Before I give you my how to eat step by step guide , I want to tell you that this guide will not work for everyone. It will not work if you have a lofty goal like being stage ready for something like a bikini show. These shows require not only detailed tracking but also complicated food and water manipulation techniques that are meant to last for a short period.
Also, if you experience a lot of anxiety around food, it will be a wise thing to do to address the mental aspects of eating which probably will require the additional help of a professional therapist. I’ve had therapy, and it’s one of the best things I ever did for myself.
Having a support team so you can be and feel your best, is a sign of confidence and strength. If you had a broken arm, you would go to an orthopedic. If you had problems with your teeth you would go to the dentist. It’s the same if you are experiencing a pain in your heart. Any support you get is commendable because it means that you value yourself enough to take charge of your mental health.
My first reaction to the guide
I will be honest about my thoughts when I was presented with this way of eating. My first reaction was “what a whole lot of bullocks”. I remember thinking:
Whoever developed this system, have they worked with people that want to look seriously fit?
This is for overweight people, not people like me that want to shift the last 10 -15 lbs.
This is not going to work for me; it is too vague and over-simplistic.
Coming from a history of many diets such as Glycemic Index, Atkins, Paleo, Intermittent Fasting and Calorie Counting, the belief that a diet has to be more complicated was so deeply ingrained in my mind that to let it go, a massive mental shift would have to take place. And truth to be told I wasn’t ready for it. I had relied too long on numbers and equations. Crunching numbers had become part of who I was and what I did, something that kept me busy and gave me the illusion that I was in control of food when the reality was that food had a full grip of me.
It took me at least 2 years to fully let go of all the strict eating rules I ascribed to. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, in hindsight, I realise that everything evolved the way it was meant to and if I had known as much I do today about the process of change, I wouldn’t beat myself as much as I did. You can’t rush the process, it’s like trying to run before you can walk.
Changing your behaviours is inextricably linked to your beliefs and your worldview. It takes time to shed an identity that doesn’t serve you along with decades-old convictions even when they are painfully familiar. You don’t wake up one day and think about things from an entirely new perspective.
The reasons I followed this guide
Looking back, apart from the nuisance of measuring, weighing and logging my food, I can see 4 factors that contributed to my willingness to change:
Emotional pain. The pain of not changing my behaviours around food and diet was more significant than the pain of changing. I wrote about my struggles with calorie counting here and how it sucked out the enjoyment of eating. That made me ready to suspend my fitness goals for a while so I can tune into my body.
Social proof. I joined a coaching group with a bunch of women that had a similar lifestyle and goals to me, but being the arrogant git I used to be, I was thinking that my nutrition knowledge was superior to them. I was a personal trainer, a calorie wizard that knew more than they did. The reality of knowing more, slapped me in the face when these women that didn’t know as much as I did were more successful with their body composition goals (aka losing more weight) than I was.
You see, because they didn’t know as much as I did, they were more open to implementing what we were advised to do. Knowing too much can often stop you from taking action. Suddenly the non-personal trainer species was doing better than me. When I witnessed their transformation, it planted the seed in me that this way of eating could work for a particular breed like me that came under the umbrella of being a human being.
Experimentation. I wanted to believe that I can trust my body to regulate its needs and wants but I was suspicious whether that was possible. So I “borrowed” a new belief the way you buy a new dress to wear. You take it home, try it on and if you like it you keep it otherwise you return it back to the shop. I didn’t blindly follow this way of eating, I checked it out first whether it actually worked.
Coaching. I hired a nutrition coach to help me overcome my food rules and understand what I needed to change to become a normal eater. With so much “noise” that comes from your environment, your social circle, the media, and frankly the maze of my own thoughts, I needed to hear the voice of logic and expertise to keep steering me on the right path of attaining my fitness goals without having to micromanage my eating.
How the guide is similar to counting calories without counting
When I decided to give this a go and implemented the guidelines that you are going to read, I was gobsmacked to notice that the food portions weren’t much different from calorie counting.
I wanted to kick myself for not doing this earlier. Not much had changed really (notice my sarcasm) other than the painfully slow process of serving food especially when hungry:
- Not taking my scales out
- Measuring the weight of my food
- Opening the calorie counting app on my phone
- Finding the right food on Fitness Pal. That alone could take you 5 minutes to do. If you’ve ever tried to look up a chicken breast on the app, you know that you will likely see several hundred variations of a chicken breast to choose from)
- Add it to my daily total
If numbers are not something that concerns you or interested in, feel free to skip this section.
If you are recovering calorie counter like me, keep reading.
The guide I am about to share stacks up kinda like this:
30% Protein, 40% Carbs and 30% Fat.
The reason that it is 40% for carbs, is to allow veggies to come in under the Carbs heading, which always gets high when entering into apps if you’re eating enough veg. Starchy carbs and veggie carbs get lumped together under this one heading.
This is the step by step process that I learned.
STEP 1- DETERMINE PORTIONS
I am hoping by now that you may be a bit more open to the idea that you don’t need to count calories to get the right portions for your goals.
The easiest way to control your intake is simple as looking down at your hand to firstly determine portions. All the portions are for cooked foods which makes it easy to plate your food quickly and can be used everywhere you to go whether you are at home, work or a restaurant etc.
Use your fist, palm, cupped hand, and thumb to practice calorie control without the complexities of counting.
Stretch out your hand. The thickness and diameter of your palm represent one portion of protein. Sources such as red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, pulses like beans for vegetarians etc
Make your hand into a fist. That’s one portion of vegetables. Sources such as spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers etc
Cup your hand. That’s one portion of carbohydrates. Sources: whole grains, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bread, fruit etc
Look at your thumb. That’s one portion of fat. Sources such as olive oil, butter, avocado, nuts and seeds etc
Again, if numbers matter to you, here is the macronutrient breakdown for each food group. The exact science shouldn’t really be a priority, and I am sharing in case you are curious:
On serving of protein is 20 to 30 grams
One serving of carbs is 20 to 30 grams
One serving of fat is 7 to 12 grams
You may be wondering how these portions can be the same for you?
That’s the surprisingly simple way to individualise portions because everyone’s hand comes into different sizes that will determine the portion that is right for you. A bigger person has a bigger hand which means they will need more food than a person of a smaller size that has a smaller hand. I haven’t met anyone yet that has a giant hand attached to a little body.
Whatever size you come in, your hand will be proportionate to your body.
STEP 2 - BUILD YOUR MEALS
How much you should eat depends on many factors, but here’s a simple way to start.
Based on the portion guidelines above. Women – in each meal include:
- 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.
If you enjoy more flexibility with your meals
- Protein: This should add up to 4-6 total portions per day.
- Vegetables: This should add up to 4-6 total portions per day.
- Carbohydrates: This should add up to 4-5 total portions per day.
- Fats: This should up to 3-4 total portions per day.
Another helpful way to build your meal is to look at each food group like actors. Proteins and vegetables are the stars of a movie, carbohydrate part players and fats as extras.
I am sure no matter what diet philosophy you ascribe to, I hope you will agree that what they all have in common is the consumption of adequate protein and vegetables.
You may be thinking,
One palm of white fish is not the same as in a palm of chicken or beef or pork, they have different calorie content, don’t they?
Every food doesn’t fit in perfectly in each group, one food may contain protein and fat. What do I do with hummus for example?
How do you determine hand portions when food is combined in a stew dish?
You are right. This system is not perfect, and no single method is.
You may be surprised to hear that calorie counting is fundamentally flawed too. Here is a good article that explains it in detail. There is at least a 25% margin of error when you are measuring which means if you think you are eating 1,700 calories you actually may be eating 2,125 calories!
My guide is meant to give you a practical and easily actionable guideline. The key is to apply it consistently. This is probably more important than trying to fit foods perfectly. We’re never looking for perfection because it’s not something that even exists! What would stop you from falling over into perfectionism here?
You don’t need to work out the whole thing all at once, and you don’t need to hit every meal or portion perfectly to make progress here.
STEP 3 - CUSTOMISE
Whether your goal is to look great naked or improve your health this guide will make that happen. Choose the lower or higher end number of portions according to what you think will work best for you as a starting point and then based on the outcomes you get, you start customising.
Once you decide how many portions of each food group you are going to eat you ask yourself:
How is that working for me?
Ideally, you tune in to how you feel first before you start fidgeting the portions.
This is super important because it’s a common trap that I see people fall into all the time and one that I have fallen into too many times to bother counting.
Instead of doing this for a couple of days, I’d say give it a go for at least 2 weeks. As James Clear says in his new book Atomic Habits, your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits, and in this context, your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. You may be doing everything right, and nothing appears to be happening because you have not crossed yet that crucial point that tips the balance to your favour.
You have no control over when the scales will reflect the effort you put in. The only control you have is to persist long enough to break through the stubbornness of the scale.
I am not going to lie, it takes a bit of work to figure it all out. I will require a bit of trial and error, and it’s part of the job I do with my clients. I help find when they feel and look their best while still aiming to align the portions with their goals. There is no shortcut for this work, and it’s no different to adjusting your calorie counter.
Instead of rushing to make any significant changes think:
How does this diet have you feeling?
Full? Hungry? Satisfied? Energised? Craving anything?
Use this simple principle to guide your decision:
If you are feeling too full – you eat less. If you are too hungry – you eat more.
What to do if there is a plateau
If you want to lose weight and there’s a plateau after following your plan for a few weeks, then you start adjusting the portions according to your preferences. Remember, I said protein and vegetables are the stars of the show and if you remove them you are going to end up with a lousy movie with a lousy ending.
So adjust the other players; the carbs or the fats. If removing the fats makes you feel sad, you remove one portion of carbs. If you love carbs you remove a portion of fats.
Other things to consider
- If you are an athlete, you bump your carbohydrates because without them your performance will suck.
- If you want to lose weight you can stick to the lower end of the portions but not too low that will cause health problems. Very low-calorie diets not only compromise your health but your bone density and that not only means fragile bones but ending with hunchback posture too. So down the line, it means that you may break your pelvis if you miss the toilet seat or look like Quasimodo when you are older.
- If you prefer a lower carbohydrate diet stick to the lower end of the portions without running the risk of driving your blood sugars too low, so you don’t feel foggy and dragging your feet.
- If you follow this guide, you can expect that you will get hungry around 3-4 hours since your last meal. If you are not hungry around the 3-4 hour mark, you may have overeaten and adjust the portions down.
- If you are hungry earlier, then adjust the portions up. There is no universal rule for everyone. Some people like smaller and frequent meals others prefer larger and less frequent ones. Do what fits your preferences.
- If you are craving a particular food that doesn’t fall in these groups just enjoy eating it mindfully!
- If you feel, satisfied, energised and your clothes feel looser keep rocking. The scales don’t always reflect those changes.
- It’s important to make gradual changes. For example if eating that much protein is not something that you already do, start from where you are at the moment and add one more portion until you are comfortable to add the next one. Same with vegetables. If you don’t eat vegetables start by adding one vegetable to your meal. Even if you don’t eat any vegetables, there are plenty of options for you. You can whiz a vegetable in a smoothie or add powdered greens in it. There are solutions for everything if you are open to it.
The big picture
Here a step by step summary of the process:
- Understand what one portion of food looks like for each food group.
- Determine the number of portions you will have per meal or per day. I have created a super handy tracker for you that you can download to help you with that.
3. Follow this plan for at least two weeks. After two weeks assess how this is working for you and adjust your portions up or down according to your preferences. Stick to the protein and the vegetables and adjust either the fats or carbs.
4. Repeat the same process before you assess again.
Like any endeavour, it will take time to find what works for you. The only way you can’t guarantee success is if you stop trying.
Take it one step at a time.
You didn’t expect your child to walk before it crawled. You didn’t expect your child to ride a bike without learning to balance first. Start with small steps, accept that you are not going to figure it all quickly. Setting yourself up to take small steps that guarantee consistency is bound to set you up for success.
It doesn’t matter where you start form, what matters is that you start from somewhere.