How to Eat Healthy—Without Counting Calories

Why counting calories doesn’t count toward much

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Are you a calorie counter? Many of my patients believe the only way to lose weight is to count calories. They come into my office knowing the calorie content of every food—far beyond what I've committed to memory—and yet they haven't been able to shed a single pound. So does counting calories really matter? A study by Harvard University concluded that when it comes to calories, it's quality, not quantity, that truly counts. In other words, 1,500 calories from your favorite desserts might not count the same as 1,500 calories from fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

Surprised? I'm not! Rather than obsessing over calories, I teach my patients to focus on learning how to create healthy, balanced, and sensibly portioned meals. When that skill is mastered, calories will most likely be exactly where you need them to be—and better yet, meals will leave you satisfied, not hungry. Believe me—that 100-calorie pack of cookies won't tide you over the same way that low-fat Greek yogurt and a banana will. Nor will it give you any nutritional advantage, to say the least.

So what does a healthy plate look like? For starters, it's not the size of a serving platter. Ideally, it's divided this way: ½ plate of veggies, ¼ plate of lean protein, and ¼ plate of high-fiber carbohydrates.

• Great lean protein choices include: beans, skinless poultry, fish, eggs (mostly egg whites), sirloin or other extra-lean cuts of beef, tofu, and low-fat dairy.

• Great high-fiber carbohydrate options are: oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat couscous, and buckwheat.

• As for veggies, try: tomatoes, broccoli, string beans, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, spinach, cauliflower, kale, and bok choy—the more the merrier!

Where does fruit fit in? Fruit can replace (or share) the veggie portion of your plate, or serve as your high-fiber carbohydrate. It can also simply be eaten as part of a snack or dessert.

And don't neglect healthy fats, such as olive oil, nuts, avocado, seeds, and canola oil. Excluding this group from your meals will surely leave you unsatisfied. But overdoing this group could expand your waistline.

So what do proper portion sizes look like? Here's a quick cheat sheet of size comparisons:

• A teaspoon of margarine, butter, mayonnaise, or oil = the size of your thumb tip

• A 1-ounce serving of cheese = six playing dice

• Two tablespoons of peanut butter = a ping-pong ball

• One ounce of nuts = a shot glass

• Three ounces of meat, poultry, or fish= a woman's palm, deck of cards, or cassette tape

• A half cup of cut fruit, vegetables, or grains (like rice, couscous, or barley) = a small fist

• One cup of pasta = a tennis ball

• A medium potato = a computer mouse

• One slice of bread = a CD case

• A quarter cup of dried fruit = a large egg

Lastly, remember that how a meal is prepared can make or break its health factor. Food that's been roasted, steamed, lightly sautéed (in oil), baked, grilled, or broiled is better than food that's been fried, sautéed (in butter), or drenched in heavy cream sauce. And go easy on high-calorie condiments, such as mayo, creamy salad dressings, sour cream, and butter.

Bottom line: Be calorie conscious, not calorie obsessed. Common sense tells us a lot—for example, that a bacon-double cheeseburger packs more calories than a simple burger, and a croissant packs more than a slice of whole-wheat bread. Once you stop counting calories, just think of how much extra mental energy you'll have to put toward something much more productive.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.