"I’m going to my cousin’s quinceañera and don’t know how to track the food I’m eating there. Halp."
^One of the most common questions I get from clients. (Ok, not specifically on how to track for fiesta de quince años, but social events of all types.)
"How do I work around situations like this - how do I track my macros accurately when I didn't make the food?"
First, realize the following are strategies to help you salvage the best results you can from hard food situations.
The reality is, you're still leaving a lot up to chance. If your number one priority was fat loss, by far the most effective strategy would just be to cook all your meals. (Hence bodybuilders and their Tupperware.) If you have rapid fat loss goals, you're not doing yourself any favors by eating out often.
I get it, this isn't a sustainable or enjoyable approach for most, so you'll learn how to best manage these situations, rather than living your life as a hermit. Just be aware that (as with everything in life), you are likely trading-off the enjoyment of a meal for a bit slower progress.
The key here is knowing your trade-offs.
How much do you value the feeling of normalcy/being present/not worrying about macros VS. shifting your body composition?
On the far left side of the scale would be - not worrying about your meal at all, and just focusing on enjoyment, while fully accepting potentially slower results.
On the far right would be - just bringing your own home-cooked meal to said event, and knowing you've done everything possible for the fastest results.
In the middle is where I've found most online clients experience the least guilt (either from missing out on the social aspects, or from undoing progress).
Now, keep in mind there is no right or wrong answer. It's just super important that you know exactly what's most important to you right now, so you can leave the meal without feeling guilty.
You'll often hear people say “It’s ____ holiday or life event! Don’t be a dick to yourself. Just enjoy your life and get back on track tomorrow!”
I also don’t recommend being a dick to yourself, but the reality is every calorie you eat affects the energy balance equation.
No matter how full of self-love and/or holiday spirit you feel, calories still affect your body the same.
So FIRST, you need to have good awareness of your current goals, and what’s important to YOU right now.
If you have a photoshoot in two weeks, eating everything "because it's Christmas" is still probably a bad idea.
I feel like a grinch for typing that. Know that I hope you all enjoy your Christmases tremendously... just realize everything you eat counts. If you're ok with not knowing how what you ate will affect your progress, that's perfectly fine! Just don't let 50% of your meals be un-tracked or rough guesstimates, and then be confused about your lack of progress. (On a side note: Dr. Suess characters always look insanely creepy. I can't believe we read those books to kids. I still refuse to watch "How The Grinch Stole Christmas".)
Anyways... before you go any further:
Does the restaurant publish their macros? Check MyFitnessPal first - lots of restaurants will have their full menu uploaded, which makes your life way easier. If not on MyfitnessPal, there's still a chance that they'll be on the restaurants website. While still not perfect, this will be your best bet to account for any ingredients you might miss when tracking on your own.
No dice? Let's get into some strategies.
1. Choose Foods/Meals With The Fewest Ingredients
One thing that all of my online clients that get the best fat loss results have in common:
They eat a diet of 80-90% bro-foods, in very simple meals.
You know... foods you would consider "clean foods". Paleo-ish foods. Chicken, steak, fish, rice, sweet potatoes, nuts, fruits, veggies... you get the idea. Foods that grew from the earth, or had a face at one point.
An example meal would be something like:
- 8oz Sirloin Steak
- 90g White Rice
- 50g Avocado
- ~1/2 Cup Sliced Bell Peppers
Now, it's not that these foods or eating simply like this are better for fat loss, per se. But they're MUCH easier to measure accurately.
A less complex meal is easier to track, AND is more likely to be tracked accurately.
So going back to eating out/social events, apply the same concept.
Identify the options on your available menu with the fewest possible ingredients, and roll with one of those. The fewer ingredients your meal has, the more room for error you're removing.
Some typically solid options:
- Salad with Grilled Chicken/steak/shrimp - Be sure to take into account any add-ons like dressings, eggs, nuts, etc. Dammit I love those "fiesta salad" type things... you know the ones with the colorful strips of tortilla chips and whatnot, but they usually have a ton of ingredients and are hard to estimate accurately.
- STEAK - Damn I love steak too. Your steak meal will normally be pretty customizable, with the option for a lower calorie cut (e.g. sirloin), and the option to swap your mashed potatoes or fries for seasonal veggies (yes I know this hurts, but it's a really good idea). Again, just ask be aware of any potential add-ons.
- Grilled Chicken Entree
- Fish Entree
- Pork Loin
2. Prioritize Protein
Not only is protein the hardest macro for your body to store as fat, but it's also the one that keeps you feeling full the longest.
Identify the most protein-dense food on your plate. Finish that first, along with any fruits or veggies you have available. Hint: It's probably a meat. If there's no meat on your plate, I'm sorry. Think about the decisions you've made in life that got you to this point.
A few common protein sources:
Straight up, protein is very filling. Plus, protein sources are typically pretty easy to guesstimate relatively accurately (e.g. a piece of grilled chicken, a cut of steak). Just be sure to account for any added sauces or oils.
By eating a bunch of protein, fruits and veggies first, you're essentially running damage control - you're pretty full on foods you'll likely be able to measure accurately... so you're much less likely to be able to eat lots of food you WON'T be able to measure as accurately (e.g. Grandma's potato salad... wow this blog is making me hungry).
3. Plan Ahead
The second thing all my online clients that get the best fat loss results have in common:
They plan ahead.
For one, they typically meal prep for all meals of the week that fall at their challenging times (times when you're the most stressed out and likely to make a food-decision non-congruent with your goal).
But they also do a great job of planning ahead. When you know you have an event like this coming up:
Macro Plan - Plan your day out in advance the night before, a.k.a macro-planning. While you probably won't be able to perfectly guess what's available to eat, you CAN get a rough guesstimate. Macro-planning gives you a good idea of how you need to eat the rest of the day leading up to the event to stay on track with your goals. (Since you're likely to be eating more than normal at the event, you'll need to adjust your eating the rest of the day to compensate.)
Prioritize protein...again - Following the above point, if you need to keep calories low throughout the day to keep your diet in check; eat mostly protein and veggies leading up to the event. This will give you the best combination of low-calories and fullness
Intermittent Fasting - You can also play with intermittent fasting as a tool to save more calories for later. Basically, skipping breakfast, or pushing your first meal back to save calories up for later in the day. (Some people feel great with fasting, some people feel like balls. So only do it if YOU feel good.)
Pull Calories - If you really want to be sure you don't overeat at this event, reduce your calorie intake by 100-200 kcal for a few days leading up to said event. The size of the calorie deficit you create on a weekly and monthly basis is much more important than your daily deficit. By saving up calories during the week, you'll have a lot more wiggle room to work with at the event without hurting your progress.
4. Portion Sizes
If you've gotten to this point and are thinking...
Yeahhhhh... I'm probably not going to do any of that.
...then your best bet is just focusing on portion sizes. Less time-consuming than macros, and will still keep your calorie intake reasonable.
You'll be basing this of a diet structure called The Handful Diet. I use this with my online clients who DON'T want to track macros. Simple, but super effective.
You base all of your portions off of your hands. Like this:
First, identify the primary protein, fat, and carb sources available on your plate.
A Few Common Sources:
- Wild Game
(If eating fattier cuts of steak - e.g. Ribeye, N.Y. Strip - count that as fat + protein)
- Nut Butters
- Tree Nuts: Almonds, Cashews, Walnuts, Pecans, Brazil Nuts, etc.
- White Rice
- Sweet Potatoes/Yams
- White/Red Potatoes
- 2 palms protein
- 2 cupped handful carbs
- 2 thumbs fat
- 1 fistful of veggies
- 1-2 palms protein
- 1 cupped handful carbs
- 1-2 thumbs fat
- 1 fistful veggies
Let's say you're at a Barbecue. Your meal could look something like:
- Protein: 1 palm sized serving of steak + 1 palm sized serving of chicken wings
- Carbs: 1 cupped handful of Tortilla chips + 1 cupped handful of beer*
- Fat: 2 thumbs worth of guac
- 1 fistful of assorted veggies
*Note: I typically recommend trading one drink one serving of fat or carbs.
5. Estimate Ingredient-By-Ingredient
If you've read all of this and thought...
I want to do more to be SURE I'm on track.
...I got you. Here's what to do:
- Determine every single ingredient in whatever is on your plate.
- Estimate the portion size of each ingredient
- Look up the nutrition info - I like THIS SITE.
- Track each ingredient individually.
Is this a pain? Absolutely. But if you want to make the quickest possible progress, and also eat out - it's probably your best bet for tracking accurately.
And that's how it's done. Again, the more frequently you eat out, the harder it will be to measure your intake accurately. So know your trade-offs, and what's most important to YOU.