How to Make Your Calories Count Without Counting Calories
No matter how we approach weight loss, all methods ultimately require the creation of a caloric deficit for results. Nowadays, with the onslaught of food and fitness trackers, calorie apps, step counters, etc., there are myriad ways to calculate and postulate how much energy is coming in and about how much may be going out. Despite these calculations and disciplined approaches to monitoring progress, there are several simple ways to effectively decrease calories consumed without much of an effort; habits you can change in your day to day practice which can support your goals and help you succeed.
Since you can’t out-exercise your diet and what you eat is unquestionably the primary factor in weight loss, here are 10 ways to reduce your intake significantly enough to make a difference:
Hold off on eating the first meal of the day for as long as possible.
There are no verified rules about how many meals per day are ideal or that eating breakfast helps “jumpstart your metabolism” for the day. Remember that the human body is adapted to survive periods without food (beyond just dinner through breakfast the following morning) and that skipping meals does not, in fact, “slow down” your metabolism. Time without food being digested and absorbed is precious for the body, as it offers energy for the body to repair, recover, and rejuvenate. Unless you are really, really lean, your body has enough fat storage to metabolize for energy in between meals. Pushing off breakfast as long as possible is the perfect way to offer your body rest and an opportunity to start nibbling away at your fat stores. This is why the concept and practice of intermittent fasting has taken off recently in the news. Drink water, sparkling water, black coffee, or any of the infinite varieties of teas without any added sweeteners or creamers. It will keep you satisfied as you stave off hunger until your body is really ready to eat.
Drink tea or coffee straight up.
Speaking of tea and coffee… If you do enjoy these beverages (as millions or billions of people do around the world), they fit perfectly into a healthy diet for most people. (Of course, if you have cardiac arrhythmias, high blood pressure, reflux, are pregnant, or other specific conditions, this is something to ask your physician about.) And, as I mentioned above, they can keep you going in the morning as you delay your first meal of the day. The only way people get into trouble is by dousing these calorie-free, phytonutrient-containing beverages with addictive sweeteners and calorie-dense creamers. These beverages offer the perfect vehicle for excess sugars, fats, and calories. My favorite Starbucks venti green tea soy latte, for example, contains a whopping 320 calories, 9 grams of fat (6 of which are saturated), and 43 grams of sugar (!). Hence, these are best enjoyed as special occasion treats. I am not going to pretend there is no adjustment necessary when transitioning to clear tea or black coffee, but you can indeed adapt with time (see tip #9). If you have ever made an attempt to lower your salt intake, switch from whole milk to skim milk, or switched from sugar to artificial sweeteners, you have experienced this process. This helps in the morning, when you are avoiding kicking in the digestive process with calories but, if you account for the calories during the day, when you are in fact eating (during the feeding window), you can enjoy tea or coffee with an unsweetened plant milk (or even foamed…a la latte or cappuccino style).
The longer you go without food, the better everything seems. Anyone who has gone on a “diet” can attest to this experience…where everything sounds delicious and you can easily end up reading through recipe books for masochistic distraction (well, perhaps that is something only I used to do). Often, most people eat for emotion, stress, convenience, or opportunity. Doing so easily contributes to weight gain. Further, many people experience toxic hunger, a hypoglycemic feeling that may include shakiness, headaches, fatigue, cramps, etc. This is usually due to an unhealthy diet and is a sign that you may need to reevaluate your overall intake. (Again, please see your physician if you are experiencing these symptoms before jumping to conclusions.) True hunger is something that is felt in the throat region and the best test of this is pontificating upon whether eating a crunchy stalk of celery, a crisp apple, or any simple food that may not normally tempt you will actually satisfy you. At that point, eat a healthy, whole food, plant-based meal, including any infinite combination of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices.
Eating out is a convenient way to enjoy a delicious meal without spending the time necessary to prepare food at home. And dining at restaurants can indeed fit into a health-promoting lifestyle when done conscientiously and infrequently. However, it is unquestionably more challenging to find food at restaurants that is truly free of ingredients you need to avoid for weight loss and for your health. Oils, salts, sugars, and flours are added in far greater quantities than would be in your own kitchen and calories are almost guaranteed to exceed your goals. Additionally, it is far too alluring to overeat when you are surrounded by access, excess, and hyperpalatable options. On the other side of this is the fact that most of us are busy. Very busy. And cooking is not the first thing you may be eager to do after a long day of work, kids, school, etc. This is compounded by the fact that many people do not feel cozy in the kitchen. I know I didn’t. And it was overwhelming to have to create healthy delicious dishes…particularly once I had kids. But cooking is a priority. Learning just a few dishes can mean massive control over your weight and your long-term health. The trick is to keep it simple. You can go all out and take the amazing Rouxbe Online Professional Plant-Based Cooking School to gain mastery over your kitchen. You can use shortcuts and order plant-based meal kits from places like Chef’d. But, you can also learn some very simple tips and tricks by following some healthy recipes. Here is a collection of some of my favorite recipes and here are all of my favorite cookbooks (and other resources). Batch cooking items like a large pot of rice or other whole grains, soups, stews, and chilis helps because they last several days in the fridge and you can freeze them and defrost as needed for up to a year. Keeping precut vegetables, hummus, tofu/tempeh, and in the refrigerator; and frozen vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in the freezer; as well as canned beans, jarred marinara sauces and salsas, and whole grains in the pantry; and potatoes, squash, avocados, and fresh fruits on the countertop will enable you to make quick and easy meals with hardly any effort. Some examples of super easy, satisfying, and light dishes include: baked potatoes with salsa and canned beans; frozen stir-fry vegetables sautéed in water or vegetable broth over brown rice; or beans with precut veggies, salsa, and avocado in a bowl or in a whole grain tortilla. In fact, it doesn’t get any easier than these 50 whole food plant-based recipes with 5 ingredients or less. You will save hundreds or thousands of calories each day that you prepare your meals at home. Keep it simple for sustainable results.
Everyone, from the American Institute for Cancer Research to the USDA, agrees that at least half of your plate should come from fruits and vegetables. Forget “5 a day,” new research supports aiming for at least 10 daily servings. Not only do fruits and vegetables provide unparalleled health benefits, but they play a pivotal role in weight loss with their very low calorie density and high satiety factor. Prioritize these food groups every single day to maximize weight loss and help reduce your risk for chronic disease. Aim to eat a huge salad with everything you enjoy mixed in, which could include leafy greens, steamed or roasted vegetables, shredded veggies, slaw, artichoke hearts, potatoes, corn, fresh herbs, beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, hummus, sun dried tomatoes, onions, sautéed mushrooms, avocado, fruit, cooked whole grains, leftovers from yesterday, etc., etc. Essentially, there is no limit to the creative combinations possible. Here are 40 fun recipes to inspire you. And topping it off with a delicious dressing or sauce, like one of these healthy options, helps you enjoy salads and vegetables even more. Include cooked vegetables, especially leafy greens, each day, using them as a bed to lay the rest of your meal upon or plate them on the side. Whipping up a batch of soup, stew, or chili to enjoy throughout the week is the ultimate fast food. Here are 30 delicious recipes you can try. Experiment with new items to build your repertoire and have fun with them. While eating fruit may be easier for many people to consume, vegetables can be sexy and super delicious as they take center stage on your plate.
Minimize or eliminate oils. All oils.
One of the easiest ways to cut out hundreds – or even thousands – of calories each week is to simply cut down on oils. All oils (yes, even olive oil and coconut oil) are 100 percent pure fat, containing 120 calories and 14 grams of fat. One cup of oil contains more than 2000 calories…an entire day’s worth for most people! And just think of how easy it is to drizzle a half cup of oil over a salad, or in the pan to sauté, or to dunk your bread in at a restaurant. Boom. 1000 calories added right there. Further, there is zero fiber and many of the nutrients that started in the olive or soybean are extracted out. Fortunately, it is easy to cook without oil. You can sauté with water, vegetable broth, vinegar, or other liquid; use beans, silken tofu, nuts, or seeds to whip up a creamy dressing; and bake with mashed banana, applesauce or other fruit purees, silken tofu, or mashed avocado. All of these hundreds of options are oil-free and offer examples on how to modify your cooking. Eating out, however, makes it much more challenging to avoid oil. Ask for foods steamed, grilled, baked, or roasted without oil, and use vinegars, salsa, guacamole, lemon or lime juice, or hot sauce as salad dressing.
Focus on your food and shut down all distractions while you eat.
We make approximately 200 food choices a day, which matters immensely when you consider the fact that diet is the number one cause of early death and disability in the United States. There are many reasons we overeat, mostly due to social pressures and accessibility. But, practicing mindfulness is an excellent way to help avoid overeating. Shut down the television, close your laptop, and put the phone down (a challenge for many of us) while you sit down to a meal. With an emphasis on the word sit. Instead of noshing while standing, walking, driving, or skateboarding, or even just taking bites here and there throughout the day, try to create rituals when eating a meal. While it doesn’t have to include candlelight and background music (although that is a lovely tone to set anytime you’re in the mood), there is a happy middle ground between getting fancy and getting to the bottom of a tub of popcorn without remembering enjoying it. Try tactics like choosing dishware and utensils you love, plating your meal prettily, and putting utensils down between bites to bring in the zen and help you be present.
Although it sounds so simple and perhaps trivial, chewing is a lost art. From the moment food enters your mouth, a cascade of mechanical and biochemical reactions rev up to start the complex digestive process. While there is a host of psychobiological implications of chewing, an incentive to slow down and chew better includes that it may help reduce hunger and food intake.
Sugar, oil, salt, more sugar, more oil, more salt… Pick your poison, but let there be no doubt that the food industry has masterminded your palate. Extensive science is at play making certain “you really can’t eat just one,” as the goal is to enhance their products for your eating pleasure. Hooking consumers on products in a similar manner used to make the cigarette industry so successful is a motivation of the food industry. There is sugar, oil, and salt in everything from the obvious chips, cookies, and candies to the less obvious breads, dried fruits, and dressings/sauces. Research has found similar neurological and behavioral responses to these highly processed foods as to substances that cause addiction. While there are biological reasons we fall into the “pleasure trap,” and there are powerful pressures at play that exacerbate that biology, it is indeed possible to break the food seduction. One of the best ways to bypass this system is to recalibrate your taste buds by setting a few weeks aside and committing to eating whole, intact foods without exception. This is simple, but not easy. If you are motivated to make it happen, you can move beyond the challenging first few weeks and feel liberated and empowered from thereon forward.
Stop eating at least three hours before bed.
Similar to holding off on your first meal of the day, ending your feeding window earlier in the evening enables your body to complete the energy-intensive process of digesting and absorbing food. There appears to be circadian explanations for why it is best to stop eating earlier, but there are also behavioral elements, such as decision fatigue, that come into play. Being tired reduces your ability to resist tempting (usually less-than-ideal) foods, no matter how much willpower you may have. Making this choice can become habitual over time and usually requires some scheduling adjustments.
As you may have noticed, there are no recommendations listed above to count calories or fat grams, to cut out carbs, or to exercise harder. This is because the weight loss industry’s loud messaging simply has not worked. It is time that we shift our focus to foods, behaviors, and social pressures in order to ameliorate the issues so many of us struggle with in terms of achieving and sustaining our ideal body weight.