I’ve been guilty in the past of telling people that it’s not hard to lose weight but that’s actually incorrect. The reality is that it’s not COMPLICATED to lose weight but it absolutely is hard but lets take a step back.
Before I start I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nutritionist, I’m not a personal trainer. In fact I’m completely unqualified 🙂 I don’t have a coach or a trainer. I have no one setting me a training plan or what to eat. I’ve always done what I think is logical. What I’m sharing here are my thoughts and what has worked for me. Nothing more, nothing less.
Over the past 4 years there have been two occasions where I’ve lost weight. The first was 3 years ago after I completed my second IRONMAN and was starting to train for my third and decided I should shed some body fat so I had less weight to carry round with me. I was about 225 and the only picture I have was after the previous years IRONMAN where I had really bad sunburn 🙂 (I’ll show that in a minute 🙂 ) I got down to about 200 at around 12% body fat. This took about 4 months. I lost a little bit more over time at one point getting down to about 8.5% body fat and 193 lbs but recently was back up to about 11.5% fat and 200 lbs.
The next occasion I just finished. I decided to get to 8% by the end of the year to set myself up for in 2019 focusing on fitness and building more muscle. At the start of November (2 months ago) I was at 197.8lbs and 11.3% body fat so 22.35 lbs of body fat. Today I weighed in at 190.6lbs and 7.2% body fat so 13.72 lbs of body fat. Basically 8.5 lbs of body fat loss in 9 weeks.
So over a total of 6 months of weight loss focus (spread over multiple years though) my before and after (and yes that sunburn really hurt 🙂 ).
My approach was slightly different each time. The first time my only focus was losing weight. I didn’t count calories I just basically removed all sweets, cakes, fast food, soda (which was a great thing and I’ve not drunk one now for 3 years) and most bread. I still ate my Friday pizza, still had pasta but really tried to focus on clean food. The weight fell off at about a pound and a half a week.
For this last 9 week weight loss attempt it was a little different. I wanted to lose body fat but not lose muscle and so wanted to control the weight loss and limit to about 1 lb a week. I used the Lose It app on the iPhone to log the food I ate and the exercise I did and aimed for 500 calorie deficit most days averaging about 3500 calorie deficit a week. This meant I still ate a lot of food and just altered things here and there to try and keep to 500 deficit.
I’m going to be up front about something now before we go on. I do a lot of training. Every day I do around 1.5 hours of cardio and 75 minutes of weight training. I train for Ironman events but also like to keep muscle mass so do quite a lot of weight training as well. On average this is about 1600 calories burnt which obviously means I get to eat them 🙂 On Saturdays I may do 5 hours of cardio for about 4500 calories 🙂 I also have quite a lot of muscle mass which helps burn calories so I still get to eat a lot of food. That is not normal for most people but hopefully as you’ll see the logic remains the same for everyone, the numbers will just be different.
Losing Weight, Not Complicated
Let’s get to the meat of losing weight and it’s not complicated. The laws of physics apply to us, specifically Einstein:
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.
As humans our energy comes from eating food and that energy is used by the activity we perform. If we have more energy coming in than we use then its stored as fat. If we use more energy than we have coming in then (mostly) that energy deficit is supplied by using our fat stores. I say mostly as our muscle can also be cannibalized for energy (and certain other materials) but all things being equal our body would rather burn fat than muscle for energy as it knows muscle is necessary and is required to help us hunt and run away from predators.
Therefore the not complicated part is basically to lose fat we just need to eat less energy than we are using through activities. The delta will mostly come from body fat.
A pound of body fat is 3500 calories so to lose a pound of fat we need to eat 3500 calories less than we are using. You see its not complicated, its just basic physics.
There are fancy diets and guidance that may help but for the most part its very simple, eat less than you use. Now there are some considerations.
- Go see a Dr before any big change!
- To avoid losing muscle as well as fat eat a good amount of protein (I aim for a gram of protein per pound of body weight minimum but obviously if you have a lot of weight to lose this ratio would not apply) and do some resistance training
- Don’t try and lose weight too quickly. I think a pound a week is a good amount, i.e. 500 calorie deficit a day. If you have more weight to lose then you’ll find it easier to lose weight initially so maybe 2 lbs a week
- Exercise will help since it burns calories but what they say is true, 80% of weight loss is in the kitchen, 20% at the gym. For years I did hours of training and put on weight because I ate so much
- While a calorie is a calorie, some are better than others. For example candy and cakes your body can’t do anything with other than initially store as fat where as real food can actually be used for energy. The body is constantly using fat and storing fat but if we can eat good food that will help
- Try not to eat a really large meal right before bed and instead aim for multiple smaller meals
- It’s OK to have things you enjoy. Think moderation. 80% good, 20% bad is OK, just make sure the bad does not completely offset the good 🙂 I’ll have five guys little cheeseburger and little fries. Awesome!
- Think overall health. Losing weight is great but we also want to improve fitness and think overall health. Watch saturated fats, think heart health. If you smoke stop 🙂 Watch alcohol.
- Don’t cut out fat. We need fat and I think the body needs to know fat is coming in so it stays trained to burn fat.
- Drink lots of water!
- Enjoy special days. Christmas, New Years, Birthday, Valentines Day. Log the food (as best you can but can be difficult when you eat out) but don’t worry about it. A few bad days won’t really matter.
- Watch eating out. Large food chains have to publish nutrition but smaller ones don’t which means you really don’t know what you are eating. Assume its always worse than what you think.
So how do you get started? Find something to log the calories of the food you eat. I’ve only ever used the Lose It app but I’m sure there are others. They have a lot of common foods in its catalog and you can add your own.
You need to know your base calorie requirements outside of any exercise. This is actually tricky as everyone’s body is different, peoples metabolisms are different. I have a lot of muscle mass which burns energy even when idle for example. A good place to start is your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This is the energy you burn if you just existed, i.e. didn’t move. http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/ is an easy to use resource. Put in your height, weight, age and gender and it will tell you your BMR. For example a 6 foot and 191 lbs my BMR is 1878. Go and work yours out.
Now despite what my wife may say I don’t just exist. I get up, I drive, I walk, I eat (which itself uses energy to digest food) etc. The Harris Benedict Equation gives a multiplier for the BMR to work out a base calorie requirement. You can look this up however since we will separately log the exercise we do for the exact calories I don’t want to include any exercise which means I’m just going to use 1.3 (sedentary/lightly active) since I know I do some walking as part of life which I’m not going to separately log. That gives me a base calorie requirement of 1878 * 1.3 which is 2,441.
Now the app you use may actually work this out for you and remember as you lose weight this number will change so you’ll have to update this base calorie amount as your weight drops! Lose It set my base calorie number as 2,610 which is what I’ve used. The app may also let you set a goal and automatically update your calorie goal based on your desired results. For example if you tell it you want to lose a pound a week it will remove 500 calories a day from your calorie allowance. I didn’t do that. I just say flat weight and aim for a 500 calorie deficit each day. Now I’ve lost the weight I want I’ll aim for a 0 deficit each day or maybe eat more than I burn to add muscle (that’s a whole different discussion).
This is not exact. Everyone is different as I said but its a starting point and you may tweak it. For example you have your base calorie amount and aim for 500 deficit a day. Give it a few weeks and be consistent when you weigh yourself and ideally use a body composition machine as if you start training you may actually gain muscle which will make just your weight not a good indicator. Give it a few weeks and it should average out to a pound a week (if 500 a day was your deficit). If you are losing more then it means your base use is higher, if you are losing less then it means your base is lower. Tweak as required.
What we want to do is log the food we eat (all of it!) and also if we do extra exercise we log those calories that we burnt (as we get to eat more) 🙂
For example below is a fairly typical day for me. Now I eat a massive amount of food because I do a lot of exercise. On days I don’t train I eat a lot less. Remember, not complicated. Just eat less than you burn.
I had nearly 600 calorie deficit. You’ll also see every lunchtime I have about 60 calories of some kind of candy as I still have a sweet tooth. On Fridays I have pizza and ice cream which is fine. You can have the odd treat. You get the idea. It’s eye opening when you start logging food. The first time I logged the frozen yogurt with candy toppings I had by weighing as I added each part I realized it was about 800 calories with the equivalent of about 3 candy bars. After that I adjusted to 4 ounces of frozen yogurt, two scoops of topping and one squirt of caramel. Still about 450 calories but I don’t care 🙂 It’s once a week.
You have a base amount of calories required for normal living, you log the extra calories through exercise, you log the calories you eat and aim for a deficit. If you do this you’ll lose weight. It’s physics. NOT COMPLICATED.
Losing Weight, It’s Hard
The equation is simple. Calories in < Calories out and we lose weight. Not complicated but it’s hard. It’s hard in a number of ways but primarily you need will power. This is why people will pay trainers (which is worthless if you don’t also get help with what you eat), pay for weight loss plans, pay for special meals. These things may help if the will power part is difficult and it definitely is but I think if you don’t have will power ultimately you are going to struggle. The key is finding ways to stay motivated and keep that will alive.
In this day and age we are basically powered by dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives us pleasure, a reward if you will. It drives addiction. We eat candy, dopamine, we get a like on Facebook, dopamine and we can never get enough. We are trained now to want these highs and we get them a lot through tasty food. We get sugar highs. When we feel down we eat something tasty. This is probably the hardest part. We need will power to resist and untrain our brains a little. This was super hard for me. The first few days will be realllly hard but fight through, it gets easier and after a few weeks for the most part you won’t miss it that much. Also you’ll be eating less so you’ll be hungry which we are not used to. You may think because of the amount I eat I’m not hungry but that’s not true, I’m always hungry 🙂 So hard part number 1 is will power and resisting instant gratification. As you lose weight you’ll see improvements in yourself, this will bring you gratification, others will notice and give you complements, this will bring you gratification. Just give it a little time. You will have bad days. It won’t ruin everything. You have a bad meal, it’s OK. You miss training, it’s OK. It’s happened, accept it, don’t beat yourself up and just move on.
Hard part 2 is discipline. You have to log EVERYTHING you eat and exercise you do. This takes time but you have to. Skipping things means your numbers will be off. This is not that bad for me as I tend to eat the same things for most meals with only lunch and dinner varying and even then it varies between maybe 20 different things so its up front work but then gets easier.
Hard part 3 is getting into a good routine. You should work out. Go to a gym, go to a class, go for a walk. It takes 21 days to make a habit so force yourself for 3 weeks and then it will get easier. This is where doing this with someone helps as you can help each other be accountable (hard part 1, will power). Having a goal like a 5K can help drive this.
I’m sure there are other hard things but I think it boils down to these and I think they all boil down to the will power mostly and I’m not downplaying this. It’s really hard. I love candy, I love cookie dough, I love donuts. I have kids so the house has candy everywhere, I can’t eat it. We go somewhere with cakes, I can’t eat them (mostly 🙂 ). But, I promise you. When you start to see results it will be worth it. There is a saying, nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. I’m not sure I 100% agree but once you start getting results you’ll want more results and it will get easier. The first 4 weeks are the hardest but you get past those and it will get easier.
Once you’ve lost the weight you can’t just go back to normal. You still have to watch what you eat to keep a flat balance of calories in and calories out or you’ll gain weight again but you’ll have built good habits and it will be easier but you will always need a little bit of that will power 😉
Also, don’t try to change everything at once. Don’t try to lose weight, learn a new language, give up cigarettes all at the same time. You have a finite amount of will power. Focus it on one thing at a time. When you think you have some spare maybe look at something else.
There you go. Losing weight is not complicated but it’s hard. It’s all will power and reach out to friends or professionals like a coach if that will help.
Good luck, you can absolutely do it.