Here's the guiding principle: to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. See, not exactly rocket science! Despite diets that demand you reduce carbohydrates or fat or calculate a specific ratio of protein to fat to carbs, it comes down to that simple fact. Now, 3500 calories is roughly equal to a pound of fat. Get a 3500 calorie deficit per week (in other words, a 500 calorie deficit per day), and you'll lose a pound a week. So how do we get into that deficit? Well, there are three ways: you can increase the amount of calories you burn, decrease the amount you consume, or both. I will concede that weight loss primarily comes down to diet, but exercise gives you a nice amount of wiggle room, and of course weight lifting will make you look firm and sexy (or BUFF AND SWOLE if you're a guy).
Now comes the one annoying aspect of my plan. Are you sitting down? Okay: You are going to have to count calories. You may not have to do it the entire time you're losing weight, and you definitely don't have to do so for the rest of your life. At the very least, you should log caloric intake for a couple of weeks just to get an idea of what your diet should look like. If you eat more or less the same thing every day, you won't have to count for long. If your diet is extremely varied, continuing to record calories is probably advisable. But here's the deal: it's easy to believe that we're eating "healthy". I myself wondered why I kept gaining weight if I was eating "healthy". But when I started counting calories, I was SHOCKED. It can really add up, especially with things like sauces, dressings, oil, and so on. For example, I learned that just by ditching the tortilla at Chipotle and getting a "burrito bol" instead of a burrito saved me about 350 calories!
Still willing to try it? Read on.
First, you'll want to figure out your basal metabolic rate, or BMR. This tells you how many calories you burn in a day. The absolute best way to figure this out is to go to a gym which has a machine that can test this. However, that is generally on the expensive side (about $100) and far from necessary. There exists a formula that will give you a pretty good estimate, and there are plenty of online calculators such as this one which will do the math for you. If you exercise regularly, you can do the calculation setting your activity level to something higher than sedentary. However, I prefer to calculate my sedentary BMR and log my exercise along with my intake and examine the net calories burned. For example, if my daily caloric target is 1500 and I burn 500 calories, then I can actually consume 2000. This is preferable for me because it motivates me to exercise and also keeps me honest about my activity level. I'd mark "lightly active" only if your 9-5 job involves a lot of movement; for example, if you're a walking tour guide. Mark higher levels of activity if you do manual labor for a living. Otherwise, for these purposes, you're sedentary. Once you have your BMR, subtract 500 from that. That will give you the deficit you need to lose a pound per week.
Counting calories isn't too bad since there are numerous web sites out there which make the task easy. Here's list of some popular ones, take a look around and figure out which suits your fancy:
- FitDay - seems to be the most popular, I used it for a while
- The Daily Plate on Livestrong - I personally find the interface to be a major pain in the ass but the database is huge
- Sparkpeople - also has blogs, communities, recipes, articles, social networking, etc
- My Fitness Pal - I've never used it but it comes highly recommended
- Nutracheck - Ideal for Europeans, as the measurements are metric and the database is more geared toward European (particularly UK) foods
- NutritionData - Database is on the limited side but great for tracking vitamin and mineral content of foods
- CalorieKing - My favorite but it costs $
Here's a couple good things to keep in mind when counting calories:
- When in doubt, overestimate calories consumed and underestimate calories burned.
- Use some common sense when logging food. For example, if you order a side of asparagus at TGI McFunsters and it comes out with an oil slick, sorry -- it doesn't count as steamed asparagus. Add a tablespoon or so of oil to your log.
- Your software of choice may include "exercises" such as shopping, doing dishes, working at a computer, and so forth. Sorry, you don't get to log these. This is more or less factored into your BMR. If you do something particularly vigorous like moving furniture, go ahead and log that. Calories Per Hour has an extremely complete activity database in case you need to enter a custom exercise.
- Fibrous veggies (as opposed to starchy veggies) are a freebie. Go ahead and gorge yourself; no one's ever said, "I could lose this weight if only I didn't eat so much steamed zucchini!". Rule of thumb, if it's a vegetable with fewer than ~50 calories per cup, don't worry about the calories. The TEF (thermal effect of food) is such that the amount of calories necessary for digestion are very close to the gross calories in the food item. Here's a list of fibrous veggies, because if the bullet points didn't tip you off, I love lists.
- WEIGH, do not measure, your food! This video shows you why. Scary stuff!!!
Now, while this isn't a diet per se, I'm going to give you a few guidelines which should help you along in your weight loss journey.
First, there is one and only one "food" item that I suggest cutting out completely, and I use the word "food" quite loosely here. That would be partially-hydrogenated oils, the source of trans fats. Even if something claims to be trans fat free but lists partially-hydrogenated oil in the ingredient lists, I'd steer clear. It has been proven to cause increased weight gain even with appropriate caloric intake. From ScienceDaily:
In other words, it's a weird-ass chemical and your body doesn't know what the heck to do with it so it stores trans fats around your organs no matter how hard you pedal on the elliptical. I have no problem with occasional indulgences, but this particular indulgence isn't one that you can just burn off.
Kylie Kavanagh, D.V.M., presented the findings today at the 66th annual Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association in Washington, D.C. She said that over six years, male monkeys fed a western-style diet that contains trans fat had a 7.2 percent increase in body weight, compared to a 1.8 percent increase in monkeys that ate monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil.
The monkeys all were given the same amount of daily calories, with 35 percent of the calories coming from fat. The amount of calories they got should only have been enough to maintain their weight, not increase it, Rudel said. "We believed they couldn't get obese because we did not give them enough calories to get fat."
One group of monkeys got 8 percent of their calories from trans fat while the other group received those calories as monounsaturated fat. The researchers said that this amount of trans fat is comparable to people who eat a lot of fried food.
"We conclude that in equivalent diets, trans fatty acid consumption increases weight gain," said Kavanagh.
Speaking of indulgences, let's touch on cheats. I'm a big proponent of occasional cheat meals; it revs your metabolism a bit and keeps you from going insane. However, I urge you to take cheat meals, rather than cheat days. One or two cheat meals per week is great, but I don't like the idea of spending a day binging and gorging. It also promotes the fallacy that if you slip up on your diet, you've already "ruined" it; think of it as a cheat MEAL and you'll have an easier time getting right back into your good habits.
Recommended, but not required
I cannot be emphatic enough about this: you will have a much easier time if you drink only unsweetened beverages. This extends to artificial sweeteners as well; it really changes your palette if you're accustomed to syrupy-sweet beverages with and between meals. But most importantly I would eliminate juices, sodas, sports drinks, and the like. Soda is now the #1 source of calories for Americans, beating out the longtime frontrunner, bread. It really adds up without making you feel full, and it's so easy to drink a lot. I drink a lot of unsweetened iced tea; I'll make a big pitcher of sun tea and keep it in the fridge. I especially love fruity herbal teas.
One thing which curbed my appetite was cutting back on high-glycemic foods. The glycemic index is a ranking system which ranks foods by how quickly they're broken down to glucose; white sugar and white flour are at the highest end of the spectrum. The problem with high glycemic foods is that they're quickly digested, resulting in a blood sugar surge and an insulin spike. Afterwards, your blood sugar crashes and you're left lethargic, craving anything that will give you immediate fuel -- aka, more sugar and white flour! Don't worry, you don't need to be looking up glycemic values; here is an excellent common-sense guide to reducing the glycemic index of your diet. The one exception is right after weight lifting. This is the time when your intramuscular glycogen stores are refueled most efficiently, so use this time to treat yourself to a quickly-digesting simple carb. I usually eat fat free frozen yogurt made with real sugar or a fruit smoothie with whey protein.
Along those lines, keep an eye on your portions when it comes to grains and starches. A serving of rice or pasta isn't so bad, but it is very easy to end up with two or three or four servings. For example, if you eat a healthy stir fry on top of two 1-cup scoops of rice, the rice alone packs on 350 calories! It's oh-so-easy to go overboard, and thus I try to make veggies and fruits my primary sources of carbs. Think of it this way: 2 cups of broccoli has the same amount of calories as 1 cup of strawberries and just 1/4 cup of cooked whole wheat pasta! The broccoli would nearly fill up your plate whereas the pasta would look like a toddler-sized portion. As such, salads, soups, and stir-fries are your friend. You can pack in a ton of veggies along with some lean protein, and the variations are endless. Also keep an eye on how much fat you add to a dish. A mere tablespoon of olive oil has 120 calories, so invest in some nonstick cookware and oil spray.
So there's your plan. Think of this as a template where you can fill in your own preferences and idiosyncrasies. Stick with it, and you'll lose the weight. So you can strut past all the diet books and magazines promising a magic bullet -- it always comes down to calories in versus calories out.