WARNING! GEEK POST TO FOLLOW!!
Don’t you just love how everyone becomes an expert when they start to lose a little weight? We’ve all experienced it, haven’t we. A friend makes a New Year’s Resolution, or decides they need to get in shape, and all of a sudden, their social media lights up with all their newly found knowledge. The thing is, it seems like most of what those friends spew on social media isn’t knowledge at all. It’s a few platitudes, some basic science, and a whole lot of fads. Very little is useful, meaningful information.
I especially cringe when I see others start to give “advice” on the “right” way to eat. The basic problem I have with that advice is this – most of it is just dead wrong. I will see someone (almost always a woman) talking about how she’s working out “like a fiend” and eating 1200 calories a day. And then she claims she’s gaining a lot of muscle. But the reality is, you’re not going to gain muscle if you’re in a calorie deficit. It just isn’t how our bodies work. Further, if you really are working out like a fiend, then you probably need more calories just to keep yourself going, not fewer.
I have done a lot of research in to weight loss, and exercise, and I am by no means an expert. I use what I read in an attempt to improve my journey. I share a lot of that here, but I’m not trying to tell others how or what they should do to lose weight. To me, the main thing to remember is that the only way you’re going to lose weight is by consuming fewer, and/or burning more calories than your body needs to maintain function. But I had some concerns about my weight loss journey and why I don’t seem to be losing the two pounds a week I’ve set in my weight loss app. I’m staying within my calorie budget, so what’s the issue? I set out to figure out what’s going on.
Most people don’t understand two basic weight loss terms – calorie and macronutrient. Calorie is simply the measure of how much energy is in food. A calorie measures the amount of heat needed to raise one gram of water by one degree Celsius. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, either. The important thing to know about a calorie, though, is that it is a measure of how much energy is in food. Too many calories and you gain weight, too few calories and you lose weight. Simple, right?
Ahhh … not so fast, grasshopper! Now comes the macronutrient. These days, you can’t swing a dead cat on a weight loss/fitness board without someone talking about macronutrients. I’ve found, though, most people have no clue what that actually means. So I set out to find out what a macronutrient is, and I found that the term macronutrient simply refers to the three components of the human diet: Carbohydrates, Fats, and Proteins. We need large quantities of these things to survive, hence the “macro” part of the name. Some people consider water to be the fourth macro, but for our purposes, we’re only looking at the three.
Like most things in nature, the biggest macronutrient wins when it comes to classification of foods. For example, avocados are about 70% fat, which is why they are classified as a fat. Potatoes are mostly carbohydrates, so they are classified as a carb. And so forth and so on.
Why is this important, you may ask. Well, it’s because we need to eat each of these macros in a balance that suits our physical needs, lifestyle, and activity level. You always see these ranges listed as percentages. On average, the macro ranges are …
Different meal plans have different macro ranges. For example, the Keto diet relies on fat (70-75%) as its primary macro. So, if your caloric needs are about 1800 a day, you would aim for about 1300 of those calories in fat. I’m not sure about you, but I can’t do that. If you can, and the Keto diet works for you, then rock on. I’m not here to say that one plan is better than the other. I just know that when I tried Keto, it was an utter failure in almost no time. However, I have a cousin who has been on a Keto lifestyle for a few years now, and she and her husband have lost a lot of weight on it.
How do you know where you should be calorie and macro wise? Well, for the calorie thing, you can rely on programs like Lose It! or My Fitness Pal to figure it out for you. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you want to understand the underlying issues of why you may be in a plateau, or why you aren’t losing all that quickly, or why you’re losing too quickly … that requires some math. Luckily for us, we still don’t have to do that work on our own.
The first step in true understanding of your caloric needs is to find your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR. Now, I’m going to be honest here. Almost all of the online calculators I’ve tried in the past vary slightly from one another on my BMR, because they employ different formulae developed by different scientists. But at my current weight and age, along with my female-ness, my BMR is about 1800 calories a day. That’s the number of calories I would need if all I did was lie in bed each day and do nothing else at all, to maintain my current weight. Think of it as your car idling in park in a parking lot. This is what I need to keep the engine running and the lights on while maintaining my current weight.
Most BMR calculators will ask if you’re sedentary, moderately active, or active. Based on your answer, and you need to be honest with that, the calories you need to maintain your current weight will be calculated. For me, being an office worker and not all that active when I get off work, this number is somewhere between 2150 and 2300 calories a day, depending on the model. The different models explain why one person using Lose It! has a calorie budget of 1500 calories, while someone who is the same weight, height and activity level using a program like My Fitness Pal gets 1600 calories.
Now that I know how many calories I need to maintain my current weight of 249, I can determine how many calories I need to cut in order to lose weight. To lose one pound of weight, we have to cut out 3500 calories. That’s about 500 calories a day I need to cut out of my diet to lose one pound a week. If you take a look at the numbers above, for me that would mean that I should consume no more than 1150 to 1300 calories a day to lose two pounds a week. There are a couple of problems with this, though. It’s generally accepted in the medical world that one should not consume fewer than 1200 calories a day. Also, how many 250 pound people do you know that have the will power to cut back so much on what they’re eating? There’s a reason why 250 pound people weight that much.
Someone who’s 300 pounds seems to lose weight so much faster in the beginning than someone who just needs to lose 15 or 20 pounds. That 300 pound person may have been consuming 3000 calories a day or more, so when they cut back to 1800 calories or so, the initial results are quick. For someone who’s 175 pounds looking to lose 15, it’s much more difficult to cut out calories and not want to attack a bakery on a Wednesday afternoon in search of yummy snacks. Mmmm cupcakes. But I digress.
Experts agree (and by experts I mean registered dieticians) – a calorie is a calorie. If you eat fewer calories than you need, you WILL lose weight. And while it is possible to lose weight eating cupcakes, ice cream and hot dogs, the problem is that you’re not going to feel very full. Basically, you’re not getting the biggest bang for your buck. That’s where macronutrients come in.
Macronutrients are also a measure of energy. Per gram, the macronutrient calories for fat is 9 calories per gram. That means for every gram of fat, there are 9 calories. That’s why high fat foods have so many more calories than lower fat foods. An eight ounce rib eye steak has 469 calories and 24 grams of fat, whereas an eight ounce chicken breast has 374 calories and 8 grams of fat. And the chicken has more protein at 70 grams than the 63 grams for the rib eye.
Both carbs and protein have 4 macronutrient calories per gram. That’s about half the calories of fat per gram. But that doesn’t mean you should bypass fats in your diets. To the contrary, that’s actually far more detrimental than you would expect. Healthy fats, such as those found in avocados and nuts, help increase our satisfaction, fill us up, and provide nutrients that are needed for healthy hair and nails, among other things.
By now, if you’ve been trying to lose weight, you’ve heard about empty calories. That’s just the term used to describe calories that don’t have a lot of nutritional value, like refined sugars and the like. Cookies are empty calories, as are sugary sodas and most sugary fruit juices. High in sugar, low in other things that our bodies need to function.
So, how does all this translate in to my own plan?
Well, I use Lose It! to track my foods, and I am on WW as well. I’m working to lose more than 100 pounds total, but my next goal is to get down to 225. Ultimately, I want to get to 160. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m focusing only on calories, not the WW point system.
As we’ve seen, I need to eat about 2150 calories a day to maintain my current weight and keeping my sedentary lifestyle. So in order to lose two pounds a week, I need to cut out and/or burn about 7000 calories a week, or 1000 a day. The standard wisdom is to increase my activity by 500 calories, and decrease my calories by the same amount. You’re looking for net calories here, not total.
I should be able to increase my activity by about 500 calories a day and still be able to eat about 1600 calories and lose about two pounds a week. Or I could cut back to 1200 calories a day, maintain my current sedentary lifestyle, and lose about two pounds a day. Right now, according to my Lose It! app, which syncs with Apple Health and my Apple Watch, I’m averaging about 250 calories a day in burn. Along with a calorie deficit of 500 calories a day, that’s about right. I’m averaging about a pound and a half weight loss per week. So I think Lose It! is pretty spot on with it’s calculations.
I currently have my desired weight loss per week set to two pounds. I could choose 1.5, 1 or even half a pound, but keeping it at two pounds per week should ensure I don’t get all crazy with my eating. I’m pretty happy right where I am.
As for macros, for a standard diet, they should look something like this:
Protein – 10-35%, or 160 to 560 calories
Carbs – 45-65%, or 720 to 1040 calories
Fat – 20-35%, or 320 to 560 calories
I have found that I’m more satisfied and less likely to go crazy with snacking if I eat about 25-30% protein and about 25% fat, leaving me in the 45-50% range for carbs. Sometimes it’s a little more, sometimes a little less. But the more carbs I eat, the faster I get hungry. Think about when you go to eat Asian food, which is almost always very carb dense. In a couple of hours, you’re hungry again because you had a high carb, low protein and fat meal. But a meal of lean chicken breast, mixed vegetables and fruit leaves you feeling full for hours. If you miss breakfast, and grab a donut out of the breakroom, or a candy bar from the vending machine, you’re probably going to be a lot more hungry faster than if you had an omelet filled with veggies. That’s also why you need to pay attention to things like sugars and fats in protein bars! Sometimes “protein” bar is stretching it.
All of this to say – if you’re leaving your calorie calculations to an app, and you feel like you may not be getting the results you’re expecting, this is one way to determine how accurate that app is when it comes to determining your calories. It should also help you to understand how and where to cut calories to get the results you’re looking for with weight loss.
At some point in the future, I’ll examine how all of this can be translated in to the WW points system. 😊