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Weight Loss 101: Intake


This article is really an oversimplified rendering of everything I’ve had to learn (the hard way) in order to try get a grip on my weight.  It’s a battle that never really stops.  At the start of 1996, I was a hefty 86kg (190lbs).  By the end of 1997, I was down to a trim 56kg (115lbs).  I kept that weight until I got married in November of 2000.  By 2005, I was pushing 90kg (200lbs).   After two years of World of Warcraft, I found myself in Vietnam at a jiggly 110kg (242lbs).

At the time of this writing, after a glorious attack of insanity, I’m back down to 89kg (196lbs).  I’m planning to hit a healthier weight of roughly 60kg (132lbs) by the end of October.  At least that’s the plan.

This is part one of an expected 3 to 4 part series.  This part covers intake–essentially what you put into your gullet and how.  The entire article (quite long) is on the next page.

Caloric Accounting

Ok, let’s do the math.  Every gram of body fat is about 7.7 Calories.  I know you’ve read elsewhere that a gram of fat is 9 Calories.  That 9:1 ratio refers to how we count fat found in foods–that is, by definition, pure fat.  Body fat on the other hand (literally the stuff that makes the muffin in your middle) actually contains water and some proteins.  Hence the 7.7 Calories on average per gram of love handle.

Using simple math, in order to lose a kilogram of muffin, you really need to burn 7700 Calories over and above what you are eating.

When it comes to weight loss or gain (with no distinction between muscle mass which is “good weight” and fat), it all boils down to calories.  Eat more calories than you need and you will gain weight since the body will attempt to store the excess as fat for a rainy day.  Eat fewer than you need, and the body will begin to tap its reserves, essentially burning off some of your weight.

This is the intake portion of the equation.

Now let me point out some well established lies:

  • Outside of processes that directly and physically manipulate your muffin (i.e. liposuction), there’s no way you can reduce fat in specific parts of your body.  Your body burns fat almost evenly throughout your body.  So pick a nice exercise that you enjoy, do it for a few hours a week, and control your intake to have a manageable deficit, and you’ll get your smaller tummy… along with smaller thighs and arms and everything else.
  • Eating less fat doesn’t mean you’ll lose fat or stop getting fatter.  The body loves fat and can produce it from any caloric source.  Even if you eat nothing but pure protein; eat more of it than you need and your body starts storing the excess as fat.  So low-fat doesn’t automatically mean it’s good for your purpose.  Fat is to be avoided because too much is generally unhealthy for you, and it’s twice as dense calorie-wise as protein or carbs.  But make sure to read the label.  Many foods that qualify as low-fat are actually still incredibly dense in calories.  The point is, the path to failure is paved with diet products.  Don’t be a victim.  Read the label and use your head.
  • The real process of metabolism is not this simple.  The truth is, when you lose weight purely via caloric restriction, you will lose both muscle and fat.  The extent to which this happens can be managed using the other components of weight management: aerobic exercise, and resistance training.

Starving yourself won’t work so well

You can, in fact, control your weight to a limited degree purely by restricting your intake.  But there are problems with this approach.  The first and foremost is that most of us require a minimum nutritional intake in order to keep our bodies functioning normally.

Drop your intake to less than 1500 a day and your body goes into starvation mode.  This is a an entire cascade of processes that centers around the body’s attempt to defer starvation by consuming unnecessary muscle first.  This further lowers base metabolic rate, allowing the body to keep its precious fat stores intact until it absolutely has no other recourse.  In fact, it will cannibalize muscle tissue AND opt to produce whatever fat it can from the meager intake that actually does occur.  In short, it throws a wrench into the whole weight loss process.

Diets: which one to choose?

Well, the problem really is that diet programs and diet systems are a dime a dozen.  The weight loss products and programs industry is worth about US$30 billion a year in the United States alone.  That’s a lot of dimes.  Do any of them work?  It depends on how you define “work”.  Will any of them result in short term weight loss?  A lot of them, actually, when followed religiously.  But will any of them help you keep it off for life?  That’s a difficult question to answer.  The few programs that have studies to back them up (usually the more legitimate ones not based on total quackery) will tend to have most adherents regaining a third of their lost weight within a year of completing the program.

The long and short of it is that the only diets that work, are those that you CAN and WILL adopt for life. And like I said earlier, it’s all about calories.  You don’t have to really give any particular food up.  You just have to watch the quantities and moderate properly.  It’s really about adjusting eating habits.  You’ve heard this all before–lifestyle change.  And you keep hearing it because it’s true. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it, too.  Just not too much, and not too often.  It goes back to the accounting.

If you’re serious about changing your diet:

  • Observe your current diet. You can’t really figure out how to get to point B if you don’t know where point A is.  So keep a food log, and keep it religiously.  From your food log, you can research on the ‘Net or talk to a professional to help you figure out just how many calories you actually are consuming.  If you want to address general health outside of just weight, you can also use this to figure out just how balanced your nutritional intake is.  For logging intake, special care must be taken in computing for portions.  Most people don’t realize how small the portions are that are used in computing nutritional information.
  • Consult with a professional. There really is no way around this.  If you’re serious about getting your weight under control, have a doctor who specializes in weight management help you out.  Find a doctor you can trust.  And be very honest with them.  Ask them to work with you in order to figure out what realistic changes you can make to your diet.  If they try to sell you something other than a nice kitchen scale for keeping track of portions, look for another doctor.  I cannot stress this enough.  You need to have someone you can consult with over time.  If you are even a little bit uncomfortable with your doctor, get a new one.
  • Eat less, but more often. If you can keep your sugar level constant, it means you’re body will never trigger starvation mode.  Eat every 2-3 hours, but eat small amounts.  In fact, if you’re restricting your intake to lose weight, this is a really good way to prevent binging.  Essentially, you’re constantly ruining your appetite, because before you even get hungry, you’ve topped up.  Six small meals a day is better than two or three big ones.
  • Reduce realistically. Don’t throw a fit and promise never to eat ice cream again.  Look at your log, and see where you can shave off some calories.  The biggest culprits for most city dwellers will be sugared drinks.  Cut out sugary drinks, and you can probably lose 5kg a year easily.  But if that will utterly depress you, allow yourself just one per day.  Point is, make a change that you can stick with and start there.  To tell you the truth, I’ve only managed one truly long-term change in the past 10 years: I’ve given up mayonnaise.  LOL.
  • The usual suspects. I’ll list these here, because they’re all true, and you’ve heard them so often, you’re gagging: eat fewer sweets and fats, more carbs and vegetables and fruits.  Eat based on what you’re going to do in the next 3 hours.  If you’re about to run a marathon, by all means, eat more.  But if it’s 9pm and you’re asleep by 10pm, at the very least cut that cheeseburger in half and have the other half tomorrow morning when you wake up.
  • Supplements. Ok, let me be clear.  I’m not talking about any of the bazillion or so weight loss supplements out there that promise fat-burning effects, etc.  I’m talking about vitamins and minerals.  Anyone who is going to restrict their intake should take a complete multivitamin supplement.  This is just to make sure that you don’t unnecessarily weaken yourself because of your reduced intake.  Your doctor will probably tell you as much.  I’m a firm believer in generics.  So buy a nice affordable multivitamin supplement and take it every day.  Getting sick can throw as much of a wrench into your weight management quest as winning 10kg of wagyu steak in a raffle.

Other people: hidden boon or bane

Ok, I just need to mention this, because it’s true.  The other people around you can be the key to your success… or failure.  This is particularly true of people who have been morbidly obese for a long time and have been trying unsuccessfully to lose weight for years.  Handling what everyone else thinks can be a bitch.

If you’re lucky, you can find some nice, warm, and supportive people who won’t tempt you to go out for a burger, and won’t tell you to get a life because you won’t join them for a movie because you’re supposed to go to the gym.  Despite this being your umpteenth attempt to get thinner, you might be lucky enough to have friends who can resist rolling their eyeballs.  If you’re the type, maybe you can even find yourself a support group.

For the rest of us on planet earth, I have the following tips:

  • Fuck ’em. Seriously.  Your friends… the ones who will stick with you for life, will love you no matter what.  And guess what, every now and then, they’ll still tease and roll their eyeballs.  Because they’re people.  You can’t blame them.  So love ’em whichever way you can, but don’t let them stop you.  They will understand in the end. Trust the strength of your friendship that much at least.  Tell them the truth about what you’re trying to do (just once), and ignore the little cruelties they inflict.  They don’t mean it.  Do what it takes.  They’ll be happier for you in the end, and so will you.
  • You don’t need to explain to anyone. This actually applies to your acquiantances and the people you have to deal with at work; folks who you really wouldn’t care much for if they lived or died.  If anyone asks you why you’re suddenly eating only half a burger and tossing out the rest, it’s really none of their business.  Lying works well for me.  I tell them I’m sick and feel like throwing up.  And that’s that.  Or I’ll tell them I just ate 4 quarter pounders for breakfast and didn’t realize I had ordered another one for lunch.  In fact, when I was in the zone, losing about a kilogram a week, I hinted to people that I had cancer.  That pretty much shut everyone the fuck up. 😛
  • Do find one person to talk to. Despite everything I’ve said… losing weight and keeping it off is probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever done in my life.  You will go slightly crazy with it.  You’ll need to find someone to talk to… someone who will endure your hypoglycemic rantings.  Just say sorry whenever you have to.  Fuck, if you’re that much of a loser, go ahead and post it as comments on this site.  I promise not to mock you.

In the next installment, we’ll talk about exercise (specifically aerobic exercise) as the second critical component of a proper weight loss program.

Christ, I’m hungry.  Time for another banana.

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