Build Muscle, Stay Lean, Perform Better Without Counting Calories

Mike Wines
Written By: Mike Wines
November 3rd, 2014
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Nutrition
31.2K Reads
Counting calories has become the norm in the fitness industry, but is it necessary? In this feature Mike Wines presents 4 tips to help you gain without mental strain.

The media tends to blow the role of certain macronutrients, microntrients and supplement ingredients out of proportion. Dr. Oz and Oprah aren't doing us any favors by promoting new super ingredients every week; products that are guaranteed to blast away stubborn belly fat, give you 18 inch arms, and cure cancer in only 10 days. 

Turns out, the vast majority of these types of products either manipulate studies to support their claims, or the purported "benefits" are marginal at best. In other words, some thermogenic fat burners only increase metabolic rate by a mere 75-100 calories per day - essentially the equivalent of going for a jog or leisurely hike.

There is nothing magical about protein powder, multivitamins, fish oil, or any other overly promoted "super food." Sure, they all play a vital role in promoting health and wellness, but outside of the entire dietary context, one isn't superior to another. But supplement manufacturers certainly won't tell you this, as they are simply focused on profit margin.

This article isn't going to be anything groundbreaking but, like most things in fitness or nutrition, it's best to adopt a simplistic mindset. I realize that many people are against the idea of counting calories as it's arduous, confusing, and time consuming. Granted, it takes a little getting used to. Just remain open-minded and try to set aside any bias against it.

Here are 4 quick tips that you can implement right now to help you regulate your caloric intake without having to bust out a calculator.

Protein Foods

I'll spare you the details but suffice it to say, you’re going to have a tough time putting on muscle eating only fruit and vegetables

1. Make protein the foundation of every meal

I'm not going to lie; meat is probably my favorite food group. You just can’t beat a tender grass-fed steak on the grill. Aside from the fact that charred animal flesh tastes great, there are a couple other reasons to make sure you emphasize this glorious macronutrient at each meal throughout the day.

A. The Thermic Effect of Food

Essentially, certain foods take more energy to digest than others. Protein "loses" 25-30% of its caloric value simply through enzymatic and metabolic processing. Pretty nifty, eh?

B. Satiety Index

Have you ever noticed how there are certain foods which never seem to fill you up? Cereal, ice cream, chips, crackers, cookies, and cake all seem to come to mind for me.

Why? Well there have been a number of studies conducted on participants regarding the satiety index that sought to determine which foods produced the greatest sensation of "fullness" after a meal. It's no surprise that eggs, steak, and fish were among the highest contenders.

C. Plays a Vital Role in Hormone Regulation and Muscle Growth & Retention

I'll spare you the details but suffice it to say, you’re going to have a tough time putting on muscle eating only fruit and vegetables. [1,2] Not to mention, do you realize how many bananas and heads of broccoli you’d need to eat to pack in 3,000 calories? Good luck…

Takeaway: Eat some protein at every meal: Greek yogurt, chicken, steak, eggs, protein powder - doesn't matter, just chow down.

Orange Juice

2. Stop drinking liquid calories

Here's what a typical day might look like for some people:

  • 7am: 8oz of orange juice with breakfast (120 calories)
  • 8am: Large cappuccino or mocha coffee on the way into work (300+ calories)
  • 1pm: Large soft drink with lunch (250 calories)
  • 4pm: 1-2 Mixed drinks or beers with friends (150-300 calories)
  • 7pm: 12oz of sweet tea with dinner (200 calories)

That's over 1000 calories in drinks alone, assuming you chose smaller sizes and lower calorie options! Also, don't forget that liquids empty from the stomach much more quickly than solid foods due to the fact they're low in fiber, protein, and overall volume.

When you eat a solid meal with a variety of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein), a mechanism known as the ileal brake is activated. In short, this is a phenomenon within the body which seeks to prolong fat breakdown and decrease small intestine motility. This increases satiety and lowers overall food intake by slowing digestion.

Takeaway: When in doubt, stick to water. Eliminate liquid calories if you're looking for any easy and effective way to slash calories without affecting your overall satiety.

3. Stick to "one ingredient" foods

We've all been in the supermarket before and picked up a box with a food label resembling something like this:

Processed Food Label

Do you know what half that stuff is? I’m not entirely sure myself and I certainly don’t feel comfortable putting it in my body. If you're looking to improve your body composition and health simultaneously, you would be wise to stick to whole foods. Simply put, whole foods are those items with little to no processing and only one ingredient: the food itself.

Take this jar of peanut butter for example...

Peanut Butter

It has two simple ingredients: peanuts and salt. Isn't that what the name implies? PEANUT butter.

Somewhere along the line, food manufacturers realized they could make their products “hyper-palatable” and increase consumer demand by adding a combination of high fat, sugar, and/or salt. However, they could care less about how these foods actually affect your health or body composition in the long run.

Takeaway: Get "label savvy" - whole foods will always promote the most satiety and provide the largest array of micro-nutrition.

4. Eat larger meals and snack less

This one might be tough for some folks, but just hear me out. If given the option to eat 6 "meals" a day with only 400 calories in each or 3 meals a day with 800 calories in each, which would you choose?

If it was me, I know I'd want to go for the larger meals. When you consume smaller amounts, there tends to be an increase in energy intake. Why? Well for one, when your stomach expands to accommodate a large food bolus, your body releases specific hormones. Leptin is one of significant importance, as it informs the brain that you have received enough calories and thus you feel "full".

But, when you choose to snack (depending upon your food choices), you never actually eat enough calories to generate the stretch response within the stomach. Your body fails to release any appreciable amount of leptin, and thus you're usually hungry an hour or 2 later (Side note: this isn't always the case if you choose to base your snacks around tip #1 above).

We must also consider the environment in which most snack foods are eaten. Many folks munch away in front of a TV, computer, or iPhone and fail to pay attention to the quantity of food they’re ingesting. Not to mention, snacking usually includes highly processed, hyper-palatable foods that are lacking in quality. The overabundance in quantity and lack of quality prevents individuals from staying in tune with their body's intrinsic signals and allowing hormones to work synergistically with calories.

This may not work for everyone as some may have small appetites, don't enjoy large meals, or perhaps have medical conditions which necessitate more frequent feedings. That's perfectly fine, whatever you prefer. Just experiment and don't fall into the one-size-fits-all trap.

Takeaway: Eat larger meals, reduce and seek to eliminate snacks, chew slowly, put your fork down between bites, and learn to savor the taste of your food.

Simple changes can produce drastic results; it just takes consistency, patience, and hard work. Got questions? Leave a comment below.


1) Influence of diet on plasma steroids and sex hormone-binding globul... - PubMed - NCBI. (n.d.). Retrieved from

2) Effect of a vegetarian diet and dexamethasone on plasma prolactin, ... - PubMed - NCBI. (n.d.). Retrieved from

1 Comment
Posted on: Tue, 11/04/2014 - 14:03

Great advice, and practical too.

I think that too many people put too much emphasis on counting calories and would be better off by simplifying their lives with a better overall approach to food intake.

I especially like your advice about eating whole foods, and agree totally. At 40 I have my sixpack back after losing 25Kg, and this was done, not by counting calries, but by changing the fundamental way in which foods are consumed - skip the carbss and sugars, empty calories from drinks and focus on eating simple, whole foods, with a focus on protein.