The key to losing weight effectively is to manage weight effectively.
The key to managing your weight is understanding how body weight functions as it relates to your lifestyle (and your genetics, though those are out of our control).
There’s no quick fix. You will not lose 30lbs of fat in a single month without either amputating a body part or dying (some extreme cases of obesity may contradict that, but we’re talking as a general rule in this post). It took a while to put on the weight, and it’s likely going to take a bit to lose it as well. There’s no “easy” tricks to magically lose weight. It’s a process that will take a bit of willpower, but if it is done properly, you can marginalize the amount of willpower necessary.
The truth is, weight management is more a question of what sort of lifestyle do you want to have. You don’t have to be training for a triathlon or vow to never taste sugar again, but you also don’t want to be completely sedentary or constantly consuming high calorie foods.
All that being said, I want to add a quick caveat that I think is important: body weight is not a moral question. Whether you are categorized as morbidly obese or an Olympic athlete, you have innate value and worth. Regardless of what pops up on the scale, in the mirror, or the numbers on the measurement, it does not make you any less or any more of a person. The sooner you accept that, the easier managing your weight will be. Detaching weight management from shame/moral failing makes the eventual and inevitable slip-ups just that — slip-ups. This is very important for sustainability. There are days that will be hard for reasons unrelated to diet, and you will possibly indulge in some comfort food. That’s okay! Just hop back on the bike and start riding again. The less you associate weight with shame, the easier the process becomes emotionally.
With that being said, let’s move on to the more technical parts of the post.
Section 1: Calories in, Calories out
Calories are king when it comes to what determines body weight. I’m not talking about health or quality of those calories (yet). Let’s break this down.
Think of calories as your body’s currency. I’m sure you’re familiar with keeping a budget with your real money, so now it’s time to transfer those skills over to your body.
Your body gets X amount of calories to spend per day.
If you go over this limit and spend more calories than your allotted budget, you start to pull from your savings, which is your fat stores.
If you go under this limit and spent less than your allotted budget, you store calories for later use as body fat. This sounds inconvenient, but it is part of how our ancestors were able to survive. They cared about not starving to death, not about being shredded.
I’m sure you’re thinking something along the lines, “How do I know what my budget is though?”
One option is to use a calculator such as this one. Leave the physical activity the same and answer the questions accordingly. Aim to lose 1-2lbs per week.
The second option is to track your weight and food intake meticulously and figure it out for yourself. I’m going to show you how to properly do just that later on in the examples section.
Section 2: Your Body Fights Change (Homeostasis)
Something that is important to understand is that your body does not want to change. It may fluctuate in regards to weight, but it has a pretty standard 5lbs window that it’s going to try and maintain. The mechanism behind this resistance to change is called homeostasis.
When you’re trying to lose weight, the body is going to fight you. It has developed over the course of human history to want to retain body fat for the sake of survival.
When you attempt to lose weight, your body is going to increase your hunger in order to try and get you to replenish those fat stores. The quicker the rate of fat loss, the more intense that hunger is going to be. The more moderate the pace, the more moderate the hunger. Additionally, your body will try to minimize your involuntary movements – bouncing your leg, tapping, animated hand gestures, etc. It will also make you less motivated to engage in physical activity (trying to use Jedi Mind Tricks to grab your water instead of leaning forward). These are all methods the body uses to reduce the amount of calories you’re spending.
Example: Me adding cardio too quickly while losing weight
Just a couple weeks ago, I made a rookie mistake.
I was losing weight steadily at a pound a week and figured I should speed things up slightly by increasing my daily step count. I was averaging about 4,500 steps per day and figured, “I used to hit 10,000 a day when I was working in the gym, this should be easy!”
To be honest, hitting the 10,000 a day was easy to do. For the first three days. After which, my hunger skyrocketed to a level I didn’t know existed. I was ravenously hungry constantly. I craved everything all at once, especially calorically dense foods. Luckily, I knew what was going on. My body was fighting back against my extreme increase in energy expenditure (which meant a bigger budget deficit).
I ended up putting the diet on pause for a week. I ate at maintenance (an even budget), didn’t gain or lose any weight, and the hunger subsided. I was no longer tired, my energy went right back to normal, and my training sessions felt crisp again.
The next week, I restarted the diet again. One pound a week, getting anywhere from 4,000-6,000 steps daily. One pound a week is only 0.5% of my total body weight, so the diet feels almost non-existent. My hunger levels feel normal pretty much all the time. I only get really hungry if I get tied up and end up eating a really late meal compared to my usual eating times. My cravings are normal (I’m a sucker for Reeses). Turns out slow and steady works just fine!
Similarly, the body is also resistant to gaining weight. Just like losing weight, the speed impacts the level of resistance. My strength athletes have mentioned how they have no motivation to eat, they’re never hungry anymore, and food is substantially less appealing to them. Additionally, it will make you have more involuntary actions like I described above, and will give you more energy to be active throughout the day. Incredible, right?
Example: Strength athlete gaining weight
One athlete in particular was only gaining at a rate of half a pound a week and his body was still having these side effects. Why were they so severe? Because he up almost 12lbs from when I started working with him, and likely even more from when he first started lifting. His body is simply becoming increasingly resistant to change, and we will likely have to give him a diet break/short weight loss phase soon in order to allow for more time to put on weight.
a caveat for quick weight loss
Some people who are well-versed in dieting for the sake of competition may be exceptions to the “slow and steady” rule. These people know their bodies, are familiar with the process, and have competitive goals that they have decided warrant expedited weight loss. These methods are not for everyone at every point in time! Small bursts of quick dieting may be helpful under the right circumstances (less than three weeks long). But, for the most part, you should likely take a moderate approach to dieting.
Section 3: Food Composition – “Good” vs. “Bad”
I really dislike labeling foods as “good” or “bad”.
It lacks any thought-out nuance behind why you would eat a particular food.
Instead, food quality is probably more of a question of both nutrient density with regard to calories (how many nutrients are you getting per calorie) and what you need in order to hit your goals.
Something like broccoli has extremely low calories while being incredibly rich in nutrients. Vegetables are phenomenal foods for what they can accomplish on a calorie budget. That being said, imagine if you only ate broccoli. You’d have to eat multiple pounds a day to not wither away, and you would be deficient in many other areas while having way too much of what broccoli has to offer.
On the other hand, let’s look at pizza. A slice or two on pizza night is not going to ruin your life! On its own, it won’t even make a noticeable difference. But just like the broccoli, if all you eat is pizza, you’re going to feel horrible! Instead of withering away, the weight gain will likely be massive and you’ll still be malnourished.
When it comes to eating, everything has its proper place.
Some considerations when planning your meals:
Are you eating enough fruits and veggies? These are generally rich in nutrients, fiber, and are low(er) in calories. Some things like bananas and potatoes might have a bit more punch associated with them in regards to calories, but generally speaking, it’s better to opt for these types of foods when your calorie budget is limited.
Are you eating enough protein? Protein aids both in satiety (how full you feel) and with muscle retention when losing weight (or muscle building if you’re new to lifting weights). The goal is to eat mostly lean proteins (low fat, high protein). This will help you hit your protein goal while also keeping your calories open for other important foods, such as fibrous veggies or going out and having a beer with friends!
Section 4: Sustainability and Lifestyle
Our body composition is determined mostly by our lifestyle choices, and in some extreme cases genetics can play a large role. For most of us though, our lifestyle will dictate the health of our body almost entirely. If we’re sedentary, eat poorly, and don’t exercise, we’re likely going to have very little muscle, have a high body fat percentage, and potentially have poor cardiovascular health. The thing is, most people know this. So my goal isn’t to drill “stop being lazy” into you. My goal is to help you understand that if you want to be more active, you have to do it in a way that you enjoy and can continue to do for the foreseeable future.
I have met countless people determined to lose weight or to get jacked that have completely sabotaged themselves before it ever began.
These people are often ambitious in the same way one is when they haven’t eaten for 16 hours and find themselves at a drive-thru. You order everything that sounds tantalizing, intent on devouring every last bite, only to get halfway through your meal and think, “Oh good Lord, there is no way I can eat all of this.”
People do the same thing with fitness all the time.
“I’m going to work out 5 days a week, two hour sessions! I’m going to get jacked!”
“I’m going to cut my calories in half, measure everything, only eat clean food, not go out with my friends ever, and run 5 miles a day.”
People will point to someone like David Goggins who took this approach. The man nearly killed himself doing it, but he very clearly had such a level of necessity that it became do or die.
Most of us do not have that level of distress. It is not do or die for the general person.
It is do, or maybe have another Oreo and watch another episode of something on Netflix.
That’s the issue with making such huge demands of yourself with no real perceived necessity. For that reason, it is vitally important to choose something you both enjoy and do it for moderate amounts of time, otherwise you will most likely fail. Weight loss in general has a 90% failure rate with the subject often regaining more weight than they lose.
This failure rate is likely due to both dieting culture and a lack of helpful information. People have demonized foods they enjoy (like carbs) and tried to avoid them. In the past, fat was the devil. Now we live in a time where people will tell you that putting a stick of butter in your coffee will help you lose weight (that’s like saying buying a new car doesn’t count towards your monetary budget).
If your goal is to lose weight and keep it off, try doing it the slow way. It’s not sexy, but it’s both healthy and sustainable. The goal here, once again, is a lasting lifestyle change. The weight loss is a byproduct of healthier choices. There’s a million ways to lose weight in an unhealthy way. If you want it to stay off, then give this a shot:
- Don’t lower your calories dramatically! Do a 20-25% decrease in daily calorie intake. Our goal is to only lose 0.5% – 1.0% of bodyweight per week. It’s a bit slow, but it has a much higher chance of sticking.
- Add in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins to your diet.
- Be mindful of your snacks and portion sizes. I enjoy an occasional Reeses, beer, or other various types of sweets. But I don’t have them every day, and when I do have them, I have a very moderate amount.
- Eat whole foods that you prepare. If you’re making the food, you know exactly what’s in it.
- Increase your daily activity by adding in walks throughout the day. I’d suggest starting with a 10 minute walk every day, and adding in more walks or longer walks as time goes on.
- Find a type of exercise you enjoy and do it 2-3 times a week. I personally enjoy basketball and lifting weights (clearly). Anything that gets your heart rate up is a good option, but weight lifting will add muscle and aid in losing fat. Finding something you enjoy will make sticking with the process that much easier.
- Get a coach if you want a bit of insurance. Putting money on something creates a new incentive for you not to give up, and the expertise a good coach will provide is absolutely invaluable. They can coach you through both the process and your anxieties. As a coach, I know what weight stalls look like and how to remain calm when the scale doesn’t move for a week. If that’s not something you’re aware of, having a knowledgeable professional help you along the way may be extremely helpful.
Section 5: An example of what tracking looks like, taking averages, and calculating calories burned per day.
This is what it looks like to track calories and weight day to day. This is a made up scenario and doesn’t reflect exactly how something might look. But the concept being shown here is applicable. Some notes:
- The first week shows a lower calorie expenditure per day (a lower budget). This is due to measuring the average of a week versus a static value. Once you start comparing averages of each week, you see that the TDEE stabilizes.
- You can determine your maintenance calories by tracking your weight and calories. This is how you move from a calculator value that is a prediction to actually knowing how many calories you need to eat to manipulate your weight.
Appendix: Further reading on nutrition
Body Weight Fluctuation and Weight Management
– A short read on what causes weight fluctuation and how to spot it.
What is a Calorie?
– A short excerpt from a larger piece on nutrition, this section being on what calories are.
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Whatever you have, wherever you are, your goals are not out of reach.