Before I get too far into this week’s post, let me get the simplified answer to this question out first: Calories are king. They determine if your weight is trending up, trending flat or trending down.
There is nuance to that statement, as minor deviations in how we eat can cause the scale to respond in somewhat unpredictable ways.
You may have heard that fat loss is not linear and even if you feel like you’re doing the right things to cause fat loss to occur, it can be helpful to track your scale weight via spreadsheet or a handy health app on your phone to see those numbers as data points. Remember that you’re mostly looking for trends over time.
For instance, let’s say you’ve chosen to weigh yourself once a week. One strategy would be to pick a mid-week weigh in, first thing in the morning after you pee and in your birthday suit. If you chart this number over several weeks, you may see that the weight is gradually moving down with the occasional small spikes up. This is normal (assuming that you are eating relative to your goals and are staying active).
In this week’s post, I wanted to highlight a host of factors relating to both quantity and quality of food intake that can help you succeed with fat loss. Every individual trying to lose fat mass is bringing a different set of social, psychological and physical obstacles to the table which is why there is no one-size-fits-all method for success.
Let’s attack quantity first:
If you want the most accurate methods of determining how much you’re eating, the skill that matters most is how you’re measuring food intake. This can be done in a variety of ways. You can work with the labels and serving sizes on the foods you eat and calculate your totals. In other words, if you’re eating a single serving of Greek yogurt, you might find that the label says 150 calories per serving. If one container is one serving, this can be an accurate way of adding up your calories in a given day. Be aware that food labels do NOT have to be 100% accurate and small discrepancies can occur. However, let’s assume you’re trying to hit a calorie goal of 1800 calories a day to lose weight. You can use your phone to take pictures of what you eat in a day or simply notate what each label says and add up your daily totals. This is where pre-packaged foods can be helpful because the numbers should at least be close if listed on the labels and the food manufacturer has done some of the work for you.
You can also elect to use measuring spoons and cups. Again, this is not a perfect estimation of calories. Depending on the food, a serving size by cup or spoon may not equate to the weight of a given food and you may find yourself over or under in calories because the weight of a food has not been determined. Foods that are easy to overeat like nut butters or added oils can be closer to accurately tracked when they’re leveled and measured against a measuring spoon. Too many dieters slip themselves up with calorie control when they opt to eyeball their food intake.
The most accurate (and the most time-consuming) method for measuring is weighing your food. Digital food scales should suffice and are not expensive. Be aware that, when consuming meats, you’ll want to weigh your food raw and not cooked, as the weight will change after a meat has been cooked.
As any degree of measurement is going to arguably be the most time consuming effort, many dieters won’t take the steps to do so OR they may not be mentally ready to try or stay consistent with it.
What else can work?
I touched on this in the previous point but due to the wonders of technology, you have several different ways to track your food intake. You can use pen and paper, a tracking app (MyFitnessPal, Lose It, MyPlate, etc.) or you can just take pictures of everything you eat and drink (except water). Caution should be given to not track at the end of the day. You are more likely to forget what you consumed especially if you have a tendency to graze or snack frequently. Approach this tactic with candor, as many dieters will not track things they believe “don’t count”. However, every bite, nibble, and handful counts and while it may not matter as much to the individuals who have more calories to play with, it can be the death knell to those who have lower calorie totals to shoot for.
I also need to state that food tracking apps, while helpful, can also be fraught with errors. To minimize those errors, you will have closer to accurate numbers with “verified” options. Be aware that, in many cases, knowing the measured size of a food may still be necessary. For instance, you could go through a McDonald’s drive-thru and order a Big Mac which is made the exact same way in every location in the continental U.S. When you try to track that Big Mac in the tracking app, you should find that the option is identical to what the McDonald’s menu says. However, if you were to construct a similar burger with your own food at home, the size/type of the bun, type of cheese, condiments, and the size of the burger patty could differ dramatically and end up with a much higher or lower calorie total. This is where measuring can be very eye-opening (and equally frustrating if your eyes betrayed you).
While not perfect (nothing is), food tracking can provide some insight to help you reduce what you eat in the span of the day by helping you be more mindful of intake.
I love this tactic, even though, like anything, it can be problematic. Let’s say you want to track your food but you’re not entirely sure how to reduce intake without counting calories. One of my newer clients has been seeing success with this strategy. I had him take a picture of everything he ate in the span of one day. To his benefit, he did so accurately and, due to the nature of his busy job, he ate pre-packaged foods and drinks. This allowed us to see how many calories and macronutrients were in each of his food selections. While we could certainly argue whether he was making “healthy” choices, it appeared he was having far too many “feedings” in one day.
To clarify, I use the term “feeding” for any time you’re consuming a meal or snack that has calories in it.
In his case, he had 9 feedings in one day. This was all meals, all snacks, and all drinks that had calories in them. I told him to reduce his feedings from 9 to 6 and see what the scale said after a week’s worth of efforts.
The downside to this, is that you can reduce the frequency of feedings BUT you could increase the size of the remaining feedings. If you’re trying to stay in an intake deficit, the other feedings have to remain basically the same size if fat loss is the goal.
Many of us have a very skewed idea of what an appropriate serving of food looks like. We can thank the restaurants we frequent for part of this problem. While many chain restaurants have started to post the calorie totals of their food options, this is less likely to be available for mom-and-pop restaurants. As a result, we really have no idea how many calories are in the lasagna from the local Italian place versus a chain like Olive Garden (sadly, both options are still going to be too much food for the average person trying to lose weight).
If you’d like a sobering look at what an appropriate size of say, pasta, might be, try checking out the frozen dinner section of your grocery store. Pick up a 500 calorie (or so) TV dinner and compare that size against what Olive Garden might give you. Restaurants frequently serve 2-3x an appropriate portion for a fat loss individual. While I would love to give you a blanket recommendation like: just eat at home instead of from restaurants and you’re guaranteed to lose weight! The pandemic was a glaring snapshot of how inaccurate that advice might be. Even when many of us were eating at home and preparing our own meals, we were still finding ways to overconsume (as evidenced by what many called, gaining the “COVID-19 pounds!”)
With fat loss as the goal, look at portion sizes of your typical servings and try dialing them down, this could include eating on smaller plates than normal, not having seconds or simply reducing the size of what you would “normally” eat.
My last point on quantity control is one that is a bit more divisive of a topic. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that both carbs and fat have been under fire for the rise in obesity. Low carb dieting has been around for eons and, there is still nothing really new under the sun when it comes to diet strategies. However, carbs hold water and they contribute to what many experience when they go from their “standard way of eating” which likely led to their weight gain to begin with, and flip to a low carb style of dieting.
Assume you’re currently consuming a diet that is 60% carbohydrate intake (which is not uncommon in the U.S.) and you feel that carbs are to blame for your weight gain. You elect to drop your carb intake significantly which (at least in the short term) A) reduces your calorie intake B) removes the macronutrient that holds the most water.
This tactic contributes to short term weight loss that might be upwards of 5, 10 or more pounds of scale weight that you see. Much of this is what people call “water weight” and that rate of loss will not continue indefinitely. Ultimately, the body will stabilize with this new norm of carb intake and calories may streamline to a new normal as well. Unless you significantly increase calories from fat or protein, your weight of loss will be slower than it was initially when you made that dramatic carb shift.
Reducing carbohydrates is certainly one way to reduce total calories assuming you don’t make up that deficit with any other food options. Remember that the body still has to be in an energy deficit to continue with fat loss. If you wildly swing carb intake on a daily or weekly basis, you can get a false read on the scale that may make you think you’ve “gained fat” when actually you’ve “gained water weight”. To minimize the effects of this, try and keep carbohydrate intake roughly the same when dieting. You may want to have slightly higher intake on more active days and slightly less on more sedentary days.
While not exhaustive, the points you read above all contribute to how we view and react to the quantity of food that we eat. Any of those points can be utilized for fat loss success but what if quantity is not where you feel you can place your direct focus.
Does food quality matter?
Part of what I’m writing here is evidence-based and part is anecdotal. Please consider the observational mentions and take them with a grain of salt (pun intended). We live in a day and age where many people have legitimate, diagnosed food allergies. As such, a person with celiac disease (for instance) may not be able to consume gluten without becoming ill. Their diet has to reflect no consumption of gluten but caution should also be given that some “gluten-free” products can be higher in calorie than the options with gluten in them.
My wife has been lactose intolerant all of her life, however, when we started dating about twelve years ago, she could consume cheese with no ill effect, small, infrequent servings of ice cream or yogurt, cottage cheese and butter. This was likely due to the fact that those dairy options were manufactured in ways that the enzymes presented little negative effect in her body. Over the last several months, she has noticed more severe reactions to dairy. We have had to remove butter, ice cream, cheese, milk, etc. completely or she is bent over in pain within an hour of consuming those foods. She can have very small servings of Greek yogurt and some whey proteins but that’s it. She not only had to consider food intolerance of lactose containing foods but also the consideration that anything beyond a certain serving size could also make her ill. As a result, removing those foods from her diet has contributed to a reduction in total caloric intake for her.
It stands to reason that if you are (or develop) an allergic/adverse reaction to a food, paying attention to food selection can stand to benefit you with goals of fat loss. Touching on a point I made above, if you remove a food or food group from the diet, replacing it with more of something else runs the potential of taking you out of an energy deficit which will stall your fat loss progress.
A last point I’ll mention is a personal one on this note. Several years ago, I went to the grocery store and bought a regular loaf of whole wheat bread. I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich the next day and within an hour or so of eating it, I felt unusually tired. I wasn’t entirely sure why. The next day, I made another PB&J sandwich with the same ingredients and had the same effects. I had never had an issue consuming breads before and was not sure what the issue was. Rather than assuming I had developed a gluten intolerance, I decided to purchase a sprouted grain bread (like Ezekiel) and tried that for my PB&J sandwich. The problem did not occur. Since then, I have tried to focus on sprouted grain or organic breads for sandwiches. I don’t want to give any more weight to that than what is necessary. Only that I’m glad I didn’t throw the “baby out with the bathwater” by making a hasty assumption that all gluten would make me tired.
This is a tricky one. After well over a decade of coaching the diets of my clients, I feel we’re never going to get away from the concept that the determining factor of fat loss success comes from our emotions regarding food.
For example, one person may have been raised to associate sweet, hyper-palatable foods with love. They were raised in a family where someone would make cookies, pies, and cakes as a showing of love in the household. As a result, when the same person grows up, they indulge in cookies, pies and cakes to “feel loved”. However, these foods are tremendously difficult to moderate and control in reasonable portions. It stands to reason, that if we’re easily stressed, feeling over-worked, otherwise neglected in life, in the shoes of this individual we would turn to sweets to fill the void. Can you see where this would be problematic with fat loss?
Learning how to show love or create feelings of self-love for ourselves that aren’t reflected in food choice can be a huge win. Determine what other areas of your life can make you feel good that don’t have a calorie attached to them. Maybe it’s a bubble bath, a pedicure, a massage or a hike.
Also related would be the feelings surrounding food virtues and shoving food into categories of “good” vs. “bad” and “healthy” vs. “unhealthy”. When we give food these definitions, we encourage self-shaming and self-sabotage around them. I’ve seen just as many clients screw themselves by (over)eating healthy nuts and organic foods as I have clients who have done the same kind of damage by (over)eating “junk” foods like pizza, French fries and ice cream. The “poison is in the dose” as they say, and too much is still too much.
When we can remove the negative or counterproductive emotions from our food choices, we can learn to incorporate the foods and the sizes that work most appropriately for our lives and our dietary preferences.
This is another subjective measurement of how to consider food relative to fat loss goals and make better decisions accordingly.
Take note of how certain foods make you feel. As I noted in my personal anecdote above, a certain type of bread made me feel lethargic and bloated. Most people don’t go out of their way to have those feelings.
When you look at how certain foods make you feel: groggy, bloated, cranky, or otherwise unsatisfying, make a list and start to remove or significantly reduce the occurrence of those foods in the diet. For one person, this might be pizza and for another person, it might be alcohol. Pay attention to the signals your body gives you when you consume certain foods and drinks and learn to reduce those options because they don’t make you feel better after you eat them.
Not every person will associate with these feelings and this is okay as well. Some people are just more sensitive to certain foods and combinations of foods than others and by learning and adhering to this process of elimination, they can also see fat loss success.
The Case Against Processed Foods?
I wish it wasn’t this way but certain foods are “custom built” for overconsumption. Think about foods like chips, crackers, dips, condiments, sweets and any other savory combinations. There’s a reason why these types of foods can be eaten easily, quickly, and in large amounts without our bodies ever really registering a sense of fullness and satiety. This is why you’ll frequently hear coaches and dietitians advocate for whole, minimally processed foods where applicable.
Consuming a baked potato with a little bit of salt and pepper for seasoning is going to have a much different effect than a container of French fries which were also seasoned with salt and pepper. Of course, let’s assume that calories have been matched for both: you have a measured baked potato that comes out to 300 calories and 300 calories worth of French fries. Which do you believe would be more satisfying and which one would leave you more hungry?
While it would be unrealistic to assume that you’ll never eat processed foods again, you may have to develop more self-awareness of what foods you easily overeat in comparison with foods you don’t overdo it with. This is another area where the focus on food quality can be helpful in moderating overall food consumption.
Other Determining Factors
Taking all of these concepts of food quantity and food quality into consideration, I’d be remiss by not mentioning other areas of your life which can directly influence how much you eat and your choice of foods.
–Sleep: There’s a strong correlation between lack of sleep and poor food choices the day after. We might be more inclined to increase sugary caffeinated drinks, high sugar/high salt foods, and an increase in portion sizes because we’re too tired to self-regulate what we’re eating. If you focus on better sleep hygiene, predictable sleep patterns, and more restful sleep, your food intake may improve by default.
–Stress: If you identify as someone who reacts to stress (of any nature) by turning to food, it can be helpful to explore new coping mechanisms. If every week of your life is associated with high stress and you’re not succeeding with fat loss, chances are, food is the only (or major) solution for handling that stress. As a result, you have the stress of your current lifestyle factors PLUS the stress of not succeeding at fat loss compounding each other. I don’t know about you but this sounds like a recipe for disaster. Recognize other areas of your life that bring you happiness or reduce stress that aren’t associated with food intake to disrupt this behavioral pattern.
–Chronic, Intense Exercise: For all the amazing benefits of exercise for the body, I have to mention that while “some is good”, “more” is not necessarily better. The more exercise we do OR the more intensely we train, the greater potential we have of driving up our hunger signals. We also run the risk of rewarding ourselves with extra food because we worked hard and we feel like we deserve the extra calories. This is frequently a losing proposition. Do exercise that makes you feel good, refreshed and leaves you with something in the tank. If you find that exercise makes you ravenous you may actually be doing more harm than good when it comes to aligning with your fat loss goals.
When people say that losing weight is “simple, not easy”, you have a lot of areas in your life to consider that make that statement ring true. It’s never as “simple” as calories in, calories out even though the math (done appropriately) works out over time. Use this article as a reference when you feel that not everything is as dialed in as it could be and revisit areas that may need closer attention.
Pictured below: Twinkies and Bananas. Do you focus on quality or quantity (or both)?