When it comes to weight loss, calorie counting is a commonly used and recommended strategy. After all, since the basic requirement for weight loss is a calorie deficit, counting calories seems like the obvious and most effective solution. Although calorie counting works for some, it’s not for everyone. Fortunately, there are plenty of other tools and strategies that you can implement to support a goal of weight loss without counting any calories at all. So here are some evidence-based tips that can help you lose weight without counting calories or points.
At a foundational level, the requirement for weight loss, or fat loss, is a calorie deficit. Meaning that the total number of calories consumed via food and beverage must be less than the total number of calories expended via resting (metabolic rate) and non-resting energy expenditure (movement, activity, and exercise). (1) It is for this reason that the “calories in vs. calories out” equation is often referenced as the be-all and end-all of weight loss, which it is, however, actually tracking the equation is not required to support a goal of weight loss. Although, generally speaking, calorie counting is the most effective method, you can still create a calorie deficit without counting calories by focusing on dietary and lifestyle strategies that support “calories in vs. calorie out”, or CICO, without tracking a thing.
Tips to Lose Weight Without Counting Calories
Here are 11 tips to help create a calorie deficit and lose weight without counting calories or points.
1. Be Mindful of Liquid Calories
Although food is the most prevalent source of calories in our diet, calories are present in both food and beverages, and liquid calories are often missed or forgotten. Everything from a glass of orange juice to a smoothie, soda, sports drinks, or glass of wine contains calories, and even “healthier” choices, such as green juices and kombucha, contribute to our daily calorie intake. Unfortunately, liquid calories do not provide the same level of satiety as whole food calories, as they are often lacking in fiber, protein, fat, and nutrients. For example, a 200-calorie green juice will likely not provide the same level of satiety as 200 calories of oatmeal, chickpeas, or broccoli. In fact, research has shown that consuming carbohydrates in solid form promotes a feeling of fullness and satiety that liquid carbohydrates do not provide. (2) Therefore, limiting the number of liquid calories you are consuming and focusing on calorie-free beverages instead, such as water, sparkling water, and/or plain coffee or tea, is a simple yet effective way to reduce the total number of calories consumed via beverages and support a calorie deficit.
2. Focus on Whole Foods
The most impactful change that you can make to support the “calories in vs. calories out” equation without counting calories is focusing on the quality of the food that you consume. Ensuring that your diet is primarily composed of whole foods; fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, seafood, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds, as opposed to ultra-processed foods can help to organically reduce calorie intake without actually counting calories. Generally speaking, whole foods are more nutrient-dense and satiating than processed foods, which have been engineered to be hyper-palatable thanks to their high concentrations of added sugar and oils. Not only do these added sugar and added oils have the potential to make processed foods higher in calories than homemade whole food counterparts, but they have been shown to override the body’s natural hunger and fullness signals and lead to increased food consumption overall. (3) That is not to say that processed food has no place in a healthy diet or a weight loss goal, you can still indulge and enjoy a treat from time to time, however, addressing the quality of the food that you eat can help to limit overconsumption of calories by consuming more satiating and nutrient-dense foods.
3. Build Your Meals Around Protein
Compared to carbohydrates and fats, protein is the most satiating macronutrient. Consumption of protein has been shown to increase satiety, reduce hunger levels, support metabolic health, and promote weight loss. (4) Building your meals around a source of protein can help to ensure that you are consuming an adequate amount and it’s not being forgotten. Although the exact amount of protein required will vary from one person to the next based on individual needs, lifestyle factors, and goals, studies have shown that controlling for calorie intake and protein intake are the best indicators of success for weight loss. (5)(6) In fact, high-protein diets have been shown to lead to the consumption of 30% fewer calories than low-protein diets. (7) Therefore, by focusing on protein at every meal there is a potential to better support a reduction of calories and the creation of a calorie deficit without counting calories. So be it breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack, ensure that you are consuming a source of protein, make it the priority, and build your meal around it.
4. Use High-Volume Foods
Not only are fruits and vegetables highly nutritious and nutrient-dense but incorporating them in meals, along with protein, can help to provide increased levels of satiety and fullness. Compared to fats, proteins, and starches, fruits and vegetables are considered “high-volume” foods since, gram per gram, they contain fewer calories given they have higher water and fiber content. Focusing on high-volume foods at meals and snacks can help to keep you full since they quite literally keep your stomach fuller. In a 2019 study, when subjects eating foods low in caloric density, such as fruits and vegetables, are compared with those consuming foods richer in calories, those on meal plans with higher calorie concentrations were found to consume twice as many calories per day in order to satisfy their hunger. (8) Focusing on high-volume foods also allows for larger portion sizes with a limited impact on calorie intake.
5. Be Accurate with Portion Sizes
Although food quality is a beneficial tool in the weight loss tool kit, food quantity still matters. Creating a calorie deficit is essential for weight loss and even if you don’t want to count calories you still need to be mindful of how much you are eating. Unfortunately, even too many calories from salads, avocados, smoothies, and healthy whole foods can impair a weight loss goal if you are over-consuming for your caloric needs. If you don’t want to count calories, weigh or measure your food, your hand is a great tool that you can use to help estimate portion sizes. Using your hand as a guide, a portion of protein = 1 palm, a portion of carbohydrates = 1 cupped hand, a portion of vegetables = 1 fist, and a portion of fat = 1 thumb. The reason this method is useful is that your hand size is proportionate to you; a 5’2 female and 6’0 male will have different size hands yet proportionate to their body, making it a simple yet effective way to determine your personal portion size. Not to mention, the size of your hand never changes and it’s highly convenient because it travels with you wherever you go.
6. Prioritize Resistance Training
Prioritizing nutrition is vital for weight loss, but exercise is equally important. There are two sides to the “calories in vs. calories out” equation and focusing on both sides is the most effective way to create a deficit, especially if you’re not counting calories. Although all forms of exercise are beneficial and can help to increase your overall daily energy expenditure (i.e. calories out), resistance training has been shown to have particular benefits when it comes to weight loss and fat loss. Although traditional cardiovascular exercise has the potential to burn more calories per exercise session, resistance training has been shown to provide more long-term weight loss benefits as it is more effective at building muscle and reducing fat tissue, which has a direct impact on metabolic rate. Increasing the amount of muscle tissue on your frame, which, in turn, increases the number of calories you burn at rest. Research has shown that resistance training is more effective at increasing resting metabolic rate compared to aerobic exercise when calorie intake is controlled for. (9) Moreover, since, pound per pound, muscle tissue is denser than fat tissue it physically takes up less space, so increasing the amount of muscle mass on your frame can help to provide a “leaner” look that is often desired with a goal of weight loss.
7. Look for Ways to Increase Movement (NEAT)
Although workouts and exercise are commonly discussed when it comes to weight loss and energy expenditure, general movement and activity are actually larger contributing factors to our total daily energy expenditure. An individual’s total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is determined by their basal metabolic rate (BMR), thermic effect of food (TEF), and physical activity. Your BMR accounts for roughly 70% of the total calories burned in a day and TEF accounts for roughly 10%, while the remaining 20% is expended through physical activity. Overall all daily physical activity can be broken down into two separate categories; exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Exercise activity thermogenesis, or EAT, is composed of organized workouts and accounts for 5% of total expended energy, while non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, is composed of general movement such as walking, doing dishes, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, standing, or tapping your toe, and accounts for up to 15% of your total daily energy expenditure. (10) So, although a run or trip to the gym is highly beneficial to support a goal of weight loss, simply increasing your general movement throughout the day has three times the potential to support a goal of weight loss. If you are looking to lose weight without counting calories, look for ways to increase your movement during the day, as this is a major area of opportunity for most people.
8. Eat as Mindfully as Possible
Mindless eating is the nemesis of a weight loss goal. Although it happens to the best of us, those extra bites, bits, and binges can quickly and easily add up and make maintaining a calorie deficit more difficult than ideal. Learning to listen to and pay attention to your own hunger signals is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself and one of the best tools you can add to your nutrition toolkit. Everyone has a different relationship with food and some individuals may require more support or greater intervention than others, however, generally speaking, there are some simple behaviors that you can implement to be a little more mindful of what you are eating. For instance, aim to eat all meals sitting down, as opposed to standing or walking, and do your best to chew, take your time, and eat slowly. Try to remove all digital distractions, such as phones, TVs, or tablets, eat attentively, and focus on tastes and texture. As you eat, pay attention and try to note as you are starting to feel full. Although the practice of mindful eating is something that can be difficult to grasp, and may even feel annoying at first, your body is the best nutrition coach you will ever have so it’s important that you learn to listen to it.
9. Get Good Sleep
Sleep is a highly underrated factor in weight loss. Along with stress, your sleep has a direct impact on your hormones and hunger signals. Lack of sleep and poor quality sleep can lead to imbalances in insulin, leptin, ghrelin cortisol, and many other hormones, which have a profound impact on weight. Studies have shown that disruption in the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin in sleep-deprived individuals leads to increased appetite and increased risk of obesity. (11)(12) Another study demonstrated individuals who were sleep-deprived experienced an increase in late-night snacking and were more likely to reach for high-sugar and refined carb snacks, while another study found that sleeping too little led people to eat larger portions. (13)(14) In short, poor sleep or lack of sleep has the potential to disrupt hormones, increase hunger and decrease self-control and decision-making around food, therefore, getting good quality sleep is a vital tool in losing weight without counting calories.
10. Aim for (at least) 80/20 Consistency
Calories are king when it comes to weight loss, but consistency is queen. Eating one salad will not make you lose weight, the same way eating one cookie will not make you gain weight – it’s about the big picture. In order to support a goal of weight loss, you must ensure that you are in a calorie deficit consistently over a long period of time. Therefore, you must focus on prioritizing whole foods, limiting liquid calories, focusing on protein, consuming fruit and vegetables, and being mindful of portion sizes on a regular basis, not just once in a while.
11. Be Honest With Yourself
When it comes to a goal of weight loss, honesty is the best policy. Telling yourself that you’re doing one thing while actually doing another is not going to help you progress towards your goals. If you are looking to lose weight without counting calories it’s important that you take an unbiased look at what you are doing and what you’re not doing. If you’re struggling or you hit a plateau, it’s important that you check in with yourself and ask some hard-hitting questions. Am I actually eating mostly whole foods? Am I really prioritizing protein? Am I drinking too much on the weekend? Am I really getting enough activity? Am I truly being as consistent as I’m telling myself I am? If you’re not going to use calorie counting as an accountability tool, you really need to ensure that you are holding yourself accountable to food and lifestyle choices that support the “calories in vs. calories out” equation. It’s not about beating yourself up, it’s about keeping it real and continuously taking action and making choices that support your goals.
The Bottom Line
To support a goal of weight loss you must learn to make food and lifestyle choices that support a calorie deficit. Although calorie counting works for some, it’s not for everyone, and there are plenty of other strategies and habits that you can implement to lose weight without counting calories or points. By focusing on whole foods, consuming adequate protein, increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, increasing activity and movement, prioritizing sleep, and eating mindfully, you can work on building habits that support a goal of weight loss without tracking a thing.