Paying close attention to how we fuel our bodies is essential for weight management. In this blog post, I intend to show you how I think about my weight management and share my insights on the subject.
Before I begin, you must know: I’m not a nutritionist, so I might not cover the subject with the required depth or perspective, so please do your research and take my words with a grain of salt.
You might find the content I present here overwhelming, especially when it comes to the effort of tracking calories and measuring your body. Why bother if you can follow a diet? Well, foremost, nobody truly believes diets work long-term. Second, suppose you try to follow this without looking at the numbers. In that case, you might become a victim of your own biases, such as the availability bias – the tendency to remember only recent things. Third, humans tend to overestimate what we do well and underestimate what we don’t. Putting everything into numbers will better prepare your intuition. Let’s get started.
Weight vs. Body Composition
Before you start thinking about your weight, you need to have a goal. Measuring only weight is dangerous because everyone is different. Let’s take a closer look at some of the things that affect our weight:
- Skeletal Muscle Mass. (Muscles, bones, and organs)
- Body Fat Mass. (Energy storage)
Most people are familiar with Body Mass Index. BMI is a simple yet very general measure that makes many assumptions. One is that your muscle mass directly correlates to your height. Another one is how much water that your body currently has. Water itself can make the difference between being considered obese or overweight when measuring BMI. Therefore, when choosing our goal, we ought to look at our body composition. You can read more about it here.
Accurately measuring your body fat mass requires specialized equipment. Some smart scales will give you a reasonable estimate of it. If you don’t have a smart scale, you can use this tool to estimate it. Once you know your current body fat mass, you can define a goal. It should be, ideally, what’s normal for your age and gender.
Another critical piece of information is your basal metabolic rate (BMR); this number tells you the calories your body burns to keep you alive. Smart scales can calculate this number for you, but here is an online calculator. Now, during your day, you will spend much more than that. For example, on those days that I’m busy with work and I don’t move much, I’ve found that I burn 40% more than my BMR, around 2100 calories. This number can sharply increase if I go out for walks or a bike ride. I found that, on average, I burn 2700 calories daily; this is 73% of my BMR. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
There are many ways of estimating how many calories a day you burn. Smartwatches like Fitbit does it based on the heart rate, and I’ve found it to be quite accurate. If you have none of these tools, I’d recommend adding 40% to 50% to your BMR and calibrating as you go.
If your weight has been stable for some time, it means you haven’t made any significant surplus or deficit in energy expenditure; this is Calories Spent = Calories Eaten. So you can count your daily calories with an app for a week or so, average the number (make sure your body fat mass remains almost the same), and contrast with the number you previously estimated based on your BMR. That comparison should give you a ballpark idea of how many calories you effectively use daily.
Weight Management Strategy
At this point, you have the tools to strategize about your weight. Building a strategy will help you solidify your habits and better control what you eat. You don’t have to do this forever. I would recommend keeping track of the numbers until you learn more about yourself and your body.
Let’s start with keeping the weight that you currently have; this is the foundation for long-term changes. Thus, learn how to keep it off or on before losing or gaining.
The following figure shows the schedule I follow. I target to have my meals during a timeframe of 10 hours; this way, I give my body plenty of time to digest and process before I go to bed. This schedule helps me get better sleep, and I feel energized throughout the day.
You might already have your schedule; you can use it as a base to distribute your calories.
Snacks are optional. Only have them as a tool when you’re too hungry before your main meal, and you feel you won’t manage to control your portions.
One crucial aspect is not to over-obsess with the numbers and try to hit your target like clockwork. For example, I already have a cookbook of my staples that I know fit my targets; in that way, I simply cook as usual. Though revise what I’m eating if I see my body fat mass go beyond 20%, my target is currently 15%. I do weigh myself every single day.
I can’t emphasize enough that you shouldn’t feel bad if you under or overeat. Every day you might feel different. After one year of counting my calories, I understood how much variability I can tolerate without gaining or losing weight, about 10%. I show this in the following spreadsheet.
Losing or Gaining Weight
Now that you know how to keep your weight, we can build on that to take it where you want. There is much to say about this topic, and I recommend reading this article before jumping to conclusions. In simple words, you have to introduce a calorie deficit (or surplus) to allow your body to burn (or build) its fat reserves.
The toughest part is dealing with your hunger hormones. Also, there is much to say about this, and I recommend reading this article.
The easiest and most effective way is to reduce (or increase) 10% or 15% of your base calories and monitor your progress daily until you reach your goal. In my case, I reduced my calories by 420/day and dropped 17lb (8kg) in about four months. The following figure shows these numbers in a spreadsheet.
I will admit that during the time I lost that weight, I did not have a great time. I was very irritable. I fought with many of my friends and felt helpless even when someone shared food with me. I would lose my mind if I didn’t know how many calories were in a particular dish. If I can, I would recommend a 10% deficit and lose over a year, building solid habits while doing it. It took me over nine months to solidify my habits before I felt confident to stop tracking my calories.
As you can see in the figure, minor adjustments in how you cook will do the trick just fine.
Now that you know how to think about what you put on your plate. Let me give you a few examples of my staples and how many calories they have. I base most of my recipes based on one serving of each ingredient. Since this is not a recipe blog post, I will not share the details, but please ask me in the comments section if you want to know more.
- Whole milk yogurt with Granola and Berries + Almond Milk Latte: 420 calories.
- Asparagus & Mozzarella Omelette + Almond Milk Latte: 400 calories.
- Avocado Toast w/poached egg + Almond Milk Latte: 520 calories.
Lunch / Dinner
- Spaghetti in tomato sauce: 580 calories
- One bowl of chicken pho: 500 calories.
- 6oz steak with lightly dressed salad: 600 calories.
Desserts / Snacks
- Two squares of dark chocolate: 50 calories.
- One small banana: 90 calories.
- One red apple: 90 calories.
- Two mandarin oranges: 80 calories.
- Twenty grapes: 68 calories.
- One serving of a plant-based chocolate pudding: 150 calories.
When I’m thinking about cooking, I adjust on the go, but the essential piece is to keep your meal per serving in the ballpark of your target. Of course, no food is off-limits; just budget your calories.
Weight Management Tips
The last thing to add is some tips and tricks to make your life easier:
- Weigh yourself every day; it will help with motivation, and you’ll learn many things you didn’t know about yourself.
- Target to eat foods with a low glycemic index. High glycemic index foods (processed items or simple sugars) may produce a glucose spike on your system, making your body feel hungry right after. Check the added sugars in the nutritional label.
- Avoid “Diet” or “Reduced” items. This ties to the previous point of processed foods. Plus, diet branded items typically won’t make you feel satisfied, and there’s nothing worse than being hungry and with an unsatisfied craving.
- Try to eat things that take longer to digest: Carbs with low GI, healthy fats, and protein.
- Items with high water content will make you feel more satisfied with fewer calories.
- Practice mindful eating and learn how your body feels when you eat.
- Make your food look pretty!
- Pay attention to the quality of your sleep. It will help you control your hunger.
- Regularly moving your body must be part of your lifestyle. For example, go for a walk, run, ride your bike, climb the stairs, etc.; this doesn’t only help your heart work better; it also allows a few more calories for you to enjoy.
Many people trick themselves into thinking exercise is the key to weight loss. Let’s look at the numbers. One daily hour of moderate-intensity cycling (or 30 minutes run) will burn about 400 calories; this is close to the deficit I targeted with my diet. The problem is that fitting in your day that training schedule might be unsustainable, and after you drop your weight, you are likely to gain it back if you don’t learn how to hone your hunger. To be realistic, most people don’t have the time to do a cardio workout for an hour (+ the prep time) every single day.
After trying many apps to track my calories, like Fitbit, Noom, “MyFitness Pal,” and others, I recommend you use “Nutritionix Track.” It’s by far the easiest to record recipes, pre-built foods, and workouts. It’s free!
There are many more things to be said about weight management, and I’m not the right person to talk about them. I hope, though, that this post gives you an initial understanding of how weight management works and brings back the belief that conquering your weight goals is possible! If you feel I’m missing pieces of the puzzle or have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments section. Weight management is a journey, and it involves developing habits and understanding until it comes out automatically. Like brushing your teeth and flossing or saving money in your retirement account, it is not something you do at one time; it’s something that ought to be part of you.