Many people struggle to control their weight and are often perplexed how they gained so much, or why they can’t seem to lose the excess pounds. During my twenty-five years as a naturopathic health practitioner, I have found the same three recurring themes are always involved in varying degrees, each of which can be fairly easily adjusted to help you reach your weight management goals quickly and decisively.
The first issue pertains to transparency. In other words, how aware are you of your actual weight, and more importantly, how your weight changes from day to day? Like the proverbial boiled frog, if you’re not aware of the incremental changes that may be occurring in your body every day, before long you may suddenly realize one day you’ve become much heavier than you wish to be. If you’re not vigilant, excess weight can creep up on you like a deadly predator cleverly camouflaged in your ever-busy and ever-distracting environment.
That which gets measured gets controlled: the first and essential ingredient for lasting and effective weight control is therefore an accurate scale. You should weigh yourself at least once every day, generally around the same time every day to account for your eating, sleeping, and voiding cycles. A lot of people say they don’t need a scale because they can ‘see’ when they are getting fat in the mirror, or ‘feel’ when their clothes or belt is getting tighter. But these senses are far less reliable and the visible results generally take much longer (weeks as opposed to days) to notice. Plus, our mind often ‘rationalizes’ these kinds of changes—in other words, we often ‘see’ or ‘feel’ what we want (or don’t want) to see and feel. The bathroom scale doesn’t lie.
Set a weight goal for where you want to be, and how fast you want to get there. It may help to post a log or graph on the wall directly above your scale to measure and see your daily progress. A reasonable weight loss goal (or for those people who want to gain weight) is two pounds per week. A pound of fat carries about 3,500 calories and a pound of muscle holds about 800 calories (due to the much higher water content of muscles). The average active 180 lb man requires about 3500 calories per day to maintain homeostasis; therefore, to lose two pounds of fat this equates to roughly two days per week of caloric deficit. If you’re a woman, or weigh more/less than 180 lbs, just multiply the daily calorie figure by the relevant percentage differential.
Using the same math, gaining muscle sounds easier, since it only requires about half a day’s worth of caloric add, but this can actually be more difficult because there are additional requirements necessary to effect the change. First, it means getting off your duff and exerting yourself in a manner that requires extra effort. It also usually means getting out of your house and going somewhere where you can find the right equipment needed to build muscle. Lastly, it requires anaerobic weight-lifting exercise which is extra strenuous, especially when performed properly to stimulate muscle growth. In order to stimulate your muscles to grow, you have to push them to and slightly beyond their limits, which creates micro-tearing of the tissue and subsequent regeneration, in much the same process a broken bone tissue heals stronger in the area of breakdown.
The second essential element to effective weight control and adjustment is caloric intake. Remember Einstein’s famous formula: E=MC2 (or Newton’s slightly less famous, but equally relevant formula: F=MA)? Mass equals energy. This is why weight and calories (a unit of energy) are so closely coupled. As we’ve seen, a pound of fat or muscle contains a fixed amount of calories. That means if you want to gain or lose a pound of fat or muscle, you need to add or subtract the equivalent number of calories in your system. The first way to adjust this is by the number of calories you take into your system in the form of food.
Everybody intuitively knows this, but of course it is often far harder in practice to control our food intake than it sounds on paper. Our stomach contracts and stretches based on the amount and flow of food we consume, and this in turn sends signals of ‘hungry’ or ‘satiated’ to our brain. We generally feel compelled to eat when we are hungry, and stop when we feel satiated. Stress can interfere with these signals, as all too many of us have experienced when we gorge on a bucket of ice cream or large bag of chips when we’re feeling anxious or unhappy. Also, many of us acquire certain cravings for (usually bad) foods, which are difficult to control or stop.
The good news is that there are certain rules you can follow to control and bring these impulses into balance. First, in the case of desired weight loss, eat mostly high fiber food (such as whole fruits and leafy vegetables) to fill up your stomach and give you the feeling of satiety more quickly. A second benefit of eating this kind of food is that it has fewer calories per gram and even fewer per liter of volume: (good) carbs carry 4 calories per gram, whereas fats and oils carry more than twice as much—9 calories per gram. If you’re trying to gain muscle, you need to consume an extra quantity of the right kind of food also, in this case protein. Muscle is mostly made up of protein and water, so don’t feed it carbs or fat. The best kind of protein can be found in lean red meat and eggs, but some people rely on extra supplements such as powdered whey protein mixed in a smoothie. (Some people also ‘cheat’ using steroid supplements, but I don’t recommend this, as it has many proven short- and long-term negative side effects.)
The second thing you can do to help manage and control your caloric intake is to eat smaller meals more often and more regularly. This will help you feel fuller throughout the day, control the excessive stretching and contraction of your stomach lining which creates the excess hunger pangs, and also regulate your internal sugar and energy consumption so less needs to be ‘stored’ as excess calories in the form of adipose (fat) tissue. If you follow these guidelines, you probably don’t need to ‘count’ your calories that you’re consuming, since your body will self-regulate fairly reliably based on what it actually needs. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that if you want to lose weight, you need to create a caloric ‘imbalance’, which means consuming fewer calories than you did previously, roughly in the amount indicated by the calories-to-weight formula listed above. Same thing, except conversely, for gaining muscle.
The good news for those who enjoy their diet or who are already following a pretty good and stable diet is that there is a third reliable way to gain or lose weight, and that is by adjusting our physical activity level. Following the same immutable laws of physics that Einstein and Newton established, this calorie deficit or surplus can be created either by adjusting our caloric intake (through diet) or by adjusting our caloric expenditure, which is controlled by our physical activity. As we’ve seen, just going about our normal and necessary daily activities (including sleeping) consumes an average of 2500-3500 calories per day for the average man or woman. If you want to speed up your weight loss or gain, you’ll have to adjust your activity levels accordingly.
Like changing your diet however, this is often easier said than done. If you’ve ever measured your calorie consumption after 30 minutes on a treadmill or exercise bike at the gym, you know it takes an awful lot of exercise activity to burn off 3500 calories, the equivalent of a pound of fat. In fact, the average 180 lb man running at a fairly vigorous 8 minutes/mile pace for 30 minutes only burns off about 550 calories, which means you’d have to do this twice every day to lose two pounds of fat every week! This is why the most successful and lasting weight loss efforts combine changes in both diet and exercise to produce the desired results. Cutting down on calories consumed is often easier and faster than trying to produce an equivalent effect through exercise alone, especially if you follow the healthy eating guidelines discussed above. Eating less is passive (don’t eat as much), whereas exercise is active (get off the couch and go for a run or to the gym), and therefore often harder to accomplish.
But before you think diet is the answer to all of mankind’s health evils, take a closer look at the ancillary benefits of exercise. The right kind of physical activity does far more than burn undesirable calories. It converts your body into the kind of mass you desire: more lean muscle and bone, and less useless and ugly fat. The first ten to fifteen minutes of exercise consumes readily available ‘free floating’ energy sources found circulating in your bloodstream in the form of glucose. After that is used up, your body begins to consume its own tissue, where all those extra calories you didn’t need have been stored, starting with your adipose/fat tissue. Although technically your muscles also provide sources of stored energy you could consume, it’s easier for your body to mobilize and metabolize the calories in your fat first—especially if you’re simultaneously doing physical exercise taxing your muscles, which creates a metabolic action to send calories to these muscles rather than steal them away. Of course there’s a ton of other positive health reactions generated from exercise, including an increase in oxygen-carrying red blood cells, happy-feeling endorphins, and the overall generation of healthy new cells. Suffice to say that a body in motion tends to stay vibrant and in motion, whereas a sedentary body at rest tends to stay at rest and rapidly deteriorate.
So that’s the essence of lasting and effective weight control. To sum up, if you want to lose, gain, or simply maintain your weight, remember and follow these three simple rules religiously: measure your weight status and change every day (using an accurate scale); consume less calories than normal if you want to lose weight and eat more than normal if you want to gain; and increase your activity levels with the right kind of exercise to speed up both the quantity and distribution of your weight changes.
Many of us already consciously or unconsciously are aware of these rules for managing our weight, but for lots of reasons we let one or more of these elements fall under the table, literally and figuratively. If you really want to reach your weight and body composition goals, you’ve got to literally step on and up. No more excuses: take charge of your health today—just do it!
By Reid Jenner