The last few weeks have been interesting for me around here. When I published my post critiquing fad diet gimmicks as all hiding calorie reduction as their actual mechanism of weight loss, I wasn’t expected to ignite a fierce debate over “calories in, calories out.” But I did, which led to my attempts to clarify my position, which led to more debate.
So I thought it was time to put up or shut up. I’m a believer in simple, calorie-based weight loss. Do I practice what I preach? And does it work for me?
I began dieting in February of this year, after a trip to the doctor’s office convinced me that I needed to lose a lot of weight in order to be healthy. I was generally consuming, I later estimated, more than 3000 calories each day. The result was a weight in excess of 300 lbs, borderline hypertension, and a warning that if I didn’t do something soon I would be on the fast track for Type II Diabetes, which runs in my family.
Over the course of the last decade I have tried “dieting” about once a year. First it was Atkins, then it was SugarBusters, then it was Weight Watchers, then it was low fat — or was it Atkins again? I can’t remember exactly. Some years I’d just be like “that’s it! I’m swearing off bread and pop!” or “I’m eliminating these 10 foods from my diet for good!” But these menu schemes never worked for me. I’d lose some weight, but then fall off the wagon, feel guilty, and go back to my old ways.
This time, I forewent any menu scheme. My “diet” was built along one simple mantra: calories in vs. calories out. Or really “eat less, move more,” which sounds more motivational when I say to myself.
Once that premise was established, I simply starting “thinking on my feet” when I ate. As a rule of thumb, I have been allowing for X number of calories for each meal — currently, it’s 400 for breakfast and lunch, 600 for dinner, and 400 for snackage. Whatever I ate had to fit in those slots; if I ate more at one meal, it had to come out of another’s allotment.
How I filled those calorie allotments was not something I developed a strict plan for. Instead, I really started with one question: How can I eat what I like and still reduce calories? That always seemed to be the problem with those fad diets and menu schemes: I couldn’t eat this or that or the other thing, and inevitably would begin craving those things until I gave into the cravings. Not this time. I would aim for reasonable restriction only. For some foods, the answer was as easy as portion control. For others foods it meant changing the brand or the recipe. For still other foods it meant reducing the frequency at which I indulged. For some foods, it was a combination of these.
As a result of this approach, I have more or less stopped consuming soda, juices and other sweetened drinks. Not because they have HFCS, or because of aspartame or whatever, but simply because sodas and juices hide a lot of calories yet are rarely consumed alone. It’s too easy to blow half my lunch calories on a can of Coke! This isn’t to say I won’t drink these things; just that the portion size and frequency of consumption have reduced to almost nil.
Eliminating sodas was not the only unintended consequences of this approach. I’m eating less meat and dairy than I would otherwise be eating. My vegetable consumption has risen dramatically. I am eating less variety during the day (especially at work, where it’s easier to brown bag) but more of a variety in the evening (when I have the time to cook). My kitchen has produced whole meals that could be called “vegetarian.” The milk in my fridge is made of soy. Baked goods are something I try to avoid because I know I’m weak for them. None of these dietary changes was deliberate, or made for some specific nutritional reason. They are simply the changes I needed to make for reducing calories while still putting enough in my mouth to satiate.
That’s not to say I am not eating things that I love. I have at least one piece of chocolate every single day. A case of Sam Adams beer is currently chilling in my fridge. I routinely snack on cheese and crackers. But it’s one piece at a time, one bottle at a time, one ounce at a time.
The “move more” part of the equation was effected mainly by getting a gym membership and trying (some weeks more successfully than others) to hit the treadmill four times a week. My goal is always two miles, which I can do in about 40 minutes at a comfortable pace. In addition, I have been reminding myself at work to stand up more, to use the restroom on the other side of the building, and to take the stairs every time. I was a very sedentary person before. I am aiming to change that all day, everyday.
Tools are important to the plan, and three of them have been invaluable to my process. I wear a FitBit Flex everywhere I go; it is set for 10,000 steps a day, a goal I almost always make on the days I visit the gym and sporadically on the days I don’t. I use the MyFitnessPal service to track and log calories; its food database is the best I’ve found, and it’s super easy to enter meal information. And finally, my iPhone ties the two together. Their apps are both installed — FitBit delivers my steps wirelessly to its app, and the MyFitnessPal app lets me log food quickly on-the-go. The apps also talk to each other, with FitBit loading calories burned into MyFitnessPal and MyFitnessPal delivering calories consumed back to the FitBit. I’m wired in, I’ve got data when I need it, and the FitBit is always there on my wrist to remind me of my goals.
The best part about this plan is that, for once, I feel in control. When I strayed from Atkins or South Beach or Weight Watchers, I always felt guilty afterwards. I had tried the system and failed. But with nothing off-limits and no complicated menu scheme to follow, I can play it fast and loose when I need to without breaking the rules or eating something forbidden. For example on Thanksgiving I ate as many calories in one day as I normally eat in three — but I logged every last bite, just to keep myself honest.
Has it worked? It has. As evidence, I offer my three month weight progression chart, as logged in MyFitnessPal:
All told, I am just about 60 lbs down from my February high. In addition, my blood pressure is down to normal levels, my appetite has actually settled into the new routine so that I don’t get hungry as much, and frankly I look great.
I won’t say that my specific eating habits will work for everyone. I had so much extra weight on my body that my sole goal was to drop weight at a quick but not dangerous pace. Will I eventually focus less on weight and more on other, longer-term bodily measurements? Probably. Will I look to vary my exercise, maybe do more strength training? It’s possible.
But for now, I’ve met my goals. I’m losing weight. I look better and I feel better — not through some gimmick or complicated diet scheme, just through good old “calories in, calories out” and all that stems from it.