Are you someone that generally eats clean and healthy or works hard, but still struggles to lose stubborn fat. Well, then you are not alone. Because, when people first start out with a fat loss program, or just eating healthy in general, they are often totally unaware of just how calorie dense their typical everyday food options are.
To end your confusion, you Google:
- How many calories should I eat to lose weight?
- What are the best sources to protein?
- How much protein do i need?
- What are the best sources to carbs?
- Are carbs evil? Should I go low-carb?
- What are the best sources to healthy fats?"
In this article, I will answer all these questions by covering the best* food sources of proteins, carbohydrates and fat. And what foods that secretly add up calories without you being aware of it.
*Definition of "better options": more volume-dense foods that will make you feel full, energized and provide nutrients, just with fewer calories. That way we can eat twice as much food, just with the same amount of calories.
House rules: Before we get into the foods, I just want to remind you that there are no inherently “good” or “bad” foods. There are simply bad total combinations of foods over the course of a week.
1. How many calories should I eat?
Eating healthy and losing weight does not require you to change everything you enjoy eating and make your life boring. But when you make some of the less optimal food choices in this article, it is hard to get in a calorie deficit and stay in a deficit long term. With these smarter food choices, staying in a calorie deficit can be very sustainable.
In the previous article, we talked about the concept of flexible dieting and the importance of finding your calorie and macronutrient targets.
For example: if you burn 2500 calories per day - also known as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, you subtract that number with 20 % (or 500 calories) to find your daily calorie target. Or if your goal is to gain weight you add 10 % (or 250 calories).
The distribution of these calories across the three main macronutrients below depends on your preferences. Some people like more fat, some like more carbs. Regardless, you want to keep protein relatively high. Lets assume the following macronutrient split:
- 30 % from protein (4 calories per 1 gram)
- 35 % from carbohydrates (4 calories per 1 gram)
- 35 % from fat (9 calories per 1 gram)
After you have found your macronutrient targets, let's look at the best and worst sources of these macronutrients.
2. Protein: How much and the best sources?
So we all know that protein rocks. It builds and maintains your muscle, while also makes you feel full after a meal.
Your personal needs depend on a vast range of variables. But if you regularly exercise or aim to lose fat without losing muscle you should aim for at least 1.5 gram of protein per fat-free (or ideal) body weight. Lemon, P. (2000)
But are all protein sources good? We’ll start off by looking at the most common protein sources reported from clients who were struggling to lose weight.
Warning: if you are vegan, the following images may contain graphic content.
The foods to the left are high in protein, but they are packed with a ton of additional fat and hence bring up their calorie counts quite a bit. You want to swap these animal protein sources for its leaner counterparts.
Key habit: Develop a habit of looking at the nutrition labels. If it the protein source has less than 5 grams of fat per 100 grams is considered to be lean. You might notice that some quality protein sources like salmon and whole eggs are actually not lean per this rule. Does that mean they are bad. No, but they can still bump up your overall calorie intake without you being aware of it.
If you are vegan, or just want to cut back on meat to you know save the planet, I will cover that in a later article. Here are an overview of the best sources to protein.
Illustration: All protein sources listed here contain between 10 - 30 grams of protein per 100 grams. Always read the labels, as nutritional values can vary greatly between brands. When choosing either animal, fish, dairy or vegan protein sources aim for the leanest and least processed options available.
3. Carbohydrates are your friend (Keto-lovers be warned)
Let me first clarify; carbs are your friend. There is much confusion about carbohydrates and fat loss. The word “carbohydrate” is an umbrella term that includes all starches, fiber and sugars. Here is a visual overview:
Q: But why are not all humans friends with carbohydrates?
Low carb is a common approach to fat loss. Why? Because some carbohydrate sources are easy to overeat without making you feel full very long. This includes white rice, pasta, white bread. These food sources aren’t “bad” at all, but they are very easy to unknowingly overeat. A better option would thus be to change to the whole grain counterparts. For example you change your corn flakes with oatmeal, white bread with whole grain bread and white rice with brown rice.
Illustration: Oat meal provide a much more stable source of energy compared to corn flakes or other sugary cereals. Note, the calorie content is not much different, but they make you feel full longer.
Illustration: The best sources for complex carbohydrates, categorized by its effect on your blood sugar. All sources listed have low to medium starch levels: Glycemic index (GI) < 55. Lower GI = Less effect on blood sugar.
Carbohydrate snacks: When it comes to the most problematic snacks I found with clients who were not losing fat were chips, cookies, chocolate, ice cream and sugary cereals. When consumed in moderation these foods are fine, but there is no way you’re stopping at your first serving. Not to mention that the impact these foods will have on your hunger will be minimal. After your blood sugar spikes and crashes, you want more sugar to pick you back up, causing a vicious cycle. More volume-dense snacking options include berries and fruit.
Key point on carbohydrates: When your meal consists of both complex or “slow” carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats, you avoid the sudden spikes and lows in blood sugar. Keeping your blood sugar stable is key to an even energy level throughout the day. Because it makes us feel full longer, creates less desire for sugary snacks, and thereby makes it easier to stick to a plan.
4. The best sources to healthy fat
Prepare to have your mind blown: "eat fat does not make you fat".
(In moderation, that is).
You need fat for a vast range of vital processes like balancing your hormones. But before you celebrate this fact with adding extra cheese on your Big Mac, you want to aim for unsaturated fat and limit saturated fats (typically found in meat, dairy, baked and fried foods).
All fats in general, even "healthy unsaturated" sources will be very dense in calories. While 1 gram of protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories, 1 gram of fat contain 9 calories.
This doesn’t mean that you should avoid them since we do need a minimum amount of fat for our body’s to properly function. But, it does mean that you need to be more mindful of your portions whenever you eat them because of how easy they are to overeat and bulk up your overall calorie intake.
Illustration: The best sources for healthy fats, categorized by source.
Commonly problematic fat sources to be aware of is:
- peanut butter
- trail mix
- butter and oils
Why? Because are you’re probably eating way more than what you thought was just a serving of peanut butter or a serving of nuts. Which is why for these foods it’s important to get familiar with their serving sizes to ensure you’re not overeating.
One more problematic fat source is salad dressings. Oil based dressings don’t provide much at all for 200 calories. In fact, many of you likely use twice or even triple this amount whenever you have a salad. Which turns what you thought was a low calorie meal into the equivalent of a couple slices of pizza. So, be mindful of serving sizes or opt for salad dressing options with lower calories.
5. Don't forget the vitamins and minerals
So far, we have covered macronutrient sources. The term micronutrients are used to describe vitamins and minerals in general. Your body needs smaller amounts of micronutrients relative to macronutrients. Micronutrients contain zero calories.
Here, it is time to load up. Vegetables, salad and fruit does not only contain a lot of vitamins and fiber. They also give a good feeling of satiety, almost without adding any calories. So, if you are still hungry after a meal, add an extra portion of salad based on green vegetables.
Hopefully, you can see just how much more food you’re able to eat and how much easier it would be to suppress hunger and adhere to your diet by simply making smarter food choices. You can also see just how easy it is to essentially sabotage all the progress you may have done lately by unknowingly consuming thousands of additional calories from these more calorie dense foods
So, consider the listed food swaps and be mindful of your portions with certain foods - if you struggle to lose weight. That way we can eat twice as much food, while keeping calories the same or even less.
There are no real “good” or “bad” foods, just smarter food options depending on what your goal is.
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