For a long time, the diet industry and even many a health expert boiled weight loss down to a simple concept: “calories in versus calories out.” Their suggestion: Simply consume fewer calories than you utilize and you’ll lose weight.
Reducing weight loss down to such an oversimplified equation is problematic for a number of reasons (more on those shortly)—and it seems to finally be going out of style.
Here, we break down why hyper-focusing weight-loss efforts on calories typically goes bust, plus what to focus on instead for a more sustainable, empowering weight-loss journey.
Why A Laser-Focus On Calories Falls Short
The first issue with relying on “calories in versus calories out” as your weight-loss strategy is a logistical one. Sticking to a daily calorie allowance requires that all of your calories are very accurately measured (like with a food scale), which just isn’t realistic for most people day-to-day and isn’t sustainable, says Margaret Sala, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating and weight disorders.
And regardless of issues with execution, the concept itself is simply flawed, according to dietitian Kelsey Lorencz, R.D. with Fin vs Fin. “One of the biggest problems with counting calories is the false idea that your body needs the same amount of calories each day, no matter what else is happening in your life. Relying on an arbitrary number can cause you to under-eat, stalling your metabolism, or to over-eat, halting weight-loss efforts,” she says.
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Plus, hyper-focusing on calories often drives people down the exhausting road of cutting as many calories as possible until they eventually burn out. “Many people are not able to sustain a low-calorie diet long-term, and eventually regain lost weight,” echoes Sala.
More Positive Markers To Focus On For Weight Loss
If you want to feel empowered on your weight-loss journey, use your precious energy on more meaningful metrics and mantras. “If you feel that you’re at a higher weight than what your body is meant to be, there are plenty of less restrictive and more sustainable ways to eat the right amount of food for your body,” says Lorencz.
Here’s what to focus on as you give the calorie obsession the boot.
1. “Put clothes on your carbohydrates”
One easy way to ensure your meals support stable blood sugar, a must for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight? This catchy phrase from functional dietitian Paulina Lee, M.S.H.S., R.D., L.D., founder of Savvy Stummy.
“Insulin resistance is closely associated with weight gain and occurs when blood sugar levels are consistently high and the cells in our body no longer respond well to insulin,” Lee says. “When we pair our carbs with protein, healthy fats, or fiber, we can dampen glucose spikes after eating.”
What does “dressing” carbohydrates in those other macronutrients look like? Try adding tuna and avocado to your slice of toast, or high-fiber berries and nuts to your yogurt, Lee suggests.
2. Tune into hunger and fullness cues
Another mealtime must to strive for: Let your hunger cues lead the way. “Wait until you are hungry to eat and stop eating when you are full,” says Sala.
It’s simple enough, in theory, but you might be surprised by how often eating is emotionally driven. “Notice if there are reasons other than hunger that trigger you to eat (such as feeling bored or stressed) and deal with the underlying emotions instead of eating,” Sala adds. “Addressing the underlying reasons why you are eating when you are not physically hungry will stop you from overeating, which should ultimately lead to weight loss.”
From there, allow yourself to be fully present during your meals. “Avoid distractions or multitasking while eating, and instead just focus on eating,” she suggests. “Use your five senses to notice what the experience of eating is like for you: What does your food smell like? What does it look like? What does it taste like?” Here’s more on how to follow the principles of mindful eating.
3. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies
Following the practice of filling half your plate with non-starchy vegetables can be good news for weight loss because veggies contain fiber that can help you feel fuller for longer and be less likely to snack between meals, according to Lee. Plus, fiber also supports your gut microbiome, which is a plus for digestion and nutrient absorption, and may promote weight loss, she says.
“Not to mention, when we fill up on veggies, we have less room for refined carbohydrates or processed foods,” Lee also notes. That’s another major bonus considering processed foods and refined carbs may lack essential nutrients and are usually higher in calories, fat, and sugar, which could lead to weight gain when eaten in large amounts.
Some examples of non-starchy vegetables include artichokes, asparagus, green beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, salad greens, tomatoes, and summer squash, among many others.
4. Add, Don’t Substract
A restrictive mindset is one of the biggest weight-loss saboteurs in the game, so focusing on shifting your mental game around eating is perhaps the most profound change you can make.
“Adjust your mindset to focus on what you can add to your meals instead of what you need to take away. A restrictive mindset during weight-loss efforts will keep you feeling deprived and increase the likelihood of rebound eating, overeating, and continuing the diet-binge cycle,” says Lorencz.
How do you actually do that, though? “Focus on the healthful foods you want to add to your diet,” she says. For example, if you love Brussels sprouts, find recipes to enjoy them more often. You’ll get loads of valuable vitamins, minerals, and fiber—and actually enjoy your food.
That also means you should prepare fruits and vegetables in ways you enjoy. Instead of trying to choke down plain steamed broccoli, roast it and top it with garlic and a bit of cheese. “Adding flavorful toppings to vegetables doesn’t take away the nutritional value of those foods,” Lorencz says.
5. Start each day strong with a healthy breakfast
If you find yourself tempted to skip a solid breakfast in favor of a cuppa Joe, know this: “When you have just coffee for breakfast, the caffeine might curb cravings at the moment, but you’ll be left with an empty stomach and very little to fuel you into the next meal,” says Lee. “This results in hunger way before lunch that might lead you to overeat or choose unhealthy foods later in the day.”
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Instead, start your days off on a high note by prioritizing a nutritious morning meal. “Mornings can be tight for time, so grab something light but filling and balanced with some type of protein, healthy fat, and/or fiber to keep you going ‘til lunch,” Lee suggests. Try a quick smoothie with protein powder, overnight oats, or another of these nutritionists’ go-to healthy breakfasts.
Checking the “healthy breakfast” box gives you an early morning win that’ll motivate you to continue to nourish yourself and follow through on healthy habits throughout the rest of the day.
6. Strategize against late-night munching
The end of the day can often be when healthy eating habits go haywire. Not only does digestion start to slow down later in the evening as the body prepares for rest, but busy schedules often lead us to choose convenient, less-nutritious foods or overeat after going a few hours without eating. Overall, not ideal for weight loss.
One simple way to get ahead of this: “If you know you’ll have dinner late in the day or need to go home and make dinner, grab a snack a few hours before dinner,” says Lee. Some smart choices include roasted edamame, almonds with an apple, and crackers topped with nut or seed butter and banana slices. (Check out this list of nutritionists’ go-to snacks for more inspiration.)
“No one likes to feel hungry, and the likelihood of overeating during dinner and before bed increases exponentially when you’ve deprived your body of food,” adds Lorencz. The more balanced your meals (and present you are during them) throughout the rest of the day, the easier it’ll be to breeze through evenings without ending up at the drive-thru or diving face-first into a party-sized bag of chips.