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Keep it simple

Posted by eric on January 10, 2012

Over the past several days it seems as though a number of articles destressing the importance of the energy balance equation in weight loss/gain/maintenance have popped up. Diets that attempt to focus solely on the amount of carbohydrates one consumes, or how hormonal imbalances or food sensitivities can negatively impact a person's ability to meet their weight and fitness goals.

Guess what? One-third of Americans are obese. In terms of numbers, that's 105 MILLION obese people in the US alone. World-wide there's a similar problem, but the US leads the pack by far. So how did over 100M Americans get to be in this condition? Hormonal imbalance? Celiac Disease? Or, more likely, by eating too many of the wrong foods and not burning off the excess energy obtained from them.

Sure, there are exceptions, maybe even as much as 10% (as a note, Celiac Disease accounts for about 3% of the US population, not all of whom are obese), but for the remaining 90% it's better to keep things simple.

Here's why:

In most cases, people will gravitate towards simple solutions vs. options that are more complex or difficult. In terms of managing diet and nutrition, I believe this is especially the case. Having seen how people have dealt with diet issues over the years (myself included), plans where you have to spend significant time understanding everything about what you eat, or plans that require unusual food pairing, or plans that deprive your body of essential nutrients for extended periods, are simply not successful in the long term.

Why?

  • They're too complicated to follow when time is tight or you're in a situation where the "right" foods are not available. 
  • It's easier to make excuses for failing a difficult task than a simple task. 
  • It's stressful on a person to be constantly considering if they're eating just the right combination of foods - stress releases cortisol, which can cause increased appetite, further exacerbating what, for many, is already a stressful dieting situation. 
  • In cases where essential nutrients are cut, your body cannot function over the long term in those conditions.

So how do you fix it? Keep it simple.

While there are certainly a number of factors that can drive the ultimate success of a nutrition program, and some people indeed face more daunting issues such as chemical imbalances, immune diseases, etc., most people simply need to do the math.

The difference between the energy your body consumes and the energy it uses will determine whether you lose weight or gain weight. Ultimately, it is no more than that. Yes, there are factors in how the body actually processes calories - not all are created equal or are as useful as others - but regardless, if you consume more energy than you use, it results in a net energy excess. Your body doesn't have batteries - it stores the energy in fat cells. Well, technically, it can store relatively small amounts of energy in the form of glycogen in the liver and muscles, but most excess energy is stored in the form of fat.

So if you want to lose fat, you need to force your body to dip into its energy (fat) reserves. It will only do this if it doesn't have enough of the more readily available food energy. When your body needs this fat energy, it breaks that fat down into glycerol and fatty acids which are then converted to ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) to power your muscles.

This is not to say that the best way to lose weight it to cut off your energy consumption completely - that will cause more issues, since your body needs the other macronutrients in your foods (protein, carbs) to enable other processes within the body. 

In order to be successful, in the majority of cases, there must be three factors involved:

  • Dedication
  • Nutrition
  • Action

I have a separate article dedicated to that concept, but essentially you need to commit to a new lifestyle, eat real foods with the proper nutrient mix, and exercise to increase energy consumption, build muscle mass, and improve bone density.

That's it. No complicated food plans. Just a nutrition plan, meaning you think about what you're eating (at home or on the road) and try to get a reasonable mix of nutrients and the right number of calories to meet your needs.

I also don't want to ignore the fact that there are advanced options - various research has been done to determine optimal before-and-after workout meals (hint: drink a glass of chocolate milk after exercise), best food pairings, etc. These are options for those of you who are looking to optimize your nutrition, to lose the last 5 pounds, to hone an already reasonably fit body. For those of us that need to lose 40, 50, 100 pounds, the best place to start is something simple.

Of course, saying that it's "simple" doesn't mean that it's "easy". Any time you need to change your behavior and convince your body - and mind - that it needs to want something new, it will be a challenge. The key is to first convince your mind. If you are whole-heartedly into your decision, you've made it for the right reasons, and you know that it's the best thing for you, then the stress of dieting will be significantly less.

Don't diet because you think someone else wants it, or because someone told you you need to lose weight. Do it because you truly believe in the benefits of a healthier lifestyle. If you don't, then you won't be successful.

Take the time to understand the impacts of poor nutrition over time and make an informed decision. Enlist the help and support of others - going it alone can be very stressful, where doing it as a group can be fun and can create a real sense of camaraderie.

And follow these general guidelines:

  • Set realistic goals for weight loss per week (.5 to 2 pounds, depending on your starting point) and total pounds lost.
  • Track what you're eating using a simple tool, like myfitnesspal.com. It will help you to learn proper portioning so you can more easily make the right choices in the future.
  • Eat fewer calories than you need until you've reached your goal. Extend "what you need" by changing your exercise routines (either starting, or ramping up, as appropriate).
  • Reward your successes from time to time. Lose the first 5 pounds? Treat yourself to a nice dinner. Lose a pant or dress size? Get a new outfit (but not too many, because you're still losing weight!)

I won't guarantee this will work for every individual out there - because some of us do have issues, imbalances, and other challenges that can inhibit the success of a traditional nutrition plan. If you've tried the energy equation diet before - and really stuck to it - and weren't successful, then other options may be warranted. However, that determination should be made with the guidance of a qualified nutritionist, not of an infomercial.

Do your research on the energy balance equation, convince yourself that you're taking the right action. Unless you're fully committed to a plan, you will never be successful no matter how simple it might be.

Stay fit everyone.

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