So I promised in my previous post to talk about how I’ve been approaching this whole lose-weight-and-become-a-healthy-bastard thing. However, I was a bit puzzled, initially, by how to break it all down. For those of us who are looking to shed the pounds and haven’t spent a lot of time learning about how to lose weight and build muscle, this can be the most confusing part of the process. But as far as I have discovered, weight loss and muscle gain consists of five discrete factors that combine to form a fit and healthy lifestyle. These are all big topics, so I’m breaking this notion into five posts. This post is about diet.
Healthy Bastard’s Road to Fitness Part 1: 80% of Weight Loss is Diet
Read on for more:
In my reading and learning over the past couple months, I have come to realize that the body is simply a chemical energy machine. It exists to intake chemical energy in the form of food, extract that energy, and then recombine what’s left over into one of three things: protein, fat, and waste.
You will have likely heard this before, but to lose weight, this is true: you must expend more calories than you take in. At it’s most basic, this is what weight loss boils down to. The average person, depending on a host of factors, burns around 2000 calories per day. Add calories if you’re a hulking he-man of a barbarian who lifts volvos for fun in the morning, subtract calories if you’re as tall as a kitchen counter and spend your days lying in bed in your palliative care unit . But most people burn somewhere in that range in their daily lives.
Once you understand this rule, that more calories = weight gain, and less calories = weight loss, the question becomes this:
1) How much calories do I really burn in my average day?
2) What do I eat to lose weight?
3) How much do I eat to lose weight?
Answer to all three: It depends.
There’s no magic solution to weight loss, or fix-all for every person. Happily, through the joys of modern technology and the voodoo of modern medical science, we can make some educated guesses in order to find out what works for you.
Step 1: Find out how much calories you burn in a day. Be honest.
The Mayo Clinic has a useful online calculator that will give you a starting place to work from in order to figure out what your caloric needs are.
Now let’s compare, just for fun, what this Healthy Bastard’s caloric needs looked in early November and today:
|Daily Calories Expended:||2650||2950|
Disclaimer: This calculator is imprecise by nature. Assume variance.
So by this table, when I was 25lbs heavier and totally inactive, I would have to consume 2650 calories per day in order to maintain my weight. Two months later and 25 lbs lighter, I need to eat MORE to maintain my weight than I did two months ago, because I burn 2950 calories per day, on average. So, how does that work?
Simple: I do more exercise, I have reduced my body’s fat stores, and I have increased my metabolism by adding muscle to my body. I’ll go into detail on how I have done this in a subsequent post, but for the time being, just imagine that my body’s engine is revving higher than it was.
Now that I know that I need to eat LESS than the calories I burn on any given day, I have the most important part of weight loss: a goal. I’m not talking about a weight loss target — although those can be important, too — I’m talking about a number I can work with, and use to develop a strategy.
Step 2: What do I eat to lose weight?
Answer: Real food.
Quite frankly, this is both the hardest and easiest part of weight loss. While there are a wide variety of diets out there that recommend a host of different methods on what you should be eating, I’m frankly not going to go too deep into it. Some will advocate a paleo diet, others will advocate leangains, others will advocate weight watchers. Frankly, those systems can offer real advantages at times, but can also lead you off in the wrong direction if you take it too far. So here’s what I recommend: eat real food, and worry about specializing into the latest fad/science/new age diet later.
But what is real food? That part is easy: anything with green leaves and a crunch. Anything that had lungs or eyes before you ate it. Anything you have to wash the dirt off after you pull out of the ground.
What isn’t real food? Anything that requires advanced engineering to produce. Anything that has more than one ingredient on the label that you can’t identify. Anything that’s prepared by a teenage employee in a franchise and offers toys to kids in special meals. Anything that is sweet and sugary and you didn’t pick off a tree yourself.
There’s a sort of magic proportion of food you want to eat to stay healthy (though some diets might quibble with this), and that’s this: 50% vegetables (not including potatoes), 25% proteins (eggs, fish, chicken, red meat, NOT hot dogs), and 25% fats (olive oil, avocado, butter, cheese).
Now this is roughly the proportion of food you want to eat, so long as these foods are within your caloric limits. Note that nowhere above will you see anything sugary, nor will you see anything like pasta. There’s a reason for that: refined carboyhydrates like pasta, bread and sugars are high on the glycemic index, are calorically rich (1 cup of pasta is about 400 calories) and are absorbed by your body very quickly. This spikes your blood sugar, which triggers a large release of insulin into your blood stream. This large discharge of insulin then drops your blood sugar, leading you to feel tired, and, more often than not, hungry. This is why many people crave a dessert after a big meal; their body is doing its best to deal with the food they have eaten, and has overcompensated. This chain of events usually makes you want to eat more, which makes it harder to stay under your caloric limit, and thus, lose weight.
Now, let’s be realistic: you can’t avoid refined carbohydrates in this society. Bread will sometimes be a part of your diet, and so will pasta. Birthday cakes are a fact of life. The point, however, is to be aware of how many calories they have, and about the fact that they are unhealthy for you. If you need to eat them, eat small amounts. Be mindful of your food. I use the tomato method; a cup of pasta is about the same size as a tomato. If there’s more pasta on the plate than the size of a tomato, I don’t eat it unless I have a lot of caloric room to work with, and even then, I’d be hestintant, because I like to keep my blood sugar stable.
Proteins and vegetables digest slowly, in most cases, allowing your body to secrete insulin slowly and keep your blood sugar stable. Fats make you feel full, so including them in a meal is a good idea, as well, but be sparing, because fats are often calorically rich as well, and eat the wrong fats and you can throw off your cholesterol levels and give yourself heart troubles. Remember: real foods.
Step 3: How much do I eat to lose weight?
This one is a bit easier: take your daily calories expended, as discovered in step 1. Subtract 10-15% of those calories per day, but no more than that. Construct a meal plan so that you are eating that amount of calories as your new caloric weight loss limit.
For example, if I had a daily maintenance level of 2000 calories per day, I construct a meal plan so I was eating just 1700 calories per day, creating a per-day deficit of 300 calories. One pound of fat in the human body is equal to about 3500 calories, so based on that daily limit, you could expect to lose around 1lbs every 12 days, without exercise. That’s not too bad, right there. That’s 30lbs a year, without exercising at all. But you should exercise, and I’ll explain why in the next post.
1. Read Labels and Use the Internet
Nutrition labels are a wonderful thing. So is the internet. Your average food nutrition label can tell you a lot about the food you’re eating; whether it’s a protein or a carb, whether it has good fats (monounsaturated) or horrible fats (trans fats). Whether it’s loaded with sugar, or whether it’s loaded with artificial sweeteners. But most importantly, when starting out, it has calorie information. Check every label you can, and find out the calories before you buy it.
The internet is a wonderful tool with which to look up calories; calorie counting sites abound. Here are a few that work well:
Wolfram Alpha — This is a scientific search engine, not a calorie counter, but it is amazing for combining different ingredients and coming up with caloric/nutritional info on the fly. I strongly recommend you give it a go. Check out some of my nutritional links earlier in this post for an example of how it works.
2. Meal Planning
Now that you understand what to eat, it’s time to do some meal planning. Meal planning is one of the most important things you can do to lose weight, because if you don’t think ahead, you’ll be making food decisions hungry, and that’s a straight route to find yourself eating Big Macs and fries. So what you want to do is plan your meals for the week ahead: once you know your caloric limit, you’ll want to build a weekly diet around that limit, so that you don’t overeat during the day. Assuming a 2000 calorie diet, that roughly means three 500-calorie meals throughout a day, plus two 250-calorie snacks. Remember, 50% vegetables, 25% protein, 25% fat. And to do this properly, you will need to include things like coffee, beer, and that bag of chocolate chip cookies you keep under your desk at work.
Plan it out in advance. Go shopping for ingredients ahead of time — say, on a Sunday. Make sure you’re not hungry before you go shopping; this will make things easier. Plan for a couple snacks throughout the day, and bring your lunch to work/school.
Once you know where and when you’re going to be eating for the week, you can take steps to keep yourself from getting too hungry and making what I call stupid food decisions: food choices you make because you’re starving, and really, the food is right there.
3. Keep it healthy, keep it varied, keep it under the limit, but don’t go too low.
Remember: eat real food. Mix it up, so you’re not eating the same thing every day. Stay under your caloric limit. But most importantly, don’t fall into the temptation of starving yourself. Your body is a smart, highly evolved calorie hoarding machine, and if you think you’re being clever and decide to switch your meal planning so that you’re eating 500 calories or so below your caloric maintenance range, your body will switch into starvation mode, and start hoarding calories and start burning muscles instead of fat. This is not a situation you want to be in. You will lose weight, sure, but you will feel awful, your body will do its best to gain weight at every opportunity, and you will feel low and energy. When you reach your goal weight in this method and start eating sensibily, you will gain fat back rapidly. It’s a no-win approach.
Weight loss is a long game; you want to lose fat slowly, and replace it with muscle. Results that happen too quickly are dangerous and not helpful.
What does Healthy Bastard’s diet regimen look like?
Pretty much like what you have just read. The differences being that I shoot for around 2500 calories per day, I avoid sugar and alcohol like the plague (for now; it’s too much extra work while I do my diet control), and I get occasionally lazy about calorie counting. But I emphasize vegetables these days: kale is great. Avocados are a great, heart-healthy fat.
Most mornings, I either have probiotic yogurt with blueberries for breakfast, or eggs with avocado, and maybe a single slice of toast.
Lunches tend to be leftovers from the night before; a beef soup, a vegetarian chili, a homemade chicken salad.
Dinners are similar; one of my favorites is pan-fried chicken breast with a tomato, caper and basil pan sauce, served with tomato slices and bocconcini. All are great. Highly recommended. I’ll post some of my favorite recipes in the future as well.
In my next post, I’ll talk about the workouts I’ve been engaged in, the training I’ve been doing, and why you should NOT try and duplicate the speed of my weight loss. Learn from my mistakes!
Thanks for reading, and stay healthy.