There are three types of problems. A simple problem, such as following a recipe, might require some knowledge or mastery of certain techniques, but generally carries with it a high assurance of success. Complicated problems, like sending a rocket into space, while not being as easy to master, can still be broken down into many simple problems. Once one addresses issues of coordination and scale, they, too, are likely to succeed upon repetition. In contrast, complex problems, such as raising a child, depend on multiple interconnected relationships, making each instance unique. Losing weight, it would appear, is a complex problem. While there are certain immutable principles, such as calories in < calories out, what works for some may not work for others. Having said that, now that I’ve figured out what works for me, I’d like to share it with the world in case anyone happens to be in a similar predicament.
Let’s begin with that first, immutable principle, often stated as calories in < calories out, or CICO. At its core, every single diet plan out there seeks to create a caloric deficit, i.e. expenditure in excess of consumption. Accumulate a 3500 calorie deficit and you lose 1 pound. If your diet is not working, there are really only two possibilities. You have either underestimated how much you eat or overestimated your metabolic needs (also known as Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or TDEE).
First consider TDEE, corresponding to calories out. While many people claim to have a slow metabolism, and as someone who has been overweight or obese since childhood I often believed this fat logic myself, recent scientific studies have convinced me that very little difference in people’s basal metabolic rates, or BMR, is attributable to genetics. Two individuals with identical observable physical characteristics and activity level will tend to burn a total quantity of calories within about 6% of each other, on average. Such small differences can explain at most around 10-15 pounds of weight gain. At that level, the typical genetic variation is cancelled out by the additional calories burned by virtue of being bigger. If you are overweight by more than 20 pounds, I’m sorry but it’s time to stop blaming your metabolism. If you are curious about your BMR, there are plenty of apps out there and they all give about the same answer.
But wait, you say, what about those freaks who eat nothing but junk, never work out, and still manage to stay stick thin? Well, if they really do eat junk and lead sedentary lives, they’re probably not very healthy, despite their body fat percentage being in a healthy range. But all the scientific studies indicate that such people really do eat much fewer calories, and they gain weight just like the rest of us if forced to eat more. The difference between them and me or anyone else overweight is not their rate of metabolism, but their propensity for satiety. In other words, no matter what they eat, they tend to feel full very quickly. Conversely, all those overweight people who claim to eat very little while still gaining weight are either liars or delusional (and yes, I, too, was delusional before I started meticulously tracking my calories in).
So what about physical activity? Well, TDEE equals BMR*PAL + calories burned due to additional exercise (PAL is the physical activity level multiplier). Many people who have observed my new habits of cycling, running, and kayaking have assumed that these are responsible for my weight loss. But truthfully these activities burn much fewer calories than most people realize, and iPhone apps and treadmill calorie calculators certainly haven’t helped this perception. Furthermore, studies show (and I can personally attest) that exercise makes you quite hungry. If you want to be sure you lose weight, a good rule of thumb is to eat back only half the calories reported by exercise apps and machines.
Having gotten a hold of my TDEE, the next (and far more important) piece of the puzzle is calories in, or food. Does it matter exactly what one eats? Certainly some foods, such as simple sugars, are much easier to digest and therefore a diet high in such foods will tend to burn fewer calories as part of the digestive process, but this is a relatively small effect. Eating a balanced diet is important for many other reasons, but when it comes to weight loss it matters far less than simply eating less.
When I started cycling to work from Riverdale, minimum 22 miles round trip, I was burning so much from exercise that losing weight was virtually unavoidable. But after a while, I started eating more, and eventually my weight stabilized. Then we moved to the City, my cycling commute shrunk to about 9 miles round trip, and I gained all the weight back.
My weight loss journey did not truly begin in earnest until I committed to reduce how much I ate. Lest you think that all my weight loss means dieting must have been easy for me, let me tell you that it was (and still is) very, very hard. There is no way around the fact that if you want to lose weight at a measurable pace, you will feel hungry. A good deal of the weight loss battle is mental. I have accepted the inevitability of hunger as a fact of life, and now when I feel hunger pangs it even makes me a little happy, because it tells me that my diet is working and I’m losing weight.
Nevertheless, I’ve reached plateaus and restarted my diet enough times that I feel I understand a few basic principles that make dieting a little easier. For one, it is absolutely essential to start any diet (or any renewed effort after reaching a plateau) with a very strict period of a daily deficit of around 1000 calories for at least 2 weeks (equivalent to a loss rate of 2 lbs/week). I find that after 2 weeks my stomach seems to adapt and it becomes much easier to keep to a less extreme deficit in the second phase. As a bonus, it actually becomes painful to overeat, thus removing that temptation. A strict initial phase also tends to result in quite a few pounds of water weight loss, which you must know will ultimately be regained but can nevertheless be quite motivational. (Full disclosure: I started or renewed my diet 4 times and I never quite made it to 2 lbs/week of actual weight loss. I only recently realized just how wrong the calorie counting function on exercise apps and machines can be.)
The second principle is to track your progress. My primary and most important tool, for which credit goes to John Walker’s The Hacker’s Diet, is a spreadsheet where every day I log my weight. Even trying to keep the variables under your control to a minimum, such as wearing the same thing and always weighing first thing in the morning after going to the bathroom, there is always going to be a great deal of natural variation. Therefore it is essential to ignore the actual daily number as much as possible and only pay attention to changes in the moving average. Eventually I also added waist circumference and other important metrics to my spreadsheet, from which I estimate body fat percentage and other statistics, but weight tracking remains the easiest and most important part (it’s actually gotten quite sophisticated, comment below if you’re interested in seeing it).
For anybody who likes using tools and technology for weight loss, I also recommend LoseIt or MyFitnessPal for meal logging and beeminder for reminding you to log your data every day. For the fitness-oriented, I also recommend testing yourself regularly using this set of tests and tracking your results over time.
My third principle is to take advantage of plateaus as opportunities to gain strength. As all professional bodybuilders know, the body finds it very difficult to simultaneously gain muscle and lose fat. If my weight loss has stalled for more than a week, I start to consciously shift my exercise routine towards weight lifting for a period. That way I maximize my muscle gains while I build up mental energy to recommit to the strict first phase of my diet.
The last principle is to eat the right foods. For me, the first thing to go was any and all cakes, cookies, and desserts. In practice, my diet has been relatively high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrates (I try to limit calories from carbs to 40%). In fact, when I first lost weight 13 (yes, thirteen!) years ago, I followed the Atkins diet rather rigorously, and it was the first diet to really work for me.
So if all food contributes towards “calories in” roughly equivalently, why does low carb work? While 500 calories of meat (typical 8 oz. steak, 0g carbs) may contain the same energy as 500 calories of cookies (about 9 oreos, 75g carbs), I guarantee you will feel hungrier after eating the cookies. Ketogenic/low carb diets are not a magic bullet. They simply make the diet itself more bearable by reducing the feeling of hunger.
So there you have it, the recipe I’ve followed on my weight loss journey. The first leg of the journey began way back in the summer following college graduation (2002), upon reaching an all-time high of 245 pounds. Back then, I figured if I could only reach 180 pounds I’d be set for life. Even though ultimately I quit dieting when I reached 188, I maintained that weight roughly until my wedding (2006). Another seven and a half years and two kids later, I found myself at 218 pounds and embarked on the second leg of the journey with a goal of 170 pounds. Now, after about a year and a half, I have finally reached that goal. However, having reached this point has only made it clear to me that even a nearly 50 pound loss was not ambitious enough if I want to truly be “physically fit”, and so the journey continues…