Episode 113 Transcript – How to Lose Weight Without Counting Calories

Aidan:

Hello and welcome to the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. My name is Aidan Muir and I’m here with my co-host Leah Higl, and this is episode 113 where we are going to be talking about how to lose weight without counting calories.

So as some background for this topic, we obviously want to work from the same foundations as always for fat loss where we’re talking about calories in and calories out. Whether or not we track them, this is happening. And every now and then I’ll get a question on Instagram that goes along the lines of, “Is it possible to lose weight without counting calories?” And there’s no silly questions, but that one, if you look around the world, I think the majority of people who lose weight do so without counting calories. So it’s like not only is it possible, it’s actually what the majority of people do. So if it’s possible to do, how do we go about doing it? And I think the short answer before we talk through all the nuance is like we just need to set up situations that improve the likelihood of us consuming an appropriate amount of calories for our goals on a consistent basis, whether we’re tracking or not,

Leah:

And a really good place to start is looking at both fiber and protein, so touching on those one at a time. So if we increase our general fiber intake, we’re eating a lot of high fiber foods, things like your whole grains, legumes, vegetables. If we’re eating more of those foods and displacing potentially higher calorie foods, then we could look at a situation where our overall calorie intake is reduced by simply focusing on an increase in fiber rich foods, and that’ll kind of lead into food volume as well, which we’ll talk about. But yeah, going from let’s say someone who is consistently eating 10 to 15 grams of fiber per day, if we go, okay, now we want you to consume 30, 35 grams of fiber per day, that’s probably going to drastically shift their food choices. That is going to allow them to feel more satiated whilst on a lower amount of calories and perhaps have a deficit without tracking said calories.

Something very similar with protein intake as well. So we know that protein intake per calorie is the most satiating macronutrient, so it’s more so than fats and carbs. So when we have quite a high protein intake, so if we’re increasing our protein intake, we can get more satiety factor from our meals, even if calories are equivalent. So potentially, again, reducing our overall intake. So by changing fiber and protein and increasing them and having a decent amount of both, especially if we’re starting on a low baseline, that can lead to you just reducing your overall calorie intake, like I said, without tracking.

Aidan:

And jumping on that, I often like to use extreme examples that we can work backwards from and take some lessons from. Two of these extreme examples. One is that I’ve seen quite a few people maintain quiet lean physiques, et cetera by massively prioritizing protein and vegetables and or protein, fruits and vegetables, and giving themselves unlimited amounts of those. They just eat until they’re full of those two or three things. That way they feel like they’re comfortably full, et cetera, but they almost always will stop short of overconsuming calories because one, they’re quite satiating and two, the less exciting thing, you just get bored of eating if that’s something you are limited to.

Leah:

Not super highly palatable.

Aidan:

Yeah, 100%. And that’s one extreme example that it’s like, Hey, that doesn’t mean we should 100% restrict ourselves to that, but it’s like we can take some lessons from that being like, Hey, if we increase our intake of these things, it could make it easier to create a calorie deficit. The other example, which is basically the exact same thing just taken to a stupidly extreme level is, I spoke about this on the last podcast, but one of Jose Antonio’s studies, he got people to have 4.4 grams per kilogram of protein per day in free living conditions. So they were just tracking in MyFitnessPal from memory and trying to get to that number. When you do the maths on it, I shouldn’t do this on the top of my head, but say you had 300 grams of protein, there’s 4 calories per gram, 300 times 4, that’s a decent amount of calories coming from protein. A lot of these people would’ve been bigger than that, so they would’ve had to have more protein than that.

You do the math and it’s like, hang on, if they’re eating even a decent amount of carbs of fat, they’re going to end up in this massive calorie surplus. On average participants in that study lost weight, the diets that they had designed should have been a decent calorie surplus. I recall that if you read the conclusions like Jose Antonio was talking about being like, “This is the thermic competitive protein that’s causing this,” and it’s like, no, I think they just didn’t eat enough food.

Leah:

They were just so full because protein is so satiating.

Aidan:

Yeah, 100%. It was about an eight-week study and it’s just striving for that really high amount of protein caused that. Once again, I don’t think anyone should do anything remotely close to that, but it’s the same kind of concept being like that’s an extreme example. Can we learn anything from that? If we raise our protein a little bit, it could make it easier to consume slightly fewer calories.

Leah:

Especially if you’re someone going from maybe one gram of protein per kilo body weight and maybe taking it to 1.8 to 2, that’s going to have a huge impact on your satiety.

Aidan:

Yeah. Another thing on that line of thinking is this concept called volume eating, which is eating a larger volume of lower calorie foods. Theoretically, you could feel physically full while eating a lower amount of calories. There’s heaps and heaps of examples of this. On the topic of protein, let’s use meat as an example. Lean meat versus high fat meat. If you looked up the nutritional information of what we call lean meats or five star meats compared to three star meats, there’s just over half the calories in five star meats, which theoretically means you could have five star meats and have just over half the calories, or you could have nearly two times as much of that for the same amount of calories.

Another great example here is vegetables. Vegetables are very low calorie. Nobody thinks of vegetables as filling, but per calorie. They’re incredibly filling. It is another extreme example that I don’t like, but I’m just going to use it. There was one study where they got people to have, and this won’t be in the show notes, this is just off the top of my head, but they got people that have near three kilos of vegetables per day.

Leah:

Oh my gosh.

Aidan:

It was to test cholesterol, like what happened to cholesterol? And fun fact cholesterol just dropped off a cliff because they’ve had three kilos of vegetables per day. And that number is just so obscene that even their protein intake wasn’t super low because you see those things that’s like broccoli and steak have the same protein per calorie kind of vibes, but per 100 grams, it’s quite low protein.

Leah:

Usually it’s ridiculous to get a significant amount of protein from vegetables. Yeah.

Aidan:

Yeah. And the obvious thing like IBS symptoms, people would’ve had horrific symptoms.

But the point I was coming back is nobody thinks of vegetables as filling, but if you had a lot of them, they are quite filling. And this comes back to a key point of being like, imagine you’ve got a Muscle Chef meal or something like that that is 450 grams, 500 grams, and you chucked 200 to 300 grams of vegetables with it. It’s going to be more filling now you’ve had that 800 gram meal than if you had that 500 gram meal, even though the calories would be like 50 higher or something, it wouldn’t be a lot more calories.

Leah:

And a really simple example I do like to use for my clients just to highlight energy density versus food volume is just looking at a hundred calories worth of let’s say olive oil versus broccoli. The volume of those two foods, if we look at that… I wish I could give you a visual of a podcast, but I can’t. But looking at the volume of those two drastically different things. So obviously focusing on those higher volume things to fill up your stomach is going to be helpful.

Aidan:

And one caveat that I always give these days when I talk about volume eating is just don’t take it to an extreme. I know I use that example of three kilos of vegetables, but I also said that’s extreme. That’s probably dumb. Don’t do that. But this is only a tool that makes a lot of sense if you use it in these kind of examples. We talked about smaller scale stuff of being like add a bit more vegetables, choose leaner protein sources, add lower fat things even another example is lower fat dairy versus higher fat dairy. Some people would kind of criticize this claim, but it’s like when people are comparing full cream milk to skim milk, for example, and they’re like, oh yeah, full cream milk fills me up more. It’s like, well, yeah, if you did compare per cup like 250 mil of each-

Leah:

Per volume.

Aidan:

Yeah. For the same amount of volume it should because 200 calories off the top of my head for a cup of full cream milk against 90 for a cup of skim milk. If you compared per calorie, you’d end up with well over two cups of skim milk in that comparison, yes. Would it still be more filling? I’m not actually going to make an argument that skim milk with net large volume is going to be more filling, but when you look at it from that perspective, you can kind of see where I’m coming from being like it’s a fairer comparison under those situations.

Leah:

It does make sense. Yeah. Another thing we can look at is meal frequency. So I find in the cases of wanting to create a calorie deficit without necessarily counting calories, we don’t want to go on I guess either end of the spectrum in regards to meal frequency. I don’t find either of them helpful. Talking about, I guess really high meal frequency is that, well, if you are constantly grazing throughout the day and that’s kind of meal frequency that you’re utilizing, that’s probably going to equal to a higher caloric intake generally. So you could look at decreasing meal frequency and that could help you create a calorie deficit, particularly in combination with things like increased fiber, protein intake and volume, eating. Vice versa, I guess looking at really low meal frequency that you could just struggle with hunger management at that point when you’re really low frequency. So potentially looking at general meal frequency and changing that to be a more moderate frequency.

Aidan:

I feel like that’s something that a lot of people don’t really fully expect us to say the first part about that, avoiding high frequency eating. A lot of people hear this concept of eat small frequent meals. There’s a few examples I used to challenge that claim. One is if you were trying to eat as many calories as you could over the next 24 hours, how often would you eat? And the answer is as often as you can.

Leah:

As often as you can. Yeah.

Aidan:

Yeah, because you can get more in if you do that. The second one is a bariatric surgery example. I know somebody who had had bariatric surgery and was limited to the equivalent about one cup to one and a half cups of food in the single sitting. He was about 140 kilos and he had some mental health stuff go on. He served in the army, had PTSD, he had a fall and it hurt his hip and had some depression after that and he gained 10 kilos real quick, I think it was like five weeks or something like that. Mathematically to physically do that, he had to have been eating over 3000 calories per day. But just go back to the concept of his stomach was smaller, part of it had been chopped out with the bariatric surgery. How could he eat over 3000 calories per day?

And I don’t say that from a judgmental place, I mean from a logistical challenges, how did he get there? There’s two ways and two tools that he used to get there, and that was liquid calories, drinking frequently up and go energize and a few other things. Nothing inherently wrong with that. And then snacking just around the clock. Once again, nothing was wrong with his individual snacks. He had three bananas a day. He had two or three muesli bars per day. He had two or three up and go energizers per day. He didn’t have any solid meals or anything like that, but it was just two or three of each of his relatively healthy snacks in addition to some unhealthy, quote unquote, type of foods.

And I reflect on that story so much because I’m like, “Damn, if this guy could get over 3000 calories per day with the limitations that he had, what about the average person who doesn’t have those limitations?” If you’re eating 10 times per day, it’s hard to not over consume calories in a lot of cases. And then even mathematically, if you’re aiming for, as an example, 1,600 to 2000 calories and you’re eating 10 times a day as an example, each occasion would have to be under an average of 200 calories. It’d have to be quite small for it to be a thing.

Leah:

I usually find with clients that are aiming for a calorie deficit, but are eating really, really frequently, so maybe looking at six to seven times per day, they’re usually getting to the end of those eating occasions and just never feeling satiated. So they’ve never gotten to the point of feeling like, oh, I feel good. I feel done. And I think that can be counterintuitive to creating a calorie deficit. If you’re having a meal and you’re never really feeling full or satiated, you’re probably going to end up eating more.

Aidan:

Yeah. The next one is adjusting things based on your hunger. And this is a topic that I’m pretty passionate about and largely just because I think it’s a bit of a confusing topic because in one campus, people are just like ignore hunger robots. They just eat when the plan tells them to eat kind of thing. And at the other intersection, there’s people who are of the philosophy that our body inherently knows the exact right amount of food for us to eat. If we just eat solely, intuitively, we’ll eat the right amount. When we have specific physique goals, we probably can’t truly just listen to our body, partly because a common response to being in a calorie gesture is an increase in hunger. A common response to being in a calorie surplus is a decrease in hunger.

I think if we look at the bodybuilding world as an example, if somebody’s deep in an off season, they’re trying to gain size, if they just stopped when their body told them to stop, they would stop gaining size in some cases, not every case, but some cases. And I think you can do a little bit of both. You can pay attention to your hunger, and if your body’s telling you you’re really, really full or you’re really, really hungry, probably makes sense to listen chat to a certain degree. But other intersection, something that I literally implement in my own life is if I was trying to be in a calorie surplus, the moment a bit of hunger comes on, I just eat.

Or even if I’m not in a calorie surplus and if I’m in a high training phase or anything like that and I know that I haven’t been eating enough, then that’s what I do. And if I got into a situation where I know I haven’t been eating enough because of the training or whatever, and I’m not hungry, I still eat a little bit more than that. Vice versa though, in a calorie deficit, getting lean is something that naturally comes a lot easier to me. I still get a little bit hungry, and that’s kind of my sign if I’m not tracking. So sometimes I track, sometimes I don’t. If I’m looking to get leaner, I just wait until hunger hits. And if I’m watching the rate of progress and it slows down or anything like that, I’m like, okay, I’ll just move the needle a little bit. I’ll wait to get a little bit of hunger a little bit more.

And it’s like I’m not sitting there being out of 10, how much is this hunger? But it is actually paying attention to it being like, maybe I should get to a five out of 10. And the thing I reflect on with a lot of people who might say that they’re like, oh, maybe, particularly if somebody’s coming from disordered eating background and everything like that and being like, Okay, I need to truly eat whenever I get hungry or anything like that, which is often a good thing. One thing that I say in terms of what is a healthy relationship and food is in that scenario, I think back to when I was a child and it was like 4:00 PM and I was telling my mom I’m hungry, and she’s like, “Either wait until dinner or have a piece of fruit.” I’m like, “Well, I’m not hungry enough for a piece of fruit.”

And I’m like, that’s the hunger that I kind of think of because once we become adults, we have decent incomes, we never have to go without eating. We can go years without experiencing any hunger. And that’s where I’m going back to a healthy relationship with food, I go back to that childhood kind memory and being like, that’s an okay amount of hunger. That’s completely fine. That’s natural, that’s normal.

Leah:

Yeah. And I think listening to your body in this regard is super important. If you’re not feeling any hunger ever for a long period of time, I’d say you’re probably not in a calorie deficit, especially if you combine that with not seeing a shift in the scale, we would expect some hunger in a deficit. So I guess for me, when I’m dieting, I know the specific amount of hunger I’m looking for, kind of like you, and I’m like, Yep, that’s the sweet spot. With all my other habits, I know I’m in a deficit right now. So listening to that can be a good cue.

Other strategies to minimize overeating. So a few things here. So how frequently should we include relaxed meals? So if you’re someone who is including them currently 3, 4, 5 times a week, you’re kind of going out for social meals, eating whatever you want, maybe more hyper palatable discretionary foods frequently. Okay, maybe you just put a limit on that.

For a lot of my clients, when we’re heading into a calorie deficit, we’ll go, okay, just limit that to once or twice a week. And just that in itself can be a way to minimize overeating. A second tip that again I use all the time is mindful eating. So when you are having a meal or a snack, being very mindful about how you’re doing it. So eating slow, chewing well, putting your cutlery down in between bites and just taking the time to enjoy that meal slowly, that does increase the satiety factor than if we’re mindlessly eating in front of the TV. And we do have research to suggest that.

Aidan:

And I shared this on one of our very early podcasts, but there’s a study from, I believe it’s from Chris Gardner from Stanford, where they compared high-carb diets to low-carb diets, 600 something participants over the course of one year, and they found that high-carb versus low-carb, in the real world, so these people were choosing what they ate, et cetera. Over the course of the year, people got on average very similar results, but it was obviously quite skewed because as a real world study, people could stick to it stricter, less strict, et cetera. The people who on average lost over 20 kilos or the people who… Sorry, not on average. The people who lost over 20 kilos, because some people who lost significantly less average was a lot lower. The people who lost over 20 kilos when they were doing the exit interview, they were all asked, “What did you think was the key component for you out of this?”

And me reading that study, I instantly thought people were going to latch onto the high carb versus low-carb because just what we see, what we hear. Almost every single one who lost over 20 kilos was just like mindful eating was the key for me. I used to eat in front of the TV or in a rush or while working, and now I set a space for me to eat and eat slowly and pay attention to the past, to the taste, texture, smell, all those things. And that has always stuck with me because I’m like I don’t think mindful eating by itself is the key to all of this, but, damn, if that was something that all of them were identifying and they were the ones who, quote unquote, like… If they were the ones who lost the most weight out of that same, that was what they were all pointing to, I’m not going to ignore that. That’s going to be a factor.

Leah:

It’s a really, really good tool. I actually like to combine mindful eating as a part of my client’s relaxed meals as like there’s no rules on your relaxed meals other than you have to eat it mindfully. And the clients that actually do that eat significantly less on their relaxed meals than people that just go balls to the wall on their meal, and they’re the ones that rack up 2000 calories in one meal.

Aidan:

Yeah. And with this concept of, I guess we’ll talk about flexible versus rigid approaches being like how rigid, how flexible, this is just a huge topic by itself. I don’t know, we’ve got enough time for this, but how flexible should people be? I think a very simple thing is most people should have at least some level of flexibility. I pretty much never see people succeed with this stuff if they don’t have some level of flexibility. A common question I actually ask a lot of clients at the start when I first worked with them is, can you name two people you know who never have added sugar ever? I always say two because every now and then one person will whip out. They’re like, my uncle’s a Navy Seal. I’m like, okay-

Leah:

Like that robot person.

Aidan:

Yeah. And I’ve had a few people say that, so I’m like, don’t ruin my line here. So over the last two years or so, I’ve always just been like, “Do you know two?” And nobody so far. Maybe somebody listening to this, I don’t know. But none of my clients so far have known two people who did it. And the reason why I asked that question is if we can’t name two people, it’s a silly pursuit. It’s not something worth pursuing. And then if somebody did know multiple people or whatever, I would kind of be like, “Are they happy? Do they enjoy food? Do they have a good relationship with food once again?” So we know some level of flexibility is important. Can you go too far? I think so. Statistically speaking, a lot of people who have success maintaining weight loss are quite routine oriented. They do a lot of stuff.

Similarly, they have a large percentage of their meals are cooked at home on average. That doesn’t mean every single person. They often have structure with their meals. They have protein, vegetables, et cetera. There’s a lot of things that are very routine, and I’m not going to say rigid, but it is routine oriented and putting a lot of things in their favor, but we can be quite flexible while achieving our goals as well. And I think combining some of both of those aspects, like the rigid thing, like planning your meals and all of those things are probably a good thing. I don’t want to say having some rules, but having some habits that you do relatively consistently-

Leah:

Guidelines.

Aidan:

Guidelines, I think that stuff, just from what I have seen consistently improves outcomes.

Leah:

Another thing to kind of touch on as well, looking at creating a calorie deficit whilst not tracking calories, is looking at liquid calories versus solid foods. So we do know that liquid calories obviously way easier to consume, they’re just less satiating. So it’s quite common for us to have a meal and have a drink alongside that. If that was 300 mils of chocolate milk or 300 mils of water, we’re going to have the same kind of satiety factor from that. It’s not really going to move the needle in satiety a lot, but it is going to change the calorie content of that meal a lot.

So when we’re trying to create a calorie deficit without tracking, a good guideline could be that you just really reduce the amount of liquid calories coming in. So if you’re a big juice person or something, usually that is something you could look to replace with a no calorie option or just water.

Aidan:

And then the final thing is just general movement and formal exercise. Some of our thoughts on that with general movement, there’s a big reason why so many people are big on increasing daily steps and just general movement. A stat I like to chuck out there,, I’m not overly calorie focused with this stuff, but I think it’s interesting just to think about it is standing probably burns about 1.2 times the amount of calories that sitting does walking probably about 1.3 times. Once you get up to jogging or whatever, we’re looking at 1.7. Lifting, we’re probably around 1.5, 1.6 once you factor in rest between sets, et cetera. And I don’t want to butcher those numbers because the faster you run, for example, the higher that gets, there’s a bunch of things that go on.

But I’m just going to touch on the standing, walking, et cetera. You can stand and walk for a very long time. People are on their feet all day at work, if that’s an extra 1.3 times the amount of calories you burn over an eight-hour period, it adds up massively. So general activity, that kind of stuff matters. And then formal exercise, this isn’t about the weight loss thing. Actually one thing I should touch on very quickly on this is typically adding formal exercise doesn’t really help weight loss that much directly. There’s many explanations for that. One is that often it increases intake of energy, people just get hungry and they want to eat more. Another thing is this kind of constrained energy expansion model, which is if you increase your exercise energy expansion, it often drops elsewhere, whether that’s due to you being just moving less for the rest of the day or due to some actual decreases in functions of the body.

But one thing we often see is that if there’s like a 12-week study, people go from not exercising to exercising three times a week. Sometimes we see people lose 1 kilo over the course of the study, and I’m like, I guarantee you’d expect everybody entering that city would’ve expected more. That’s just solely looking at scale weight, not necessarily fat loss. Fat loss numbers would be significantly better. But even though I’m downplaying the effect on weight loss solely, there’s so many other benefits, there’s so so many other benefits, I’m huge on that. But even just long-term weight management stuff, there’s even more benefits in terms of it dramatically improves the likelihood of maintaining weight loss if people exercise on a regular basis.

Leah:

So a little bit of a summary to finish up if you are looking to lose weight, but not looking to count calories, some of the easy things you can do are look to increase fiber, eat a high amount of protein. So even kind of that 1.8 to 2.2 grams per kilo body weight, that’s going to keep you a lot more satiated and aiming for that 25, 30 plus grams of fiber. Focusing on volume eating, so eating more lower energy foods that have a high amount of volume. Looking at your meal frequency, is it too frequent? Is it too infrequent? Is there something that could be changed to better manage that? And looking at other things around mindful eating, how many relaxed meals you’re having and how frequently reducing liquid calories, and then adding in some possibly general movement and formal exercise.

Aidan:

This has been episode 113 of the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. As always, if you could please leave a rating and review, that would be massively appreciated.