How to lose weight

First of all, a disclaimer – don’t take nutrition advice from software developers.  I will do my best to give you good advice, but I can’t be responsible for your actions or their consequences.

Over the last seven months I’ve lost 40 pounds.  It’s something I should have done fifteen years ago, but never really attempted because it felt impossible.  But as I’ve just proved to myself it is possible, and I wanted to share some things I realized over the last six months that I think could help other people.

Funny Smile You Are Losing Weight Fitness Cent...

Funny Smile You Are Losing Weight Fitness Center Sign (Photo credits: www.mydoorsign.com)

The mysterious secret to losing weight

Everyone wants a magic pill that lets them eat what they want while staying as thin as they want.  Consequently there a lot of companies willing to sell you magic pills, magic foods, magic exercises, magic diets…

The truth is that losing weight isn’t that complicated, doesn’t cost a lot of money and doesn’t require specialized equipment.  Unfortunately because they can’t make money selling that truth, you won’t hear it advertised.  Here’s the mysterious secret to losing weight:

Burn more calories than you eat.

That’s it.  No food groups to avoid, no exotic foreign berries, nothing to buy – just burn more calories than you eat.

If you think about it logically, if you burn 2000 calories in a day and eat 1500, where do those 500 extra calories come from?  They can only come from your body’s resources: from burning fat.1

This realization alone helped me greatly in my weight loss because it changed the process from something mysterious that only super-fit people who don’t need to lose weight anyway can do to something that even I could do.

Image representing Fitbit as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

You can’t improve what you don’t measure

Let’s get even more specific – one pound of fat equals 3500 calories.  This means that if you burn 500 more calories than you eat every day for a week, you will lose one pound that week.

Now it starts to become important for you to know how many calories you eat and burn each day.  It’s possible to do this using free online calculators, but it can help to use a gadget to automatically track how many calories you burn.  This would be an exception to “nothing to buy”, but strictly speaking it’s optional.  I used a Fitbit but there are many similar devices, like the Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone UP and BodyMedia FIT.

If you think like me, an advantage of these gadgets is that they track more than just calories – it’s interesting to see graphs of steps taken, miles traveled, floors climbed etc. to help motivate you to do more.

There is of course a risk over over-measuring – your weight fluctuates throughout the day and domestic scales are only accurate to the pound (regardless of how many decimal places they show) so I check my weight at the same time every day and average the daily readings out over the week.

Berlin Marathon 2007

Berlin Marathon 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Limitations

It’s not healthy to you lose more than two pounds a week.  It’s common to lose a lot of weight at the beginning of a diet, but this is usually water and you’ll just put that back on at the end of the diet when you switch to maintaining your weight.

If you eat too few calories your body will go into starvation mode and hang on to every last one, so it’s counter-productive.  Eating less than 1200 calories a day for women or 1800 calories a day for men is unhealthy (although that number depends on things like your Base Metabolic Rate).  This means that in order to get your calorie deficit to 500-1000 calories you will need to increase how many calories you burn instead of just restricting how many calories you eat.

Feel the burn

Exercise has always been a problem for me.  I could blame this on asthma or other factors, but really I think the problem was just that I’d never had any success with it.  For me, running for ten minutes was exhausting and burned very few calories, so it didn’t seem worth it.

I always thought that walking wasn’t really exercise – it didn’t really hurt so how could it be burning a significant number of calories?  However one thing I learned in my weight loss was that my impressions were wrong – things I didn’t think were good exercise burned a lot of calories and foods I thought were healthy weren’t.  It turns out that walking is pretty awesome when it comes to burning calories, plus it’s low impact so damages your body less than a lot of other forms of exercise.

English: A molecule

English: A molecule (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Real life is complicated

Of course life isn’t quite that simple.  The human body is a very complicated biochemical machine, and food is a very complicated combination of chemicals.

Whether you eat more fat or carbs or protein does make a difference, as does exercise that builds muscle rather than just burning calories.  What times of day you eat, how big your meals are, whether you eat simple or complex carbs all make a difference.

However none of that changes the basic math that if you burn more calories than you eat then the difference can only come from your body and you must lose weight.

Healthy Goals

I used the Body Mass Index to determine a healthy weight.  This measurement system has its faults (it can’t tell if you’re heavy because you have a lot of fat or because you have a lot of muscle, so it classifies weightlifters as obese) but for most people it works pretty well.  Being underweight is as unhealthy as begin overweight – stay in the healthy range.

Because of the simple math of eating less than you burn, you could theoretically lose weight while only eating Twinkies, but that doesn’t mean that you should.  You get a lot more from food than just calories, and it’s important to eat a balanced diet.

Talk to your doctor.

Edit:

Three years later (and still 50 pounds down from my starting weight) I have some observations to add to my original epiphany.

First of all I believe we have a limited store of willpower, so forcing ourselves to eat well and exercise every day through willpower alone is doomed to failure.  I think a more successful strategy is to use willpower to establish good habits and then ride the habits to success because they don’t take as much willpower to maintain.

Secondly it’s a lot easier to not eat a donut than it is to burn off a donut’s worth of calories.  For this reason I think it’s more important to control what we eat than is is to add exercise (although obviously exercise is important and beneficial).

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  1. It’s also possible for your body to burn muscle or other tissue if you try to lose too much weight too quickly.  Don’t do that. []