Eating well without counting calories

Guest Post, Sally Marchini, Dietitian

Some of us really dislike counting calories. It’s great for those who do, and many I know use tools/apps such as MyFitnessPal and others with success, but it’s not for everyone. This raises the question, if you’re not counting calories how do you know how much to eat to lose or maintain your weight/wellbeing?

A good place to start is to have an understanding of the energy density in carbohydrates, proteins, fats and alcohols, these being the four ‘macronutrients’ that provide all our calories/energy in the food we eat.  May I suggest a quick review of a previous blog called ‘Energy In/Energy Out – understanding how much you need and where you get it’. In a nutshell though, carbohydrates and proteins provide about the same amount of energy, and fats and alcohol are about double the energy density of carbohydrates and protein.

Another excellent thing to keep in mind is the Australian Dietary Guidelines that indicates how many serves of each of the five food groups each of us should be aiming to include in our daily food intake.

The reason for highlighting this suggestion is it is easy to think that because something is healthy that means we can eat as much of it as we like.  We know that monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated oils, including avocados, nuts and seeds, are good choices for heart health (as outlined in the Blog 2 on fats – which are the best types for us to enjoy?).  Often if people think they’ll lose weight by cutting out one macronutrient, it just doesn’t work in the long term as they tend to balance out the energy they need by including more of another.

For us with diabetes, often people think they should cut down on their carbs to help with their blood glucose control (which can be helpful – read more in the blog Discussion on low carb diets) but end up eating more fat or protein in their daily routine to make up for the energy they’re missing in the carbs they’ve cut.

So the idea to understand how to make your meal and snack choices contain the correct amounts of the ‘macronutrients’ to keep your energy balance as well as the foods from all 5 food groups to provide you the nutrition you need for wellbeing.


The key, as always with diabetes, is ‘balance’.

There are a number of plate diagrams around. The traditional idea of a medium sized plate divided into quarters, with one quarter being carb foods (preferably nutritious and low-GI), one quarter being lean protein and the other half being non-starchy vegetables, with a small amount of good fats too is an awesome idea to keep in your mind.


The Australian Dietary Guidelines also reminds us that “an allowance for unsaturated spreads and oils for cooking, or nuts and seeds can be included in the following quantities: 28-40g per day for men less than 70 years of age, and 14-20g per day for women and older men.”

Carbohydrate foods

Choices here can come from the vegetables, grains, dairy and fruit (although we tend to save dairy and fruit for snacks). You might choose sweet potato, Carisma potato or sweet corn if you were having a vegetable based meal, and around 2-3 carb serves of these would make up the quarter serve of your plate.  If you were having rice, pasta or another grain food, again you’d aim for 2-3 carb serves on your plate.

It’s easy to think about carb serves as roughly a small fist size.

Protein foods

One serve of a protein food as outlined in the Australian Dietary Guidelines is enough to take that quarter allocation on your plate:

  • 65g cooked lean red meats such as beef, lamb, veal, pork, goat or kangaroo (about 90-100g raw)
  • 80g cooked lean poultry such as chicken or turkey (100g raw)
  • 100g cooked fish fillet (about 115g raw) or one small can of fish
  • 2 large (120g) eggs
  • 1 cup (150g) cooked or canned legumes/beans such as lentils, chick peas or split peas (preferably with no added salt)
  • 170g tofu
  • 30g nuts, seeds, peanut or almond butter or tahini or other nut or seed paste (no added salt)

You can read more about protein in the blog Protein and diabetes – do you get the balance right?. And it can be easy to think about protein serves by aiming for a serve the size of the palm of your hand (no fingers or thumbs).

Non-starchy Vegetables

This section is half the plate, and is where many people struggle to eat enough. It should be made up of about 3 serves based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and doesn’t include the starchy veggies that sit in the carbohydrate quarter.

A standard serve of vegetables is about 75g or:

  • ½ cup cooked green or orange vegetables (for example, broccoli, spinach, carrots or pumpkin)
  • ½ cup cooked, dried or canned beans, peas or lentils
  • 1 cup green leafy or raw salad vegetables
  • 1 medium tomato

Some great ideas to make the non-starchy vegetables work for you might include roasting them or a vegetable stew or curry with a tomato base. And there’s always a hearty salad with perhaps some cheese from your daily dairy serves, or good old lightly steamed vegetables. You can also skewer them to be barbequed, and stir fry them – the options are almost never ending.

So don’t be held back by some maybe old-fashioned ideas about vegetables not being exciting. Give some new ideas a try and learn to embrace their wonderful nutritious and delicious qualities.  And if at the end of a meal, or even in between meals, if you can discover some ideas for these non-starchy vegetables you’ll be happy to learn that they’re low in all the energy containing macronutrients so eat more of these to keep you satisfied.

How much weight is a good amount to lose?

This is really a topic for another whole blog, but just briefly I’ll take the opportunity to remind you that ‘going on a diet’ doesn’t work in the long term. Even if you lose weight in the short term, it will come back plus some – the evidence here is overwhelming. By following the Australian Dietary Guidelines suggested daily serves for your gender/age and participating in regular physical activity you are likely to lose about a kilo a month and it should be sustainable. There is certainly a lot to eat in there and I challenge anyone to still be hungry when consuming all that food! To maintain a healthy weight it’s recommended that you add in 2.5 serves from the food groups that you enjoy the most.

The main point is to avoid processed and take away foods as often as possible. Try to be organised and take your own meals and snacks with you to help avoid temptation.

My last key point is to remind you about the importance of seeing an Accredited Practising Dietitian to help you with a personalised consultation so you know you’re getting everything you need to be your best.

I hope you’ve found this useful in helping you to understand how much of the different foods you need to include in each of your meals, as well as the extras you have such as dairy, fruit and nut serves for your snacks if you need/want them.

Please let me know if you any questions.

Sally is owner of her private practice (Marchini Nutrition), and has had type 1 diabetes for close to 40 years and coeliac disease for many years too. 


  1. Lyndal Parker-Newlyn on August 11, 2014 at 11:52 am

    GREAT blog 🙂 Heading off to share it everywhere!!

    • Sally on August 11, 2014 at 12:21 pm

      Thanks Lyndal! I know you lead by example in this respect – proud of you!

      Sally 🙂