Thursday, December 15, 2011

Calorie counting is the only diet method you ever really need to know

Caveat emptor. This is only my experience, but in my uncredentialed and completely unqualified opinion, it's probably applicable to most otherwise healthy people.

Before Thanksgiving 2010, I was listening this "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe" podcast, and mentioned among the stories was one called The Twinkie Diet about this nutritionist who held a premise that challenges most of the weight-loss industry's fad diets-du-jour: that you can lose weight on any diet, because it is calories that count. To drive home the point, he set for himself the challenge of losing significant weight on a diet consisting almost entirely of convenience store junk food. Two months and many cans of pop, packets of Doritos, and Twinkie wrappers later he'd done it, down 27 pounds.

Navigation
  1. Background to my experiment
  2. The process in 7 points
  3. Examples: determining calorie content of meals
  4. Further examples: determining a calorie budget and tracking your progress

Well up until I heard this story, I had not seriously considered my eating habits since college. I generally just ate when hungry, until full. Sometimes I got a bit more than full, but...I'd resolve to get smaller eyes next time.

A seriously scrawny boy in high-school, these little revised habits gradually changed me into a thicker dude. I don't believe I looked seriously heavy, I think I wore the extra weight well enough, but I gradually couldn't avoid recognizing that I was overweight. For the longest time, this never bothered me a bit. But once I tipped the scales at 220 pounds I began to wonder when this slow creep was ever going to stop, and if there was any way I could maybe even reverse it.

I then heard the story above and became inspired to try a little experiment to replicate that scientist's results. My wife decided to join me, and with a spreadsheet, a web resource, and some diligence, a year later we've together lost more than 90 pounds. It has been an awesome experience; we've learned so much and now enjoy a secure feeling about being masters of our weight. Today, we're about a month into a coasting phase post weight loss, where we continue utilizing the very same method we employed to guide our loss, retrimmed so as to help us maintain the weight we have reached.

All we did was what Prof. Haub mentioned in the podcast had done, count calories. Would you like to try? I'll tell you how I approached it.

First of all, I didn't want to eat the way Haub did. I didn't need to prove his thesis. I just wanted to eat the way I like to, and still shed some pounds for myself. I was enamored with the idea that a diet didn't have to be about deprivation and radical changes.

In a nutshell—you simply determine how many calories your body is likely using, consider how fast you would like to lose weight, and with the help of some simple math determine a calorie budget which will produce that result. Then you just try your best to eat only up to that budget, tracking your progress by logging the calories you consume and noting your weight. Every so often, you analyze this data to see how you're progressing, which will tell you if and how you might tweak your plan.

By ratcheting the whole level of personal investment and required lifestyle changes down a bunch of notches, I think you prime yourself to be more successful. You turn the relationship between food and weight from a nebulous one you don't really understand and just guess at, into a concrete one that is as plain and obvious as the numbers in your notebook.
 
Doing this is easy in concept, and fairly easy also in practice once you have experience. Just beginning (especially to a non-technical person) it may seem daunting. Newbies will be more comfortable taking small steps and not attaching any great mental significance to the outcome. Treat this as an experiment. Set it up, give it a try, record your progress, analyze the result. How did it go? Take it another step! Interest and motivation to act like a data-driven researcher makes this method actually fun and exciting. Were you a science nerd in school?

This method does not consider fitness (oh god...I hate gyms, and pretty much the whole American gym-culture). Muscle weighs more than fat, so you can be heavier and still look great when you're a fit person, blah blah. This method shouldn't alter your existing fitness-level negatively if you're eating enough, which you always should...just not more than.

If you had a beer gut before, you'll likely still have one after, it'll just be smaller. You'll be less winded climbing stairs, but that'll be because you're not carrying tens of pounds of excess weight on your bones. If you want to be more fit as well as weigh less, you'll need to add in some exercise...but this is not specifically a must. Exercising will make you hungrier; the more strenuous forms will help you burn more calories, allowing you to eat MORE! My personal data suggest, however, that lighter exercise may increase your appetite more than the increased calorie burn resulting from it. This could make it easier to slip up and eat more than you intend, if you're sloppy with your record keeping. You will have to experiment with that. I make no representations about how you might go about handling your fitness. You're an adult, do what you must and live with your choices.

Also, this method does not consider nutrition. It's left to you to determine the precise foods you want to eat to ensure you get the nutrients you need and not too much of whatever science is telling us is bad. The best thing is probably variety. If you're not eating the same stuff every day, and your plate has colorful foods on it, you're probably doing this part right. Eh, well enough. We all die, eventually.

That said, this is a useful two-edge sword. If it's steak and ice-cream you crave, then you can have it and still lose weight. Since you're controlling the total calories, it'll simply be a smaller steak and fewer scoops. Psychologically, I can see kow this can be helpful to motivate people to actually want to stay with their plan. This was my experience.

So, as Mr. Scientist there showed, this method can work no matter what you eat. You may find that in time, your preferences may get healthier naturally, because fresh fruits and veggies, and made-from-scratch dishes are far less calorie dense than processed ready-to-eat foods. You'll discover that you can enjoy more food when you choose some fresher options made at home, than you could if you ate nothing but frozen dinners or fast-food.

This next idea may be hard to take at first, but if you start to have success, you're likely to adapt just fine:

This method does not stop! It is a permanent lifestyle change which you will establish, and then tinker with at the margins forever-after. Once you've reached your weight loss goals, your reward is that you'll be able to eat MORE again! Hell yeah! But never like you did before, however, that's what got you reading this.

You will be able to bump up your consumption and eat your full daily calorie burn, the amount of which will be evident by the data you're logging. But not more. Further, you'll need to be continuing to record your intake and adjust your calorie allowance to account for the passing of time. With your goal met, you may be able to keep the records on a less-than-daily basis. But, I'd be careful and hold off until you're well established at your goal weight. You'll need this data to identify trends and adjust your calorie budget to continue to maintain the weight level you were so diligent at reaching. The good news will be that this is no harder than the weight-loss phase was, you'll be experienced with the record keeping reducing that burden, and more importantly...you will be eating a little more.


Alright. The simple truth underpinning the whole process is:

if calories burned > calories consumed ⇒ weight will be lost

Your body will use your fat and/or muscle reserves to meet your energy demand that is in excess of your eating.

Calories burned < calories consumed ⇒ why you put on weight you didn't want in the first place.

So to remove the weight, you simply need to learn how many calories your body is burning, then consume less. And that's it.

The rest of this post tries to provide you with ideas for a framework to help you execute on that simple principle, and feel like little has changed in your life, not like you're on a diet.


1. Develop a plan to lose the weight at a reasonably slow rate.
How slow? You can maybe take it off at 10-times the speed you put it on and be okay, but you'll have to work the numbers to know (explained later). In my case, I gained weight slowly over a decade, and I took it off in one year, using a rate of not quite one pound per week. Current health guidelines suggest 2 lbs./week is probably as fast as it ought to go for many people. And, heath guidelines also suggest minimum daily calorie intakes to prevent your body cannibalizing your muscle tissue. Unless you consult a doctor or nutritionist first, don't be tempted to try to eat less. You'll probably only atrophy, feel like your starving (not merely hungry, because you will be starving), and want to binge. You probably won't be able to think and work and react properly either, as you'll not be supplying your brain and body with proper nutrition.

2. You'll have to become a serious data-recorder.

I don't think humans are very good at all at estimating by eye and gut-feel how many calories we're consuming. Evolution has shaped us to feast when there is plenty, for a famine may start after this meal. Technology changed that for most of us. I was certainly shocked to learn at first how much I was eating compared to what my body was using, and I didn't think I was over-eating. American-size portions really are too large for most of us, given the physical work we (don't) do. Felling trees with an axe in the dead of winter to build your 19th-century log cabin justifies a certain portion size that commuting to a desk-job in continual climate-controlled comfort does not.

So, you'll need to learn how to calculate the calorie content of the food you choose to consume, and be steadfast, systematic and accurate about logging these amounts. I think this is the most difficult part of the method, harder than actually keeping to your eating budget. If you get to a point where the data recording starts to feel not overly tedious, then you have probably got this thing made!

For single-serving packets of processed foods, like chips and twinkies, etc. The amounts are right there on the package, and this is simple. That's how it worked for Prof. Haub. For multi-serving containers (like breakfast cereal), it's still pretty easy, you can measure out weight quantities of food and multiply that weight by a calories-per-unit-weight figure you determine by studying the label carefully.

For homemade cooking, however, this is arduous and hard to get accurate unless you're very organized and systematic. I do cook from scratch often enough and in my experience, I found that after a short learning curve I could do this well, even if it is another layer of work on the cooking process. To illustrate:

You have to pre-measure the weights of the cooking vessels you'll use. Measure weights of the ingredients you'll be supplying to the dish, multiply these weights by their calories-per-unit-weight ratios you taken from the label data; total this up to learn the total calorie content of the finished dish. Then subtract the serving/cooking vessel weight from the cooked dish weight to learn the true weight of the prepared food itself. Then you can divide the total calorie content by the total food weight to get a figure you can use to begin to portion out a specific amount of food for yourself. Decide how many calories of the dish you want to consume, divide that value by the figure you just obtained a sentence ago, and that's the weight of food you should take. Place plate on scale, tare it, and scoop your homemade cookin' until the scale readout is showing this value.

See what I mean?! It is easy to forget stuff and make mistakes, but if you're the sort of geek who loved high-school/college chemistry lab (like, everyone lusted after you as their lab partner), and took pride in mastering the demonstrations, then this is probably making you rather excited right now (it did me). Otherwise, you're ruing this godawful torture!

The most difficult/impossible situation is dining out or eating what someone else has prepared and not having this information available. There's often no easy way to get an accurate estimate in these situations, and you may be left with simple gut-feeling. On the bright-side, you might develop a better sense for making an estimate this way once you start learning how you feel after regularly consuming known quantities of calories. But the more you can avoid getting stuck making these crude estimates, the better off you'll probably be.

Fast-food chains often publish calorie data as separately available literature, on the tray liner, or online. You can use this to great effect to record your eating experience after the fact, or better yet, pre-plan a meal before you visit the restaurant. I altered the menu items I chose, and split the fries and drink with my wife, but I still love my Burger King.

3. As implied by point 2, you'll need a precise and accurate scale.

I got a $20 cheap-o digital thingy at BedBath, and it's been perfect. It was probably so cheap because it uses those expensive little coin batteries. This hopefully will turn into a lifestyle for you, so you might want to consider a fancier unit that runs off wall-power, but it isn't strictly necessary. I'm still swapping coin batteries.

4. You need to get a good estimate for what your body is actually burning.

This is your basic metabolic rate (BMR). Actually, the figure you'll use is multiplied by a number that characterizes how much physical activity you're doing, called an activity coefficient (AC). And so BMR * AC is a figure which represents how many calories in food you should eat to maintain your weight. Because you're making a log, you can accurately ensure you're eating less by enough of a margin to have weight loss.


BMR decreases as we age, all else equal. This means if you ate the same relative meals and portions all your life, you'd naturally grow slowly fatter. I ate pretty much like I did as a teenager, with maybe one downshift in portions after college, so...now I know why I slowly got fat.

BMR is also smaller, the less you weigh. Ah ha! This is why most folks try to diet, experience a great result early-on, but then never seem to loose the last 10 lbs. If you eat a fixed amount of calories throughout your diet, you'll see the same effect. Your best results will be up front, and your slowest progress will occur near the end.

To avoid these difficulties, you'll might calculate a plan that periodically adjusts your intake amount over the course of your weight loss progress, and over the course of time.

This site supplies BMR estimates which appear to work well in my experience, bookmark it now, it's the centerpiece of this method:

http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/

Also be sure to click the link for the "Harris-Benedict equation" and study that page, plus the links you find there on intakes to gain or lose weight. The information on that site formed the basis of a spreadsheet I made to help me track my own progress.

5. Determine your eating budget.

Among the items to note on the site is your activity coefficient (AC) which your BMR is multiplied by to give you a maintenance calorie budget. You then shave this budget down based on the rate of weight loss you want (respecting the minimum amounts for health), and eat so as to meet this level as closely as possible, each day.

When choosing an activity coefficient, be brutally honest and hedge your bets toward the sedentary side. I chose purely sedentary to start. It's easier to see yourself exceeding your targets and later reward yourself by tweaking this value upward, than scratch your head when things aren't working and have to move it downward.

6. Understand normal variation when measuring your body weight.

Weight measurement is the important feedback which makes the process work.

Our body's weight can vary by two pounds or even more throughout the day as we absorb and give up water, eat our meals, and release wastes of various sorts. So you'll need to understand that reaching a specific weight target on a single measurement is not quite good enough. The average of repeated measurements will confirm if a given weight-level has truly been achieved, while the individual measurements can be studied or plotted to determine if a favorable trend exists.

I like to weigh-in as I wake up, after doing any morning business, just before hitting the shower. More important than when is consistency in how you take down your weight.

If your consumption plan is slow enough, it's not necessary to weigh-in every day. I typically did this weekly or bi-weekly or even monthly. It should be often enough to identify trends, but not so often it's a burden. Your recorded weights serve as an important feedback to the process. Remember, the BMR you obtain from the website above is an estimate based on human averages. Your true BMR will vary. Plus your activity level may vary too. If you're eating your target amount of calories, but your weight is not coming off at the rate the Harris-Beckman equation predicts, then you'll know to tweak the activity coefficient downward slightly to produce a lower eating budget. Then, eat that for awhile, measure weights, see if the trend matches up better.

7. Don't invest your whole self-worth in this.

Keep it lighthearted, fun, and make it an experiment. If you're trying to lose a large amount, break it up into smaller goals and take it a bit at a time. I did 50 lbs in 10 lb targets over spans of 1.5 to 3 months each. You don't gain weight all at once, so you can't expect to lose it that way either, but lose it you can.

But, do please just be honest with yourself in your recordkeeping. If you want to say, "eff this, I'm going for a heapin' bowl of ice-cream," give yourself permission to say that's OK. If you honestly record those calories, you'll be able to look-back and have a truthful explanation for the weight-loss rate you're achieving. With each meal you can reassess your values and consciously choose what's more important to you, enjoying a heftier meal, or delaying that gratification and enjoying the sexier jeans later on. There is no wrong choice, because only you have to live in the body you're in.

I was perfectly fine with being a little husky. 40 lbs overweight and I was still fine with it. 50 lbs over and getting winded on a simple outdoor trek suddenly flipped my value proposition over, and at that point I decided it was now worth more to me to be lighter. And so I did that. My focus moved from shorter term comfort, to longer term comfort. It's okay to make the sacrifice as small as necessary to get you through the day. The goal may take longer to achieve, but each day is a blank page of calories not yet eaten and new choices you could tweak.

I started my "experiment" by just taking a few days to a week or so and eating as I normally would. I only logged the calories I was consuming. I plugged those calorie totals into that Harris-Beckman equation and worked it backwards to discover at what weight and by what timeframe that pattern might ultimately land me. It was years into the future, but I didn't like seeing 300+. Good motivation to change course now, before things actually got out of hand. I'm now at a stable 170 after hitting a peak of 220. It took a year (I gave it a year), but each day was a day closer to the target, and measuring that progress on a spreadsheet helped keep me in the game. After a week or two to adapt to the changes I committed to, I wasn't hungry. Though I've rarely felt "stuffed", and only occasionally even seriously full, now since the changes I am just comfortable after meals. I give myself time to enjoy what I prepare rather than wolf it down. I wait to see if I become satisfied before automatically stepping up for seconds. It feels amazin'! And with this success in-hand, I have security to know what to do if I notice my weight start to trend the wrong way.

The holidays are here for the second time since adopting this strategy, and I try to be sensible, but I also grant full permission to enjoy the food and treats on hand. No deprivation helps me to embrace moderation, and I find it's really not hard.

That's it.

Some examples to illustrate the counting and set-up process:

How do you count-up the calories, exactly, as mentioned in point 2 above?

Some stuff is easy.

Lunchtime: all prepackaged/heat-n-eat foods

1 Cheddar cheese hotdog: 170 calories/link (as indicated directly on the package)
1 bun: 100 calories/bun (indicated directly on bag)
mustard: 0 calories/serving (hey, bonus!)
ketchup: package indicates 20 calories per 1 Tbsp (17g) serving

Notice the serving weight in parentheses. Most products indicate serving sizes by volume measure (clumsy to use), or by weight in grams (super easy when you have a gram-accurate digital scale). You just need to reduce the package data to a simple factor you can multiply to your weight to get your answer. In this case: 20 calories / 17 g serving = 1.176 calories/g

Now, place your plate, bun, and dog on the scale and tare it to read zero, squirt on your ketchup and multiply the weight shown by the figure you just calculated. And that's it.

You know what, do yourself a huge favor and get a notebook to record any such figures like that for future quick-reference. Who wants to dig around the package labels hunting for these key numbers and to that math every time you want a bloody squirt of ketchup on a hotdog!?

So where are we:
ketchup: 5g squirt = 5.88 calories
Doritos (from a big bag, a single serve packet has the total calories printed right on it):
(140 calories / 26 g serving) * 35g dumped out onto my plate = 188 calories
A can of Mt. Dew Throwback: 170 calories (read directly off the can)

Tally it up: 634 calories
Jot it in your log for the day.

Now when I was in the weight-loss phase of my own program, I tried to target 1800/day for most of the time. 1800 / 4 = 450 calories per meal, plus another 450 to spread around the day for snacking. Now you start to think like an economizer. How can I get 634 down closer to 450 and feel fuller too?

With experience with different foods, you start to figure it out. You begin to learn that fresh foods tend to be less calorie dense compared to various prepackaged or ready-to-eat options. Do some tradeoffs.

Start with the pop. I hate diet soda!! I love the real-sugar in the Throwback stuff from Pepsi, vs. the HFCS in normal pop. But sugar or HFCS pop is calorie dense. Luckily for me, my taste genetics are amenable to the reformulated 0-calorie alternative colas that are trying harder to preserve the flavor of their sugary counterparts. Whereas Diet Pepsi to me tastes awful, Pepsi Max is great! Pepsi One is pretty great also, but slightly different from Max. I've also tried a 50/50 mix of Max and One, which is even more authentic to my goofy tastebuds. Coke Zero is very close to regular Coke to my taste, and I love it to death. So that's 150-170 calories saved! To my wife, splenda, Ace-K, and aspartame all taste like dog vomit. It's a genetics thing I think. Too bad for her.

I've learned you can eat a whole half-pound bag of baby carrots for 91 calories (that's 227g of carrots)! That's less than half the count for the Doritos, and is a lot of carrots. You'll be feeling full after that one, so there's some play to shave the weight back to something like a quarter-pound and throw on some ranch dressing (don't skimp on taste, you'll grow to resent yourself, use the regular stuff and just portion appropriately).

With these two changes, my example quick lunch is now 367 calories. The savings translates into an extra scoop and a-half of Blue Bunny - Bunny Tracks ice-cream tonight. You see where I'm going with this?

But dang-it, I love Doritos! Sometimes I just have to have 'em. Fine, eat it! I hope you can skip the ice-cream and settle for a couple-a squares of Dove chocolate tonight instead.

Or don't, have it all! Just be honest about recording those calorie counts and measuring them up against your limit for maintaining your weight, or your target for losing some weight. I got in the habit of noting these two figures down when writing down my log. If I felt the urge to splurge, then so long as I kept my splurging underneath that maintenance limit, I might this day be sacrificing losing some weight to the ice-cream gods, but at least I wasn't gaining weight. I also know precisely and immediately what the consequences of my actions will be, and this is important feedback.

When you see the numbers, it's far easier to restrain yourself. When you fail to summon the discipline to at least record your numbers, however bad they might be, it becomes far too easy to really overdo it without even realizing what you're doing.

Some stuff is harder: The Breakfast Cereal Configuration

If you love your cold cereal in the morning, chances are you're blowing your meal budget first thing off by having too large a bowl, or more than one bowl (before trying my plan, I was doing this constantly!). Rarely are the suggested serving sizes and the calorie counts printed on the labels something I can live with. People like their cereal wetter or drier. I like to add raisins to Grapenuts. You know your preferred proportions, but how do you size the whole bowl to keep it within your calorie budget?

You start out by determining the calories/gram factors of the components of your breakfast bowl and noting them down.

Let's use Grapenuts, checking the labels give us this information:

200 calories per half-cup (58g) serving = 200 / 58 = 3.448 calories/g
(and because I don't drink no 2% rinsewater)
Whole milk = 140 calories per 1 cup (240ml) serving
(I need a weight, but have volume. So I poured some into a measuring cup and took a weight down.)
=140 / 239 = 0.586 c/g (heh, whaddya know, milk volume in ml is about the same as its weight in g)


Alright, all you know is how wet you like your cereal, you don't know the relative weights of cereal and milk to pour out yet. What should you do? Start by just having a normal bowl the way you like it, just noting down the weights of the components you pour out. Say...

Grapenuts = 120g; Milk = 365g

I'll discount the sugar I sprinkled on top, it wasn't much. That was a delightful bowl! How many calories?

120 * 3.448 + 365 * 0.586 = 628 c

Okay, tasty, but this is too much for my budget tomorrow. What if tomorrow, I wanted to enjoy the same proportion of cereal to milk, but limit the total calories to 450; what weights should I pour out to?

There's more than one approach to solve this problem, here's mine:

(120 / 628) was the proportion of cereal weight to the total calories in the resulting bowl, and
(365 / 120) was the proportion of milk weight to cereal weight in that bowl. So

450 * (120 / 628) = 86g grapenuts suggested for tomorrow's new lo-cal bowl, and
86 * (365 / 120) = 262g milk

Let's check to see if this does work out to 450 calories:

86 * 3.448 + 262 * 0.586 = 450 yes, pour to these weights, and you'll have the same quality bowl, but with only 450 calories.

What if I wanted to add raisins now, how can I keep it to 450?

Raisins: 130c per 40g serving = 3.25 c/g

I took out a handful which seemed to me to suit the size of bowl I am eating, it weighed 19 grams. So, using our prior knowledge worked out above:

19 * 3.25 + x * 3.448 + x * (365 / 120) * 0.586 = 450

Where x represents the weight of the grapenuts to pour, and (x * (365 / 120)) represents the milk.
Solve for x (hey, you're using basic algebra now, and it's useful to your everyday life!).

(if you're scared, copy the equation into the box on Wolfram Alpha to have it solved for you)
5.23042x = 388.25
x = 388.25 / 5.23042 = 74.2292 (grapenuts)
x * (365 / 120) = 225.7807 (milk)

So now we're ready to pour: 74g grapenuts + 226g milk + 19g raisins = 449 calories
(just slightly off due to rounding errors and available measurement precision, but that's insignificant, fugeddaboudit)

In your notebook, you can carve out a section to record "recipes" like this for the common types of meals you want to assemble. Then you can just pour to the numbers on the scale and be assured of a consistent level of calories.

Just now, I won't go through an example for cooking from scratch, but the same principle applies. Refer back to my earlier paragraph illustrating that process. If you record your ingredient weights as you go, future meal preparation will be greatly simplified. You won't use measuring cups and such so much, instead you'll start relying on your scale, dumping ingredients until the proper weights show up, assembling, and cooking. For fresh produce which may not come in packaging with nutrition facts data, I found this website very, very useful.

This is the most difficult part of the method. Master this and you will be on easy street.


Some further planning examples: how many calories should I consume?

Use the BMR calculator site to determine this. You can structure it in shorter-term step-down targets to offer intermediate goals and more opportunities to measure your progress and make adjustments. This results in more calculation and analysis work, but offers a sharper picture of how you're doing. This is what I did.

You could also try a simpler approach and work with one goal based on the weight level you're trying to achieve. This results in only one eating budget, the budget which you would use to maintain your weight at the final goal level you set. You won't have as much feedback, it's harder to ascertain if the activity coefficient (AC) you chose for yourself was accurately representing your physical activity level, and you will notice the traditional diet of diminishing returns, where the first 10 come off easy, and the last 10 seem to almost never come off. However, assuming the AC is adjusted well, and you update the calculation once a year, you'll get to that weight, eventually.

Let's first see how that looks, then try using the stepwise approach with intermediate targets.

Let's say you're a 220 lb. man, age 34, and would like to lose 50 lbs. Go to the BMR site, and supply your data, but enter your final goal weight of 170 lbs., instead of your actual weight. You'd get something like this:

Estimated BMR: 1796
Chosen activity coefficient: 1.2
Daily calorie budget to maintain 170 lbs.: 1.2 * 1796 = 2155

So, simply plan your daily eating to total no more than 2155 calories/day, and you will see weight loss. Over the long run, if you estimated your AC correctly, you will gradually trend toward 170 and then hover there. You will need to update the calculation each year as you age, and if you're not achieving your result, you would also need to try tweaking the AC downward. Once at your goal, you don't get a reward of getting to eat more, this is your reward level of eating. You'll forever retune it at least annually to account for the effect of aging and physical activity level changes. It won't be very clear when you'll achieve the goal, but it should happen. If I did my diet this way, I estimate that my own weight loss would have required about two-years, rather than one.

Now let's say you would like a clearer picture. You want to try to achieve your ultimate goal in a more specific or shorter time frame. How could you approach that? With short-term step-down intermediate goals, each with their own BMR calculation, as we did above, and more frequent analysis of our data.


Let's again say you'd like to lose 50 lbs. as above, let's shoot for it in 10 lb. increments. This time begin with your current weight in the calculation.

Starting weight: 220
Estimated BMR: 2107
Activity coefficient: 1.2
Daily calorie budget to maintain 220lbs: 2107 * 1.2 = 2528

Minimum intake recommended for men is 1800 calories/day. You can choose any value between 1800 and 2528 to control the rate at which those first 10 lbs. come off (if you want to go lower than 1800, I suggest talking this plan over with a health professional, they'll be impressed you're so serious).

Say this person eats 1800, then he will eat 728 calories less than his body needs to maintain 220lbs, each day. Body weight is 3500 calories/lb. 10 lbs. is 35000 calories, so:

35000 / 728 = 48 days to expect to reach 210 lbs.

Next he should recompute his BMR at 210 lbs, and work the numbers again.

New BMR = 2045; new maintenance daily calorie budget = 2454; Eating target = 1800 for a 654 calorie/day deficit.

35000 /  654 = 54 days to reach 200 lbs once 210 lbs has been achieved.

You can continue this way, forecasting your planned progress through each ten pounds of weight loss, and arrive at an overall timeframe of around 10-12 months to lose the full 50 lbs., along with a schedule that predicts when you should see each specific target.

Ten months is long enough that you might wish to advance the age input to the BMR estimator by one year somewhere in the process, to account for the fact that aging reduces your calorie needs. You can also see how a spreadsheet would help you document this plan and let you tweak the parameters to taylor it to a specific goal timeframe. It's very handy for determining if your activity coefficient is reflecting reality.

Now, the activity coefficient becomes a useful fudge factor, since you can adjust it to force the numbers to work a given way, it can help account for measurement biases and somewhat sloppy record-keeping, so long as these errors have some consistency. We'll see how that works in a moment.

Also the daily calorie allowance should be broken up into budgets for meal periods. I divided mine by four, so I had a uniform amount to plan to consume with each of three major meals, plus the same amount again distributed among the meals as snacking. Be smart about your eating. Resist the temptation to skip lunch to have a big dinner, for example. If you're eating regularly throughout the day, you don't allow yourself to get hungry, and keeping on pace should feel easier. Just the same, you don't have to be a nazi about your plan. One day save the snack budget and have a decent bowl of ice-cream after supper, for example. Play around and try to keep it fun.

With a plan for for eating in-hand, you can now go about trying to execute that plan and analyzing the results as you go. Here's how that can look:

220 -to- 210 lbs. plan.

Referring to the plan worked out above, he logs his calorie consumption each day, and once in awhile does a weigh in to add to the raw data. At the end of the 48 day period, he totals and averages his daily consumption and finds he managed to do only 1925/day, a little short of the plan, but a nice effort.

At 1925, he's shaving 603 calories off the maintenance budget, for a total of 28,944 calories over the 48 days.
28,944 / 3500 = 8.3 lbs of weight loss predicted by the plan, based on his chosen AC

He now compares his measured weight to the prediction and finds that it appears to agree, he's at 212 lbs! This suggests his chosen activity coefficient is a fair estimate for reality. How much longer to loose the last two pounds, if he at least continues eating based on the present average? (2 * 3500) / 603 = 12 more days.

So, he continues on, logging his consumption, and stops to reanalyze his progress after either the 12 days has passed, or he notes his weight has reached the 210 lb goal. He finds he finished after just 10 days by achieving the target of 1800 calories/day for that period, which pushed his overall average for the entire 58 day span to 1903 calories/day.

Next he does a sanity check on his chosen AC, to see if it's still making sense:

2528 calories/day to maintain 220 lbs - 1903 calories/day achieved = 625 calorie/day deficit
(3500 * 10) / 625 = 56 days predicted to loose 10 lbs vs. 58 actual

This is pretty close. Close enough, because remember BMR is a function of weight and age, and his weight and age did not remain constant over this period. Calculus could help us be more precise about this, but what you find fun, and what I find fun, are likely two different things!

If a significant discrepancy developed between what was predicted compared to what was achieved, the activity coefficient can be adjusted to compensate for the variance and force the prediction (now a post-diction) to match the data, and then this new value is carried forward for the next and future 10 lb targets to hopefully yield a better picture of the time required.

For the sake of argument, let's say 58 was a big discrepancy, what activity coefficient would yield a prediction of 58 days to lose the 10 lbs., given the 1903 avg. daily intake achieved?

(3500 * 10) / 58 = 603.4 calorie/day required deficit + 1903 avg. daily consumption achieved = 2506 required daily maintenance budget.
2506 / 2107 estimated BMR = 1.19 activity coefficient

Now... this new activity coefficient can be carried forward into the calculation for the next 10 lb target to hopefully get a better prediction.

Starting weight: 210
Estimated BMR: 2045
Activity coefficient: 1.19
Daily calorie budget to maintain 210lbs: 2045 * 1.19 = 2434

Let's say he found it a little too strenuous to try to limit himself to 1800 calories/day, but thinks he can do 1900 better (given he averaged 1903 in the prior target period).

2434 - 1900 = 534 calories/day deficit
(10 * 3500) / 534 = 66 days predicted to achieve next goal weight of 200 lbs.

And our example guy just continues on like this, iteratively, until he's reached his final goal of 170 lbs. Simple, right?

You can reset this process at any point and begin again. This if helpful if you go on a long vacation or something and decide to just have fun and not think about food, or if you have a major lifestyle change. For example, say during this next block our guy gets a new job moving refrigerators. It's hard work, shuttling them about on a dolly. So make some new assumptions and start anew (again using the website linked above):

Starting weight: 205 lbs
Estimated BMR: 2014
Assumed AC: 1.55 (he's got a labor heavy job, but this factor has a powerful effect, so let's take it slow)
Daily intake to maintain 205 lbs: 2014 * 1.55 = 3122

Now he knows he'll be hungrier after all that effort, so he sets himself a budget of 2500 to see how he feels. Let's work the prediction:

3122 - 2500 = 622 calories/day deficit over body's need to maintain 205 lbs. based on the assumptions above.
35000 / 622 = 56 days to lose 10 lbs.

Hey, that's similar to what happened last time. Sound's like a winning plan!

After 30 days of data collection, he's become puzzled because he's only lost two pounds and believes he should be down more like 5! What's going on? Obviously our assumptions have been in error, and/or the data indicate we're not meeting our targets. Let's see:

Totaling and averaging his daily calorie count log for the past 30 days, he discovers he's been achieving an intake of 2480 calories/day. Good job, this plan target is getting met!

According to our assumptions, 3122/day was required to maintain 205. 3122 - 2480 = 642
(642 * 30 days) / 3500 calories/lb body weight = 5.5 expected weight loss. So he should be at 199 lbs. by now.

His measured weight is 203. So...we must have the AC turned up too high (heh). What should it be to more accurately reflect the labor involved in his new job moving refrigerators?

(2 * 3500) / 30 = 233 calorie/day deficit achieved over intake required to maintain 205 lbs.
233 + 2480 avg. daily intake achieved = 2713 calories/day suggested to maintain 205
2713 / 2014 est. BMR = 1.35 suggested AC based on the actual results obtained so far

It's at this point he realizes that he's been making use of the company forklift more than expected. Regardless whether this realization were true or not, 1.35 is a value he ought to use now to help get his weight loss plan back on track. -RESET-

Starting weight: 203
Estimated BMR: 2001
Activity coefficient: 1.35
Daily intake to maintain 203: 1.35 * 2001 = 2701

But now he want's to make up for lost time now and reach 195 within twenty-six more days (meeting the original goal timeframe). What should his target intake be?

2701 - ((8 * 3500) / 26) = 1624 calories/day for 26 days to reach 195 lbs.

Oops! This value is below the recommended 1800 calories/day minimum suggested for men by health guidelines. Without professional medical advise, this goal is too aggressive and would likely leave him starving. Plus he is still working harder than he did before taking his new job, and back then he reported struggling to feel satisfied with even 1800/day. Perhaps he ought to get comfortable with the idea that this will take a little more time to do well, and try for a more modest goal of 2000/day. How long to 195 lbs. now?

(8 * 3500) / 701 = 40 days

And he should just keep on proceeding in this way.

Make some assumptions about your activity, develop a short-range plan to reach an interim target, take data for awhile, then analyze that data to monitor performance, tweaking as necessary to maintain or regain the desired trajectory to the ultimate goal, or modify that trajectory based on a more realistic assessment of what's going to be feasible.

As you can see, there's an awful lot of number tallying required here. And the time required to weigh out your foods and be accurate about logging them down doesn't have to be significant, but it will slow down your meal preparation at first, as you gain the needed experience. However, mustering the discipline to learn how to record your calorie consumption and stick to some target intake WILL result in weight loss. And if you choose reasonable intake levels or goal time frames vs. your existing comfort level, you will find that it's not really hard to accomplish at all. Trade speed for the ease of getting it done, as needed. The easiest of all is simply bringing any existing weight gain trend to a halt.

But to do any of it means you'll have to get religion on counting calories, and practice that religion forevermore.


Whew, well this has been perhaps the longest blog post I've ever written. I hope it is inspiring and of use to you. For myself, I am really enjoying the weight loss I have achieved, and the secure feeling about being master over it. I have proven to myself that this tool works for me, and so I will only ever weigh as much as I choose to weigh, and now I know precisely what that will be.

Readers are welcome to offer their comments and experiences if they try this. If you find success, share your experience with other people you know. You will eventually get people who know you asking, "hey, um, have you lost weight?!" Let the fun begin!

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