How Much Should You Be Eating? 3 Simple Tools For Managing Your Food Intake
Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S. Pn1
Whether you’re looking to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain your weight it all comes down to how much you are eating.
If you eat more than you burn you’ll gain weight, less than you burn you’ll lose weight, and if you eat the same amount of calories as you burn you will maintain your weight.
It sounds so simple but if you’ve ever tried to figure out how much you should eat then you know how much harder it is in practice.
The reason is because trying to figure out how many calories you should be eating is almost impossible.
Even Assuming you have the mental tenacity to monitor, weight and log everything you eat and do you would still run into errors. Errors from how we measure calories in food, errors in how we measure calories burned through activity, and errors in pinpointing a constantly changing and adapting metabolism.
Fortunately you don’t need to do any of this.
In this article I will go over two simple ways to answer the question of how much you should be eating, provide you with a method for portioning your meal.
Listen To Your Body
In other words, eat when you're hungry and stop eating when you're not.
It sounds almost to simple doesn’t it?
If it sounds to simple then you can thank hundreds of thousands of years of evolution for that.
The body has many complex systems dedicated to managing energy use, intake and expenditure.
However you don’t need to concern yourself with any of it because your body sums it all up in one feeling - hunger.
If you can learn how to listen and respond to your body’s hunger signals you will be able to better manage how much you should eat.
When coaching our students we like to use the hunger/fullness scale as shown below.
On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 feeling as though you’re starving and weak and 10 feeling nauseous you should eat until a 5 or 6. In other words, eat until you are comfortably full and no longer hungry but no more.
You should feel good after a meal not weighted down, sick or in need of a nap.
Note the feeling of fullness can be delayed, Not kicking in until 10 or 15 minutes after you’ve started your meal. This is why I recommend you eat slowly, taking your time, enjoying the meal, and being mindful of your food. Eat like your French. Bon appetite.
With that said I'm sure I have someone reading this saying “But I always feel hungry!”
To which I say “Do you?”
I ask this because often what we often think is hunger is really appetite.
Hunger is your body's biological need for food and energy. When you’re really hungry you’’ feel it in your belly.
Appetite is more of a craving or a desire to eat. Like when your mouth waters when your looking at a tray of warm fresh-out-the-oven cookies.
We eat for many reasons other than hunger. We eat when we're bored, we eat when we're sad, we eat to celebrate, we eat because we can. Learning how to differentiate the two is key to maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle.
If your unsure the difference here is a quick mental exercise we have our students do.
When you have that desire to eat but you are unsure whether its actual hunger or just a craving visualize a plain healthy meal like chicken and broccoli.
After doing so ask yourself if eating this meal would satisfy you. If you're hungry the answer should be yes. If the answer isn’t a clear yes and you feel like you need a certain ‘something’ then it’s likely you’re dealing with a craving.
If you struggle with cravings and listening to your hunger signals then it may be a sign that you are eating to many highly palatable foods. These super tasty processed foods override your brains natural signals leaving you unable to stop eating and constantly craving more food.
I recommend cutting out junk food for two weeks and see how you feel. At first you may have a number of cravings and withdrawal symptoms but afterwards you should be able to make out the signals your body is sending you much clearer.
At the very least to cut out the ‘I can’t stop when i start foods’.
Measure Your Weight
Measurements provide feedback that informs you whether your actions are working to bring you closer or farther to your goals.
When things aren't working having reliable and consistent feedback allows you to course correct in a timely manner.
Weight is not the best measurement for measuring your health and physique.
It is however the best indicator of how much food you’re eating.
This is why we have our clients hop on the scale once a week.
Depending on how the number changes from the week before determines what adjustments we need to make to a person's diet for the following week.
If a client is trying to lose weight and the number doesn’t move or goes up, then it’s a sign that we need to check their food log because they are eating more than they should.
Ultimately the weight on the scale will give you 5 results
Losing weight rapidly -You’re under eating, likely losing muscle in the process. (more than 4 pounds)
Losing weight slowly - Your eating less than you spend each day. Ok if your goal is weight loss. (1 or 2 pounds)
Weight remains the same - your eating just as much as your expending
Weight rises slowly - Your eating more than you need to maintain your weight. This is ok if you're trying to put on mass. (1 pound or less)
Weight is rising quickly - Your overeating and likely putting on fat (more than a pound and a half)
Depending on your goal, this is the best way to measure whether you're eating more or less than you should.
If your goal is to tone up or change your physique then focusing solely on your weight may be doing more harm than good.
Weight is a valuable measurement but it is only one part of the body transformation process. If you want to understand How your body is changing then you need to use other measurements.
If your interested in the big 3 measurements we use for our clients, and what actions you should take based on these measurements then you should sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a free copy of our weight loss reference guide.
Lastly - A good place to start
When it comes to serving sizes we use the hand portion template popularized by Precision Nutrition.
Why? Because it’s easier than counting calories, you’re hands are always available to use as a source of reference, and hands are proportional to a person size. Bigger people have bigger hands and will need more food.
How it works:
Your palm determines your protein portions.
Your first determines your veggie portions.
Your cupped hand determines your carb portions.
Your thumb determines your fat portions.
Their starting recommendations -
2 palms of protein dense foods with each meal;
2 fists of vegetables with each meal;
2 cupped hands of carb dense foods with most meals;
2 entire thumbs of fat dense foods with most meals.
1 palm of protein dense foods with each meal;
1 fist of vegetables with each meal;
1 cupped hand of carb dense foods with most meals;
1 entire thumb of fat dense foods with most meals.
Use this portion guide as a way to measure your portion sizes.
Putting it all together
Use the hand portion guide as a starting point for how much you should eat.
Adjust based on hunger. Eat when your hungry and stop when you are comfortably full.
Last, check your weight weekly to see how you're doing.
If you did a good job listening to your body and properly portioning your meals then the weight should be about the same as the week before.
If you have specific goals for weight loss or gain, then it will be necessary to adjust the amount you eat as well.
If your trying to gain weight it may require that you eat until a 6 or 7 at most meals.
If your trying to lose weight it may require that you eat closer to a 5 or 4 at most meals (you should never feel deprived when dropping weight).
At the end of the week the scale will confirm how well you executed during the week.
If your goal is body transformation then I strongly suggest you sign up for our newsletter and get a free copy of our reference guide.
How does it work? You take 3 measurements each week. Afterward, you look to the reference guide and find the part that matches your results. . From there the guide will break down what your results mean and what action you should take to continue working towards your goal.
L for loss, M for Maintained, G for gained.
Also here are a few relevant articles we have to answer some of the questions you may still have.
These two articles are in regards to how to better interpret the signals our body sends us.