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I’ve lost weight by counting calories in the past but always get obsessed. How do I slim down without tracking my food?

woman counting calories

Samantha Lee/Business Insider

  • You need to be in a calorie deficit to lose fat, but you don't have to count calories. It isn't for everyone.
  • Instead, consider telling yourself you'll eat three plates of food and two snacks each day.
  • Choose foods that will keep you full and replace energy dense ingredients with lower calorie swaps.
  • Don't neglect your overall health, and ensure you're keeping active and sleeping enough, advised fitness coach and personal trainer Anjuli Mack.
  • Read more Working It Out here.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Dear Rachel,

How can you lose weight sustainably without getting obsessed with calorie counting? I previously lost three stone (42 pounds) on a mixture of diets and, whilst I've kept about 1.5 stone (21 pounds) off permanently, I still struggle with maintaining my weight and have crept back up to being borderline obese again.

Calorie counting destroyed my mental health and worsened my already established OCD so I don't want to get obsessed again. But at the same time, I can't keep gaining weight!

— At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

Firstly, I'd like to congratulate you for being self-aware enough to have realized that calorie-counting is not a wise move for you. You tried it, and that's good because that experience taught you something.

But let me make one thing clear: You absolutely do not need to count your calories to lose weight.

Weight loss comes down to being in an energy deficit, and energy is measured in calories.

So yes, you need to be in a calorie deficit, burning off more energy than you're taking in, to lose fat, but that doesn't mean you have to count calories.

Calorie counting isn't for everyone

For some people, calorie-counting doesn't work because they just can't stick to it or they hate the effort of having to log their food intake.

For others, it isn't sensible because, well, they like it too much and get obsessed.

As an organized person who loves plans, lists, and spreadsheets, I am someone who's drawn to calorie-counting — to me, it provides a comfort to know I can hit certain numbers and I will achieve my goals. It's science.

However, I also know that I, like you, have a tendency to become obsessive. And this can lead you down a dangerous path, as you have found yourself.

When I first tried counting calories, around 10 years ago, it became an unhealthy obsession.

A couple of years ago, when I decided I wanted to lose some weight and was tired of fad diets, I tentatively tried it again, but ensured I would only do it loosely and would stop if I ever felt myself obsessing. It worked. And it helped me build a healthier relationship with food.

But that may not be the case for you and that's OK. 

"If calorie-counting exacerbates disordered eating or disordered behaviors, then you want to stay away from it," personal trainer and fat loss coach Jordan Syatt told Insider.

"There's no reason to try and do it if you know it's going to be triggering for you."

Reflect on why previous diets have failed you

I love the fact that you've asked about how to make weight loss sustainable, because that really is the key. 

Fitness coach and personal trainer Anjuli Mack said it's important to take some time to think about why previous diets may have "worked" initially, but then why the weight crept back on.

Anjuli Mack is a personal trainer based in Auckland, New Zealand.
Anjuli Mack

"This small task is super empowering because it gives you the opportunity right there and then to think and come up with your own answers as to why you feel those diets didn't work out," she told Insider.

"Could it be that you had to cut out carbs and really deep down, you hated it? Was the diet restrictive, meaning all the foods you liked were 'banned' or considered off-plan? Or could it have been a diet that didn't teach you anything about healthy eating?"

Each experience can teach you something about yourself that will help make you stronger, healthier, and happier.

Create an energy deficit by tracking portions, not calories

Dr. Bob Posner, a physician specializing in weight loss and emotional eating, advises taking the approach of tracking portions of food groups, rather than calories.

"This is much easier, simplistic, and successful," he said. "No need to obsess about calorie counting!"

For example, you might aim to consume 3-4 servings of protein a day, three small portions of fats, and two portions each of carbs and fruit.

Dr. Bob Posner specializes in weight loss.
Dr Bob Posner

"Vegetables are pretty much eat all you want," Dr. Posner told Insider. 

A similar approach recommended by Syatt is what he calls the "three plates, two snacks" rule, which essentially means eating three meals, each of which can fit on one plate, and two snacks, each of which can fit in the palm of your hand, every day.

Three plates and two snacks is just an example — you might prefer two meals and four snacks, or four meals and one snack, but there's a way to make it work for you.

Jordan Syatt is a personal trainer and fat loss coach.
Jordan Syatt

"Ideally each meal will have a protein and some veggies as well," Syatt said, acknowledging that vegetables at breakfast is trickier.

"If you want to get more strict, you could make sure your snack's a protein or fruit," he said.

"But when just starting out, especially if someone has a lot of weight to lose, just make sure that the snack fits in the palm of your hand.

"Even if the snack turns out to be five chocolates, cool, no problem. You get something sweet and you're not overly restricting yourself."

Make simple food swaps

Another approach you can take is to make food swaps that cut calories without you having to count them.

Mack calls this "low hanging fruit."

"If you drink full sugary drinks, can you swap them for zero sugar?" she asked.

"If you go for a coffee in the morning, do you go full of sugar syrup, full fat milk, and cream? If so, can you swap for sugar-free syrups, skimmed milk, and no cream?"

View this post on Instagram

In non-coronavirus news, behold: Super yummy super high protein yoghurt breakfast bowl! 🤤 Since the start of the year, I’ve upped my protein target and have been loosely tracking in a bid to hit that goal as often as I can. And I gotta say, I feel great and my body’s responding pretty blimmin’ well. 🤸🏼‍♀️ If you find the same (you may not, of course – higher protein diets aren’t for everyone), you too may enjoy the occasional delicious protein yog bowl like this. Fab as breakfast to give you a boost to start the day, or after dinner on days where your diet may have been lacking in protein. 💪🏻 I vary flavours and toppings but here’s what was in this here scrumptious bowl: 200g greek yoghurt mixed with 25g vanilla protein powder and a dash of vanilla essence, topped with a banana, about 25g granola, a sprinkle of cinnamon and a spoonful of peanut butter. 🍌 This bowl contains around 47g protein but most importantly it’s delicious af. 😍 I also recommend mixing it up (literally) with berries, honey, grated apple, nuts, chocolate chips, seeds, whatever flavour protein you fancy – you can’t go wrong! 🍓 PS. Just ordered some fun new proteins to my parents’ because it looks like imma be here for the foreseeable future and ya gal’s gotta keep her protein up to maintain the gainz especially considering gyms are a no-no now. PPS. Stay home. ✌🏻

A post shared by Rachel Hosie (@rachel_hosie) on

Choosing nourishing foods will help you stay fuller longer too, according to Dr. Posner.

100 calories of lean protein such as chicken or eggs, for example, will be much more helpful in your weight loss efforts than, say, 100 calories of beer.

"The big 'X' factor for weight control is metabolism rates and certain foods tend to be more favorable in their metabolic effects than others," he said.

Don't forget your overall health

Your nutrition is of course the most important factor when it comes to losing weight, but it's crucial not to neglect your overall health.

Make sure you're getting enough good quality sleep, managing your stress levels, and keeping active in ways you enjoy.

View this post on Instagram

IT TAKES TIME TO BUILD MUSCLE 🔥 ⁣ ⁣ For the past 3 years I have had fitness expos, photo shoots, competitions and trips overseas in which I needed to look a certain way. This has meant that I have spent a large amount of time in a deficit without having time to actually get stronger & build muscle 💯 ⁣ ⁣ This year is the first time I am actually taking time to eat and grow 🍑 It takes a lot of self love and work on yourself to be okay with gaining weight ✔️ IT TAKES TIME TO BUILD MUSCLE. Anywhere upwards from 3 months is a good start. I know how to shred and when the time comes, I will but for now I am doing my best to be kind to myself, get strong & embrace my shape 💕 Whenever I gain, I always race to shred but thankfully my fiancé @Ross_larsen loves & supports me no matter what – he has been really helpful in reminding me how important it is to focus on building muscle instead of always shredding 🤗 ⁣ ⁣ The #AnjuliFitSquad know that it is a process – achieve the fat loss goal, then reverse diet (increase calories) to build some lean muscle & stay there for 6+ months to grow before another shred on higher calories with more muscle 💪🏽 ⁣ ⁣ Thank you for always supporting me on my journey! 💃🏽 Appreciate you all!⁣ Anjuli ✌🏽 ⁣ XO

A post shared by YouTube Anjuli Mack 🎥 AUCKLAND (@anjuli_fitforlife) on

"Both sleep and stress levels are usually overlooked but are important for ensuring optimal functioning of your body and hormones," Mack said.

And I don't know about you, but whenever I have a bad's night sleep I spend the whole next day wanting to dive headfirst into a pack of cookies.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint," Mack said. "Most people fall into the trap of expecting results almost overnight, and this could set you up to fail, but if you appreciate the journey, that goal which seems a long way off? It becomes less and less tiresome."

Wishing you well,

Rachel

As a senior lifestyle reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you're struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.

Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world's most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she's always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.

Have a question? Ask Rachel at [email protected] or fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously.

Read more Working It Out:

  • I hated gym class at school and have a negative relationship with exercise as a result. How do I move past this and develop a positive mindset?
  • I've stopped losing weight even though I'm exercising regularly and eating healthy. How do I break through the plateau?
  • Whenever I do ab exercises, my neck and back hurt. How can I strengthen my core and work towards a six-pack?
  • I'm confused about whether I should eat before exercising or not. Will working out 'fasted' in the morning help me lose fat?
  • I rarely feel sore the day after exercise. Does that mean my workouts aren't doing any good?

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