces of meat on your plate with reasonable accuracy. If you feel ready, let yourself estimate portions to hit your protein target without using the scale to weigh it every time. Some things will naturally be portioned for you anyway (eggs, for example, or individual Greek yogurt cups).
To reiterate, if you’re using hunger and satiety as your primary guide, whether you have 4 ounces of 5 ounces of chicken breast at lunch today won’t matter in the long run because your body will adjust appetite and satisfaction to your changing energy intake and needs. For most people a “palm” of meat works just fine.
Stage 5. Practice estimating fat content of your meal.
Compared to protein, it’s a bit trickier to eyeball fat. You can see the piece of chicken or steak on your plate, but oil into a pan, or drizzled over a salad can be hard to quantify. Using measuring spoons for oil is a fine habit to stick with, many people do for life and if you feel comfortable estimating, do that. A history of calorie counting will help you because you probably know which foods are high in fat when dining out. Take a stab at guessing and moving on. Because fat is so calorie dense, staying aware of how much fat is in your meal can help prevent calories from getting out of hand (a meal with steak, eggs, bacon and avocado is probably higher than your calorie needs), and most people are quite satisfied within a range of 15-25 grams of fat per meal. Going on the higher end of this range means more calories, but you will also be satisfied for more hours before hunger returns. Just be sure to not go too low on fat or you’ll be hungry rapidly afterwards.
Stage 6. Get flexible and just… eat.
At this point you might have already stopped using tracking software at all. If not, consider at this point if it’s really doing anything for you. You’re using your noggin to make sure you’re in the optimal ballpark for protein and fat to be satisfied, and you’re using whole foods to get satisfied. You’re letting hunger cue you that it’s time to eat. You don’t have much need to log now.
Let yourself have flexibility meal by meal and day by day, even week to week. Flexible eating works far better than rigidity (9-12). Allow for highs and lows that will balance out. If you have a special event or treat dessert, look at it in the overall scope of your diet – rare exceptions in energy intake do not make a person gain or lose weight if your habits are sound most of the time: eat only when you’ve been hungry for 30-60 minutes, choose almost all whole foods, and stick to 3-4 eating occasions per day with each one having some protein and fat in there.
What do I do if I start to see it’s not working (I’m gaining weight, losing strength, etc)?
Manipulating the calorie density of your food choices can steer you back in the right direction if you notice you are gaining weight (13). First, don’t panic at small fluctuations in the scale, as the average person varies day to day within a range of about 4 pounds. But if the trend is going up over time, instead of racing back to counting calories, consider dialing down the calorie density of your meals by decreasing portions of added fats (not dropping below about 10 g per meal needed for satiety) and choosing more vegetables and fruits instead of grain products or starches like potatoes. Also, do a double check to see if you can reduce liquid calories, sugars or processed foods, as these are typically the least satiating for their calories.
Go enjoy your life more now that you’ve got more time, energy and mental resources for other things!
You sure can! My book Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss will be out in just over a month, and in it you’ll get more than a dozen specific habits I use with my clients. It’s an exact roadmap to getting lean without dieting. Kinda like a little Coach Georgie for your bookshelf.
Lean Habits is carried by Amazon as hardcover or Kindle. Preorder from Barnes and Noble as hardcover or for your Nook. You can find it at Oxford Books, too. Live overseas? Don’t worry. Oakleaf books, Mighty Ape or Book Depository also carry it. Ask for it in your local bookstore or anywhere books are sold.
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