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
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 & DiNicolantonio 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—not to mention tracking their exercise and making the two balance—they’re rewarded with less precision than you’d think.
And 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 actually make change harder.
In other words, focusing on less can actually help clients accomplish more.
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 Approach
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 is 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 tend to have smaller hands, your own hand can be a personalized (and portable) measuring device for your food
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?
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.
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.
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.
For more information and practical tips, please see “Nutrition by the Handful: An Alternative to Counting Calories” in the online IDEA Library or in the April 2016 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.
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