This question resonates with me because I REALLY love food.
In fact, I only want to go out and do social things when they involve food.
“Hang out” for three hours?
Nah, I’ll pass.
Three-hour dinner at a great restaurant?
I suspect the person who asked this question loves food too.
And while it’s fine to say, “Oh you can prepare so and so vegetable that you’ll love and it will taste amazing,” I don’t think that really solves the burning desire to lose weight while eating like a king.
I don’t care how you prepare kale. It will still never taste as good to me as loaded cheese fries.
My mom makes a pretty damn good kale salad and even that doesn’t taste as good as loaded cheese fries.
So what’s the secret to losing weight if you love food?
Over the last few years, I’ve pondered this question and after a lot of education and experimentation, I think I’ve cracked the code. At least for myself.
My advice might not be the right fit for everyone, but at least I’m not going to tell you to learn to love chicken breast and broccoli for the rest of your life.
Here are a few strategies that helped me lose 25 pounds and keep the weight off for over five years without sacrificing my love for food.
I know what some of you are thinking.
“I don’t want to count calories. Grumble, grumble…”
Look, if you want to lose weight, you have to be in a calorie deficit. There’s just no way around that.
So you can either understand your numbers, put yourself in a position where you can hit those numbers, and lose weight while still maintaining total control of what you eat, or try to force yourself into another restrictive diet that will make you hate your life, quit after a week, and never make real progress on the scale.
The beauty of calorie counting is once you know how many calories to eat to lose weight, you can easily create a meal plan that includes the foods you love.
But you have to know your numbers first.
Then, you have to track them.
Fortunately, it’s not as difficult as you may think. In fact, I wrote an entire book on how to count calories quickly and accurately.
If you are still skeptical, click here to download my free weekly weight loss spreadsheet and try it out for yourself.
It’s not as intimidating as it seems once you start practicing.
Here’s a simple way to create a flexible meal plan for weight loss:
Step 1: Determine your maintenance calories.
This is the amount of calories you must eat to maintain your weight. Use this online calorie calculator.
Step 2: Multiply your daily number by 80%.
You are now targeting a 20% calorie deficit which is a good deficit to shoot for.
Step 3: Multiply your daily number by 7.
This is your weekly calorie target. Make a plan to hit this number instead of your daily number.
In the long run, it won’t make a difference whether you manage to a weekly calorie target or a daily calorie target, but a weekly target will give you more flexibility. This will allow you to eat ginormous meals and still lose weight.
Step 4: Create a weekly calorie plan.
Sample weight loss calorie plan:
Daily maintenance calories: 2,000
Daily calorie target for weight loss: 1,600
Weekly calorie target for weight loss: 11,200
- Monday: 1,200 calories (400 calorie lunch, 800 calorie dinner)
- Tuesday: 1,600 calories (600 calorie lunch, 1,000 calorie dinner)
- Wednesday: 1,200 calories (400 calorie lunch, 800 calorie dinner)
- Thursday: 1,600 calories (600 calorie lunch, 1,000 calorie dinner)
- Friday: 2,000 calories (400 calorie lunch, 1,600 calorie cheat meal)
- Saturday: 2,200 calories (200 calorie snack, 2,000 calorie cheat meal)
- Sunday: 1,400 calories (600 calorie lunch, 800 calorie dinner)
Step 5: Back into a meal plan that includes foods you love and fits your calorie plan.
As you can see, a flexible calorie plan can give you the option to eat 1,000+ calorie meals fairly often. Which means you’ll have plenty of opportunities to eat what you love. But this also means making some sacrifices.
You might notice the sample meal plan I outlined only includes two meals per day. A common weight loss myth states that you must eat 5–6 small meals per day to lose weight.
This is just flat out not true.
Once you know how many calories you have to work with, you can choose to split them up throughout the day in a way that’s most enjoyable for you.
Since I love to eat big meals, I use intermittent fasting to give myself room to eat massive dinners EVERY NIGHT.
I eat twice a day: one small meal at lunch and one huge meal at dinner. No breakfast.
Some people will cringe at the thought of skipping breakfast or only eating two meals a day, but I don’t mind it at all.
I don’t get hungry in the morning and I’d rather eat a huge meal every day than three medium sized meals or five to six small meals.
Intermittent fasting has become more mainstream lately because it works so well in the context of people’s busy lives.
Many people don’t have the time or desire to prep small meals every couple of hours. It’s much easier for them to worry about eating only twice a day instead of five times a day.
It also employs delayed gratification, which is a very powerful psychological tool.
People are more willing to go without food or eat lighter during the day when they know they have a nice rewarding meal coming later at night.
Of course, you still have to exercise some control with your meals, which brings me to my final tactic.
You can think about intermittent fasting as delayed gratification on a micro level while conscious dieting is delayed gratification on a macro level.
Ramit Sethi is one of my favorite personal finance authors.
One of the things that separates him from other finance writers is that he doesn’t chastise people for spending money lavishly on things like lattes and vacations IF they have their finances in order.
The following is one of my favorite passages from his best-selling book, I Will Teach You to be Rich:
Let’s first dispense with the idea that saying no to spending on certain things means you’re cheap. If you decide that spending $2.50 on Cokes when you eat out isn’t worth it – and you’d rather save that $15 each week for a movie – that’s not cheap. That’s using frugality to drive conscious spending. Unfortunately, most Americans dismiss frugality because they confuse it with cheapness, thinking that frugality is all-or-nothing. ‘Frugal people don’t spend money on anything! I’m never going to cut all my spending, so forget it.’ Furthermore, our parents never taught us how to be frugal, so not only have we confused frugality with cheapness, but we never really practiced it in the first place.
Cutting spending doesn’t have to be painful. There’s a difference between cheap and frugal.
You can apply the concept of conscious spending applies to weight loss. Watch this video and consider the parallels between personal finance and dieting.
Ramit’s message is that if you spend money on everything like it’s going out of style and you’re not a zillionaire, then you’re an idiot.
On the other hand, if you try to cut spending on everything under the sun while hating your life in the process, then you’re a tool.
There is a nice middle ground that comes with conscious spending.
First, you take care of your “big wins” (the few key things everyone should do with their money that will get them set for life), and then spend freely on the things you LOVE and cut out everything else.
This is the intelligent way to spend. Why waste your hard-earned money on crap you don’t care about? Spend it on what matters to you instead and you’ll be happier.
With food, I like to follow a similar approach. I call it conscious dieting.
It essentially means that once I take care of my “big wins” like managing my calories, setting a meal schedule that works and eating nutritious foods 80% of the time, I can splurge when I really want to and maintain or even lose weight.
Who wants to order a salad when they go to a kick-ass restaurant? Who wants to worry about watching what they eat on their birthday or anniversary dinner? I sure as hell don’t.
By having a diet system in place that ensures I stay lean and healthy, I can have a few blowouts per month and it will have absolutely no negative impact on my health or my physique.
In fact, it’s an amazing feeling to enjoy a killer cheat meal absolutely guilt-free every once in a while.
The key is to have a fail-proof system in place and for me, that system is tracking my calories and eating twice a day, as I discussed earlier.
The other key is to not have unplanned cheat meals. These can easily add up and make it virtually impossible to hit your calorie targets.
Plus, it’s not a healthy approach. I suggest getting 80% of your calories from unprocessed, nutritious foods and 20% from whatever you want. Not the other way around.
While quantity of calories is the key to weight loss, quality AND quantity of calories both matter for overall health.
I wrote about healthy calories vs. junk food calories in this post.
Really, it’s all about balance. I believe if you can find a balanced approach that works for you, you can easily lose weight on your own terms.
There’s no need to beat yourself up with a miserable diet day-in and day-out.
Instead, stick to a system most of the time, trust that it works, and pick your spots of indulgence (cheat meals) consciously.
My conscious cheat meals are weekend dinners out with my family or friends.
I absolutely love these because the pleasure of great company enhances the experience and makes the occasion even more enjoyable.
On the other hand, I don’t feel the same passion for business work lunches, so on these occasions, I’ll stick to my diet more strictly.
As you can see, it’s not an all-or-nothing approach. I’m using my deep internal desires to consciously drive my decisions.
Here are a couple of examples of how I’ve incorporated conscious dieting into my life:
Example 1: Never Ending Pasta Bowl
I look forward to Olive Garden’s Never Ending Pasta Bowl promotion every year and I have no intention of giving it up. I know I have my diet and weight under control, so I don’t stress about something like this when it comes along.
When I do it, I simply implement some damage control tactics and dive right in.
My two main damage control strategies are extended fasting and high-intensity training.
I discussed my two-meals-per-day intermittent fasting approach earlier. But when I have a large cheat meal planned, I’ll sometimes extend my fast all the way until that meal and make that my only meal for the day
This essentially means I can devote an entire day’s worth of calories to that meal.
This is not something I recommend doing if you are not used to fasting for long periods of time, but you can train yourself to get there if you want to.
There is also research showing that performing intense exercise before a high-carb meal will help “shuttle” those carbs into muscle cells instead of storing them as fat. Read the section on Lipoprotein Lipoase in this article if you’re interested in the nerdy stuff.
So whenever possible, I do a heavy workout before a large meal.
Example 2: Reduction of alcohol in my diet
The other side of conscious dieting is removing the bad stuff that you can live without.
I used to drink a lot of alcohol.
I’d have probably 10-12 beers per week. This added up to about 1,200- 1,500 calories which is a significant portion of my weekly maintenance calories.
Over time, as I tried to find ways to cut excess calories from my diet and improve my nutrition, I looked for low-hanging fruit, or the things that would psychologically be the easiest for me to cut out.
It was easy for me to cut back on alcohol because I don’t actually enjoy the taste of it. I mainly drank it for social reasons (girls), but now, I’m married so it doesn’t really do anything for me.
I know alcohol helps some people to “relax” or “unwind” but that’s not the case for me.
I don’t really go out to bars anymore because I don’t enjoy it. When I go out for dinner, I can drink other stuff, like Diet Coke, which I think tastes better and has zero calories.
Note: I still do drink alcohol. Just not nearly as as often as I used to. I’ll have alcohol only during social events or occasionally on the weekend.
On the flip side, I still make room for cheat meals like giant burritos or pizza nearly every week because I really enjoy them.
Here’s a recap of how to lose weight if you love food:
- Understand your calories, set a calorie target for weight loss and choose a meal frequency that works best for you.
- Create a meal plan that includes flexibility to eat what you like. Eat whole foods 80% of the time or more while eating below your maintenance calorie requirement.
- Take foods that are clearly bad for you and you don’t really enjoy much or think you can live without and cut them out mercilessly. This is the low-hanging fruit.
- Take foods that you absolutely love and are not willing to give up (like for me, burritos) and make a choice to enjoy them 100% guilt-free on a regular basis.
Finally, be proactive when it comes to managing your weight.
Take some time to think about your own special occasions and food-centric events.
Are you including these in your weight management system consciously or just letting them happen and trying to recover afterwards?
You don’t have to do things exactly the same way as I do, but you should take control of your situation and get out of the victim mentality. Your weight is your responsibility, but there’s no reason you can’t do it while enjoying food.
Educate yourself on calories and weight loss. Then, test and experiment in the real world. You’ll be surprised at how many creative ways you’ll find to lose weight while enjoying your favorite meals and getting healthier in the process.
If you want an easy way to plan out your target calories on a calendar and make sure you are tracking towards your weight loss goal, I created a free spreadsheet you can use.
Featured image by Ryan McGuire.
First published on Quora.