If you want to lose weight or lose fat, there’s no doubt that modifying your nutrition is going to be one of the most powerful behavior changes you can implement.
Before we dive into this post, I want to point out that we are focusing only on nutrition today. The personal trainer in me has to highlight, however, that the tips in this post will work better if you incorporate them alongside a smart exercise routine that includes both strength training and plenty of movement that you enjoy.
Back to the nutrition side of things…
Counting calories (and/or macros) is a relatively straightforward way to approach your nutrition, and it can be an incredible clarifier. However, using numbers isn’t always the right approach for someone – whether it’s an eating disorder history or simply not having the time to master a new app, sometimes it’s just not the right fit.
However, whether you track calories or not, attempting weight loss or fat loss involves creating a caloric deficit in your energy balance. In other words, your goal is to create a Goldilocks-sized, “just right” gap between your eating and your energy output, so that “calories in” is juuuuuuuust enough below “calories out” so that you lose a meaningful amount of weight each week/month.
If the gap is too big, people usually burn out and binge. Plus, attempting to lose weight in this way may not help people create meaningful habits that help them keep weight off, because their only healthy eating mode is to go into overdrive.
When the gap is too small, though, it can be difficult to not accidentally eat at maintenance and not actually lose any weight at all. The tricky part is creating a deficit that’s the “just right” size – not overly stressful, but definitely having an effect on weight or fat.
I work with a huge variety of clients, and I utilize different strategies with different people. In today’s post, I’m going to share some tips that I would use with someone who is – for whatever reason – not a great candidate for tracking calories (or maybe the season of life isn’t a great time period to track calories/macros).
But to be honest, there are times when I think all people could zoom out and use these techniques to improve their eating. There’s a huge benefit in seeing the big picture clearly, and – ironically – sometimes people have blindspots when they track. By putting down tracking as a tool and switching perspective, even temporarily, people can make impactful changes that help them achieve their body composition goals and maintain them.
Here are five tips for how to lose weight without counting calories.
Identify Your “Low Hanging Fruit”
These are habits that could obviously be improved, because they’re clearly extra and would be easy to change without micromanaging details. Maybe they’re just a little bit excessive and not wildly overboard, but creating a caloric deficit means edging a liiiiiiitle bit into your discomfort zone.
This is highly individual, because people’s habits are different. For example, do you enjoy drinking, and probably drink too often and/or too much? This is an area that can be easily sliced for major results, without micromanaging whether you ate three ounces or four ounces of chicken breast. Cutting your drinking in half would reap outsized benefits.
Here’s another example: I had a client once who got a daily Starbucks chai latte on her way to work. Cutting out 200-300 calories of basically pure sugar freed up a lot of room in her “diet” for more nutritious foods and treats.
This doesn’t mean that you cut out everything that brings you joy. Simply reducing the portion and frequency works wonders.
Get on a Regular Schedule
My caveat to this tip is…
“… As much as you possibly can.”
Life isn’t rigid. Life isn’t stationary. Life isn’t linear. So when I’m talking about getting on a regular schedule, I’m not asking you to strictly adhere to a daily schedule of eating.
However, it can really help people “straighten out” their eating to create a repeating daily schedule with predictable, satisfying meals.
This can help eliminate:
- Excess snacking
- Chasing satisfaction after unsatisfying meals
- Nighttime binging
Having a schedule also helps to build awareness of how long you’re waiting to eat between meals. If, previously, you were only waiting 90 minutes before your next “hit” of food, stretching yourself to wait more like 2-5 hours (depending on the meal) can significantly eliminate extra food.
My first two tips helped you to remove excess and restore order. My next two tips are nutrition game changers!
Eat Protein at Every Meal
For most of my clients, I recommend at least 25 grams of protein per meal, and at least 10 grams of protein per snack. If you’re interested in how you can eat more protein without feeling like you’re constantly eating more and more meat, check out this past blog post.
Protein plays several roles in improving body composition:
- It’s highly satiating. Especially when paired with fiber and some healthy fat, protein helps to anchor a meal, make it more filling, and reduce cravings.
- Protein helps to blunt blood sugar spikes and give slower-burning energy, preventing up-and-down crashes.
- It helps to stimulate muscle protein synthesis – the muscle gain process. This means more of your nutrients are being directed toward building muscle, instead of storing fat.
- Protein helps significantly with recovery from exercise, repairing the micro-damage to muscles and helping both you and your muscles adapt to higher levels of stress.
Typically, when people eat at least 25 grams of protein per meal, they can wait longer to eat again. This helps to reduce overall calories consumed each day, which ultimately creates a weight loss trend.
Each meal should have something like meat, fish, tofu, eggs, or lentils to give it that punch of protein. Protein-rich snacks include Greek/Skyr yogurt, eggs, or supplemental protein like powder or bars.
Eat Colorful Vegetables Three Times a Day
This can be a tall order and you may not always hit the goal, but trying usually puts you closer than if you didn’t make an effort.
Colorful vegetables (especially cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens) play several important roles in building a healthier body composition:
- They’re bulky and filling.
- They’re good for digestion and gut health because of their high fiber content.
- They’re packed with micronutrients that are crucial for health – even hormonal health!
And if you’ve been following me online for more than five minutes, you know that I frequently talk about how important gut and hormonal health are for making progress.
Making an effort to “budget in” colorful vegetables three times a day (with at least one of those being a cruciferous vegetable) can radically transform your approach to eating. Maybe you have steamed frozen spinach scrambled into your morning eggs. Then perhaps you pre-bake a bunch of sweet potatoes, and have one with lunch. Finally, you can steam some frozen broccoli for dinner as a side.
Much like protein, vegetables can help to regulate appetite and change our other food choices throughout the day. You’ll find that most nutrition changes that work the best are like this – indirect, but powerful.
By keeping vegetables in your grocery rotation in a realistic way (being smart about what you buy fresh vs. frozen), you can always have veggies in the house to include in your daily meals.
Finally, an incredibly important part of weight loss that MyFitnessPal can never teach you is self-awareness.
Calorie tracking tools, regardless of the app, only invite you to build self-awareness. They create the opportunity, by cultivating an environment in which you’re paying attention.
But they don’t guide you in becoming more aware of things like:
- How you feel when you eat different meals
- How to slooooow down when you know a meal is rich
- How stress and emotions affect your appetite
- What times of day are most difficult for you
- What social situations are the biggest challenge
- The people you overeat around
- How factors like sleep play a role in appetite
- How to sit with discomfort when you want to overeat
These are all skills that play a gigantic role in weight management, because they relate deeply to your relationship with food and your body. Building a stronger, more diverse toolbox of stress management, fun, relaxation, and social strategies can help you focus on making changes that have outsized impact… instead of micro-managing the grams of sugar in skim milk.
Getting into a caloric deficit naturally requires you to stretch a little bit into your discomfort zone. There will be moments when you’re hungrier than you want to be. There will be times when it makes sense to say “no” to something when you want to say “yes.” There will be weekends when you don’t feel like doing anything, but you need to meal prep to be prepared for the week.
When there is already slight discomfort endemic in the process, it’s so important that someone builds self-awareness so that they can cultivate balance and self-care along the way.
I hope these five tips are helpful for you! If they are, share this post and help educate others so that sensible, self-compassionate, and effective weight loss practices will become more mainstream!