Before I begin, I just want to say that I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor or a personal trainer. Aside from some high school and college health courses, I have no formal education in this topic. Rather, I’m just a smart guy with life experiences who has done plenty of research on losing weight.
Also, this post is a long one, so be prepared to invest a little time in reading it. It has some good stuff in it, especially if you are battling weight issues, but the warning is necessary.
These past four years haven’t always been wine and roses for me. Yes, my son was born, which was one of the happiest days of my life, but I’ve had some trying times with the passing of my father (my best friend) and moving my disabled mother into my house, adding on to our house to make room, dealing with my father’s estate and the sale of my mother’s property and possessions, assisting my mother after several major surgeries, etc. On top of all of that, I’ve found time to raise my son (who is now in preschool), write and publish three novels, maintain this blog, work a 40 hour work week, operate a side technology business, visit my in-laws every few weeks, watch my favorite television shows, watch and root for my favorite sports teams, and the list goes on and on.
One thing I have NOT managed to do, however, is take the best care of myself. I’ve gained a lot of weight over the past few years. Well, actually, I gained a lot of weight several years ago, and I’ve steadily added to it ever since. Despite how busy I am, I do put some effort into trying to lose weight. I jog/walk at a park 3-4 times per week during my lunch hour, typically getting in 1-2 miles each time. For about a year I had a gym membership, and my company reimbursed the cost if I went 12 times per month, and I exceeded that amount each and every time. I own countless pieces of fitness equipment including several cardio machines and a weight bench system with high and low pulleys and 300 lbs of Olympic-style weights. If you took a snap-shot of my life, you’d think I’d be a svelte 200 lbs. But I’m not.
I like to eat. I have a horrible sweet tooth, and love all the food that I shouldn’t. I love soda. I eat way too much fast food. My calorie intake is often way higher than it should be. And that’s just part of my problem.
I know what I’m doing wrong from a diet perspective. In my twenties, for the most part, I was incredibly fit. Aside from being very active with martial arts, running, and lifting weights, I had done my research with regards to food intake. And here's what I've learned:
In order to lose 1 pound, you must have a 3500 calorie deficit. You can achieve this over a few days, over a week, or however long it takes, but if you want to lose 1 lb, 3500 calories is the number you are aiming for. You can accomplish this task by either eating less or exercising more.
So now we need to figure out how many calories your body burns in a day. The easiest way is to use an online tool. You can Google it, or if you would rather really like to know what your body is doing, you could use your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) added to your daily activity level. Again you can find your BMR by Googling for on online tool, and there are a number of different methods and calculators to use, or you could use the Harris-Benedict formula of:
Men: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x inches) - (6.8 x age)
Women: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x inches) - (4.7 x age)
Women: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x inches) - (4.7 x age)
Your BMR is basically the number of calories your body burns without any activity. In other words, if you were to lie in bed all day, your body would burn that number. So after you know that, you should determine your daily activity levels. Most obese people are sedentary, and I’ll discuss this more a little bit further down, but if you have a sedentary lifestyle, just multiply your BMR by an activity factor of 1.2. So if your BMR is 1750 calories, and you are sedentary, your total daily calories burned is 2100 calories.
Now that we know that, we just need to determine how best to create a deficit. Most nutritionists and experts advise to lose 1 lb per week. That’s 52 lbs per year if you stick with it—not too shabby at all. To lose 1 lb per week, we need to come up with a 3500 calorie deficit per week, or a 500 calorie deficit per day (3500 calories / 7 days). It’s tough to cut 500 calories out of a 2100 calorie diet, so the best approach would be to eat 250 calories less—going from 2100 calories to 1850 calories—and burning off the other 250 calories by exercising.
Before I get into exercising and activity levels, I want to tell you a little about nutrition. Cutting calories is not easy. After all, most overweight and obese people got that way by eating the foods they like as often as the like. You want that cookie? You eat it. You want that can of Coke? You drink it. But when you suddenly have to watch what you eat, it becomes a chore, and people HATE doing chores. But the easiest way to watch what you eat is by keeping a journal. And there are some great online tools to help you do that. I use www.myfitnesspal.com, which has just about everything edible on the planet in its food database. Just enter your food and the serving size (such as 1 cup or 1 sandwich), and voila you know how many calories you have eaten. It will automatically add them up for you each day. And it has apps for Apple and Android, so you can enter your food on the go as well!
More about the food you eat, though. There’s a good reason why you shouldn’t eat junk—soda, chips, candy, fast food. Each piece of food you eat has a certain makeup to it. It’s comprised of so many grams of fat, carbohydrates, protein, alcohol and a bunch of other stuff like fiber, vitamins, etc. The main four things that make up a food’s calories though are fat, carbs, protein, and alcohol. One gram of fat is the equivalent of 9 calories. One gram of carbs is 4 calories, one gram of protein is 4 calories, and one gram of alcohol is 7 calories. As you can see, the reason nutritionists and doctors advise to stay away from fat is because of how many calories are in it. That’s partially why cakes and cookies and candy—things made with butter--have such high calorie counts. A McDonalds Big Mac has 29 grams of fat. That’s 261 calories JUST FROM FAT.
As for carbs, the reason we are advised to stay away from them is that they seem to be in everything. Carbs include sugars and starches (simple and complex). Over 50-60% of our diet can come from carbs, and that’s why we should limit them. Guess what the other major ingredient in cakes and cookies and candy is? That's right, it's sugar, which is a carb. And there’s typically a lot more carbs in things than there is fat. That Big Mac I mentioned: 46 grams of carbs, which equals 184 calories. Ouch! A fun-size pack of M&M’s, which are 95% comprised of carbs (sugar) and fat: 100 calories for like 10 pieces. Double ouch, and no nutritionally filling payout whatsoever!
Next we have protein, which is the best nutrient in our food. It’s found mostly in meats and dairy, and it’s used to repair muscle, grow hair, that sort of thing. More muscle generally means a higher metabolism (and the ability to burn more calories), so if you can swap anything you eat with some added protein, go for it. That Big Mac, by the way, has 25 grams of fat, which equals 100 calories. Add them all up, and you get 545 calories. In other words, if you eat that Big Mac, and you are trying to maintain an 1850 calorie diet, you’re almost a third of the way there.
Just to be clear, if you go to McDonalds and order a Big Mac Extra Value Meal with a medium fries and 21 oz. Coke—something way too many of us do way too often—you are eating 1140 calories. That’s right, your lunch was just 62% of your total calories for the day. Yuck! And don’t you dare “supersize” it. Do that, and you’re at 1360 calories. Add in an apple pie, and you are at 1710 calories. Wow, you now only have enough calories left to drink a small glass of milk or orange juice. Congrats. Eat this “meal” twice a day, and you can expect to weigh well over 300 lbs in no time.
The final caloric nutrient puzzle piece is alcohol. And yes, there is a valid reason for the term "beer belly." Alcohol, with 7 calories per gram, will make you fat as well. It will also do a lot of other nasty stuff, but if you are a regular drinker, you may want to start limiting your intake--especially if you find yourself gaining weight.
There’s a bunch of other stuff I could tell you, like how your body metabolizes different types of foods, your Body Mass Index (BMI) and your body fat percentage and how they play into your weight-loss goals, but I’ll save them for a different post. The most important thing to remember is to eat low carbs, low fat, low alcohol, and high protein, get some exercise, journal everything, and maintain that 500/day calorie deficit, and you will absolutely lose weight. It's really all just a matter of math and science.
OK, so I’m sure you’re wondering why, if I know all this stuff, I’m not rockin’ a six pack or, at the very least, in a lot better shape. Well, for starters, I don’t heed my own advice. I think with my stomach instead of my brain when it comes to food. I probably have a mental disorder of some sort, because I subconsciously can never let food go to waste. I’ll clean my plate 90% of the time, and if you do that in a restaurant where portions are way over-sized, you’re probably getting well over half of your daily caloric intake in one sitting. And despite using a food journal throughout the day, I get sloppy in the evenings. I’ll munch and snack and forget to record my readings. I’m just not very disciplined, and I use my busy life as an excuse. Sad, but true.
But beyond that, the biggest reason for my weight issues is my activity (or should I say inactivity) level. Overweight and obese people are commonly judged as being lazy. And that fires me up, because when you look at my life and all I’ve been through and done over the past few years, I’m one of the most productive people I know. But from an actual calorie-burning activity standpoint, I really am deficient. And I’ll bet most obese people are just like me: too busy to be actively busy.
Let’s look at my life. I sleep 8 hours per night. I then get up at around 6:30 every morning. I get a shower and get dressed, wake my son up and get him dressed and get him breakfast, pack up the car, drive to his school and drop him off, then drive to work. So for that first two hours, I’m probably active (doing something other than sitting) maybe 30 minutes. At work, I sit at a desk 95% of the time, with that other 5% involving walking to someone else’s desk to assist them, moving equipment, bathroom breaks, getting water from the cooler, etc. So in 8 hours, I’m active for perhaps a half hour. During my lunch hour, I do go to the park and walk a mile or two, but I have to drive there, so I only get in roughly 30 minutes of activity. Then after work I’m driving to pick up my son, going home, eating dinner, and then typically sitting in front of my computer writing or sitting/laying watching TV. In the final 5.5 hours between work and bed, I’m active maybe a half hour. Add it all up, and I’m active for about 2 hours out of a 24 hour span. Wow! And ugh!!
I’d imagine most office workers are like this. THAT’S a sedentary lifestyle. The human body is a machine, and machines need to run to stay in good shape. Leave an old lawnmower sit five or six years out in the back yard, and chances are it’s not going to run very well (if at all). The human body is no different.
So what can we do to fix these issues? Well, for starters, let’s get up off of our butts more. My wife got me a Fitbit for an early Christmas present. It’s a smart pedometer that syncs with an online program via an iPhone or a USB dongle on a PC (Android syncing should be available in 2013). It will tell you how many steps you walk, how many calories you burn, etc. And, you can use it in conjunction with www.myfitnesspal.com to tell you exactly how much food you should eat based on your activity level. Most health experts recommend walking 10,000 steps a day, and if you don’t achieve that, the number of calories you should eat decreases closer to your BMR. In other words, walk more, eat more. Walk less, eat less. Very cool device. And since I got it about a week ago, I’ve realized just how sedentary my life is. I haven’t hit 10,000 steps yet, and that’s despite going to the park and jogging/walking. I can’t even imagine how sedentary I’d be if I didn’t do that!
So I’m trying a couple of new things. I found a nifty stop-watch app online, http://www.online-stopwatch.com/, that I’ve set for 15 minute intervals. Every 15 minutes, the alarm goes off and I get up and stretch and walk around—trying to squeeze in 100 steps each time. It’s not much, but if I can manage to do it 25 times per day, I’ll at least be a quarter of the way to my goal. Add in 4000 steps walking at lunch, which is the equivalent of about 2 miles, and I’m 65% of the way there. I then just have to pick up my activity level during the morning and evening hours.
That’s my plan, anyway. Of course, I’ve been setting little goals like this forever, and none of them have worked out all that well. For a while I was doing this thing with rubber bands on my wrist—taking them off each time I ate to train myself, sort of like Ivan Pavlov’s dogs, to consciously be aware of my food intake. That lasted a few weeks before I just started eating and ignoring my “food bracelets”. But I’ve also tried certain fad diets, fasted, etc., but I’m still obese. It’s been one heck of a battle.
You know, as I mentioned, one misconception about obese people is that they are lazy. Obese people are often seen as less attractive, less motivated, less capable of performing job duties (and are often passed over for job promotions or new positions), etc. Add that to the health issues with being obese, and it’s really quite a nightmare. And certain things that many moderate-weight people take for granted cause stress to obese people—things like sitting in chairs, buckling seat belts, riding amusement park rides, and even in some cases hygiene. Imagine being so heavy that you break a toilet seat. Yeah, how embarrassing would that be? Or you can’t take your son or daughter on a roller coaster. If you are overweight or obese, these things aren’t news to you.
Hopefully these changes I’m making in my life will make a difference for me. And hopefully the facts and wisdom I’ve shared will make a difference for you. And feel free to share them with others or add your own thoughts or wisdom. I’ll probably be adding more to this topic as I continue on my quest as well.
And if you're actively trying to lose weight, GOOD LUCK!!