Everyone is always asking me “what should I eat” and “what should I stop eating?" These really aren’t the best questions however because the truth is, you can lose fat and weight on an unhealthy diet and you can gain fat on a healthy diet. It all depends on how much you eat or drink, i.e. how many calories you ingest.
Even if you don't exercise much at all you can lose fat by eating fewer calories, regardless of the nutrient content of what you choose to eat. Nutrients and calories are two different things and fat loss is governed directly by calories, not nutrients.
Remember one simplified equation: Calories In - Calories Out = Change in Body Weight
Tracking caloric levels is more challenging than just cutting out certain foods and adding special “diet” foods. Unfortunately, the commercial diet and supplement industry has repeatedly conned people with a continual flow of new magic ingredients for weight loss, hard-edged diets and cleanses. Until there is a study proving any of them work long-term, just ignore them and focus on what is real and under your control.
The only way to lose weight is if you ingest fewer calories than you burn and conversely, to gain weight you need to start eating more than you burn. So there are two levers to pull for weight loss or gain. To give yourself the most probability of success in fat-loss, you need to pull both levers, by reducing your caloric intake by eating and drinking fewer calories, while simultaneously increasing your caloric output by exercising and being more active.
It is clearly easier to eat or drink a ton of calories quickly than it is to burn them. A basic example will make the case. At a summer party someone might have cheese and crackers, 2 drinks (beers/wine), then eat a chicken sandwich followed by a fudge brownie in the course of one hour. This meal could easily be 1.200 calories worth of food and drink. Our bodies burn more calories just to function, but to look how much harder it is to burn up those calories:
155 lb Woman:
8 hours: Walking flat
3 hours: Biking moderately
2 hours: Running 9 min/mile, or 13.3 miles (half marathon!)
185 lb Man:
6 hours: Walking flat
2.2 hours: Biking moderately
1.5 hours: Running 9 min/mile, or 10 miles
Guideline: Healthy weight loss is 1-2 lbs/week and fat loss of 1 to 2 percent each month
You should notice that this first eating principle and Fusion’s program more generally puts the focus squarely on fat loss, not weight loss and here is why -- when the focus is on losing weight and not fat, specifically, it allows for odd diets and workout programs that have you losing water and muscle weight instead of mostly fat, which is not a healthy type of weight loss and does not lead to an athletic, toned body.
The generally accepted guideline for healthy weight loss is an average of 1 to 2 pounds per week, which means you're consuming 500 to 1000 fewer calories every day based on 3500 cal/lb. More than two pounds of weight loss per week is likely to be dehydration as a 2 lb loss requires a extraordinary calorie deficit of over 1000 calories per day. Not an easy feat as it requires high time commitments to daily vigorous exercise with disciplined, clean eating. Also, we say average because while you should weigh yourself weekly, you should really look at the trend by averaging it across two to three weeks to see if you are on track. Fluctuations in water can make it seem like you lose three pounds one week and none the next when you should think, "I am loosing 1.5 lbs per week." If you are not including strength-training in your exercise program you will be losing muscle as well as fat. This is detrimental to sustained fat loss because added lean muscle helps in the fat loss process by burning more calories. Keep the main focus on the monthly fat reduction.
Strategy: Maintain a food diary and don’t forget the fudge factor
Using a food diary to track calories is shown to double weight loss in a study conducted by Kaiser Permanente Healthcare. The simple act of writing everything down brings awareness to everything we eat and drink so we end up eating less (or rather not overeating) and making better choices. So the more we diary our caloric intake the greater our probability of success. Interestingly though another study showed that everyone (including nutritionists, personal trainers, doctors, etc) under reports caloric intake by somewhere in the range of 20-50%, and the heavier a person was the greater their caloric discrepancy. This shows that our ability to accurately estimate caloric intake is both biased (we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and “forget” to count all items) and faulty (our systems of labeling and estimating are poor). Estimating calories is like budgeting our expenses. When we later compare our budget to the actual cash spent, the actual numbers are almost always higher than we budgeted.
Given this reality we all need to be very conservative when tracking calories, i.e. always assume you are underestimating, round up and add a 20-percent fudge factor for a more accurate count. In the case of food diaries, it might actually be fudge that puts us over our calorie targets.
Exercise: Your maintenance and fat loss caloric needs vs. reality
Use our food diary instructions to log all food and drink you ingest over the course of a week (minimum of 2 days during the week and one day on the weekend), writing down everything including the estimated size and weight, calories and time of day. There are lots of tools out on the market to help in this task, such as applications for handheld computers, online tracking tools, food databases or printed books sized to carry around in your bag or pocket. Once completed, bring your food diary to a nutritionist for a complete analysis of calories versus estimated requirements, as well as, a diagnosis of problem areas. Alternatively use online tools to help estimate your basal metabolic rate (amount of calories your body burns at rest) and activity factors (amount of calories burned during weekly activities) and compare it to the average calories ingested per day calculated from your food diary. See what you learn about your caloric eating. And don’t forget the fudge factor, as that amount of calories (~300-500/day) will make all the difference in your fat loss. The more attention you bring to hitting your target calorie consumption the better your probability of success.
Gavin McKay is the Owner/Manager of Fusion Cross Training on the corner of 12th and Sansom Streets. You can reach him by phone at 215-733-0633, You can also follow him on Twitter.