Losing Weight

Posted on December 21, 2007. Filed under: Lifehacking |

Losing Weight

Disclaimer: I am not a nutrition expert. I am not a doctor. I can relate my flawed understandings of the world, but it is up to you to confirm them with someone who really is a doctor or a nutrition specialist. They might say I was sort of on the right track, or they might tell you that you need to exercise less and eat more to lose weight, or even something completely unimaginable to me as I write this. Treat everything below as advise from a friend who has lost a lot of weight recently and is feeling more fit than they have in years, but who is also slightly off his rocker and liable to throw in a wildly outlandish assertion just for kicks. In other words, treat it like something you read on them Internets.

Basic Laws of Nutrition

There are all sorts of fad diets out there. But, there is a simple equation at work in gaining or losing weight:

Assuming proper nutrition (and we don’t know about this enough to fiddle with breaking this assumption), Calories Eaten – Calories Consumed = Calories Stored.

This is a basic “energy balance equation” for those of you who are still trying to forget college thermodynamics. In – Out = Delta. If the result is positive, the body take some of the components taken in and changes them to fat, which gets stored in fat cells.

If the result is negative, the body takes fat from existing fat cells, and uses that to make up the difference.

So, losing weight is simple, right? Decrease your calories in, or increase your calories consumed, or both, and you’ll use up those fat reserves and lose weight!

There are caveats, of course. You’re not really after losing weight: you’re after losing fat. A volume of muscle weighs more than the equivalent volume of fat, so it all you did was replace your fat stores with muscles of the same size, you’d actually gain weight. This is rare, though, over the long haul: “idle” muscle in and of itself increases your consumption rate; the process of building a mass of muscle and maintaining that mass of muscle generally reduces your fat mass by significantly more.

In any case, the magic trick to weight loss is that you want to affect those two factors, either one at a time, or, much more effectively, both at once.

You consume calories just by breathing. Keeping your heart beating and your cells functioning takes calories. In fact, you can guesstimate just how many calories you are consuming in your daily life based on weight, approximate lean/fat ratios, and “baseline” activities. This number might be astonishing. But, first, let’s throw that into our equation:

Cals Eaten – Maintenance Activity Cals – Extra Activity Cals = Cals Stored

I want “Cals Stored” to be < 0, so, rearranging:

Cals Eaten – Extra Activity Cals < Maintenance Activity Cals

The left side of that equation can be called the “Net Caloric Intake”. It is an easily measured and calculated number, so it’s important to properly conceptualize it. The Net Intake is the number of calories we take in, minus the “extra” calories we consciously burn. This then balances with the “Maintenance” calories used (what we aren’t consciously choosing to burn and can’t affect) to form a new balance substantially like the first. The important thing about Net Intake is that Net Intake should remain as constant as possible from day to day. From one day to the next we will eat more or less, or exercise more or less, but for a consistent and efficient weight loss program Net Intake (and thus the amount of fat converted to energy) should be kept as constant as possible.

So, to lose weight, we need to increase our “extra” activity, or reduce our calories eaten, such that the difference becomes less than what I’m using right now.

How much am I using “right now”? I said it was something we can guesstimate fairly accurately, and to do that we use the Harris-Benedict Equation. This equation essentially calculates your Basal Metabolic Rate (how many calories you would consume sleeping) then multiplies that by an “activity factor” (1.2 for a sedentary lifestyle, moving on up for more activity).

What is that “activity factor” voodoo? Well, think of it this way: it keeps you from tracking the extra energy you spend sitting up instead of laying down in bed, how much you spend typing at the computer, how much you spend walking to the refridgerator, etc. All that gets lumped into the “sedentary” extra 20%. You can also lump more in there: your “normal” exercise or training regimen. However, at that point it really becomes more a guess and less an estimate. It’s better to just stick with “sedentary” and then put all exercise directly into the “Extra Activity” number instead. Still, ideally, it works out either way.

Now, a single pound of fat stores about 3,500 calories, so reducing your intake by 500 calories per day will “burn” (not store and/or eliminate) 3,500 calories in a week, and thus reduce your weight by about one pound. This is measurable weight loss. So, this is your target max caloric intake:

Cals Eaten – Extra Activity Cals < ( Maintenance Activity Cals – 500 )

There is a lower bound, though. If your body starts pulling too much energy from its fat stores, alarm bells go off and it goes into “starvation mode”. This is not a good mode to be in. Turns out the max there is about 1,000 calories per day. That gives us a fully bounded target:

( Maintenance Activity Cals – 1000 ) < Cals Eaten – Extra Activity Cals < ( Maintenance Activity Cals – 500 )

You must keep your daily net intake between these two numbers to effectively lose weight!

But, wait, those aren’t numbers yet. Go to the BMR Calculator, enter in your height, weight, age, and gender, and get your BMR. Ignore it’s advice to try the Sourh Beach Diet (for kicks, put in a weight of 100 pounds on a 6’3” frame …) Multiply the BMR number by 1.2. This is your “sedentary” Maintenance Activity Cals value. Note that this calculation is inaccurate if you are highly muscular, or incredibly low-muscled for your weight/gender. If you fall in either of those categories, you can get a more accurate number for the Maintenance Activity Cals by seeing your doctor (who will measure your lean / fat ratio and use a different equation to come up with it).

For me, that number was 2,700. That means that I needed to change my lifestyle so that I was bringing in between 1,700 and 2,200 calories each day. By “bringing in”, I mean the difference between what I ate and what “extra” I consumed through exercise.

Simple, right?

One thing to remember: as you diet and exercise, your caloric needs decrease. Now, my Sedentary Maintenance Cals number is just over 2,500 calories.

Here’s an interesting exercise with the BMR: pretend you are already at your “ideal” weight for the calculation and see what you come up with. That’s how many calories you need to target once you hit your goal weight. Now do the same, but also pretending that you are ten years older than you actually are. That’s how many calories you’ll need to target ten years from now. Just “eating” that few calories would probably not be fun. However, between diet and exercise, these numbers should be very “doable”.

Diet and Exercise

So, we want to reduce the “Calories Eaten” number, and increase the “Extra Activity Calories” number, so that we overall reduce the “Net Caloric Intake” number.

Right. Now what?

Well, there are two separate things we want to do, but they boil down to one basic approach:

  1. Decide what we want to do
  2. Do it
  3. Track it so we know (2) matches (1)

Let’s start with exercise. People tend to work the other way, starting with diet and augmenting it with exercise; instead, we need to be thinking the opposite way. Why? Our goal here isn’t really losing weight. Our goal is increasing our health. A body can not be healthy without exercise. Moreover, the “natural” tendency when the food supply is reduced is for the body to start reducing its already feeble activity level: that 20% we added to the basal metabolic rate can be reduced! Consciously exercising breaks that spiral into inactivity.

Any good project manager will tell you you want to put the riskiest, toughest tasks right up front in any project. Same is true here: your first task in getting a program set up is to carve out time for exercise.

Schedule time for an hour of exercise each night, three times a week, plus time for warmups and showering afterwards. Some would recommend 30 minutes, every night. The more consistent you can be the better, but you also have to consider the amount of workout you can get in 30 minutes versus that in an hour and decide accordingly. Remember that you will want at least five minutes for warm up / cool down on either side of the workout time, and you’ll want to take a shower afterwards (well, those around you will want this, if you don’t!) So, each workout session adds another half hour or so of time commitment right off the bat. This is probably the toughest part of the whole deal.

Within that hour, you have many options. Activities like walking are low-impact, and can be done outside or inside (preferably with a treadmill, or you’ll wear a track into your carpet and get dizzy). Jogging is higher-impact, but will yield significantly greater caloric benefits over the same time period (and build significantly more muscle mass, which then compounds the benefit). Aerobics is possible, although years of forced aerobics in high school gym class have instilled a pavlovian distaste for following along with any video for exercise. Cycling is a great workout. Then there are team sports and individual sports. All in all, it really doesn’t matter to the program which you choose. It matters more to you. What will be fun for you? What can your body withstand? More structured activities are more predictable and thus reliable in their burn rates; you could find a caloric burn rate for washing cars, but given the amount of energy puts into such a task by the average teenage boy compared to that by an auto-compulsive middle aged man with his red-lacquered embodiment of a mid-life-crisis, and it is obvious that a single number won’t suffice here. At the other end, just about anyone within a certain age and weight range jogging 5 miles per hour on a flat surface will consume the same number of calories per minute.

Different activities will have different caloric burn rates. You can look these up online, or use a tool such as Calorie King (discussed below) to pull them from a database. Multiplying the rate by the time spent (eg, 7 calories per minute times 60 minutes) yields the “Extra Activity Calories” number for the day.

On a day with exercise, you will want and need to eat more than on a day without exercise. If you are able to consistently exercise every day of the week, then this cycle is much less of a concern to you, of course. You want to pay attention to the Net number, so every calorie expended in exercise in a day must be made up for by an additional calorie eaten that day!

This is very important. If you exercise in a day, you must eat more that day to make up for it.

This is where people start saying, “Well, then, exercise doesn’t matter. I could burn 500 calories in a good jogging session, but then you say I have to eat that 500 calories right back, which does absolutely nothing!”

There are two answers here:

  1. Most importantly, the net effect of exercise is health and lean body mass. You increase the health of your heart and lungs by stressing them (within limits; please consult a professional before starting a new regimen!) You increase the mass of your muscles by exercising them. Healthier core systems are obviously a Good Thing.
  2. That 500 “extra” calories can be applied to a treat!

To know how many calories we have expended exercising, we need to track the exercise, it’s burn rate, and how long we did it. To know how many calories we have taken in through food, we need to track the foods, their caloric content, and how much of each we ate.

So, then, we’ve decided to set up an exercise regimen, and to keep track of what exercise we do and how many calories that has burned. We’ve also decided that we’ll be eating the same number of calories more the day we exercise. This is all good. But, there have got to be tools to help us do this, right?

Calorie King

The “trick” to a calorie-counting program is that you need to count all your calories. I know, it’s hard to grasp, but trust me on that one. It’s also the main downfall of such a program, and why things like Weight Watchers and Nutri Systems offer “simplified” nutrition counting schemes (“points” et al). The problem with counting calories is manifold:

  1. You need to account for every morsel you put into your mouth all day long
  2. You need to track not only caloric intake (the main thing you tend to focus on) but also nutritional balances such as protein, calcium, and sodium intakes
  3. It involves adding columns of 3-4 digit numbers

Add to that the general problems with any diet/exercise program:

  • Weight loss isn’t always uniform
  • Weight loss isn’t always desired (ie, building muscle while losing fat will often result in weight gain, while still bringing better overall health)
  • The margins of error in all measurements is high

… and all the above work quickly starts looking to be “not worth it”.

I’ve tried several ways of tracking this in the past, primarily using Excel and some fancy lookup tables. The problem always comes down to the fact that there is no built-in food database. Because of this, starting the program is hard because every bite needs to be entered into the database as a food with all the details I can muster. At the same time, restricting caloric intake during those first few weeks is also incredibly hard, and the temptation to “cheat” huge. Hard + Hard == Not Gonna Work.

Calorie King is a well reviewed diet and exercise tracking application which is available on both Windows and Mac OS X platforms. There are a few “issues” which I’ve encountered, but it solves the main issue with the do-it-yourself Spreadsheet approach by including a periodically-updated and rather exhaustive database of foods and exercises.

Generally, during the day I will periodically open Calorie King, type the first couple letters of what I’ve eaten (eg, “Subw Chick Ter”) in the search box until the list of matches includes what I am looking for (Subway Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sandwich), then drag that over to the “diary” section under “Lunch”, and tell it how many of whatever I just ate.

However, not all sustenance comes pre-packaged or from a fast food restaurant. Food from more formal restaurants are the hardest to deal with: restaurants are not required to list nutrition information for food prepared from a recipe, and tend to treat such information as corporate secrets. Good luck getting the Olive Garden to tell you how many calories are in their Chicken Parmesan! More “local” restaurants (ie, not chains) are more likely to tell you what went into the meal they prepared, but more often than not you’ll have to guess at it. Of course, you will also prepare foods at home yourself from recipes you know; this is the more common subcase of the general “meal from recipe” class of problem.

Adding Foods

Most foods will be in Calorie King’s database. You should always double-check at least the calorie count, as it isn’t uncommon for a food vendor to change portion size or recipe and for CK’s database to have not yet been updated.

In that case, or in the case of an item just not existing in CK’s database, you will need to hand-enter a new food into My Foods.

The first step in entering a new food is to locate the nutritional information. If you have that printed out or on a package, set it next to your keyboard to type in. If you look it up online, you will run into a Calorie King issue: the application tends to work best “full screen” or thereabouts, and dialog boxes like the “new food” dialog take a long time to pop back up when you switch back from another application. So, you can’t just command-tab between Safari and CK; the delay will drive you insane!

My approach is to use Command-Shift-4, then Control while dragging, to “grab” a portion of the screen to the clipboard. I do this and grab the pertinent row(s) from the display in Safari. Note that you will also want to grab the column headings in most nutrition info displays, and these aren’t always right next to the row you want. If they aren’t right next to each other, just grab the row for now. Then, bring up “Stickies” and create a new Sticky note. In the “Note” menu, make sure “Floating Window” is checked. Finally, paste in your row. If you have to grab the headings separately, go back to Safari (note that the Sticky will be floating above, so you may have to move it out of the way) and grab the headings row just as above. Click on the Sticky to the left of the previously copied row, paste the headings image in, then hit “return”. The result should be something like this:

Then, switch back to Calorie King, to the My Foods tab, click on New Food, and copy values from the floating window to the dialog. Since the window is floating, this is a matter of just moving the dialog/sticky so that they are both visible for copying:

Click OK and your new food is ready to be dragged over into the Diary! You now just have to remember that it is in “Custom Foods” instead of “Foods”, a silly and useless UI artifact.

Managing Meals

To define a recipe in Calorie King we should first set a few ground rules.

  1. Spices are incidental. They don’t drastically change the nutritional content of the recipe (except items like salt obviously) and so need not be included most of the time.
  2. Cooking changes nutrition, and you should know and understand this, but you will ignore it almost always. Sometimes cooking drastically alters the nutritional balance of a food item; in most such cases Calorie King will often include a “raw” and a “cooked” version of the item in its database. Using the “cooked” version (especially when closely matched to the method you use to cook it) is the better choice as you’ll rarely be eating things raw. By and large, though, these changes are too small to worry about. Imagine a meal prepared from a recipe to be nothing more than the sum of its parts.
  3. If there is one “thing” on your plate, there should only be one “thing” in your diary. In other words, in almost all cases, you will want to make things into “recipes” instead of dealing with individual food items. There is a fairly fine line here: it would be silly to create a “Toast with Butter” recipe instead of just putting your bread and butter in the diary separately. However, a diary entry with tortillas, pulled pork, enchilada sauce, cheese, and a little sour cream will not obviously be “enchiladas” unless you make all the above into a recipe which is called “Enchiladas”.

“Meals” in Calorie King are collections of foods. You should treat all your recipes as meals. However, this process is not always immediately obvious.

The first thing to do when entering a new recipe is to enter all the ingredients into an empty meal or snack area in the diary. Above, I used “Evening Snack” for a place to put together a recipe for Caramel Nut Clusters.

Once the recipe has been created, you switch to the “Saved Meals” tab, click on the “New” button (which contrary to all known UI behavior then pops up a menu), then select “Save Snacks Menu” (or whichever menu you used in the preceding step). Give the recipe a name, like “Recipe – Caramel Nut Clusters”. Note that this name is not the final name for the food. I tend to always use “Recipe” here to denote that this is the full recipe.

Once the new meal has been created, clear out the “Evening Snack” meal (or whichever meal you used to assemble the recipe). We’ll be needing this scratch space again! To clear out a meal, select the top item in the meal and repeatedly hit the “Delete” key. There seems to be no way to remove everything from a meal, nor to select multiple items then delete them all at once.

After you’ve made the recipe and divided it into servings, you will know how it divides up. For recipes like this from a cook book, that’s fairly easy: we make 24 clusters from it, so there will be 24 servings. For recipes like soups et al, or where you are going somewhat outside a published recipe, you’ll want to measure the results out in reasonable serving sizes (ex, a single cup), and use that number in the next step.

Once you know how the overall recipe divides into servings, you enter that fraction (ex, 1/24 for a 24-serving recipe) in the “per” box in the bottom-right of the screen.

At this point, you will be tempted to just click “Copy To My Foods” and be done. However, this will not work (a bug, in my opinion). Copying it to My Foods (which is what we want, ultimately) will copy the entire recipe, not just the portion you have defined on this panel! Instead, click “Add” and select “Add food to Evening Snacks” from the popup.

Now, deja vu will hit as we repeat a step from above: again, copy this over to the Saved Meals area using the “New” button/menu. Give it a name like “Caramel Nut Clusters”, which will be the “real” name you use.

Finally, select the single-serving “meal” and click the “Copy To My Foods” button. This will create an identically named item (“Caramel Nut Clusters”) in your “Custom Foods” area, ready to be dropped over onto your snacks as a single item.


You’ve probably noticed there are a few problems with Calorie King. It isn’t the absolute ultimate piece of software for this purpose; it’s just the best I’ve found so far. In order of most-annoying to least:

  1. Buttons turning into dropdown menus is ugly, unexpected, and highly inefficient
  2. Keyboard access is sub-par. Just about everything needs to be done using the mouse.
  3. Copying a not-in-database item from a web site nutritional pamphlet is annoying. Calorie King should make this process easier by allowing a floating entry window with rearrangable fields (ie, so I can put the “Calories” box under the “Calories” column of the PDF, and the “Protein” box under the matching column, etc), or allow entry from the clipboard (ask what each number maps to, and remember this because the next one I paste in is likely going to come in the same order!), or something else. The current approach is time consuming and annoying and shows absolutely no imagination.
  4. The division between “database” foods and “My Foods” is arbitrary and should go away entirely. I shouldn’t have to check in two places for a particular food which might have been entered from web site nutritional information! Similar for Exercises. I understand the need to have these separate underneath the covers, as updates need to be pushed out without removing all my custom items. But the UI should be able to make it all look like a single list. Come on, guys!
  5. Recipe management is workable, but a system specifically for this purpose would be much nicer
  6. The “Copy to My Foods” button should inherit the panel values, not copy the original full menu over.
  7. Dragging a Saved Meal over allows you to enter a factor; unlike similar boxes, this can only be given to a single decimal place and refuses to allow fractions (eg, 1/24). The workaround is to use the bottom panel and the “Add” button.
  8. The confirmation on dragging an item into a folder in the My Foods panel is annoying, especially for a non-destructive action. Get rid of it!


My results have been very good so far. I’ve been following this program since late July and have lost over 22 pounds since then. Across 21 weeks, that’s pretty close to my goal of 1 pound per week. Some weeks have been better than others in the weight loss department, but I am seeing a continued steady pace of weight loss, which is very good to see. More noticeable to me, my pants which had been feeling tight now require a belt to keep up, and over the last couple months I’ve moved two notches in on that belt.

The first couple of weeks were the absolute hardest for me. I had a very hard time keeping my calorie count low enough. My wife and I had been taking the kids out for walks around the area every other night at first, but once her classes started in the evenings and the sun started setting earlier, getting out before dusk became next to impossible. I moved indoors then, and have been walking/jogging on a treadmill for my exercise. I have found that watching a television show or listening to music helps a lot on the treadmill.

Another pitfall I’ve hit a few times is under-eating. Eating the right amount is critical. If you’d told me that first week that some days I’d not meet the minimum range of calorie consumption I would have laughed. But, some days that happens, and by the time I notice it I’m sitting completely sapped without the energy to get up and do something about it! Having semi-healthy snacks around the house (Kraft’s South Beach cookies are really good and satisfy my cravings) helps keep me from those doldrums.

Most importantly, I feel healthier. I have more energy to do things on the weekends (so long as I keep eating snacks!), and just plain feel better about myself.


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