Getting and staying lean is a common fitness goal. You may want to drop a few pounds and get slimmer or get super-ripped like a competitive bodybuilder or fitness model. Or, you could already be lean and just want to stay that way.
It’s all a matter of degrees.
Ultimately, controlling your body fat percentage or body composition involves managing your calorie intake. Consume too many calories, and you’ll gain fat. But, consume too few, and hunger will make maintaining a healthy diet much harder than it needs to be.
Because of this, a lot of exercisers weigh and measure their food so that they know how many calories they’re consuming and how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat they’re eating.
Counting calories and macros means you can adjust your intake to reflect your needs and goals.
However, counting calories and macros is not always easy, and some people find it restrictive and impractical.
The good news is that you can achieve your body composition goals without counting calories or weighing your food.
In this article, we reveal some tips and strategies for getting and staying lean that do not involve calorie counting or food weighing.
- The Problem with Calorie Counting and Macro Tracking
- 8 Tips for Staying Lean Without Tracking Calories or Macros
- Closing Thoughts
The Problem with Calorie Counting and Macro Tracking
While some people have no problem tracking macros and counting calories, there are disadvantages that may make it impractical for others. Common difficulties associated with counting and tracking calories and macros include:
Time and effort
There is no escaping the fact that tracking calories and macros take time and effort. You’ll need to weigh your food, look it up on a food tracking app, and then record each meal to ensure that, at the end of the day, you hit your nutritional targets.
All this weighing and measuring is quite labor intensive and means that you can’t just grab some food and scarf it down without first analyzing the meal you’re about to eat.
While this extra effort may seem worthwhile for some people, it may be too much for others.
Food is one of life’s pleasures. We eat not only to satisfy our body’s need for calories and macros but because food tastes good.
Tracking your food intake can distort your relationship with food, making eating a chore rather than something to enjoy. Instead of eating a meal for pleasure and taste, it’s possible to become obsessed with calories and macros. You may even feel guilt or shame because you fail to hit your macro and calorie targets.
Eating disorders have become increasingly common among exercisers, both female and male. Obsessive food tracking could be part of the reason.
Food is often part of social gatherings, from family dinners to celebratory meals to sharing a snack with a friend or colleague.
Recording your calories and macros means you may feel that you cannot enjoy food in a social setting because it won’t fit your macros, or you may not be able to control your caloric intake.
In some instances, this could lead to turning down social engagements where food will be served.
If you are a competitive bodybuilder or fitness model preparing for a photo shoot, this level of commitment is part and parcel of what you need to do to get super-ripped. But, for the average exerciser who just wants to get and stay lean, such big sacrifices may outweigh the perceived benefits.
Losing touch with your hunger signals
Before diet tracking was a thing, people controlled their food intake by listening to their hunger signals. They ate until they felt satisfied but not full and ate less if they weren’t hungry.
Becoming over-reliant on food tracking may mean you eat when you aren’t hungry just to meet your macro or calorie goal for the day. Similarly, you may have to eat less than you want to avoid consuming more calories than your tracking app says you should.
Either way, relying on calorie tracking to determine how much food you should eat could mean that you end up losing touch with your appetite and hunger signals. This could prove problematic if you stop tracking your food intake and return to a more freeform approach to eating, as your appetite will no longer be a reliable way to control your food intake.
While food tracking can be helpful, it may not suit everyone. The good news is that most people can get and stay lean without obsessively counting macros and calories.
8 Tips for Staying Lean Without Tracking Calories or Macros
Bored of counting calories or tracking macros? Does it seem like more trouble than it’s worth? No worries! Use these strategies to get and stay lean without all the measuring and number-crunching.
1. Eat pre-portioned foods
A lot of foods are available in pre-portioned packages, and all food labels provide you with a calorie and macro breakdown per serving. Seek out these foods and use them to create meals that meet your nutritional needs without having to weigh or measure anything.
2. Fill up on “free foods”
While there is no such thing as a negative calorie food, some foodstuffs are so low in calories that you don’t need to worry about how much of them you eat. For example, most vegetables are so low in calories that even if you have a huge portion, you’ll still only end up consuming a small number of calories.
Good examples of very low-calorie foods you can eat in abundance include:
- Brussels sprouts
All these foods are so low in calories that there is no need to count or track them. You can eat them in abundance without derailing your diet.
3. Eat the same meal more often
The most time-consuming part of counting calories and macros is working out what’s in a new meal. You’ll need to weigh and measure every food you’re about to eat to get an accurate figure for protein, carbs, fats, and calories.
What a drag!
You can save a lot of time by eating the same meal in the same quantities a couple of times per week. That way, you already know the nutritional values of your meal and don’t need to work them out again.
For example, you could eat this bodybuilding classic several times per week:
- 1 medium-sized grilled chicken breast
- 1 cup of cooked brown rice
- Large serving of broccoli and carrots
Add some different herbs and spices to liven up the meal, but nutritionally, and even if you really pile on the veggies, the macros and calories for each serving will be very similar.
You can then go on to create several more meals that match your macros and calorie needs. Rotate the meals knowing that each one will provide you with what you need without weighing or tracking anything.
4. Eat smaller portions
Most people tend to eat larger portions than they should. This is especially true when your goal is weight management. Food is often sold in larger quantities to make it more appealing, e.g., big bags of potato chips and candy, XXL pizzas, and go-large takeout meals.
Knowing this, you can easily consume fewer calories simply by consuming smaller portions of foods that you know are high in calories.
For example, you can eat one slice of pizza with a huge salad instead of eating the whole pie. This would save you thousands of calories without weighing or measuring anything.
You can apply this methodology to almost everything you eat, especially foods that you know are quite calorie dense, including bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, cereals, etc. While this will take a little self-control and discipline, it’s far less time-consuming and labor-intensive than weighing your food.
You can then serve that smaller serving on a smaller plate to make it look bigger than it really is. As the saying goes, you eat with your eyes, and making a meal look larger and more satisfying can help trick you into thinking that it really is.
5. Cut out soda and other caloric beverages from your diet
Soda and other caloric beverages can add a lot of calories to your diet. However, liquid calories are not usually very filling. As a result, even a couple of sodas or energy drinks per day can make it much harder to lose or control your weight and body composition.
Stop drinking calories to reduce your caloric intake and leave more room for satisfying, filling foods in your diet.
If you can’t quit soda entirely, make the switch to calorie-free diet varieties. While some people have concerns about the healthfulness of artificial sweeteners, studies suggest that they should be safe when consumed in moderate amounts (1).
6. Include protein in every meal and snack
As every bodybuilder knows, protein is critical for muscle growth and post-training recovery. It’s also very satiating, helps preserve muscle mass during a restricted-calorie diet, and speeds up your metabolic rate because of its high thermic effect. It’s widely accepted that most lifters need about one gram of protein per pound of body weight.
But how do you make sure you are getting enough protein if you aren’t tracking your macros?
The simplest solution is to include a source of high-quality protein at every meal and snack you eat each day. Assuming you eat three meals and have two snacks, this should allow you to hit your daily protein requirements easily and without tracking or measuring anything.
A “good sized” serving of protein will contain between 20-30 grams of protein. Eat five servings per day, and you should be able to hit 120-180 grams of protein without trying too hard.
- 1 scoop whey protein – 24 grams
- 1 average cooked chicken breast – 54 grams
- 4 eggs – 24 grams
- 8 ounces of natural yogurt – 15 grams
- 1 can of tuna – 24 grams
- 2 ounces beef jerky – 18 grams
- 2 cups of non-fat milk – 18 grams
- 3 ounces of sliced turkey – 24 grams
Mix and match your protein sources to avoid boredom and ensure you get a broad spectrum of amino acids. Consuming protein at every meal and snack should make getting enough protein very straightforward and achievable.
7. Skip a meal
Do you feel like you are overeating? Have you been overindulging – maybe over the weekend? Perhaps you had an unexpected treat or just felt hungry and ate more than you meant to. These are commons problem that many of us face from time to time.
You can fix unplanned overeating very easily just by skipping your next meal. Meal skipping will save you a lot of calories, defusing the potential impact of any overindulgences.
This is a sort of informal, unstructured intermittent fast, known as IF for short.
IF is a diet where you restrict your meals to predetermined eating windows. For example, you may fast for 18 hours and only allow yourself to eat for six.
While IF can work, it’s also quite limiting and may not appeal to everyone, especially for long-term use. Unstructured IF means you can skip a meal whenever you need to, so your diet stays on the straight and narrow.
Think of this as your “get out of jail free” card if you have accidentally consumed more food than you should have.
8. Make your home a temptation-free zone
If you want to get lean and stay lean, you need to cut down on things like junk food and high-calorie treats, such as candy, cookies, snack cakes, and other “diet killers.” However, it’s also common to have these things in your home.
After all, you don’t have to give up these foods forever, right? You may even be saving them for a planned cheat meal.
The problem with this is that if you have these foods in your home, at some point, you will eat them. Easy access to high-calorie goods means that you can have them anytime your willpower takes a dive.
Take the pressure off your willpower by removing any junk food from your home. This doesn’t mean you have to give up these foods for good. Instead, it just means you won’t be able to eat them anytime you like. Eating high-calorie junk food less often is an easy way to lower your average calorie intake.
If you are happy weighing your meals and tracking calories and macros, you should continue doing so. For some people, any potential drawbacks are far outweighed by the benefits.
But if you find calorie and macro tracking a drag, you don’t have to do it. While your dietary intake won’t be quite so controlled, you can get and stay lean without having to weigh and measure everything you eat.
Simply adjust the quantity of food you’re eating based on your progress. Just use the tips and strategies in this article and eat a little less if you aren’t losing weight.
Plus, you don’t need to hit your macro and calorie goals with laser-like precision to get or stay leaner. Averages over weeks and months matter more. Your success depends more on consistency and sustainability than accuracy.
People have been managing their weight for centuries without tracking calories or macros, and you can do it too. It does require a little practice, as it’s up to you to determine your food intake. But as you become more experienced, you should find that you can control your body composition by relying solely on your appetite and common sense and making good food choices.
1 – Mayo Clinic: Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes https://www.mayoclinic.org