Friday, April 15, 2011

Controlling your weight

One of the great ironies of the developed world is that we have trouble keeping our weight down.  For thousands of years the main struggle of society has been getting enough food; now, due to technology, most people have enough to eat, and many of us have too much.  Most of us realize this, and we are trying to find ways to simplify and cut back.

I wanted to point out the title of this post: I called it "controlling your weight" instead of "losing weight" because being thinner shouldn't be our only goal.  Decide what you want your body composition to be, then lose or gain weight until you get there.

First, diet.  Here are some things I learned when I was trying to trim down last year:

1. Try smaller portions.  A lot of us eat certain amounts just out of habit; once the food is on our plate, we feel like we have to eat everything and ignore how full we are.  For example, when I tried making a ham sandwich out of one large piece of bread instead of two, I found that I was full after eating the new amount.  This means the full sandwich was more than I needed, and I could cut back without really "sacrificing" anything.  Easy, right?

2. Have plenty of variety in each meal.  I realized that the more different kinds of things I had in each given meal, the less overall I needed to eat to be full.  For example, if I was eating just steak and potatoes, I had to eat a lot of both to get satisfied.  But if I ate steak, potatoes, fruit, salad, and bread, I could eat just a little of each and be full.  I think this comes from efficiency; when your body is getting all of the nutrients and minerals it needs, it can get by with less total material.

3. Eat more fruits and vegetables.  I don't think a completely vegetarian diet is good for you, but most of us should eat more fresh produce.  Try to fit these into as many meals as possible, and you will definitely start slimming down.

4. If you are hungry, try drinking water first instead of eating.  The sensations of hunger and thirst are very similar, and a lot of people actually have a hard time distinguishing between the two.  If you just ate an hour ago, but you already feel hungry again, try drinking a glass of water.  If you don't feel "hungry" any more, then you were really just "thirsty".  If you feel even hungrier afterward, then it wasn't a false signal and you should eat.

Next, exercise.  Exercise helps you control your weight in two ways.  First, the energy that you burn when you are actually exercising can keep your body from converting excess sugar into fat, or it can metabolize the fat you already have.  Second, when you are working out frequently, your base metabolic rate increases, and you burn more energy when you are doing other things like working or sleeping.  Here are some tips to focus this power into controlling your weight:

1. Do long workouts at lower intensity.  The body can run off of sugar or fat, and you can actually train your body to do more of the latter.  Marathon runners do this not because they want to get thinner, but because they will run out of carbohydrates during the long race if they don't burn some fat a long with it.  Running, swimming, and biking are your best options here.  Go at a level where your heart rate is up, but you don't feel like you are close to red lining.

2. Work out every day.  When you do this, it sends a message to your body that you need energy constantly.   It will shift your metabolism into a higher gear, and you will go through fuel faster.

3. Try building some muscle.  Muscle burns energy, even when dormant.  Throw in some strength training workouts, put on a few pounds of muscle, and those pounds will burn energy even when you aren't doing anything active.

A couple caveats: if you look closely at the numbers, you will realize that this probably wont be a fast process.  One pound of fat has 3500 calories, so if, like me, you gained 30 pounds, then you ate an extra 105,000 calories, or 210 complete meals!  Getting out from underneath this will take a while.  But it is a sure process: if you use more energy then you take in, then you will lose weight, because the law of conservation of energy requires it.

Another caveat: some people think that if they work out a lot, then they can eat any amount.  This is true, but you have to be putting in some serious volume to reach that level.  Again, this comes from the numbers.  If you run 5 miles a day, you are burning about an extra 500 calories.  But eating nothing but fast food can easily give you a diet that is 1000 calories more than what you need, so you are still in the red by 500.  Triathletes routinely do two or three hours of hard exercise a day, and this is about the level you need to be at before your body will burn anything you eat.


  1. How about the anorexia diet? Taking in 0 calories while using 2000 per day will put you 2000 calories in the green! Cha-Ching!

  2. On a sidenote, blogspot should really use Wordpress or get your own domain.

  3. I picked blogspot pretty much at random, how does it blow? What is better about Wordpress?

  4. Good job pointing out that weight reduction is not a fast process. The math just doesn't support the premise that it is (or could be or should be). I think that's a mistake too many people make.