Posts Tagged ‘calorie’
In terms of weight loss the most important thing to measure is the intake of food vs. expenditure of energy. Let’s make sure we understand what all of these things mean.
The dictionary defines food as “any substance your body can translate into energy.” By this definition water isn’t a food, but let’s say that it’s “anything you can eat or drink that supports your body’s energy needs.” Your body is a complex amalgam of many systems, but to simplify we’ll only be interested in the body as a mechanical and chemical system. To use a car analogy, your body needs fuel in order to function. The best part about food energy is that it can be measured, so we can know (albeit sometimes with some difficulty) what’s going into our gas tanks (stomachs).
You’re probably familiar with the unit we use to measure the amount of energy in food when consumed. It’s listed on the back of every pre-packaged food item in the form of Calories.
Cal or kCal?
The Calories in food are actually kilocalories in the scientific sense. Sometimes these calories are divided into small calories and big (or large) Calories, and it’s customary to use a capital C when referring to that unit of measure, although I’ll probably use the lower-case more often because it’s less obnoxious to read that way.
Nutritionists’ calorie, kcal, or just Calorie, is the amount of energy needed to increase 1 kilogram of water by 1° C. While it’s a metric measurement, in scientific circles the use of the SI-unit “joule” is more common. In current usage the calorie almost always means the amount of energy in food, specifically.
Input / Output
How much energy does it take to burn a pound of body fat?
There are 453.6 grams per pound. You have to create a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories to burn one pound of fat. Dietary fat has nine calories per gram.
9 calories per gram × 453.6 grams = 4,082.4 calories.
Since burning a pound of body fat only takes a deficit of 3,500 calories, we can do some more simple math: 3,500 calories divided by 453.6 grams = 7.7 calories per gram of body fat, which is less than the 9 calories that we know fat to contain per gram. So why does it take fewer calories to burn the fat than it does to intake the same amount of fat?
The reason is because stored body fat, called “adipose tissue” by scientists, isn’t pure fat like the dietary fat you consume. Adipose tissue is comprised primarily of fat, but also contains protein and a lot of water. Protein only has four calories per gram as opposed to fat’s nine, and water doesn’t have any calories, so that’s why it’s biologically easier to burn body fat than to store a pound of fat due to an excess of food intake. Of course, it’s easier to sit on your ass watching TV and eating potato chips than it is to exercise, and calorie-dense & nutritionally vacant foods comprise far too much of the average diet, making losing weight harder from a psychological and practical standpoint than gaining weight is for most people. Nature is on your side, but Human Nature is against you.
Time To Lose
If you only created a calorie deficit of 100 calories per day it would take five weeks to lose a single pound of fat. To lose 1–2 pounds per week, which is the most you’ll want to lose safely (i.e. without causing harm to your body) you’ll need to create a deficit of 500–1,000 calories every day. You can do this with a combination of calorie restriction and exercise. Just keep in mind that exercise will only do so much. The 80/20 rule applies here: 80% of your weight loss will come from your diet, and 20% should come from exercise. Walking briskly only burns about 100 calories per mile. Since you’ll have to walk almost six miles to burn off one Big Mac, altering your diet will result in greater results than exercise. That doesn’t mean that exercise is useless, just that if your only goal is weight loss, exercise is less important than diet. One advantage of exercise, though, is that it increases your metabolism.
Metabolism is the way your body breaks down food, determines its constitution, and gets the right nutrients to the cells that need them. Your body burns energy all the time, even now while you’re reading this. The more physical exertion, the more energy it takes.
I was going to take some pictures of 100 calories of foods to show volumes of various foods that all have the same number of calories, but someone already beat me to it (with a gallery of what 200 calories of various foods looks like).
Take This To The Bank
Caloric intake is like having a per diem. Every day you get a certain budget, and then it resets for the next day while you sleep. The amount of calories you require on a daily basis varies from person to person, but the USDA’s guidelines for nutritional labeling of food items bases the amounts on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your needs may be more or less than that based on your weight, gender, or age. There are even variations in the metabolism of individuals, so any talk of measuring your intake vs. calories burned will be ballpark figures.
Some foods are more calorie dense than others, meaning that you can eat larger amounts of some foods without taking as big of a hit in your daily budget.
|Nutrient||Calories Per Gram|
|Lipids (fats)||9 calories|
Water, insoluble fiber, cholesterol, vitamins, and minerals don’t have any calories but provide other vital nutrients. Practically all foods contain some combination of the above constituents, and food calories are calculated based on the amount of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that they contain.
How Much Of Each Nutrient Should I Eat Daily?
The Institute of Medicine provides a recommendation table called the acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) which specifies the percentages of each macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs, etc.) people should consume daily based on their age and gender. For adults, on average, you should base your percentage of macronutrient intakes on:
|Macronutrient||Daily Caloric Consumption|
As you can see, the totals of the maximum range exceed 100%, so depending on your age and gender you’ll need more or less of each nutrient. Remember, however, that your body weight is a simple balance of caloric intake versus outtake. Calories are calories whether they come from fat, protein, or a jelly donut. You can get all of your calories from eating potato chips and still lose weight. You may die of malnutrition, but you’ll lose weight.
Your metabolism is working all the time, burning energy just to keep your vital functions working, your body heat constant, heart beating, and lungs breathing. The amount of energy needed to keep you alive is called your basal metabolic rate. BMR varies in individuals, but a good average figure is that your BMR constitutes about 60% of your total energy consumption. You also burn energy digesting food, and of course through activity.
The average woman burns 10 calories per pound, and men burn 11 calories per pound.
Let’s assume for example a 150 pound woman (because the math works out conveniently). Her BMR would result in a caloric consumption of 1,500 calories (150 lbs x 10 calories), which is 60% of a total of 2,500, which is the amount of calories she’d have to consume daily to maintain the same weight.
But like I said above, BMR varies based on a great number of factors, including genetics, body frame, height, weight, etc. It’s widely known that the BMR of overweight people is actually much greater than that of fit people since it takes more energy to keep more mass moving, and being overweight stresses the body causing an overweight person to burn more energy than if they weren’t carrying the extra weight. If you’re overweight, this is excellent news.
Your BMR constitutes about 60% of your daily caloric needs. Another 10% goes to digesting food and carrying nutrients to your organs. Only 30% of your daily caloric intake goes to powering your muscles to move your body around through activity. So it seems that you’d be well-served by figuring out how to increase your basal metabolic rate. Of course, to know how to increase it you’ll need to know how to calculate yours first.
Some fancy scales can determine your BMR by sending a small electrical current through your body (one foot to the other) and measuring the resistance caused by water in your cells. It’s a rough estimate. There are also handheld devices that can measure your body fat percentages so you can calculate your BMR more accurately. Your doctor can prescribe far more accurate tests that require expensive equipment, or by suspending you in a tank of water like Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.
Personally, I base my intake on an 1800–2000 calorie diet and have been losing weight more rapidly than is recommended by my doctor. I’d have to recommend that you talk to your physician or dietitian to figure out how many calories you should be consuming daily, and what percentage of macronutrients you should target.
Raising Your Metabolism
Here are a few ways to boost your metabolism:
- Exercise – Not only does exercise help make you stronger and feel better, but you get a small metabolism bump that lasts hours after you’ve finished exercising. That’s why it’s better to work out in the morning rather than at night after work (if you have to choose).
- Build muscle – Every pound of muscle burns about 6 calories per day through general use, while each pound of fat only requires about 2 calories a day. While you can’t turn fat into muscle (they’re completely different tissues) you can increase your muscle mass through exercise and thus raise your metabolic rate slightly. The more muscle you have, the more energy you burn.
- Don’t starve yourself. – You burn excess fat by creating a calorie deficit, but if you create too much of a deficit your body thinks it’s starving and slows down your metabolism in order to keep you alive for as long as possible.
- Get enough sleep. – Sleep depravation slows down your metabolism. Even though you burn fewer calories while sleeping than while awake, you’ll burn fewer calories still if you don’t get enough sleep. Most adults need 7–9 hours of sleep per night.
- Eat smaller. – I don’t mean eat smaller portions (although you should do that too) but eat smaller meals more frequently. Your metabolism slows down when you’re done digesting food, so eating smaller amounts of food spread out throughout the day will actually keep your metabolism going stronger for longer.
- Eat more fish. – Especially those containing omega–3 fatty acids. Salmon, sardines, and other rich in omega–3 fish oils have been known to raise your metabolic burn by as much as an additional 400 calories per day.
- Spice it up. – Studies have shown that eating spicy foods actually raises your metabolism. Some diet pills actually contain pure capsaicin, the protein that makes food taste hot & spicy. Spices also have the added benefit of adding a tasty kick to some blander (but healthier) foods.
- Drink green tea. – Drinking green tea before a workout is said to increase the amount of calories you burn between 15 and 20%.
- Drink coffee – The caffeine in coffee is a stimulant and slightly raises your metabolism.
- Eat more protein. – Proteins take more energy to burn than fats or carbohydrates, which extends the amount of time you spend metabolizing your food between meals. Plus, protein is essential for promoting muscle growth, which also burns more calories.
- Be younger – Metabolism slows with age, so the best way to speed up your metabolism is to grown younger. Oh yeah, that’s impossible. I guess you’ll have to stick to eating right and working out, then.
OR WILL YOU?!??!?
Burning Calories Through Inactivity
Did you know that you burn calories all the time? Right now reading this is burning more calories than you’d burn if you were sleeping or just sitting still on the sofa. This is sometimes referred to as NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This is the activity that you wouldn’t consider activity – fidgeting, shivering, pacing, talking – all of these things burn a small amount of calories.
No one is going to suggest that you replace your daily 30 minute workout with fidgeting on the sofa, but by keeping in mind that just about everything you do with your body burns calories you can make a game of it by trying to burn as many calories as you can per day.
The following figures are based on the Compendium of Physical Activity, a reference that assigns a MET value (defined as the ratio of activity to a standard resting metabolic rate) to various activities based on their intensity. Sitting still is the baseline of 1.0 METs per hour. The METs are considered an average over time, which is why gardening is higher than surfing – surfing may be higher intensity for brief intervals, but constant gardening beats out waiting for that perfect wave to come.
I’d argue that sexual activity is rated far too low in terms of physical intensity, but then I’d be bragging.
|Sex (moderate intensity)||14.3||13|
|Sitting (Reading or Typing)||16.5||15|
|Cooking (while standing)||22||20|
|Walking (light stroll)||27.5||25|
None of these things are generally considered “exercise” (except maybe bicycling, which I included because it’s not work if it’s fun, right?) yet all of these activities burn some calories. Cooking burns more calories than sitting. Reading burns slightly more calories than watching TV (I wonder if that’s because of the page turns). Walking tends to burn more calories the faster you walk, but the interesting part about walking/jogging/running is that you burn the same calories over the same distance no matter your intensity. So running one mile burns the same number of calories as slowly walking that same mile (although running will burn them faster).
So get out there and burn some calories. Or just sit here in front of your screen and burn slightly fewer calories.
If you’re reading a book or article about nutrition and the author refers to the “energy” in a food in some vague new-agey bullshit sense, like “carrots contain so much positive energy,” that book is garbage and should be thrown away, composted, or burned for heat. The only true “energy” in food is measurable in Calories. Also beware anyone who claims to be a “wellness expert” as that generally translates to “totally and completely full of shit.” ↩
Butter has only 7 calories per gram instead of 9 because it contains about 25% water and other solids. European butters contain only 20% water so are slightly more caloric (but creamier and more delicious). ↩
Of the 20–35% of fats, only 0.6–1.2% should be polyunsaturated, and there is no safe recommended amount of saturated or trans-fats. ↩
“If you really want to be depressed, weigh yourself in grams.”
– Jason Love
One of the tricks I’ve found for keeping up with my own fitness progress is to try to get as much feedback that I can. When you drive a car you can look at the speedometer to see how fast you’re going, look at the lines that divide each lane to stay on course, and look at other gauges and dials to tell the status of your vehicle. Unfortunately, your body’s feedback is vaguer and less precise. You know when you need water because you feel thirsty. You know when you need food because you feel hungry. In theory, you know when you’ve had enough food when you feel full.
The problem is that my mechanism for feeling full is broken. I tend to not feel full until I’ve already eaten too much. If I eat a little and stop, I’ll feel full (or not) after waiting a while. So my meals have been broken up into small grazing periods where I’ll eat a little, log it, wait to see if I’m still hungry, and then eat a little more if so (sometimes). So since I don’t have a working mechanism for knowing what and how much to eat, I needed some help. Technology to the rescue!
Plotting Your Downsizing
One of the most important pieces of information you can easily measure is your weight. Get a scale that is reasonably accurate and weigh yourself every day. Log that weight somewhere, even if it’s just a simple spreadsheet or by using an online service (I like Gyminee, but there are many more out there). Weigh yourself wearing the same thing (if anything) in the same place at the same time every day if possible. The overall accuracy of the scale isn’t as important as how accurate it is compared to itself. You really only care about the change in your weight, so if it’s mostly accurate, that’s probably good enough. Most new scales are very, very accurate. I got this scale and it works great.
You can’t really count on your day-to-day weight as having too much meaning since your water balance will vary by up to several pounds per day, but you can plot the trend over time. As you burn fat you’ll retain more water temporarily, and so you’ll actually gain some weight (since water weighs more than fat) before you lose it. Contrary to popular myth, fat cells never fill with water, and while they do shrink they never go away. You can read more about how fat is burned. I’m finding that my weight loss, when plotted on a chart, looks more like a saw blade than a constant negative slope pointing down.
As you can see in the “Weight Over Time” chart (which shows my actual daily weigh-ins) the overall trend is down (in this case each grey horizontal line represents ten pounds and the x-axis is time), but there may be a few days where my weight increases before starting on a downward trend again. Sometimes it levels-off for a few days.
Just because you’re logging your weight every day doesn’t mean you have to give that weight too much meaning. It’s okay if it goes up for a few days. Of course, human nature being what it is, it feels better when you see your weight decrease, since that’s your goal, but given the trend I’ve been seeing in my graph I know enough now to recognize the pattern of weight loss. Do I tend to eat more healthily and maybe get a little more exercise in on days when my weight increases? You bet. That’s good positive feedback. You go off course, you can correct. If you only weighed-in once a week you’d have that much longer to go that much further astray before you adjusted your habits.
Since a little weight gain is a good thing (as long as it’s temporary) I don’t really worry too much about my daily weight as much as the trend over time. I calculate my “true weight” by taking an average of my weights for the past two weeks and dividing by fourteen. Even though there’s math involved it’s not all that scientific – it’s just a straight average weight over a two week period, but then I composite that data each week and compare that to a week ago. Yes, that means that every week gets averaged twice – once it’s the “front” week and the other it’s the “back” week – it makes it easier to see the trend.
It’s been working pretty well so far. Weighing-in every day is quick and easy. My scale has a nice big readout and shows me the previous day’s weight so I can compare whenever I weigh in.
Count On It
Another important thing to measure is your calorie intake. You can probably do this with a book and a piece of paper, but this is the kind of thing for which a computer is perfect. You can find lots of calorie databases on the internet, or buy lots and lots of different programs that have the data for counting the calories in a large amount of different foods. Some even include caloric information for chain restaurants and pre-packaged food.
I’ll tell you one thing – I haven’t been able to consistently count my calories every day. I started out well, but eventually logging everything I ate became too much of a chore to maintain. I’m still looking for a system that will make this easier, but I haven’t found it yet. However, you should record the food you eat every day and the number of calories it contains so you can tell what you should eat, and how much of it. I could justify my own lax performance by saying that I recorded my eating faithfully for the first 2-3 months, so I know what I should and shouldn’t eat now, but that’s not really true.
So why did I stop? Because I haven’t found a tool yet that isn’t time consuming and frustrating to use. I still recommend you find one, even a bad tool, and stick with it for a bit, especially if you’re just starting out, because just being aware of what you put in your body will make you conscious of something that used to glide completely under your radar. To control your eating habits you have to first be aware of them.
When I first started counting the calories I consumed and logging everything I ate I discovered three things:
- I ate a LOT more calories than I thought I did, even when I didn’t eat that much food overall.
- I didn’t really think about how much I ate throughout the day (snacks, candy, etc.) until I started logging everything.
- When you have a daily caloric budget and stick to it, you tend to fill your diet with things that contain fewer calories so you won’t be hungry. Eating lower-calorie foods means you can eat even more than you would have otherwise, although that can be a problem sometimes. If I eat too healthily I have to make up extra calories I don’t want at dinner so I don’t trigger the starvation storage of extra fat. From experience, I can tell you that this is rarely an issue.
My diet plan doesn’t have many rules. The fewer the rules the easier they are to remember and keep faithful to them. One of those rules, though, is that calorie savings aren’t cumulative – if I’m supposed to take in 1800-2000 calories a day, I can’t consume 1600 calories for four days and then eat 2800 calories on Saturday. My caloric clock resets at midnight (or when I go to sleep, but realistically I’m not eating that late anymore). I can bank calories during the day if I know I’m going out to dinner at night, but not for more than a 24 hour period.
So how do I keep faithful if I’ve stopped logging my daily caloric intake? I eyeball it. I’ve done enough counting and logging to know roughly how many calories I’m getting from most of the foods that I eat. I like a lot of variety in my diet, but after a while you’ll know roughly how many calories your meals contain, you can do the math either in your head (which I’m bad at) or in a note or application. I’ve been using a few different iPhone applications, but I still haven’t found one that completely works for me. In any case, I roughly estimate my calories now. I can usually predict within a half a pound what my weight will be from day to day based on what I ate and how much water I drank the day before. I should probably go back to being more stringent in my counting since I’ve been plateauing a little (and not eating right since Thanksgiving – a topic for another time).
Still, I can’t fall too far off the wagon because I know I’ll be weighing-in every day. It’s all connected – your diet, exercise, attitude, etc. Weighing-in is such a regular part of my day that I almost never neglect to get on the scale. Sometimes I forget to record it, but I usually get 6-7 weigh-ins recorded per week. Having that data lets me plan goals, too. More on that later.
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.