By Chris McMahon
When you eat, you are taking in energy. While you go about your daily life, you are burning that energy.
Energy balance plays a role in your weight management. This concept is referred to it as Calories-In, Calories Out.
- If you take in more energy than you use, you can gain weight. (Energy Surplus)
- If you take in less energy than you use, you can lose weight. (Energy Deficit)
- If you take in the same amount of energy as you use, your weight will stay the same. (Energy Balance)
There is more to weight loss than “eating less and moving more.” That phrase often can do more harm than good and overlooks the bigger picture.
Here are a few things that can affect Energy Balance
I’m diving into tracking calories because it is a part of the weight-loss equation. Of course, many other factors affect the CICO model, and you don’t necessarily have to track calories; however, clients and folks on Instagram ask about it. So, here’s how you can approach calorie tracking.
How To Track Calories
In this example, we will be looking at someone who has the goal of fat loss. Fat loss does require you to be in a calorie deficit. So here is a quick way of determining the estimated amount of calories your body needs while losing weight.
Step One: Use the NIH Body Weight Planner.
Step Two: Enter the correct information as seen below:
Step Three: Choose the correct physical activity level. Be conservative with this number.
Step Four: Enter the goal weight and goal date.
Step Five: Review the results.
In this example, this person wishes to lose thirty pounds in six months. That gives them roughly 1,528 calories per day. It’s important to note that once they reach their target weight, it is suggested they move calories up to 1,997 calories per day. You can’t remain in a deficit forever.
Let’s chat about Macros.
When tracking, it is essential to consider your macronutrient intake: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. If fat loss is your goal, then paying close attention to your protein intake is vital due to its ability to help with controlling hunger and maintaining muscle mass.
A good rule of thumb is to consume about 0.7-1.0 g/lb of protein in your diet.
The main goal is to look at total calories and protein intake, which means you can play around with carbohydrates and fat. The essential factor is adherence, which means if you can stick with a low-carbohydrate diet, give it a go. Remember that if you are trying to preserve muscle mass or gain muscle, this might not be the best choice.
Carbohydrates can range from 0.3-3.0 g/lb for fat loss, and fat intake can range from 0.3-1.0 g/lb. It depends on preference and doesn’t matter so long as you stay within your calorie target and stick to the plan.
Let’s continue using the 1,528 calorie example with a target weight of 120 lbs.
Target weight x Macronutrient g/lb = Macro Target
We want to be getting enough protein:
120 lbs x 1.0 g/lb = 120g protein
For fat let’s try being right in the middle:
120 lbs x 0.6 g/lb = 72g
We will wait on carbohydrates until we figure out the exact calories we are using.
Protein has 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram.
Calories for Protein: 120g x 4kcal = 480 calories
Calories for Fat: 72g x 9kcal = 648 calories
Protein and fat together equal 1,128 calories.
Now subtract the total of protein and fat from the total target calories:
1528kcal – 1128kcal = 400kcal
Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, so to determine your total carbohydrate perform the following:
400 ÷ 4kcal = 100g
Macronutrient breakdown for 1,528 calorie goal:
120g Protein 72g Fat 100g Carbohydrate
But, wait a minute…what if you don’t enjoy tracking?
What skill level are you?
Before you start tracking, you must consider your current skill level. After all, many people do track and still manage not to lose weight. It usually has more to do with inaccurate tracking and nothing to do with calorie deficits not working.
Tracking calories takes work and, to be honest, can be a lot of effort, so before meticulously weighing your chicken breast, ask yourself the following questions.
- What’s my goal?
- What do I know?
- What can I already do well?
- Realistically how consistent can I be?
Answer these questions, and you will have a better idea of where to start.
If your goal is to feel better and lose weight, your practice skills will be slightly different from someone competing in a sport or physique competition.
Different options to use:
This is what you have been waiting for, right? Before going any further, I want to remind you of the two big goals that anyone focusing on weight loss can benefit from following.
During Meals: Recognize when you are full and stop eating.
Between Meals: Distinguishing hunger from emotions, boredom, or exhaustion.
If every person practiced these skills, weight management would be easier. Keep both of them in mind as we move through different tracking options.
Level 1: Taking Pictures of all meals and snacks
This is a fantastic starting point for anyone working on accountability and tracking. Think of it as dipping your toes in the water of consistently tracking. Also, there is no excuse not to take a picture; your phone is usually nearby.
Clients send me pictures all the time, and it is an excellent way to talk about how they might adjust their balanced plate. Taking a picture of your snacks helps you recognize what you are grabbing. Consider anything you are eating between meals as a snack. As in the skittles a co-worker has on the desk or a handful of chips from the closet.
Level 2: Using hand measurements
Building a balanced plate is an essential part of weight management and using hand measurements is another way to track and be aware of how much you are consuming.
Protein ✋ The palm of your hand, roughly 20-30g of protein
Carbohydrates 🤌 A cupped handful, roughly 20-30 g carbs
Fat 👍 A Thumb length, roughly 7-12 g fat.
Ideally, the plate would start with 50% fruits and vegetables; most folks aren’t getting enough of these food groups and need the added fiber. From there, you can structure your plate using the hand portion guide.
If we use the macro split from our example, that would be:
40g of protein for three meals (✋ or ✋✋ per meal/ 6 palms per day)
33g of carbohydrate for three meals (🤌 per meal/3-4 cupped hands per day)
24g of fat for three meals (👍 👍 per meal/ 6 thumb lengths per day )
If this seems like too much to eat in a single meal, you could try having more meals throughout the day. It all depends on what works for you.
My clients track their protein, carbohydrate, and fat using a simple tally mark chart. After two-four weeks, we check and adjust portions based on weight loss/gain and overall feeling. Nutrition requires adjustments along the way. That’s why rigid diets don’t work long term.
Level 3: Weighing and measuring food with a scale, cups, and table & teaspoons
Measuring, weighing, and tracking your food intake is not inherently wrong and can be a beneficial tool depending on your goals. Some of my clients aren’t ready for this, and it’s ok.
You might be someone who loves numbers, can stick to a plan, and geeks out over data points. Level 3 might be right up your alley.
What’s the best option?
The best choice is the one that allows for consistency. All three levels will enable you to track and notice trends as you work toward your weight goal.
Being aware of your choices is a big step forward. Creating plans that work requires flexibility and self-compassion. If that’s what you are missing in your effort to lose weight, I do have slots open for 1:1 nutrition coaching.
No matter what, remember it boils down to what works for you.