Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Have you ever avoided dinner with friends because you didn’t know how to track your calories?
More recently, as a coach, I have helped many clients overcome the same fear whilst still crushing their fitness goals.
In this article, I’m going to tell you exactly how, so you don’t have to be afraid that one meal will ruin all of your hard work.
Don’t track and move on.
Even if you were to go overboard and end up with a bloated stomach and nausea from eating too much, the calories consumed in a single meal are unlikely to result in you waking up with obesity the next day.
The worst outcome would be psychological rather than physical, as you might feel guilty and give yourself some nasty negative self-talk because you think you’ve “completely screwed up”. (Hint: You have not.)
Or, worse, you might decide to throw the diet out of the window because you’ve already “blown it”. (Hint: You have not.)
Sometimes, the best way to avoid this is to plan to have an unplanned meal.
Go out, enjoy yourself, and return to tracking the next day.
Making this part of the plan will help you feel more confident and relaxed.
In turn, you will be more mindful about your choices because you won’t feel restricted, but rather like you are taking care of yourself by making better decisions.
As a result, the impact on your current diet will be minimal, you will have fun, and you will go back to smashing goals straight after. A win all around.
You can still choose to track.
I’m a bit of a data maniac, so I like to count calories all the time. As long as doing so doesn’t prevent you from enjoying a social life, Method 2 can be a reasonable choice.
The easiest way to track what you are going to eat is to choose a restaurant that displays the nutritional values of their menu on their website. If they don’t, you can email them and ask whether they can provide the data you need.
There is a caveat: What restaurants provide are the calories and macros for a standard portion, which may be bigger or smaller than what you are going to be served.
For most people, this isn’t an issue. Just go ahead, enjoy your outing, and accept that calories and macros won’t be exact. No big deal for a one-off occasion.
However, the heftier your goals, the more precise you will need to be.
For example, in a strict fat loss phase culminating with a photo shoot or bodybuilding competition, you may want to overestimate calories to be extra confident you will stay in a calorie deficit. In this scenario, you can add 20% to the total calories for that meal.
For example, if the meal is 900 calories, you could calculate 20% this way:
900 * 0.2 = 180
Then add it to the total calories. So your over-estimated total in this example would be 1080 calories.
Top tip: Restaurant and fast food chains are the most likely to provide nutritional values for their menus, as these tend to be standardized across all of their locations.
You may not always be able to choose the restaurant, so sometimes the calories in your food will be a big question mark.
You can still estimate them using a similar meal from a different restaurant or even from a supermarket.
The following steps will teach you how to do it.
First of all, pick what you would like to eat from the menu.
I will use an imaginary meal of mine as an example.
Let’s say I’m going to eat at an Italian pizzeria in the UK. From the menu, I choose a mushroom and chicken pizza that includes mozzarella, tomato sauce, standard pizza dough, chicken breast, and mushrooms.
Now that I have a plan, I can research what pizza places in this country offer at least the protein and calorie content of their food, which I need for my estimation.
A quick Google search reveals that the following restaurant chains have this information:
Top tip: Evaluate the type of restaurant you will be eating at and pick choices that seem similar enough.
For instance, if you’re eating at a place like Domino’s, you may want to look into more fast food-y type places instead of high-end restaurants.
Making a sensible analysis will help you get a more accurate estimation of the calories you will be consuming.
Now I can search the menus of these four restaurants and find an entrée that sounds close to my choice.
As of July 2020, AskItalian offers a Classic pizza called “Pollo e Funghi”, which contains chicken, sautéed mushrooms, tomatoes, and mozzarella. Each average pizza contains 764 calories and 42gr of protein.
Given that the my pizza and this one have pretty much the exact same ingredients, I can log these calories and macros into my food-tracking app without making any alterations, and feel confident that the estimation is pretty spot-on.
How do I count calories if not all of the ingredients match?
In this case, consider the following points:
1. Does your meal have fewer ingredients than the comparison meal?
This usually means the caloric content of your meal might be a little on the lower side, but I would still use the same caloric value as the comparison meal.
For one, remember that you are already estimating, so we aren’t shooting for perfection.
Furthermore, you are unlikely to starve to death if you undershoot your calorie budget for one day. In fact, particularly in a fat loss phase, this could be helpful to ensure you stay on target.
2. Does your meal have more ingredients than the comparison meal?
This means the caloric content of your meal might be slightly higher.
If that’s a concern, you have two options.
The easiest one would be to request the meal without the ingredients that your comparison meal doesn’t account for.
When that isn’t possible, consider the potential caloric content of the extra ingredients.
If they are all low-calorie vegetables, such as courgettes, salad, and so on, then I wouldn’t sweat it. I doubt you would gain any fat from an extra 50gr of kale.
On the other hand, higher-calorie ingredients like heavy cream, guacamole, or cheese can increase the caloric content by several hundred calories.
In this case, if you really don’t want to or can’t have these ingredients removed, then you can overestimate your total by a percentage of the comparison meal calories, like the 20% I suggested previously. You can start with 10% for lower-calorie extras, up to 30% if you believe the extras do pack a lot of additional energy.
If you aren’t sure, you can check MyFitnessPal to get an idea of the caloric value of a portion of these ingredients.
3. What about protein, carbs, and fat?
When the ingredients of your comparison meal and actual meal don’t match, the macronutrient composition of the latter will be harder to estimate.
In most cases, I wouldn’t worry about it much.
Again, this is only one meal out of the billions you are going to have in your life.
Nevertheless, you may want to be as anal as you can about your intake. I sometimes want to be, too, so no judgement there. If that sounds like you, my primary concern would be the protein content of the meal.
Let’s cover two situations:
1. Your actual meal has more protein-containing ingredients than the comparison meal.
For example, let’s say I’m having my mushroom and chicken pizza, but I have to use a margherita pizza, which only has tomato sauce and mozzarella, as my comparison meal.
Clearly, the protein content in my actual meal will be higher, but I would still use the protein content from my comparison meal to avoid the headache of guesstimating how much extra protein I might get from a few slices of chicken breast on my pizza.
Especially in a fat loss phase, I would overestimate calories by 20%, adding carbs and fat.
2. Your actual meal has fewer protein-containing ingredients than the comparison meal.
In this context, you can count the protein sources in the comparison meal and divide the total amount of protein by that number.
So, if your comparison meal contains tilapia and shrimp, and provides 30gr of protein, you can estimate that each of the two ingredients contributes 15gr of protein.
If your actual meal only has tilapia, then you can estimate the protein content to be 15gr.
Or you can also simply use the protein content from your comparison meal, keeping in mind that your actual meal’s protein content will be lower, and eat more protein for the rest of the day.
Nonetheless, undereating protein for one day will not burn all the muscles in your body overnight, so choose the option that sounds the least crazy to you.
What all of these methods have in common is that they require you to make a plan.
Even if you choose Method 1 and to not track, you want to make the decision ahead of time.
If you have never done this before, spur-of-the-moment attempts at being spontaneous with your food choices or at guesstimating your calories can result in a lot of paranoia about how much you might be eating.
In turn, you will become more fearful of future social occasions that might disrupt your perfect caloric puzzle.
Not very flexible for a flexible dieting approach, is it?
So do yourself a solid and pick your strategy early.
How has this helped your mindset about eating out?
Leave a comment or a question and I’ll be happy to get back to you as soon as I can.
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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