If it exists as a fad diet, there’s a high likelihood I’ve tried it, between my own obsession with “leaning out” over the last 10 years and my mother’s own dieting history. Between the grapefruit diet, the cabbage soup diet, juice cleanses, Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, Zone, Keto, Whole30, Intermittent Fasting, and even vegetarian for a few days (didn’t last very long).
To be totally frank about which diet trends were “most successful” I have two answers:
- The diet where I leaned out and actually kept the lost fat off, then gained muscle:
Renaissance Periodization (RP): a time-bound “cut” over three months where I lost weight at a more sustainable rate of 0.5-1lb per week. I lost 9lbs by the end of it. I was less miserable, and I did slightly relapse, but most of the fat that I cut stayed off, and I actually gained a fair bit of muscle (which, fun fact, is heavier than fat in equal volume) in a “mass” cycle after the cut. So I leaned out a lot, even though my overall weight didn’t change drastically.
- The “diet” (more like food lifestyle) that keeps me healthy now, that I eat all the time:
“Mindful eating,” which looks like a loose fusion of Whole30 and Zone with less stringent (if any) calorie counting and occasional intermittent fasting. I’ll elaborate on that soon.
The diets that were least successful? The ones where the rate of weight-loss was faster than 1lb per week. (See Part 1 of the Healthy Eating Guide for why this is a bad idea.) Not only does a long-term or steep caloric deficit lower your energy levels, but it can even wreak havoc on your hormones and cause a lot of less than savory side effects on your mental health and even your ability to reproduce (men and women both).
In Part 1, I gave you the assignment to calculate your daily caloric requirement. In Part 2, we’re going to start applying this caloric requirement in a smart way, but it all starts with food choices.
Why Not Just Calorie Count? Why Do Food Choices Matter?
Calorie counting sounds like a beautifully simple way to lose weight, but it’s not a complete solution. There is no “bad food” or “good food” but we can think of food in terms of “fuel efficiency” and how it impacts your budget.
To understand this, let’s look at three food choices (two of them plant-based):
- This Recipe for Baked Chicken, Broccoli, and Rice: 360 calories (per serving)
- (V) This Recipe for Sesame Tofu with Broccoli and Rice: 323 calories (if split into 2 servings)
- (V) Two small bags of Lays Potato Chips: 380 calories
Between these two recipes and the chips which do you think will keep you full for 2 or more hours? Not the small bags of chips.
And yet, the chicken recipe still has lower caloric value by 20 calories, and the tofu recipe by almost 60 calories. In terms of “miles per gallon” or “efficiency over time” the chips, while calorie dense, will not keep you full, and will cost you dearly in your caloric budget.
What do those other two recipes have over the chips? Whole foods, specifically vegetables and high protein.
So we have to be a bit more sophisticated than simply counting calories. We have to account for macronutrients, too.
Meal Portioning: Two Techniques
There are three macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fat (also known as macros). Macronutrients are important because they contribute to caloric count. Macro composition and caloric intake alone account for 75-80% of your metabolic rate and body composition. Anything else like vitamins and minerals are just supplements and micronutrients, and while important for different reasons, don’t play a huge role in body composition because they don’t contribute to your caloric count.
Each macronutrient carries a different number of calories per gram (1g of protein or carbs = 4 calories, and 1g of fat = 9 calories). Fat packs the most caloric punch, which makes it very valuable for appetite management but also very easy to accidentally hit a caloric surplus if you’re not careful.
There are two ways you can measure your macros. One is easy and pretty reliable, but not the most accurate. One is very accurate, but can be a bit overwhelming. We’ll get into both.
The “Palm” Method
This is the simplest method to implement, because there’s no food scale, math, or calorie counting. It’s literally just looking at your hand in relation to your food. Everyone’s hands are usually relatively proportional to their body, so you are generally accounting for your body’s needs by simply eating according to the size of your hand for each meal (assuming you eat 3 meals per day + a snack)
- Protein per meal: the size of your flat palm
- Carbs per meal: what can fit into your cupped hand
- Veggies per meal: the size of your fist
- Fat per meal: a thumb-sized portion (assuming you did not put oil on your food, in which case just skip the fat)
You might be asking, “how do I measure a protein bar or smoothie with my palm?” and the answer is: you don’t. In order to actually implement palm measuring you have to eat foods that can behave in a “modular” way – as in each food item is relatively “pure” in one macronutrient. For example, chicken breast is known and loved by the bodybuilding community for its lack of fat and ability to use it as a “block” of protein (if you looked at a nutrition label, it is ALL protein).
Similarly, rice and potato is used the same way (some nominal protein, but virtually all nutritional value is carbohydrates). Nuts, oils, and butters are virtually all fat. And vegetables, as a miracle of God, have so much fiber that their carbohydrate value cancels out (think of fiber as a negative carbohydrate value) so they have zero macronutrient value or caloric value. But they’re important because they serve two purposes: to pad your belly so that you don’t get hungry so fast, but also to provide micronutrients and supplements that your body needs.
As you start incorporating foods with more complex, “non-modular” nutritional profiles (protein bars, dairy, complex carbs, legumes, many vegetarian protein sources) you won’t be able to measure this with your hand. You’ll have to pick apart the nutrition label and start doing math. Which isn’t terrible, but if you hadn’t been doing math up until that point, there’s no good way to tell whether you’re on track with your caloric intake and macro goals for the day.
The other downside with this method is it accounts for a mostly “balanced” macronutrient profile (see the next section for what that means). It doesn’t account for different body types, which may respond a bit better to other ratios of macronutrients.
All that said, if the thought of doing math overwhelms you, this is a great place to start measuring your plate without needing to calorie count, and to start getting used to efficient and macronutrient-dense meals.
The Measuring Method (aka “Ratios” or “Macro Counting”)
The ratio of macros, however, is not one-size fits all, and depends on your body type and genetics. Below are the three different body types and the recommended macro ratios.
- Endomorphs are people who generally gain muscle easily, but also keep fat on more readily and lose weight more slowly. They tend to respond better to high-fat, low-carb diets (35% protein, 25% carbs or less, 40% fat)
- Ectomorphs are folks who generally lose weight more easily and lose fat, but have a very hard time keeping on muscle. They tend to respond better to high-carb, low-fat diets. (25% protein, 55% carbs or less, 20% fat)
- Mesomorphs are folks who generally keep fat off and also gain muscle readily. They tend to respond well to a balanced diet (30% protein, 40% carbs or less, 30% fat)
So to calculate exactly how much you should eat per day you’ll need to do a little math.
Grams of protein per day = ([Daily Caloric Goal] x [% Protein]) / 4 calories
Grams of carbs per day = ([Daily Caloric Goal] x [% Carbs]) / 4 calories
Grams of fat per day = ([Daily Caloric Requirement] x [% Fat]) / 9 calories
Then, you split those measurements by the number of meals you want to eat in a day, about 3-4.
What do you do with those numbers? Again, find foods that are relatively “pure” in each macro to create a modular lego-set approach to your diet, where you can plug and play as you need to. Each of these foods will need to be measured at first with a food scale (and you’ll need to verify via nutrition label) but once you get used to certain foods and their portion sizes you can start eyeballing it.
But the main benefit is that this allows you to flex your diet and eat foods with more complex nutritional profiles (thinking of you, plant-based friends) while still staying on track with your nutrition goals. Now you have an idea how much protein you have allocated and carbs, and if you needed to supplement with some fat you can reach for a jar of nut butter and eat what you need. This method, while complicated at first, can be hugely empowering once you know what your body needs.
TL;DR: Good Food Choice > Calorie Counting
A quick way to being miserable is to focus ONLY on calorie counting. Macronutrients will play a major role in how full you feel, how quickly your body responds to a diet, and how well your body fuels your daily activity.
Assignment #2: Start small. Focus on food choices, then see what a “good” portion looks like on your plate.
This doesn’t mean you HAVE to meal-prep (that’s something we’ll get into for Part 3 of this installment) but it does mean you should start getting used to the food choices that will set you up for success. Aim for “whole” foods to start, (you can adapt thechoices if you have known intolerances like dairy, FODMAPs, or gluten) which incorporates largely modular food choices. If you have a hard time eating vegetables at every meal, then focus on changing one part of your plate at a time for each week. Week 1 focus on adding in vegetables. Week 2, focus on protein choices. Week 3 focus on carb choices, and Week 3 focus on healthy fats.
Once you get used to eating the right types of foods, then you can start adapting what your portion sizes look like, whether that’s using your palm or using measurements. If the math and measuring starts to get overwhelming to you, or you stop measuring because it’s a lot of work, take a step back, focus on the food choices again, and see if you can use your hand instead to occasionally check your portions.
Lastly, for the love of all that is holy, don’t eat the same vegetable or meal every single meal for 4 weeks. That’s a recipe (ha!) for boredom and falling off track. Instead, decide on a couple recipes at the beginning of the week that will incorporate varied flavors to your liking. Bonus meal-prep tip teaser: Even if you end up bulk meal prepping, at least prepare a few different sauces to keep things interesting
Try it out for a few weeks, and stay tuned for Part 3, where I’ll share some meal prep tips to help you plan for success for those upcoming weeks!