In the fitness and health community I get really tired of people spouting “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.” Losing weight can be that simple, but it can also be much more complicated. For example, how do we monitor those calories accurately? What do we do when it’s not safe to decrease calories any lower? And how do we steer people away from an obsessive, calorie-tracking lifestyle so as to avoid disordered eating?
While your body may treat most calories the same in terms of utilizing them for energy, there are many sensitive factors at play that can affect your weight loss that don’t have to do with calories. You do need to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat, but fewer calories does not always equate to more pounds lost due to factors like stress hormones, training intensity and more.
The truth is that there is still so much we don’t fully understand about the body’s biochemistry. To say that weight loss is as straightforward as maintaining a calorie deficit is a gross oversimplification of the body’s complex mechanisms. Based on varying metabolic and lifestyle factors, one person’s body will treat a calorie much differently than the next person. However, this simplistic concept is much easier to package as a diet plan than taking into account the number of holistic factors that contribute to fat loss or fat gain.
In essence, yes, if you eat less, you will burn through your fat stores and in our modern culture, many people out there are indeed consuming many more calories than they will utilize (for exercise or daily activity), but eating the right amount to support a sedentary versus active versus athletic lifestyle will look very different. Eating the right amount based on your gender, age, medical history or goals means that there is no one-size-fits-all weight loss approach.
Thus enters the major difficulty as a health professional trying to teach you how to lose weight safely and keep it off without crash dieting or starving yourself.
Lasting and safe weight loss results come from re-framing your mindset about what dieting means and investing the time to learn strategies to aid you in losing body fat. In my observations, though, many people are looking solely for that quick fix diet plan and aren’t aware of just how much time and emotional energy it requires to fundamentally change your nutrition habits.
We have been developing bad nutritional habits for our whole lives and when undertaking the journey of fixing those habits, we experience frequent roadblocks (both physical and emotional) that lead us to question, doubt and derail our progress forward. We see weight loss progress and we feel great about ourselves. That progress stalls or backtracks and we hate ourselves and decide there’s no point in trying.
Every time we try a new fad diet that doesn’t work, we tell ourselves that there must be something wrong with us. It’s our genetics. We can’t lose weight. We’ve tried everything. If you are ready to break this cycle, it can be valuable to have an honest conversation with yourself about the excuses you’ve been making about why you haven’t been seeing results. It is undoubtedly a hard, hard road to travel and anyone who says otherwise has probably never truly walked that road.
You can liberate yourself from this vicious cycle of crash dieting by integrating this one truth: progress with weight loss takes a very long period of time with consistent effort and constant hard work.
Don’t despair! I’d like to simplify things for you and give you some basic strategies for how to lose weight without obsessing over calories.
Simply stated, fat loss happens when you use more calories than you take in. The little daily movements we make that we don’t technically call “exercise” make up a large portion of our basal metabolic rate. Fidgeting in your desk chair, walking the dog, taking the stairs, chasing your kids, carrying groceries, and the steps counted on your fitness tracker...all of this is classified as NEAT - Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This means that you are using energy and burning calories just by moving around.
Funnily enough, when we are tired or depleted, these are the activities that drop off quickly. If you are exhausted, you are less likely to be fidgeting or voluntarily walking your dog (another reason it’s important to get enough sleep and not eat too little). Going out of your way to increase NEAT is a sure-fire way to build more of a daily caloric deficit - which means that you are using more energy than you are taking in, thus requiring stored body fat for extra fuel.
Try these activities to increase your NEAT
Today’s culture dictates that food is always readily available. Billboards and radio advertisements are telling you what to eat and drink. The subtle suggestion of french fries or a frappuccino can often be enough to make us grab the keys and head out to the nearest drive-thru. How often are you eating because you are honest-to-god hungry and not just because the clock said it was time to eat?
Your body is highly intelligent. It produces hormones that tell you that you’re hungry, or that you are satiated. If your energy tanks are low, you won’t be able to think straight through that afternoon meeting or your squats won’t feel strong that evening in the gym. Learning to listen to those cues will begin to open you up to how much food you truly need to function at an optimal level throughout the day.
It's sad to acknowledge, but I believe that many of us are so completely out of tune with our body needs because we have been ignoring its signals for so many years. You may fall into the category of people who never eat enough and yet, you're sitting here reading this thinking that you need to feel hungrier if you want to lose weight. That's why it's important to learn to observe the clues our body sends us throughout the day: how is my energy, am I tired all the time, how do I feel during training?
Our busy schedules and constant over-stimulation makes it hard to turn down the noise enough to actually hear what our bodies are telling us. It might be a difficult task for you to begin listening more closely to these signals. And just because your stomach growls a little does not mean you need to eat immediately. Try sitting with the feeling for fifteen minutes and discern whether you are actually hungry, maybe you need to hydrate, or perhaps you only want to eat.
The process of losing weight can cause some confusion in this department because you will sometimes need to feel hungry in order to be burning fat. Now, I’m not telling you to go hungry constantly, but rather to learn to sit for a little while with this uncomfortable feeling. Remember that it is your choice to be here in this process and that a little hunger never hurt anyone. And just think about how delicious that meal will taste is you are truly hungry when you eat.
Listening to your body’s cues, you can also recognize when you are approaching fullness. Now, I know we are all familiar with that feeling of sitting back after a Thanksgiving feast and un-doing that top bottom of our jeans. We have all, at one point or another, eaten way past fullness, ignoring the fact that our body was screaming “stop shoving food in me!”
Maybe our mother’s voice still rings in our head, saying “clear your plate” at dinnertime. When there is a plate of food in front of us, we are more likely to finish it either because we don’t want to be wasteful, or just because it’s there. When restaurant portion sizes are massive, we love that we are getting great bang for our buck.
I’m not saying you can’t indulge in the occasional holiday, but if your goal is weight loss, learning to eat to about 80% full and no more is one of the most effective ways to decrease your calorie intake without actually counting those calories.
One of the most efficient ways to learn to recognize when fullness is approaching is to eat more slowly.
As you chew more slowly, you become very in tune with the quality of food you are eating and how it is fueling you with energy. Again, our modern culture has us eating meals on the go, in our cars, in between meetings or while we warm-up at the gym. I know I am guilty of eating nuts or trail mix a handful at a time rather than one morsel at a time. Once in a while, I will stop to study one individual almond and consider how much energy is packed into that tiny kernel.
Slowing down can make you appreciate the energy value of the food you are eating and how it is giving your body exactly what it needs, and no more. Eating in front of the TV, you are paying more attention to the screen than the taste of your food. Have you ever sat alone and quietly with no secondary activity (reading, scrolling on your phone) during a meal? If so, I bet you ate a little slower, ate a little less and digested more efficiently.
Eating slower and staying focused on your task of eating lets you listen to your satiety cues to develop a keener sense of your body’s needs. Without distraction, you will easily be able to hear when your body says “stop eating, we’re good,” or “feed me a little more please.”
If weight loss is your goal, there are certain foods you probably know you ought not to be eating. Foods like soda, candy or beer serve no nutritional purpose in your body. They are devoid of the nutrients and building blocks that lead to an overall healthy body...hence empty calories.
The sugar in soda, for example, may give you carbohydrates and therefore a surge of energy, but that energy could have otherwise been taken from your body fat stores (fat loss) or gotten from a carbohydrate with valuable micronutrients and fiber (sweet potato, apple).
What need are you trying to fulfill by reaching for a soda (even a diet soda)? It might be that you’re actually thirsty, or tired. Candy? Again, maybe you are tired and your body is subconsciously seeking a quick burst of energy to fight fatigue. It could also be that you are filling an emotional need and looking to a tasty treat to do so.
If you’re going to snack between meals, reach instead for more satiating snacks high in protein. Protein by nature will keep you full longer than a carbohydrate snack and will give you the great building blocks for building or repairing muscle tissue. In my opinion, one of the most difficult habits to master is this: every time you consume calories, it should be for the purpose of supporting your strong, healthy body.
I’m sure you’ve heard the terms “emotional eating” or “stress eating.” Oftentimes when we eat (and aren’t truly hungry) it is to satisfy a temporary, emotional need like stress or boredom. Have you ever mindlessly opened the fridge, looking for the right snack, then closed it again, when in reality you are just looking for something to do? It’s almost like a nervous tick. Each time you open that fridge door, you imagine you’ll find what you’re looking for, except what you’re looking for doesn’t exist in fridges.
Next time you reach for a snack, ask yourself if you want it because you are actually hungry? Are you...
HALT in your tracks and examine your behavior. This type of diet strategy involves a fair amount of self-reflection, honesty and self-accountability. If you are being honest with yourself, I would bet that a large percentage of the time, you aren’t really hungry. And if you aren’t hungry, find a different activity that will satisfy your needs. Try going for a walk, calling a friend, journaling your thoughts, doing a puzzle, or getting involved in some other mentally stimulating activity.
Sometimes I will be digging around in the back in my pantry and find something really good that I forgot I had, like a bar of dark chocolate or pancake mix. And I never ever think about pancakes, but I’ll be damned if every time I see that bag of pancake mix, I must make pancakes immediately regardless of whether or not I’m hungry. The power of suggestion. (And by the way, who ever makes only one serving of pancakes?)
If you do the grocery shopping you have control over what goes into your house. If you know a food item is troublesome for you, simply don’t buy it. However, a lot of people tell me that they can’t not have certain foods in the house because their kids, roommates or husbands want those things. Understandable. The way to solve this concern is to keep those foods out of direct eyesight. I swear, if our body has to work even a little harder for something, that moment of consideration can make the difference between indulging versus saying no.
Stash ice cream in the back of the freezer, peanut butter in the back of the fridge and sugary cereal or chips in the pantry with the door closed. If you never see it in the first place, you won’t even miss it. Stock your counters and the front of your fridge with more nutritious and weight loss friendly foods like apples, carrot sticks, cold cuts, yogurt, beef jerky, or rather foods that require some preparation like potatoes or rice.
Be in control of your own space. You own the food. The food does not own you.
Eating a little meal that is truly delicious is often more satisfying than, say, a cheap buffet full of sub-par food. And if it’s anything but delicious, then you don’t have to finish it just because it’s on your plate. Adopting this mentality will also give you more awareness of the preparation of your food. I have experienced the dieting phenomenon called “food fatigue” where food becomes a series of caloric and macronutrient values. I would fall into a routine, eating the same foods all the time and soon the idea of eating became a chore.
Keep your food interesting and exciting, using new spices, or a vegetable or cut of meat you’ve never tried. This doesn’t mean you have to seek out complex 2-dozen ingredient recipes...only that you don’t have to eat bland chicken breast and unsalted broccoli. Eating to lose weight can be difficult enough without eating boring, bland food.
When you view something as decadent, you’re more likely to savor each bite rather than gobble it up mindlessly (think a luscious chocolate cake from an expensive restaurant versus Entemann’s chocolate cake from the convenience store).
You’re binge-watching Stranger Things before bed on a Wednesday night and look down at your lap only to realize you have also binge-eaten an entire bag of popcorn by yourself. Nighttime tends to be when we are most tired and are most vulnerable to mindless munching.
An easy and effective way to decrease your overall calories is to stop eating after dinner. Otherwise, give yourself a cutoff time like 7:00 or 8:00pm. If you have eaten a proper dinner, you don’t need more calories anyway. You’ll be going to bed soon and won’t need to surge of calories from sugary and high-carb snacks. The bonus here is that not eating 2-3 hours before bedtime can improve your sleep.
Ever hear of intermittent fasting? Well, this is a very straightforward form of IF. By shortening your eating window and cutting it off at a certain time of night, you will effectively decrease your daily caloric intake and get the additional health benefits of intermittent fasting (of which there are many).
Thirst is often misinterpreted as hunger. If you think you are feeling hunger, try drinking a large glass of water. Sit with this for ten minutes and see if you still feel hunger. Most of us operate on some level of chronic dehydration. While I don’t necessarily abide by the “8 glasses a day” rule, I keep an eye on the color of my urine. Your pee should be light yellow rather than dark yellow or brown. I would also argue that it shouldn't be clear with you making a trip to the bathroom once an hour since this could indicate you are flushing your electrolytes.
Learning to integrate these intuitive eating habits can be difficult, but our bodies are constantly giving us signals about the state of our health. The color of your urine, or the consistency of your BMs can tell quite a story about your wellbeing. Free your mind from blindly following a set of diet guidelines, and learn to observe what works best for you.
Now listen, friends - this is a lot of information and many habits to try and take on all at one. The brain can only handle so much new information at once. Have you ever started a new job? Remember how overwhelming it is when you have to: learn a new driving route to work, meet new people, learn new computer systems, etc. You are essentially creating an entirely new daily routine all at once and the stress is powerful.
So, give your brain and body a little helping hand and only tackle one to three of these strategies at a time. Get really good at these habits and let them fully integrate into your routine. You will begin to see the benefits and once you have a great handle, if you still aren’t seeing your ideal results, then add another one or two strategies.
The idea here is not to overhaul your life, but rather slowly and consistently build habits that will allow you to thrive and become so ingrained in your life that you forget they were once brand new.