I have always have hesitated to write too much detail about exactly how to lose weight. For me, I found that floundering about figuring it out myself turned out to be incredibly valuable. It forced me to really learn. I don’t think you get nearly as much out of simply following a plan as you do out of figuring out what works for your body and why. I think it’s very necessary to look around and read about nutrition, diet and exercise. There’s a lot of information out there.
But I also recognize that a lot of it is incredibly confusing and contradictory. This can be very frustrating for some people. I think it depends on how you look at it. There’s no one plan that’s going to work for every person. For example, I ended up eating a mostly vegan, vegetarian, clean diet in the end and this works for me because I love eating this way. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest to give up most animal products. Other people can’t imagine life without meat. My way of eating would not work for them. I sincerely believe that if you give up things you truly love, you set yourself up for failure. Being honest with yourself about what is sustainable for your life is extremely important. If I tried to give up dark chocolate, I would be miserable and would probably think about it 24 hours a day until I caved and binged on it. That’s not really useful. And it’s not a way to live your life. So I see the contradictory advice as proof that there’s more than one way to do it. Finding the one that works for you is key.
However, I know people want a plan. So, here it is. This is my advice. I’m not a nutritionist, I’m not a doctor, I don’t have any medical conditions, and I’m not in any way qualified to dole out advice. On the other hand, this is what worked for me. This is what works for many. Eat less/move more is not something I invented. When I was heavy, I could not take advice from anyone who had always been thin. “What do they know?” I would think to myself. They’ve never even been 5 pounds overweight, let alone 100.
So if you’re just starting out and you really have no clue what to do, here is my suggestion:
1. Buy a food scale. You need this. I didn’t think I needed it for a long time and when I finally got it, I realized I was WAY off in my portion estimation. For some things, I was overestimating and for some things, I was underestimating. Calorie counting is just as much about ensuring you eat enough as it is ensuring you don’t eat too much. It is important to be as accurate as possible, and this means measuring. A food scale is the easiest way to accomplish this. The one I own was $30 on Amazon. More than worth it.
2. Find a calorie counting website. Or even better, a smart phone app if you have a smart phone. There are a lot of these and several are free. Most of them have a community attached to them and the support you can get online is incredibly valuable. Theoretically, you could do this on a piece of paper, but why? You have a computer. Let’s make it easy. Make technology work for you.
3. Count. Count every single thing you eat. If you haven’t changed your diet yet, it’s a great idea to just count the calories for what you normally eat for a week or two. Then you can see where you’re going wrong. Honestly though, once you start counting, you’re going to want to change what you eat. It’s very difficult to knowingly eat a 2000 calorie meal with your eyes wide open.
4. Aim to burn 500-1000 calories a day more than in eat. This is slightly more complicated than you may initially think. Here’s how you figure out what you burn:
You have your BMR (the calories you burn just sitting there doing nothing) this is the majority of calories you burn. The exact number depends on your current weight and age. Remember, calculators online are merely estimates. They are a good place to start, but certainly not set in stone. If I were you, I would google “BMR calculator” and go from there. Try several of them to see what the range is and pick something in the middle. Currently, at my weight of 165 pounds, 33 years old, my BMR is around 1500 calories. At my starting weight of 287 pounds, it was around 2000 calories. Here’s a calculator that seems to be pretty good to get you started:
Add to that your daily activity. This is going to be a big guess. If you sit at a desk all day, you probably burn a few hundred calories more than your BMR without focused exercise. If you are on your feet all day, you could easily burn an additional 1000 calories or more. If you’re just clueless, add 500 calories on to your BMR. This puts me, currently, at about 2000 calories a day without exercise. Trial and error shows me this is correct.
Here’s the important equation:
BMR + Activity Calories = Calories Burned without focused Exercise (CB)
Here’s the weight loss equation:
CB + Focused Exercise Calories – Food Eaten Calories = 500-1000 NOT MORE!!! If you starve yourself and exercise like a mad person you’ll do more harm than good.
Ok, so in terms of real numbers. Let’s say your BMR is 2000 and you sit at a desk all day. Then you hit the gym and burn 300 calories on the elliptical. How much should you eat?
2500 + 300 – Food Eaten = 500 to 1000
Food Eaten = 1800 to 2300 calories.
Remember, you have to keep adjusting this as you lose weight. You will lose 1 to 2 pounds a week this way. Don’t want to eat less? Exercise more.
Now keep in mind that 500 calories is not very much. This is why you really need to measure and record every single thing you eat. It’s very easy to screw this up if you guesstimate.
5. What to eat? Now at some point, you’re going to start worrying about whether you are eating enough protein, too many carbs, too much fat, etc. My advice: forget it. There’s only one thing I worry about and that is eating real food. Avoid processed, chemical ingredients as much as possible. Avoid fast food and take out as much as possible. Cook from scratch whenever you can. Your wallet is going to love this diet, I promise. When you pick up an item of food with a label, ignore all the big text on the front of the box and read the serving size, total calories and the ingredient list. You’re looking for the ingredients to be things you know what they are. You are looking to avoid chemicals. Remember though, this is just as much about what you should eat as it is about what you should avoid. On a lower calorie diet, you need to make sure the food you do eat is as nutritious as it can be so you don’t become mal-nourished.
Look for: Vegetables. Fruits. Whole grains. Lean meats (if you eat meat), Dairy (if you eat dairy).Vegetable oils.
Avoid: anything that says “Diet” on the label. Artificial sweeteners. High Fructose Corn Syrup. Overly sweetened anything. Most things that say “Low Fat” (because they are usually full of all kinds of nasty chemicals)- the exception is dairy. Frozen dinners. Canned soups. White bread, white rice, white pasta.
When you calorie count, you will soon find that nutritious real foods fill you up much longer than crappy processed foods. Everyone finds this out eventually.
6. Drink water. You don’t have to drink gallons of it, but water should be your default beverage. Iced tea and coffee are also fine if you can handle them unsweetened or very lightly sweetened. Don’t like water? That’s ridiculous. Learn to like it.
7. Exercise. Do you have to join a gym? Definitely not. But I have found the gym to be a great solution for me. I think of it like an appointment I have daily. A nice compartmentalized little task. NO EXCUSES. You could walk, jog, hike, swim, do workout videos, etc. But get moving. This is not optional.
8. Weigh yourself daily at the same time under the same conditions. For me, this is after I wake up and use the bathroom before I take a shower. Get to know your fluctuations. This will frustrate you at first. It is completely normal for your weight to bounce around. You have to learn what’s normal for you and accept it. The sooner you do this the better. Do not tie your emotions to the scale.
9. Have patience. Remember, this is going to take forever. Literally forever. Once you get to the weight you want to be, you don’t get to stop. You are changing your lifestyle. So settle in and enjoy the ride. It can be fun if you let it.
In future posts, I will expand upon these points, but that’s the basic gist of it. If you have specific questions, please comment and I will answer you. I’m not going to tell you “good luck” because luck has nothing to do with it. You choose.