Josh Hillis: Three Painless Ways to Lose Weight by Cutting Calories, Not Counting Them
Ok, so we know that it takes reducing calories to lose weight. In fact, if your only goal is to have the scale change, there is literally nothing that matters as much as calories consumed.
The problem with counting calories is that counting them makes no difference.
Even if we know we’re eating too much, we still don’t have the habits that make it possible to eat less. Almost universally, I find that clients have habits that make them hungrier. If your habits are making you hungry, then counting calories is like being on the Titanic and counting how fast the ship is sinking. You are highly aware of what’s not working, but you aren’t doing anything that will make a difference.
If you wanted to be hungry all of the time and never be able to stop eating too many calories, here is what you would do:
- Eat fast
- Watch TV while you eat
- Never eat vegetables
- Don’t eat very much protein
What we find is that if you make these four mistakes, you’ll be far hungrier than you need to be. You’ll eat more calories for less fullness. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Three habits for noticing when you’re full, while you are eating
- Eating slowly
- Eating without screens
- Eating just enough
If you eat too fast, you essentially miss the whole meal: You continue to eat beyond the point of being full. Or, you eat while watching TV: Instead of stopping eating when you’re full, you stop eating when the TV show ends.
If that’s you, you never even have a chance at eating just enough because you aren’t there while you are eating. You have to be present enough to receive the fullness signal.
Eating Without Screens
We have a zillion studies demonstrating that when people eat while distracted (most studies were watching TV, but they’ve also done computer games and such), they eat more calories during that meal. Most people actually have already heard or read this at some point.
Here’s where the plot thickens: It’s worse than that!
People don’t just eat more at the meal while they are watching TV . . . they eat more at the next meal as well! The double-whammy of eating more at two meals, after being distracted for one, stacks up a ton of extra calories.
So if you were on your phone playing on the internet while you ate lunch, you’d eat more at lunch and at dinner. If you watch TV while you eat dinner, you eat more at dinner and increase your late night snacking.
Researchers hypothesize that our memory of the meal has a lot to do with how full we feel—possibly more than the food we eat itself. If we are distracted by TV, we get an incomplete memory of the food, and get hungrier later because of it. If you distract yourself at every meal, you’re likely eating more than you need to at every meal, and snacking more on top of it. You’re eating many more calories with no real benefit in feelings of fullness.
If you have people to eat with (like your family!), you can try talking to them instead of watching TV. My clients often report that they learn all kinds of new things about their family when they start talking to them.
If you eat alone, this can be a hard habit to break. I’ve had clients start by eating without screens for just the first minute, two minutes, or five minutes of each meal. You can totally customize the habit by starting small and working your way up. The other way to customize is by deciding how many meals you are going to work on per week.
I haven’t found any studies that show a negative impact from reading, so reading is totally an option.
And you can definitely watch all the TV you want . . . after you eat.
New Strategies for Eating Slowly
We know it takes 20 minutes for the physical signals of fullness to reach our brain. That means that if we eat three servings in 15 minutes, we’ll feel uncomfortably full in 20 minutes, but we won’t really notice while we are eating. That’s why the habit of simply slowing down our eating can be so powerful.
The trick with eating slowly is simply how do you do it? If you’ve tried just setting a timer for 20 minutes and then white knuckling it, you know that’s a terrible plan.
This is where it really helps to have a strategy. Here are some tactics my clients have used successfully:
- Take a sip of water between bites
- Put your fork down between bites
- Don’t take another bite while you still have food in your mouth from the previous bite
- Talk more
- Use a bite timer app
You can be creative from there. I’ve heard even crazier ones—like eating with your non-dominant hand. It doesn’t matter what strategy you use. The important part is to have a strategy.
One last note: If you are eating fast because you are nurse on a 12-hour shift and you don’t ever get to stop to eat lunch, that’s not what this habit is about. If you’re a mom who eats fast because you are trying to feed two kids, that’s not what this habit is about.
People who eat fast because they are busy don’t tend to eat extra servings, they don’t have time to eat extra. This habit is about eating slowly when you can.
Eating Just Enough
I used to call this “Stopping at 80% Full,” but people always got hung up on what 80% meant. Basically, giving people a number was a huge disaster.
Fortunately, I started hanging out with the food genius that is Georgie Fear, RD. Georgie, instead, calls it “Eating Just Enough.”
What’s makes “eating just enough” so great, is that it’s imprecise. We’re actually shooting for a range. It isn’t one specific percentage or one specific bite. There’s a range of amount of food that would probably fit enough, where we aren’t starving an hour later, but neither are we stuffed.
Enough is about eating within a comfortable range of food—eating and feeling good afterwards.
Eating just enough is a cool thing that’s made possible by the first two habits. If you eat slow enough, and you eat present enough, you’ve got a pretty good shot at actually feeling it when you’ve eaten the right amount. You don’t eat too little. You don’t eat too much. You eat somewhere in that range where you feel really good afterwards. Enough.
It’s still messy and it’s still something to practice. Sometimes you might undershoot and be hungry too soon before the next meal. Sometimes you might over-shoot and not feel hungry before the next meal. It’s not something to try to get perfectly, it’s just something to be aware of—a target.
The combination of these three habits is super cool. If you’re used to eating with distraction from screens, and/or really fast, you’ll be blown away the first time you notice that you’ve eaten just enough. You’ll actually stop having eaten way less than normal, and you’ll actually feel more satisfied.
Three logistical habits that make you feel full
- Eat protein
- Eat vegetables
- Pre-portion your meals
You’ve probably seen some version of these three tips before. In real life, I find most clients still aren’t planning their meals this way. They have nothing but carbohydrates for breakfast, and then can’t figure out why they are starving before lunch.
Protein + Vegetables = Low Calorie Fullness
The trick is to plan every meal in that order:
- What protein am I going to have?
- What vegetables am I going to have?
Starting with protein and vegetables is going to massively increase how filling any meal is. You can hit it with some carbohydrates and fat afterwards.
Portioning Your Food Ahead of Time
Pre-portioning meals is a magical secret for getting the calories right, without having to count them. I don’t care how you portion it, if you use the hand method or if you get smaller plates and then divide up the plate. There are tons of different ways to do this, if you google “hand method portion control” you’ll get a zillion.
Some of the most popular include:
- A portion of protein: The palm of your hand
- A portion of carbohydrates: Your fist
- A portion of vegetables: Two fists
- A portion of fat: Your thumb
Usually, they’ll give the above as a recommendation for women, and then double that for men. Both are rough estimates, and could be adjusted based on your age, activity level, muscle mass, etc. It’s a good starting point, and is really eye opening for how much we are used to getting over-served at restaurants.
The plate method usually looks like:
- A portion of protein: ¼ plate
- A portion of carbohydrates: ¼ plate
- A portion of vegetables: ½ plate
- A portion of fat: A tablespoon (or two)
- They usually recommend getting smaller plates
Whether you use the hand method or the plate method is irrelevant. The important thing is that you start paying attention to the portions you serve yourself.
Another interesting concept that shows up in research is called “unit bias.” Unit bias states that people are generally just as satisfied with a “unit” of food, regardless of how many calories are in that unit.
For example, if someone eats a sandwich, they are as full as they expect to be from a sandwich. They’ve given people sandwiches with vastly different amounts of calories, and people always reported the same amount of fullness and satisfaction. It’s one of those things where our perception of what we ate can have a bigger effect on our fullness than what we ate itself. We can use that to our advantage by simply making ourselves a lower calorie unit of food.
Similar to unit bias, there have been a ton of great studies on food planning. About 8-out-of-10 times, people eat however much they had planned to eat. By portioning our food ahead of time, we can set ourselves up to eat the amount that suits our goals.
What To Do Right Now
Most people read this and say “Ok, I’ll implement those three mindfulness habits and those three planning habits!”
That, of course, is always a disaster.
The people who win at habits always have one thing in common: They only work on one at a time. ~ Josh Hillis Click To Tweet
Focus is your friend. Seriously, it’s far more intelligent and disciplined to win one game than to lose six games.
It’s like learning the kettlebell snatch:
- Learn to hip hinge
- Learn to deadlift
- Learn to swing
- Learn to snatch
Only a complete idiot would go from zero to trying to kettlebell snatch. Anyone who’s ever taught those knows that there are sub-sets of skills people need to work on at each of those levels.
Similarly, you can’t go from zero to eating just enough. If you aren’t already eating slowly and eating distraction free, it’s nearly impossible. Likewise, there are sub-sets of skills inside of just eating slowly, like putting the fork down between bites.
If you dig in on one habit for two or three weeks, make some legitimate progress and learn something about yourself and your life inside of that habit, you can own that progress for life. Build the next habit on top of that.
Everyone who is “naturally lean” has a multitude of habits stacked on top of each other, fully customized to their schedule and stress level and fully ingrained into their life. If you approach each habit with it as your goal, then a year from now, you’ll be naturally lean and not really have to think about it or manage it.
Just do the work on the front end, by focusing on one habit at a time.
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