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How Does a Skeptic Lose Weight?

by Craig Good

September 27, 2011

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Donate Late last year I decided I was carrying around more flab than I wanted. I was already ten plus pounds below the peak weight I hit a dozen years ago (it turns out that when your wife gets pregnant you don't really have to eat more " who knew?), but wanted to get down to a lower weight.

The dieting field is mined with woo. All kinds of diets claim that in order to lose weight you must eat or avoid certain foods. These claims are, for the most part, based on shaky science.

The science on weight loss is pretty clear. I chose to apply the First Law of Thermodynamics, so the key word is calories. If you absorb more calories than you burn, your weight goes up. If you absorb fewer calories than you burn, your weight goes down.

I'm someone who believes there is no such thing as "junk food" or "health food". While there are no "healthy" or "unhealthy" foods, there are plenty of healthy and unhealthy diets. Any food is good for you if you eat the right amount, and bad for you if you eat the wrong amount. Diets that claim to be "the" way to lose weight, especially when they promote or prohibit specific foods, should raise red flags the size of Kentucky. "Eat food, mostly plants, not too much" is probably as specific as you should get when choosing a healthy diet. Get a variety of nutrients, and things will work out.

In the context of weight loss, here is what kinds of foods you're allowed to eat:


That's it. You don't have to give up the foods you love, you just have to eat less of some of them. You can lose weight eating all fat and no sugar, or all carbs, or even all Twinkies. Those may not make for healthy diets, but if you eat the right number of calories you will lose weight.

Years ago when I managed to shed a few pounds it was through just trying to eat less. But I found it difficult. This time I happened upon a blog post with an intriguing hook: How I lost 30 pounds while eating a donut every day.

I recommend reading it, because I've validated the approach myself. I lost 22 pounds while eating the foods I love: pecan pancakes, baby back ribs, pizza and, yes, donuts. But, when I reached the end of each day's calorie budget, I stopped eating. That's really all there is to it.

Here's what I suggest if you want to lose weight.

Use a BMR calculator.

There are many available on the web like this one. You do not want to eat less than your BMR, or Basal Metabolic Rate. That's the number of calories that you'd burn if you stayed in bed all day. Getting less food energy than that means your body could go into starvation mode, Thatwill make it harder to lose weight, and could be quite unhealthy. Besides, we're skeptics, not masochists.

Use a logging program.

For those of you with a smart phone and/or iPad, I really like Lose It!It has a simple interface and a web page that acts as cloud storage to sync your logging across multiple devices. You can also use the web page directly. And did I mention it's free? I also carry theLiveStrongapparound with me because it sometimes has foods listed that Lose It! does not, but its UI is almost as annoying as the nag screens. The main idea is that you can't get control of your calories until you have a budget and can count them. Just find a calorie logger you like.

Don't rush.

I configured Lose It! for a gradual weight loss of 1 pound per week. One of the main reasons diets fail and people rebound is because they try too hard, lose the weight too quickly, and then bounce back. When I was within a couple of pounds of my goal weight I increased my calorie budget a bit, aiming for half a pound per week. The idea was to land slowly on the weight I want to maintain. It's been a very low-stress process.

Eat on your own schedule.

Some people find it easier to eat many small meals, as many as six, during the day. I often go for one or two big ones. It really doesn't matter, so do what is comfortable for you and lets you stick with your budget.

Don't try to lose weight by exercising.

By all means, do exercise. The health benefits are many. But just heading to the gym to try to lose weight is likely to fail for two reasons. First, it takes a lot of exercise to make a dent in your calorie budget. It takes a lot of huffing and puffing to burn 100 calories. Having water instead of a soda at lunch will gain you 140. Second, heavy workouts are a good way to increase your appetite. So exercise for good health, not to lose weight. A bonus for when you are stable and exercising: The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn even at rest. That just ups your budget for something yummy.

So take it gradually. Walk more. Start swimming some. Don't work out right before you eat. Exercise soon after.

Hey, I mentioned science, so there should be graphs, right? Here's the weight chart that Lose It! provides:

As you can see, it worked. The extra noise starting in June is where I bought a digital scale and started weighing myself every day. I do that in the morning, after going to the bathroom and before eating any food. The data are noisy enough as it is without adding the variable of what you carry in your gut. That can put error bars of over 2 pounds on your measurement.

Now that I'm maintaining weight, I've found that it rings quite a bit. Here's a 4-week graph.

Kinda weird and spikey, isn't it? I find the apparent periodicity interesting, but have no good explanation for it. I present it mostly as a "don't panic" message about your daily weight. Your goal is a reasonable range. When we zoom out and look at a smoothed year, it's obviously a victory for the Second Law:

Some random observations:
  • Even with a calorie counter app the error bars around each day's intake are pretty large. Don't sweat it. Regression to the mean is your friend, and this is a long-term game.

  • After counting calories for a while you'll learn which foods are calorie dense and which aren't. Remember, foods aren't "fattening" in and of themselves, but some make it easy to get lots of extra calories. And some aren't as caloric as you'd think. For example, say you want to start your day with three large eggs, scrambled. That's only about 300 calories. And yummy summer fruit? Chow down, because a 2 1/2" diameter peach is a whopping 38 calories. Most breads aren't really all that caloric, but the butter or olive oil can add up quickly. And rabbit food, like lettuce and spinach? I usually don't even count it because it's so close to zero calories that it's in the noise. Buy good maple syrup, but use it sparingly.

  • Your weight will vary by a surprising amount. There will also be plateaus during the weight loss. Don't stress. Think long term and just stick to it.

  • Some friends and family will think you're rude, obsessively logging your food on your phone every meal. Your good friends will cheer you on.

Now that I count calories all the time, and especially at my advanced age, I've decided that life is too short for crappy food. I've become a real foodie, because I'm not blowing my calorie budget on anything but the good stuff. It's been quite rewarding. I've even become a better cook. Here at work we're fortunate to have an awesome pastry chef. So do I make sure to enjoy one of his desserts every day?

You bet your life, I do. It's in the budget!

by Craig Good

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