Posts Tagged ‘counting’

Constant Feedback

“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.

I wrote a script to log my weight in a database every day and I can export those weights to Excel or Numbers to draw this graph. A number of online weight loss sites will also provide some great-looking graphs and charts to help you visualize your weight loss.
I wrote a script to log my weight in a database every day and I can export those weights to Excel or Numbers to draw this graph. A number of online weight loss sites will also provide some great-looking graphs and charts to help you visualize your weight loss.”

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.

My actual weight change from 16 June to 10 December 2008.
My actual weight change from 16 June to 10 December 2008.

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:

  1. I ate a LOT more calories than I thought I did, even when I didn’t eat that much food overall.
  2. I didn’t really think about how much I ate throughout the day (snacks, candy, etc.) until I started logging everything.
  3. 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.

The Formula

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.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I'm just some guy who lost a lot of weight and studied up on nutrition, diet, and exercise in order to improve my personal fitness. The contents of this site in no way contains medical advice. You should visit your doctor before making any dramatic changes to your diet or activity. While I make every attempt to be as accurate as possible regarding current knowledge and scientific studies (please feel free to let me know when I'm wrong about something), and may from time to time post updates to correct inaccuracies in previous entries, the information on this site is provided "as-is" for entertainment purposes only. Don't do something stupid and then sue me. I'm just trying to help. Thanks.