Nutrition Strategies for Getting Better Results in the Gym Without Tracking Calories/Macros
Exercise is an important habit to establish for general health and wellness. But if muscle growth, increased strength, or fat loss is your goal, diet is the primary mechanism for change.
I want to start by saying that I strongly believe it is possible to love yourself and also want to change your body. How we look and feel in our bodies and how we feel about ourselves cannot be separated. I also believe that we are constantly bombarded with unrealistic, unsustainable bodies that can set you down a spiral of feeling like you don’t deserve to be happy with where you’re at right now. It is OK to want to change how your body looks and functions as long as it is rooted in what YOU want rather than someone else’s expectations
A lot of people initially come to exercise--specifically resistance training--because they want to change how their bodies look. It’s true, resistance training increases lean mass, which raises metabolism--which means the more muscle you tissue you have, the more calories you burn at rest. However, if you only add exercise but don’t address the food you’re eating to fuel your exercise and day-to-day life, you may have a difficult time getting results.
The formula for weight loss is simple on paper: consume fewer calories than you expend. Truly. That is the science. No fit tea, special supplement, or magical HIIT workout DVD is going to change that fact. However the simple is also nuanced, and making the consistent changes to see sustainable, lasting changes over time takes time, work, and focus.
I’ve seen many online template diets that prescribe 1,200 calories a day. Sure, you’ll lose weight, but at what cost? 1,200 calories/day is less than most sedentary peoples’ Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). This huge drop in calories plus a brand new high-intensity workout routine is sure to work for a few weeks until you become so hungry or exhausted that as soon as your new regimented routine is disrupted you “fall off the wagon”.
These lifestyle overhauls set you up for failure. Crash diets do not work. At best they leave you hungry, cranky, and miserable. At worst they can be dangerous to your health. Research shows big change comes from creating smaller, sustainable changes that fit into your current lifestyle. If you’re looking to change how your body works, you must start with a SMART goal and a reason for why YOU want to achieve this goal. (No one else. You and you alone is the only person you need to answer to.) Once the skills used to fulfill that goal become a habit, then you can focus on additional small changes that contribute to your larger goal.
Setting SMART Goals
SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.
Example of an unspecific goal:
I need to eat better.
Example of a SMART goal:
I want to replace one takeout meal with a pre-prepared home-cooked meal once per week for the next three weeks.
Metrics are more than what’s on the scale
Weight loss is not the only meaningful metric for tracking progress. So many folks have been taught to live/die by the scale. If this is triggering or puts you in a negative head space, don’t track it. Here are some other ways you can track progress:
How your clothes are fitting
How you feel
Personal Records in the gym
The time and attention you spend preparing your own food
Diets are temporary
This is why time-bound goals are so important. The more extreme the diet, the more temporary it has to be. There’s a difference between prepping for a bodybuilding show vs learning how to eat for general health and wellness. Bodybuilding and cutting weight for sport is outside of the scope of this article. However, both require time and attention that was otherwise used somewhere else. This level of effort and attention will not always be 10/10. It cannot always be 10/10. By preparing for the long game, you ensure yourself success over time rather than short bursts of extreme highs and lows.
Strategies for Sustainable Dieting
Most of all, know why
I believe it is possible to be body positive and still want to lose weight. I’m not going to harp on the health benefits of staying under 25% body fat. So many of us are taught that BMI (a faulty equation) or the number on the scale determine our worth. Being over 25% according to BMI DOES NOT mean someone is wrong. If someone over 25% body fat wants to be 20% body fat, that doesn’t mean they hate themselves or they’re succumbing to societal pressure. Your goals are YOURS. And before you embark on any sort of lifestyle change, you need to know why and that why needs to be for YOURSELF.
When I stopped viewing food as reward/punishment and as fuel to lift more weights, tracking was less stressful. My personal goal is to eat to grow muscle and get strong. I have a reason for doing what I do. That said, I do not track all year. I go through periods of time when I am tracking and when I am not. Tracking macronutrients is outside of the scope of this post (comment or DM me if you’d like to see that information), as I wanted to create a general guide for folks just getting started with nutrition or that find tracking triggering. Below are some ways to pay more attention to your nutrition without tracking.
Consider the below guidelines to be Level 1 and tracking calories/macros to be Level 2. In order to move to Level 2 (if you find that is the right strategy for you), you must master the basics of Level 1. Level 1 has the potential to give you the results you’re looking for. I would argue that Level 2 is reserved for athletes preparing for competition or for someone that is being monitored by a nutritionist or healthcare professional.
Strategies for Solid Nutrition Without Tracking
If tracking macros or counting calories stresses you out, you don’t have to do it. There are other ways to track progress. Something that has been helpful for me personally, especially in times when I am not tracking (because remember, diets are temporary), is eating slowly and mindfully. Enjoy your food. Take your time. Eliminate distractions, chew your food, and enjoy. Slowing down allows for our hunger/satiety signals to come through clearly. It will also prevent us from mindlessly snacking on things we don’t even want. Two-day-old coffee cake you ate just b/c it was there? We’ve all been there. But if you make the space to experience your food, you can spend more time enjoying it and less time letting food rule your life.
Use your hands
Your hand doubles as a cheat sheet for what makes a complete plate. If you’re a bodybuilder or a weight-restricted athlete, there may be times when you need to whip out the scale to measure exactly how much food you’re consuming. But for most people, your hand can be your guide. Smaller people are typically on the lower end of this scale, while larger folks are on the higher end.
1-2 palms of lean protein
1-2 handfuls of vegetables
1-2 handfuls of carbs
1-2 thumb-sizes of fat
Play the long game
There is a misconception that any little “slip” derails your diet, which can then off a chain reaction of disordered eating. Rather than feeling doomed for eating a slice of pie at your friend’s birthday party, simply enjoy the pie. If fat loss is your goal, it is about a slight caloric deficit over time. One slice of pie isn’t a sin worthy of punishment. But one slice of pie followed by a guilt pizza isn’t the most helpful pattern to establish. Rather than using food as a punishment/reward, view it as something in your life. It is something to enjoy, to be shared, and that fuels your body. Choose the best fuel for your body (using the infographic linked above as your guide), but also enjoy your life. Unless you are devoting 10/10 to your diet (which means you cannot do 10/10 anywhere else in life), your social should not be impacted by your diet.
Example SMART Goals
Here are some examples of goals to get started with paying more attention to your nutrition. Starting goals should be consistent for 3-4 weeks before adding another behavior, as it typically takes 2-4 weeks for new behaviors to become habits.
Eat More Mindfully
For the next three weeks, I am going to eat dinner at the table rather than in front of the television.
Eating mindfully (meaning without distraction) gives us time to process hunger/satiety cues, which limits any tendency to overeat (especially when we are stressed.)
Eat More Quality
For the next three weeks, I am going to make larger dinners and take leftovers for lunch. I will know what these meals will be ahead of time so that I have meals to fall back on when my week gets busy.
Eating out isn’t wrong, but we do have a lot less control over what is in our food, how much food we are given, and the environment in which we eat our food. (Plus it is more expensive than cooking at home.) With busy lives, it is best to introduce cooking slowly with 1-2 meals per week with leftovers rather than purchasing a meal plan. Again these new behaviors need to fit in with your current lifestyle.
Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any strategies that have worked for you or if you have any questions in the comments below.