The Things You Really Should Be Counting Instead of Calories
Calorie counting is the go-to weight loss method for many. Yet, calories aren’t a great indicator of healthfulness, and many suggest they shouldn’t be your main eating focus. The debate surrounding calories stems from the fact that calories really aren’t equal. To illustrate, compare 100 calories of soda to 100 calories of quinoa—same calories, yet very different nutrients. One is primarily made of simple carbs with little other nutrients, while the other is a blend of complex carbs, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. This difference in nutrients dictates the effects those calories have on blood sugar, hunger, energy and satiety—factors that are as important as total calorie intake. Don’t get me wrong: I'm not saying calories don’t matter. Calorie intake is key to energy balance. But, when the focus is primarily on calories, we often lose sight of healthfulness and don’t make the healthiest food choices.
What Will Happen Without Calories?
If giving up counting calories makes you nervous, join the club. Counting or tracking provides a sense of control particularly when embarking on a new eating plan. Keeping tabs on intake also boosts dieting confidence and helps to set goals. So what do you track instead of calories? Check out my list of things to count, track, or follow that will help you keep your diet in-check, but also encourage healthy choices and habits.
1) Count Minutes of Activity
Sure, exercise is essential for a healthy body, but it’s the effect that activity has on food choices and appetite that can make monitoring activity a good substitute for calorie counting for some.
Why It Works: Think about days where you’re active. Do you find it easier to make healthy diet choices? Research suggests that activity affects brain functioning by increasing your ability to pass up less healthy food. Also, unless you’re doing extensive training, activity decreases appetite in most people. Many find that when they’re “on track” with activity, they stay “on track” with diet automatically.
Counting Goal: Aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity weekly—or a combination. Tracking weekly minutes allows flexibility on days when you can’t fit exercise in. However, the same can be accomplished with activity trackers by setting a weekly goal.
2) Count Fruit and Vegetable Servings
Individuals who consume more fruits and vegetables have better overall diets and typically consume fewer calories. Yet, most adults are still way below recommended intake for fruits and vegetables. Make produce your focus to manage calories and improve health.
Why It Works: Focus on getting the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, and you’ll find you have little desire (or stomach room) for less healthy foods thanks to the large servings sizes, high fiber, and low calories. Make fruit and vegetables the focus of each meal, and then add some lean protein, smart carbs, and healthy fats.
Counting Goal: Women should aim to get 1½ to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups vegetables daily; men need 2 to 2½ cups fruit and 3 to 4 cups of vegetables.
3) Count Bites
It sounds too simple to work, but a 2015 study at Brigham Young University found that counting bites when chewing is just as effective for weight loss as counting calories.
Why It Works: In a world where we love to multi-task, it’s hard to be mindful of what and how much we consume. Counting bites slows down food intake which helps you be more aware of what you’re eating and the body’s satiety signals.
Counting Goal: Research suggestions range from 15 to 40 chews per bite, but the Brigham Young study suggests that it’s the practice of counting, not the number reached, that really matters. Make it a point to count bites at every meal and snack for a few days to test it out.
4) Count Fiber
Tired of following strict diets? Researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that simply focusing on consuming a higher-fiber diet can be just as effective for weight loss as following a strict diet plan.
Why It Works: Fiber-rich foods fill you up and slow down the digestion process. The end result is greater satiety after and between meals and overall reduced calorie intake. Yet, most people only consume 40 to 60 percent of the recommended fiber amount.
Counting Goal: The Institutes of Medicine recommend 26g for females and 38g for males. Start by tracking your fiber intake a few days to calculate your daily average. Then, look for ways to increase fiber—adding vegetables to dishes, snacking on fruit and nuts, choosing whole grains—slightly at each meal. Keep a tally of fiber grams each day.
5) Count Carbohydrates
Are carbohydrate-rich starches and snacks your diet downfall? If so, keeping tabs on carb intake at each meal and snack is a good way to stay on top of diet.
Why It Works: Carbs are essential, but most get them in excess from breads, starches, and sugar—triggers often for hunger and overeating. Calculating carb needs and then distributing them through the day—similar to diabetic carb counting—helps stay on top of intake, as well as keep energy level. To get the most bang from this tracking method, choose carbs choices with little processing like vegetables, legumes, fruits, dairy, whole grains, and plant proteins in place of refined ones.
Counting Goal: Research shows benefits from both low and high-carb diets, but there’s still many unknowns about what is best. Because of this, we recommend a moderate carb intake—likely a little lower than what you consume now, but still within the recommended guidelines. Total carbs will be determined on how many calories you want to consume daily, then broken down between meals and snacks.
Here’s an example for a 1400-calorie day:
DAILY CALORIES: 1400 | CARB %: 45% | DAILY CARBS: 157.5g
SUGGESTED CARB BREAKDOWN: 30g Breakfast, 22.5 g Snack, 45g Lunch, 30g Snack, 30g Dinner
Have a different calorie goal? Simple multiply daily calories by 45 to 55 percent; then divide this number by four to get your daily carbohydrate goal.
6) Count Weekend Intake
Dedicated during the week, but relax a little too much on the weekends? Consider keeping track of food intake from Friday through Sunday.
Why It Works: Many are pros at balancing healthy eating and activity during the work week, but weekends often mean less attention to eating and exercise. If one isn’t careful, the past week’s progress can be un-done in one night out. Keeping a simple food log from Friday to Sunday makes you more aware of what you’re eating, helps you plan ahead, and avoid mindless eating.
Counting Goal: What’s realistic for you on weekends—counting fiber or carbohydrates, counting bites, keeping a simple food long and planning weekend eating (including eating out) in advance? Pick something to count or log that doesn’t make you feel constrained, but rather helps you be more mindful about weekend food choices.
7) Track Weekly Stats
Too busy to count? Keep daily stats on a few health habits and tally them each week.
Why It Works: Daily stats don’t require as much planning or work, but do require just enough thought that you stay on track. It’s a framework that’s not overwhelming during busy weeks, but also one that can empower you to finish out the week strong.
Counting Goal: Pick three to five habits to track this week, and set up a simple tracking mechanism in your phone or planner. Then, when you have a spare minutes during the week—riding the train, waiting for a meeting to start, standing in checkout lines—fill in progress. How are you doing so far this week? What do you still have time to change or improve?
Think any of these would work for you?
Share in the comments what your best "counting" technique is to keep you on track!
Article by Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, originally appeared in Cooking Light on January 9, 2017.