Updated: Apr 29
In this issue:
The value of counting calories;
Different methods of portion control without counting calories;
What to eat;
What to do if it doesn't work.
Please just hear me out about the value of counting calories first
Before I get started on how to manage portions WITHOUT counting calories, I must first talk about managing portions BY counting calories.
I do firmly believe that for the best chance of getting the results we want when trying to lose weight, counting calories, at least to begin with, is helpful, as long as we are doing it accurately, simply because it enables us to become fully familiar with, and fully understand, what is actually in a portion, before we then move on to using other portion control methods.
Even when following a formal diet programme, tracking what we are eating is very insightful as it helps us to understand how and why it works, providing we are sticking to it, of course. It will also help us to stick to it.
There are other good reasons too.
Calorie counting is frowned upon in some circles but I do think it does us a disservice to exclude it as we miss out on so many of the benefits. In my opinion, avoiding calorie counting risks actually helping us to avoid the issue (our behaviour) and takes away our power to make the right changes.
The more we understand about something, the more power we have. And calorie counting works, because as long as we are accurate, by weighing and measuring our food and drink carefully, there is nowhere for calories to hide anymore. See my article on snacking to see how easy it is for the calories to mount up when we are not keeping a close eye on them.
We have to weigh and measure our food and drink if following a formal diet programme, unless everything is provided for us, so why not take it a step further and educate ourselves about what and how much energy is in the prescribed portions?
It may seem like a chore to count calories, but when you think about it, we find it helpful - whether we realise it or not - to maintain control by measuring or counting other areas of our lives...
how much fuel is in our car...
how fast we are driving...
how much money is in our bank account...
how much money we are saving or spending...
how fast we are running...
how far we have walked...
what the weather forecast is...
what grades we get in exams...
how much progress we have made in a computer game...
what scores we get playing tennis or football...
how old we are...
what time it is...
how long things take...
how much beer or milk in a pint
how much of each ingredient to put in a recipe
how long to cook the recipe for
I could go on... you get the idea.
So why do we find it so hard to accept counting the calories in the food we are eating? What is it that we don't want to know?
If you are struggling to lose weight but don't want to count calories, it might be time to ask what is stopping you? What are you afraid of? Will it mean you will have to change your behaviour? Or face up to how much you are really eating?
Even if you don't like the idea of calorie counting, do you like being overweight?
Losing weight is hard because facing up to and changing our behaviour is exactly what is required, but we resist it. We want it to be easy, or we want to lose weight without changing anything, or we want someone else to do the work for us. But that's a short cut to nowhere. We have to work for what we want in most things in life. Losing weight is no different.
The beauty of counting calories is that it vastly improves our knowledge and skills, which we will maintain for life. It helps us to find better, tasty alternatives that give us more bang for our buck, so we can lose weight safely, in a healthy way, AND enjoy the journey. It also raises our awareness about how much we are consuming and helps us to stay accountable.
It's all about perception.
Think it's too hard, then it will be, and you won't make the effort, and you won't get the results you want.
Take away the emotion, and think of it as giving you the information that you need to make better, more rational decisions in real time, then it will give you the ability to do just that, and you will make the time and effort to do it, and most importantly, you'll get results. It will actually become easier to lose weight.
Of course, it's not necessary to count calories if we are managing our weight well. But if we're not, and don't know what we're doing wrong, then it can be extremely useful in shining a spotlight on how much energy we are consuming and where secret calories may be hiding.
Counting calories really doesn't have to be time consuming, after the initial effort to understand how it works and find the best method.... and that will be for another article as I can help with this. I also don't have the space here to talk in more detail about how many calories to eat, but you can read more about that in my article No BS: How to Lose Weight.
Yes, of course, there are other things we'd much rather be doing, but if we want to truly understand the full picture of what's going on, and find out why were aren't losing weight, there isn't really any other way. If we don't know where we are going wrong, how do we know what we need to change?
Granted, counting calories is not 100% accurate, but it's the best that we've got, and is far MORE accurate than guessing, as long as we are also weighing and measuring our food and drink. This becomes more important the smaller the calorie deficit we are aiming for, as just a little too much food can result in no weight being lost.
Furthermore, with portion control by the eye, it is all too easy to gradually eat a little more each time, so checking in every now and then by weighing, measuring and counting calories can be helpful.
I still count calories from time to time. It's the first thing I do if I find things are slipping, and it puts me straight back in control. Every single time for the last decade. It's never failed me.
Now here's what you came here for...
Ok, now that I have got that out the way, here's how to manage portion control WITHOUT counting calories.
Despite everything I have just said, I believe this is an extremely important skill to learn, as it's not always practical, or necessary, to count calories, but it IS vital to keep our portion sizes under control if we want to keep our weight under control.
There are a few different ways to do it.
Reading food labels, and weighing and measuring using kitchen scales
This requires paying attention to the numbers on the packets or looking up on the internet the suggested portion sizes and weighing and measuring out what the portion should be.
The problem with this is that you still need to know the numbers... how many grams or millilitres, and how many of them you can have in a meal or in a day to lose weight, and so of course in order to make a sensible judgement, you still need to know how many calories there are.
Many labels don't give us portion sizes, only total amounts or increments of 100g, so trying to do this WITHOUT counting calories or measuring it out, is like driving a car without a speedometer; you will have to guess and are at risk of breaking the speed limit.
So it's not particularly helpful in isolation, but can support other methods, especially formal diet programmes that give you meal ideas and recipes to prepare.
Using pre-sized containers
I really like some of these options as they really do take the effort out of the process. The picture is of a set I found on Amazon. However, you DO still need to have an understanding of the food groups you are eating, and therefore what to put in each container. It is also very easy to have too much by just filling them slightly too full. This isn't a problem for low calorie foods, such as fruit and vegetables (see the good news section) but is very important for any foods that are calorie dense, such as protein and carbs, and especially fats.
Using plates with portions -pre-measured on them
Similar to the containers, this is another great method that can make it easier. But again, caution needs to be applied as it is very easy to still have a little bit over a portion, and over the course of a day this can add up and eat away (pardon the pun!) at any calorie deficit. Plates like these can also be found on Amazon.
Using your hands
This really 'handy' (sorry!) guide from Precision Nutrition is the most helpful thing that I am aware of. I don't agree with their statement about calorie counting being inaccurate, when done properly, nor time consuming, when using certain apps that make it easy, but this infographic article is hugely helpful.
So let's take a look at it. Click on the link or the picture to view the full guide.
The basic principles are as follows:
Source: Precision Nutrition
Next you need to figure out how many portions of each food group you need at each meal to meet your goals, according to whether you are male or female, and how active you are, according to the article, which I will let you read by clicking on the picture. And as above, it's important to be as accurate as you can when assessing how much food to put in your palm or your cupped hand, and where you consider the bottom of your thumb to be.
Monitoring our eating behaviours can also make a big difference.
Eating slowly will naturally reduce how much we can eat as we will feel more satisfied on less food
Not getting too hungry will help us to be able to eat more slowly as we will be in more control. Aim for 7 out of 10 on the hunger scale, with 0 being full up and 10 being ravenous.
Check out my How to Eat Less guide for more on this.
"That's all very well, but what should I eat?" I hear you say.
Thankfully Precision Nutrition have also produced a really helpful guide that will take you step-by-step through what to eat more or less of, according to your goals, so that you can still enjoy your food.
I highly recommend printing it and putting it somewhere that you can refer to it easily. Click on the picture to access the full article.
Source: Precision Nutrition
Some more good news!
Something that is really helpful to be aware of is that there are certain foods that are so low in calories that we really don't need to worry about measuring them or limiting our portion sizes. Slimming World calls them 'speed foods'.
This is a great article which explains how helpful they are towards weight loss, and includes a full list of them. So how about taking a look and putting some of them on your shopping list.
We still have to do the work
One thing all the above methods have in common, whether we follow a formal programme or not, is that we still need to put some effort in. Nothing is without some work, whether that be practical or on our mindset, or both.
We still need to know and understand the food groups that different foods fit in to, and how many portions we can have to achieve our goals. In other words, how many calories, roughly, are in a portion of each type of food, even if we're not actually totting them up. As guess what, too many portions and you will go over your calories - they still exist, whether you are counting them or not.
So there are a few options but the key message is you still need to take in less energy than your body burns if you want to lose weight, and you will still need to make sure you are eating mostly unprocessed, lower calorie, more highly nutrient-dense foods if you want your body to function properly while doing so, and avoid getting too hungry.
Some people do very well using these methods, or formal programmes that take care of the counting and that is great, and I applaud them - as I firmly believe it is important to find what works for us and one size does not fit all...
But there's no getting away from it - whatever method you choose, some effort will be involved, at least to begin with. And I firmly believe that understanding why they work is what can help make the difference when it comes to long term success.
What if you STILL don't lose weight?
If you try portion control without counting calories and you still don't get the results you were hoping for, it will be because you are not in a calorie deficit. Then it really is time to shine a brighter spotlight on what is going in... by counting calories. Even if following a formal programmme.
Sorry, but I truly believe it's the only way to really get on top of our intake if all else fails. The only time it stops working is when WE stop doing it, or we stop doing it accurately, and start cutting corners.
So if you're still not getting results through portion control alone, and you are still reluctant to count calories, then it is time to ask, what is stopping you? What are you scared of? Are you really prepared to do what it takes to lose weight? Do you want it enough?
If you want to know the answers to these questions, then check out my Preparing for Successful Weight Loss e-book, as the first exercises in it will help you to answer them for yourself.