The “secret” to weight loss

03.28.07 | 7 Comments

Like many other people, I’ve put on a bit of weight over the past 20 years. OK, more than a bit, alot of weight. When I moved to California in 1989 there was 1/3 less of me than there was on January 1st of this year. After going through machinations to find life insurance (and the attendant poking and prodding) I determined (for at least the 10th time in the last 10 years) that I would get this issue under control.

I’ve tried all different sorts of schemes to take the pounds off and most of them worked at least at the beginning, but ultimately I would go back to the bad habits that added the excess mass in the first place. So here’s the big secret: eat less, exercise more, and measure and evaluate progress every day.

That’s generic advice, but it works. Since January 2 I’ve managed to lose 11.6% of my total mass which marks the halfway point in this voyage. Here are the simple things that have helped me, and if you’re trying to do this, maybe they’ll help you.

  • You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Get a good scale that has resolution to the 0.1 of a pound/kilogram. Weigh yourself at the same time and in the same state (i.e. naked) record this measurement.
  • Determine your daily calorie (kcal) burn at rest. This is simple to do, record your weight in kilograms and multiply by 24. As a rule, you burn about one kcal per kilogram per hour at rest. This gives you the baseline from which you manage your daily kcal budget.
  • Establish a daily record of what you eat, how many kcal and grams of fat each item contains.
  • Establish a daily record of physical activity above rest level (sleeping, sitting at a desk, watching tv – these are all rest level activities.) You’re looking for things like walking the dog (30 minutes of walking will burn 105 kcal for instance.) On your daily food record, track your activity as well indicating a negative number of kcal during that day if you have activity above resting levels.
  • At the end/beginning of each day, check the total kcal consumption and kcal activity burn against your 24 hour resting level to determine your kcal surplus or deficit.
  • The intent is to create a consistent kcal deficit of between 250 to 750kcal per day.

That’s the basis of being able to recognize how you’re performing. At the beginning, it’s onerous to find how many kcal are in food X. But a simple web search of “kcal [food]” gets you the answer 95 out of 100 times. You can also do something clever like read the label on the food…..low tech, but it works.

I track all of this in a spreadsheet that has a tab for daily weight measurement with a binary field called “good” – meaning, did I behave myself on input as judged by having a kcal deficit of at least 250 for the day, a field called weight which is the reading for the 24 hour period, and a field called delta which is the difference between today’s weight and yesterday’s weight.

The second tab in the spreadsheet is the month we’re living in (there are actually multiple tabs for Jan, Feb, Mar, etc.) that has a daily history of food eaten and activity performed that gives the resulting kcal delta used in tab 1. The key here is that one needs to burn 3,500 kcal to lose 1 pound of mass. Thus there is a field that converts the day’s kcal delta into a predicted loss of mass for the measurement period and a running total of the predicted loss of mass during that month.

What I’ve found is that the system is accurate on a monthly basis. If the kcal deficit predicts a 5.7 pound weight loss and I’ve been honest in assessing myself, during that period the actual weight loss will be within 10% of the prediction. Since one isn’t good every day and one’s diet changes (you’d be surprised what soy sauce can do for instance) that it’s less predictive daily, better weekly, better yet monthly, and almost dead on accurate in aggregate of the total time period observed (for periods over 1 month.)

Here are a couple of tips and tricks that seem to work with this system:

  • Drink water, at least 64 oz per day. It doesn’t matter if you like water or not, you’re going to drink it because once you determine the kcal cost of any other drink, you’ll decide it’s too expensive to do anything else.
  • Lose the “empty” kcal, once you honestly record your caloric intake, it becomes pretty easy to make choices about what to consume when your kcal is limited. Hmm, do I drink the soda (300 kcal) or have 1/2 a sandwich?
  • This will make weight loss professionals and nutriutionists batty, but eat what you want and supplement missing vitamins and minerals with, you guessed it, vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • You can have bad stuff like cake, candy, or pizza, but you’ve got to be honest in recording it and determine what the kcal cost is to your daily budget. If you don’t create the deficit, you won’t lose weight. What does this mean practically? If you’re going to have a piece of 300 kcal cake, you’ve got to walk for 90 minutes to nullify it or take 300 kcal out of another place in your diet (i.e., don’t eat the 1/2 sandwich.)
  • Take the weekend off. Not completely, still record, but bring the deficit from say a daily level of 750 kcal to neutral. Don’t create a surplus or you’ll get to lose that mass again. This helps psychologically I think and it also seems to have some benefit in not permanently resetting your body to expect say, 1,300 kcal per day as a “normal” sort of thing.
  • Don’t be discouraged by fluctuation, it’s a two steps forward one step back type exercise. You can always review your kcal consumption and burn in the daily record to see why your weight might have increased.
  • Soy sauce and other salty foods will cause your weight to increase the next day. Expect it, sushi is a pretty good meal though on a diet despite the fact it almost always makes you “gain” water weight due to the salt content.
  • Keep very busy, it’s harder to feel hungry and deprived when you’re thinking about/doing something else.
  • Do an activity each day, even if it’s only a short walk around the block, get out of “resting” mode.

Over the nearly three months I’ve been doing this (with some rough patches I might add) the net loss of mass is now 25lbs. This may or may not be helpful to anyone else, but it seems to be working for me. Let me know if you try it and what your experience is.

Update: As requested, I’ve put sample spreadsheets on the site for download. Here’s an OpenDocument version (12kb) and an Excel version (106kb).