Well, it’s January, and that means that many Americans have recently made some new resolutions for 2012, and one of the most common resolutions is to lose weight. So, despite the fact that I am a software engineer and not a personal trainer or nutritionist, I’m going to offer some unsolicited advice on how to lose weight like an engineer =)
Engineers like to measure, quantize, track, and analyze data in order to achieve their goals, and this approach actually does make a lot of sense for losing weight.
Rule #1: 3500 calories is roughly equal to a pound
One of the underlying assumptions you’ll want to make when trying to lose weight like an engineer is that, roughly speaking, 3500 calories is equal to a pound of body weight. In other words, if you consume 3500 more calories in a day, a week, or a month than you burn, then at the end of that period of time you will be roughly one pound heavier. Conversely, if you burn 3500 more calories in a day, a week, or a month than you eat, then you will be roughly one pound lighter.
Rule #2: Calculate Your Caloric Baseline
Your caloric baseline is the average number of calories that you burn in a day, without factoring in workouts or exercise. This number is basically the sum of your Basal Metabolic Rate (your daily energy expenditure at rest) plus any other typical activity that you perform during your day while working, recreation, doing errands, etc. This number also happens to be the average number of calories you’d need to eat in a day to maintain the same weight indefinitely.
It would be pretty inconvenient to spend an entire day in bed hooked up to a calorimetry machine in order to calculate your basal metabolic rate, and it would also be pretty annoying to try to go about your daily business hooked up to a machine in order to figure out your caloric baseline. Fortunately, there are several caloric baseline calculators available on the web that can guesstimate your caloric needs based on your height, weight, age, and general activity level. You’ll probably want to choose the “sedentary” or “light” options so that you can track your exercise separately.
Rule #3: Calculate Your Caloric Goal
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to try to lose too much weight at once via crash dieting. The generally accepted maximum amount of weight you should try to lose in a week is about two pounds. Why?
- You could easily lose lean mass (muscle) in addition to fat.
- You are physiologically and psychologically more likely to binge eat after an unsustainable crash diet.
So, let’s say you want to lose about one pound per week. So your goal is a 3500-calorie deficit per week, or 500 calories per day (when divided by seven). So subtract 500 calories from your caloric baseline and you have your average caloric goal.
Rule #4: Track What You Eat
Now that you have a caloric goal, the next step is to measure your diet to see how many calories it contains. There are a number of websites that provide calorie information and calorie tracking:
Personally, I like Daily Plate because it has a very large and easily-searchable food database, it allows you to track your exercise as well as food, and it can actually calculate and track your progress against a caloric goal.
Another thing you might want to consider, to make measuring calories easier, is to purchase a food scale and use it to determine exactly how much of certain ingredients you’re using when cooking or preparing food. For example if you’re making a sandwich, or cooking some chicken, it can be difficult to tell just how many ounces of meat you’re using without one.
Rule #5: All Calories Are Equal, Except When They’re Not
It’s true that all calories, whether they come from fat, protein, carbohydrates, or sugar, are all basically the same in that they will all cause you to gain weight if you eat too much of them. But, there are some caveats to the basic rule that “a calorie is a calorie”:
- Your diet should include at least a sizable amount of protein so that you maintain muscle mass. Without protein, you’ll lose muscle mass fast.
- Some foods are more filling than others per calorie, especially ones with low energy density. Fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins generally have high volume and/or fiber compared to their calorie content, so they help you feel full longer.
- Salt is not necessarily as bad as we might think it is, but it can lead to water retention. Further, eating salty foods (like chips or fries) can lead to eating more of a food than you would have otherwise because it tastes so good.
- Alcohol can be pretty bad for weight loss. First, because you are consuming “empty calories” that don’t actually make you feel full. Second, alcohol often leads to increased appetite, which explains late night post-drinking cravings for Jack in the Box. This article does a really good job of explaining alcohol’s overall effect on weight loss.
Rule #6: Track What You Do
If you calculated your daily caloric needs as a “sedentary” or “light” lifestyle, then you’ll want to keep track of how many calories you burn while doing exercise. There are three basic ways to track calories burned while working out:
- If you’re using a cardio machine, such as a treadmill or elliptical machine, these will generally estimate your calories burned based on your weight and your speed. However, cardio machines are notorious for overestimating calories burned while exercising.
- Use an online calories burned calculator to guesstimate how many calories you’ve burned. This is also not particularly accurate because these calculators assume a relatively consistent amount of calories burned per sport, but intensity levels can vary greatly among individuals.
- Buy and use a Heart-Rate Monitor with a calorie count feature. This should take the actual intensity of your workout into account and should be much more accurate than the other two methods.
In addition to the overestimation problem of counting calories, there’s another problem – we tend to focus on the total calories burned of an exercise, not the net caloric burn. In other words, we fail to subtract the extra calories we burned working out versus what we would have been doing instead (like working or using the computer). So when you track calories burned, you might want to intentionally under-report them or possibly not track them at all.
Rule #7: Track What You Weigh
This one is pretty simple. Get an accurate bathroom scale and make it a habit to weigh yourself every day right after you wake up (and after going to the bathroom). Your weight tends to be most “stable” in the morning, so this is the best time to do it. Why do this?
- It keeps you accountable. Psychologically, it’s much harder to let yourself go and overeat if you see your numbers creeping up.
- It gives you more data to play with, and engineers love data.
The second part is kind of a joke, but if you track your daily weight you could use it to plot a moving average to see how your weight is trending over time. Since weight tends to fluctuate day-to-day, it can be more visually motivating to see your weight tending downward over time as you stick to your caloric goals.
Rule #8: Weight Isn’t Everything
It’s funny, we tend to make resolutions like “Lose 10 pounds this year”, but we fail to account for the fact that losing weight and losing fat are not quite the same thing. We also tend to equate fitness with being thin, but they’re really not the same thing at all.
If you’ve been tracking your diet and your exercise, you may have noticed that it’s far easier to eat one less slice of pizza than it is to jog for half an hour per day, so you might be tempted to skip exercising and just focus on your diet. But this would be a mistake.
Consider this – would you rather be a slightly overweight person who runs half-marathons, or a very skinny person who can barely walk from their house to their car without getting winded? Let’s be honest, the first person is more fit, and fitness is more important than weight for health.
Further, for every pound of muscle mass that you have, your basal metabolic rate goes up, because those muscles are hungry for calories (especially protein). So over time as you develop more muscle from working out, lifting weights, or doing sports, it should become easier to burn more fat.
I could write an entirely new post on various pros and cons of different exercises and sports, but suffice to say that you should definitely include some kind of regular exercise into your routine while trying to lose weight, in order to maintain muscle mass while losing fat.