Getting Fit: Food + Weight
I have hesitated to post anything on this topic for awhile now as it is, for many, a highly emotional and touchy subject. But I don’t believe it needs to be emotionally fraught — it comes down to numbers, and numbers have no feelings.
In my mind, there are two things a person should strive to do for their health:
⤐ Understand and keep track of exactly what they eat.
⤐ Walk or run for more than a mile multiple times a week.
Let’s start with number one. Many people incorrectly equate documenting your eating habits with compulsive eating disorders. While food tracking may be part of how an eating disorder presents in some individuals, keeping a food diary does not an anorexic make. In fact, keeping a food diary is a fantastic way to be sure that you are giving your body all of the protein, fat, and micronutrients it needs to keep going. Journaling your food intake is just like keeping a monthly spreadsheet to budget your finances or tracking how many miles you can go between filling up your gas tank. It’s an informative and healthy habit to have.
More than that, a food diary is the only way to hold yourself accountable for bad eating habits. Like many people, I’ve wondered why it was I could never lose weight — I thought I ate a reasonable amount and that perhaps my body was just stuck like that. Most of my immediate family was overweight, I thought perhaps it was genetic. Then I started tracking every single thing I ate in a day, and I learned that I was eating exactly enough to maintain my weight, if not more sometimes.
Poor nutrition and obesity are an epidemic and there is simply no other way to describe it. Obesity is a disease that is killing us, and yet at a time when information is at all of our fingertips, it’s difficult to find correct information on healthy eating and weight management. Myths both new and old are hard to shake loose, particularly when social media provides a perfect ground for peddling to the uninformed.
So let’s go over some terms and knock out some myths. Because one comfort in this is that while it’s not magic or easy, the formula for weight loss is very simple and it works for everyone.
Calorie: A calorie, as you may have learned in high school science, is a unit of measurement of energy. One calorie is equal to the amount of energy required to raise 1ml of water 1° C. Humans convert the food they eat or their stored fat into energy to maintain their body temperature and keep themselves alive. When you eat more than you need, your body stores the excess calories in fat reserves, and when you eat less than you need, your body takes energy from those same fat reserves.
Metabolism: Your metabolism is the rate at which your body burns calories, which is to say how many calories you burn in a day. There are two states of metabolism: anabolism and catabolism. Anabolism occurs when your metabolism is being given more calories than it needs in a day and is building up cell components. This can be negative when you are gaining fat and positive when you are gaining muscle mass (though this requires skill and intention). Catabolism occurs when your metabolism is being given fewer calories than it needs in a day and is breaking down tissue and converting it to energy to keep you going.
What do people mean when they say they have a “fast metabolism” or a “slow metabolism”? Usually people using these terms to describe their metabolism don’t understand metabolism to begin with. A fast rate of calorie consumption (i.e. a fast metabolism) means a person needs a higher amount of calories per day. Impossibly tall people, professional athletes, and the morbidly obese have the highest metabolism. It takes more calories to maintain a higher body mass. If you are heavy, you actually have a faster metabolism than a lighter person of your same height.
While there are some conditions that can change a person’s metabolism (thyroid disorders, PCOS, and extreme weight loss), the effect is typically limited to a few hundred calories. What this means is that your weight loss may be slowed slightly, but it is in no way impossible.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): The the number of calories your body needs to burn each day to keep you at 98.6° F (37° C), which is to say it is the number of calories your body needs to keep you alive on a day when you do absolutely nothing. This number is based on your age, height and weight.
Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE): The number of calories your body uses in an average day. Eating the same number of calories in a day as your TDEE will maintain your weight. This number is found by accounting for your daily level of activity (how much you are on your feet and performing physical tasks in an average day) in addition to your BMR.
Macronutrients: Sometimes called “macros”, macronutrients make up the majority of our diet. There are three macro categories: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Carbs include fibers and sugars, and fats include unsaturated fats and saturated fats. Macronutrients ratios are typically calculated based on your current goals and needs. A starting point is a division of your daily food intake into 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrates. Athletes will often lower their carbs and raise their protein and fat intake to promote muscle growth.
Micronutrients: While micronutrients make up a very small percentage of the human diet (hence the prefix ‘micro’), they are essential to keeping a healthy body. Micronutrients include vitamins, nutrients such as potassium, sodium, and iron, and zinc. The easiest way to meet your micronutrient goals is to get a multivitamin or multiple vitamin pills. This can be expensive, and is not a requirement in any way for weight loss, but it is a good thing to do for yourself if you have the spending money.
Knocking out Myths
90% of diets fail and people gain all the weight back and more. This myth comes from the fundamental misunderstanding of “going on a diet” as a temporary fix to a lifelong struggle. Changing your weight means changing your lifestyle. That sounds massive, and the effect will be, but the process doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to limit yourself to kale smoothies and running marathons forever to change your weight. It is not about denying yourself the foods you love — it’s about learning to enjoy those foods beyond the constraints of a binge eating disorder (more on this later). Learning portion control and going for a short daily walk can change your life without disrupting it.
Only some people can be thin. / Weight is genetically determined. It’s easy to see why this is widely believed. Fat kids tend to come from fat families (I did) and fit kids tend to come from fit families. But this has more to do with behavioral inheritance than genetics. If your parents teach you to eat two or more servings of dinner every night or to supplement boredom with food from an early age, it becomes a normalized behavior. The truth is anyone can lose weight. It comes down to eating fewer calories than your body expends in a day. This is a basic law of thermodynamics that applies to every single member of the human race. Factors like thyroid disorders and PCOS can affect this up to a few hundred calories, but do not in any way completely prevent weight loss.
The body has a set weight it wants to be that cannot be changed. The concept of a weight “set point” has gained popularity lately, and like many other myths, when you take it apart it becomes clear why some people incorrectly believe it. Set point refers to the number at which your weight settles after climbing. What is really happening is that as you gain weight, your metabolism requires more calories per day to maintain your new, higher weight. At a certain point, you stop unconsciously increasing your calorie intake and your weight “settles” at that point. But your weight is not set at this weight permanently. If you adjust your calorie intake to a lower, healthier amount, you will lose weight.
Exercise is required for weight loss. Exercise is great and it’s something everyone should be doing to the best of their abilities, but it is not a requirement for weight loss. A person can lose weight solely by eating less food. The first twenty-five pounds I lost involved no exercise of any kind. You do not need an expensive gym membership or fancy work out clothes to lose weight.
It costs more to lose weight than it does to stay fat. Looking only at the cost of prepared salads vs frozen pizza, it’s momentarily possible to believe this myth. However, as outlined before, weight loss involves only the simple principle of “eat less.” Eating less food means buying less food, which means spending less money. In fact, one of the primary reasons I decided to start watching what I ate was to spend less money on food.
A real concern in relation to poverty and obesity is food deserts. Food deserts are places where there are no grocery stores selling fresh produce or meat within walking distance or on public transit routes. Those without cars have extremely limited access to food that isn’t from a convenience store or fast food place. While weight loss through eating fewer calories is absolutely still possible in such a situation, it does become more challenging because high-carbohydrate food is not as filling as protein and fat based foods, so the person will experience more hunger and will get significantly less nutrients from their food.
Eating too little sends your body into “starvation mode” and slows your metabolism. The concept of starvation mode comes from a study done in the 1940s (the same decade when doctors proclaimed cigarettes to be healthy). The hypothesis of the paper was that when a person eats too few calories, their body assumes they are starving and stops burning fat reserves. Subsequent related studies have confirmed that starvation mode only exists in times of actual, extreme starvation. Indeed, we store body fat for the sole purpose of later burning it when food is scarce, but we were never meant to store it in the amounts that 70% of Americans currently are.
To lose weight, most people eat between 1200 and 1800 calories a day — those amounts are no where near life-threatening starvation. If you live in a first world country, you are not experiencing a level of hunger that would induce starvation mode. Eating at a caloric deficit will cause you to lose weight, whether it’s a deficit of 50 or 500 calories.
Some foods are “good” and some foods are “bad”. Black and white thinking around food is neither healthy nor helpful. Thinking of food as good or bad is actually an element of many eating disorders. Sure, kale has more vitamin A than potato chips do, but 100 calories of kale is the same as 100 calories of chips in that they are both 100 calories. 100 calories of kale will take much longer to eat and keep you feeling full for hours more than 100 calories of potato chips will, so in terms of a balanced diet kale can be more beneficial to eat.
Ironically, some foods put on health pedestal, while high in nutritional value, are calorie bombs. My favorite example of this phenomenon is the avocado craze. Avocados are delicious, it’s no wonder they’re popular. And avocados are high in unsaturated fat, vitamins C and B6, and potassium, all of which are good for you in moderation. But being high in fat comes at a cost — an average avocado can be close to 400 calories. Not bad if you eat a half of one on a single slice of toast for lunch. But if you put a whole one in a smoothie along with yogurt and/or peanut butter and high-sugar fruit, you can triple that calorie count.
A quick note on fad diets:
Fad diets and weight loss products are 95% crap. Yes, going gluten free can have the result of cutting out high calorie foods like wheat bread, which can give the illusion of causing weight loss simply by cutting gluten. Yes, drinking only lemon water for a week will help you drop a couple pounds, but they’ll come back when you start eating solid food again. And yes, wearing a tight spandex thing around your waist will make your waist look smaller. But no, there is no (safe) magic pill to make the human body lose weight.
I have considered doing a series of YouTube videos on products peddled on social media, such as the various “fitness teas” and “tummy wraps.” If this is something you’d be interested in seeing, let me know!
Making use of Facts
Eating more than your TDEE will cause you to gain weight; eating fewer calories than your TDEE will cause you to lose weight. This is basic thermodynamics — it is not only the fundamental basics of weight loss, but also an indisputable scientific fact.
The reason the human body gains weight in the first place is to be able to use it when food is scarce. Early humans in the wild did not have a consistent source of food like we do — eating in excess when food is plentiful allows animals to survive when food is scarce. But with all the human race’s accomplishments in agriculture and food distribution, we no longer need to gorge ourselves in case of starvation. Instead we must learn to pace our eating.
Eating more than you need will cause weight gain. If you give your body more fuel than it needs, the leftover will get stored in your body. You can do this in a controlled manner to build muscle mass (more on that in a future installment), or you can do this in an uncontrolled manner and balloon up.
Eating less than you need will cause weight loss. If you give your body less fuel than it needs, the difference will be made up by taking from fat storage. You can do this safely by eating fewer calories than you need, but not so few that your body cannot get the nutrients it needs. If you were to eat so little that your body was not getting proper nutrition, you would continue to lose weight (see above re: starvation mode myth), but you would be weak, grumpy, and malnourished.
Calories in vs calories out (CICO) works for everyone. As a scientific pillar, thermodynamics discriminates against no one. Every single mammal (your fat pet included!) can lose weight by keeping their calorie intake lower than their calorie output, and can gain weight by doing the reverse.
These are really all the simple facts we need to go forward in understanding weight maintenance.
How to Get Started
So you believe me that CICO works and that the myths above are myths, that the facts above are facts, and you’re ready to make a permanent lifestyle change.
You will need:
⤐ A food tracker app
⤐ Kitchen and bathroom scales
Note: If you hate math and find the below intimidating, I highly recommend using something like MyFitnessPal (web, mobile) to do the math for you. As you enter weight loss, MFP can even recalculate your TDEE for you and adjust your daily calorie goal. Even if you don’t hate math, MFP is the best tool I have found for nutrient and calorie counting and general food journaling. Seriously, go download it now. It will help you change your life.
Based on your current height, age, weight, and activity level, find your BMR/TDEE using this calculator. For example, I am 25, 5'10" (1.7m) and I started at 175 lbs (79.4kg), which put me right on the line of the overweight category and, with my sedentary lifestyle, left me with a TDEE of 1800 calories/day.
To burn off a pound of fat requires roughly 3500 calories, which means if you eat at a deficit of 500 calories a day, you’ll lose roughly a pound a week. It’s important to note here that no one loses weight on a perfect linear downward slope. Somedays you’ll weigh yourself before you eat, somedays after. Somedays you’ll eat a lot of salty food and retain a pound or two in water weight. And if you’re a woman, somedays you’ll have your period and the numbers on the scale get all wonky until it’s over. Monitor your weight daily or weekly, but don’t give up if there are unexpected fluctuations. If you stay honest and on track with your food diary, the numbers will move in the right direction again.
But back to the math. Using my starting TDEE and my goal of one pound per week, let’s calculate what I can eat:
1800 - 500 = 1300
This can be adjusted as you lose weight, as your TDEE will get lower and lower, the less and less you weigh. For example, having now lost 25 lbs, my TDEE is down to 1700, so my daily calorie goal is now down to 1200/day. I would still lose weight eating 1300 calories, but it would be slower. Some people choose not to lower their calorie amount and as their deficit gets smaller their weight loss will slow exponentially. Both ways of going about weight loss are workable.
If you go for a long walk or hit the gym, you’ll earn back some of those calories and be able to eat a little bit more if you choose to. Walking is the cheapest and easiest way. By briskly walking the ten blocks to and from the express train instead of taking the local that is closer to my apartment, I not only reduce my commute time, I also get closer to my daily step goal and earn up to 200 calories. Small changes in your daily routine can make all the difference. I choose not to eat back my exercise calories, since it is difficult to calculate exactly how many calories you burned, so those 200 calories add to my deficit and increase my loss rate.
Now that you’ve found your TDEE and decided on your calorie and nutrient goals, you’re ready to start losing.
1. First, get used to tracking what you eat, being as thorough and honest as you can be. It took me months of daily tracking before I actually started to be strict enough to eat under my goal daily. But I learned a lot about my eating habits in those months of recording.
2. Next, use the information you’ve collected to identify what foods or behaviors are regularly putting you over your goal. Are you someone who enjoys mindless salty snacking? Or do you eat an entire pint of ice cream on a bad day? Did you grow up with a parent who enforced the “clean your plate” rule which you now apply to oversize portions? Have you had a period of poverty in your life that makes you feel you should “eat while you can”? Understanding why you are eating enough to have gained weight is crucial to changing the behavior in a lasting way.
3. When you’re ready to seriously start counting calories and changing your weight, invest in both a kitchen scale and a bathroom scale. There are plenty of kitchen options from $10-$20 on Amazon: it does not have to be expensive, but it will make a huge difference in the accuracy of your logs, and therefore the numbers on the scale. A decent bathroom scale is crucial so you can track your progress. Bathroom scales start at $20-$30 and go up into the hundreds, depending on if you want fancy features like a body fat percentage readout.
4. Find friends (physical or virtual) that you can talk to about your progress, frustrations, and goals. Discussions of weight loss have become very stigmatized since rising concerns about eating disorders in the late 90s (which is a shame because since then obesity rates have skyrocketed, while anorexia rates have stayed roughly the same). Having people to share the highs and lows with is really crucial to keeping you on the wagon. The comments section on this article is a good place to start, as are reddit pages like r/loseit, r/fatlogic (which does not deserve its reputation), or smaller subs like r/1200isplenty.
Ways to Count
Daily: Counting daily means only watching how many calories you expend and consume in each day, and define the day as from when you wake up to when you fall asleep. Many people find this the least complicated way to count calories and maintain their deficit, and thus it’s what I would recommend to a newcomer.
Night-to-Morning: The night-to-morning method is beloved by late night snackers like myself. In this method, you begin your counting ‘day’ when you eat dinner and end it the next day after the last thing you eat before dinner. This allows you to make up for large amounts of night snacking by eating lighter the next morning. Whether or not you define your days this way, it’s a helpful concept to keep in mind.
Weekly: As mentioned above, to lose a pound per week, you’d need to eat at a weekly deficit of 3,500 calories, and therein lies the benefit of counting calories per week. Like night-to-morning counting, weekly calorie counting allows you to eat more than 1200 calories on a Friday night out by having a leaner Saturday and Sunday. MyFitnessPal has a great weekly calorie counter, but they hide it under “Nutrition > Calories > Weekly View.”
This post should be enough to get you started on your weight loss journey, and is the first in a series of posts on the topic of physical fitness. My next post will focus on exercise, and from there I will alternate food and exercise posts. At the moment I have four articles planned, but I am open to posting more.
How to Eat 1200 Calories
Now that we know the calorie amount of what I want to eat every day to meet my goal, now let’s look into what a day’s worth of food at 1200 calories looks like. Hint: it’s more food than you’d think!
Decide where you most want to spend your calories (do you love to have a big breakfast? a big dinner? as many snacks as possible?). You can account for high calorie amounts in some meals with smaller, low calorie meals the rest of the day. Or you can make snacks and meals feel filling for not many calories (fiber is great for this).
A typical 1200 calorie day
Breakfast: (Total: 181 cal)
- 2 oz espresso — 6 cal
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk — 35 cal
- 1 vanilla & cardamom skyr — 140 cal
Lunch: (Total: 145 cal)
- 1 everything bagel thin — 110 cal
- 1 garlic & herb cheese spread — 35 cal
- grapefruit seltzer — 0 cal
Afternoon snack: (Total: 130 cal)
- 1 oz pirate’s booty — 130 cal
Dinner: (Total: 232 cal)
- 1 bag shirataki noodles — 30 cal
- 1 cups vegetable broth — 15 cal
- 1/2 cup bok choy — 5 cal
- 1/4 white onion — 11 cal
- 1/2 cup broccoli — 10 cal
- 1/2 cup corn — 60 cal
- 1/2 cup white mushrooms — 8 cal
- 1/2 tbsp fish sauce — 2 cal
- 1 tbsp tamari sauce — 16 cal
- 2 tbsp sriracha — 10 cal
- 1 medium boiled egg — 78 cal
- 1g shredded nori — 2 cal
Desert: (Total: 306)
- 2 oz crème fraîche — 220 cal
- 3 oz raspberries — 26 cal
- 1 tsp honey — 60 cal
Late night snack (Total: 164)
- 1 tbsp peanut butter — 94 cal
- 2 goya maria crackers — 70 cal
Day’s total: 1154
As you can see, 1200 calories is far from nothing. In an average day, I have three meals, at least one snack, and a decent desert.
I love to start my day with a thick yogurt high in protein like Icelandic skyr because one can keep me feeling full for hours. Lunch tends to be small as well, and Laughing Cow cheese wedges are a staple of my midday meal. For dinner I like to have a big, filling meal, but I like to save calories for a snack later in the evening as well. I have found that dinners with lots of vegetable fiber (and ideally protein too) is the best way to accomplish this. At the moment I am not too concerned about macros, so my protein consumption is low and my carbohydrate consumption is higher than is ideal.
I could easily do an entire post on eating low calorie without making yourself miserable. It could include recipes, daily logs, and discussion of how to modify and invent your own recipes. If this would be interesting to you, let me know below.
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Disclaimer: I am not a medical expert, but I have a long personal history with weight gain and loss, intensive exercise, and eating disorders. Before embarking on a weight loss or exercise program, it is best to consult with your doctor. If there’s any topic in particular you would like me to cover or if you have questions about medical sources for the information above, leave it in the comments along with any questions you have. I’m happy to answer to the best of my ability.
And because progress pictures are practically obligatory in any discussion of weight loss, here’s links(1,2) to some of mine. The first is a difference of 45 pounds shown in a full body shot (come thru waist!), and the second is the difference in the contour of my stomach from after losing 20 pounds to after losing 40. The first 25 pounds I lost without exercising, only keeping track of what I ate. After reaching 50% of my goal, I did start running to increase the number of calories I burned in a day. I did not starve myself, I used no tea, no wraps, no juice cleanse, no magic. Just simple math and attention to detail.