Weight-Loss Diet: A Beginner’s Guide – Part I
100 bucks says you’ve heard the adage:
Weight-loss is 80% diet and 20% exercise.
And it’s true, biologically speaking. Psychologically I would argue otherwise. But let’s leave that for a later issue.
So let’s talk Biology. And let’s start by getting a few basics out of the way.
All the food you eat – meats, leaves, dairy, nuts, legumes, fruits – everything, is made up of just 3 Macro-Nurients. Or Macros, as they’re reffered to in the fitness-nerd world:
Proteins. Carbohydrates. Fats.
Each gram of Protein and Carbohydrate contains 4 calories. Each gram of Fat contains 9 calories. So, the total number of calories in anything you eat can be derived from this one simple equation:
Total Calories = (Protein+Carb)*4 + Fat*9
I’m sitting at Starbucks writing this. Someone just ordered a Tall Java Chip Frappucino. That’s 18gm of Fats, 72gm of Carbs and 6gm of Protein:
Total Calories = (72+6)*4 + 18*9 = 312 + 162 = 474 Calories. That’s 7kms of running at 10kmph.
Yup. It ain’t a coffee. It’s liquid desert.
Empty Calories: The only exceptions to the above Macro rule are ‘Empty Calories’ – calories that have no nutrition, just energy. Alcohol is a great example. Zero Nutrients. Many Calories. (71 empty calories in 30ml Whiskey)
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): Is a measure of your metabolism. Defined as the number of calories your body would burn just to sustain normal bodily functions like breathing, digesting, thinking etc (yes, the brain is a major energy consumer).
What is a weight-loss diet?
Now you might be wondering – ‘Why the hell did we dive straight into calories and equations? Wasn’t this going to be more about how I can change my diet to begin the process of weight-loss?’
You’re right. The point of this issue is to help you get started on a weight-loss diet. So I could’ve started by telling you to stop having deserts or rice or alcohol, but that’s not how we do things here at FITSHIT. I want you to understand the basic science first, and then build on the answer with my own experience. That’s the only way to get you to start, and sustain, this new diet.
Ok. So what is a weight-loss diet?
Mathematically speaking, it’s any diet that puts you in a caloric deficit. A diet where you consume less calories in a day than you expend.
So how many calories do you expend in a day? Simple:
Calories Expended = Your BMR + whatever calories you spend through other excercise – walking, gymming, running, cycling, swimming.
So your Net Calories = Calories consumed – Calories Expended.
Now, in the most basic, old-world view of weight-loss, any diet where your Net Calories are a significant negative would make you lose weight. The science is fairly simple. You are making your body burn more energy than you are providing daily through food. So the body has to turn to alternative sources of energy. And where does it go – well it goes to the mounds of stored fat we have and starts burning them to cope. In the process, you witness fat loss. Simple right!
Well. Not so simple.
The Caloric Deficit Fallacy
If 1gm of Fat contains 9 calories, then 1kg should have 9000 calories. If you net (-ve)300 Calories every day then, mathematically speaking, you should lose 1kg fat (9000 calories) in a month. But it’s nowhere near as straightforward.
Ask anyone who has attempted weight-loss. Some people see far more dramatic loss at the same calorific deficit compared to others. And the loss isn’t even consistent across weeks/months, even when the deficit is largely the same.
Secondly, it seems now that all calories aren’t created equal. If you’ve been hanging out around the weight-loss circuit lately, you’d have noticed that Fats are no longer the bad guys. Infact, for many, they are now the heroes! It’s carbs, and specifically refined sugars, that are now the villians in the obesity saga. And for whatever reasons (which we will go into deep detail in a future article on Carbs) that may be the case, it seems fair to say that just cutting calories isn’t enough. Which Macro nutrient you reduce to do so, also seems to matter.
Great. We again have a simple-sounding-yet-complex question at hand. Stuff we love at FITSHIT. So how do you kick-off your weight loss diet? Three simple steps. Let’s get rolling.
Step 1: Count Calories
While the calorie deficit science may not be exact, one thing is for certain. You will not lose weight if you are in a caloric surplus.
The quantum of loss due to a deficit may be debatable, but there is no dispute about the fact that you need a deficit to start losing weight. So, ensuring you consume less than you expend, is an ABSOLUTE must. And the only way you’d know which side of the equation you are on, is if you knew how many calories you are consuming – aka Calorie Counting.
So the absolute, most imperative first step in your nutritional journey, has to be to start counting calories. In the beginning, it’ll look like a very daunting task. Keeping track of every morsel of food you consume throughout the day can be quite cumbersome. Over time it’ll become second nature, but as your start off, I’d sugest you use an App. There are a ton of great apps like MyFitnessPal and HealthifyMe out there that not just count calories but also give you a Macro nutrient breakdown of what you ate.
The Butter Chicken Factor
Once you start calorie counting, and if you’re Indian, you’ll face another problem. Unlike western food, our food ain’t modular. It isn’t 1 bun + 1 patty + 1 cheese slice + 2 onion slices. It’s oil and masalas and veggies and meats and butter and cream – all thrown into a hot pot to make a delicious dish that can be a calorie bomb without you knowing why. I’ll talk more about this in a future article on Nutritional Values. But for now, here’s a simple hack.
The 2 calorie counting apps I suggested are both fairly good with their Indian food database. So be it Dal Makhani, or Butter Chicken or Mutton Biryani, chances are you’ll find some version of it on the app. Problem is, how do you estimate whether your butter chicken is more/less greasy than the one on the app.
My answer – Just multiply it by 1.5.
When in doubt, esp. with Indian food, over-assume. There is no way you’ll know how big a slab of butter went into that bowl of daal, or even the exact size of serving that you licked off your plate. So don’t fret (nor give up), just multiply what the app says by 1.5. I call this the BC factor. Indians reading this will understand why.
Now, if you are an average Indian Male/Female, between the age of 25-40, then your BMR is most probably around the 2000/1500 calorie mark. Let’s assume you spend another 300 calories through exercise (that’s is about 5km of running @8kmph). So you are expending anywhere between 1500-2500 calories a day.
Not satisfied with this assumption! You can also calculate your ballpark BMR here. Want an even more detailed one, go here. Add to that the calories you’re burning through exercise (use this) and you’re set.
(Want to go deeper and read an opposing point-of-view on BMR and the futility of calorie counting, check this out)
Now that you know both how much you’re eating and burning, here is what I propose.
Watch what you eat. Just watch. Literally.
For the first week, just count your calories. Don’t do anything else. Don’t cut back on anything. Just record and observe what you are eating. See how many calories are you actually consuming everyday. Just acknowledge and be truthful to yourself about it.
Believe me, NOTHING will be more powerful a motivator to get started. When you observe that you are consuming 4000, maybe 5000 calories everyday (not too tough to achieve on a normal Indian diet, trust me), you’ll have no choice but to act. What it’ll also do, is give you a good sense of what to attack first. Of the shady corners of your diet where these calories may have been lurking, unnoticed. You’ll be surprised at the number of people who think they are eating very healthy, but who forget to count the two colas or the one samosa they had in the evening, which are exactly the things that push them over.
So first week – Just observe. Once you know, taking action will be inevitable. Knowing, is half the battle.
Go on then. Start counting the calories in what you’re putting inside your tummy. Next week, once we know, quantitatively, what you’ve been up to, I’ll give you step 2 & 3 of starting your weight-loss diet.
An aside on Calorie Counting
There is a lot of criticism around counting calories. Some see it as unnecessary hard work. Some see it as an unhealthy obsession. And some even more scathing critics say that it takes something as beautiful and emotional as food and reduces it to mere numbers.
I’m not sure if any of these people have ever done it themselves or are these just assumed, theoretical complaints.
Because I highly, totally and whole-heartedly support calorie-counting. Let the armchair experts shame it and call it unhealthy. As someone who’s been at it the last four years, I can confirm to you that I haven’t found anything more liberating, joyful and effective than this simple discipline. Let me explain.
There are three common grouses against calorie-counting. It’s too hard to do, too hard to keep doing, and that it takes the joy out of eating.
Well, it is hard initially. Requires a lot of discipline. There are grey areas too. Foods the app doesn’t recognize, food that’s made differently at different places, portion sizes that are un-measurable and so on. But that’s no reason to not do it. Remember, this is infinitely better than what you were recording previously. Zero.
So do it and in a few months, you’ll emerge the other side, enlightened. Because you can’t count calories without knowing exactly what went into making your food. You will have to ask questions about your food – questions about the ingredients and the preparation method and the garnishing sauce. You will need to make choices about whether you want your regular sandwich or an open faced one that halves the amount of bread. And once you make these tough choice, the food you do consume, will taste so much better.
For once you will truly Know-Your-Food.
For the first 28 years of my life I never entered the kitchen. But once I started understanding what goes into my food, I fell in love with it. Today, no matter how tired I am, I make my own dinner. I also get my own groceries. Over the years, the decision parameter for ‘what will I eat today’ has also shifted. From just taste to ‘taste and nutrition’. Over time, I find my mind has taken full control of what it puts into the tummy. It no longer just lets the tongue decide. And if that isn’t ‘mindful-eating’, I can’t imagine what else is.
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