Weightloss Ain’t Rocket Science

Losing weight isn’t complicated. Gurus and manufacturers are happy to make it seem that way so they can sell what they sell. The fact is, though, if you burn more calories than you consume, you cannot fail to lose weight. Okay, it’s more complicated than that—but not much.

We humans are the survivors of countless privations. We are the ones whose ancestors survived all the famine, pestilence, wars, volcanoes, ice ages and so on, for several million years. They didn’t do it by looking good in Speedos. They did it the same way grizzlies survive hibernation: by having ample stores of blubber to carry them through the lean times. We, with our grande mocha lattes with creme, our super-big gulps, and our deep-fat-fryers, are the “beneficiaries” of these successful genes. We crave what will fatten us up because our genes are programed to store energy when it’s available. They don’t know that in this time and place, calories are not a scarce resource but a toxic embarrassment of riches.

Nor do we want to modify those genes, because sooner or later, somehow or other, lean times will almost certainly return to all of us. “Fixing” our genes to help us fit into our scivies now will certainly condemn our descents at some time in the future. So what do we do?

We do what we human always do, we use our formidable brains to adapt. In this case, we set a budget of calories, and we learn to live within it. Simple.

Simple doesn’t mean easy, though. Hunger is right up at the top of our hierarchy of needs (we’ll even choose it over sex). Saying “no” to such a primal craving is HARD. This is where technology comes in. Unlike our ancestors, we know how much energy is in our food and our labors, and with tools like the smartphone app “MyFitnessPal” keeping track of both is fairly simple. We can learn to live withing a budget, but first we need a plan.

  • First, you need to estimate the number of calories you burn just being you. To save you some trouble, MyFitnessPal will estimate this based on your age, height, gender, and lifestyle.

  • Second, you need a target weight. My Fitness Pal will help with this too, but in general, you need short-term achievable goals. Longer range is up to you [(though a healthy weight based on BMI is certainly wise) but it might seem dawning until you have started down the road.

  • Third, you need to decide how fast you want to lose weight. Two to three pounds per week is generally considered the largest safely sustainable rate, but you certainly want to lose fast enough to see and feel the results or you will give up. That’s how humans are.

  • Now it’s fairly simple to estimate the net energy intake that will get you to your goal. Again, apps like MyFitnessPal will calculate this for you. They will also calculate the minimum number of calories needed to keep your body from thinking it’s starving. That’s important, because if your body thinks it’s starving, your metabolism changes to run much more efficiently and your cravings go into overdrive.

  • Now you have a net calorie budget. Done. Well, done getting started.

Notice I said “net”. It doesn’t matter in the slightest how much you eat. What matters is, how much more do you eat than you burn? Olympic athletes eat up to 8,000 calories a day, but they burn that much or more. The trouble is, if you can make it through a whole cheesecake, you can easily top that 8,000 calories in one sitting, but odds are burning that many in a day would kill you.

So, this is where the choices start. After accounting for my base metabolism (what I burn just being alive) MyFitnessPal tells me I need to net no more than 1,400 calories each day in order to make my goals. But hold on. I also need to eat at least 1,200 calories per day. That’s not much wiggle room, and I know from experience that exercise makes me hungrier, which is why I normally stop exercising just as I start seeing results. Too little reward, too slowly.

This is where a tool like MyFitnessPal is a life saver. Once I started tracking calories in and calories out, I started assigning weights to things. I love cake, but I’d rather eat a whole spicy chicken and rice dinner and feel sated until bedtime than a slice of cake that will be digested by the next commercial break. I don’t like exercising, but I also don’t like being hungry at bedtime, and an hour on the treadmill “buys” a serving of cereal and milk. But wait, ¾ cups is not a realistic serving size, but if I switch to the 80 calorie Fibre-One cereal, I can eat three servings for 240 calories.

See how it works? It’s all about trade offs. You can NOT succeed by starving yourself your body will not permit it. This isn’t a “glandular problem”, it’s survival instinct. You can, however, get used to skim milk instead of whole, wraps instead of buns, turkey instead of pork (or fruit instead of sausage). Then you find that the more you get used to lighter fair, the less you crave traditional American junk. Tabouli, Fatoush and Jeruselem salads, steak tips and broccoli, Teriaki Salmon—these are all favorite foods that I would not have touched twenty years ago. I don’t eat them because I’m on a diet. They are just what I eat, and at the moment, I am adjusting my weight downward.

I also bought a treadmill. I’m pretty dexterous, so it took about three days to get used to typing while walking at 2.2 miles per hour and a slight incline that increases the workload to approximate “real world” walking. I’m a writer and a computer analyst, so I can pretty much spend as much time walking as my feet can take. I shoot for two hours a day. I don’t always make it. On weekends or telecommute days, I may do five or more hours. It took a while to work up to that and I had to buy special anti-static shoes for use in cold, dry weather.

Results may vary. I do what works for me, and I’m sorry to say it took me twenty years to find it. You have to find what works for you. You have to find it, because diets just don’t work. What you have to do is stop being the person who got you here, and start being “You 2.0”. You don’t have to eat the comfort foods your grandmother ate during the depression. You don’t need to new year’s dinner your great grand parents ate to assure themselves they had survived the potato famine. You kids are not going to have a better standard of living if you teach them to eat the fried catfish and ice cream you had at family reunions. You are free to make your own choices, and pass down your own traditions. Pick healthy.

It’s all a balancing act. I want to write anyway, so it “costs” very little to walk, and it doesn’t take much to tip the scale. Sometimes, I still snack too much, but I record it honestly. Sometimes, I have to get up before I brush my teeth and have one more cup of yogurt to stay within my budget. I record everything, and I will do so till the day I die. I don’t see that as a punishment or a sentence. It’s a rational reaction to living in a body ill suited to a changed environment. It’s what I should have been doing all along, and it’s a damn-sight better than starvation.

This is neither a fad nor a diet. This is a lifestyle that works and that I can sustain indefinably. In a little less than three months, I’ve lost thirty pounds. At this rate, I’ll be gone in a year and a half. It’s been nice knowing you all.