“I eat only healthy foods. So why can’t I lose weight?”
Believe it or not, this is one of the questions I get emailed about the most.
Because for the most part, most people these days know they should be eating plenty of veggies, lean protein, unprocessed carbohydrates, fruit, and healthy fats. They know they should be minimizing their sugar intake, cooking at home whenever possible, and swapping green tea and water for their daily soda.
So when people eat healthy but still can’t seem to lose weight, or even end up gaining weight, it’s understandably very frustrating.
So what’s the key to not gaining weight on healthy foods?
The answer is fairly simple, but unglamorous: portion control.
Watch what you eat
Yes, you know you need to control your portions when you have a piece of cake or bowl of ice cream. But you may not have realized that the same goes for ancient grains, healthy fats, and even fruit.
When you load up your plate with good things like quinoa, avocado, nuts, berries, greek yogurt and oatmeal, what you have to realize those aren’t “free” calories. No matter how healthy the food is for you, those calories can still add up, causing you to experience a weight loss plateau or even weight gain.
And sure, there are different schools of thought on calories—the traditional school of thought is that when you eat less calories than you burn, you lose weight, and vise versa. But recent research by the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that this way of thinking is flawed, and that the body processes different types of calories differently. So basically, when you’re eating a diet that’s fairly low-carb and includes minimally processed grains, vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats, you can actually eat more than if you were eating a low fat, minimal protein diet.
But that doesn’t mean that even if your diet is mostly the latter, you don’t still have to watch your portions.
So how much healthy food should you be eating?
While it will obviously vary based on your own personal goals, here’s a general rule to follow when trying to figure how big your portions should be:
- Lean protein (meat, fish, eggs, etc.): Approximately 2x the size of your palm
- Carbs (oatmeal, rice, quinoa, etc.): Approximately 1x the size of your palm
- Vegetables: Approximately 2x the size of your palm
- Lean protein: Approximately 1x the size of your palm
- Carbs: Approximately 1x your palm
- Vegetables: Approximately 2x your palm
And that’s all you need to remember when it comes to figuring out your portion sizes.
Of course, you can get more technical by measuring grams, but if you stick to the palm rule, you should be doing ok. Oh, and those measurements are based on eating 4-6 times a day—feel free to adjust as necessary if you eat more or less than that.
As for fruit, try and stick to 2-3 portions a day—a portion size being a medium apple, orange, peach, a palmful of berries, a single small to medium banana, etc. Any more than that and you may be hindering potential weight loss.
Be aware of the extras
Aside from too big of portions, one of the easiest ways to make healthy food work against you is what you (or the restaurant you’re eating at) puts on it. The biggest culprits here are oils, sauces, cheese, butter, and grains.
Obviously, this is going to be a lot easier to figure out if you’re eating at home a lot, since cooking your own food helps you know exactly how much oil, etc. you’re putting in your food. If you eat out a lot, however, it’s going to be a lot more tricky, and this is where you might be getting yourself in trouble.
For example, there’s this awesome restaurant my husband and I love to go to in San Francisco that has really fantastic, fresh food, outdoor seating, and good wine. When you first look at their menu, they seem to offer several healthy options, including appetizers like broccolini (yum!), baked cauliflower, and roasted beats.
Most people probably order these dishes thinking they’re making a healthy choice. But they may not realize that:
- The cauliflower is covered in butter and bread crumbs
- The broccoli is smothered in oil and cheese
- The beets have at least three servings of cheese (300 calories+) and probably oil or butter as well
Alone, these veggies would be incredibly low-cal, healthy choices. But with the toppings (that obviously make them delicious) they can easily contain more calories than you should be eating in an entire meal.
The lesson here? To pay attention to not only the amount you’re eating, but also what’s been added to your food.
Track what you eat
While I don’t necessarily recommend doing this all the time (doing so can be both time consuming and frankly just annoying for you and those around you), tracking what you eat can be one of the best ways to figure out if you’re consuming too many healthy foods.
And it’s easy to get started: simply keep a notebook and write down everything you eat for a few days, or even use an app like Lose It to track how much you’re really eating.
But here’s the thing: if you’re going to track what you eat, you have to be accurate. Most people actually underestimate how much food they’re eating during the day, so you’ll need to make sure to write down or record every single thing you eat and the quantity of it. You may want to even use a digital food scale or at least use measuring cups to ensure accuracy.
Try this for a few days or even a week, and see how you do. Are you eating too many healthy foods? Skimping out on your protein and fat and focusing mostly on carbohydrates? Your results may show you the real reason that despite your healthy diet, the pounds haven’t been flying off.
Tip: To figure about how many calories you should be eating, you can try this free calculator by Eat to Perform, which I prefer over the standard calorie calculators.
Eating healthy and reaching your goals depends not only on what you eat, but on how much you eat as well.
And the very best thing you can do to reach your goals? Train yourself to be a mindful eater.
Start paying attention to what you eat, how you feel afterwards, how much energy you have, and how your workouts go. You don’t have to weigh yourself, but at least start to notice how your clothes fit and how you look in the mirror. If something is off, make small adjustments to change it until you feel like you’re finally on the right track.
And most of all, take joy in what you eat. Because life is short, and food is meant to be enjoyed, right?