Most diet plans make eating right seem like a numbers game: Consume X calories and add Y exercise, and you will reach Z ideal weight. But as obesity levels and weight-loss industry profits continue to skyrocket, it's clear something's not working. Could all that counting, calculating, and measuring be the wrong way to go about it? Top medical, nutrition, and fitness experts share their views on what really adds up to healthy eating.
Do the Math
One reason tracking your calorie consumption is so often recommended is to increase your awareness of how much you're really eating. "Knowing the number of calories you're consuming can help you figure out how much you should eat to reach your weight-loss or maintenance goals," says Elisa Zied, R.D.N., author of Younger Next Week.
And once you get over the shock that you're downing hundreds more calories than you thought and that your go-to frozen dinner is actually two servings, you can adjust your intake so it's more appropriate.
Put Away the Calculator
Yet most pros generally advise against relying on calorie counting as a long-term weight-loss and maintenance tool. [Tweet this fact!] What seems to be an easy equation—burn more calories than you eat to lose weight, or eat as many as you burn to maintain—is not so simple.
First, it's nearly impossible to determine your exact calorie allotment for each day. To gauge merely an estimate, you'd need to determine your resting metabolic rate with an expensive test at a medical office that requires breathing into a tube for 15 minutes—not anyone's idea of fun. Then factor in that your caloric needs vary daily based on how active you are. "Different bodies metabolize foods at different rates depending on factors such as muscle mass, exercise habits, and dieting style," explains Jen Sinkler, certified personal trainer and founder of fitness and nutrition website Thrive. So don't think that an app or website can tell you exactly what you should be eating based on a few personal statistics you enter.
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Another missing piece of the puzzle: Simply counting calories does not take into account how foods impact our bodies' hormones, which determine if we burn fat or store it, says Dana James, a triple-board-certified nutritionist and founder of Food Coach NYC, a nutritional therapy practice. To synthesize the body's fat-burning hormones, you need a combination of protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals at every meal, James explains, and the more carbs you eat, the more insulin you release, and this hormone inhibits the fat-burning process.
Tallying your calories also emphasizes the quantity of calories, rather than the quality of your foods. "Your effort is much better spent focusing on the nutritional value of foods rather than on an endless race between your mouth and the treadmill," says Darya Rose, Ph.D., author of Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight without Dieting. If you eat 1,000 calories of refined carbs but stay below your calorie limit for the day, you're not doing your body any favors.
Plus research shows that the magic number you arrive at can lead to all-or-nothing mentality. "Calorie counting may encourage what is known as the ‘what-the-hell effect,'" Rose says. "If you ‘screw up' at one meal, you may think, ‘What the hell, I may as well go crazy today and start over tomorrow.'"
Furthermore, counting alone doesn't teach you much of anything except whether you were "under" or "over" that day, and that can lead to guilt and obsession. "For some people, this habit can give a positive sense of control over intake, but for others it can make it difficult to think about much else," Zied says.
Recalculate Your Eating
If you're not going to count calories, there are still ways to be sure you're eating appropriately for your weight goals.
1. Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods
Eat more nutrient- and water-dense foods, like fruits and vegetables, as they contain far fewer calories per unit of volume than calorie-dense foods like cooked rice or butter, suggests Mike Roussell, Ph.D, a nutritional consultant and author of Dr. Mike's 7-Step Weight Loss Plan. (Think about 1 cup raw spinach compared to 1 cup cooked rice or butter.) And research shows that we tend to eat about the same weight of food at meals, so piling on raw veggies instead of macaroni and cheese will satisfy you for fewer calories.
2. Keep a Food Journal
Rather than keep a running tab of calories, Rose suggests noting the time of day and other circumstances, such as how you are feeling. This way you can build awareness of your eating habits, she explains, such as how red-exclamation-point emails from your boss make you run for the cheese snacks in the vending machine. With that knowledge, you can plan a way to reprogram in a new behavior like taking a 5-minute walk or making a cup of tea.
3. Visualize a Balanced Plate
Set your plate up properly, and you'll naturally control your calorie intake. [Tweet this tip!] Fill half your plate with a variety of colorful vegetables or fruits, one-quarter with lean protein, and the other quarter with whole grains or starchy vegetables such as potatoes or corn. Then add flavor with healthy fats, herbs, and spices. "If you have this kind of balanced plate, you'll be fueling your body correctly and weight loss—if needed—will follow," says Sarah-Jane Bedwell, R.D., a nutritionist for Zoës Kitchen restaurants.
4. Make a Fist
You don't need any measuring cups to master portion control: Use your hand, Sinkler suggests: Eat a palm-sized serving of protein, a fist-sized serving of vegetables, a cupped-hand serving of other carbs, and a thumb-sized serving of fat.
5. Use a Different Scale
Before and while eating, rate your hunger on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is famished and 10 is stuffed, Bedwell recommends. Start eating at a 2 or 3, and stop eating at the first sign of fullness, a 5 or 6. This will help ensure you eat only when physically hungry (rather than when stressed or bored) and prevent overeating.
6. Focus on Macronutrients
If you're still up for a little math, Roussell recommends tracking protein, carbohydrates, and fats to manage your weight. "For women to maintain weight, try to stick to 40 percent of calories from carbs, 30 percent from protein, and 30 percent from fats," he says. To lose weight, aim for 60 to 75 grams of carbs daily, which you can do by replacing starchy carbs with vegetables in one or two meals.