To count or not to count, that is the question. So many of my patients believe that the only way to lose weight is to count calories. They come into my office able to rattle off the number of calories in a vast number of different foods—they know far more than I even know—and yet they haven’t been able to budge the scale.

A recent study released by Harvard University reveals one reason why this may be true: The researchers concluded that the kind of calories eaten matters more than the number. In other words, 1,500 calories worth of your favorite dessert might not help your weight loss efforts in the same way as 1,500 calories worth of fruits, veggies, or whole grains.

Surprised? I’m not! When you stop fretting over the exact number of calories in the foods you eat, and focus instead on creating healthy, balanced meals and learning what reasonable portion sizes are, it’s likely the pounds will start to drop off. Better yet, your meals will leave you more satisfied. That 100-calorie pack of Oreos is not going to keep you fueled for as long as a serving of low-fat Greek yogurt and a banana, which together have roughly the same number of calories as the cookies.

Now if putting together foods from different groups and watching portion sizes sounds just as complicated as counting calories, I promise it’s not. All you need to do is remember a few simple rules for creating a healthy plate.

  1. Fill one-quarter of the plate with lean protein: beans, poultry without skin, fish, eggs (mostly egg whites), sirloin, tofu, low-fat or nonfat dairy
  2. Fill one-quarter of the plate with high-fiber carbohydrates: oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, whole wheat couscous, a small potato with the skin
  3. Fill one-half of the plate with veggies: tomatoes, broccoli, string beans, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, spinach, cauliflower, kale, bok choy—the more the merrier!
  4. Fit in fruits: They can share one-half of the veggie portion of the plate, or be part of a snack or dessert.
  5. Find room for healthy fats, i.e. olive oil, nuts, avocado, seeds, canola oil. These will help you feel most satisfied and less likely to want to reach for a high-calorie snack.
  6. Be mindful of preparation. Opt for foods that are roasted, steamed, sautéed in oil, baked, grilled, or broiled rather than fried, sautéed in butter, or drenched in heavy cream sauces.

I love this helpful guide to visual cues to filling a healthy plate.

The bottom line is what I call “calories conscious” vs. “calorie counting”: A bacon cheeseburger has more calories than a simple burger, a large order of french fries has more than a small, a croissant has more than a slice of whole wheat bread. It’s really just common sense. And when you stop counting, just think of how much more room you will have in your brain for something way more productive, like shopping for a new size-smaller wardrobe!

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