8 Things

The Only 8 Things I Need to Know to Lose Weight

1. I know my target weight

  • Trust the Body Mass Index
  • Calculate your BMI
  • Use the BMI to set your target weight

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a simple way to set a target for a healthy weight.  Many people dislike the BMI because it tells them what they already know, but haven’t admitted yet.  I was one of these people.

The BMI turns people off because of its blunt labels – “normal”, “overweight” or “obese”.  But, I gained an appreciation for the BMI when I looked beyond the labels to learn more. The BMI is your risk of suffering from a weight related illness such as type II diabetes or heart disease.

If your BMI is between 18 and 25 (i.e. normal range), you have a low risk of suffering from such an illness.  If your BMI is above 30, your risk is high.

It’s similar to how insurance companies assess your risk of an auto accident based on the number of moving violotions.  People with no moving violations are considered normal risk.  People with a lot of moving violations are high accident risks.

When I was overweight I used the BMI to set my initial goal weight by finding how much I would need to weigh to have a BMI of 25.  At my heaviest, my BMI was approaching 30, which is high risk territory.  At 5’4″ tall, I weighed 165 pounds.  To change my BMI to 25 I needed to lose 19 pounds to weigh 146.

  • Find your current BMI  – Punch this into a calculator: 703 x Your weight (in pounds) / Your height (in inches) / Your height (inches).  For example, my current BMI is 703 x 137 lbs / 64 inches / 64 inches = 23.5.
  • Find your goal BMI (if your current BMI is greater than 25) – Punch this into a calculator: 25 x Your height in inches x Your height in inches / 703.  My target weight is: 25 x 64 inches x 64 inches / 703 = 146 pounds.

My BMI was above 25 and closing in on 30 in 2001.  I targeted a BMI of 25 (or 146 pounds) when I chose to start losing weight.  It was a great day when I hit that target.  I surprised myself when kept going.  And I’m proud that since the summer of 2001 my BMI has stayed between 22.8 – 24.0.

Click here to look at BMI tables to see the bottom and top ends of the weight ranges for someone of your height.

2.  I know why my body stores fat

Fat is an energy storage tank

Fat cells are my body’s insurance policy against famine.  Body fat is the reserve tank of energy that my body uses when it runs out of energy from my last meal.

My body converts calories from fat, protein and carbohydrates into energy and body fat.  If I’m eating too many calories from any source (fat, carbs or protein) my body will store many of the extra calories as fat.  That’s why eating a low fat diet alone doesn’t keep the weight off.  Limiting my calorie intake (see #4) is what I need to do.

Our bodies use fat as the energy storage because it’s efficient.  One gram of fat holds 9 calories, compared with 4 calories in a gram of protein or carbs.

Your body’s fat cells have been in place since puberty.  The number of fat cells rarely changes and how the fat cells are distributed throughout your body is based on genetics.  When you get fatter, the fat cells get bigger. They puff up like balloons. The bigger they get, the more energy they have trapped up in there for a rainy day.

Your body prefers to stuff the fat cells with energy in certain parts before over others.  My body loves my belly and love handles.  However, when I pushed those to maximum capacity, my body started stashing calories wherever – under my chin, my fingers (I almost had to resize my wedding ring), my arms, legs, toes.

When my body needs to tap this energy, it does so in reverse order.  Accountants refer to this inventory methodology as LIFO (Last In First Out).  My chin and fingers were the first places I noticed shrinking when I lost weight.

Eating often is important.  If I go for more than 5 hours without eating, my body becomes an energy miser which works against weight loss two ways.  First, is slows metabolism so you burn fewer calories throughout the day.  Second, it save any calorie possible for the rainy day.

An effective and counterintuitive way to lose weight is to make your body become a less efficient calorie machine.  You do this simply by eating more often.   Incorporating a 5 pm snack broke the 6 – 8 hour period between lunch and dinner that previously had no calorie intake.  My metabolism increased, my body became less stingy and gave up calories easier and I had an easier time controlling how much I ate for dinner because the snack prevented ravenous hunger.

Here’s one final note on fat.  Each pound of body fat holds 3,500 calories of energy, or enough energy to meet the body’s needs for a little less than two days.

3.  I know how many calories my body burns

Do you?  I find that most people don’t have a clue.

As a rough estimate, your body burns 10 calories for each pound of body weight each day.  If you weigh 150 pounds, your body burns roughly 1,500 calories.  If you weigh 200 pounds, your body burns 2,000 calories.   This amount is before exercise. This is the energy it takes to produce your body heat, support respiration and blood circulation, thinking, blinking, speaking, digestion and basic movements.

Add to that calories burned in exercise.  If you walk for an hour each day that adds about 200 calories to your calorie usage.

It’s impossible to know your exact calorie usage, but using these reasonable estimates have worked for me.

As I mentioned in #2, how often you eat can impact the rate at which you burn calories.  Going 5 or more hours once a day between meals can reduce your calorie burn rate by as much 10%.  For a 200 pound person, that’s 200 calories a day which can translate to 15-20 pounds of weight gain each year.

Before I lost weight, I thought exercising a bunch gave me license to snarf down anything I wanted. In my experience, people overestimate their exercise calorie burn by 50% to 100%.

If you eat like you burn 1,000 calories on the elliptical, but really burnt 500, your waistline will expand quickly.  This is the cause of the common experience of exercising hard with nothing to show. If you are already exercising and aren’t seeing results, consider how many calories you think you’re burning.  Rather than stepping up your exercise program, you’ll be more effective by following the advice in #4 below.

4.  I know how many calories I put in my body

Tallying my daily calorie intake showed me that I ate way too much.  To lose weight, I needed to figure out how to eat the right amount of calories without starving.  More on how I solved the problem in #5.

To tally your daily calorie intake, keep a food journal for a week.  Write down everything.  If the food package has calorie information, write that down too.  If the calorie information isn’t readily available, write down your best guess of calories and write “estimate” next to it.  Look up the calorie content on the Internet or a calorie book later.  Hint: Try this and within a few days your guesses will become more accurate.

In a few days, your daily caloric intake will emerge.  However, I do recommend completing out the week. It will allow you to pinpoint when you drop calorie bombs on your waistline.   Your Monday calorie intake is likely about the same as your Tuesday intake.  But your Friday or Saturday intake will be different.

I’ve “automated” most meals to take the out the guesswork of my calorie intake.  I have specific options for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner.  I know what I’m going to eat and portions beforehand so I don’t have to make those decisions on the fly.   This prevents me from straying.

When I eat out, I’ll think of two menu options – and my portions – before I step foot into the restaurant (see #6).  This prevents me from bad impulse decisions and losing track of how much I’m eating while deep in conversation.

5. I know how to eat the number of calories that my body needs without feeling hungry

First, I use a special fuel blend.  I get 40% of my calories from carbohydrates, 30% from fat (preferably unsaturated) and 30% from protein (or the 40/30/30 model).  This mix keeps my tummy satisfied longer.  Before I learned this, 60 – 70% of my calories came from carbs.  This digests quickly, causing my blood sugar to go up and then drop and hunger pains soon followed.  These pains stopped when I switched my calorie mix to the 40/30/30 model.  This is the same model that diabetics use to help control their blood sugar levels and the same model recommended by Dr. Barry Sears in his book, The Zone Diet.

Second, I don’t go more than 5 waking hours without eating.  Incorporating the 5 p.m. snack in my day did wonders for me.  In addition to speeding my metabolism, it kept me satiated until dinner and helped me not eat as much then.

Third, I drink lots of water.  Water aids metabolism and it keeps the digestive system humming.   There’s no reason other than laziness to not drink plenty of this stuff each day.

Finally, I know how to control my portions, which I describe below in #6.

6.  I know how to control portion sizes

If I had to choose between eating appropriate portions and exercise to control my weight, I’d choose portion control because, it’s responsible for 80% of my weight control.

If you want to go from New York to LA you’ll fly on a plane.  If your destination is weight loss, portion control is your airplane.  Exercise is a tailwind.  A tailwind will get the plane to LA quicker, but without the airplane the tailwind won’t be much help.

Many people start an exercise program to lose weight.  That would work if exercise was the only thing they changed.  But, they usually don’t watch what they eat and the increased physical activity makes them hungrier so they increase their calorie intake by about the same amount as their increased calorie burn.  No weight will be lost.

Experience is a wonderful thing.  It’s taken me years to develop my bag of tricks to keep my portions in check.  Here’s a list of the one’s I find particularly useful:

  • Eat 3 meals and a mid-afternoon snack every day.  Eating often keeps me from becoming famished.  When I’m famished I eat more than I need because I eat faster and go beyond the point of being satisfied before I realize it.
  • Eat a balance of carbs, fat and protein at each meal and snack.  This balance keeps me feeling satisfied longer.  If I eat an all carb snack, I’ll get hungry in an hour.  With some fat and protein I can easily make it to my next meal without hunger pains.
  • I know what I’m going to eat before I eat it.  This may sound boring, but I keep a similar meal routine each day.  Knowing what I’m going to eat beforehand keeps me from having to make decisions on the fly, which leads to bad decisions.  See What I Eat page for more information.
  • I wait 5 minutes after finishing my plate before deciding to go back for more.  After the 5 minute waiting period, I rarely go back for seconds.  By that time my mind catches up with my stomach and eating doesn’t sound like a good idea anymore.
  • I think about what I’m going to order at a restaurant before arriving.  I usually have 2 or 3 safe options in my mind before I go in, that way I’m less tempted to stray into dangerous territory.
  • When dining out, I stake off the portion size that I’m going to eat before putting a bite of food in my mouth.  I often ask the servers to give me a to-go box with my meal, that way I can cut my meal in half and put it in the box before I’m tempted to eat it.  Then I can savor the other half while I eat it.  As a side note, I’d be happy if more restaurants offered smaller portion sizes as an option.
  • I own what goes in my mouth.  Nobody can force me to eat anymore than I want.  I’ve learned to graciously say no to seconds (but offer my compliments and appreciation) to those great cooks in my life who love to make sure everyone is well fed.
  • If others around us are pigging out, it’s easy to justify pigging out ourselves.   I don’t do that anymore.
  • I don’t try to match the pace and volume of those eating around me.   I use to.  I think we all tend to fall into this habit without knowing it when eating with others.  It’s good to be aware of it and prevent.

There are many things in our daily environment that work against our best efforts to control our weight.  Many of these things are so subtle that we don’t notice them.  I recommend reading Brian Wansink’s book, Mindless Eating, to gain awareness of these things. Reading his book gave me confidence in many of the techniques I discovered on my own and gave me new ideas.

Wansink’s theme was in line with mine: a few bites of food each day can make a big difference in your waistline over time.  And reading his book can give you a leg up on combating those few bites that make a difference. He discovered that we make 200 food decisions daily rather than the 3 or 4 that we think we do.   For example, each time we pass a candy dish in the office we decide whether to get a piece or not. Having this awareness may better equip you to improve your choices across these numerous decisions.

7.  I know that my weight can fluctuate a few pounds

  • Understand that your weight will fluctuate by a few pounds and its nothing to lose sleep over
  • Weigh yourself often so you can get use to the fluctuations and be able to recognize sooner, rather than later, if you are experiencing a normal fluctuation or a trend in the wrong direction
Some friends of mine who were on a retail diet were overly fixated with achieving a specific target weight,  to the pound.  The retail store wrote down their target weight and proceeded to help them with eating plans to get them to that weight.  To the retail store’s credit my friends did lose weight.  Weighing in every week at the store was an added accountability that helped these friends not cheat on their diets.

Both friends had great success in losing weight.  However, they did not achieve their target weight (or haven’t yet).  Big deal.  Both are now well within the normal BMI range for people their height and both look good and are healthy.  They don’t need to achieve the weight they originally targeted.  Those targets were too aggressive, unless they were planning to try out to be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader.

I was disappointed that the retail store didn’t advise them of this.  I’m sure the store thinks it’ll keep them as clients longer if they are trying to hit an impossible target.  But, I think it’d be much better for business in the long term if they would first guide their customers to a healthy weight goal and, second, define the weight goal in terms of a range rather than a specific pound.

Our body weights naturally fluctates by a few pounds based on a large number of factors.  Trying to maintain your weight to a specific pound will drive you nuts and that stress could cause you to put on real pounds.  I know people who gain two pounds after losing 30, and think it’s the end of the world.  They become depressed and start up their bad eating habits and then they really start putting on the pounds.

I do advocate weighing myself often.  I know that many diets do not recommend this, but I feel that it does two things for me.  First, it keeps me honest.  My brain may be able to lie to itself about how much food I’m eating, but the needle on the scale won’t.  Second, and more important, is that I learn what swings my weight within a 4-5 pound range so I don’t freak out as the needle moves.

For example, eating at my favorite Mexican restaurant typically adds 2 pounds to my weight for about 2 days.  My theory is that the extremely salty food increases my water retention and goes away after a couple days.  I also know that if I don’t eat and drink enough on a 100 mile bike ride, I can lose 3-4 pounds, which isn’t good.  Also, I tend to gain a pound or two just before I get sick.

I do start to get concerned when the needle sticks at the top end of the range for more than a couple days.  That’s where weighing myself often keeps me honest.  It makes me start thinking about where I may have relaxed on my diet and allows me to course correct before I do more damage.

8.  I don’t deprive myself of the stuff I like

Continue to eat what you like, only learn how to do it in moderation

Gaining control of my diet doesn’t mean that I’m becoming a monk where I have to prove myself with feats of extreme willpower.  I’m not taking taking a vow to a higher power to banish sinful foods from my diet.  I won’t be judged at the Gates on whether I ate a few things that I like.  I have to constantly remind myself that my goal is to control my weight not to set a new standard of self control the likes of which has never been known.

I don’t deprive myself of the stuff I like.  However, that doesn’t mean that I overindulge in it.  Overindulging is where damage can be done.I like ice cream, chocolate, beer and wine.  My trick to not overindulging is to eat (or drink) moderate portions of the stuff often enough to quelch any cravings.  I eat a 3-6 Hershey’s dark chocolate kisses every day.  Maybe a couple more if I’ve had a tough work out.  By eating a little each day, I always know that the next “fix” isn’t far off, so I don’t try to horde up.

I love ice cream.  When I first started controlling my weight, I allowed myself a small ice cream treat of my choosing once a week.  I looked forward to that day!  Ice cream is dangerous enough that I don’t recommend eating daily.  But, a small amount once a week won’t do much damage.  And, next week was never so far away, so I didn’t need to eat it like there was no tomorrow.

Something strange happened after several months.  Ice cream lost its luster.  I believe that allowing myself to eat it regularly without the guilt curbed my craving in the long run.  Perhaps its a lot like how girls want to go out with the bad boys in school.  There’s something to the guilty pleasure that keeps the craving alive.  But, once it loses it’s bad boy appeal, perhaps the craving goes away too.  I still enjoy ice cream, but I can go months without eating it now and not even think about it.

As for beer and wine, I drink one each day and on rare occasions I might have two drinks.  The medical community seems to be in agreement that, at best, 1-2 drinks per day may be healthy and, at worst, have no effect.

What about exercise?

Did you notice that my list doesn’t include exercise?  Readers of my book got the impression I lost weight because of my exercise program, especially my love for bicycling.   That made me wonder just how important exercise to weight loss?  My answer: Not nearly as important as many people think.

I exercised a lot while I gained weight.  I lost weight by changing my eating habits. My exercise before and after was about the same.

Since 2001, there have been times when I couldn’t exercise.  Yet, I didn’t pick up weight in those times.  I stay conscious of what I’m eating and how much I’m eating in relation to how many calories I’m burning.  I can control my weight without exercise.

Many are under the mistaken impression that exercise is a license to eat whatever they want.  I once believed that and that belief contributed to my weight gain (see my diet myths page).

As I mentioned in #6, if used properly exercise can be a tailwind for your weight loss but not the main driver.

A typical exercise routine adds 10% – 20% to your daily calorie burn.  An inactive 160 pound person needs to consume 1,600 – 1,700 calories per day to remain 160 pounds.  While an active 160 pound person needs to consume 1,800 – 2,000 calories to maintain the weight.  That’s not a big difference!   The difference between 1,700 and 2,000 calories is only a few bites.  It’s one Coke or cookie.

It’s far more important what I put in my mouth than anything else I do.

Exercise can provide you with many great benefits.  It allows you to fudge on your calorie intake.  It improves your overall health.  Makes you more energetic.  Reduces stress.  Increases your metabolism.  Allows you to sleep better. Strengthens your immune system.  It gives you something else to do other than eating.  I highly recommend it.  But I don’t want you to discount your chances of controlling your weight by thinking exercise is THE answer.  It’s not.  Controlling your food intake is THE answer and I would not be willing to bet on your success in losing weight until you realize that.


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