We all know that a creme filled doughnut is probably more calorific than an apple. But having a little calorie and macro awareness allows you to figure out how to fit that doughnut into your week without completely eradicating your calorie deficit and delaying your success any longer. By learning to build some calorie awareness, you can learn how to more easily manipulate your food choices. You’ll get more of what you need and a little of what you want.
Food is often seen as good or bad. Healthy or unhealthy. But this is a false dichotomy. Food is just food. It’s all on a spectrum with calorie-dense, low nutrient foods at one end, and less calorie dense, higher nutrient foods at the other.
For health, performance and body composition, the trifecta of nutrition markers, you obviously want to be more towards the latter end of the spectrum most of the time. But food is also about enjoyment, it’s a social thing, at least it was, and it will be again. If your dietary approach causes long term drops in health, performance, body composition or enjoyment, then maybe, you need to rethink that approach.
There are short term goals that you may have that, by nature, have to see an imbalance for you to achieve them. Look at bodybuilders for example, in a prep period for a show. Their diagram is heavily loaded towards the body comp side of things, with performance levels dropping the closer they get to their show. We’re just not designed to maintain such low levels of body fat for long periods. Drops in sex hormones, sleep quality, and more, results from extended low calorie approaches, particularly when they are partnered with training to maintain as much lean mass as possible.
And if you are stuck on a diet that you hate, and that limits your opportunities to enjoy a treat now and again with family or friends, how long will you be able to maintain your approach without some kind of negative effect on your happiness and /or social life? Probably not long. From my experience with clients, an approach like this has to be supported by a very strong reason why. This is usually a health-related issue. Doing it because you want to look a certain way on the beach isn’t going to cut it.
For long term approaches you need to find an approach that ticks all the above boxes and that requires a certain amount of understanding what is in what goes in your face throughout your day.
I have an online client, when she started with me a few months ago she was kinda stuck at about 83kgs, and convinced that there was nothing she could do to change that. My job was to show her how to make progress without having to count calories for ever more.
Step 1 – Find your baseline.
Finding out where you are is the first step in knowing how to get to your goal. With my client Cath, she was happy to track her food intake with MyFitnessPal to let us find out what her calorie and macro intake was like to start with.
But you don’t have to do it this way. If you feel that tracking is too triggering and may cause issues, you can keep a food log, or photograph your meals to give you an estimate of portion size and highlights how much snacking you may be doing.
The point is is that you are collecting data that will inform your next steps.
Step 2 – Make a change.
Chances are over the period of initial tracking, your weight and measurements won’t change much at all. That said, I have seen times where just the act of tracking changes how someone eats. Funnily enough, having to write or track what you eat seems to have an effect on what you choose to eat. At least, it does if you are honest with the process…
So now you know the baseline for maintaining your current weight and measurements, it’s time to implement a deficit. I’ll usually aim for about 400-500kcals per day. This is usually manageable enough and allows the process of weight/fat loss to start. Combined with this deficit we usually look at increasing protein intake to a more optimal range. This helps with maintaining lean mass and limiting hunger due to the satiety that protein provides.
Implementing the calorie deficit and protein target, Cath saw an initial drop in weight and measurements, showing that her stall in progress was simply down to calorie balance. Seeing that initial bit of progress boosted motivation to keep going and stay consistent.
Step 3 – Reduce the number of days you track
The goal with Cath, and with every other client, is not to have them track food forever. The goal is to help them build an ability and trust in that ability to become a more intuitive eater. While you are tracking, you are starting to build up a picture in your head of the types and serving sizes of the foods that are making it easier to see progress and ultimately maintain it.
Each time you do this, you are strengthening your ability to have meals that don’t need to be obsessively logged. When you feel ready, you can drop a couple of days your track and test your newfound ability. But you do so with the safety net of tracking on the rest of the days in the week. I usually suggest that you do this test run on days where you already have a good routine in place and eat similar foods, that way you start with the easiest days first.
As you build more confidence in your ability to eyeball your food and portion sizes, you may choose to reduce the number of days your track by another 1 or 2. For Cath, we started by dropping to 5 days of tracking with 2 “free” days mid-week. Measurements continued to change, proving to her that she could trust her judgement with food choices, boosting her confidence in her newfound calorie awareness.
Step 4 – Begin to eat more intuitively
Over the last 3-4 weeks Cath has transitioned to only tracking 3-4 days per month. Just using it as a check-in system to ensure that she is still on track. Honestly, she could bin tracking calories and macros entirely, but she’s happy to do it occasionally, so we run with it. Progress is still going well and, as we approach her goal measurements, we’ll work to adjust her food intake a little to get out of the deficit and into maintenance. This’ll require that we do a bit more tracking to find her maintenance calorie intake range. Gradually repeat the process of reducing tracking days and becoming more reliant on her intuitive eating skills to proceed.
Now this process is easier for some than others. It requires a level of experimentation and an understanding that the process is a long term one, not one for quick results and a return to what was being done before. There has to be a willingness to change your eating habits. But with practice you can use any tracking or food logging method and repeat the process Cath followed to get her success.