Weight Loss 101

Note:  I am not a doctor, dietitian, or counselor.  I am a weight loss patient sharing my personal experiences.  I hope the information below is helpful to you.  I strongly encourage you to seek out a registered dietitian if you determine that weight loss is something you truly wish to accomplish and maintain.

So you want to lose weight and be healthier.
I’m so glad I finally took the steps necessary to do so.  The basics of weight loss can be explained in five minutes.  The practice of weight loss and maintenance is unique to each individual.  I’ve tried to share what works for me.  It’s up to you to find what works for you.  Start by thinking about your current situation and your weight loss goals.

Why do you want to lose weight?
Think seriously about this.  Is it because you have a high school reunion or wedding coming up?  Is it because your doctor told you that you were on the way to stroke, heart attack, or diabetes?  Is it because you want to feel better about yourself?  Take some time to consider what things in your life will be better once you lose weight.  Make a list of things you’ll be able to do or do more easily.  Add to the list reasons you will feel better.  Consider the list.  Do you want these things?

What barriers exist to prevent you from succeeding?
If losing weight were easy, everyone would be doing it, right?  Think for a bit about what you’re going to have to do to lose weight.  Are you willing to make healthy choices?  Do you have the time to plan ahead?  Do you have the resources to buy, prepare, and consume healthy foods?  Do you know how to tell which foods are, in fact, healthy?  Whether it’s a lack of time, money, knowledge, supporters, or anything else, you need to know what you’re up against in order to overcome it.  Make a list of the barriers that could prevent you from succeeding.

How can you overcome these?
For each barrier, brainstorm at least two ways you can overcome it.  If it’s lack of knowledge about what foods are healthy, you might use your local library to find books on the subject.  You can do research online.  You can reach out to friends in person or online who have successfully lost weight for hints and tips.  You are not alone on this journey.  If it’s lack of money, you’d be surprised to find out how many healthy foods are relatively inexpensive.  Brown rice is an excellent whole grain, as is popcorn.  Peanut butter, the food we talk about eating when we’re broke, is a healthy source of fat and protein.  There are a number of excellent, affordable, healthy foods to choose from.

What sacrifices are you willing to make?
Something is going to have to change.  In my case, I gave up television in exchange for time at the gym.  I gave up one night a week to attend classes on nutrition and behavior modification.  I gave up margaritas for diet soda.  Would I do it again?  In a heartbeat.  Make a list of things you’re willing to do or give up in order to lose weight.  Are you willing to learn how to cook or change the way you already cook?  Are you willing to become physically active?  Make that list.

What are your goals?  Are they realistic?
I initially didn’t even have a number in mind for weight or weight loss.  I simply wanted to feel better and be healthy.  It’s important to make a goal that is realistic, achievable, and measurable.  It might not be a number of pounds.  It could simply be “fit into that pair of pants” or “be able to walk a mile and back.”  Make a list of some possible goals that you can measure and track.  Make a list of baby-steps that you can celebrate along the way to your goals.

Tell me again.  Do you want this?
So many folks ask me for advice or help losing weight, but when we get down to it, they aren’t all that interested in taking the steps necessary to lose weight.  Looking over your lists, do you really want to lose weight?  Do you want it enough to overcome those barriers and to make those sacrifices?

Here’s the secret
Weight loss happens when the number of calories that enter your body is less than the number of calories that leave your body.  Each pound you want to lose equates to 3,500 calories that you need to expend that you don’t eat.  Like balancing a budget, you need to figure out how many calories your body needs to operate in a typical day, and then consume fewer calories that.  You can increase the number of calories burned through exercise.  You can decrease the number of calories consumed by making healthy food choices.  The combination of these two yields weight loss.

But there’s a catch…
Your body needs vitamins, minerals, a nutrients in order to function.  A proper mix of fat, proteins, and carbohydrates must be consumed to allow the body’s systems to function correctly.  This is where working with a dietitian is so important.  In my case, I’m also seen by an endocrinologist periodically who runs blood work to ensure that my nutritional needs are being met and that I’m truly healthy.

Where to begin?
Find out how many calories you burn in a day using a calculator such as this one.  In my case, the calculator estimates that I need to consume 2,950 calories each day to maintain my current weight.  This is an estimate, which may or may not be accurate.  It is, however, a starting point.  To lose one pound per week, simply subtract 500 calories from your estimate.  To lose two pounds per week, deduct 1,000 calories.  In my case, to lose two pounds per week I would need to consume 1,950 calories each day.

Now that you know your caloric goal, you should work on designing a meal plan that meets your daily nutritional needs.  Again, this is where having access to a dietitian is so helpful.  The USDA has a resource designed to help with this, but it is… cumbersome.  Page 79 of the USDA Dietary Guidelines has a table that you can use to look up, for your caloric needs, how many of each group of foods you should consume in a day.

Going with my example of 1,950 calories, here’s what the USDA Dietary Guidelines recommends:

  • Fruits 1.5 – 2 cups
  • Vegetables 2.5 cups
  • Grains 6 oz
  • Proteins 5 – 5.5 oz
  • Dairy 3 cups
  • Oils 24 – 27 g
  • Calories from solid fats and added sugars not to exceed 161 – 258

Find a dietitian who can help you make sense of this!  My dietitian has provided me with a framework called the Diabetic Exchange System, which helps me organize what, when, and how much I will eat using meal plans.  Your dietitian may recommend this or another system.  I have posted meal plans, recipes, and other resources to help with this.  A way that many organize their eating is through an exchange system.

I’ve written a resource explaining how I use an exchange system which I encourage you to read.

Calories matter
Remember that it all comes back to consuming fewer calories than you expend in a day.  Without keeping good records of what you’ve eaten, you’ll have no way of knowing for sure whether you’re eating within your “budget.”  I recommend using your phone to document this.  There are many smart phone apps available, but the one that I currently use is called Calorie Count from about.com.  Even if you don’t have a smart phone, you can still save this information in a text message that you never send or send to yourself.

Calorie Count Screenshot

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