Much confusion about the best way to lose weight. This became a subject of interest in my early 30s, when I could no longer eat a sleeve of Saltines with peanut butter (and several glases of milk) as a regular TV snack without rapidly resembling a jar of Skippy.
I’m 5’11″ and was always (for three decades anyway) easily lean. Skinny. Weak. Prepubescent, in a way, with none of the fabled manly attributes like muscle or power. My fear was generally one of becoming a lanky guy with a gut, which really, you’re better off being all around portly than have that happen to your body.
But I got portly anyway. Around the time of my wife’s pregnancy, I made it up to a squishy 215-220. After the birth of our son, I became a stay-at-home Dad and did lots of long walks around the neighborhood with the stroller. The walks, combined with giving up my day-long cubical sedation, got me nice and lean that summer, but I was still pathetically feeble and in danger of gaining it all back once the stroller went away and I continued with my terrible eating habits. Plus I got depressed sometimes and exercise seemed a real requirement… that and wanting to be a good heroic role model for my son, who’s still at the blessed age when he considers Dad a cross between Captain America and Bear Grylls.
I read a lot of books and articles, good and mediocre, about losing weight and getting in shape. The best source I know is Tom Venuto’s The Body Solution, which manages to synthesize every common-sense thing I ever came across in every other source. It’s simple and logical and zero B.S. I cannot recommend it enough.
To get specific about weight loss (I’ll write about exercise another time), here are the most valuable facts I’ve learned, all which have yielded the intended results when properly applied:
1. The only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume. Calorie in, calorie out.
2. We need a certain amount of calories to maintain our current weight. This varies based on age and level of activity. You can ballpark your base-level calorie needs at almost any diet/fitness site. I like Calorie Count (free; has a good iPhone app, too).
3. A pound of body fat is roughly equal to 3,500 calories.
4. My maintenance calorie requirement is approximately 2,700. If I eat 3,200 calories a day, that’s an extra 3,500 calories a week and I’ll gain a pound of fat. If I eat 2,200 calories a day, I’ll lose a pound a week.
5. For the average person, losing a pound a week is a good and manageable target. Two pounds a week is tough. Three is very tough (and probably unhealthy) unless you’re very obese and need to lose dozens and dozens of pounds. Even then, slow and steady.
6. Eating fat isn’t just OK, it’s necessary for proper nutrition. Saturated and trans fats are bad. See some good fats here.
7. You want a healthy balance of protein, carbs, and fats. (Carbs are good and necessary, too: see good carbs here.) Again, most diet sites will help you determine a good ratio.
8. When it comes to losing weight, I’d unscientifically estimate that what you eat is 80% of the equation, the other 20% being regular exercise.
Let’s make it really easy, though. If you’re serious about losing weight, counting calories, eating good food instead of crap, and regular exercise is the only way to go. Which is so cliche it’s incredible that so much confusion remains. I have to assume the confusion stems from people wanting an easier solution, so every time there’s a “breakthrough” or fad diet that promises speed and ease, its flash popularity muddies up the facts. Just eat less, eat better, exercise. That’s it.
One great benefit of strict calorie counting (which really is surprisingly easy thanks to apps) is that even if you do it only for a short period, like a week or a month, you’ll begin to understand exactly how much you’re actually eating (more than you think) and what a “normal” portion ought to look like. You’ll discover that you can eat TONS of certain good foods, like lean meat and vegetables, and that tiny amounts of lousy foods are worse than you ever dreamed. Once you know what a proper serving of meat looks like, you’ll be less likely to eat a giant plate of steak. When it fully registers how empty a bottle of beer is, nutritionally speaking, you might be inclined to drink two instead of four.
Easy rule of thumb when choosing meals on the fly, without counting anything, compliments of Tom Venuto: start with lean protein, then have a vegetable or fruit. If you remember that whenever you open the fridge, you’ll immediately start filling up on good food and seeing positive results.
As for me, I’m 193 pounds and want to lose 10-15. So ideally I’ll be cutting enough calories and doing enough exercise to drop a pound a week into July. Easier said than done, it goes without saying, but at least success or failure won’t be a crapshoot. Next week I’ll discuss my workout plan, which is almost entirely strength training. I’ll explain why.