I used to count calories in my head while I was running. I vividly remember the sound of my strides and my sneakers hitting the ground as I rounded the bend at the Hollywood reservoir trail. I tallied the calories of the open-faced turkey sandwich and salad I ate for lunch and the oatmeal, berries, and Greek yogurt I ate for breakfast.
It was a few years into my amateur career as a fighter, and I had become so accustomed to weighing and measuring my food and looking up the total calories and grams that I could quickly compute “food math” in my head.
I subtracted the 380 calories I had burned from my run, according to my heart rate monitor watch, from 1800, I allowed myself that day. I had clocked three and a half miles and was trying to figure out if I should run another loop so I could have dessert after dinner with minimal guilt.
Looking back, I remember feeling incredibly anxious about the food I ate. Calories and food choices were always on my mind.
I thought about calories while I was running, making food, ordering a coffee, and when I laid in bed at night. Sometimes, I even dreamt of counting calories.
If something had a nutrition label, I had to read it. When I went out to eat with friends, I counted calories while looking at the menu. If I ate five French fries off a friend’s plate, I counted those: seventy-five calories, four grams of fat, eight grams of carbs, and one gram of protein.
I wrote everything in my training journal. We didn’t have smartphones in 2005, so I had to keep track of my food in a journal if I was out, and then when I got home, look things up and compute them. When smartphones came out, I switched to an app to count my intake.
I weighed myself daily. I owned a food scale. I used a food scale. I stressed over the number of carbs in a banana. I didn’t buy sugar when I went grocery shopping, but then I would run to the corner store for a snickers ice cream bar if I “deserved it.” I looked up menus in advance when I went out to eat. I tried every diet with various macronutrient ratios you could imagine. Vegan, Zone, Paleo, high-carb-low-fat, Low-carb Paleo, carb cycling protocols, and even the master cleanse. Please, please never do the master cleanse, ever.
I felt good when I was in “fight shape” and looked at even the slightest hint of belly bloat with self-loathing and disdain. “You shouldn’t have eaten that ice cream,” I’d tell myself, “do more cardio tomorrow.”
THE TRADE-OFF FOR DIET “PERFECTION”
If this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. If you’re thinking I was neurotic and was one step away from having a full-blown eating disorder, you’re right too. However, I was an athlete. My behavior was not only acceptable in my circle; it was praised.
When I kept my eating in check, my training partners and coaches praised me. My personal training clients looked up to me and asked me how I had so much willpower.
My training partners and coaches didn’t know that I had constant cravings, mostly for sweets, and when I gave into them, I would beat myself up until I ate “perfectly” for at least a week after.
When I weighed-in before my fights at 135 pounds with sub 10% body fat, people complimented my physique. For reference, I’m a tad over five foot eight.
I based a lot on my confidence in achieving what I thought was the perfect fighter physique, a goal I never felt I fully attained. A fighter’s goal for body composition is to be the lowest weight you can be while still having good power and strength. It’s a delicate balance. If the seesaw tips too far in one direction, it affects your performance. When anyone complimented me with, “you look so lean!” or even, “how are you so strong, you look so skinny?” my ego did a happy dance.
It took me years to undo the mindfuck of being in a weight-controlled sport in combination with spiraling down a nutrition and fitness geek path of weighing, measuring, and continually tracking. I felt accomplishment from my athletic performances, as most athletes do, but my leanness status could waiver or heighten my confidence.
Today, I don’t count calories or macros. I eat when I’m hungry, don’t when I’m not, and don’t deprive myself. I do have a general sense of what plate arrangement of protein, veggies, starchy carbs, and healthy fats works for me, and I choose that most of the time.
I’m about the same weight I was when I was competing. Sure, I might have slightly more body fat and less muscle, but that’s to be expected, as I am retired from professional athletics and getting older.
I tell you this story not because I’m suggesting everyone eat whatever they want and never track their food. I’m detailing my history, so you know that:
- Tracking your food intake does work.
- Counting calories and macros will teach you about portion sizes.
- Tracking food takes time and energy.
- Counting calories and macros like I did may affect your social life.
- Tracking too obsessively can lead to disordered eating.
- Counting calories or macros is not the best method, not for everyone.
You don’t have to track food to the exact gram and calories if you’re not an athlete with high-level body composition goals, and maybe even then, it’s not needed.
Now, you may be thinking, “If tracking calories and macros work, and I want that summer bod, I’ll try it!
Or maybe you’re thinking, “No way I’d try that. I can’t possibly do all that food math. I’d go nuts! But I do want to _______ (insert fitness goal here).”
Well, either way, you’re in luck.
If you have a goal of fat loss, muscle gain, or athletic performance, there is a much easier and just as effective way to track your food intake than calorie counting.
A method that doesn’t nearly as much time or effort or has the potential to drive you into a dark hole of calorie and macros counting food neuroses.
For effective results and a healthy relationship with food, you’ll need two simple methods.
Hand portion tracking
Intuitive eating is the practice of eating according to your body’s natural cues and cultivating a healthy relationship with your body and food.
However, in my experience, intuitive eating doesn’t work well as the only method for those with more aggressive body composition goals or for those who may need additional support with nutrition education.
Intuitive eating isn’t a diet. The purpose of intuitive eating is not weight loss. It’s about honoring your body by listening to it.
The principles of intuitive eating that I find the most effective to incorporate with another tracking method is:
- Pay close attention to your hunger cues.
- Eat food slowly, and enjoy the activity of eating.
- Eat until only 80% full*.
- Take note of your energy levels concerning your food choices.
- Put the focus on eating food that makes you feel healthy.
Research has shown that incorporating intuitive eating principles can improve your relationship to food, control portions naturally, and help you make better food choices. Intuitive eating practices are also associated with less depression, better body image, and less risk of eating disorders.
If you don’t want to track your food intake by counting calories or macros, intuitive eating might be for you.
However, if you have a goal of fat loss, muscle gain, or athletic performance and are not genetically blessed, a little tracking will help you reach your fitness goals faster. So let’s talk about my favorite method.
*Eating until only 80% full and eating very slowly, while a healthy practice, will not be beneficial to aggressive muscle gain goals.
HAND PORTION CALORIE & MACROS TRACKING
For those of you who need to take it up a notch, you may want to get a little nerdy. The good news is you don’t need meal-prep every single meal you eat to carry a food scale in your bag. You don’t even need to log anything in an app or do crazy math. All you need is your hand.
The basics of hand portion (serving) tracking:
Your palm is a serving of protein.
Your fist equals a serving of vegetables.
Your cupped hand is serving or carbohydrates.
Your thumb is a serving of fat.
The hand portion tracking method is simple because your hand is always with you. You can effectively eyeball a portion size using what’s attached to your arms every day.
You can use it when you are eating out if you’re diligent about taking home the leftovers or sharing meals. The only social drawback might be that your friends will think you’re trying to communicate with the chicken breast and potatoes on your plate using sign language, but hey, your friends love you for you and all your weird quirks, right?
HOW MANY PORTIONS?
To know how many portions of each macronutrient group, you need to eat daily for your goals. You need to consider your goal (fat loss, muscle gain, athletic performance, or general health), your activity level, and do some math.
For some time, I’ve been creating Customzied Macros Guides for my clients based on goals, activity, and preferences as an addition to my coaching with excellent results. May clients report that a simple guide with concrete tools they can use in daily life takes the pressure and complexity of food choices much easier.
If you want a general starting place, active women can aim for 4-5 servings of each food group (macronutrient) per day, and active men can aim for 6-8 servings of each. These serving guidelines give you 2,300 – 3,000 kcal for men and 1,500 – 2,100 for women. If you don’t see the results you want, you can adjust accordingly, lower, or increase portions.
You can have your servings in as few as one meal or as many as 8. Whatever you prefer. It’s a myth that eating more frequent small meals per day helps you lose weight, and intermittent fasting (only eating 1-2 meals) doesn’t work for everyone. Eat as many meals you like as long as they add up to the right portions for your body.
CALORIE COUNTING ERRORS
Calories counting is not as accurate as we’re led to believe.
Even you weigh meticulously and measure your food or buy a prepackaged product. Calories counts can be off for many reasons.
When you look up the calories of foods via a nutrition label or on a food database online, it’s only a rough estimate. The FDA permits food companies to list their products with up to a 20% margin for error.
If food is consumed raw and whole, fewer calories will be absorbed. If you eat a raw, whole almond vs. a roasted almost or almond butter, you will absorb more calories than the fresh, full version.
Making a smoothie? If you add up your smoothie’s raw ingredients in a calorie calculator, then toss it in the blender, the calories absorbed will increase.
Cooking increases the energy gained from calories in a food, so if you chop up an apple and throw it in your oatmeal to cook it, that can affect the calories you are getting from the meal total.
Food labels don’t always reflect the correct calories in a cooked or processed food item because they may use the raw version’s calories on the label.
Also, processed food contains more calories than its “natural” counterpart. If you type in “slice of bread,” “cheese sandwich,” or “French fries” into a calorie calculator, you will get a variety of different calorie counts for each search. Which is the right one to choose if they don’t list your exact brand or restaurant item?
Apps like My Fitness Pal rely on user submissions to expand their database, so many items listed can be off on calories and grams of macronutrients.
If you’re dining out and the restaurant lists the calories contained in the dish, unfortunately, that may not be not accurate either.
One study found that the stated calories in “low-calorie” and “healthy choices” one’s dieters often choose from restaurants and supermarkets were not consistently accurate.
Lastly, for those that “ballpark” calories, individual perception can be a factor. One study found that an individual’s various characteristics, diet-status, age, weight, and gender influence their perceptions of foods’ healthiness and could bias their estimates of the meals’ caloric content.
We all know someone who’s counted calories and lost weight, but that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate method or that it’s a good use of our time. For busy professionals, with other things to spend their time on, there is a better way.
THE POWER OF ATTENTION TO FOOD INTAKE
Some people may have success with counting calories because they pay attention to what they consume, thereby lowering their food intake, even if the math is off.
A randomized clinical trial among 609 overweight adults divided participants into two diet groups asking them to follow either a low-carb high-fat or high-carb low-fat diet.
For the study, both groups were instructed to:
- Maximize vegetable intake
- Minimize intake of added sugars, refined flours, and trans fats
- Focus on whole foods that were minimally processed, nutrient-dense, and prepared at home whenever possible.
They were also encouraged to:
- Cultivate a supportive environment
- Build self-efficacy
The study participants were NOT given an exact calorie intake to follow.
However, both groups’ dieters naturally decreased caloric intake by approximately 500-600 calories, only by focusing on macros and food quality.
The results? They all lost weight over a year. They lost an average of 12-13 pounds. There were no significant changes in diet groups.
While you can lose weight by counting calories and macros, it’s most likely the attention we pay to our food and the behavior changes we make that affect the weight loss outcomes, not the counting itself.
If you haven’t mastered the basics of nutrition and healthy habits via action goal-setting, counting calories or macros is probably not for you. Life is complicated enough; keep your nutrition simple. Go one step at a time.
If you have lofty athletic, mass-building, or leanness goals, you may need to track calories and macros. Still, for the most part, especially given the headache it can be to get accurate numbers for calories, you are better off using the hand portion method of tracking.
Focusing on big-picture changes, like increasing veggies, lowering sugar, eating more whole foods than processed, and exercising will get results.
Start with small changes, like swapping out your normal breakfast for a healthier choice.
QUALITY OF FOOD AND MACROS PRIORITY
While it’s possible to lose weight by lowering calories and not paying much attention to food quality or macros, it’s not easy, nor is it the best choice if you also care about your health, longevity, and performance.
Besides, you can get even better results in your body composition and performance by choosing nutrient-dense, organic, and fresh foods and paying some attention to your macro percentages, so why not try?
Choosing healthy carbs like yams, squash, whole grains, and fruit is much more beneficial for fat loss and overall health than processed carbs, like bread, pasta, and baked goods.
In the same way, olive oil, grass-fed butter, avocado, or nuts are healthier than margarine, processed oils, and most cheeses.
Carbs are not the devil, and fat isn’t their evil cousin. No one macronutrient is bad. We need them all, just in slightly different amounts.
As you saw in the study above, various diets can be useful for weight loss.
The one nutrient people tend to be low in is protein. Protein requirements are roughly the same for everyone, regardless of whether you choose to go lower carb or higher carb. Ensure you are getting about .8-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, or use the nifty hand portion method above for similar results.
For protein, I recommended choosing leaner organic grass-fed meats, organic free-range poultry, and pasture-raised eggs when possible, and eating sustainably sourced fresh fish. Do the best you can with food choices based on availability, budget, and need while eating food. You know it fuels and nourishes your body well.
If you choose to be vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, make sure you are getting enough protein with each meal with legumes and the use of plant-based protein powders. It is much harder to get adequate protein sources, and there is a risk of nutrient deficiencies when you are 100% plant-based. Without careful planning and supplementation, it will be hard to reach certain fitness goals on a strictly plant-based diet.
Based on how comfortable you are using some amount of eggs, fish, and dairy in your diet, it could be much easier to get the protein you need for your fitness goals by including some animal products in your diet.
You can add what you feel comfortable with to get to your protein macro goals while still eating a large portion of your meals plant-based. This way of eating is called flexitarian.
FALLING INTO THE DIET NAME TAG TRAP
Before you decide to commit to a specific type of diet, ask yourself you’re more attached to the name or the idea of it than the actual results.
These days, announcing that you’re Keto, Paleo, Gluten-Free, Vegetarian, Pant-Based, or Flexitarian is all the rage; adding your new title to your Instagram bio is even more bad-ass.
While I’m all for promoting attention to health and wellness, I question whether labeling your personal preferences with a name is a good thing.
As a vegetarian for eighteen years (I was born one), vegan for two, Paleo a few, and now mostly gluten and dairy-free because I feel better that way, I’ve been guilty of “nutrition-camp name tagging” myself.
Today, I don’t subscribe to any one nutrition philosophy for myself or my clients, and I don’t make strict eating rules. I worry that the nutrition-camp name tagging fad could prevent people from finding a way of eating that is truly right for them.
We are all individuals, and if there is anything I’ve learned from coaching people, different food quantities, macros, and choices work for different folks.
Also, as we age, our activity levels change, or our goals change, our food choices may need to adapt. We must listen to our bodies to make sure they get what they need.
There is not a one size fits all approach to nutrition for your whole life. When we slap a name on our diet, make friends in the same nutrition-camp, and announce it online as part of our identity, I worry that we will no longer be able to make rational decisions to adjust our eating habits to what truly serves us.
TRACK, ASSESS, ADJUST, REPEAT
If, after reflecting on your goals, lifestyle, current nutrition, ability, and time commitment, you decide to do some food tracking, great! Tracking food can help people get to the next level of their fitness goals.
Realize that finding the right calorie intake and macronutrient balance for your body takes time. You may find great results with the standard recommendations above, or you may need some professional coaching to adjust your intake and macro percentages.
Some people do better with more carbs and less fat, and some do better with fewer carbs and more fat. Protein requirements stay relatively consistent across the board.
Remember that food intake and tracking is only part of what helps people achieve their health and fitness goals. Enjoyment of your daily life, stress-reduction, sleep, social connections, mindset, and exercise can also play a role in fat loss, muscle gain, and athletic goals.
If using a portion tracking method of any kind drastically takes away from your quality of life in a negative way, you might want to consider re-evaluating your fitness goals and taking up a gentler approach to eating, like intuitive eating.
At eight percent body fat, I wasn’t all that happy. I had irregular periods, struggled with anxiety and stress, experienced disrupted sleep, was always hungry, and had much fewer meaningful relationships in my life due to social sacrifices.
I don’t regret my experience as a fighter; top-athletic competition requires sacrifice. However, I am generally happier today than I was when I was competing, and I’m 100% positive I’m no longer sub ten percent body fat.
For various fitness goals, I believe that incorporating intuitive eating practices like eating slowly, enjoy food, paying attention to your body’s natural signals, in combination with hand portion tracking, is the best method for most people.
You’ll get excellent physical results from the portion tracking, and you’ll get many benefits mentally from cultivating a healthier relationship to food and your body.
x Coach Roxy
Emily Compton, MPH Candidate, Nutritional Sciences. Intuitive Eating: The Non-Diet Is the Best Diet. https://sph.umich.edu/pursuit/2018posts/intuitive-eating.html
Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S. Definition of Intuitive Eating. https://www.intuitiveeating.org/definition-of-intuitive-eating
Candace Choi (Feb 4, 2020). Associated Press. Nutrition labels may not be as precise as they seem, research suggests. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/nutrition-labels-may-not-be-as-precise-as-they-seem-research-suggests
Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS. Macros vs. calories vs. portions vs. intuitive eating- What’s the best way to ‘watch what you eat’? https://www.precisionnutrition.com/macros-vs-calories
Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS. Calorie Control Guide Infographic. https://www.precisionnutrition.com/calorie-control-guide-infographic
Christopher D. Gardner, Ph.D.; John F. Trepanowski, Ph.D.; Liana C. Del Gobbo, Ph.D.; et al. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial – https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2673150
Lorien E. Urban, MS, Gerard E. Dallal, Ph.D., Lisa M. Robinson, RD, Lynne M. Ausman, DSc, RD, Edward Saltzman, MD, Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D. (2009) by The American Dietetic Association. The Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Reduced-Energy, Commercially Prepared Foods. https://jandonline.org/article/S0002-8223(09)01679-4/fulltext
Carels RA, Konrad K, Harper J. (2007) Individual differences in food perceptions and calorie estimation: an examination of dieting status, weight, and gender. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17428574
Emily E. Groopman, Rachel N. Carmody, and Richard W. Wrangham. (2014) Cooking increases net energy gain from a lipid-rich food. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4272645