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5 ways to lose weight without counting calories
These totally doable (and fun) tips will help you slim down — without doing any stressful math.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of The Biggest Loser or seen an ad for a diet company, you’re probably familiar with this mantra: “Calories in, calories out.” The theory: If you eat the same number of calories that you burn, your weight will stay the same. And a calorie deficit will lead to weight loss.
But it turns out our bodies are more complicated than a calculator. For example, eating less can slow your metabolism. And this can make it harder to lose weight in the first place. Plus, not all foods are digested and used by our body in the same way.
So, can counting calories — in an attempt to consume fewer calories than you burn — really lead to a lower number on the scale? Here’s what you need to know.
Why counting calories could be sabotaging your weight loss
Let’s be clear: Not all tracking is bad. A recent study in the journal Obesity found that writing down what you eat increases weight loss. The idea is that once you’re more aware of what you’re putting on your plate, you’re better able to make informed changes.
But when it comes to losing weight, it’s the quality of calories — not just the quantity — that determines your success, says Laura Burak. Burak is a registered dietitian based in Roslyn, New York, and the author of Slim Down with Smoothies.
Compare the 500 calories you might get from a sugary doughnut to 500 calories from a big, leafy green salad. The salad is topped with an egg, a quarter of an avocado, 3 ounces of chicken and a drizzle of vinaigrette dressing. Since the salad is lower in sugar and higher in protein and fiber, it won’t spike your blood sugar in the way a doughnut will. Plus, the salad contains disease-fighting nutrients that boost health. And the fiber in the salad will help keep you fuller for longer.
In a 2018 JAMA study, researchers found that when people ate less highly processed foods, they lost more weight than their peers who counted calories. The people who lost more weight opted to fill up on more vegetables and whole foods without ever monitoring their calorie intake.
“When you focus on quality foods and learn how they’re working for your body, you will naturally begin to take in less calories overall,” says Burak.
And if you’re currently counting calories, your totals probably aren’t as accurate as you think. That’s because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows for a 20% margin of error on the calorie counts listed on nutrition facts panels.
Instead of aiming to restrict calories, think about all the good things you can add to your plate (and your life) with these five reasonable resolutions. These daily goals will help you shed pounds in a healthy and sustainable way. (And keep them off, too.)
Calorie-counting swap #1: Eat four or more different types of produce
“No matter what’s going on in your life, aim to get at least two foods that resemble a fruit or vegetable into your day,” says Burak. That could take the form of berries with breakfast and a salad or veggie soup with lunch.
But in an ideal world, your goal should be a bit higher. A 2018 Nutrients study suggests that four (or more) servings of vegetables per day is the magic number for weight loss. That’s because vegetables are low in natural sugars and calories. Not a fan of veggies? Here are 7 easy kitchen tips that just might convert you.
Calorie-counting swap #2: Drink half of your body weight in ounces of water
One of the most important components of weight loss doesn’t have anything to do with food at all. It’s about hydration.
“Most of us are chronically dehydrated,” Burak says. “Water is involved in every process in your body. And it keeps you full and your hunger in check.” That’s because our brains often confuse hunger and thirst, she says.
Proper hydration is even linked with a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. That’s according to a research review in Frontiers in Nutrition.
Aim for at least half your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water per day. So if you’re 150 pounds, try to drink at least 75 ounces of water.
Calorie-counting swap #3: Walk 10,000 steps
Walking at least 10,000 steps per day is a boon for your longevity and weight-loss goals. Some people use a wearable fitness tracker or an app on your phone to stay accountable. Others just aim to get more activity during the day.
“Set a goal to move more in general,” Burak says. For you, that could be parking farther away from a store, taking the stairs or taking 10-minute walks during a work break. Blocking out time for it in your schedule can make it more likely to happen, too.
Calorie-counting swap #4: Make quality sleep a priority
Chronic sleep deprivation can make weight loss tough. It can alter hunger hormones, boost stress levels and drive you to seek snacks for an energy boost when you’re dragging, says Katherine Brooking. Brooking is a registered dietitian based in Westchester County, New York, and Ridgefield, Connecticut, and cofounder of the nutrition-focused media company Appetite for Health.
So what happens during the night could be leading you to hold on to excess weight.
Sleep needs are different for everyone. But it’s recommended that most adults get seven hours of shut-eye or more each night.
According to a 2022 JAMA Internal Medicine study, every minute matters. Overweight people who normally slept 6.5 hours or less per night were asked to add over an hour to their snooze time. The result? They consumed an average of 270 fewer calories per day. That means they ate less without even planning to diet.
Calorie-counting swap #5: Load up on fiber
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that for every 1,000 calories we consume, we eat at least 14 grams of fiber. That comes out to about 25 to 30 grams for most people — yet only 1 in 20 Americans meet this mark. But stepping things up can make a big difference in your digestive health and your weight, Brooking says.
In a groundbreaking 2019 study, researchers found that eating more fiber per day was the single-best determinant of predicting weight loss. And that was regardless of any other dietary factor (including intake of calories, carbohydrates, proteins and fat).
Fiber is found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. Here are some standout high-fiber picks to add to your shopping list.
The number on the scale isn’t the only measure of health
Is the scale a helpful tool, or is it an enemy that drains your motivation? If it’s the latter, know that there are other ways to track your success.
Maybe your clothes fit better, or you’re less bloated, or you have more energy. Your weight can change by the hour, which is totally normal, says Burak. Through every up and down, remind yourself that the small steps you’re taking will add up over time.
“Better health and weight loss are not Amazon packages that’ll show up on your doorstep tomorrow,” she adds. It takes time, effort and patience. For you, maybe that’s tracking calories or what you eat. For others, it can involve unlearning past habits and committing to a whole-body wellness approach for the long haul.
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Benefits of tracking for weight loss: Obesity (2019). “Log often, lose more: electronic dietary self-monitoring for weight loss”
Effect of eating less processed food vs. counting calories: JAMA (2018). “Effect of low-fat vs. low-carbohydrate diet on 12-month weight loss in overweight adults and the association with genotype pattern or insulin secretion”
How the nutrition facts label is regulated: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Weight-loss benefits of eating veggies: Nutrients (2018). “The relationship between vegetable intake and weight outcomes: a systematic review of cohort studies”
Role of hydration in weight loss: Frontiers in Nutrition (2016). “Increased hydration can be associated with weight loss”
How sleep affects weight: JAMA Internal Medicine (2022). “Effect of sleep extension on objectively assessed energy intake among adults with overweight in real-life settings”
Link between increased fiber intake and weight loss: The Journal of Nutrition (2019). “Fiber intake predicts weight loss and dietary adherence in adults consuming calorie-restricted diets: the POUNDS lost (Preventing Overweight Using Novel Dietary Strategies) study”