How to Eat Your Favorite Foods Without Gaining Weight

Strawberries and Vanilla Ice Cream
Does eating your favorite foods make you fat?

One of the biggest fears people have about dieting or non-dieting eating plans is the false idea that you have to give up your favorite foods if you want to reach and maintain a healthy weight.

For those who have come out of the low-carb mentality, the fear of carbs can be almost paralyzing.

Yes, there are trigger foods that can cause you to lose control. Some people can't stop at an ounce or two of Doritos. They have to keep eating them until the entire family-sized bag is gone.

But I'm not talking about triggers right now.

I'm talking about high-satisfaction foods like ice cream or a rich and creamy Alfredo sauce that you love so much you'd feel like you're missing out if you have to stop eating them to get thinner, and stay thinner.

Is there a way to pull these favorite foods into your meal plan without gaining weight?

Yes there is.

Small amounts of high-calorie foods in reasonable portion sizes can still be a part of your nutritional approach to life. You don't have to give up chocolate cake on your birthday or the enjoyment of having a refreshing bowl of ice cream during the summer months.

Your favorite foods are not what made you fat.

What made you fat was providing more energy to the body than it could use over the course of a day, and day after day. What you have to do is figure out a way to fit your favorite foods into your current nutritional needs.

The Truth About Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates consist of multiple strands of glucose molecules all strung together. Enzymes during digestion break these strands apart, so the glucose can be absorbed through the lining of the small intestine.

Once absorbed through the intestinal villi, the glucose is pulled from the bloodstream into the body's cells, such as the muscles and liver. Insulin, secreted by the pancreas, alerts the cells to the presence of glucose, which makes the pulling in process go faster.

In the liver and muscles, glucose is immediately oxidized for energy. What the body can't use right away is stored as glycogen. It is not stored as body fat. Any fructose must be converted into glucose and then into glycogen.

The muscles can hold about 200 to 300 grams of glycogen when completely empty (about 200 to 300 carbs worth; more if you're muscular), and the liver can hold about 80 to 100 grams.

The glycogen in the liver is later converted into glucose, and dumped into the bloodstream to help keep your blood glucose level steady. Glucose is only secreted into the bloodstream when your blood sugar is low. This ensures that the brain, muscles, and other body organs and cells have a continuous supply of energy available.

The glycogen in the muscles cannot be used to keep your blood glucose steady. It's only used by the muscles themselves, but as you go about your daily activities, that glycogen will be converted to glucose and used by the muscles.

As glycogen stores go down, it leaves room for fresh incoming glucose to be converted into glycogen.

The only time carbohydrates are converted into body fat is if your glycogen stores in both the liver and muscles are completely full. And even then, any body fat created will be used when glycogen is low and no calories are coming in, such as between meals or at night while you're sleeping.

Pinterest Image: Slice of my Homemade Gluten-Free Pizza

The Truth About Dietary Fats

Of all three macronutrients -- carbohydrates, protein, and fats -- dietary fats are the easiest for the body to store. Unlike protein or carbs, fat doesn't have to be converted into something else first.

By the time fat reaches the liver, it is already in the form of triglyceride, so the liver simply stores it for later on when glycogen is in short supply. This occurs even on low-carb diets. Fat is stored first, then drawn back out on an as-needed basis.

Fat storage isn't static. It's fluid.

Fat flows into the fat cells and then is pulled back out again. Problems occur when this in-and-out flow backs up because you're consuming more fat calories than what the body can use on a daily basis.

The Truth About Calories

In terms of weight management, calories matter more than how much fat or how many carbohydrates you eat on a day-to-day basis. This is because the body needs a certain amount of fuel each and every day, so it will bounce back and forth between any fuel sources available, including body fat.

At the end of the day, energy balance (or a lack of balance) is what counts most, so to maintain a lower weight, you have to eat fewer calories or use more of them in some way. This is true no matter which diet you're following, including low-carb diets.

Limiting high-calorie foods can help you shed pounds faster, but feeling deprived or feeling like weight management is too much work will simply cause you to bail on your nutritional plan long before you have a chance to evolve into a thinner and better you.

The aim of weight management isn't to turn your life into a mathematical experiment that never ends.

Tracking each and every calorie you put into your mouth can get tedious after a few months and can be so far off the energy mark that you'll quickly become frustrated if you don't lose weight as quickly as you think you should, and give up.

What you want to do is figure out a way to eat that will allow you to manage your weight without a lot of effort and sacrifice. If you want to be able to enjoy life, you don't have to give your freedom of choice to others who don't have your best interest at heart. You can take charge of your eating habits.

Pot Filled with Corn on the Cob
Knowing the approximate calorie count of your
favorite foods can help you set up your approach. 

Knowing your maintenance level of calories and the energy value of the foods you eat is helpful in setting up a basic, workable plan, but becoming ritualistic in counting calories will cause you to miss the target because the calories-in versus calories-out frame of reference doesn't take physical adaption into the calculation.

Individual variances in energy needs can only be discovered through personal experimentation. This is because how much energy you use during digestion, what foods you're eating, and even your emotional state, all play a role in how the body uses calories.

How Many Calories Do You Need?

A calorie is a just a measurement of energy. It's not the energy itself, so you don't want to get too caught up in the numbers game.

While calorie counts make great estimates when it comes to energy, in real life, the variances due to lifestyle habits won't always meet your expectations.

For example:

Thoughts, emotions, type of employment you do, intensity of family responsibilities, and even your lifestyle habits like eating out or watching television on the weekends all require various amounts of energy.

Differences in fidgeting alone can create an energy deficit that amounts to hundreds of calories daily over someone who doesn't fidget at all. Those who eat high-protein diets will burn more calories during digestion than someone who never eats meat.

These lifestyle differences make it almost impossible to make caloric generalizations because those generalizations won't be suitable for everyone.
Platter of Fried Chicken
Those who eat meat burn more calories
than those who don't eat meat.

The Guidelines For Americans put out in 2015 do offer generalized recommendations for calories, determined by age and activity level, but even then, you have to look at the numbers as only a rough guide from which to start from. They are estimates and not absolutes.

When it comes to the body, there are very few absolutes. However, if you're vitally interested in tracking calories, this is the easiest way to incorporate your favorite foods. You simply plot them into your day first, and then reverse engineer from there.

How to Reverse Engineer the Calories in Your Favorite Foods

I don't count every calorie I put into my mouth. I did that at one time, back when I lost over 100 pounds using a low-carb diet, but have no interest in doing that today. I do admit that reaching goal weight might one day come to that, but for now, I'm using the reverse engineering method instead.

This method makes adding your favorite foods to your diet quick and easy because once it's set up, you don't have to think about what you're doing anymore. You can simply live your life because this new way of living is just how you eat now. There no dieting about it.

Reverse engineering is exactly how it sounds. You're doing things in reverse.

Instead of counting the calories in what you just ate, and hoping you don't run out of calories before the end of the day, you make a list of your favorite foods, look up the calorie counts for those foods, and then figure out a responsible and realistic way to include those foods in your life.

Personal Example: Dessert After Dinner

In Utah, we used to buy ice cream in a huge plastic bucket. Since the bucket was so large, hubby had the habit of dishing up huge bowlfuls every single night. If we didn't have ice cream, then hubby wanted cake or brownies or some type of goody snack a couple of hours before going to bed.

The largest calorie punch these treats provided was about 500 to 600 calories, so I used 500 calories as the base number to work off.

When I weighed 180 pounds, my maintenance calories were 2,100 calories a day. I was counting calories then, so I knew that's what it took to maintain that weight. To maintain 165 pounds, it took about 1800 because by then, I was no longer working as a Culinary Specialist in a local boys home. I was writing online instead.

I have no idea what it takes to maintain the 235 pounds I weighed when I first set this up a year ago, but since I was interested in getting to 160 pounds anyway, I used the figures for 180 pounds instead of 235. This way, I could just learn how to eat at that lower caloric level.

After subtracting the 500 calories for dessert from my maintenance calories, I was able to see what I had left for the rest of the day. The 1,600 calories divided across three meals, came to about 533 calories per meal.

This told me that I needed to learn what a 500-calorie meal looked like. If I could do that, and if I could start eating 500 calorie meals, consistently, I could continue to eat ice cream or enjoy a small piece of cake after dinner, along with hubby, and still maintain a lower weight.

Salisbury Steak, Mashed Potatoes, Green Beans
Salisbury Steak made with ground turkey,
mashed potatoes whipped with cream cheese,
cornstarch-thickened gravy and green beans.

Notice that I didn't set up a weight-loss diet.

I set up a weight-maintenance plan for 180 pounds that included a way to enjoy dessert every single day.

Alternatively, I could have chosen to purchase a lower-fat frozen dessert product, but except for Klondike Bars, which hubby consistently said were too small, that would have required me to give up my favorite foods and switch to something I didn't like.

I didn't want to do that.

The purpose in moving from low carb to a moderate-carb diet wasn't to move into the same type of restrictions. The purpose was to find a way of living and eating that would allow me to return to weighing 160 pounds without having to feel deprived or count calories.

As time went on, I started using a smaller bowl that held exactly 1 cup of ice cream. A cup of ice cream is much lower than 500 calories, but I didn't eat more at meals to make up for it. I just continued to leave 500 calories reserved for dessert, regardless of how much I actually ate.

Small Bowl of Strawberry Ice Cream with Blueberries
Today, I use a small bowl that holds 1 cup ice cream.
One cup of ice cream is about 300 calories.

The smaller bowl also eliminated the need for measuring or counting anything because I already knew how much ice cream the bowl held.

In addition to smaller bowls, hubby also started cutting the gluten-free chocolate cake into nine pieces instead of six. That move dramatically cut the calories in the cake from 600 down to 400, even without cutting down on the amount of frosting I normally used.

However, I continued to count the cake as 500 calories, as well, because most of the time, hubby would put a scoop of ice cream along side of the cake, and with 500 calories already reserved for dessert, I didn't have to worry about things like that.

I could just eat.

Cutting Meals Down to the Right Size

Meals are a bit more complex to reverse engineer, but when I was a young mother, I remember reading through the original Cooking Light cookbook that I picked up from the public library. The book was chock-full of recipes that came in at about 300 calories or less, and I thought that was a terrific way to learn how to put a meal together.

Since then, Cooking Light has evolved into a magazine, which initially carried on the tradition, but then somehow got sideswiped from all of that attention, I guess. From book to magazine to online presence, I also ran into a membership meal-plan service when I tried to find the original cookbook online.

Never did find that cookbook, although I did find one from 2010, but Amazon's sneak-peak feature wasn't working that day. I got frustrated trying to use the Cooking Light website, due to all of the articles actually being slideshows that required you to watch a video to get the recipes, so I never went back.

I still like the original idea of dialing in your recipes to be within a certain calorie range. Obviously, you don't have to tailor your recipes to be 300 or less if your calorie needs are higher than mine are.

What's important is that you find a reasonable range of calories that would enable you to exchange one recipe for another without having to actually track your calories. Just divide your recipes into as many servings as it takes to get the correct calorie count.

There are lots of sites online that do this now:, Betty Crocker, and Taste of Home have 300-calorie collections, and I'm sure there are 300-calorie boards at Pinterest because I just started a board myself for recipes that are less than 400 calories each.

But What About Your Favorite Foods?

To kick this off, make a list of all of your favorite foods, so you can distinguish which high-calorie foods you can easily live without and which ones you want to keep in your life on a regular basis. Don't worry about foods you occasionally indulge in. Focus on what you want in your life all the time.

Your weight is determined by what you eat on a regular basis.

What you're doing is weeding out any foods that don't really matter to you. Get rid of what's taking up calorie and carbohydrate real estate and replace those foods with the foods you find valuable to your mental and emotional well-being.

Next, look for foods or ingredients in your favorite recipes that can be switched out or eliminated to lower the calories of your meals without noticing or missing them. This might even include cutting down on your serving size.

For example, I can easily skip the toast at breakfast and the bun for my burger at dinner, without flinching. Since we are gluten free, those cuts amount to over 400 calories from my daily caloric total right there. Most of the time, I also skip the 100-calorie slice of cheese for that burger. I use mustard now instead of Thousand Island dressing for even more calorie savings.

All of these changes leave plenty of room in my diet for the ice cream that I really want later on.

Next, cut back on the fat and sugar in places where you won't miss them. For us, I trimmed the oil in our gluten-free pancake batter and changed how much butter I use to fry an egg. I use about half as much dressing on my salad as I used to and serve fruit with our dinner as a side dish more often than mashed potatoes, due to the extra calories in the butter and cream.

A very rich Alfredo sauce can be made with cream cheese to cut down on the amount of butter and heavy cream you need. Gravies and sauces can be thickened with cornstarch, rather than flour, which is slightly higher in calories, but you only need half as much.

I also look for places where I can use cream cheese or sour cream instead of butter. Cream cheese and sour cream makes your food taste rich, but for only half or a quarter of the calories. Both are good in mashed potatoes, egg or chicken salad, and even deviled eggs.

Likewise, replacing vegetable oil with butter will also save you 25 calories a tablespoon, so you don't have to give up the butter. You just need to use it in places where it matters most.

When you add up all the little changes you can make throughout the day, a few calories here and a few calories there, you can save the calories you don't mind giving up for the calories that you enjoy.

Watch Serving Size

When you do add your favorite foods, make sure that you're eating them in a reasonable, practical serving size. Often, favorite foods are only problematic because you're overeating them.

You don't need to eat half of a large pizza at a single sitting. A couple of slices of pizza with a nice side salad is plenty of food, especially when you know you can have that pizza again soon.

Two Slices of Pepperoni Pizza
Eat your favorite foods in reasonable amounts.

Unlike when you cheat on your low-carb diet, there's no feeling like you have to shovel it all in today because you won't get another chance for several months. All of that emotional junk and fear of carbs goes away when you give yourself permission to eat your favorite foods in reasonable quantities.

If you can find ways to make your favorite dishes fit into your 300- to 400-calorie meal template I talked about earlier, that's even better because you won't have to feel guilty eating those foods every single day.

If they are slightly higher in calories than what your meal template provides, just cut down on the amount of food you eat at your other meals, or even tomorrow, to compensate.

Problems arise when you say you'll eat less tomorrow, but then don't do it. You have to carry through on the deals you make yourself, for this technique to work well.

You also need to know how much energy your favorite foods provide, so you understand how much you need to cut to provide room in your diet for what you want most.

Your Favorite Foods Won't Make You Fat

Adding your favorite foods and recipes back into your diet won't make you fat unless you overeat for your size, height, and age.

Energy you use just has to match up with the energy you provide, and this goes for sugar and saturated fat, as well. Despite the fact that Weight Watchers now penalizes sugar and saturated fat, that has more to do with what Weight Watchers believes is good for you because they won't make you fat, either, unless you over eat them.

Fundamental physics holds true whether you're trying to trim the carbs or you're implementing a balanced approach to nutritional health like the old Weight Watchers exchange plans.

If you want to weigh less than you currently do, you have to cut down on the energy you're giving your body or do something that will cause your body to use more energy throughout the day.

Also keep in mind that all of the popular diets floating around are just gimmicks that trick you into eating less.

It's when you short-change the body that it has to haul its stored energy out from where it's been hidden, and use it. But short-changing the body's energy supply doesn't mean you have to deprive yourself of your favorite foods. Nor do you have to gain weight when you eat them.

By trimming your energy needs in non-painful ways, reverse engineering your calories, and staying aware of portion sizes, you can create a lifestyle that's enjoyable as well as allows you to be fit and trim.