The Proper Guide to Weight Loss/Gain
A healthy weight is crucial for a healthy and productive life style. In this article I will outline the main component of weight control principles – calorie balance, how you can manage your weight in a sustainable and healthy way, as well as other tips you can use to make the process easier.
Before we start, I would like to clarify that this article is not written by a nutritionist or health expert, I am simply condensing my knowledge and past experience together to provide some facts and clarity about dieting. If you have any pre-existing conditions that require a special diet, then please follow your doctor’s recommendations.
Intuition Behind Calorie Balance
To understand why calorie balance works, first get a feel of your own temperature. Chances are your body temperature is higher than the room temperature right now.
Your body is able to do this because it is producing heat to sustain the temperature that your vital organs require to function. As we have learned in physics, this energy has to come from somewhere. Our body cannot produce heat perpetually without any energy going inside, and that energy comes from the chemical potential energy of food.
Without food, your body will start converting your existing fat and muscle cells into energy to use, leading to observed weight loss.
For reaching a weight goal, the most important thing you need to consider is the total amount of calories you consume throughout the day. To lose weight, eat less calories than you expend, which results in a calorie deficit; to gain weight, eat more calories than you expend, which result in a calorie surplus. Over time, you will hit your weight goal.
Most of the fad dieting disguise this simple mechanic, by either removing large amount of food choices (not eating carb for keto and carnivore), or restrict the amount of time you spend eating (not eating breakfast for intermittent fasting). However, even with these restrictions in place, it is still possible for someone to go over the calorie limit through excessive eating, which would result in weight gain. It is also harder to follow a strict diet for long period of timing, lowering the long-term success rate.
Calorie tracking is the simple solution to this dilemma. You can technically eat anything you want, and still lose/gain weight, as long as you hit your calorie goal.
Keep in mind that, while you “can” technically eat anything, more often than not you shouldn’t be. Some food are more beneficial than others, especially in a diet setting. I will provide some examples later in the article to demonstrate this principle.
How Do You Track?
Calorie tracking can be done simply by using one of the many tracking apps. MyFitnessPal is the most popular option right now. You can add almost any food by just scanning its barcode, making tracking extremely easy. Many of the alternatives offer the same style of scan and add feature, however they may have a smaller database of existing food due to having less users. This is not a big deal, as you can just add the food to the database after the scan.
For food without a barcode, or when you are eating out, you can still search for the name of the food and the restaurant, chances are most likely something will come up, or just pick something that is similar in calories and macro make-up as a proxy.
For your convenience, have a food scale prepared in the kitchen. Some food, such as a large jar of yogurt, has to be weighed out to be accurately tracked.
Tracking very accurately all the time would be quite difficult, but luckily for us, we don’t have to fuss over the accuracy. The important thing is to be consistent with your tracking convention. It’s okay for you to not count the calories of the oil you used while cooking, if you use similar amount of oil everyday, and never tracked it. Since we alter the calorie goal based on our weight progression, the uncounted or over-counted calories would be automatically adjusted based on how we are performing.
Determining Calorie Goal
This part is a bit more complicated, and the goal varies over time, depending on your needs, activity level and body composition of fat and muscles.
The idea is that your body has a basal metabolic rate, the rate which your body burns energy at rest. If you eat the amount of food that provides the exact amount of energy your body burns off, your weight will not change. This calorie amount is referred to as Maintenance Calorie, as you use it to maintain your weight.
It’s important to determine your maintenance calorie first, as you will use it as a reference to reach any of your weight goals.
Want to gain weight? Eat above maintenance calorie, and put yourself in a calorie surplus. Want to lose weight? Eat below maintenance calorie, and put yourself in a calorie deficit. Want to lose weight faster? Eat even less below it and achieve a greater deficit.
It’s that simple.
But getting your maintenance calorie takes some work. Initially you do not have to make any changes to your current diet, but do start tracking your weight and calories consistently for a period of two weeks or so. This serves two purposes:
- To establish a baseline for your metabolic rate; and
- Builds up the habit of calorie and weight tracking
(Some people have anxiety over watching their weight every day. If it applies to you, just weigh yourself once a week, it will not make a significant difference. Taking more data points just shows a better trend)
Average out your daily calorie intake over the period, and evaluate if you have gained any weight in the process.
If you did gain weight, your maintenance calorie is below your average daily calorie for the past weeks, so try to eat a little less every day.
If you lost weight instead, your maintenance calorie is above your average daily calorie for the past weeks, so try to eat a little more every day.
Keep recording after the adjustments are made, and repeat the process until you weight is stable for the whole period. The number your arrived at is your maintenance calorie.
Now to gain/lose weight as you desire, eat above/below the maintenance calorie consistently. However do keep in mind that a sharp increase or decrease in weight is not healthy or sustainable. Aim to change 1-3% of your current body weight per month. This can generally be done by eating above/below maintenance for 200 calories per day (this number is just a reference, actual value depends on individual differences, but 200 is a good place to start).
Also remember that the maintenance calorie is a constantly moving target, especially if you are making changes to your lifestyle, such as changing activity level or body weight. If you are currently losing weight eating 2,000 calories, the weight loss would not be linear or continuous if you don’t change the calorie goal. Eventually your body would become very efficient with the distribution of energy, and you would have lost enough fat and muscle for your new maintenance calorie to be 2,000, hitting another equilibrium. At this point, if you would like to continue your weight loss, you will have to lower your calories further.
Now we know that calorie is king when it comes to weight control, it doesn’t mean that it will be easy to follow the meal plan you make up. Of course, it’s possible to lose weight consistently by just eating Kit Kats and Oreos (I’ve done this myself), but these highly palatable foods are often extremely calorie dense. For example, with the same 200 calories, I could eat one bar of Kit Kat weighing 40 grams, or 670 grams of frozen veggies. The frozen veggies obviously have more volume than a bar of Kit Kat, and would take longer to digest, making you feel fuller for the same amount of calories.
An easy method of cutting down calories is simply adding more greens to your diet. By eating veggies earlier in each meal, you will be full more often than not, and eat less of the remaining food. Additionally, veggies provide a valuable variety of micronutrients that would be vital for the sustainability of your health and diet. It was shown in this study that, without tracking calories and simply adding more high-quality food, such as whole food and vegetables, the participants were able to lower their calories by 500 to 600 naturally, and achieve weight loss.
Protein also plays a big role in satiation control, being the most satiable macronutrient per calorie out of the three. A diet high in protein would generally result in you feeling fuller for longer.
When designing your diet, it’s important to keep in mind the calorie density of food. While it is true that you can lose weight eating anything, it’ll be a lot less enjoyable if you are starving most of the time. So keep your fat low, and plan a good amount of greens and protein throughout your day.
Downfall of Weight Loss
While we have learned the fundamental principle behind weight loss, there are some important things to keep in mind.
Most of the time when we mention “weight loss”, we are actually referring to losing fat tissues. However when you are in a calorie deficit by eating below the maintenance calorie, you will lose more muscle tissues than fat, as your body prioritises the maintenance of fat over muscle for survival purposes.
This can be counteracted greatly by doing resistance training in the meantime, it is even possible for a beginner to put on muscles and lose fat simultaneously for a while, but eventually muscle loss would become inevitable in a long-term calorie deficit.
I hope you have learned more about how to manage your weight with this article, and find the various tips and tricks helpful. Remember, while a low calorie diet can help you to lose weight faster, a healthy diet is what’s sustainable and beneficial in the long run. We all understand what kinds of food are good and bad for us, try to fit in more of the good foods into your diet, but also reward yourself occasionally with some of the “bad” ones.