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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I admit it: I was wrong

It turns out that I do have dieting advice after all; I just didn't realise it until I heard back from a few people. I also didn't realise just how interested some of my readers would be in the details.

When I said that I don't have any weight-loss secrets, I meant that everything the dietitians say is true. It's not about fads or carb counting: it all comes down to calories.

That's not to say that low-carb or fad diets don't work, but they work by restricting the number of calories you take in. A diet that simply substitutes lower-carb versions of the things you're already eating won't make you lose weight unless the substitutes are also lower in calories. You can, however, lose weight by eating chicken, fish and vegetables if that's what you prefer to eat. I just don't think it's realistic to think that you can cut all carbohydrates out of your diet long-term or eat only purple food or cabbage soup or whatever weird thing is the latest rage.

The right number of calories is different for each person, but a dietitian can help you figure out what that number is for you. You can also sign up with a free dieting website like the SELF Challenge. I used to eat around 1400 a day, and I'm still trying to figure out how many I need to maintain my current weight. The number of calories is important: if you eat too many or too few, you won't lose weight. At around 1200 a day, your body goes into starvation mode and clings to every ounce. You get all of the deprivation with none of the weight loss. Basically, it's a very, very bad scene, so always eat more than 1200 a day. Remember that you'll have to add calories if you're exercising, so 1400 is probably the safest lower level if you're a woman. You can always eat more than this if you're hungry, but don't eat less.

While weight loss is all about calories, on an hour-to-hour basis you'll worry more about whether you feel deprived and hungry. You could lose weight eating nothing but Big Macs, but you'll probably feel like crap if you do that. The two things to keep track of are protein and fiber. Both will keep you full longer, so eat as much low-fat meat and whole grains as you can. I ate a lot of chicken breast marinated in different sauces and barbecued.

I was careful not to feel like I was missing out on anything. If I really, really wanted something, I ate it. But I'd be smarter about the way I ate it. I knew that I could have 100 calories' worth of anything, as long as it was just 100 calories. I bought tiny chocolate bars and ate one every night.

The things to avoid are all of the things you already know you shouldn't be eating: fried food, cheese, processed meats, fatty sauces. That slice of cheese on your sandwich is 100 calories, and it's not nearly as tasty as a tiny candy bar. If you cut out cheese (I had to), make sure you get some milk in your diet, preferably skim. For some reason, milk helps you to lose weight. I don't understand it, but it really does work. I don't like to drink milk, so I swapped a nonfat latte for my daily midmorning coffee. It was more expensive, but it was worth it.

Many people have asked me what sort of exercise I do. The answer is that I don't, really. I've always walked to work and home again, and I really don't do much else. Although everyone talks about "diet and exercise", it's much easier to cut calories out of your diet than it is to add the same number of calories' worth of exercise. You can cut 500 calories a day by drinking diet Coke instead of regular and cutting back on the butter you put on your (whole grain) toast. To burn 500 calories, you'll have to hit the gym for ages. Not really my style.

I often see ads in magazines touting pills that can make you lose weight. I don't know if they work, but I do know that you don't need them. Those snake-oil peddlers may try to convince you that they can make you lose five or ten pounds a week, but it's not possible. You can lose one or two pounds of fat a week, no more. It is possible to think you've lost more than that though water loss, but it will only be temporary: your body needs a certain amount of water to stay healthy. The water will come back, so there's really no point in wasting your time or money on diuretics.

The last thing I'll mention is that the scale can drive you crazy. For the first three months, I didn't step on a scale at all. I went entirely by waist, hip and thigh measurements. The scale can trick you into believing that you haven't made any progress when you've actually gained muscle. If you have to go by the scale, weigh yourself once a week, not every day. You will see normal daily fluctuations, but they won't seem like fluctuations, they'll seem like OH MY GOD I'VE GAINED TWO POUNDS SINCE YESTERDAY!! I'M A FAT LOSER AND NOBODY WILL EVER LOVE ME!!! It's not a healthy way to think about your efforts to eat better. And honestly, it's all about being healthy. You probably will never look like the people on TV, so just focus on getting to the size that's right for you.

Maybe I could write a book, after all.


Nicole said...

It is amazing what counting calories can do to the way you look at your food :)
I love cheese and I love milk.
I don't like non-fat.
But looking at the calorie count on my normal milk this morning and see that 100mg have 240 calories nearly let me drop dead :D

Thanks again for all the tips and showing me the challenge.
I thought it would be a bit more people and traffic over there, but oh well :)

Torq said...

I am pretty sure you could write a book. I am even pretty sure that it would be much better than a lot of the books which are floating around out there. I just wouldn't recommend writing it about dieting, not because you are'nt writing well on the subject, but because I don't have any interest in the subject and don't want to read a book on it!

Heh, selfishness wins again, eh Mr. Mandal?

Megan said...

The weirdest thing about the non-fat stuff is that at least half of it is not significantly lower in calories. I always check the labels. If there's no real difference in the number of calories, I eat the full-fat version, but I eat less of it. The low-fat stuff often tastes terrible.

Torq: What sort of book should I write?

Torq said...

I would suggest something in the realm of socio-political commentary. This is, in my opinion, where your wit is exceptionally fine. Of course this might just be because I am horribly lacking in wit... but maybe not!

Amy H. said...

I just bought "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan yesterday. I wanted the other one... "In Defense of Food" but had to settle for ordering it. The first 40 pages or so are great! I have major food issues, not the least of which is that I have no idea how to cook REAL food. All a learning curve I guess.