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Research and real world experience both prove that creating menus, counting calories and keeping a food journal are effective tools for nutrition awareness, education, motivation, accountability and increased fat loss results.
If you use self-monitoring techniques of all kinds - including tracking your food intake - you'll have better success at long term maintenance too.
There is only ONE WAY to truly understand food and how it affects YOUR body: You have to go through all four stages of the learning process:
THE 4 STAGES OF LEARNING
Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence - you are eating the wrong foods in the wrong amounts and you're not even aware of it. (You don't know what you're doing and you don't know that you don't know what you're doing)
Stage 2: Conscious incompetence - you are eating the wrong foods in the wrong amounts, but for some reason, you now become aware of it. This is often because of "hitting bottom" or an "I'm not gonna live like this anymore" epiphany. (You don't know what you're doing and now you know that you don't know what you're doing!)
Stage 3: Conscious competence - you educate yourself and begin to eat the right foods, but it takes a lot of thought and effort to eat the right things in the right amounts. (You know what you're doing, but you have to think about it and work very hard to make it happen because you're using willpower and still learning)
Stage 4: Unconscious competence - you've made the conscious effort to eat the right foods in the right amounts and you've counted calories and kept a nutrition journal for long enough and with enough repetition that these behaviors become habits and a part of your lifestyle. (You know what you're doing and you do it easily and automatically without having to think about it).
So you see, it's not that I'm attacking "intuitive eating." To the contrary - I think the concept has merit:
If we listened to our body's true signals, I believe that our appetite, our activity and our body weight would properly regulate themselves.
The problem is, in our Western, technologically-advanced culture with a sedentary lifestyle, social pressure and food cues tempting us at every turn, our intuitive bodily wisdom constantly gets short-circuited.
In our modern society, being able to eat by instinct and successfully "guesstimate" your nutrition or trust your feelings of hunger and satiety are not things that come naturally or easily for most people.
Big example: The calorie counts in restaurant meals or in fast food today are TOTALLY non-intuitive. Coffees with over 700 calories??? "Healthy" salads with over 1,000 calories??? Appetizers withover 2,000 calories??? It's true. Who'd have guessed THAT?
And how about liquid calories? They don't activate your body's satiety mechanisms properly, so your body doesn't even send you the "I'm full" signal when it should.
The only sure-fire way to reach that hallowed place of unconscious competence where eating the right foods in the right amounts becomes automatic is by going through the nutrition education process.
Two simple ways to count calories and get this nutrition education you need are the meal plan method and the nutrition journal method.
THE MEAL PLAN METHOD
Using software or a spreadsheet, create a menu plan meal by meal, with calories, macronutrients and serving sizes calculated properly for your goals and your energy needs. You can create 2 or more menu plans if you want the variety.
Then, follow your menu plan every day. You simply weigh and measure your food portions to make sure your actual intake matches your written plan. With this method, you really only need to "count calories" once when you create your menus.
THE NUTRITION JOURNAL (FOOD DIARY) METHOD
Another way to track your nutrition intake is to keep a nutrition journal or food diary, either on paper or with an electronic device, software or website. This is more like "calorie counting" in the traditional sense.
Throughout the day, after each meal, you log in what you just ate, or at the end of the day, you log in all your food for the entire day. The former is the best option, since people seem to get really bad cases of "eating amnesia" if they wait too long before writing it down.
I recommend counting calories and keeping a nutrition journal at least once in your life for at least 4-12 consecutive weeks or until you achieve unconscious competence. At that point, it becomes optional because habit and intuition take over.
You can come back to your meal-planning and journaling any time in the future if you slip back or if you have a very important goal you want to work on. It's a tool that will always be there for you if you need it.
I believe that a lot of our attention needs to shift away from pointless debates (for example, low carb vs. high carb is getting really old... so like... get over it everyone, its a calorie deficit that makes you lose weight, not the amount of carbs). Instead, our focus should shift towards these questions:
* How can we build an eating program that we can actually enjoy while still getting us leaner and healthier?
* How can we build an eating program that helps us control calories automatically?
* How can we build an eating program that improves compliance?
Here are the lists of foods I choose to achieve these three outcomes. Remember, habits work in both directions, and as motivational speaker Jim Rohn has said, "Bad habits are easy to form and hard to live with and good habits are hard to form but easy to live with."
My 10 top natural starchy carb and whole grains
1. Oatmeal (old fashioned)
3. Brown rice (a favorite is basmati, a long grain aromatic rice)
4. Sweet potatoes (almost same as yams)
5. Multi grain hot cereal (mix or barley, oats, rye. titricale and a few others)
6. White potatoes
7. 100% whole wheat bread
8. 100% whole wheat pasta
9. Beans (great for healthy chili recipes)
10. Cream of rice hot cereal
My Top 10 top vegetables
4. Salad greens
6. Peppers (green, red or yellow)
My top 10 lean proteins
1. Egg whites (whole eggs in limited quantities)
2. Whey or Casein protein (protein powder supplements)
3. Chicken Breast
4. Salmon (wild Alaskan)
5. Turkey Breast
6. Top round steak (grass fed beef)
7. Flank Steak (grass fed beef)
8. Lean Ground Turkey
9. Bison/Buffalo (lean game meats)
My top 10 fruits
Note: I DO include healthy fats as well, such as walnuts, almonds, extra virgin olive oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil (supplement - not to cook with), avocado.
Also, I do eat dairy products, usually skim milk, low or non fat cottage cheese, low or non fat yogurt and low or non fat cheese (great for omelettes).
Last but not least, I usually follow a compliance rate of about 95%, which means I take two or three meals per week of whatever I want - stuff that is NOT on these lists - like pizza, sushi and on.
Somebody wisely said to me: you can't outrun a bad diet. I had always thought I am eating relatively healthy, I rarely (as in "once a month") go out to eat, and pick non-dense dishes on a menu, I cook at home every day from scratch, I watch my fat intake, eat fruits and veggies...however, only when I sit down with a pen and pencil (or a computer screen), do I find out how many calories do I REALLY put in. Since I am not one of a few lucky people who has high metabolism naturally, if I don't track in any shape or form what I eat - either by planning my meals or writing food diary daily - my weight jumps up, and it's not a "good weight". Aging doesn't help this all either! I think I can safely say I had arrived to stage 3 in my eating, but I try not to loosen up the grip. I am at the point that, as gluten-sensitive, I gave up simple grains, and slowly almost eliminated rice products, starches and other wheat substitutes. My carbohydrate intake is all about leafy vegetables and other groups of veggies in small amounts. Fruits are sparse, mostly berries. I do love chocolate at 70% and higher! Bottom line is - if your pants get tight, take a hard look at what you eat, and how much of it too!