Weighing and Measuring Food

This post is the third in a series of posts on my “Weight Loss Arsenal,” tools and tricks that have been essential for me in the process of losing weight and keeping fat at bay.

For most of us, losing weight requires conscious, sustained effort. If you’re anything like me, a big part of the problem you have had with food is that you’re usually not conscious or aware of how much you are eating. In an earlier post, I suggested that keeping a food journal may be the most effective tool for becoming conscious of your food intake. But a second technique goes hand in hand with keeping a food diary. And that’s weighing and measuring your food. This post is about the very practical skill of weighing and measuring food, which has the side benefit of teaching you the habit of accurately estimating food portions.

Reasons to Measure your Food

It is possible that you don’t need to weigh and measure your food. As coach Corey at CrossFit Asheville has pointed out to me, “cavemen didn’t weigh and measure.” Of course, on the face of it, that is true. But usually, cavemen also didn’t need to lose 40 pounds.

Americans are fools when it comes to portion sizing. Cavemen didn’t have access to the super-abundant food-supplies that we have. One of the reasons so many of us are so fat is that we are used to being served portions that are entirely out of balance with the nutritional needs of a typical human being. As a result, many of us have no idea how to eat moderately. We have never developed a sense of proper portion sizing, because we have never attempted to understand precisely how much we are eating.

Let me state at the outset that this post is about a practical skill. I don’t care what your preferred theory of dieting is based on, you need this skill. You may follow the “paleolithic” or “caveman” diet, or the “Zone diet,” or the theories espoused by Greg Glassman and the devotees of CrossFit (Paleo-Zone). (I’ll explain in a later post how my own experience has led me to believe that this diet theory is the best). You may follow the South Beach diet, or the Mediterranean diet, or the Michael Pollan “food” diet. Maybe you use a super-low-fat and high-carb diet, or the Atkins diet, or even a simple calorie-restriction diet. For all of these diets, one thing is certain: you can follow them, but they really won’t work if you still eat too much. The simple fact is that most of these diets require you to measure or at least think about the quantity of food you put into your system. They require you to meet minimum goals of intake for certain foods, and not to exceed maximum limits for others. The diets will fail if you don’t follow them carefully. But there’s really no way to do that accurately, unless you get in the habit of weighing and measuring all your food.

The Kitchen Scale

My kitchen scale.

My kitchen scale.

If you are ready to weigh and measure, the first thing you need is a good kitchen scale. And what is a good scale? Simply put: it doesn’t need to be fancy. It should be functional, quick, and relatively easy to clean.

In using your scale, you need to be bold. Keep it out on the counter, where you regularly prepare food. Use your scale for any food item that can’t easily be counted or measured by volume, or for any type of food that is usefully recorded in ounces or grams.

There are many different times and ways you can use your scale. If you want to keep track of your actual food intake, probably the best time to use the scale is during the process of “plating” your food. So, unless you have an understanding spouse, partner, or table-mate who doesn’t mind you bringing the scale to the dining room table, you might take up the practice of plating your food in the kitchen, where the scale normally sits. But there are also other times you can profitably use your scale: while butchering meats, prepping food for cooking, etc.

If you use your scale enough, you will probably find that you very quickly develop the skill of estimating food amounts. Before long, you’ll be cutting off 1 oz. or 4 oz. chunks of meat exactly, on the first try. You’ll grab a handful of almonds, throw it on the scale and find that it weighs exactly 1 oz. These skills of estimation will become indispensable to you, as they help you learn about the amount of food you’re actually eating. For example, they allow you to go out to eat in a restaurant, or at a friend’s house, and still limit yourself to a sensible quantity of food.

Measuring Cups and Spoons

My doubly and triply redundant set of measuring cups and spoons.

My doubly and triply redundant set of measuring cups and spoons.

For weighing and measuring, you will also need measuring cups and spoons. But there’s nothing quite so frustrating as wanting to measure a teaspoon of canola oil, or a tablespoon of almond butter, or a 1/4 cup of cooked rice, and finding that you can’t find a clean measuring spoon anywhere. So I recommend having at least three sets of measuring spoons, and two sets of measuring cups, and keeping them in a predictable place, right where you prepare and plate your food.

Once you overcome any residual fears that you may harbor about using these tools—will people think I am a freak because I measure everything?—you will quickly discover that a measuring spoon or cup can work very well as a serving device. You can pull the suckers out while plating. Or you can even bring them right to the table and serve things with them. If you know you are only going to eat a 1/4 cup of cooked oatmeal, then by all means serve yourself with that 1/4 cup measure. If you are committed to limiting yourself to one 4 oz. glass of wine, pour the wine first into that 1/2 cup measure. If you’re planning to eat two cups of strawberries, cut them right into the cup measure, and then put them into a bowl. If you keep enough of these things around, and keep them close at hand while you are preparing or plating food, it becomes second nature to grab hold of them and measure how much you are making, or planning to eat.

The great thing is that, soon enough, as with the scale, you’ll learn what three cups of broccoli or cooked kale really looks like on your plate; you’ll learn to serve yourself exactly 1/4 cup of rice without a cup-measure. You’ll learn how full (or empty) your wine glass looks when filled with 4 oz. of Chardonnay.

For the record, it is also helpful to memorize three or four very simple conversions. 8 fluid ounces = 1 cup. 16 tablespoons = 1 cup. 1 tablespoon = 1/2 fluid ounce. 1 fluid ounce = 28 grams.

The Virtues of Weighing and Measuring

The virtues of this way of eating are many. Chiefly, weighing and measuring helps you be realistic and accurate in the record of your eating you make in your food journal. Secondarily, it helps you achieve specific dietary goals, such as controlling calorie intake, or meeting consumption goals for specific macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs). Thirdly, and perhaps best, weighing and measuring your food trains you to become much more aware of your eating, and how the quantities you eat affect your body and your progress in your diet.