Measuring Success: Why You Need to Count Calories to Lose Weight
Happy first Monday of the New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and enjoyed friends, family, and football, or whatever traditions you may have.
In the spirit of the New Year and all those resolutions you are no-doubt pondering right about now, I thought I’d write about a topic that several people asked me about in 2010: “Do I have to count calories to lose weight?” The short answer is “yes,” but if you’re thinking about resolving to lose weight this year, please read on.
Why do I think you might want to set off on a weight loss goal this New Year? I don’t, really. But, we live in a country where weight is an undeniable problem: 63.1% of adults were either overweight or obese in 2009, so I reckon losing weight is on quite a few people’s to-do list this year.
Most people typically start out the new year full of hope and ambition, and thus, “lose some weight” becomes a focus. Unfortunately, it seems, the wheels can fall off if results don’t come quickly enough.
While I enjoy The Biggest Loser, I think it has one downside, and that’s giving people the impression that they should be able to lose weight very, very, super-sonic light-speed fast. Unless you are living in isolation and have no other obligations than training 6 hours a day on 1500 calories, the likelihood of experiencing Biggest Loser-esque results in terms of time to lose weight is pretty minimal. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t lose weight or shouldn’t try to!
As I have noted before, I am not a nutritionist, scientist, or any other “ist.” I am a writer, an athlete, and an avid consumer of books, blogs, and articles to do with healthy living. I am also human, and perhaps slightly vain. So, my “footprint” is important to me. I say footprint instead of weight, because I have learned to focus less on pounds and more on measurements. We’ll get into that more a little later.
The M Word: Math
I was terrible at math in school. Just terrible. While I excelled at the humanities, I just stunk at the sciences and mathematics. When folks at work ask me a question about math, my standard answer is “words, not numbers. Talk to me about words.” But, there are real life uses for math, contrary to what my 9th grade geometrically-challenged self thought.
Simple arithmetic has absolutely everything to do with successfully losing weight. Everything. Losing weight requires a calorie deficit, plain and simple.
People often throw around the word “calorie” without internalizing what a calorie is. At their most basic level, calories are energy. Your body needs energy to operate, and unused energy turns into fat stored for later use. It’s sort of like a stack of firewood. If you don’t burn the wood, it hangs out for later until you need it. If you don’t burn the calories, they hang out for later because your body thinks you’re going to need them.
Gaining a pound of weight requires an additional 3,500 unused calories over a period of time. Conversely, losing a pound of weight requires using an additional 3,500 calories than were consumed.
When you throw out all the crazy fads and start boiling weight loss down to math, it becomes very clear-cut. Forget about Atkins, Zone, South Beach, the grapefruit diet, juice cleanses, and any kind of pill or potion that promises to make you lose weight. Please note, I firmly believe it is important to consume high quality, nutrient-dense foods over packaged, processed, and empty calories, and that is the foundation for this blog. Food quality aside, the principle of losing weight at its most basic form is pretty simple:
Burn more calories than you eat and you will lose weight.
But, if you aren’t tracking your calories, how do you know if you’re burning more than you’re eating? Quite simply, you don’t.
Know Your Numbers
If you are still reading by this point, I’m assuming you want to know how you should determine how much to eat per day, and, how to easily track the calories in your meals and snacks. Luckily, we live in a world where there is an online calculator for everything. This also helps for those of us who are numerically-challenged!
Determining your calorie goals per day is based on your height, weight, age, gender, activity level, and how much you want to lose per week. It is generally accepted that losing one or two pounds per week is safe, and anything much more than that is not. See my point about The Biggest Loser? It gives people the impression than losing 10 pounds a week is normal. It’s not, and the contestants are under super-duper medical supervision while they are achieving their goals.
- Online calculators like this one from the Mayo Clinic. Note that this calculator provides calories needed to maintain your weight, and you will need to figure out how much you want to adjust down for weight loss purposes. Remember – 3,500 calories to a pound, so a safe idea is to subtract 500 calories a day from the “maintenance” calories. Be sure to be honest with the calculator about your activity level, weight, etc. You need to be truthful to get a good starting point. There are also calculators to help you figure out what a healthy weight for you should be, if you need that help.
- On Body Technology Assistance. There are devices like the GoWearFit or BodyBugg that help you with weight loss management more than you could ever dream. I wore a GoWearFit over the summer and found it to be a fantastic way to see real-time calories burned stats, which let me adjust my intake accordingly.
- Trial and Error. Even if you use a calculator to set your calorie needs, this will really just be a ballpark starting point. You need to get in tune with your body and start to observe patterns and trends over time, and adjust accordingly.
No matter how you go about figuring it out, determine your baseline daily caloric needs first. This is important to knowing how you are doing over time, and also brings a swift dose of reality to your world.
The image above is my result from the Mayo Clinic calculator to maintain my weight, and I found it to be in line with what I have experienced. I am 5’11” and 164 pounds, work out for an hour (or two) a day, and in general, I aim to get 2,500-2,600 calories a day to maintain my weight, unless I have worked out super hard, in which case I’ll add calories accordingly. For what it’s worth, 2,500 calories doesn’t “feel” like a lot, and I can easily munch through 3,000 a day if I am not paying attention. I think this is probably the case for everyone, no matter their ideal level – 1,500 or 3,000 – it is so much easier to exceed than to come in below.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Once you have figured out your daily caloric goals, it comes time to be accountable, and this is where counting calories comes in. If you want to lose weight, you have to do three things:
- Know your calorie goals based on your body
- Measure your food
- Write down what you eat
- You should also exercise. You really should. But, that is not the point of this post, so I will not harp on this!
If you do not measure and account for your food intake, you will have a much, much, much harder time succeeding at weight loss, it’s just the reality of it. Why? Because while you think you may know the serving size of something, if you don’t measure it, you can’t be 100% sure. And, you will likely be wrong 9 times out of 10. If you don’t write it down, you will inevitably overlook something you eat in a day. A bite of something here and there can add up to a lot of calories that you don’t even acknowledge. I’m not trying to be negative, I’m just telling it to you straight.
To illustrate this point, think about how easy it is to overeat by just 250 calories a day. That’s a grande flavored latte, something most people don’t even think twice about because it is technically not even “eating” and our bodies don’t really recognize liquid calories. Guess what, though? That grande vanilla latte equates to an additional pound of weight gained every 14 days if it isn’t burned it off. Ouch.
Here is a little exercise that will let you see how well you guesstimate serving sizes:
- Go to your pantry and get out a jar of peanut butter. Use a normal spoon (like you use for cereal) and dish out what you believe to be 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (a serving size). Put the peanut butter on a small plate.
- Next, use a Tablespoon measuring spoon (like you use for baking) and precisely measure out 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, and put it on the plate next to the amount you scooped out first
- Is there a difference? I’m not there with you, but I’m pretty sure there is a noticeable difference. I’m betting the portion you scooped out first is as much as 50% more than the portion you precisely measured out.
I know about measuring and accounting because I have experienced this in my own life. When I measure and write down everything, my weight does not fluctuate (unless I want it to). When I don’t measure and write down, I lose track of what I’ve eaten in a day, I don’t think as much about it, and I unknowingly overeat. I’m way too generous with everything from peanut butter to pasta, and just about everything in between. I’m also much more likely to grab something less-than-healthy, because I’m not accounting for it. It’s just human nature.
Hold yourself accountable if you want to succeed.
There are several free online tools to help you succeed in accountability, including caloriecount.com, The Daily Plate on Livestrong.com, and My Calorie Counter. In addition to free websites, there are also tons of smartphone apps. My favorite is Lose It for the iPhone, and I use it religiously. I like the app because I always have my phone with me, and can easily enter calories before I forget. It allows for recipe and custom food input, and has a large database of both restaurant and grocery foods. An added benefit of logging your food digitally is that you typically get to see the nutritional breakout of your day, and you’ll know if you’re getting too much or too little of a particular nutrient. I keep my eye on sodium, sugar, and my carb-fat-protein ratios. I am still not eating much meat (okay, none really), so I’m conscious of protein and macro nutrient intake to make sure everything is copacetic.
You don’t have to log your food digitally, though, and a simple Excel spreadsheet or paper notebook will work. When 2Chili occasionally wants to lose weight, as he did over the summer, he writes only calories per meal down on this Excel spreadsheet I made him. It works for him. Do what works for you!
Do I Have to Measure/Track Forever?
When it comes to how long to do detailed calorie journaling and food tracking, it is really at your discretion. Over time, you’ll find that you have a much easier time identifying a portion size and won’t need to measure as much.
As you meet your goals, you may not need to write everything (or anything) down anymore. I find that I do better in general by consistently tracking, though I don’t measure every single thing anymore. And, I give myself days off. Sometimes I’ll take a couple weeks off, it just depends. If I have a triathlon or half marathon coming up, I tend to stop counting the week prior to prevent myself from trying to lose weight before a race. I learned the hard way that I need to eat more before a race to not bonk, and so at these times, I just eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full.
In general, though, I feel way more in control of my life when I’m tracking calories, so I have found I prefer to do it. You may only want to do it to reach a goal, and then stop. Just don’t stop until you have figured out what your body needs, and how you react to your eating patterns.
The Other Measuring – Measuring Your Dimensions
One final topic I would like to cover before I wrap up this novella is the importance of not only taking note of your bodyweight, but putting an emphasis on your measurements and how your clothes fit.
It is so easy to become obsessed with the little dial (or digital number) on the scale, and whether or not it is moving up or down. In reality, our weight can fluctuate a few pounds a day without really losing or gaining weight. This has to do with what we’ve eaten, water retention, sweating, and all that good stuff. That’s why they say to weigh yourself at the same time of day for consistency.
I did P90X last year (and still do it intermittently today), and one of the first things you are told to do before beginning the program is to take your measurements. I am sure they do this because P90X is a muscle-building system, and people would begin to get discouraged when the scale didn’t move even though they were working out like crazy. The exercise of taking my measurements and tracking against them taught me something valuable, though. While my weight didn’t change that much over the course of doing P90X, I lost 7”, which made a huge difference in how my clothes fit. Moral of the story: watch your measurements, especially if you are doing weight training.
You Don’t Need Luck, You’ve Got Math
Ordinarily, I after spewing out all this info, I would say “good luck” with your 2011 New Year’s resolutions. But, you don’t need luck! If losing weight is one of your resolutions, please do yourself a favor now and decide that you will:
- Determine your daily caloric needs
- Measure and/or weigh your food
- Keep an accurate and honest calorie journal to help guide your daily eating
It’s a new year, which is the perfect time for a new you.
By doing these three things, you will succeed.