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Let’s Talk About Your Setpoint

What is a setpoint?

I hear a lot of talk about your “setpoint”, which is the weight you gravitate towards over time. What I just said should tell you it is not one number. People started talking about it when they started to explore yo-yo dieting and people who regain weight after losing it. It also crops up when people have trouble losing weight.

Ok, but what is it?

First, let’s establish what it is not. It is not some mysterious, metabolic force that you have no control over. I cannot stress enough, our bodies are governed by physics. The laws of thermodynamics, meaning energy in = energy out, apply to us. This means you cannot be living on air and not losing weight. I guarantee if I locked you up and starved you, you would lose weight. However, we aren’t starving, and some people are more active than others. This means we tend to follow our preferences. If I eat ice cream every afternoon, followed by a nap, I will weigh more than someone who doesn’t do those things. So your set point is where you end up, following your preferences.

So what can I do about it?

This is the easiest hardest part. Just change your preferences. Or ignore them. This is where diets are made or broken. This is everything about weight loss and the weight loss industry. All that talk about “diets don’t work” comes down to this. You can’t start some kind of diet that ignores your preferences, and expect it to work. You’ll only stick to it for a short while, and when your motivation wanes, you’ll be start eating like you used to, and gain the weight back.

The prescription to change your preferences.

Now this part you’ve hopefully heard before. What counts is how you personalize it.  Stop looking at it like “I want to lose 10 lbs by Christmas”. Instead, look at it like, “what is one choice I can change today, that I can live with?” Make small permanent changes that can add up over time. You didn’t decide to gain weight by a certain date, those small choices just added up. Put that effortless power to work for you. Every meal is a new opportunity to do something right.  Reading diet tips or diets to see what changes you can incorporate is extremely helpful. I can personally recommend Sparkpeople.com or myfitnesspal.com or fooducate.com. Slow weight loss is ideal, because that is what will be permanent.

Exercise

Adding exercise makes it even easier. First, it burns more calories, second it increases your stamina so you can move more the rest of the day, third it increases your lean muscle mass. Have you seen older people who have trouble walking from the car to the house? If that’s you, you are not burning a lot of calories. There are a lot of great BMR calculators out there, so pick on if you want a ball park figure of how many calories you burn just sitting on your butt. Some people say a really rough estimate is to multiply your weight by 10 for your total calorie usage. Calorie counting is more art than science. Unless you are in a lab, or completely obsessed and weighing every mouthful, it is only an estimation. In any case, the more you move, all day long, the more calories you burn. So find exercises you can stick with. I don’t care about the intensity, or how you “feel the burn”, the crux of it is whether you will stick with it. Remember, we are in this for the long-term, which will change your setpoint. It can be walking, playing bocce, hiking, swimming, etc, etc. Now, if you say mowing the lawn is yours, and you only mow once a week, that isn’t enough. It has to be something you do at least three times a week, for half an hour, minimum. Increasing your walking is the easiest and most readily available for most of us.

Add it up for the best results.

So make those small permanent changes  in both your exercise and eating, and you should see permanent weight changes. Of course, that means your health will improve as well. Hopefully, those small changes will lead to other small changes, on and on. That is what causes continued weight loss.

Boost Your Metabolism

boost your metabolismOk, now that I have your attention.

This is what everyone wants to hear, right? “I want to burn more calories, without changing what I’m doing.” But can we be honest, and talk about what metabolism is, and what we are doing when we are “burning calories” ?

Metabolism is just the sum of all the chemical reactions that happen to make you alive and mobile. Your metabolism consists of your cells dividing, your heart pumping, your lungs breathing, tiny muscular contractions keeping you upright, secretions being produced, etc. Approximately 90-99% of all the calories you burn each day are spent just keeping you alive. All large skeletal movements are added to that, so the more you move, the more calories you use one top of the basic ones.

You are not above the law.

The math is pretty basic. The laws of thermodynamics do apply to living things. However, all measurements are approximate as we are all a bit different. For example, most measurements are based on men having more muscle mass than women. That may or may not be true. Most good calorie trackers currently tie into fitness trackers or allow you to put your activity range in, allowing them to dial in better. Until we get to the point where we can perfectly register every bite you put in your mouth and all your exertions, there will be some discrepancy. Having said all that, I will not believe you if you tell me you are eating 12oo calories a day and not losing weight. (Unless you are a child or child sized.)

Eeek! Starvation mode!

Which brings me to my next point. Actually, to my whole point in writing this. When we talk about “starvation mode”, or raising or lowering our metabolism, what we are actually talking about is increasing or decreasing movement. Remember the last time you were literally starving? Like after having the flu, or when you fasted? You feel like you can’t move. The effort to lift an arm feels like too much. That is all we mean when we talk about lowering your metabolism. If your body doesn’t have enough for the “keeping you alive” part, you certainly won’t have the energy for a 20 minute cardio workout. So you want to eat enough to feel capable of doing exercise. (Willingness is another issue.) Your metabolism isn’t some magic engine that is revving up while you are sitting in front of the computer. It is you deciding to walk to work, run on your lunch, hike after work, or get to the gym. Your metabolism revs up as it is required to, by moving. You can’t make your cells divide faster, or secrete more, the only part of your metabolism you have control over is skeletal movement.  And, if I may speak from personal experience, moving makes you more energetic. No one gets more energized by sitting on the couch. People who say “I’m resting up” don’t ever seem to get rested enough to do anything.

Take home message:

Use a decent calorie tracker, know your limits and move, Move, MOVE! (And don’t fall for hype. If you take something to “boost your metabolism”, then use it to move!)

(But don’t take anything to boost your metabolism, they are generally useless.)

Is McDonalds the Devil Incarnate?

Can you tell I like controversial titles? Anyway, two things have happened to make me want to write about the icon of all that is wrong with the American diet. The first is the story about the teacher who lost weight eating nothing but Mcdonalds, the second was a friend who claimed that McDonalds puts cotton in their burgers. I’m no friend of Micky D’s, but I aim to be ruthlessly fair and honest. I would never recommend eating there, but you can eat there and still eat healthy.

As to the claim that McDonalds puts cotton in their meat, while it is theoretically possible, the odds are against it. On their website they claim:

We don’t use any binding ingredients. Our burger patties are made from 100% pure beef, with no binders or fillers.

Could they be lying? Sure, but then how did the person who is spreading the idea of cotton find out, and no one else did? In this sue happy society, McDonalds is too savvy to risk everything lying about what is in their food. If they did and it was proved, they’d be sued to the ends of the earth.

Lets assume for the moment that what they say is in their food is really what’s in it.

Is it evil? Is McDonalds really what’s wrong with us?

Did you watch Supersize Me? I loved the movie, since it played into my favorite tropes, that we are responsible for our choices, and that they do matter. Do I think that it was a fair presentation? No, it wasn’t meant to be. Remember the ossified french fries? Fry some at home and see if the same thing happens. Morgan Spurlock was trying to show what people are doing to themselves, and made McDonalds his scapegoat. He purposefully overate at every meal, and cut his exercise in half or less.

The Iowa teacher who lost weight eating at McDonalds did the opposite, he counted the calories, and made the healthiest choices available. He did also eat all the “bad stuff”, but kept the calories around 2,000 by balancing those choices. Here is one link to an article on his diet.

Here’s a quote about the details:

His students planned three meals a day for 90 days with a 2,000 calorie daily limit in mind. They did their best to stick to the daily recommended allowances for carbohydrates, protein, fat, and cholesterol.

Cisna was allowed to eat anything on the menu — even Big Macs and French fries — as long as he balanced out more fattening foods with lighter ones at other meals.

His favorite meal plan consisted of two Egg White Delight McMuffins, a maple oatmeal bowl and 1 percent milk for breakfast, followed by a grilled chicken salad, fruit parfait and apples for lunch. For dinner, he enjoyed a grilled chicken wrap meal, complete with fries and a diet soda.

Cisna also added exercise to his routine, walking 45 minutes a day, four to five days a week.

“Not everybody can lift weights. Not everybody can jog, but everybody can walk,” he said.

Of course, I would argue that everyone can lift weights, but that’s another article. He made many choices that fall within all good recommendations: oatmeal, apples, salads, chicken. Most importantly, he counted calories. Since they post theirs, it does make it easy to do the math. They do have quite a number of reasonable choices. However, if you have a big mac, fries and a shake, you’ve used up 1/2-2/3 of your daily calories. And, he’s a big guy. He can lose weight on 2,000 calories. I couldn’t, I would gain weight on that. So it isn’t as simple as it looks, and this is why you need to figure things out for yourself.

That isn’t the point, is it? The point is, McDonalds isn’t making us fat, we are. Twinkies aren’t making us fat, we are. Remember the guy that lost weight on the Twinkie diet? I went out to dinner with several couples, and watched people get the salad bar, appetizers, bread and an entrée, plus drinks. Most of them easily consumed most or all their daily calories in one meal. We weren’t at a fast food joint, and they were eating relatively healthy. Except the appetizers, those were  monstrosities of fat. It was just the quantities that were way out of line, and that counts.

I will say, over and over again, if losing weight is your goal, count calories, since calories count. Having said that, I’m convinced that for good health, what you eat is the most important. Dr. Katz, who wrote the article on the Twinkie diet makes a great point:

As for the changes seen in the lipid panel, these are likely by-products of weight loss per se. An excess of body fat is associated with increased inflammatory responses, and often, increased levels of insulin. Both inflammation and hormonal imbalances in turn affect cholesterol and other blood lipids. When body fat is lost, these effects are reversed — and improvements in blood lipids are likely.
The mistake is to think this means better health. For one thing, health is a composite of far more than BMI and LDL. For another, its relevant time horizon is far more distant than two months.

Severe illness of all kinds is associated with sudden drops in total cholesterol. Drug addiction, chemotherapy, cholera and advanced HIV are all associated with weight loss. Cancer rather predictably leads to declines in both weight and lipids as it advances. These associations are more than sufficient to show that health cannot be summed up by weight and lipids. An overwhelming body of research shows what dietary patterns do produce lasting good health — all emphasize wholesome, mostly plant foods direct from nature. None emphasizes Ho Hos.

Please take the time to read the whole article, all the points he makes are good. We want to see those markers change, but for the right reasons. We want to teach people to eat correctly, so they gain more than just weight control, they gain optimal health. By eating right, you are more likely to maintain a correct body weight, without having to count calories. I could lose weight by eating 1400 calories of straight chocolate a day, but that doesn’t mean I should do that.

I don’t think McDonalds is evil, and they do appear to be making real efforts to offer better choices, but it’s up to us to make those choices. They do offer a lot of really appalling choices, but so do every other restaurant, which is why I suggest not eating out if you want to lose weight. I live in Western New York, in a small town. We have two donut shops. We need two? What are you likely to pick at a donut shop? I don’t think it’s the egg white special. If you want to lose weight, you have to put effort into it. Plan you choices and stick to them.

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