Archive for August, 2008
Calories In < Calories Out = Weight Loss
Yes, it’s really that simple. Calories are a unit of energy, and your body literally burns calories to power itself. Most of your caloric expenditure is spent keeping your body at a constant ~98.6F temperature. The rest is used to move your muscles, fuel your organs, etc. Thinking deeply about something burns more calories than passively watching TV or listening to music. The first time I played in a chess tournament (I’m not all that good, but the tournaments are fun) I was surprised by how physically exhausting it was.
Certain foods take more calories of energy to consume than others. Fat happens to be a really efficient means of storing calories for use later, which is why you get fat if you take in more calories than you need. Your body simply stores it for a time when it may need that extra energy later, like a squirrel collects a cache of nuts for the winter. Why is it so hard and take so long to lose weight? Because one pound of fat takes about 3,500 calories to burn, so you have to create a deficit of 500 calories per day (on average) to lose one pound of fat per week. Of course, when you’re overweight, your body has to work harder just to maintain itself, so if you follow a 1900-2100 calorie plan (like I am) you’re probably taking in only half to a third of the calories you burn, and the fat will come off pretty quickly. There may be such a thing as too quickly, too. I can’t stress enough that you should talk to a doctor before getting started on any kind of diet or fitness plan.
People are asking me what I’m doing to lose weight. I tell them I’m eating better and exercising (go figure). I’m not following any particular diet plan. Diets suck and are hard to follow, especially if you live in the world and want to go out and do things with people, so I was pretty sure when I started that I didn’t want to follow anything as strict and dull as Atkins, “The South Beach Diet,” “The Jolly Bean Diet,” the “Feel Miserable The Entire Time You’re On the Diet Until You Go Off The Plan And Put All The Weight You Lost (Plus BONUS Pounds!) Diet,” &c. I really needed to change my lifestyle, and my relationship with food (more on that abusive relationship later).
The Art of Losing Isn’t Hard to Master
The real truth about dieting that any nutritionist will tell you, is that it almost doesn’t matter what you eat if weight loss is your only goal. As long as you keep the calories you consume below the threshold of the calories your body needs every day, you’ll lose weight. Yes, by eating more nutritious and healthier foods you’ll be able to eat more for a lower amount of total calories, feel better, and perhaps be happier in your weight loss (as I am), but you could probably eat a Big Mac three meals a day, and you could still lose weight if your body needs more than 1800 calories a day (as mine likely does). So if you really love fast food, there’s probably a plan you could follow to eat at your favourite take-out place every single day if you wanted, albeit probably in smaller portions than to which you’re accustomed.
Part of the problem is that I like to taste things that are delicious. I love cooking. I love going out and spending time with friends and loved ones. So rather than limiting myself to certain foods, I’m developing a strategy for eating. It only took a few weeks to feel comfortable with it, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that lately I’ve been eating more delicious foods than I was when I was getting delivery 3-4 days a week. I mean, I love pizza, but it’s not the most flavourful food on the planet.
One thing’s for certain: pre-packaged highly-processed food costs a whole lot less than fresh stuff. Go to the supermarket and you probably have more fresh vegetable and meat choices than ever before in history. Multiculturalism is in, too, so it’s now pretty easy to find some of my new favourite foods, like Greek yogurt, hummus, various low-cal Asian sauces and marinades, &c. However, this stuff isn’t as cheap as say, a box of macaroni and cheese, but it sure tastes better and leaves me feeling better, both physically and emotionally.
So I feel better, and I feel better. For each of my personal fitness vectors, the eating-better part is the easiest. I almost never feel like I’m depriving myself of anything because I’m eating things with lots of flavour and I’m finding that a balanced meal (or at least a balanced daily diet, even if I don’t perfectly balance every meal) is far more satisfying than most of the junk food I consumed en masse. Personal Fitness Vectors sounds pretty technical, but it just means I’m waging the war on several fronts (maybe I should pick a metaphor that doesn’t sound like I’m attacking myself). In addition to eating better, I’m also studying nutrition and fitness, biology, the science of how my body processes food and nutrients, how the body burns fat, why it stores fat in the first place, etc.
Working Out Is Hard To Do
I don’t have a regular exercise routine either (although I am lifting weights and am meeting with a personal trainer twice a week). Exercise is important to keeping a healthy body and feeling better. Being active will mean you don’t have to be as strict with counting calories, but you’ve never seriously exercised before, you may be as dismayed as I was to learn that exercise has a nominal impact on weight loss. You can pedal your heart out for a solid hour on an exercise bike until you’re out of breath and sweating profusely and you might burn a thousand calories (if you’re my size, height, and age). That’s about the equivalent of a medium sized value meal at a fast food restaurant, which is actually not bad – if you can exercise at high-intensity for an hour straight without passing out or dying.
In reality, I’m generally burning only a few hundred calories an hour. Exercise also raises your metabolic rate, but it raises it so little as to be insignificant to helping with weight loss (although every little bit helps, right?). Another potential weight loss benefit – exercise may curb your appetite (I know it does mine) by increasing a protein in your blood called BDNF, which lowers your blood pressure and suppresses the hunger reflex.
Of course, my goal it to be fit and healthy, not simply to lose weight as fast as I can, so I’m getting other benefits from working out, too. More muscle means you’re increasing your body’s caloric requirements – those muscles need energy to move – and getting stronger from exercise means that it’ll get easier over time, and more enjoyable. It’s already nice to be able to keep up with healthy people when walking. Previously I had a hard time keeping up with friends and coworkers who all walk at a pretty swift pace. Now they have a hard time keeping up with me.
Actually, my legs have been getting much stronger and much faster than anything else. Granted, most of the leg exercises I’m doing are just using my own body weight as resistance (gravity is a harsh mistress) but I’m already seeing marked improvement.
Overall, I’ve been happy with my progress so far, albeit impatient with the speed at which I’m improving. But I’m only in week ten, and I expect I have another 150 or so weeks to go before I’m even close to being fit. In the meantime, I’m getting in progressively better shape.