The key to any effective weight loss program is (much to the chagrin of most people)... diet and nutrition.
That doesn't mean you can't eat good food and get lean!
You just need to count your calories.
And while having an app that assists you in doing that can be helpful, I've personally never found them necessary. They can be a little hard to use, time consuming, and clunky.
So here are 3 of my favorite methods for how to count calories without an app!
(Numbers 1 and 2 still use a smartphone and/or computer for web browsing. Number 3 is my top choice when you just want to wing it.)
1. Google Comparable Food Items (When Eating Out)
I always love it when restaurants have all of their nutrition info listed right on the menu.
My favorite is when there's a pamphlet or fold out that lists all the macro and micronutrients in each dish! But even just an overall calorie count next to each menu item is an amazing help when counting calories.
Unfortunately, not every restaurant does this.
When you find yourself eating a big meal at a restaurant without calorie information listed, you don't have to guess. Just pull up Google on your phone (or on your computer once you're home) and search for the meal you just had + calories. For example:
- Grilled fish tacos calories
- Spaghetti and meatballs calories
- Philly cheesesteak calories
**(While you're at it, try looking up the restaurant you're at online with "Restaurant Name + Nutrition" Their full info might not be in-store, but you may find it on their website or on a popular nutrition site.)
Results from all kinds of nutritional websites will pop up, and make sure you look for versions of what you ate from specific RESTAURANTS -- it doesn't have to be the one you ate at. (Home cooked versions will almost always have fewer calories.)
If you can't find a restaurant-style dish for comparison, use the closest thing you can find and round up.
It won't be exact, but this is all about estimating in a pinch.
2. Count Ingredient Calories & Estimate (When Cooking at Home)
When cooking at home, you have the luxury of watching every single ingredient go into the dish.
When you break a meal down into its individual components, calories are almost ALWAYS easy to find right on the package (for prepackaged goods and ingredients) or via a quick Google search (for produce and raw ingredients).
The biggest mistake people make while counting calories at home without an app is not measuring the ingredients.
In the past you may not have paid very close attention to what you were adding beyond rough estimates, but you'll want to measure if you're looking for an accurate calorie count. You can always add more or less of something to taste, but at least start with a standard measurement so you can figure out how many calories you're adding.
Another common mistake is overlooking cooking agents, toppings, oils, and other things that are invisible or don't take up much room. Don't forget to include calories from:
- Oils and pan greasing (olive oil, vegetable oil, PAM, etc)
- Toppings (parmesan cheese)
- Some seasonings
In time you'll learn to estimate and save time, eliminating the need to look up every single ingredient. It all depends on how exact you want to be.
Personally I don't spend a ton of time figuring out and measuring vegetable calories. Most of them are very low in calories and as long as I account 50 calories or so for veggies, I'm unlikely to be very far off.
Your mileage may vary.
3. Calorie Bracketing (When All Else Fails)
This is my preferred, go-to calorie counting method when I have absolutely no freaking idea what I'm eating.
Examples: Multi-course, home cooked dinner prepared by someone else. You've really got no idea what's in it and it would be rude to ask! Exotic meals in foreign countries. Dinner out without your phone for Googling. When you eat but forget to count calories and later don't feel like obsessing over it.
My technique for calorie bracketing is really just a structured way of estimating and eyeballing your calories.
You just need to fill in these two sentences to bracket your calories:
- "I would be SHOCKED if this meal was less than ___ calories."
- "I would be SHOCKED if this meal was more than ___ calories."
Once you've set an Over-Under on your meal, just pick something in the middle and be done with it. Move on with your life.
(If you're trying to lose weight, be conservative and pick something on the higher end to be safe. If you're bulking and gaining muscle, you may want to go on the lower end. But right in the middle is always fine, too.)
You may be wrong but unless you're horrendously bad at knowing what you're eating, you shouldn't be off by more than a couple hundred calories, worst case.
You don't want to spend your entire diet just guessing like this, but it'll do in a pinch and shouldn't set you back too far when you're wrong.
(And psst, if you're interested in losing weight, fast, definitely check out my top recommended fat loss program for men and women.)
Tracking food without counting calories
Is it possible? Definitely. But I would really urge you, if you're serious about your nutrition, to keep at least a rough estimate of your daily calories.
If you're not specifically targeting weight loss or bulking up, you may be really interested in learning about something called intuitive eating.
Basically, it's a way to form a better and healthier relationship with food by listening to your body's needs and honoring them.
Some of the key tenants of intuitive eating are:
- If you're hungry, eat! Turn off the voice in your head that's telling you calories are bad.
- When you're full, stop eating. Work toward not needing food to feel better about yourself and your life.
- Love your body the way it is. Don't live and die by the scale and learn to accept yourself the way you are.
- Exercise, not to get skinny, but to improve your overall health.
There are a ton of great resources out there about this style of eating (it's really more of a lifestyle than a diet), and I urge you to look into it if you don't really want to lose or gain weight, but just learn to adopt a consistent eating style that fits with your life.
What are the best calorie counting apps?
OK, OK, back to the calories.
If you've decided the above is just too wishy washy or too much work, there are a lot of great calorie counting apps that can help you track your food.
MyFitnessPal is the biggest, most popular, and most thorough one I've found.
The app has a bank of nearly unlimited food choices for you to log in your daily meals section, from popular restaurants, grocery store items, and generic replacements when you can't quite find the right one in the app. (For example, you could add a 'generic bar burger' if you're out having a burger at a hole-in-the-wall pub that doesn't have a listing on MyFitnessPal or list its nutrition on the menu)
If you've tried MyFitnessPal and didn't like it for some reason (not everyone loves the interface), try Fat Secret. It does most of the same stuff, has similar features, has a pretty cool barcode/label scanner, and is free with no ads (last time I checked).
Between these two, you should find one that works really for you for tracking your food.
Are there any food tracking apps without calories?
If you're into mindful or intuitive eating and you just want to track your food but not obsess over calories and macros, look into an app called YouAte
It's not specifically geared toward weight loss, rather it encourages you to log your food (and even snap pictures, so you can quickly scroll through your meal history!) and get a wholistic view of what you're eating, when, and how much.
That way, you can decide for yourself without counting calories if you're overindexing on fast food, low on veggies, eating emotionally, undereating, etc.
It's a pretty cool no-judgment app that might be worth exploring.
Calorie counting apps (and worse, food scales) shouldn't be necessary for most people to get a reliable estimate of how much they're consuming.
Google is your best friend when the calories aren't printed on the label or menu. Find the closest thing you can, estimate, and call it a day. If you can't find any sort of reliable comparison or starting point at all, use my bracketing technique to give yourself the closest estimate you can.
Remember that one meal or one day isn't going to make or break your diet (as long as you don't lose control and go on a major binge). Success is all about adjusting. If you find your estimates are continually coming in low, and you're not losing weight, you'll have to adjust for that.
Contrarily, if you feel famished and weak, and weight is coming off very quickly, you may be in too large of a calorie deficit due to overestimating your calories.
How do you keep track of your calories once you've counted? I like to keep a running count either in my head or on the calculator on my phone, while some people swear by food journals. Tell me how you do it in the comments!