Friday, November 16, 2007

The biggest losers

You can count carbs, points, and grams of fat, and you can even count sheep if you want to, but when it comes to losing weight, whether one hundred pounds or just five, the science hasn't changed. To lose weight, you need to be calorie-deficient, that is, you need to burn more calories than you consume, period.

But to win the calorie war, you have to make, and keep, two commitments. First, you need to be aware of what you're eating and be prepared to cut back on portion sizes. Second (South-beachers, Atkin's-lovers and slim-fasters cover your eyes), you need to get active; this is usually where the relationship falls apart. Today's fad diets entice us because we can lose weight without having to leave the sofa - unfortunately, the day we stop having a shake for breakfast and a shake for lunch, the pounds come back, with a vengeance.

You may be wondering where this calorie lecture is coming from, so here it is. Having lost about 110 pounds over the past few years, I decided a few days ago that I'd like to lose a final 30 or so, in time for a particular running event next year. As an already active person, the only sensible way to do this is by counting calories to ensure I'm fueling my workouts adequately and by using those workouts to burn more calories than I'm consuming. Here's a quick lesson: 3,500 calories equals 1 pound, so, to lose a pound a week, you need to burn 500 calories more each day than you consume. Calorie sleuthing has led me to reading labels and thoroughly investigating food facts before consuming anything; my first three days on the job have uncovered some shocking truths about how much I (read we) eat.

Case and point. A 150 pound, 40-year old woman, working in an office and participating in some light physical activity, like an occasional walk, expends about 1,900 calories a day. In order to lose a half pound a week, and without increasing her physical activity level, this same woman would have to consume not more than 1,650 calories a day. Sound reasonable? Sure it does if you're calorie conscious and willing to improve your eating habits, but be warned, most of the free world is against you from the start. Many dinner entrees served in your favourite family restaurant contain well over 1,000 calories - and you haven't ordered a drink yet. And it's not just at dinner time - one well-known sandwich shop that invites you to "eat fresh" has a number of regular-size subs that approach 1,000 calories on their own. In the mood for a burger and fries for lunch? Get ready to hand over about 1,200 calories from your daily allowance - by my calculations, that leaves my 40-year old female friend with about 400 calories to divide up between her breakfast, daytime snacks, oh, and supper too. Want a little dessert treat of low-fat frozen yogurt? No problem, there's only about 100 to 150 calories per half cup serving - that's not so bad, but wait, who eats a half cup serving of frozen yogurt? In reality, you probably consume closer to 400 calories of this sinfully good treat - the fat counters of the diet world will still point out that there's no fat - good for your heart, I guess, not so good for your waistline. See where I'm going with this? That's why becoming active is such an important part of weight-loss - activity allows you to eat more throughout the day in order to lose more by the end of the week. Imagine, eating, to lose weight. Reminds me of a Seinfeld episode, "sex, to save the friendship." But I digress.

Counting calories is an easy way to lose weight because it helps to monitor your daily calorie-intake and improve your eating habits at the same time. And it's really not hard to track calories either. Most foods contain detailed nutrition labels that leave no doubts about what you're eating and for those that don't, there are hundreds of free online resources that can fill in any blanks.

So I say start calorie-counting and make a commitment to some sort of regular physical activity; if in doubt, when it comes to food, let moderation be your guide. You'll be pleasantly surprised at just how big of a loser you can become.

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