Weight Loss vs. Weight Gain: What Your Plate Should Look Like

Weight Loss vs. Weight Gain: What Your Plate Should Look Like

Scrolling through social media can be a feast for your eyes, thanks to all the #foodie posts. And among the award-winning dishes and crave-worthy comfort foods, you may have noticed a trend of side-by-side plate photos, dishing out healthy tips on practical portions and smarter food swaps. Whether you’re eating for weight loss or fueling for muscle gain, here’s what you can learn from those plate photos.


What Should I Eat to Lose Weight?

When it comes to meeting your body goals, it’s less about what you eat and more about how you eat.

Eating for weight loss and eating for healthy weight gain both boil down to a simple concept: “Energy in versus energy out,” says Andrea N. Giancoli, M.P.H., R.D., and nutrition manager for Openfit. “If you’re taking in more energy — or calories — than you’re expending, then you’ll gain weight. Likewise, if you’re expending more energy than you’re taking in, you’ll lose weight.”

In other words, even if you’re following a healthy, nutrient-rich, plant-based diet, you can still gain weight if you don’t keep your calorie intake in check. And that relies heavily on portion control, which means measuring or weighing your food — at least for the first week or two, while you get used to what a serving size actually looks like.

“If you compare a serving size on a nutrition facts label to what you actually serve yourself, you might be shocked to discover how little the recommended portion is compared to what you’re used to consuming,” Giancoli says.


What Should Your Plate Look Like?

It’s important to “budget” your macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs) based on your weight goals. If you’re trying to lose weight, Giancoli recommends making your plate 50 percent nutrient-dense fruits and veggies, 25 percent lean protein, and 25 percent whole grains. “You want your high-volume, low-calorie foods taking up a majority of your plate,” she says. Redistributing these same foods on the same plate — say, adding more protein — can help your reach increased mass goals.

Losing weight doesn’t have to mean tiny, tummy-grumbling portions or skipping your favorite foods. And gaining mass shouldn’t mean filling up on empty calories. Here are a few side-by-side plate comparisons that show how you can achieve your body goals while staying satisfied.


1. For Weight Loss, Make Space for Veggies

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Allocate plate space according to your weight-loss or weight-gain goals by varying your volume of veggies. The salad on the left is packed with peppers and tomatoes, but any watery veggie will do — swap in asparagus, zucchini, or broccoli if your palate prefers. This lets you enjoy a hearty salad and still stay on track for weight loss.

If you’re looking to build muscle mass and bump up your intake of protein and calories, the plate on the right scales back on tomatoes and peppers to make room for half an avocado, more shredded chicken, and a bigger helping of black beans.


2. Consider How Many Calories You Really Need

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Of course oats are higher in calories than cauliflower, but the scoop on the left isn’t only for people who are looking to build mass. It may sound crazy, but if your calorie deficit is too large, it can actually inhibit your weight-loss goals — which means sometimes you need to eat more food to lose weight.

When trying to lose weight, nutritionist Amanda Ciprich, M.S., R.D., suggests matching your meals to your activity level — and not just what you do at the gym. “Are you on your feet most of the day, or are you sitting at a desk?” she asks. “Do you take the stairs multiple times a day or the elevator? Do you walk your pets? Do you take the closest parking spot or park further away? Any activity throughout the day counts. When your day is jam-packed with activity, opt for adding in higher-calorie meals.” Not moving as much? Keep the caloric intake lower.


3. Watch for Sneaky Calories in Toppings

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It’s not just for hipsters — avocado toast is a yummy way to start a healthy day or a great snack to rev up a sluggish afternoon metabolism. But even though avocados are a superfood, they’re still high in calories, so portion size matters. Case in point: Both slices of avocado toast look equally tasty, but the slice on the right — thanks to a thicker spread of avocado and a sprinkle of feta — has double the calories.

So how can you watch your portions when it comes to easy-to-overdo toppings like spreads, dressings, nut butters, and cheese? “A good way to control portions is to buy single-serving packages of food,” says Rachel Paul, Ph.D., R.D., and the nutritionist behind CollegeNutritionist.com. “This may be a little more wasteful, but it’s more convenient. If you have the patience and self-control to make your own single-serving packages, even better!”


4. Small Food Swaps Make a Big Difference

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Breakfast bowls are a healthy way to kick off your morning, but pay close attention to what you scoop in there. At first glance, these two plates appear almost identical, but slight variations in portion sizes and food choice make a huge difference.

The plate designed for weight loss replaces 30 grams of sultana raisins (99 calories) with 8 grapes (13 calories). The plate designed for weight gain uses full-fat Greek yogurt instead of low-fat (and a slightly more generous scoop of it), and adds more whole-grain cereal.


5. Make Sure Your “Healthy Swaps” Support Your Goals

IG: @collegenutritionist

Healthier versions of your favorite high-calorie foods can help you satisfy your cravings without using up a cheat meal — but it’s still important to consider your weight goals. Either plate above is healthier than a greasy pizzeria slice.

Take pizza, for example. If you’re looking to gain weight in a healthy way, a pizza bagel made with a whole-grain bagel and a single serving of sauce and mozzarella is a healthy stand-in for a greasy pizzeria slice. If you’re looking to lose weight, Paul suggests replacing the bagel with a portobello mushroom and swapping fresh tomatoes for the (often sugar-filled) sauce. This will decrease calories even further without sacrificing taste.

All of the plates above may look healthier than mindlessly munching on processed junk — and they are! But these side-by-side comparisons show how a few small changes to your plate can equate to big results without making major sacrifices. “Portion control teaches healthy and mindful habits for what serving sizes of foods look like,” Ciprich says. “It’s a great way to shift from old mindsets to creating new ones, so you can really see how much more or less you’re eating.”

Carrie Anton author


With a natural appetite to learn new things and constantly challenge herself, Carrie Anton has been led down many assignment paths, including: eco-crafts for tweens; fitness for women, supplements for men, and high-school baseball for sport enthusiasts. You can find her work in Women's Health, Oxygen, Fitness Rx for Women, Self, Family Circle, Reebok, Dick's Sporting Goods, Beachbody, Slendher.com. As well as her book Me, Myself and I; Ideas: The Ultimate Guide to Brainstorming Solo. Follow her on Twitter.