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Looking to lose weight? Plan ahead.

Posted by eric on January 6, 2012

It's the New Year, and for many of us, that means making resolutions that include losing weight. If you are one of those looking to do that, before you get started make sure you have lined out an appropriate plan to get from where you are to where you want to be. 

This is important whether you're looking to lose 5 pounds, 50 pounds, or more. The key is to understand the details of how to achieve your goal. 

The Calorie

Much has been written about the calorie, but one of the best summaries I've see recently is a fairly short article from Men's Health Magazine that outlines several truths and misconceptions about calories. I'd recommend reading this article so you can understand what I'm talking about when I refer to "calories'. 

Hint: Calories aren't the enemy.

The Numbers

So I just said that calories aren't the enemy, which is true. However, too many calories will cause you to gain weight, no matter how good for you they might be. The key is to understand how many calories you need to be taking in on any given day and how many you need to avoid in order to lose your desired amount of weight.

To start with, you need to know your basal metabolism, which will tell you how many calories your body needs to take in just to maintain your current weight while being more or less completely inactive (i.e., no real additional exercise). Any exercise you do adds to the number of calories you need to take in to maintain your weight.

The next point is how many calories you need to cut. For every pound you want to lose, you need to burn 3500 more calories than you consume. There are good ways and bad ways to do this, but in the end if you use more than you take in you will achieve a calorie deficit and therefore lose weight. 

Finally, it's important to understand the appropriate proportions of the three primary macronutrients - fats, protein, carbohydrates - you should be taking in. Each of these is necessary in order for the body to function correctly in the long-term, so entering a diet program that completely cuts out one of those nutrient groups can be detrimental to your health. This isn't to say that the diet won't provide short-term results, but long-term effects can be problematic.

A general rule of thumb would be about 30% of your calories should come from fat (preferably high in omega-3 fatty acids, or monounsaturated fats), 30% from protein, and 40% from carbohydrates. From a calorie perspective, a gram of fat = 9 calories, protein and carbs = 4 calories.

Developing a Plan

Now that you've decided you want to lose weight, you've determined your basal metabolism, and you've reviewed the numbers, you're ready to develop your plan. So what does that mean, exactly?

To start with, determine how much weight you want to lose. Divide that by 1.5 to get an approximate number of weeks that it should realistically take you to lose the weight. That is, an average of 1 1/2 pounds per week is a good estimate - more will likely come off at first, but it will get more difficult as you lose weight.

So for example, if you want to lose 50 pounds, 50/1.5 = 33 weeks, or about 8 months.

Eight months? Are you kidding me? I see ads every day that tell me I can lose 20 pounds this week while still eating cookies and drinking my favorite beverages. 

Yes, 8 months. This isn't Biggest Loser, this is Realistic Loser, where you don't set expectations for yourself that will cause disappointment. There will be challenges along the way, and there will be min-successes like your first 10 pounds, your first pant or dress size reduction, etc. 

Anyway, back to the example of losing 50 pounds at a rate of roughly 1.5 pounds per week. Remember the 3500 calories per pound? This means that in order to lose 1.5 pounds in a week, 5250 more calories must be burned than what is consumed. As a daily number, that's 5250/7 or 750 calories.

Now let's expand this a little further by investigating a sample "real" person. This person is a 35-year-old male, 6 feet tall, weighing 225 pounds. He wants to get down to 175 pounds (50 pounds lost). His starting BMR (basal metabolic rate) is 2140 calories. So if he adds no exercise, he would need to consume 2140-750, or 1390 calories per day to his his target of 1.5 pounds lost per week.

You can also see that 750 is roughly 1/3 of his total BMR - cutting out that many calories certainly presents a challenge. He will be hungry. But by eating good calories - fats, complex carbohydrates, proteins, and high-fiber foods, he can still feel less hungry while losing weight.

If he adds exercise, then he needs to add food. For example, if he walks for 30 minutes, he'd burn a little under 200 calories, depending on the speed. He will need to make up that 200 calories to maintain his weight loss target.

Some important points to keep in mind as you develop your plan:

  • Trying to lose too much too quickly can cause your body to go into "starvation mode", where it will actually hoard fat and lower your BMR in order to conserve energy. It is important that you don't try to reduce your intake too drastically or it will be counterproductive.
  • As you lose weight, your BMR also drops. In the example above, by the time he gets to his half-way point and loses 25 pounds, his BMR has dropped to 1985. So instead of needing 1390 calories per day to meet his goals, he now only needs 1235.
  • Plan you meals - and your shopping trips - along with your weight loss goals. It's difficult to stick to a nutrition plan if you don't have appropriate foods in the house.

Following Through

This is the tough part - sticking with your plan. It will help to enlist others to support you in your goals - friends, family, or coworkers. It won't be easy - frankly, and I know from experience, you will be hungry and crabby until your body starts to adapt to the lower caloric intake.

It should help to remember that losing weight will ultimately make you a healthier, happier person.

Good luck, and stay fit everyone!

 

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