Calorie counting. Macro ratios. Portion Control. Calorie cycling. Does it ever seem like there are both too many ways to eat, and also never quite the right one for you?
There are definitely many ways to eat food in a healthy way. The more precise you need the outcome to be, the more precise your method needs to be.
But what also matters is the way you think, what makes you happiest, and what keeps you on track the best. What do I mean by that? Let’s take a look at some of these:
If you love numbers, or really need to get a handle on how many calories you’re eating in a day (or averaged over a few days), then you need to count calories. Every morsel of food that goes into your mouth, from the oil you cook in to the last handful of nuts you sneak in before bed, needs to be counted. Sometimes you simply need to know where you are, so you can make more objective or rational changes.
For many, that might be perfectly fine. For others, that’s monotonous. But for some, this can lead to an unhealthy obsession with food, feeling like you must track everything you eat, becoming laser-focused on saving calories for now so you can have more calories later, not eating breakfast today so you can binge on pizza at lunch. With calorie counting, there is no relationship to the quality of food being eaten, and truth be told, a calorie isn’t a calorie when it comes to what your body does with it.
The amazingly wonderful blog 100 Days of Real Food did a blog post on this last year. Lisa Leake, the owner/author of the blog, reviewed a book which journaled food blogger Andie Mitchell’s relationship with food, and how calorie counting to lose weight led to an “overly obsessive tracking of numbers which eventually took the joy out of eating”.
That definitely doesn’t happen to everyone. You might find this is the easiest way to keep on target, and honestly, some people just like numbers.
In reality, this is just another form of counting calories. Protein, carbohydrates, fat, they all have calories per gram: protein has 4, carbs have 4, and fats have 9. Whatever macro breakdown you are working on, whether it’s 50/30/20, or 40/40/20, or even 60/30/10 if maybe you’re stripping fat for a competition, you can get a general idea of how much you’re eating by calculating calories for each macro in your food. It’s not exact, obviously, but it does get you close. Not only does this require you to know how many calories are in the food, it also requires you to know how many grams of each macro are included.
Knowing your current macro ratio in the food you eat can be important in helping determine what sort of breakdown works best for your body type and/or the exercise routine you’re currently doing. Like total calories, it is sometimes easier to make a change once you know exactly what you’re currently doing. You don’t HAVE to do ratios, you can look at the straight number of grams and alter from there. For example, there are some fairly well researched studies showing how many grams of protein are generally optimal for various endeavors, so if you know you should be eating in the range of 1 gram per pound of body weight, that’s easy enough to figure out without looking at the ratio of protein to the rest of the diet. But knowing the ratio can still be beneficial.
This too can lead to an obsession with your food. You might become laser-focused on never, ever eating more than 30 grams of fat, and you might start pulling hair if your protein intake for the day was 125 grams and not 127. But if you’re quite alright with 125 grams of protein today, then this could be good for you.
This is the method of eating that I personally prefer. Portions can be eyeballed pretty easily once you learn what “a serving” is – a serving of lean protein, a serving of vegetables, a serving of fruit or carbs, and a serving of healthy fats. You even have your portion control system with you all the time – your hand!
The size of your hand is roughly related to your size. Men tend to have bigger hands than women, larger women have bigger hands than smaller women, and so on. Convenient!
- The size of your palm is about how big a serving of lean protein is – your palm, not all your fingers too.
- Your fist is about the size of your serving of vegetables.
- Cup your hand, like you’re trying to hold water in it, and that’s the size of a serving of fruit or carbs.
- Your thumb represents the size of a serving of health fats for you
See how easy that is? Eyeballing portions at restaurants is faster than trying to figure out calories. How many servings of each of those you should eat in a day, or at a meal, depends on whether you’re a man or woman, and then you have to play with that if you’ve got serious goals like major muscle gain, or if you’re stripping fat for a bikini competition. But in general, it’s man vs woman.
Assuming about 4 meals a day (meals, not 3 meals and a snack), this means that women should eat (on average) 1 of each of those hand parts’ worth of portions each meal, and men should eat 2. So in a given meal, a woman eats 1 palm sized portion of protein, while a man would eat 2, a woman would have 1 fist worth of vegetables, and a man 2. So easy. Of course, if you eat more or fewer meals, adjust appropriately.
This was the last category mentioned. It’s really applicable to any of the above methods, but “calorie cycling” just seemed like the easiest thing to call it. I won’t go into detail here, because it can get very complicated depending on your goals, where you are now, where you want to be, and in the end, what works best. But the general idea is that you can do things like eat more calories on days you exercise, and fewer on days you don’t, or you can eat more carbs for a day or 2, then more protein for a few days, then maybe higher fat for a day, and repeat, or almost any variation you can think of. This requires a lot more counting, a lot more journaling of what you did today and what you should be doing over the next week, etc, than I’m willing to invest. But its various permutations are out there and used successfully by many, for a variety of applications.
So there you have it. This isn’t even all the ways you can measure or count what goes into your body, but they are probably 4 of the more common methods.
Do you follow any of these methods? I’d love for you to leave a reply about not just what you do and like, but also what you don’t like or hasn’t worked well for you.