Just a quick one to start with – I will have to say more about this subject, but this is a blog, not a book… To put it in context: Jan 2010 I decided that enough is enough and started losing weight, from 130kg starting to ca 105kg in April. At that point I started to get more serious about weight training and felt that losing weight is counterproductive. So since then I have kept my weight in the range 103-108kg, and I have also built some muscle. This blog here is more about the initial process of losing weight, I will write about my experience maintaining my weight whilst starting weight training in an upcoming post.
So what’s the secret. You can of course make it as complicated as you want to, but as far as I am concerned it boils down to four fundamental points:
- Control the overall calories
- Balance the macronutrients
- Eat (at least) five times a day
- Supplement where necessary
1/ Control the overall calories
Fundamentally, the following formula must hold: Weight Loss = (Calories Used – Calories Eaten)/7000, where 7000 are the calories contained in a kg of fat. So in order to lose weight you simply have to first determine your Calories Used, and then eat less than that, say 500-1000 calories per day to lose 0.5-1kg per week, right? Well, yes and no. Two issues: Firstly, the body can dial down the Calories Used as a response to not receiving enough food, meaning that you will feel tired bit not lose any weight. Secondly, the body can also use up muscles rather than fat. Both of which needs to be avoided for obvious reasons if you want to lose weight. The exact mechanics surrounding this are rather complicated (and, IMHO, not very well understood even by experts in the field) but what seems to work for many people is to (a) not reduce calories to much, and (b) maintain a certain level of exercise. The key takeaway here is: if you are already eating very little (and you are sure of this, because you are counting calories!) and you are not losing weight, then do not reduce your calories further as this might permanently damage your metabolism – search professional help to make sure you are doing the right thing.
With this out of the way – how do you keep track of what you eat? In my view, counting calories these days is really easy, at least if you have a smart phone, or access to the Internet throughout the day. Throughout my weight loss phase I was religiously using MyNetDiary on the iPad, iPhone, and the Web to log everything I eat (this has the advantage that you also eat less – you simply cant face having to log this blueberry muffin). You will also need kitchen scales, at least at the beginning. I was certainly surprised how small a reasonable portion of carbs (cereal, pasta, bread) usually is.
If you are not into personal electronics, another way is to use a simplified system, like the blocks system of Dr Sears. I will not talk about this system one any more as I find it actually too complicated too follow – suffice to say that my understanding is that a 20 block plan means you are meant to consume 1800 calories / day (…yep, this seems a bit on the low side…) and the ration carbs / protein / fat is 40/30/30% (see below).
As to how many calories you need, this is a bit tricky and individual. Many people seem to agree that you should never fo below 1600 as this means that you risk going into starvation mode. There are loads of sites on the web that allow you to compute your target calories. The issue is: they don’t agree, and by a big margin! What I found for myself (186cm, 107kg, reasonably muscular but also some fat) is that ca 2000cal per day is a good base amount, plus 700cal for each hour of heavy exercising. When I was losing weight (from 130kg, and less muscles…) I was eating 1600cal/day when doing 1h of light exercise (Pilates) pretty much throughout the week. This made me lose between 1-1.5kg per week.
2/ Balance the macronutrients
I will assume that everyone knows what the macro-nutrients (ie carbs, protein, fat) are. It seems that it is very important to keep insulin levels as constant as possible (see eg Dr Sears book “Toxic Fat” on this topic) and for this a balance of 40/30/30% carbs/protein/fat should be maintained at every meal. Note that this is percentage calories – as fat contains more calories per gram than carbs and protein you need to eat less than 30% of grams fat. Dr Sears is rather religous about the ratios – and probably for good reasons if he is working with high performance athletes and the like. For me the rule of thumb is that, at every meal, each of the macro-nutrients should provide between 30-40% of the overall calories.
As for carbs, they should rather be of the good kind, meaning they should be converted into blood sugar at a low rate, or have a low Glycemic Index (GI). I again will not dwell too much on this topic, as probably everyone knows by now the rules for this: natural is better than processed, whole-grain is better than refined, vegetables are better than fruits, etc. I guess the big point here is: whereever possible say no to highly processed foods.
One other take-away I had from this – even though I have to admit I only started applying it after I had lost a lot of weight – is that fat is good. What I mean is that for years I was trying to cut out and reduce fats. I am much more relaxed about this nowadays. I certainly use liberal helpings of olive oil, but I also fry my meat in oil, and get some more marbled pieces of steak as they simply taste better. What I have found is that – if you control for overall calorie intake, and you ensure you get enough proteins – then eating fat is actually quite good as (a) it tastes nice, and (b) it keeps the hunger away. My tip for the munchies in the evening: if I eat 10g of a fatty cheese (ideally roquefort) then I am done, at a “cost” of 37 calories. Try this with the equivalent amount of bread…
3/ Eat (at least) five times per day
This was also a surprising thing for me. I do not really want to go in the theory behind it, as this is something that everyone should try for him or herself. My experience is simply the following: whilst I am perfectly capable eating 1000-2000 calories in a single setting (…well, I might feel a bit stuffed, but nothing too extreme…) I will actually usually stop being hungry after 200-400 calories, especially if I give my body a moment to register that I have eaten.
So the first step in portion control is really to make sure that no meal is bigger than 200-500 calories, which means that one is to eat every 2-4 hours during the day.
4/ Supplement where necessary
I am not an expert on this, and to be fair, my body awareness is also not such that I would necessarily feel a difference. However, my belief is that when eating a low calorie diet (especially when doing so while exercising) it is a good idea to supplement minerals and vitamins, on the basis that the body will take what it needs and get rid of what it does not need.