When you first embark on a weight loss journey, you're instantly faced with a choice.
Do you dedicate your efforts to improving the quality of the foods you eat or do you focus on controlling the quantity?
There are solid arguments for both approaches.
On one side, you have extreme followers of IIFYM who say that nothing matters about your diet except hitting a specific set of macros.
And on the other, you'll find health food zealots advocating the switch to consuming only “clean” food, which will inevitably limit your intake anyway.
If you're new to the weight loss game, I'm an advocate of tracking your macros as a jumping point.
We don't live in a perfect world
Sure, the ultimate goal is to have a very high quality, healthy diet that also gives you just enough calories to meet your physique goals.
Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could just flip a switch and start consuming a healthy whole food diet on a consistent basis?
Every meal would consist of a portion of wild caught or pasture raised meat, whole grains, vegetables, and perhaps a piece of fruit for dessert.
Nothing would be contaminated with pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, and everything would've been produced in an ethical way.
Although ideal, there are several major hurdles preventing this from happening.
1. People don't know what “good food” is
This is my biggest issue with advocating quality over quantity to new dieters.
If you sent the average American to the grocery store with nothing more than a credit card and instructions to “buy healthy food,” the results would be seriously underwhelming.
More than likely, they'd return with 100-calorie snack packs, fat free (but still sugar laden) yogurt, turkey bacon, and refined breakfast cereal with health claims plastered across the box.
Although well intentioned, it doesn't resemble anything close to a quality diet.
The reality is that it simply takes time to truly learn what makes up a healthy diet.
But most guys want results now!
2. They don't know how bad the “bad food” is
Even if some people do have a vague idea of what healthy food is, they don't actually realize just how bad junk food is for them.
Junk food is so prevalent and ingrained in our lives that it's difficult to demonize the things we all grew up on.
Grandma's a wonderfully sweet woman and she wouldn't serve you anything that wasn't healthy, right?
Refusing to eat the pie at dinner is the same as slapping your grandmother in the face (in the eyes of your family, at least).
I talk to plenty of normal people about nutrition and most are completely clueless about how bad the food they eat is.
Hell, every day I see children drinking Mountain Dew, munching on chips, and screaming for candy.
If parents don't even realize what a bad start this is for their kids, I understand why they don't regulate their own diets.
3. Temptation is everywhere
Even the most dedicated dieter is going to slip occasionally.
We're all busy with work, school, kids, side projects, and of course, the gym.
Couple all of that running around with elevated hunger hormones from dieting and a drive-thru cheeseburger starts to look really attractive.
I've been conscious of everything I've eaten for more than a decade and do my best to maintain a healthy diet, but I'm not immune to modern life and the onslaught of advertisement.
I live near an artisan donut shop and when I walk out my door to head to the gym at 6 am, I can smell those bastards frying!
I have my headphones on, my mind fixated on building muscle and torching body fat, then that amazing smell smacks me in the face.
It instantly triggers my appetite and I have to actually put forth effort to shake the feeling and remember why I'm doing all of this.
It's easy to fight these temptations when you know how bad the food is, but for the uninformed, it's much easier to cave.
4. Learning to enjoy healthy food takes time
New dieters who do a complete 180 and switch to strictly health food typically eat amazingly for a couple days.
Then they start to miss their old favorites – going totally off the rails and binging on the worst foods imaginable.
When you've spent the majority of your life eating donuts for breakfast, cheeseburgers and fries for lunch, and pizza for dinner, consuming nothing but healthy food is going to taste like shit!
Seriously, junk food is designed in a lab, tested on focus groups, and aggressively marketed, so there's no way natural food is going to compare unless you're motivated and learn to enjoy it.
Since this abrupt switch causes most people to lose it, why not take a more sustainable approach from the beginning?
But there's a solution!
Rather than taking on all of these challenges at the onset when you have absolutely no momentum, try your hand at tracking your food and experience some amazing benefits from the get-go.
Tracking food provides immediate results
This is probably the major selling point of controlling quantity first.
Unlike learning about food quality, managing quantity produces results almost instantaneously!
Making simple quality improvements like swapping your regular candy bar for an apple with peanut butter is great for your health, but with calories being comparable, you won't see any weight loss.
If you start eating a bunch of healthy food that you really aren't crazy about and don't see the scale moving, you can quickly become discouraged.
It's the immediate feedback from cutting calories that can keep you going and give you the desire to push harder and harder.
If you could only make one change to your diet to produce safe and immediate weight loss, the best choice would be to cut 500 calories from your daily intake and stick to it.
Then let the results drive you to make better food choices.
Tracking food is the best education
It's really easy to blame the obesity epidemic on poor quality and degree of processing of modern foods, but that's overcomplicating things a bit.
In reality, delicious processed foods are very calorie dense and incredibly easy to overeat!
With modern food being so calorie dense, you can't visually judge the real “amount” you're eating.
Source: Consumers’ estimation of calorie content at fast food restaurants: cross sectional observational study
In a recent observational study, researchers surveyed thousands of fast food customers across 89 different locations, asking them to estimate the total number of calories in their meals.
On average, the participants underestimated the calorie content of their meals by 175 to 259 calories.
And the gap between estimated and actual calories only grew as the size of the meal got larger (see graph above).
That may not seem like a huge number, but think about the cumulative effect.
Multiply that underestimation by 3 meals and 7 days and you're eating about 3,500 extra calories per week without having a clue (i.e., enough excess calories to pack on 1 lb of body fat – in a single week!).
It's easy to see why so many people are overweight!
But by tracking your food intake with a free app like My Fitness Pal, you'll start to see how your eating habits add up.
If you log 2 slices of pizza for lunch and see that it's taken a whopping 50% of your calories for the day (and has done very little to contribute to your protein total), you may just feel compelled to reach for a chicken sandwich instead.
You'll also learn that soda, candy, and other sweets do nothing to satisfy hunger but contribute greatly to man boobs and love handles.
By tracking your food and focusing on quantity, you'll start dropping body fat right away while simultaneously learning valuable lessons in food quality.
Yes, quality is important
Unlike extreme flexible dieters, I would never argue that food quality is insignificant.
I know from personal experience how great an impact food quality has on my overall sense of well being and its effects on how my body looks.
So I only advocate quantity over quality as Step One.
Once you have the experience to identify and appreciate healthy foods, you can begin to consistently incorporate them into your diet.
And it's that second step of pushing quality after you understand quantity that will deliver another wave of weight loss.
Are you ready to start tracking your food and getting results?
All the best,