Getting lean starts with a basic understanding of calorie consumption and expenditure.
Losing weight means defeating biological, social, and psychological forces that conspire to keep us heavy. To keep from starving, we’re wired to find food, gorge ourselves, and get fat. In a world where calorie-dense meals of fried food, sedentary jobs, non-stop food marketing, and overweight friends are the norm, these same survival traits can make dieting a tough task. Fortunately, years of experiment and experience have provided us with proven methods to get lean and stay there. In this series we’ll look at these methods, why they work, and how to use them the next time you want to get “beach body-ready.”
The Key Players: Calories, Diet, and Exercise
Calories are critical. If you’re 200 pounds and you go on a diet where you eat enough for a 180 pound version of yourself, you’ll lose weight and probably end up around 180 pounds. If you go back to eating enough for the 200 pound version of yourself, you’ll probably end up gaining back the twenty pounds.
The amount of calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight is called your caloric maintenance level. To lose weight by restricting calories, you need to stay under this level. This self-adjusting factor is why reducing the calories you eat is the basis of all successful diet plans. It’s also why long-term weight loss is considered a lifestyle change: if you go back to eating like you used to, you’ll probably end up weighing as much as you used to weigh. Now there are plenty of diets out there that do the work for you. If you want a little more independence, you need to take the initiative and plan for yourself.
Fortunately, science has done much of the planning for us! Despite being created almost a century ago, the time-proven, gold standard, for determining your maintenance level is a formula called the Harris-Benedict equation. Thanks to the web, and its bounty of online Harris-Benedict calculators, you only need to plug in a few details about your body to find your daily maintenance level. A pound of fat has about 3,500 calories, and a good dieting goal is to steadily lose a pound or two every week. To meet this goal, you’ll have to eat an average of 500 – 1000 calories below your maintenance level every day.
Of course, if cutting calories were easy, everyone would lose weight. Truth is, we aren’t good at estimating calorie counts, and we’re just as bad at listening to them. Simple things like chugging a sports drink post-run or post-lift can immediately replenish all the calories you burned during a workout. And we’re so bad at discipline that we often “reward” ourselves for being healthy with something unhealthy. If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I worked out today, so this extra beer / pizza / dessert is okay” during a diet, then you’ve experienced this first-hand.
Eventually, your progress will plateau when you reach a new maintenance level, so you’ll have to mix things up to continue losing weight. To make things harder, anti-starvation mechanisms kick in when calories get low. Your metabolism will slow at a rate that’s faster than your weight loss, leaving you sluggish and diminishing the diet’s effects. Your brain will scream at you to eat more, making the foods you’ve ignored much more tempting. Worst of all? You can even lose your hard-earned muscle.
Fortunately, exercise helps offset many of these problems. All forms of exercise provide an immediate boost in energy expenditure, and if you work out hard enough, your body will be burning extra calories for hours after a session. Better yet, exercise can also blunt appetite, so it’s a helpful partner for calorie reduction.
In the gym, strength training tells your body to retain muscle and use carbs or fats for fuel. Interval and aerobic training—whether sprints, jogging laps, hitting the treadmill, biking, etc.—complements strength training by elevating metabolism through different pathways, and by providing a less-strenuous method of burning calories. Finally, there are low-impact strategies that can be part of your daily life. Walking to work or investing in a stand-up desk can use as many extra calories over the course of a day as a traditional exercise session might.
So long as you lift hard three-to-four times a week and get in two or three moderately-paced cardio sessions you’ll jump start your metabolism and continue to lose weight. You can even start off with a lighter-than-normal weekly routine so that you can increase your work when your weight loss slows, but keep in mind that exercising is actually secondary to your diet and nutrition when it comes to weight loss.
Body fat is like a candle, and cutting your calorie intake and increasing your expenditure is like burning it from both ends. Watching your diet and busting butt in the gym is usually enough to jumpstart the process of losing fat and getting fit, but for those of us looking to see the six pack this summer, we need to look at how we metabolize different types of food, and how we can structure diets to keep progress steady. That’s why in the next part we’ll discuss macronutrients, refeeds, and how an understanding of each can help you meet your tougher physique goals.