You look great! How did you do it?
This is what people say ever since I lost 50 pounds. They don’t say, “You look like you lost weight!” They say, “You look great!” Now I realize that I am still at least 15 pounds overweight, but there is a noticeable difference from the way I looked very recently.
This is why most people want to lose weight. They want to look good. In my case, I did it for health reasons. I was born with a heart murmur due to a birth defect in my aortic valve. (If you are interested in the medical definition, it was was a bicuspid valve with aortic stenosis.) It was always a mild condition and I had no restrictions on my activity. But doctors have always told me from the time I was a child, that when I was about 50 or 60, I probably would need aortic valve replacement surgery. This necessity came due when I was 49-and-a-half years old. With better weight management, I might have prolonged this surgery for a few years, but it was inevitable.
This turned out to be a blessing from a God who works all things for good. It gave me the time, motivation and program to lose weight. My type of surgery had an eight-week recovery time during which I was given a cardio-diet to follow and an exercise program of walking with a goal of 45 minutes a day by the end of eight weeks. Because I was younger and more fit than most heart patients, within two weeks I was doing 30 minutes of walking a day on a 1500 calorie a day diet. Within four weeks, I was walking an hour per day and gradually picking up the pace each week eventually doing jogging and lifting free weights as well.
Nutrition was the key — nutrition as the base plus exercise. I lowered my nutritional intake while at the same time burning a larger number of calories through exercise. I made steady progress with no setbacks. I found that there is no such thing as “trying to lose weight” — only a consistent nutrition and exercise program to follow each day. Weight loss is a natural consequence of that consistency.
Nutrition must be the foundation. On top of this, the amount of exercise each day must consistently reach a certain level to burn a certain number of calories. Until recently, I was not accustomed to thinking of food as “fuel,” but I’ve come to understand that all food equals calories. Food mass is converted to energy (calories) which is then converted to body mass as cell tissues die and must be constantly replaced. Excess calories are usually stored as fat. With regular exercise, muscle tissues break down and will be replaced. To build muscle, protein must be synthesized out of not only calories, but certain amino acids in the blood stream from foods eaten recently.
I set out to burn 3000 calories a day and consume about 1500. My net loss in the beginning of my nutritional program was 1500 calories per day and 10,500 per week. Using the 3500 calories equals one pound of fat formula, I should have lost between two to three pounds each week. The graph below shows that for the first 35 pounds of weight loss this was indeed the case.
Above is a graph (click to enlarge) I generated on www.fitbit.com that shows a three month period of time when I was losing consistently between 2 to 3 pounds a week. I was never able to do this before I discovered www.fitbit.com.
In the beginning of my plan, I weighed a lot more, so I was burning a lot of calories doing less exercise as I do now. This is the reason why so many dieters will “plateau” after a period of time. This isn’t due to “stubborn belly fat.” It is because as I become lighter and more fit, my body becomes more efficient in using the calories in my system. For example, a 250 pound person might burn 300 calories in an hour long walk, but a 175 pound person might burn only 200.
The biggest drawbacks to changing my nutrition plan were three objections in the forefront of my mind.
- I am not disciplined enough to count calories.
- I enjoy eating.
- I don’t enjoy being hungry all the time.
These supposed problems had the same solution. Prior to 2012, I was probably eating 2500 calories a day and burning 2500 calories. I cut my caloric intake back by almost 1000 calories a day to about 1500 calories and increased my caloric output by about 500 calories a day to about 3000.
Even though I like to eat good food, I am not any more hungry than I was before. How is that possible? The simple fact is that most people have no idea what they are eating. Even if you read labels, unless you log each food you eat, you can’t know the breakdown of calories, fats, proteins and carbohydrates that you consume each day. I use Fitbit.com to solve this problem. Most people I have talked to about this say that they could never sit down and record all their foods.
Granted, because my surgery required me to take several weeks off of work, I had more than enough time on my hands to be nutrition conscious and to exercise. However, Fitbit.com makes it a lot easier for anyone to log foods. It has most foods already recorded as data, so as you begin to type a name of a food, several choices appear in a list. You can click on the right one and then choose the amount. Fitbit also has a feature in which your most frequently logged foods appear in a sidebar. You can also create meals made up of several foods. For instance, you can log a smoothie, breakfast cereal with fruit and milk, and so on, simply by clicking on the name of the meal. I also find that I eat many of the same foods over and over. After a while, logging foods on the on-line program became second nature. It takes just a few minutes out of my day.
It has also been interesting for me to see how various foods break down. Fitbit.com automatically breaks down each food into calories, fats, proteins and carbs. It keeps a tally of these amounts in each food and the percentages. This is what I mean when I say that most people have no idea what they are eating.
I try to make it into a 1 to 2 ratio pyramid.
15 percent fat
30 percent protein
55 percent carbohydrates
Here is a convenient way to remember the ratio. Fat has 3 letters. Protein has 7 letters. Carbohydrates has 13 letters. They form a pyramid more or less.
Why this breakdown?
There are more than twice as many calories in a gram of fat than in a gram of protein or carbohydrates. This means that if you fill your stomach with fat, you will feel less full than if you eat carbohydrates or protein. Since fats are found in higher percentages in protein, I try to make more than half of my food complex carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables. Once I saw that, I began to think of food as the body’s fuel – rather than as something to give comfort or pleasure. The key is to find the fuel that is most efficient in delivering the right balance of nutrients to the body.
Here are a few more tricks I learned about not going hungry. As I learned the caloric content of various foods, I started to see that many of the foods I love are high in fat and calories, but I also found quite a few foods I liked that are low in calories and have almost zero fat. I found I can fill my stomach with these foods I enjoy and still keep under my target calorie number for that meal. I love all kinds of berries — blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries – which can be added to many meals. They can be added to cereal, salads, smoothies and yogurt desserts. I also love summer squash and all kinds of beans. My wife makes a pot of vegetarian chili each week. I’ll make a meal or snack out of one cup with a little plain non-fat yogurt several times a week.
Since I live in Florida, I’ll make a snack out of red navel orange, a tangerine, a tangelo and a grapefruit, a huge volume meal of 240 calories Many other vegetables such as cabbage, cucumbers, bean sprouts, and so on, have good nutritional value and are very low in caloric content. I also eat a lot of dried fruit. Dried apricots, pineapple and mango are my favorites. If I eat a few ounces of dried fruit with a big glass of water, this fills my stomach and curbs hunger. I also eat at least one banana a day as part of breakfast or in a smoothie. I always laughed when I used to hear the nutritionists prescribe eight cups of fruits and vegetables a day. I thought I could never eat that many fruits and vegetables. But there are many fruits and vegetables I like to eat, so they now make up the bulk of my food.
Carbohydrates from whole grains are also good, but they ought to make up less calories than derived from fruits and vegetables. I love bread, but I now avoid all white flour. I buy sprouted wheat bread and whole wheat pita bread. I limit myself to a few slices a week. Instead I eat oatmeal, Cheerios or buckwheat pancakes almost every day for breakfast.
Another fact I learned is that oils, butter and butter substitutes are made up of 100 percent fat. To stay under my goal of a 15 percent fat ratio per day, I try to avoid salad dressings, oils and butter substitutes. It is better to get fats from lean meats, nuts, avocado, olive oil, Benecol (a butter substitute containing plant stanifers) and foods containing high amounts of monounsaturated fat. I discovered for instance, that there is so little nutritional value in iceberg lettuce than it makes no sense to think that a salad made of lettuce and salad dressing is a healthy meal. It’s better to eat other types of vegetables with a little seasoning and avoid oils and butter.
I also happen to love fish. Certain fish, such as tuna, contain very little fat, while oily fish contains “good fat” and the omega-3 compounds that are good for cardio-vascular health. If you like seafood, this is an awesome nutritional advantage.
The key is to understand how many calories and fats there are in each food. I’ve given a few examples above, but the idea is to find foods that you love that you can eat in abundance and not consume too many calories. Remember that this is not a “diet,” but a nutritional lifestyle. So the foods that make up your plan need to be things that you feel comfortable eating for the long term.
As I mentioned earlier, I always thought of myself as “eating healthy” even when I was overweight. We hear frequent claims that many foods are bad for your health. Recently, I heard a radio informercial claiming the flax seed contains cyanide (in fact, many foods contain very small amounts of cyanide and are not dangerous) and that fish oil actually raises your “bad” LDL cholesterol rather than lowering it. The truth is that in the correct portions, there are virtually no foods that are “bad.” The key is correct portions.
In general, no man needs more than 1500 calories per day. Of course, this needs to come from diverse food groups in order to be healthy. If you are overweight, 1500 calories per day with normal activity will eventually bring you down to normal weight. Once this weight is achieved, those 1500 calories will be enough to maintain a normal mass. For women, 1000 to 1200 calories a day are sufficient. Height and frame ought to be taken into account, but this is a general rule.
Cutting out one-third of my normal caloric intake at first seemed drastic. The surprising thing to me is that I have been able to do that without being hungry throughout the day. This means I can eat anything as long as it totals less than 1500 calories a day. I occasionally break the rule about the 2 to 1 ration pyramid (fats 15 , proteins 30, carbohydrates 55%). This is okay since the pyramid is designed to deliver high mass, low calorie foods. People ask me if I can eat certain foods. I eat chocolate almost every day, but it is in small amounts. I could eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream if I wanted to. The problem is that this 16 ounces would deliver 1200 calories out of the 1500 I am trying to limit myself to. It would also give me 76 grams of fat, which is more than double the ratio of the food pyramid. However, four ounces of ice cream (half a cup) of this high butter fat ice cream would be perfectly fine once in a while to take the place of a meal. It’s all about limiting portions.
I have measuring cups and spoons in my kitchen as well as a digital sale. This seemed strange at first to me that I was measuring and weighing out exact amounts of everything I ate like a chemist. Even my bowl of cereal in the morning is one cup of cereal, half a cup of fruit, and half a cup of skim milk. I used to just pour cereal until I felt it was enough. But limiting portions to exact amounts is vital in knowing how many calories are consumed daily.
I could not do this without Fitbit.com. It’s so easy. I simply type in and click on foods and amounts. Then the on-line program does all the calculations for me.
Meals in the 1500 calorie plan ought to be broken down into six meals a day. Three meals of no more than 300 calories each and three snacks of no more than 200 calories each.
Breakfast – 300 calories
Morning snack – 200 calories
Lunch – 300 calories
Afternoon snack – 200 calories
Dinner – 300 calories
Evening snack – 200 calories
TOTAL – 1500 calories
What this does is to keep enough calories going through my system that I never sense a need for food that triggers hunger. In each meal and snack, I also try to include fruit or vegetables of at least half a cup – or some type of fiber that will fill up my stomach.
Many of the same principles apply here as they do for nutrition. What you eat is the base for calories gained. Exercise ought to be consistent as a base number of calories burned each day. Walking for 45 minutes to an hour each day ought to be enough for most people to reach their caloric burn goal. The mistake I made in the past is that I did not exercise consistently and then I’d try to compensate by doing more.
Since I was a heart surgery patient, I was advised to walk three or four times a day for a few minutes until my lung capacity was normal and my heart recovered and then continue with one or two walks equaling about 45 minutes. I soon realized that I could walk for 30 and then 45 minutes – eventually making an hour long walk a daily routine. I don’t mind walking for an hour. It is not difficult. Although I incorporate jogging and running into my walks now, I don’t push myself past the point where it is not comfortable and enjoyable. I try to find interesting places to walk and I vary what I do so it doesn’t get boring. Exercise can be anything you enjoy doing and can do on a daily basis.
The base amount of exercise is the same every day. Then a few times a week I work in something extra to burn more calories. The problem with not exercising daily is that unless my calorie burn goal is met each day, then random exercise a few days a week will increase my appetite. When exercise becomes a daily routine, then the six meals spaced out throughout the day, which I describe above, are enough to curb my hunger. At first, I found it strange to think of food as “fuel.” It is as though I am taking a trip with a ration of fuel and will have to stop every three hours to refuel.
Currently, I am trying to burn about 3000 calories a day to more quickly reach my weight goal. At that rate, I ought to lose two to three pounds per week on average. Eventually, what will happen is that the same amount of exercise per hour will begin to burn less calories because a lighter body burns less calories with the same amount of exercise than a heavier body. So with the same amount of exercise, I will “plateau” or maintain my weight at a certain level. The goal then will be to lower my fat to muscle ratio or lower the fat volume of my body while maintaining the same weight.
Fitness experts vary on recommending the frequency and what type of exercise is the best. My plan is to have a base amount of an hour of walking each day. Then if I add jogging, running and weight lifting to that routine, it is a bonus. The main thing to remember is that a net loss of 3500 calories burned will result in a loss of a pound of fat on average. Of course, there are variables, but I try to do this every single day. Some may want to do more three times a week. However, prior to this year, I found that unless I made it a daily routine then I would often find myself skipping a few days here and there until my exercise routine became almost non-existent.
How to count calories burned
Fitbit.com sells a Bluetooth exercise monitor device that measures my daily steps, distance in miles and calories burned. The Bluetooth automatically syncs the data with the Fitbit.com website whenever I am a few feet away from my computer. The great thing about Fitbit.com is that it gives all sorts of charts and graphs to show progress. Prior to using this tool, I had no idea what I was eating and had no way to know how many calories I was burning. I was also amazed to see how accurately the 3500 calories per pound formula actually works in practice. It sounds simple and it is. Weight loss is all about understanding and using mass-energy equivalency.
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“When the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing.” – President Ronald Reagan to National Religious Broadcasters Convention, January 1981
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