You’ve been trying to lose weight and you’re frustrated.Maybe you bought a diet and exercise book that promises significant weight loss right away, but it’s complicated and you gave up on it.Maybe you insist that your skinny friends eat more than you do, but they don’t gain weight. They have a “faster metabolism” than you. You think that it’s as if the air you breathe turns to fat around your middle every time you inhale.
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You’re right about at least one thing. Your skinny friends might be burning their calories more efficiently than you. How much you eat does not by itself determine weight loss or weight gain.QUIZ: Do you “Eat Pretty?”And studies do in fact confirm that most overweight people do not eat more than their normal weight acquaintances. That means that weight is determined by something other than just how much food you eat.I’ve mapped out a long-term weight loss program for you right here in this very column.While many diet and exercise programs have a scientific basis and result in at least short-term weight loss, this program emphasizes simplicity, low time commitment, and longer-term, healthier weight loss.Let’s look at the four variables that make up the weight loss/weight gain equation and how to tip the equation in your favor.Simply put, if you’re gaining weight, you are eating more calories than your body uses. If you’re maintaining the same weight, your “calories-in” and “calories-out” are in balance. They are the same. To lose weight, you have to take in fewer calories than your body burns.You’ve heard that a million times, but the “calories in, calories out” equation isn’t as simple as many people have been led to believe.MORE: “Everything in moderation” is a mythYou know what makes up the “calories-in” side of the equation. That’s your morning toast and coffee, your mid-morning apple, your midday burrito and salad, your soft drinks, your afternoon yogurt, the Hershey Kisses from your coworker’s candy jar, pizza with the kids, and your late night ice cream. It’s everything you eat in a day.What accounts for the “calories-out” is a bit more complicated, but it is key. It is the sum total of all the calories burned in a day through 3 different processes:
- Resting metabolism: About 60-75 percent of your total calories that you burn in a day comes from simply maintaining your body’s tissues when in a state of rest. 75 percent! When you say people have high or low metabolisms, this is what you’re talkig about. Think about that for a second. Your body burns most of its calories when it’s just sitting around, so it’s in your best interest to turn your body into a fat-burning machine.
- Physical activity: 15-30 percent of your daily calorie use comes through formal and informal exercise or movement. In other words, sessions at the gym or running in the part combined with daily activity like climbing stairs, vacuuming and picking up your kids.
- Thermic effect of food: About 10 percent of your daily calories are required to digest, convert, and store what you eat.
You have four variables to work with in your weight equation: how much you eat, how much you move, how much you burn at rest, and how much you burn from digestion and storage.Here’s what to focus on for the most efficient weight loss:First, how much you eat. There’s no doubt that the calories you consume matter in terms of your weight. But over the past 100 years, per capita calorie consumption in this country has decreased by about 400 calories per day. If calorie intake determined weight, you would expect Americans to weigh a fraction today of what they weighed in the early 1900s. Instead, we are heavier and fatter.The lesson here is that inactivity, not diet, has played the largest role in our collective fatness.QUIZ: Find out how much physical activity you get.Second, resting metabolism. This is a biggie. How can you burn more calories on a continual basis, regardless of whether you’re gardening or napping in a hammock? Increase the amount of active tissue in your body, aka muscle. Fat is a low-maintenance tissue. It just sits there, looking fat, and not requiring much of you. You want high-maintenance tissue.Muscle looks nice and requires constant calories. The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn around the clock. Cardio helps, too. Even without additional muscle development, it increases metabolism. In one study, an eight-week aerobic exercise program increased resting metabolism by 10 percent, even with no change in the amount of muscle.Weight loss through diet alone usually results in a loss of muscle tissue and decreases in resting metabolic rate.Third, physical activity. When you lose a pound of tissue (outside of water loss), that pound may be from fat, from lean tissue such as muscle, or from a combination of the two. When you lose the weight through diet alone, a higher percentage of it will be from muscle than if you lose weight through a combination of modest calorie reduction and physical activity.One pioneering study looked at the effects of diet alone, exercise alone, or a combination of both. Three groups of women held a 500 calorie per day deficit for 16 weeks. All groups lost about the same amount of weight—11 pounds. But while the group who just dieted lost about 2.5 pounds of muscle and 8.5 pounds of fat, the exercise only group gained two pounds of muscle and lost almost 13 pounds of fat. The combination group gained about one pound of muscle.Weight loss does not automatically equal fat loss. (You could be losing muscle!)MORE: Strength train at home, no weight requriedFourth, thermic effect of food. While the bulk of weight gain or loss isn’t determined by this variable, the thermic effect of food can make a difference over the long run in weight control. I’ll focus on just two main points. One, breakfast increases resting metabolism by about 10 percent. Two, exercising after a meal increases the food’s thermic effect, in many cases, by almost two times. That means that the calories you burn from eating are increased if you exercise after the meal.Here are reasonable, science-based recommendations for fat loss that also takes into account your time and effort commitment:
- Decrease the number of calories you consume by a modest amount—about 250-500 calories per day. Do this either by cutting a regular item, such as soft drinks, from your diet, or by simply cutting your usual portion size in everything you eat by about 10-20 percent. You can eyeball it. But whatever you do, definitely eat breakfast.
- Exercise formally for 20-30 minutes 6 days a week. Do resistance training (weights, squats, lunges, etc.) and endurance training (walk, run, bike, etc.) on alternate days. The resistance training should include about 20 sets of exercises consisting of 8-12 repetitions to fatigue. This could be 20 different exercises, 2 sets of 10 different exercises, or 3 sets of 7 different exercises. The aerobic activity should be at a moderate to moderately-high intensity. Push yourself to walk faster, kickbox harder, or bike faster whenever you can.
- If your body can handle it, exercise soon after eating a meal—within about an hour.
You may not see the 2-3 pound per week loss that other programs promote, but think of that as a badge of honor. Your weight loss won’t be based on water weight or protein loss, but rather on fat loss and increased metabolism that then sustains the weight loss.Commit six months to this approach and then let me know the results. I think you’ll be pleased.