You’ve probably heard it before: in order to lose weight, you have to eat “clean” or “cut out the junk.” Seems logical, right? After all, eating junk and “dirty” is what likely put the extra pounds on anyway. Ready to have your mind blown? It’s probably not.
Sarah, you’ve officially jumped on the crazy train. Of course my chips, pop, and Little Debbie habit is what got me here.
Nope, it’s not. Chips, pop, and Little Debbie do not magically set up shop in your butt and abdomen. If we subscribe to this belief, then we have chosen to neglect the basic tenets of energy balance.
Disclaimer: I am IN NO WAY stating that a diet of chips, pop, and Little Debbie is “healthy” or “good for you.” Not for one second. But I will not allow you to continue to think that eating a Little Debbie snack cake or whatever else you deem “bad” is instantly going to turn to a love handle or saddle bag. Sorry, just not the way it works.
But that’s what _____ (fill in your favorite “guru”) says! Poor gurus, I always get on their case. But here’s the thing, it’s pretty simple and you’ve heard me harp on this over and over and over:
In order to lose weight one must be in a caloric deficit.
In other words, calories expended (i.e., burned to maintain your basic physiological functions like respiration, digestion, and just plain existing; burned to carry you throughout your activities of daily living like walking around your home, doing the laundry, putting gas in the car, and everything else you do in a regular day; and then the calories you burn during any exercise you may or may not engage in) must be greater than calories consumed (i.e., the calories that your put into your body via food and beverage). This gives us two sides to the equation - the calories out side, and the calories in side.
So what put on these extra pounds then?
That’s simple: your math equation was skewed the other way - in other words, you were consuming more than you were burning!
It can’t be that simple! You’re saying this is a basic equation like from ninth grade algebra?!
That’s exactly what I’m saying. The reason gurus make it so complicated - telling us we have to cut out this and that - is likely that they are trying to sell you something, whether it’s a new diet book that finally has “The Answer,” a new meal replacement, or some other product. And the reason you’ve probably been failing is precisely because you’ve made it overly complicated.
What if I told you that you would probably do better on your weight loss journey if you included the stuff you like, rather than relegating it to some kind of food prison in your mind?
But people who have weight problems always are the ones you see eating a bunch of crap. So how can I eat that and still lose weight?
Read that sentence again. People who have weight problems always are the ones you see eating a BUNCH of crap. They are also probably the ones who have no idea how many calories are in a particular food (a lot more than what they thought), how many servings they actually just consumed (likely more than one!), and how many calories they burned while walking leisurely on the treadmill (unfortunately not as many as they think or even as the machine says). In other words, they don’t get energy balance (i.e., how calories are used in the body) and therefore they won’t have consistent weight loss until they do. Quite simply, they need to get educated.
OK, I’m listening now and I won’t say you’re on the crazy train anymore, but tell me more about this whole eat what you like concept…
The NUMBER ONE factor in weight loss is HOW MUCH you eat - calories, that is. If you eat too many calories, you’ll gain. Eat less than what you need, and you’ll lose. If I told you, you only got to eat chicken, oatmeal, a few almonds a day, some berries, and a crapload of broccoli, you’d probably hate me. What would you start thinking about? If you’re anything like me, you’d probably start having a mental funeral for all the stuff you “can’t” eat anymore - ice cream, pizza, fries, burgers, alcohol…the list goes on and on. In fact, you might not even START my program because you just knew you would never make it. Why invest in something you know you will fail at? Furthermore, my “program” would teach you nothing about real-world eating. That’s right, just because you started a “diet” doesn’t mean that birthdays, graduation parties, holiday functions, and late-night cravings cease to exist. Everyone else will still carry on and I guarantee you won’t find a boiled chicken breast at that next shindig. So what do you do? You either say “Screw it, I’m gonna eat what I want” (likely setting off either a bender of all the “forbidden fruits” or a major case of postprandial self-depreciation) or you march on like the true diet martyr you are, either eating beforehand while nursing a water at said party, or you pack a cooler of “approved” food that you eat in the corner so as not to seriously offend your host. Sounds awful and highly unsustainable for the long-haul.
But what if you tried something crazy? What if you actually ate the stuff you like while sticking to a realistic caloric target and enjoyed the process of attaining your desirable, healthy body weight?
But how do I do that? That sounds impossible, plus I know me - I will go off the deep end if I can have my favorites!
I get it, at first it sounds unlikely that this could ever work. But let’s consider the opposite. If you only eat what you think you should eat - the “clean” stuff - you will likely get dismayed and jump ship at some point before hitting your goal. Additionally, if you can somehow stick it out, what have you actually taught yourself? That the only way to maintain a healthy weight is to eat like a food-hating bird? Tsk tsk, that will never work, or you’ll be miserable.
Wouldn’t it be better to be true to yourself, to own that food is pretty darn tasty, eating is enjoyable, and you don’t have to feel bad for liking it??
Back in the day, I used to tell myself all kinds of lies about food, that pasty “brownies” made from protein powder and some ground up oats actually tasted good (if mud is good), that I needed 3-4 protein shakes a day to meet my needs (I didn’t), and that eating out was something to be scared of rather than celebrated. Here’s the funny part…I had a harder time maintaining my weight and actually gained weight doing this. I ate the least amount of “junk” I had ever eaten in my life - there was no ice cream, pizza, or cookies, except for the very rare “cheat day” (a stupid concept I loathe and will explore in a future blog). But the pounds piled on. Why, you ask? Well I hope by now you know the answer - I was eating more calories than what I needed. And the main reason I was doing so was that I. WAS. NEVER. SATISFIED. All of my fake brownie, plain food BS was, not surprisingly, pretty darn unsatisfying. So I kept going back for more. And I constantly thought about when my next loathsome brown rice and dry chicken crap meal was coming up. Because if you can’t have quality (taste) than you can darn well look forward to quantity (more, albeit bland, food). And THAT’S why I gained weight.
Because too many calories, whether it’s from stinky tuna straight from the can or some creamy Haagen Daz straight from the pint, will make the pounds pile on.
When I stopped the insanity and started eating what I liked, a funny thing happened - I stopped craving food all the time.
SHOCKING! I ate something that I liked, it tasted good, I stopped. And eventually those spare pounds fell off.
Because as much as we want to believe that eating is just to fill a physiological need - which it first and foremost is - there is no taking away the fact that food does, in fact, have an emotional component. When we stop denying this fact and actually acknowledge it and own it (a concept I’ll explore in another article), we will put ourself much further ahead in this process.
So, I’ve been rambling on and on up to this point, and you probably want the nitty gritty - how can you *actually* eat what you like and still lose?
Start tracking your food. Find your baseline caloric level then shave off about 500 calories to lose approximately a pound in a week. Check out this article for the particulars.
Make room for the stuff you like. This might mean cutting back on some other stuff - you can’t just eat you regular size meal and then have some ice cream on top of it, too. It’s like your checking account - if you want to incorporate something, you have to make some room for it in your budget. This doesn’t mean you should “save” all your calories either so you’re starving all day only to hit the Old Country Buffet every night. But it does mean that you have to make room for some fun stuff. It also might mean that you have to space out all the “fun” stuff (see #3).
Remember that “fun food” tends to be higher in calories and lower in nutrients (i.e., calorically dense, nutrient poor). This means that it adds up quickly. A careful tracking system is in order to make sure you don’t go over.
Along those same lines, don’t neglect the nutrients! Sure you could theoretically lose weight on a diet of Ho-Hos and Twinkies if your calories were on track, but no one will ever tell you this is healthy - you will be neglecting so many of the important nutrients your body needs. Some people suggest thinking 80/20 - in other words, 80% of the nutrient-rich stuff, 20% of the fun (i.e., calorically-rich, nutrient-poor) stuff.
I hope this article helps to clear up some of the confusion and lets you to realize that eating for weight management doesn’t have to be an exercise in self-deprivation. In fact, including what you like - THOUGHTFULLY AND AS PART OF A REDUCED-CALORIE DIET - can actually HELP you to achieve better results!
So cheers to your health (with a little side of ice cream!),
Additional Reading (since this is a favorite blog topic of mine):