Ok, I’ve (sort of) spilled my guts about introversion, privilege, gender, sexuality, harassment, and the vicious positive feedback loop between being undesired and feeling undesirable, so might as well get this one over with while my inhibitions still seem to be somewhat loosened. (Can’t explain why.) People have been asking me about weight loss for months now, and it is by far the thing I am most reluctant to talk about. (And be warned, those of you who know me from work, I still consider it to be an utterly inappropriate topic for unsolicited workplace conversation. There is maybe one person with whom I’d be willing to have that convo, and if you’re not that person, keep the comments out of the office, please.)
But since I’m parodying those annoying advertisements that appear at the bottom of far too many Web pages, you might as well ask, “What is your one simple trick?”
(Waits for chorus.)
(Not cooperating, I see. I can take the hint.)
One simple trick to lose as much weight as you want:
Eat less, exercise more.
Seriously. That’s all there is to it. I said it was simple, I didn’t claim it would be easy — if you’re at all like me, it’s probably very difficult, perhaps even the most difficult thing you will do in your life.
(Oh, you want more detail? OK, I can give some more detail.)
I offer the following additional suggestions that might help people actually perform this trick:
- Set realistic goals. For most people, it is neither realistic nor healthy to attempt to lose more than a pound and a half (0.7 kg) per week, and just a pound would be more realistic. Remember that what you’re trying to lose is excess body fat, not muscle; a pound of fat represents about 4,100 calories, so to lose just a pound a week means you need an average daily calorie deficit of about 600 over the very long term.
- Use the BMI inequality as a guideline for what your goal weight should be — making allowances for the fact that BMI guidelines are based on a statistical model which is subject to random variation from one person to the next. (BMI is defined as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters, and is a proxy for the surface-to-mass ratio, itself a proxy for density and thus proportion of body fat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommend that all adults, regardless of sex and age, should maintain a BMI between 20 and 25 kg/m2. For a 5’8½” person, that means weighing between 133 and 166 pounds (60–75 kg) — and where any individual should be in that range depends on frame size, musculature, sex, and other factors.)
- Keep track of everything you eat, in real time. This makes an enormous difference: when you have to stop and think about what you are eating, and in what quantity, it makes you take the time to reflect on whether you want to be doing that or not, and at what point you ought to stop.
- Get an app to help you do the tracking. I use myfitnesspal, which sucks mightily, but in ways that I’m reasonably used to (and data migration would be a real pain at this point). These days, everyone reading this has a smartphone, and if you’re under 50 you probably carry it with you all the time, so you’re unlikely to forget to use the app, as opposed to an old-style paper diary.
- Don’t buy bulk packaged foods, if you can avoid it. Prefer foods that come in packages with a reasonable number of servings (how many that is will depend on your goals and the size of your family, among other things), because it’s easier to not open a sealed package than it is to not have one more piece/taste/drink/handful of nuts.
- As a more general rule: don’t eat what doesn’t satisfy you. Don’t be afraid to eat higher-calorie foods (within whatever you’ve established as your daily quota) if the result will be that you are satisfied, whereas supposedly “healthier” foods are not at all healthy if they keep you in a state of desire rather than satisfaction. (I’m looking at you, smoked almonds!)
- For this reason, avoid sweetened beverages of all kinds; drink water (or seltzer) to assuage your thirst. If you have that hot chocolate/almond-milk chai/café au lait/caramel macchiato, think of it as a dessert, a treat, and not as something you use to occupy your off hand.
- Also along those lines: if you like chocolate, buy yourself good chocolate, according to whatever your preferences are, in smaller packages, that can easily be broken into pieces of about 5 grams or so. Put individual pieces of chocolate in your mouth one at a time, and let them melt on your tongue. Wait until one is completely melted and washed away by your saliva before having the next piece. You’ve now turned a 25-gram chocolate bar from something you eat in less than a minute to something that will last ten, and thereby be more satisfied while eating less. (You may find that your tastes change, perhaps significantly, if you savor chocolate in this way!)
- Understand that your weight will vary randomly from day to day, depending not only on when you weigh and what you’ve eaten but also your mood, how much sleep you’ve had, your overall state of health, and many other factors. If you weigh yourself every day (I do), remember that you are trying to bend the trend line downward, and filter out the noise. For some people, the easiest and best way to do that filtering is to weigh yourself less frequently.
- Find some form of exercise that you can do absolutely every single day. It doesn’t have to be the same thing every day (although that’s what works for me), so long as you have some time set aside for physical activity day in and day out.
- Get a kitchen scale. In order to eat less, you have to understand how much food you are actually eating, and “how much” is a question of mass which you determine by using a scale. Many common food items come in units which vary substantially in size — as much as 30% in the case of sliced bread, for example — and the serving size on the package is often stated as an average, or in hard-to-estimate volumetric units, or in some standard quantity that nonetheless isn’t the way you would normally eat. Also, the overall label on packaged foods represents a minimum quantity, not a maximum. I’ve had some high-calorie foods like chocolate actually contain significantly more than the label indicates.
- Ask for nutrition information when you don’t see it clearly labeled. Many foods you buy in the store, as well as most restaurant foods, are exempt from nutrition labeling requirements. However, that doesn’t mean that the nutrition information isn’t available. Sometimes you just have to ask. Other times the maker won’t consider it worth the expense of preparing it (which has to be done by a certified laboratory, not just estimated from the ingredients like I do for this blog) unless customers demand it.
- For similar reasons, when the nutrition label is obviously implausible, ask about it. Sometimes it may be a simple production error; other times the label may have been copied or manipulated incorrectly as a product was portioned — particularly in the case of bulk foods that are portioned and sold by weight in the store. Do the numbers add up to more than the supposed serving size? (One particularly egregious one that I ran into recently was at Whole Foods, where packages of some composed salad listed the serving size in U.S. Customary units as “4 oz” but then listed the size in metric as “100g”. The conversion is off by ten percent — how do you know which quantity the nutrient numbers were based on?)
- Don’t necessarily trust third-party nutrition databases, either. They are great time-savers when accurate, and when you don’t have access to an original nutrition label they may be all you can get, but very often the data is inaccurate, was entered incorrectly, is in bogus units, or otherwise doesn’t match what the maker is actually legally committed to in the label.
- If you’re an extrovert, you might find that various social support mechanisms — whether online, as built into some apps, or traditional meetings, may help you. I’m not, and I find such things utterly horrifying; if that was the only way to lose weight, I would not have managed it. But if you find that it does work for you, by all means continue with it.
- If you use a piece of fitness equipment that claims to tell you how many calories you’ve burned, check that it’s calibrated properly. If you own the equipment, you may have to pay someone to do this for you (if it’s even possible). If you are using exercise equipment at a health club, gym, hotel, or the neighborhood YMCA, you probably need to enter your weight and perhaps other details every time you get on — the formula used to compute calories is only accurate with knowledge of your sex, weight, and height. (Unless you’re wearing a mask and measuring VO2 directly, of course!)
- Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your goals every day — but every day do try to surpass your goals.
- Above all, when in doubt, assume that you’ve eaten more and exercised less than you think.
OK, so you’ve done it. You’ve lost the weight you wanted to lose. Now what?
I don’t know. I haven’t gotten there yet, even after more than a year of steady progress. I am expecting, however, that even once I do get to my goal weight, I will still have to practice all of these things, and more, because I know how I got to where I was. It wasn’t just that vicious feedback loop I mentioned, it was also eating far too much of things that I actually got far too little pleasure out of. (Double Stuf Oreos really aren’t as good as your childhood memories say they were!) And, of course, it was working at a desk, driving to work every day, and not actually making any attempt to keep calorie intake in balance with calorie burning. That’s what they mean when they say it’s a lifestyle change. We are uniquely lucky now that we have the tools that can do much of the grunt work of keeping track for us, but without that day-in, day-out commitment, it will never happen.