Several years ago, I decided I needed to lose weight. Here’s what worked for me (I went from 170 to 130 pounds, and I’ve kept off the weight). Maybe it’ll work for you as well.
First, a word of warning: there are good reasons to want to lose weight, but there are also bad reasons, including dangerous ones. I’m not going to bore you with my reasons or judge yours, but I will say one thing: if your current weight is in the “healthy” range, then I encourage you to talk with your doctor and/or take this eating disorder screener before trying to lose weight.
If you start reading through this article and find that you’re saying to yourself, “This is crazy,” “There’s no way I can do this,” or anything like that, then sit with that for a bit and think about whether it’s really true. If so, then this weight-loss program might not be right for you. I have no illusions that this will work for everyone. All I know is that it works for me and it might work for you too.
The one and only rule for weight loss
There is one and only one reliable, healthy rule for losing weight. The weight-loss rule is, quite simply: burn more calories than you eat. That’s it.
You should also maintain a healthy diet overall. Doing that will help you follow the weight-loss rule, but maintaining a healthy diet is about a lot more than just calories in/out. You can gain weight on an otherwise healthy diet, and you can lose weight on an unhealthy diet. In this blog posting I’m focusing on weight loss and not on the larger subject of healthy eating.
Losing weight isn’t about what you eat, it’s about how much you eat.
The problems with fad diets
Fad weight-loss diets—keto, Atkins, paleo, raw food, grapefruit, whatever—may help you lose weight, to the extent that they cause you to follow the weight-loss rule. Having said that, they may deprive your body of nutrients it needs, and they will certainly restrict what you are allowed to eat more than is actually necessary to lose weight.
This is important: any diet that tells you that the secret to losing weight is anything other than burning more calories than you eat is lying.
The other problem with fad diets is that you need to maintain your healthy weight once you’ve achieved it, and it’s extremely difficult to do that on a fad diet. It’s very hard to follow any of these diets forever, both because some of them deprive your body of necessary nutrients, and because you’ll eventually get sick and tired of limited food choices and fall off the wagon.
My weight-loss and maintenance strategy allows you to eat anything you want. Again, it’s not about what, it’s about how much.
What you need
Here’s what you’re going to need for this to work:
- Commitment. Doing this right takes a long time and requires ongoing effort. It’s not set-and-forget.
- Patience. It took me several years to lose 40 pounds. Yes, you can lose weight much faster. It will be much more unpleasant, and I don’t recommend it.
- Grace. You will go through phases where you gain back some weight. Whether it’s an emotional nadir in your life where you need a lot of comfort food just to get buy, an extra-busy period at work which consumes all of your available exercise time for months, or something else, there will be setbacks. Don’t expect perfection. Forgive yourself, and get back in the saddle when you’re ready.
- Time to exercise, maybe as much as an hour and a half a day if you’re a slow walker and you don’t choose a more intense form of exercise. Keep in mind, though, that if you do a lot of walking during the day for work or chores or whatever, then you may find yourself filling much of your step goal without any reserved time for it.
- A smartphone.
- A watch and smartphone app that together track your steps and how many passive and active calories you burn throughout the day. I use a Garmin watch and the Garmin Connect app, but they aren’t the only options.
- An app that lets you track what you eat and how many calories are in it. I use MyFitnessPal, which integrates well with Garmin Connect. The app needs to make this easy, so make sure it supports scanning bar-codes on packaged foods (MyFitnessPal’s premium offering does).
- A digital food scale. It needs to support a dynamic zero, i.e., you need to be able to put an empty plate on the scale and tell it the plate doesn’t count so it’ll tell you the weight of the food you subsequently put on it.
- A calculator app.
- A digital notes app, online spreadsheet, or something else for short-term tracking of step deficits and calorie surpluses.
- A smart scale that saves your weight measurements to an app on your smartphone. It needs to sync with the app you’re using for tracking your calorie burn, because calorie burn depends on weight.
How it works, big picture
- Set a step goal.
- Set a daily base calorie goal, which is augmented by your daily activity, i.e., the more active you are, the more calories you can/should eat that day.
- Hit your step goal most days.
- Track everything you eat in the calorie-tracking app.
- Stay below your calorie goal most days.
- When you miss your step or calorie goal, make it up in subsequent days.
- Weigh yourself regularly.
- Adjust your step and/or calorie goal occasionally as needed.
The step goal
For most people, myself included, walking is the easiest way to exercise. If walking isn’t your thing, you can jog, run, bike, swim, work out, play pickleball, or whatever. The key is that it needs to be something you can do nearly every day, and it needs to be something measurable so that you know when you meet your goal and also when you exceed it, so that you will know when you’ve successfully made up for missed exercise on subsequent days. This effectively means that it needs to be something you can track with your watch.
If you’re just starting to get in shape, then you will want to start out with a low goal, one that probably won’t burn enough calories for you to easily stay within your calorie goal every day. This is OK! Work your weigh up to the point where you are burning at least a few hundred active calories every day, and then you can start thinking about losing weight.
Some watches, including my Garmin, do a dynamic step goal by default, i.e., every time you hit your goal it goes up the next day, and every time you miss your goal it goes down. This is fine while you’re ramping up, and indeed it’ll help you ramp up at a reasonable pace, but once you’re happy with the amount of exercise you’re getting every day you should change to a fixed goal.
The calorie goal
Most calorie-tracking apps (including MyFitnessPal) will let you tell the app a weight-loss goal, e.g., “lose a pound a week,” and calculate automatically what your daily base calorie goal should be. This is a fine way to set your initial calorie goal, but once you’ve been on this program for a while, you should switch to setting the goal manually based on your progress, as described below.
This is because the measured calories burned and tracked calories eaten are just estimates. Their accuracy varies from person to person. The true measure of whether your calorie goal is correct isn’t whether it matches some arbitrary calculation within the calorie-tracking app, but rather whether you are losing the weight you want to lose.
Hitting your step goal and making up for missed steps
If you exceed your step goal on any given day, you don’t get to use the extra steps to make up for missed steps on subsequent days. Why is that the rule? Because that’s what works for me, and this article is about what works for me. If you want to play by different rules you’re welcome to try. 😉
On the other hand, if you miss your step goal on any given day, you need to make up those missed steps. The next morning you should add the missed steps to the balance you’re tracking in your notes app, spreadsheet, or whatever, and walk extra steps to make up for it. You don’t have to make up missed steps the very next day, though if you have the time and inclination it’s fine. Your goal should be to make them up within a week or so. As long as you have a balance of missed steps, you need to update the balance every morning with the deficit or surplus from the previous day, until the balance goes to zero.
If you find yourself frequently missing your step goal and you end up with a balance of missed steps that’s simply too large to feasibly make up, then see above about “Grace.” Feel free to declare an amnesty for yourself: zero out your step balance and commit to doing better moving forward. Having said that, if you need to do this more than a few times in a year, then this weight-loss program may not be right for you.
Tracking your calories eaten and making up for extra calories
You need to enter everything you eat—really!—into the calorie-tracking app. It will seem like a lot of effort at first, but it will eventually become second-nature. It will probably annoy your family, but if they love you, then they will understand that you’re doing this for your health and tolerate it.
The amount of benefit you get out of this weight-loss system depends in part on the amount of effort you put into it, by which I mean: the more accurate you are with your calorie-tracking, the more successful you will be.
As with steps, you don’t get to carry forward calories you didn’t “use” in a previous day. If you eat fewer than your maximum in a given day, then that either reduces your balance from prior days or it gets written off as a bonus. Again, this is the rule because it works for me; your mileage may vary.
When you start this program, you will probably find that you are eating significantly more calories than you should be. This is probably because, like most people who have weight-gain issues, you’re eating serving sizes that are too large. At least in the United States, this is a huge problem because, frankly, we’ve all been socialized to expect and eat unhealthily large serving sizes (just one example: the Pizzeria Uno “individual” sized “Chicago meat market” pizza is 2,280 calories, which is significantly more than an average, healthy person should eat in an entire day). Give yourself some time to adjust to smaller portion sizes before you start tracking surpluses day-to-day or expecting to lose weight.
Your calorie-tracking app should sync with your exercise tracking app and either one or the other or both will show your total calorie goal as your base calorie goal plus your active calories. For some reason even when the sync is both ways the two apps don’t always agree. If that happens then use whichever of them lets you eat more calories. Also, at least with the Garmin app, food you just ate doesn’t always show up right away on the main page; you may have to tap through to the calories in/out page to see the latest numbers.
There will, obviously, be times when high accuracy is impossible or not worth the effort. For example, when you’re eating out, you’re not going to weigh or measure the volume of your food, and you have no idea what its composite ingredients are. If you’re at a chain restaurant then they may actually publish calorie counts on their menu or on web, but if not, then just do a keyword search in the app for foods that are close to what you are eating and make your best guesses.
Resist the urge to refrain from eating something because you won’t be able to accurately estimate its calorie count. That’s a guaranteed recipe for becoming frustrated with the program and giving up on it. Eat what you want to eat when you want to eat—really!—and take your best guess about how many calories it is. It’ll be fine.
Once you’ve settled into being able to stay below your calorie limit most days, you can start tracking deficits and making them up by eating less or exercising more in subsequent days. For your own peace of mind, you may also want to allow yourself occasional “cheat days” that you don’t need to worry about making up. For example, you’re not going to want to worry about tracking calories or staying within a calorie budget at your best friend’s wedding! However, as above, if you find yourself needing to do this more than a few times a year, then this might not be the right weight-loss program for you.
I personally don’t do “cheat days,” but I do sometimes decide that I don’t feel like entering the calories for a meal item by item and instead estimate the calorie count for the entire meal, usually between 800 and 1,200 calories, based on my experience having been tracking calories for several years.
Tips for measuring food and calories
Weight is more accurate than volume, and nutrition labels usually mention both, so whenever possible, you should weigh food instead of measuring or estimating its volume.
When you are cooking basic dishes, you can enter their components into the app separately for accurate calorie counts. For example, when I make “nachos” (tortilla chips, drained black beans, packaged shredded cheese, salsa), I first zero out the scale with the empty plate, then add and weigh the chips and enter them into the app, then zero out the scale with the chips on the plate, then add and weigh the beans and enter them into the app, etc.
If you plan on eating part of a package of food, e.g., some chips or some hummus or some peanut butter or whatever, you can weigh the package before and after you eat to determine how much you ate. For increased accuracy, zero the scale with the pre-eating package on it, then leave the scale turned on with that zero set, then weigh again afterward, and the scale will show the weight of what you ate as a negative number. Remember to include the same lids, clips, etc. for both weighings.
When you are eating packaged foods and scan the bar code and discover that the serving size or calorie amount in the app is inaccurate, you can enter corrected data or not bother if the difference is too great. One way you can correct the data is just by adjusting the serving count you enter. For example, if the package says it’s 150 calories per ounce, you’re eating one ounce, and the app thinks it’s 140 calories per ounce, then 1 serving * 150 calories / 140 calories = 1.07 servings, so you can enter 1.07 instead of 1 for the serving count. This is why you need a calculator app!
Tracking your weight
You should always weigh yourself at about the same point in the day. For example, right after you get up in the morning, either before or after you use the bathroom (be consistent; using the bathroom can take a pound off your weight!). If you miss your regular weigh-in time, it’s better to skip the day than to weigh yourself at a different point in the day.
Your weight will vary by several pounds from day to day. This is normal. The app that comes with your smart scale should show you a rolling average of your weight. You should be paying attention to that, not to the individual weight measurements.
You need four or five data points for an accurate estimate of your weight. That means if you weigh yourself daily, you’ll see weight loss start to show up less than a week, while if you weigh yourself weekly it’ll take a month or more before you can trust what the rolling average is showing you. That means two things: (1) weigh yourself frequently, as close to daily as possible, for at least a few weeks when you start the program and whenever you make adjustments to your step and/or calorie goal; and (2) when things are stable you can relax a bit and back off to weighing yourself about once per week.
Adjusting your goals
Once you’ve been sticking to the program and weighing yourself for a few weeks, you will start to see a trend. Is your weight going down, going up, or stable?
If your weight is going up, or if it’s stable when you want to be losing weight, then either add 1,000 to your step goal or subtract 100 from your calorie goal, whichever you think will be easier. Then start weighing yourself daily and wait a couple of weeks (during which you need to stick to the program!) before adjusting again.
If your weight is going down when you want it to be stable, then do the reverse: subtract 1,000 from your step goal or add 100 to your calorie goal. I know that sounds like a pipe dream, but believe me, if you stick with the program, it will happen.
Now is a good time to talk about the “10,000 steps a day” you’re always hearing about. That’s a totally made-up number. While it is true that walking is healthy, recent studies suggest that the health benefits of daily walking top out at around 7,000 steps, not 10,000. So you shouldn’t hesitate to lower your step goal as long as you keep it at or above 7,000.
You can do this!
There you have it, my system for gradually losing a lot of weight and keeping it off. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if it’s the kind of thing that you can pull off, then it will work for you if you give it a chance. Good luck!