As someone that struggles with weight all the time and being an analyst, I know all about what I should do to lose weight and balance my diet. Doing it is a completely different manner. It doesn’t help that there are a ton of lifestyle management fads out there that try to get people to stick to ridiculously restrictive diets based on bad science. Trying to stick to a 1200 cal diet when your body needs 3500 cal for maintenance is just a recipe for failure. Not to mention the countless metabolic changes that it introduces which will sabotage any maintenance plan after you have reached your goal weight, or the more likely situation, you’ve finally reached your breaking point and just can’t commit to it any longer.

The basic formula is simple

  • Eat less (calories in)
  • Exercise more  (calories out)
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you slip a day (personal well being)
  • Have fun (find a balance that makes you happy)
  • Consult your doctor if you have medical concerns (don’t ignore your general health)

The USDA has a wonderful body weight planner tool that I just found today which provides realistic guidelines on what a health diet should look like. It works off you body mass index which, while flawed in some aspects, for obese people is more than sufficient to help set reasonable goals that don’t require you to buy into the 1200-1500 cal per day regiment if your actual regiment should be more like 1800-2100 per day.

For example, my body weight, which has been massively out of control until recently, is still a whopping 350 lbs. That represents a BMI of 50 compared to what is more normal like 25. My resting metabolic rate is close to 3900 cal per day. To get down to a more reasonable weight of 180 lbs in a 2 year period I need to drop my caloric intake to 2400 cal/day and then 2550 cal/day in order to manage there after. This is far more manageable in terms of lifestyle changes than trying to drop to 1500 cal/day and still have any sense of sanity or well being.

It still means counting calories however which I know some people hate doing. You don’t need to count calories all the time however. Once you find a meal planning program that works (as we all typically have a general routine that we follow), find out which substitutions you are most likely to make and then just keep in mind that you can’t have both. Re-assess every so often to make sure you are on track and you should be good.

The other thing that the USDA website doesn’t address is the concept of cheat-days / cheat-meals. The body has a tendency to adapt to changes in dietary intake over time. The following comes from [1]:

The downside to creating an energy deficit is that the body often adapts to the shortfall in calories by burning fewer of them. A break from a low-calorie diet (i.e., a cheat day) can interrupt this slowdown. There are other benefits to cheating. Fat-busting diets can cause a decline in levels of thyroid hormones and leptin (which directly affect fat-burning). Splurging a bit can bring them back to normal. The cheat meal provides a much-needed mental break from dieting while jump-starting metabolism. A cheat meal — not an all-out gorge-fest — can be part of the overall picture. As long as you’re eating 5-6 times a day and controlling your calorie and fat amounts while increasing your protein somewhat, a cheat meal shouldn’t set you back

Within the realm of when and how much, most of the consensus seems to be 1 cheat-day / cheat-meal every 7-10 days. Although there is another school of thought that suggests a modest increase over the course 2-3 days is as effective, if not more effective, using the same 7-10 cycle. There seems to be little in the way of information as to whether a cheat day implies exceeding your basic metabolic rate or just exceeding your target calorie deficit.  Kelly Fitzpatrick has a good article about Cheat Days Explained that provides some additional guidance such as cheat days which are the most effective should be high-protein, high-carb, low-fat, and alcohol-free which is consistent with information from other websites on the topic.

Regardless of cheat days or no, the general rule of thumb is always smaller portions more frequently (i.e. 5-6 meals a day) rather than one big meal all at once.

So for example my regiment at the moment is

  • Meal 1 – 500 Cal
  • Meal 2 – 500 Cal
  • Snack – 350 cal
  • Meal 3 – 500 Cal
  • Snack – 350 cal
    • Total Cal = 2200

Since any given meal is never truly 500 or 350 cal this gives me some “wiggle room” while still being within the 2400 cal/dy limit set through the USDA BWF calculator and, more importantly, doesn’t feel like I’m on a diet.

That last bit is important as when you are living on your own, nothing is really designed to be a “single portion”. Those products that purport to be are generally targeted at the typical 170 lb male with 18% body fat. It is often hard enough to find a meal plan that works without having to compensate for the fact that what is a single serving for the idealized body type is not a single serving for the other 30% of the population that has higher calorie requirements even when factoring for general maintenance.

This is all general theory however. While for myself I’ve started to put this into practice and am seeing results from it, the real question is whether the lifestyle changes are sustainable or not. Last attempt lasted 4 months with a heavily restricted meal plan. While I’ve made other lifestyle changes since that time, I know this is the biggest hurdle I personally need to get by. By taking a more reasonable approach to it, I’m hoping that it will actually pay dividends.

Talk to you in four months and we’ll see what the future brings.

— Kevin Feenan

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