A Handy Alternative to Counting Calories

by Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD and John Berardi, PhD on Mar 13, 2016


Simplify dietary dilemmas by teaching clients to use their hands to control portion size.

As a fitness professional or nutrition coach, you know calories matter. Fundamentally, human body weight is controlled by energy balance—calories in vs. calories out.

But having clients meticulously count calories and track macronutrients is not the solution in most cases. That approach is often tedious, inexact and unsustainable. It takes handbooks, websites, databases and math. Just to plan lunch.

While calories do count, it has become clear that counting them won’t help most people over the long term. However, we still want clients to be aware of how much they eat each day—and be able to easily adjust their intake to reach their goals.

Fortunately, there’s a better, simpler way. So put down the calculators. Put away the food scales. Turn off the calorie-counting apps. It’s time to stop counting calories.

Where Calorie 
Counting Goes Wrong

As we noted, calorie counting has some 
inherent problems (Lucan & DiNicolan-tonio 2015). For one thing, calorie estimates are often wrong (Urban et al. 2010), sometimes by as much as 25% (Livesey 2001). And calorie-expenditure equations are often wrong, too (Frankfield, Roth-Yousey & Compher 2005).

This means that for all the effort clients put into weighing, measuring and logging their food—plus tracking their exercise and making the two balance—they’re rewarded with less precision than you’d think.

But that’s not all. Counting calories can derail clients because it’s not only giving them the wrong information—it’s also giving them too much information. For clients trying to effect change in their lives—like losing weight or adopting healthier habits—too much granular detail and conflicting information can make change harder.

In other words, focusing on less can help clients accomplish more.

When eating becomes overcomplicated, people are more likely to give up and fall back on old habits. That’s simply human nature.

And research has repeatedly shown that being able to stick with a dietary approach is the only factor strongly associated with weight loss, regardless of dietary ideology or approach used (e.g., Paleo, low-carb, low-fat, etc.) (Johnston et al. 2014).

The key seems to be to find ways to help clients consistently eat quality foods in appropriate amounts. So, as a coach, how can you best help clients do that?

A Better Way to Control Portions and Calories

At Precision Nutrition, we use a simple method that helps people build an awareness of what they’re eating. It’s easy, it’s portable, and it’s scaled to the size of the individual.

All you need are the ability to count to 2, and your own hand.

Here how it works:

• Your palm determines your 
protein portions.

• Your fist determines your 
veggie portions.

• Your cupped hand determines 
your carb portions.

• Your thumb determines your 
fat portions.

Of course, everybody is a little different. There’s not one “perfect” way of doing things, just as there’s not one “perfect diet” for everyone. But since bigger 
people tend to have bigger hands and smaller people have smaller hands, your own hand can be a personalized (and portable) measuring device for your food intake.

True, some people do have larger or smaller hands for their body size. Still, hand size correlates pretty closely with general body size. And that means that with this system most people’s meals and portions will scale to their body size.

Let’s break down how this works one food group at a time.

How Much Protein 
Do Clients Need?

First, let’s start with protein.

For protein-dense foods like meat, fish, eggs, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt, use a palm-sized serving. This means a serving has the same thickness and diameter as your palm. Each palm-sized serving provides approximately 20–30 grams of protein.

Palm Image

For men, we generally recommend six to eight palm-sized portions of protein each day. To simplify further, we generally suggest two palm-sized portions in each meal, assuming clients eat four meals per day.

For women, we generally recommend four to six palm-sized portions of protein each day. For simplicity, this works out to roughly one palm-sized portion in each meal (again, assuming four meals per day).

This helps clients meet their protein needs to build muscle, burn fat, improve recovery and boost performance.

How Many Veggies 
Do Clients Need?

For nonstarchy colorful vegetables (think broccoli, spinach, salad, carrots, etc.), use a fist-sized serving. Again, a fist-sized portion has the same thickness and diameter as your fist.

For men, we generally recommend six to eight fist-sized portions of vegetables each day. That comes out to roughly two fist-sized portions in each meal.

Veggie Image

For women, we generally recommend four to six fist-sized portions of vegetables each day. This works out to roughly one fist-sized portion in each meal.

Of course, clients are free to eat more veggies, but just adding one fist-sized portion to each meal is a great starting place for many people.

How Many Carbs 
Do Clients Need?

For carbohydrate-dense foods—like grains, starches or fruits—use a cupped hand to determine your serving size. Each cupped handful provides approximately 20–30 g of carbohydrate.

For men, we generally recommend six to eight cupped handfuls of carbohydrate each day. This works out to roughly two cupped handfuls in each meal.

For women, we generally recommend four to six cupped handfuls of carbohydrate each day. This works out to roughly one cupped handful in each meal.

Cupped Image

This gives clients enough carbs to fuel performance, maintain hormones and feel good without getting excessive.

How Much Fat 
Do Clients Need?

For fat-dense foods like oils, butters, nut butters and nuts/seeds, use your entire thumb to determine your serving size. 
A thumb-sized portion is the thickness and entire length of your thumb, and each serving provides approximately 7–12 g of fat.

Thumb Image

For men, we generally recommend six to eight thumb-sized portions of fat each day. This works out to roughly two thumb-sized portions of fats in each meal.

For women, we generally recommend four to six thumb-sized portions of fat each day. This works out to roughly one thumb-sized portion in each meal.

This amount gives clients enough fats to support the immune system, maintain sex hormones and perform many other vital functions without being excessive.

Now Stay Flexible

Of course, just as with any other form of nutrition planning—including calorie counting—this serves only as a starting point. You can’t know exactly how your clients will respond in advance. So stay flexible, and help clients adjust their portions based on hunger, fullness, activity level and type, goals and, most importantly, results.

The Most Important 
Thing Clients Need 
to Know About Calories

Weight loss does not have to be complicated. Clients can become lean and healthy without following a prescribed meal plan, making themselves miserable in the gym or even counting calories.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Fat loss—like any life change—often requires trying new things, getting out of comfort zones and swapping old habits for new ones. And when it comes to food portions, size does matter. But clients don’t need a calculator, a scale or a calorie-counting app.

All they need is their hand. And the willingness to try something new.

Want more from John Berardi?


Frankfield, D., Roth-Yousey, L., & Compher, C. 2005. Comparison of predictive equations for resting met- abolic rate in healthy nonobese and obese adults: A systematic review. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105 (5), 775–89.

Johnston, B.C., et al. 2014. Comparison of weight loss among named diet programs in overweight and obese adults: A meta-analysis. Journal of the American Medical Association, 312 (9), 923–33.

Livesey, G. 2001. A perspective on food energy standards for nutrition labelling. British Journal of Nutrition, (3), 271–87.

Lucan, S.C., & DiNicolantonio, J.J. 2015. How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases may mislead and harm public health. An alternative. Public Health Nutrition, 18 (4), 571–81.

Urban, L.E., et al. 2010. The accuracy of stated energy contents of reduced-energy, commercially prepared foods. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110 (1), 116–23.

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About the Authors

Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD

Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD IDEA Author/Presenter

John Berardi, PhD

John Berardi, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

As an elite nutrition coach and exercise physiologist, Dr. Berardi has coached hundreds of elite amateur and professional athletes. In fact, in the last two Winter Olympics alone, his athletes have collected over 25 medals, 12 of them gold. Further, for the last 3 years, Dr. Berardi has acted as the director of the world's largest body transformation project. This one-of-a-kind fat loss coaching program has produced more total weight loss than all 10 seasons of The Biggest Loser combined.