[PORTION CONTROL] Counting Calories is Annoying

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Energy Balance

You might have guessed from the title of this post that I am not a fan of calorie counting as a technique for portion control. It is both annoying and inaccurate. I’d rather wait in line at the DMV or have a root canal. Instead, I teach clients to use the Hand Measure System.

Energy Balance = (Calories In) – (Calories Out)

By now you’ve all seen this famous buzz formula for calculating fat gain/loss. The formula tells us that if you take in more calories than you burn, your body will store the excess calories as fat. True enough. However, accurately counting calories in and calories out is nearly impossible. The reasons are beautifully explained in this post from Precision Nutrition and I really want you to take a moment to read it before we continue. Go ahead, I’ll wait. . .

iStock_Nutrition-Facts11So now you understand why calorie counting is so difficult. By the time you include inaccurate labeling, food absorption rate, RMR, TEE, PA, and NEAT, the “real” formula looks like this (if you skipped over the link above, you seriously need to go back and read it):

Energy Balance = (Actual Calories Eaten – Calories Absorbed) – (RMR + TEE + PA + NEAT)

Yeah, that sucks. Too much math and too many variables. You must accept that the best you can do is estimate the number of calories you are taking in and out. Then you must observe and measure the results over time and make adjustments as needed to achieve your goal.

The Hand Measure System

Cupped handYour hand is all you need! He he. There it is. I said it. Now pull yourself together and try to focus. Rather than reading labels and weighing/measuring your food, simply use your hand as a measuring device. It is way better than relying on labels because you will always have it with you. It will work in restaurants and at your friend’s house where labels are often unavailable. It also naturally scales with different body types. Larger people need more calories and tend to have larger hands. Brilliant!

Click the link below to view the infographic which describes how to estimate your portions using your hand. Note: women’s portions are different from men’s.

[INFOGRAPHIC] Calorie Control Guide

Now here’s the key. If you are still with me, don’t quit now. The Hand Measure System is just a starting point. Learning to control your energy balance is like a scientific experiment. You will conduct a test and measure the results. Then you will make SMALL adjustments until you finally get it right.

You must also be patient. Wait at least a month before re-measuring your body fat. You will have to allow some time for your body to adjust to the new conditions. It won’t happen over night. There are no quick fixes or instant gratification. Sorry, but you have to take your time and learn how your body works.

Furthermore, as you make changes to other variables over time, you will again have to adjust your food portions accordingly. For example, if you increase or decrease the amount of exercise you are doing, the energy balance equation will change and you must eat more/less food to stay balanced.

You will know if your portion size is correct by measuring the results over time. If your body fat is increasing and you want it to decrease, you must reduce calories in and/or increase calories out until it begins to move in the direction you want. In this example you might try eliminating a handful of grainy carbs from one of your meals each day and see what happens over time.


I strongly encourage you to give the Hand Measurement System a try. It takes a little getting used to, but after a while you will notice that you no longer think of food as a number. Rather, you will naturally place the correct portion on your plate and simply enjoy the flavor, texture, and aroma. Don’t let math ruin your meals.