Skeptic’s Guide to Weight Loss

In the last two years have reduced my weight from 103kg to 93kg, most of that in the last 6 months. My goal is 83kg (183 lbs).

Unfortunately, there is lots of bad information about how to lose weight. My formula, which I have also used successfully in the past, is based on simple principles.

Principle 1: All that matters is number of calories consumed. IMG_1613There is no consistent evidence that any of the following factors matter:

  • Amount of carbohydrates (i.e. low carb fads)
  • Time of day
  • Fruit combined with other foods

These factors can affect overall health and satisfaction, but not weight loss. The only thing that matters is how many calories you eat.

Principle 2: Exercise is about health, not weight loss. I do walk and run everyday. Exercise is important for health, happiness, and longevity, but it is not a factor in weight loss (due to muscle gain and skeletal strengthening, the opposite may occur). 15 minutes of running burns about 150-200 calories–less than a Snicker’s bar. Walking for 1 hour burns about twice that–less than a Double Caramel Mochachino at Starbucks. You cannot substitute extra calories for exercise, as a treat for good behavior, and expect to lose weight.

In general, I do not allow myself to offset calories burned through exercise for additional food intake. To guard against this, I track my exercise at the end of the day, after I am done eating.

IMG_1614Principle 3: Mindfulness of food intake is important for weight loss. There is significant evidence that tracking your consumption reduces intake. Methods may include taking a photo of everything you eat, writing down all food in a log before eating, or tracking calories in a log or spreadsheet. Tracking your weight daily also improves mindfulness.

I use a free application for the iPhone called Lose It. It tracks food with each meal, shows me daily and weekly summaries, remembers what I entered previously, contains a database of common foods, and lets me enter custom foods. Lose It also sets goals and tracks your weight (the premium version, which I don’t own, does a better job of this.)

Principle 4: Balanced nutrition is important for health. For me a healthy diet includes fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, plant protein (supplement), carbohydrates, and plenty of water. The allure of vegetables for weight loss is obvious: they are nutritious and tasteful while low in calories. The same can be said of chicken and some foods high in proteins (I won’t debate right now the health effects and social effects of animal consumption).

The allure of grains (rice, wheat, corn, soy) for social planners is equally obvious: they are cheap and high in calories. Although I differ with low carb diet plans, the rationale is obvious: carbs contain a lot of calories. The extent of this becomes obvious when you start tracking your calories.

My weight loss plan includes a daily calorie goal set by Lose It. In the last several weeks I have used it consistently and successfully. However, there is a downside: hunger. You have to push through the hunger, but over time it has gone down as my stomach size has adjusted. Many diets pretend to cheat hunger using psychological techniques. Substituting protein for carbohydrates probably helps, but too much may be dangerous for health. Other techniques may work, but most probably won’t, and they are generally not worth the price you pay.

Three times in the last three months I have created “cheat days” when I stop tracking my calories. This was due to burn out, fatigue, hunger, or simple inconvenience (i.e. a party). The occasional cheat day does not seem to have affected my weight loss schedule. Because of my smaller stomach or reduced appetite, my idea of binging is much smaller than it used to be.