Back to the neverending topic of weight loss and exercise, the NYT spotlights research that seems to come from the “well, duh” department: the secret to weight loss is to burn more calories than you consume.

The main problem today is, people have no idea what they’re consuming. As the article points out:

“The message of our work is really simple,” although not agreeable to hear, Melanson said. “It all comes down to energy balance,” or, as you might have guessed, calories in and calories out. People “are only burning 200 or 300 calories” in a typical 30-minute exercise session, Melanson points out. “You replace that with one bottle of Gatorade.

Most people I know go through 4-5 cans of soda per day. I personally have felt a lot better, and noticed myself getting trimmer (and wanting to exercise more regularly thereby!) when I gave myself one simple rule: don’t stock soda cans in the house. I have juice, I have milk, and that’s it. Generally, after a glass of juice or milk, I don’t feel the need for more than water afterwards; if I drink soda, I find myself thinking “hey, I want another soda.”

I switched to using smaller bowls and smaller plates, and doling out smaller portions (I have “soup bowls” that are wide but shallow but have a circular imprint in the center, so I only fill the imprint and use some whole-grain bread to sop up the gravy from whatever I cooked).

This is not to say that these are easy things. Sticking your giant-sized bowls and glasses “out of the way” and replacing them is an expense, though not that expensive ($20 at Ikea replaced pretty much what I needed for daily use). Cutting how much you eat may require “feeling hungry” for a while as your body adjusts. But the research is clear; “inability to lose weight even though exercising” is much less likely to indicate that you have some hormonal/metabolic issue, and much more likely to indicate that you’re finding some hidden source of calories and not accurately measuring your caloric input or how many calories you’re burning.


Category: Kitchen

About the Author

Guy Webster (web) is an IT specialist at Southern Tech University, where he and Will Truman attended college.

12 Responses to Garbage In, Garbage Out

  1. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    Watch the juice. Juice is calorie-dense, deriving its sweetness from fructose. Six ounces of orange or grapefruit juice can contain over 100 calories. I can down six ounces of juice in one gulp, so when I do indulge in it I force myself to sip.

  2. trumwill says:

    It’s quite true. Exercising will often lead to consumption of excess calories. Sometimes due to false congratulations, but also because exercise makes you hungry. You cite soft drinks, but that’s actually another one. Quit drinking soft drinks and there’s a good chance you will get hungrier throughout the day (that’s certainly my experience). Cut down on portion sizes and/or go out to eat will lead to picking up the calories elsewhere (that’s not my experience, but likely the experience of others*). Giving up cokes and portion control are both good ideas, but outside of the vacuum, they are no better than exercise. The body wants the calories you’re depriving it. The hunger does not deserve quotes. It’s real. And it’s not fleeting.

    As the study says, exercise is ultimately not conducive to losing weight. To date, we still haven’t found something that is both realistically and reliably sheds significant weight and keeps it off. You say this is because the studies study the wrong thing, but they’re all we’ve got. Your supposition that if they just did this right and that right and followed these steps they’d lose weight and be able to keep it off and not be miserable is largely speculative. It assumes that their metabolisms wouldn’t attempt to compensate and that such a goal is realistic in the long term. It’s easy to assume this is true when you believe that those who share contrary experiences are self-deluded or lying.

    For the longest time, I thought that because my metabolism is fine that meant that metabolism was mostly an excuse. I agree with you that the vast majority of the time, metabolism is not solely responsible for excess weight. But I think that we need to stop thinking of it as an either/or proposition. Some people are born with slower metabolisms than others, even if their metabolism is not the only thing going on. More to the point, though, I believe that some people wreck their metabolism as they get overweight (or on their early attempts to lose weight). That’s the best explanation I have for the astounding failure rates of monitored dieting. The body frequently fights like hell to hold on to the weight it has and puts back on any lost weight as soon as it possibly can.

    My mother falls into this category. Excessive weight does not run in our family. There’s no obvious reason for her to struggle with her weight. she doesn’t eat terribly much. I’ve lived with her and I can tell you with absolute certainty that there are no late-night cakes. Clancy has observed this, too. I know that she is not completely incapable of losing weight because she has done it in the past. But what she’s had to do to get the weight off is miles and miles beyond what a thin person with a normal metabolism and healthy weight has to do to stay there. And what she has to do to keep the weight off is unsustainable in the long run.

    Maybe Mom is an abnormality, but I don’t think she is. Like I said, genetics are her ally. Her side of the family is actually thinner than my father’s side. But something happened along the way. I think that’s the case with a lot of people. And I think it creates a situation where substantial weight loss requires more willpower and self-restraint than we can reasonably expect most people to have. People that never got overweight in the first place have usually never had to climb that particular mountain and should not just assume that of course they could if they had to.

    * – A study in the 90’s suggested that the caloric increase of an individual between days when they go out to eat and days when they do not is a whopping 24 calories. Now, over a long enough time-span that can account for a lot of weight gain. However, when it comes to weight loss, that doesn’t provide the sort of dividend you might expect. For some people, like me, it works great. But that means that for others it’s not actually working at all.

  3. web says:

    TL,

    you’re right about the juice. The difference with juice is that it is (a) still less calorie-dense than soda, (b) has more vitamins and other nutrients than soda, and (c) I feel okay drinking a single glass and then water, rather than getting that “hey I’m still thirsty I’ll have another soda” feeling.

    One 6-8 glass of juice, versus 5-6 cans of soda? I’ll take the juice.

  4. trumwill says:

    I’m with TL on the juice. It is one of those hidden sources of sugary calories.

    The way that Web describes soft drinks used to ring true. When I was younger, I could drink those things one after the other. For some reason that’s changed in recent years, though. I partially try to limit soft drinks out of effort, but I also find that I have to space them out or else they stop tasting good.

    I’m not sure why. Part of me thinks that it’s just age. Part of me thinks it’s because I’ve limited my calorie intake enough in enough other areas that when soft drinks start comprising of a certain percentage of your calorie intake (say 40%) that a body starts to react differently. So in that sense, it could be that rather than cutting soft drinks to limit calorie intake, one may be better off limiting calorie intake first and then the soft drinks to follow.

  5. web says:

    Quit drinking soft drinks and there’s a good chance you will get hungrier throughout the day (that’s certainly my experience).

    My experience is the exact opposite. If I have a soda, I get a sugar-energy feeling, which wears off ~30-45 minutes later. It’s at that point that I get “extra hungry” and go looking for either another soda, or something else to eat to keep my energy level up.

    While yes, the juice is “sugary” as well, the juice is eaten with other food at meals and so the effect is not the same. I tended to have sodas at “standalone” times, which lent them to being a vicious cycle wherein it was either (A) get another soda or (B) feel tired as the sugar wore off.

    The body wants the calories you’re depriving it. The hunger does not deserve quotes. It’s real. And it’s not fleeting.

    Much as I have heard the pangs of cigarette withdrawal described (perhaps you can share some of your experience to verify this, Will?) the hunger pangs are not constant. They come and go. If you can discipline yourself through the process, and eat at scheduled times, you’ll do better.

    And over time, the body adapts. I can tell you right now that a few years ago, I would load a plate to the brim and “finish” it; now, I am to the point where I do not need that and in fact often feel “full” on approximately half that much food.

    Your supposition that if they just did this right and that right and followed these steps they’d lose weight and be able to keep it off and not be miserable is largely speculative. It assumes that their metabolisms wouldn’t attempt to compensate and that such a goal is realistic in the long term. It’s easy to assume this is true when you believe that those who share contrary experiences are self-deluded or lying.

    I am sharing what I have caught myself doing to myself. I’m not saying it is easy, or that “everyone” will automatically be able to do it. Some people do have lousy metabolisms, some people have basically destroyed their metabolisms, some people have a more sedentary lifestyle than others, and some people likewise just have lousy willpower.

    I am saying, however, that a major point based on my own experiences is that managing to get things under control is more likely IF you can identify the things you are doing that are counterproductive to your strategy. In my case, that was a combination of portion control (“one plate” means little when you’re using gigantic plates) and cutting out a known “hidden source” of massive caloric intake.

    I’ve caught myself a couple times. I have pretty much accepted that, genetically, I’m never going to be a bodybuilder or super-muscled model type. On the other hand, I have been working to lose some excess weight reliably, and get into better shape, and little by little it seems to be working.

    The other problem is that people think that because they can’t manage to go from 400+ pounds down all the way to a trim 160 or even worse, 100 or so, in just a few months they are “failing.” Part of the secret to keeping the weight off is slower, but steadier, gains that allow the body to adjust on its own. It’s not about simply yo-yo dieting down to a specific weight, it’s about gradually lowering your “normal.” For most people, this will take years.

    I think rather than lacking willpower, a lot of them just lack patience, since patience is something our society doesn’t value in the slightest!

  6. trumwill says:

    Good point about cokes at “standalone” times. However, what I’ve found is that when I cut cokes out, they are as often as not replaced with snacks. Some of this may be habitual, but some of it is that my system wants something. And if I deny it that something, I don’t get restless (as one would expect if it were habitual), I get downright hungry. I am not a person prone to physical hunger.

    Much as I have heard the pangs of cigarette withdrawal described (perhaps you can share some of your experience to verify this, Will?) the hunger pangs are not constant. They come and go. If you can discipline yourself through the process, and eat at scheduled times, you’ll do better.

    There are some connections between cigarette withdrawal and calorie withdrawal. However, the calories are physically necessary in a way that the nicotine is not. The body resists more and for a longer time. Cigarette withdrawal is at its most fierce on days 3-5 (sometimes as late as day 7). It doesn’t go away after that, but from there it becomes more psychological. The hunger lasts longer.

    Regarding the constancy of hunger, it sometimes goes away after you do eat but sometimes your body says “Yes! Thank you! You’re obviously having trouble procuring food so I am going to send you every signal I can to make sure you take advantage of this situation!” But even when that’s not the case, it doesn’t take long for the hunger to come straight back.

    I tried that whole “eat 6 meals of 300-400 calories” thing. The result? I would get hungry again within an hour or so. This would last for weeks until inevitably I failed.

    I have found that, personally speaking, eating smaller meals can make me hungrier. It’s easier for me to skip a meal than to eat a particularly light one. In the short term, anyway. The problem with skipping meals is that when your internal auditor gets to work and notices the deficit, it’s conducive to later overeating. The best solution to this problem, I’ve found, is to find bland or monotonous snacks like turkey pepperoni slices and to accept the fact that I’m just not going to eat half a sandwich.

    And over time, the body adapts. I can tell you right now that a few years ago, I would load a plate to the brim and “finish” it; now, I am to the point where I do not need that and in fact often feel “full” on approximately half that much food.

    Over time, yes. But what we’re talking about can last a long time. It’s not something where your body figures it out in a week or two. Further, when you screw up later, it doesn’t take your body nearly as long to adapt right back to where it was.

    That’s not only my experience, but it’s the best explanation I have for recidivism. In 1996-97, I lost 70 pounds or so. I kept it off for about two years. It took less than a year to put it all back on and not through some extraordinary eating. People that had never been that overweight to begin with would have their bodies fighting back against it. Instead, my body had fat cells (produced at my maximum weight) just waiting in the wings to find some fat to store.

    I am saying, however, that a major point based on my own experiences is that managing to get things under control is more likely IF you can identify the things you are doing that are counterproductive to your strategy. In my case, that was a combination of portion control (”one plate” means little when you’re using gigantic plates) and cutting out a known “hidden source” of massive caloric intake.

    Your experiences don’t include losing in excess of 50 pounds, do they? The difference between losing 20-30 pounds and losing 50+ pounds is significant. Weight loss plateaus. There seems to be a range wherein the body is flexible. Getting outside of that range is extraordinarily difficult. In my dietary adventures over the past 18 months, the first 30 pounds disappeared in less than six months. The next 15 took a year despite numerous efforts in the interim to break through that wall. This is consistent with my historical experience and Clancy ran into the same thing.

    All of this despite the fact that (I believe) I am more prone to weight-loss than the average overweight individual. I’m not fighting genetics, advancing age (yet), or a wrecked metabolism. I’m also tall, which helps me produce better raw numbers than someone shorter would be able to (ie my 30lb barrier may be 20lb for someone else).

    The advice you give is solid when it comes to maintaining weight or losing 20 pounds or so. But it’s not scalable. The body starts fighting back.

    I don’t disagree with you about patience. Even accepting that it’s going to take a long time, however, you’re still left with the fact that you have to go years without screwing up and falling back into the “old ways”. The path to success is extraordinarily narrow. The path to failure is everywhere else. Hence, success is extraordinarily uncommon.

  7. trumwill says:

    Looking over everything, my responses may have been too contentious and I apologize for that. I read your post with one tone (a condemnatory one) and you may have meant it in another (a hopeful, don’t-give-up one).

    I still think the advice is off-base, at least as it pertains to significant weight loss beyond the plateau, but it’s still good advice. Particularly for those looking at moderate weight loss. But even for those needing to climb the mountain, cutting down on soft drinks is never a bad idea. Whatever calories you may replace it with are rarely not going to be an improvement.

  8. Marla Singer says:

    I don’t believe in cutting calories to lose weight nor do I believe in a one size fits all diet.

    I think everyone is different and people will most likely find success in losing weight through finding their right metabolic type and eating food that existed 10,000 years ago.

  9. Kirk says:

    I think everyone is different and people will most likely find success in losing weight through finding their right metabolic type and eating food that existed 10,000 years ago.

    Yeah, but where are you going to find woolly mammoth nowadays? 😉

  10. stone says:

    I’ve been adding mineral water to my juice lately. Cuts the calories and sweetness so I can drink enough to quench my thirst.

  11. rob says:

    When I switched from real soda to diet a few years ago, the diet tasted funny for a couple days. Then it just became the new normal. I lost about 25-30 pounds from that in about 2 months. I’ve never regained it, I think because I never went back to sugared soda. Your mileage may vary. Never liked juice much, but fuctose is fructose.

    Marla’s right, at least for me. Eating real food (vegetables, meat, fish, fruit, nuts, Ezekial bread) I have way more energy, feel full longer, and exercise is much more pleasant. The problem for me is that eating that way isn’t obvious. When I’m really tired, I think “sleep will make me feel better.” When I feel tired, listless and grubby, there’s nothing in me that craves real food. I have to force it. So it’s really easy to fall off the wagon, and hard to get back on.

  12. trumwill says:

    Rob,

    That’s very impressive! I don’t know why it doesn’t work that way for me. Maybe I didn’t drink as much as you in the first place? Or maybe our systems just work differently. Getting rid of soft drinks has never done squat for me.

    I get in the groove with diet soft drinks pretty easily, but it never seems to last more than a couple (or maybe a few) months. I don’t know why. The sugar drinks don’t taste particularly good when I start drinking them again, but it takes less than a couple days for my taste buds to switch right back to the sugar drinks being “right” and the diet drinks being unsatisfying.

    You ever had Code Red Mountain Dew? That’s one of the very few cases where I don’t like the regular drink at all but the diet version is one of the best foods on the market. Not particularly easy to find, though.

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