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Why Calorie Counting Is Awful (Plus a Better Way to Do Portion Control)

Put down your calculators. Put away your food scales. Turn off your calorie-counting apps. It's time to stop counting calories.
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Calories do matter. But that doesn't mean you have to count them. Try this much simpler method for controlling portion sizes. It offers less stress -- and less math.

Put down your calculators. Put away your food scales. Turn off your calorie-counting apps. It's time to stop counting calories.

Now, before I go any further, let me make something clear. Calories do matter. How much food you eat does play a big role in weight loss (or gain).

That's why you should have some idea of how much food you eat each day.

This awareness can help you make adjustments to achieve your goals -- whether that's to lose fat, gain muscle, or just feel better.

Which means for all the effort you'd be putting into weighing, measuring, and logging your food -- plus tracking your exercise and trying to make the two balance -- you're rewarded with very little precision.

But that's not all. Counting calories can derail you because it's not only giving you the wrong information -- it's also giving you too much information.

If you're trying to make change in your life -- like lose weight or adopt healthier habits -- too much granular detail and conflicting information can actually make change harder.

In other words, focusing on less can actually help you accomplish more.

When eating becomes over-complicated, you're more likely to give up and fall back on old habits. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you: That's just human nature.

So what should you do?

The calorie counting antidote

At Precision Nutrition, we use a simple method that helps people build an awareness of what they're eating. It's easy, it's portable.

All you need is the ability to count to two. And your own hand.

Here how it works:

  • Your palm determines your protein portions.
  • Your fist determines your veggie portions.
  • Your cupped hand determines your carb portions.
  • Your thumb determines your fat portions.

Let me break down how it works.

How much protein should I eat?

For protein-dense foods like meat, fish, eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, use a palm sized serving.

For men we generally recommend two palm-sized portions with each meal for 3-4 meals each day. And for women we generally recommend one palm-sized portion with each meal for 3-4 meals each day.

Note that a palm-sized portion is the same thickness and diameter as your palm.

How many veggies should I eat?

For non-starchy colorful vegetables (think broccoli, spinach, salad, carrots, you name it), use a fist-sized serving.

For men we recommend two fist-sized portions of vegetables with each meal for 3-4 meals each day. And for women we recommend one fist-sized portion of vegetables with each meal for 3-4 meals each day.

Again, a fist-sized portion is the same thickness and diameter as your fist.

(Of course, you can eat more veggies than this. But for many people, just adding one fist-sized portion to each meal is a great starting place.)

How many carbs should I eat?

For carbohydrate-dense foods -- like grains, starches, or fruits -- use a cupped hand to determine your serving size.

For men we recommend two cupped-hand sized portions of carbohydrates with most meals for 3-4 meals each day. For women we recommend one cupped-hand sized portion of carbohydrates with most meals for 3-4 meals each day.

How much fat should I eat?

For fat-dense foods -- like oils, butters, nut butters, nuts/seeds -- use your entire thumb to determine your serving size.

For men we recommend two thumb-sized portions of fats with most meals for 3-4 meals each day. For women we recommend one thumb-sized portion of fats with most meals for 3-4 meals each day.

Putting it all together

Again, the guidelines above assume you'll be eating about 3-4 times a day.

For those of you who are still "calorie curious," for men this would translate to about 2,300 - 3,000 kcal per day. And for women this would translate to about 1,200 - 1,500 kcal per day.

Based on this, you now have a simple and flexible guide for meal planning.

Put it together and it looks something like this:

For men:

  • 2 palms of protein dense foods with each meal
  • 2 fists of vegetables with each meal
  • 2 cupped hands of carb dense foods with most meals
  • 2 entire thumbs of fat dense foods with most meals.
For women:
  • 1 palm of protein dense foods with each meal
  • 1 fist of vegetables with each meal
  • 1 cupped hand of carb dense foods with most meals
  • 1 entire thumb of fat dense foods with most meals.

Of course, just like any other form of nutrition planning -- including calorie counting -- this only serves as a starting point.

You can't know exactly how your body will respond in advance. So stay flexible and adjust your portions based on your hunger, fullness, and other important goals.

For example: if you're very active (or trying to gain weight) you might add another cupped hand of carbohydrates or another thumb of fats.

In general, by the end of the day, most active men do best with 6-8 servings of each food group. Most active women do best with 4-6 servings of each food group.

Likewise, if you're not very active (or trying to lose weight) you might eliminate a cupped palm of carbohydrates or a thumb of fats at particular meals.

In other words, take a look at the results you're getting and ask yourself how it's working for you. If you're getting results, stick with it. If not, make some adjustments.

But aren't I a unique and beautiful snowflake?

Of course, everybody is a little different.

There's not one "perfect" way of doing things, just like there's not one "perfect diet" for everyone.

For starters, if you're a bigger person, you probably have a bigger hand. And if you're a smaller person... well, you get the idea. Which means your own hand is a personalized (and portable) measuring device for your food intake.

True, some people do have larger or smaller hands for their body size. Still, our hand size correlates pretty closely with general body size, including muscle, bone -- the whole package. And that means, with this system, your meals will scale to body size.

Of course, if you have very specific goals -- for example, if you're training for a bodybuilding competition or training to improve athletic performance -- then you can get into more detail.

One "level-up" from these classifications is to eat based on body type. This approach uses your body type to determine some key hormonal and sympathetic nervous system characteristics about you that in turn influence your metabolism, and therefore, how much you should eat.

(See, it's getting more complicated already. We've made it simpler for you -- with an infographic -- here.)

The most important thing you need to know about calories

Counter to what I'm sure you've heard, weight loss does not have to be complicated.

You can be lean and healthy without following a prescribed meal plan, making yourself miserable in the gym, or even counting calories.

That doesn't mean it's not difficult sometimes. Fat loss -- like any life change -- often requires trying new things, getting out of your comfort zone, and swapping old habits for new ones.

And when it comes to food portions, size does matter. But you don't need a calculator, a scale, or a calorie-counting app.

All you need is your hand. And the willingness to try something new.

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Want to download a visual summary of these recommendations?

Print it out, post it somewhere accessible, and make portion control easy. You can even share it with friends, family, or clients.

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About the author

John Berardi, Ph.D. is a founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest online nutrition coaching company. He also sits on the health and performance advisory boards of Nike, Titleist and Equinox.

Dr. Berardi was recently selected as one of the 20 smartest coaches in the world by livestrong.com, the internet's most popular fitness site.

In the last five years, Dr. Berardi and his team have personally helped over 30,000 people improve their eating, lose weight, and boost their health through their renowned Precision Nutrition Coaching program.

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References

Frankfield, D. Comparison of predictive equations for resting metabolic rate in healthy nonobese and obese adults: A systematic review. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2005; 775-789.

Livesey G. A perspective on food energy standards for nutrition labelling. Br J Nutr. 2001 Mar;85(3):271-87.

Urban LE., et al. The accuracy of stated energy contents of reduced-energy, commercially prepared foods. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 Jan;110(1):116-23.