Calories in, calories out

So, I haven’t written about dietary stuff in a while, but I’ve been on a very successful one for a few weeks and come across some good related articles, so back to it.

As you may recall, I lost a good 20 pounds or so using Weight Watchers about 6 years ago.  In the past few years I’ve gradually crept back up to about 5-8 pounds more than I want to be and on testing the waist of my 32×34 and 33×34 paints that I’ve invested good money in.  Whenever things get too bad, I sort of do my own Weight Watchers plan from what I remember and lose a pound or two, but I always lose momentum before I lose the full 5 I want to.

Anyway, I’m currently 4/5 of the way (in 3 weeks) to my current 5 pound weight loss and finding it fun and wonderfully easy with Myfitnesspal.com.  Weight Watcher is basically calorie counting, but with a twist– empty carbs are punished, protein is rewarded, etc.  This plan is just pure calories in, calories out (you also get to earn calories by recording your exercise).  I gotta say, I love it.  I’ve learned from past experience that logging my food is absolutely essential to having the self discipline to lose weight.  If I’m logging, I can walk past those half dozen mini-wheats my kids left sitting there all day.  If I’m not, they always eventually end up in my mouth.  I’m actually kind of enjoying logging with the app and I enjoy the intellectual challenge of figuring out what I’m going to eat everyday to stay under my calorie limit and still feel sated.  I’ve also upped my exercise a bit by thinking to myself, “If I take a run, that’s a smoothie plus another small treat later.”

A huge part of this working– like when I lost weight with Weight Watchers, is doing this with my wife.  In fact, since we are myfitnesspal friends, she can enter the filling, healthy dinners she makes (Skinny Taste rules.  Seriously), and I can just copy them over to my log.  Also, since we are doing this together, what is otherwise the most difficult meal for self-discipline for me– dinner– becomes easy because my wife is making awesome homemade dinners most nights.  And you know what, even when she doesn’t, if you pay attention you can still totally have Wendy’s for dinner (chili instead of fries) and be fine.

So, a few observations that I’m sure I’ve made before, but are worth doubling-down upon here…

1a) Totally sold on “calories in; calories out” as the model for weight loss.  It’s easier to do with certain kinds of calories (I’m trying to avoid refined carbs like the plague since they just make me hungry), but, in the end, a calorie is a calorie.

1b) It’s way easier to cut back on calories than it is to expend more through exercise.  This Aaron Carroll piece from two years ago sums up the evidence nicely.  I especially like this part:

meta-analysis published last year found that, in the long term, behavioral weight management programs that combine exercise with diet can lead to more sustained weight loss (three to four pounds) over a year than diet alone. Over a six-month period, though, adding exercise made no difference. Another systematic review from last fall found similar results, with diet plus exercise performing better than diet alone, but without much of an absolute difference.

All of these interventions included dietary changes, and the added weight-loss benefit from activity was small. Far too many people, though, can manage to find an hour or more in their day to drive to the gym, exercise and then clean up afterward — but complain that there’s just no time to cook or prepare a healthful, home-cooked meal. If they would spend just half the time they do exercising trying to make a difference in the kitchen, they’d most likely see much better results. [emphasis mine]

Yes, yes, yes!  Exercise is great for you.  Period.  That said, when it comes to losing weight, the time is almost surely better spent preparing healthy meals.  Lucky me– my wife spends time making healthy meals for the both of us and I do the exercise.

I was also pretty curious to see how many calories various exercises burn and here’s a handy chart from Harvard.  Way easier to not eat that cookie than to walk for 30 minutes.  Also, nice confirmation that I should totally stick with my 30 minute runs to burn off a good 400 calories or so (which makes for both a smoothie and a more enjoyable dinner).

2) Also, everybody is different.  You knew that, but reminded me of this post from a few years ago:

Over at Vox, Julia Belluz had a great follow-up to the recent diet study I blogged about.  The real secret to weight loss:

The one thing you need to know about dieting is rather straightforward. What works is cutting calories in a way that you like and can sustain. Fewer calories means more weight loss. It’s really that simple. You can stop reading here if you want.

For me, what I like and can sustain is eating a ton of fruit.  Myfitnespal recommends 50% carbs, 30% fat, 20% protein.  Many days I’m over 60% carbs– but the vast majority of those are from whole fruits and vegetables.  I eat a ton of apples, carrots, berries (so nicely affordable in the summer!), etc.  It’s absolutely working for me as I’m losing weight and not feeling hungry all the time.  My wife is far more the low carb approach, ending up well under 50% most days.  So, again, the “one” thing is the thing that is sustainable for you.  Any approach that says they have the one true approach for everybody is selling you something.

3) Only kind of related, but recently came across this interesting Olga Khazan article on why it was easier to be skinnier in the 80’s.  (definitely true for me).  This is actually kind of amazing:

They found a very surprising correlation: A given person, in 2006, eating the same amount of calories, taking in the same quantities of macronutrients like protein and fat, and exercising the same amount as a person of the same age did in 1988 would have a BMI that was about 2.3 points higher. In other words, people today are about 10 percent heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the exact same diet and exercise plans. [emphasis mine]

Why?  Nobody knows.  Hypotheses include: chemicals, prescription drugs, and the microbiome.

Anyway, Steve’s guide for losing weight is essentially: track what you are eating and figure out how to eat healthier in a way that is sustainable for you.

 

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Calories in, calories out

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    My experience demonstrated for me the power of calories – that 1 oz. of M&Ms equals one pound gained the next day.

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