In today’s article, we’ll be covering how to lose weight without tracking calories. But also why tracking calories could be a helpful tool in your weight loss arsenal.
There’s a lot of dogmatic thinking in the health and fitness industry. Please read the article with an open-mind and don’t be afraid to experiment with different strategies to help you lose weight get stronger, and build a body you’re proud of.
Can I lose weight without tracking calories?
Weight loss comes down to being in a calorie deficit over an extended period of time. If you’re not losing weight, you know you need to take in less energy or use more energy.
Energy is measured in calories. If you take in less energy from the calories in food, and or use more energy (burn 🔥) from movement, you can create the calorie deficit needed for weight loss without tracking calories.
So yes, you can lose weight without tracking calories. But tracking calories helps to create more awareness around what and how much you’re eating. It’s sort of like looking at your bank account every day. You don’t need to do it to save more money, but it can be helpful to let you know if what you’re doing is working or not.
On the surface weight loss looks like a simple math equation. But it’s not. Things like metabolic adaptation, sleep, stress, emotion, and our environment can make creating a consistent calorie deficit difficult to do.
What can I do instead of counting or tracking calories?
There are a lot of things you can do to control calorie intake. I’ve covered many of them on the site already.
- Intermittent fasting
- Removing entire foods groups or macronutrients (low carb diets, keto, vegan, low fat, etc…)
- Eating the same foods but eating less of it
- Swapping high calorie-dense foods with lower calorie-dense foods
You can read about the specifics for each in the Getting Started With Nutrition Guide: Setting Up Your Diet. Here are a few other ideas to get you started.
Change your environment
Our food choices are often influenced by what we see, smell, and even who we are with. Research shows that changing your food environment by making lower calorie whole foods easier to get to. And higher-calorie processed foods harder to get to can help you lose weight without tracking calories.
Take the Syracuse Study for example. Which compared the average weight of women who had various foods on their counter versus women who did not have the same foods on their counter.
Foods on the counter and the average increase in weight versus those that did not have the same foods on their counter:
- Breakfast cereal: +21 lbs.
- Crackers or chips: +8 lbs.
- Cookies: +9 lbs
- Soda/cola/pop: +29 lbs.
- Diet soda/cola/pop: +21 lbs.
- Any fruit: -7 lbs.
We’re not just going to set your counter top-up for success, we’re going to take care of the entire kitchen, the fridge, freezer, the utensils and plates you use, and the cupboards.
Justin’s research shows that if a food is in my environment it eventually will be eaten. By performing a kitchen makeover, workplace makeover, and having those tough conversations with the people you spend the most time with, you can set yourself up for success.
Use smaller plates, bowls, and cups.
Maybe we really do eat with our eyes first. By using smaller plates it can appear as if you’re eating more food. Plus, there’s not as much room on a smaller plate.
In an experiment conducted by Brain Wansink and Koert van Ittersum. It was discovered that going from 12-inch plates to 10-inch plates can decrease your calorie intake by 22%. If you normally have a 700 calorie dinner, this subtle change would equal 154 fewer calories consumed. That’s over 56,000 calories in a year.
Preportioned Tupperware is another option here. Each compartment only allows for so much food in it.
- 3 section, 24-ounce glass containers
- 3 section, 32-ounce BPA free plastic containers
- Circular containers
Shop on the outer ring of the grocery store
This is where you find less calorie-dense whole foods. By sticking to the outer ring you can make changing your food environment easier to do.
You’ll now have your home filled with lower calorie whole foods like fruits, veggies, and lean proteins. And less of the higher calorie processed stuff found in boxes and wrappers in the aisles.
Eat out less. Cook more
When you cook at home you control what and how much you eat. When you eat out you do not. Takeaway and restaurant meals also tend to have larger portions and calorie counts than meals you would make for yourself. Casey Neistat created an interesting video for the New York Times about this.
Stick to the basics and keep it simple
Not knowing what to make is a challenge a lot of my clients face. By sticking to the basics you can create meals of awesome that are satisfying, low in calories, and uber-healthy.
- 🍗 Protein
- 🥦 Veggies
- 🍌 Fruit
Keeping your meals to mostly those three things can help keep your calories down without feeling restricted.
Check your ego at the door
On coaching consultations, potential clients always ask me the number one reason someone might fail when working with me. My answer is always the same.
- Not being patient
- Not willing to admit that they may be doing it wrong
If you went to your financial adviser and said, “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m losing money each month.” They would say, it’s because you’re spending more than you’re saving. Even if you think you’re not and decide to argue with your financial advisor. They’d point to the fact that your bank account says otherwise.
Sure, it could be someone stealing your identity or the bank made an error. It could be your hormones or something else. But the odds are it’s not.
Weight loss works like that. If you create a calorie deficit over an extended period of time and are patient you will lose weight. If not, you will not. There’s a very small chance it’s related to anything else.
Admitting we may be doing something wrong is the best thing we can do for ourselves. It opens us up to the possibility to create change.
If you’re convinced you’ve been in a calorie deficit long enough and it may be something else. I shot a short video on 7 reasons you may not be losing weight when you think you should be.
The key is finding something that you feel confident stepping into.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to choose one method and do it forever. Each practice is a tool you have in your arsenal that you can go to at any time.
What is the easiest way to lose weight without dieting or tracking calories?
I’d argue to stop thinking about it as dieting. When most people hear the word diet they think of its verb meaning. “To restrict oneself to small amounts or special foods to lose weight.” With this mindset, diets become difficult, tedious, and fucking annoying.
There’s another way to look at it. A more common sense but often overlooked definition. “The kinds of foods that a person, animal, or community eats to sustain themselves.”
The word diet simply refers to what you eat. Essentially, you’re always dieting.
There isn’t a universal easy way to lose weight without dieting. The only way to lose weight is to create a consistent calorie deficit over an extended period of time. Some methods will feel easy for some. Some will feel hard. It’s important for you to find a method that works well for you.
A few of my clients prefer to track calories. Others like to work on habits and practices. There are some that do a combination of both.
Eventually, all of them get to a point where they’ve learned so much about food, their eating habits, and how to adjust that they no longer have a method. Instead, they’ve built enough awareness and strong habits that help them lose, gain, or maintain weight as needed.
However, there are some things that make the process easier.
- Setting up your environment to help you succeed
- Scheduled eating
- Uniform eating
- Cooking more at home and eating out less
You can dive deeper into each of these with the Getting Started Guide For Improving Your Nutrition.
Should I count or track calories or just ‘eat healthy’
There’s a miss conception that ‘eating healthy’ alone will help you lose weight. Without a calorie deficit eating healthy alone won’t help you do that. But choosing ‘healthier’ and lower calorie-dense foods more often can make the process easier.
Clean eating and eating healthy don’t really mean anything. They’re arbitrary names that help us to make sense of something. People don’t like uncertainty and giving things names like this helps to decrease uncomfortable feelings around it.
The issue with trying to define clean eating and healthy eating is that it will vary based on who you ask. Some of you might consider brown rice clean or healthy eating and white rice not. You may consider 93/7 ground beef clean or healthy eating and 80/20 not.
Vegans will have their own definition of clean or healthy eating. Paleo followers will have another. The Keto crew will define it differently as well.
My point is that it’s hard to assign facts to clean or healthy eating. Spend some time asking yourself what eating healthier looks like for you.
Learn more about eating healthy here. And why eating clean alone may not get you the results you’re after.
Is counting or tracking calories a waste of time?
Clickbait articles will tell you that it is. I will be honest and tell you that it is not.
Tracking calories is like training wheels on a bike. When you weigh portions, read labels, and track what you’re eating you create tremendous awareness around how much and what you’re consuming.
Awareness is key.
We’re terrible at estimating how much we’re eating. Tracking calories can open the door for heightened awareness around this.
Tracking calories can be a waste of time if you do it wrong. Some common mistakes I see.
- Choosing the wrong item in your tracking app
- Not weighing foods correctly
- Not being consistent enough with it
- Forgetting or feeling like certain things don’t need to be tracked (bites, licks, nibbles, tastes, snacks, drinks, etc…)
Tracking calories also has its limitations. It doesn’t help with appetite and hunger awareness. Both are important aspects of creating a healthy diet, relationship with foods, and are helpful with weight loss.
It’s also not entirely accurate.
Calorie counts of food labels and nutrition databases vary. Food companies may use any of 5 different methods to estimates calories, and the FDA permits inaccuracies up to 20%. 150 calories actually mean 130-180 calories.
Restaurants also often mislabel the calorie contents of items and it will change from place to place depending on how it is made.
You don’t absorb every calorie. Some calories pass through us undigested. Scientists have been using this to create calorie counts for only what we absorb. For example, there are 5.65 calories per gram of protein. We don’t absorb 1.65 calories of that. Thus, we get 4 calories per gram of protein. You can see how this plays out in specific foods as well.
Cooking methods influence the calories of food and how your body absorbs them.
Our individual gut health and bacteria can influence the calories we absorb. If you struggle with Chrons Disease, you may already be aware of this.
Human beings are terrible at estimating calories. Weighing portions can help with this.
No method is perfect. But the method also doesn’t need to be to help you. When you track, it acts as a target, and with a target, it’s much easier to aim and adjust.
Not so great advice from people that tell you not to track calories
Listen to your body they say. Eat when you’re hungry they say.
Most of the clients I have worked with have lost sense of that. They don’t know how to listen to their body or eat when they’re hungry. Many of them feel hungry all the fucking time and it’s frustrating for them.
Instead, try this to help you get back in-tune with those things.
Improve meal composition (and eat at scheduled meal times). Meals that are made up of mostly whole foods like lean protein, veggies and fruit regulate appetite and promote feelings of satiation better than processed meals do. Protein, in particular, is extremely satiating and also has a thermogenic effect when you eat it (1) (2) (3) (4)
Use the H.A.L.T-B strategy. Before eating ask yourself if you’re physically hungry or angry, lonely, tired, or bored. We often eat out of emotion or feeling. By slowing down and checking in we can start to identify patterns around this.
Change your environment. We’ve already discussed this so I won’t bore you with it again. But look around, is your environment influencing your appetite. Is there a delicious looking, sweet-smelling, cinnamon bun sitting on the counter?
Should I track calories or not? My advice.
I do not currently track calories. But I did spend years tracking calories on and off. It taught me so much about food and portion sizes.
Most people should spend some time weighing portions and tracking calories. If you want a specific time frame, 2 to 4 weeks. It’s a great way to learn more about what and how much you’re eating.
If you’re adamant about not tracking calories, or it gives you anxiety I recommended first diving deeper into why it does. Does looking at your bank account give you anxiety? Do other similar things give you anxiety? Is there guilt and shame that comes up when you have to track certain things?
If that doesn’t help, create more calorie awareness by reading labels, using a food journal, and learning more about the food you’re eating.
Keep in mind that when you lean into the difficult thing more often, it becomes easier to do. If tracking calories is something you want to try. I shot a short video that shows you how to front-load some of the work so you can make the process easier.
Gratitude: Precision Nutrition and the infographic they put together on calories in, calories out.