Health

Is it Worth the Counting?

January 30, 2017

The number of people who consciously watch what they eat and plan and do serious exercise is relatively small compared to the population at large.  We have watched as obesity and overweight have become epidemics and the amount of people with diabetes and high blood pressure and other disease has grown proportionately with the growth in the size of our stomachs.  When you couple obesity, poor eating and nutrition along with a very sedentary lifestyle, we end up with what has become a truly deadly combination of bad habits.

The good news however, is that there are more and more people who want to take their health seriously. The awareness that our health is largely in our hands is encouraging people to start eating better and to begin making activity and exercise part of their lives.

While that is good news, it also presents those of us with the responsibility of helping to educate and motivate those same people with a dilemma; how do you help people change their habits and behaviors and not feeling so overwhelmed with the process that they give up?  When we start asking people to count calories, weigh, measure, and record every little bit of exercise and activity, the average person will think, “this is too much for me” and quit.  So how can we make the food part of this equation easier and doable in order to attain success?

We don’t want handbooks, websites, databases and math equations just to plan lunch.

What’s the Problem with Just Counting Calories?

Calorie counting has some inherent problems. For one thing, calorie estimates are often wrong; sometimes by as much as 25% (Livesey 2001). And calorie-expenditure equations are often wrong, too (Frankfield, Roth-Yousey & Compher 2005).  This means that for all the effort you are putting into weighing, measuring and logging food—plus tracking your exercise and making the two balance—you’re rewarded with less accuracy than you’d think.

But that’s not the only issue!  Counting calories can be giving you too much information. If you are trying to change your life for the better by losing weight or adopting healthier habits—too much detail and conflicting information can make change harder. In other words, focusing on less can help you accomplish more.

When eating becomes over-complicated, people are more likely to give up and fall back on old habits. That’s simply human nature.  And research has repeatedly shown that being able to stick with a dietary approach is the only factor strongly associated with weight loss, regardless of dietary ideology or approach used (higher protein, higher carb, higher fat) (Johnston et al. 2014).  The key seems to be to find ways to help clients consistently eat quality foods in appropriate amounts. So, I as a coach, have to find a way to help my clients do that.  What can we all do to better control portion sizes and ultimately my daily caloric intake?

A Better Approach for Calorie Counting

The people at Precision Nutrition use a simple method that helps people build an awareness of what you’re eating. It’s easy, it’s portable, and it’s scaled to the size of the individual.  All you need is the ability to count to 2, 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.

Everybody is a little different. There’s not one “perfect” way of doing things, just as there’s not one “perfect diet” for everyone. But since bigger people tend to have bigger hands and smaller people have smaller hands, your own hand can be a personalized (and portable) measuring device for your food intake. Hand size correlates pretty closely with general body size. And that means that with this system most people’s meals and portions will scale to their body size.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

For protein-dense foods like meat, fish, eggs, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt, use a palm-sized serving. This means a serving has the same thickness and diameter as your palm. Each palm-sized serving provides approximately 20–30 grams of protein.

For men, we generally recommend six to eight palm-sized portions of protein each day. To simplify further, we generally suggest two palm-sized portions in each meal, assuming clients eat four meals per day.  For women, we generally recommend four to six palm-sized portions of protein each day. For simplicity, this works out to roughly one palm-sized portion in each meal and half a palm portion for your two daily snacks.

How Many Veggies Do You Need?

For non-starchy colorful vegetables (think broccoli, spinach, salad, carrots, etc.), use a fist-sized serving. Again, a fist-sized portion has the same thickness and diameter as your fist. For men, we generally recommend six to eight fist-sized portions of vegetables each day. That comes out to roughly two fist-sized portions in each meal.  For women, we generally recommend four to six fist-sized portions of vegetables each day. This works out to roughly one fist-sized portion in each meal.  Of course, you are free to eat more veggies, but just adding one fist-sized portion to each meal is a great starting place for many people.

How Many Carbs Do You Need?

For carbohydrate-dense foods—like grains, starches or fruits—use a cupped hand to determine your serving size. Each cupped handful provides approximately 20–30 g of carbohydrate. For men, we generally recommend six to eight cupped handfuls of carbohydrate each day. This works out to roughly two cupped handfuls in each meal.  For women, we generally recommend four to six cupped handfuls of carbohydrate each day. This works out to roughly one cupped handful in each meal.  This gives you enough carbs to fuel performance, maintain hormones and feel good without getting excessive.

How Much Fat Do You Need?

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

A thumb-sized portion is the thickness and entire length of your thumb, and each serving provides approximately 7–12 g of fat.  For men, we generally recommend six to eight thumb-sized portions of fat each day. This works out to roughly two thumb-sized portions of fats in each meal.   For women, we generally recommend four to six thumb-sized portions of fat each day. This works out to roughly one thumb-sized portion in each meal.  This amount gives clients enough fats to support the immune system, maintain various hormones and perform many other vital functions without being excessive.

Be Flexible

Just as with any other form of nutrition planning—including calorie counting—this serves only as a starting point. You can’t know exactly how your clients will respond in advance. So stay flexible, and adjust your portions based on hunger, fullness, activity level and type, goals and, most importantly, results.

Weight loss does not have to be complicated. One can become lean and healthy without following an exact prescribed meal plan, (although many do need that). 

It’s still not easy. Fat loss—like any life change—often requires trying new things, getting out of comfort zones 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 be willing to try something new.

There is no question that everyone needs something a little different.  This is one of the main reasons diets don’t work and that group weight-loss end in failure most of the time even after initial success.  But this is a way for you to begin making some positive changes without having to obsess on weighing and measuring your food. It is likely that along the way, this plan will need to be refined and adjusted.  You’ll get to that point when you get there.  But in the meanwhile, keeping calorie and portion counting easy will “add hours to your day, days to your years, and years to your life.”