Balm in Gilead
There’s no magic formula to losing weight (other than
calories in < calories out), but there are some shortcuts, tricks, and tips that I’ve discovered through my four years of Clean Livin’ that could help you navigate the broken glass that’s hidden in the grass. These tips may not work for everyone, but they work for me, and if you can try them and not mind the changes, you get the added weight loss benefit for free.
Think about it this way: if you can substitute one thing for another that’s just as good (or sometimes even better) it’s one small step toward cutting out a small number of calories, but those small numbers add up over the course of a day, week, or year.
Stupid Human Tricks
- Downsize Your Plate – Since you’ll likely be done eating before you end up feeling full, most people will know that they’re done eating by looking down at their empty plate. You can reduce your calorie intake simply by making your plate smaller. It sounds stupid, but it works. I usually eat most of my meals on a salad or small dessert plate.
- Pre-Portion Everything – Don’t eat from a container or bag unless you intend to eat the entire thing. Sure, you may stop when you’re full, or when you’ve had a serving, but you’re far more likely to over-eat when you can’t see the portion that’s going into your stomach. Place what you intend to eat on a plate or bowl prior to eating it. If you decide you want more, at least you’re deciding to eat more and not just mindlessly shoving food down your craw.
- Measure Your Food – Unless you’re eating something that’s prepared and individually portioned, the only way you’re going to know just how much meat, beans, or soup you’re having is to measure it out with a measuring cup or weigh it on a food scale. Studies have shown that people underestimate the portion size of even something as simple as a chicken breast by 30–40%. It only takes a moment to put your plate on the scale, tare it (i.e. zero it out), and weigh a portion. You can even keep taring the scale between adding additional food to it. Weighing your food is the most accurate way to measure the calories in that food, because the volume of solid food items can vary between measuring depending on how the food is oriented or packed.
- Slow Down – I’m as guilty of eating too fast as anyone. Studies have shown, however, that people who eat more slowly also eat fewer calories than people who scarf down their food. Not only does it take about twenty minutes for you to start feeling full after you start eating, but by chewing your food more you taste it more, and will find that smaller portions won’t leave you feeling hungry afterwards if you eat your food more slowly.
- Pay Attention – My wife and I still eat while watching television sometimes. We almost always eat official “meals” at the dining room table, but will often eat an evening snack while watching a movie or TV show. We try to combat overeating by portioning our snacks (usually fruit or air-popped popcorn) in the kitchen and then taking our bowls to the sofa, but it’s probably still a bad habit that promotes mindless eating. Have you ever finished eating only to discover that you didn’t even notice you were eating by the time you were done? This is especially frustrating when you’ve been eating something unhealthy, because now you’ve not only eaten a large number of calories, but you didn’t even get to enjoy them. That doesn’t sound like fun. If you’re going to eat potato chips, at least eat them mindfully so you can enjoy the experience.
- Mustard Instead of Mayo – Mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil and egg, but it’s mostly oil. Mustard is usually comprised of ground mustard seeds (mustard is a plant), vinegar, and salt. Unless you get honey mustard or mustard mixed with some other sugary concoction, it’s usually zero calories, whereas mayo is 100 calories per tablespoon, which is about as much as you’d put on a sandwich if you don’t use a lot of mayo. You get the added benefit that mustard is tastier (although I do admit a love of mayo on certain types of sandwich).
- Fat Free Singles Cheese – If you’re going to eat processed American cheese anyway, switching to the 25–30 calorie variety versus the 60 calorie per slice regular is a no-brainer. They’re also usually individually wrapped and melt really well, so they’re great in omelettes, on sandwiches, and as a cheesy additive to beans. I actually prefer the taste of the fat-free vs. the regular slices of my local supermarket’s brand. The Kraft fat free singles are generally available everywhere, though, and are also very good.
- Reduced- or Non-Fat – I’ve been drinking 1% or 2% milk instead of whole milk for so long that the whole milk (typically 4% fat) tastes too creamy to me now. However, skim milk just tastes watery and thin. It’s amazing what 1% of dairy fat can do to the taste of milk. Switching from whole milk to 1% will save you 60 calories per cup. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but adding up a few 25–75 calorie substitutions in a day can mean an extra pound lost per month. Cheese is another area where you can get reduced or non-fat varieties of some cheeses. As with the fat free singles cheese, skim-milk (which is sometimes harder to find than “part-skim” varieties) mozzarella is another example where if you’re mixing it into a recipe or using it to top a baked dish you won’t even miss the added fat and the calories that it brings. Easy substitution.
- Leaner Cuts – You probably already consider boneless, skinless chicken breast a diet food, but did you know that the more succulent pork loin is ounce-for-ounce less caloric than chicken breast? Believe it, bucko. When eating red meat, like steak, you can probably switch out a fattier ribeye or sirloin for a leaner filet mignon or New York strip steak. Ground beef is usually labeled with the percent of lean meat that’s in the container, but with steaks it’s harder to tell, especially when you’ve been trained to look for good marbling (the white marble strains in the otherwise red meat is the fat). Barring buying a leaner cut of beef, grilling it so that the fat drips between the grates is a healthier option than pan-searing it so that it reabsorbs its fat while cooking. Pro tip: while letting the steak rest for a few minutes, take some marinade and pour it over the steak to make it juicier. Yes, after cooking. While the meat fibers cool and the protein strands relax they’ll wick up that flavorful juice and make even leaner cuts of beef taste fantastic. Just be sure to use a low-calorie marinade or you’re just substituting beef fat calories for calories in the marinade.
Easy Foods To Cut
This one is harder to provide examples for, because the high-calorie foods that you eat often but don’t really enjoy that much will be different for you than they are for me, but I can at least share a list of foods that I’ve cut out or those of which I’ve drastically reduced my consumption.
If you’re eating something out of habit or just because it’s there (for example, snacks that are available in the office) and you wouldn’t miss them, just cut them out. Not eating something you don’t even like isn’t a sacrifice at all. If you examine what you’re eating every day and really think about it, there are probably at least a few foods that you can give the pink slip.
While I haven’t completely barred any food from my diet (because I’m not on a diet, I’m just eating better), there are a bunch of things that I hardly ever eat anymore.
- The Offender: Soda/Pop – Of course, as I list soda as a beverage I rarely consume, I just finished drinking a tiny plastic cup of Coke Zero while I type this on an airplane. I used to drink a few cans of regular Coca-Cola Classic while at work (because it was there) every day, and switching to coffee and then water made it easy to remove hundreds of calories from my daily intake. I don’t miss it at all, although I did buy a SodaStream carbonator to make fizzy water for when I want some bubbles, which is hardly ever.
The Lower-Calorie Substitute – I usually drink plain old filtered or tap water (I know, I’m boring).
- Offender: High Carb Breakfasts – I used to eat a lot more bagels, pancakes, and waffles than I do now.
Substitute: Usually yogurt with a bunch of nutritionally-strategic additives – granola, berries, walnuts, flax seed, chia seed, or other foods that I’m getting into my diet by adding them to my morning mélange. I’ll have eggs for breakfast once or twice a week (and then maybe once again for lunch or dinner). I’ll have oatmeal once or twice a week (which I should increase but I like my yogurt more).
- Offender: Sugary Desserts and Snacks – I used to eat a lot of cake, pie, or ice cream for dessert.
Substitute: – I’ll have some fruit or popcorn. Sometimes in the summer we’ll splurge and have some frozen yogurt or kefir, which is about 100–120 calories per 5 oz, as opposed to the 200ish calories in the same volume of ice cream.
- Offender: Cheeseburgers – Man, I loves me a good burger. Add cheese, bacon, and katsup to really kick things up a notch, especially if you throw in a side of crispy french fries and a tasty cold beer.
Substitute: – There is no substitute for a burger. I just eat them less frequently. I enjoy them a whole lot more when I do eat them now, though, and will grill up the burgers myself rather than get them at a restaurant.
- Offender: Sausage – Most sausages are loaded with fat (and other things).
Substitute: Chicken Sausage – Before you close your browser in disgust, just hear me out. I used to be like you, scoffing at the idea of a chicken sausage or some other ridiculous hot dog substitute, but in the past few years chicken sausages have really kicked it up a notch. At one-half to two-thirds fewer calories than their pork or beef counterparts, chicken sausages can be well spiced and mixed with healthy alternatives to fat, like apples, peppers, or even low-fat cheese. Living in Chicago, I’m particular partial to the new chicken sausages from Vienna Beef. They’re so good I actually prefer them to their hot dogs (although I do miss the natural casing snap of the standard dogs).
- Offender: French Fries, Rice, Bread Stuffing, Pasta, and other Starches – Growing up most meals would consist of a well-rounded plate of some meat, fish, or other protein, some vegetable, and some starch like macaroni & cheese or rice. The problem with these starches is that they provide a ton of calories without providing that much in the way of nutrition.
Substitute: Beans – Beans also contain a lot of starch, of course, and with that, a lot of calories compared to vegetables or proteins. However, beans are also loaded with dietary fiber and vitamins, and are thus really good for you. I usually don’t eat more than a half-cup serving of beans at any given time, but they’re excellent (and if you spice them up, much tastier than boring ol’ white rice).
Small changes to your eating habits add up over time to big weight loss. A few calories here and there don’t seem like much, but you can easily lose a pound a week by reducing your calorie intake by just 350 calories a day; reduced because you’ve found ways around starving yourself by eating lower-calorie foods that taste just as good (or better) than their higher-calorie culinary equivalents.
Truth be told I don’t eat that much red meat these days, but sometimes a nice grilled flank steak or filet mignon is a nice side dish for a big salad. Yes, I’ve flipped the portions. The meat isn’t the main course, it’s a side dish to vegetables. You won’t miss the difference between 4oz and 8oz of meat, especially if you’re eating it slowly, don’t have it very often, and savor every bite. If anything, you’ll probably enjoy it more when you do eat red meat. ↩