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Quit Counting: How to Lose Weight Without Counting Calories or Pounds

The secret to weight loss? Stop measuring pounds and calories and start measuring wins.

By Jeanne O’Brien Coffey

We understand the equation: Eat less plus move more equals weight loss. So why is it so hard to do? It seems like every day brings a new diet trend promising to help you lose weight and keep it off. With all that research and so many resources, why do so many of us continue to struggle? 

Turns out focusing on calories and pounds may not be the best path to long-term success. “We don’t want people over-fixated on that number on the scale, because that roller- coastering of weight is actually worse for your health,” says Sophia Chang, MD, MPH. She explains that small changes to your diet and daily activity can create benefits far more important than waist size. 

Benefits of Weight Loss 

Make healthier choices every day and eventually you may be sleeping better, improving your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels, and even reducing the number of your prescription medications. 

And you’ll probably be keeping up better with your grandkids and enjoying more time with your friends. “All of these things make a difference to our quality of life,” Dr. Chang says. 

Hypertension and diabetes are two of the chronic conditions that healthy weight loss can impact. Kathrine Brown, a wellness coach with Conscious Weight Loss Inc., notes there are also subtle benefits you might overlook, like better digestion or less pain. 

“Pain is an interesting thing. We notice it when it’s there, but we don’t always register the change when it’s gone,” Brown says, explaining that fewer aches is a less obvious benefit to weight loss. 

“If someone’s carrying an extra 50 or 100 pounds, joint pain is often an issue,” she adds. If you’ve been overweight for years, you may not make the association when you lose weight, but recognizing it can keep you motivated.

Older couple dancing in the kitchen.

The Long Term

Thinking about those health benefits while focusing on what you want your life to look like as you age will also help you stay on track. 

“Managing your weight can be as exciting as herding cats—a lot of effort with little satisfaction,” Brown says. “So I suggest thinking in terms of developing natural relationships with food and with movement, because that offers both enjoyment and satisfaction.” 

Adam Johnson* had to reexamine everything when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the medication required caused him to gain a significant amount of weight. 

Prior to the treatment, the 66-year-old had been working out with a trainer regularly and eating a healthy diet. He thought he understood the equation. “I redoubled my efforts,” Johnson recalls, but he couldn’t keep the pounds off. 

Working with Brown, Johnson looked beyond the scale at deeper issues, including the feelings he had around the serious illness he was fighting. “The journey into self-exploration was extremely helpful to me,” he explains. 

Listen to Your Body

As Brown puts it, “Your body is talking to you 24/7. Are you listening? When it tells you things you don’t want to hear, are you responding?” 

Ready to tune in? Brown suggests starting with a concrete goal, beyond wanting to lose weight or look good in a swimsuit. “Those are two markers that people often have, but they’re not very helpful,” she says. Instead, select a simple, measurable action that supports weight loss—like drinking more water or taking a daily walk. 

“Once you start working on those things, generally there’ll be other areas of your life that you’ll notice and consider changing,” she says.

Grandfather teaching grandson how to surf on a beach.

The Fitness Factor

Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, MBA, cardiologist, geriatrician, and Associate Chief Medical Officer at Clover Health, believes moving more is easier if you find activities you like. “There’s no one way to be active,” he says. 

“For some people, it’s walking. For others, it’s yoga, swimming, or dancing.” Dr. Dharmarajan says. “At the end of the day, the right approach is the one you’ll stick with.” 

Remember that muscle weighs more than fat—yet another reason to drop the scale as your sole measure of success, says Dr. Chang. 

“Healthy aging is about building muscle as much as it is about losing weight,” she says—especially because losing muscle is a real problem as we age. “Ultimately, it’s about feeling more fit and being stronger, as opposed to just losing pounds.” 

Building Muscle

Give those muscles a boost by swapping calorically dense foods for nutritionally dense foods, adds Dr. Dharmarajan. Current nutrition guidelines switch out the food pyramid we learned about in school in favor of a plate that is half filled with vegetables and fruits, then two quarters, each devoted to whole grains and protein. 

Of course, before making any changes, it’s important to talk with your doctor to find the path that’s best for you. If you experience sudden or unexplained weight loss or weight gain, a call to your primary care physician is necessary. 

Quality Not Quantity

If you’ve had a lifelong struggle with weight, you may think small changes are pointless, but Brown says it’s never too late to start on a new outlook. 

“Quality-of-life shifts can happen fairly quickly—within weeks and months,” she says. “Skip the scale. Focus on energy and vitality— those things can recover fairly quickly by simply making choices toward weight loss.” 

*This name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy. 

Bowl of grilled chicken quinoa salad with avocado, cucumbers, and tomatoes.

Better Eating on a Budget

While canned vegetables are often high in sodium, frozen vegetables are great for filling your plate. Choose produce that’s in season, which typically costs less. Look for store brands of whole-grain pasta and bread. 

This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Clover Living magazine.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan


Published on 1/27/23

Photo credit: Getty