“How can I lose weight without changing my diet or exercise?” – Anonymous
Ha, I love this question. Someone asked this after a Saturday longsword class as I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich while drinking a Guinness. I jokingly answered this by saying that you could start to see which organs you don’t really need (like your appendix, one of your kidneys, etc) and sell them on the black market. This would be a win-win since you could use the money to buy more swords/gear/travel to more events. Disclaimer: Don’t do this.
But the serious answer is that you can’t. However, it doesn’t need to be difficult. In fact, you should make things as easy as possible: no more and no less.
- The Big Picture
- The Big Details
- Exercise And Movement
- Water and Hydration
- The Small Details – Everything Else
I am going to gloss over (pun intended) the basics of weight loss. There are plenty of areas that I can elaborate on; however, I don’t want to turn this into something that takes forever to read before it’s of any practical use. Instead, I’d love your feedback about which specific areas that you’d like me to expand upon for future articles. Comments (on the site, on Facebook site, or in the Facebook group or even email firstname.lastname@example.org) toward that end are greatly appreciated.
This is not intended to be used to improve “health” through nutrition specifically. Losing fat while maintaining muscle improves health markers like blood pressure, resting heart rate, cholesterol, blood sugar, etc, but health is a bit more complicated than that.
I’m going to use myself as an example where necessary. As of writing this, I’m:
36 years old, ~230 lbs, 6ft2in, and with a sedentary activity level. I picked sedentary because when I’m not actively exercising, I’m sitting in front of a computer. I’d conservatively estimate my bodyfat at 18% as I have some loose skin from my ~200lb weight loss.
As I mentioned, things should be as simple as possible. One person may only need to read the calorie section (most important) to see success, another may need to go all the way through and apply all of the principles to see success. If you just want the TL;DR, skip to the summary.
The Big Picture
The big picture is essentially just calorie balance, managing calories consumed against calories burned. However, I’ve included a section for the big details which all matter, but just how much they matter depends on the person. There are two ways that the big details matter:
- The big details can affect both calories consumed and calories burned, which are two ways to create a calorie deficit.
- When combined, the big details can make sticking to a calorie deficit much, much easier. While you *can* achieve weight loss eating nothing but ice cream (shout out to someone doing exactly that: https://www.youtube.com/user/jaklcrow); it’s going to be difficult, bordering on masochistic. When used together, the big details are what allow things to be as easy as possible.
What is a calorie?
A calorie in the context of food is a measurement of the energy that our food contains and that our body uses to keep us surviving and thriving. When you look on a food label, you see a calorie amount for a serving. This comes from what the food is made up of in general (these are averages, and aren’t precise).
|Macronutrient||Calories Per Gram|
Many people (myself included) have found weight loss success by:
- Figuring out an estimated number of calories we need to maintain our current weight (https://tdeecalculator.net)
- Eating 300-700 less (it depends) than the maintenance calorie number.
Figuring out the number of calories you are eating can be done a few ways. Personally, I prefer to weigh my food when I can, and then track what I eat in MyFitnessPal (http://www.myfitnesspal.com/food/diary/chuckgross). Note: I am not currently trying to lose weight. I am eating to support training twice a day.
When I can’t or don’t want to weigh my food, I estimate using my hand as a portion guide. A lean protein portion is my palm, a fat portion is my thumb, a vegetable portion is a closed fist, fruit comes in natural serving sizes, and starches are a cupped palm.
Some things of note:
- Calorie counts on food labels are inaccurate and the USA FDA allows inaccuracies up to 20%.
- Calculating calories burned from exercise is also inaccurate. There are so many variables that influence the calories burned part of the equation: what you eat and how much, your genes, your body composition, your sleep, your hormones and your environment.
For more information on the inaccuracy of calories, please check out these infographics:
In the end, these tools are a means to an end, which is an increased awareness of portions and food choices that align with our fitness and health goals.
How do I use this info?
Calories are listed first in this gloss because changing the scale comes down to calories in vs calories out.
If you want to lose weight, either use the maintenance calorie calculator (https://tdeecalculator.net) or simply multiply your bodyweight x 10. So if you weigh 200lbs, start with 2000 calories. This is just a starting point, and you’d need to adjust based on the results. Everyone’s bodies, metabolism, and situation is different. This math breaks down if you are very over or underweight, so if you weigh 400lbs like I did, 4000 calories a day may not result in weight loss. Weight x 6-8 may be a better, but I can’t think of any case where less than bodyweight x 6 would be necessary for weight loss. If your calories are too low, you’ll feel awful, you may risk muscle loss, and your exercise and sleep may suffer. Eat too much and you won’t lose weight. With that said, bodyweight cannot be the sole measure of progress. *I highly recommend keeping track of your body circumferences, at the very least just the waist around your navel.* Pictures and how your clothes fit are also great additional metrics.
The calculator says my maintenance calories are 2,661, and to eat 2,161 to lose weight. Bodyweight x 10 would be 2,300. Personally, I’d use this as a range and then adjust based on my results. I tend to look at the weekly average of calories vs the weekly average body weight.
The Big Details
What is protein?
Protein is literally the building block of our muscle. Protein from our diet allows us to not only build more muscle but protein is also required to recover from exercise as well as to ensure that you don’t break down your existing muscle for energy when in a calorie deficit.
Aside from those things, protein also makes you feel more full than other nutrients, especially if you eat it with other things.
How do I use this info?
Protein = .7-1.0g per lb of bodyweight. If that seems daunting, start with getting 20-30g of protein per meal. Protein intake is a spectrum that goes from not enough to too much. Some steps in between are requirements for survival, optimal for preventing muscle loss while losing weight, to a sufficient amount to suppress appetite while losing weight, to a point where they are just an expensive version of carbs (being converted to energy).
I keep this really simple for myself. At 200lbs with my current amount of muscle mass, I’d be super lean, so I simply try to get 200g of protein a day. So I use ideal weight in grams of protein per day.
What is fiber?
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate but is different enough that it gets it’s own category. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber mixes with liquids and makes a gel. This adds mass to your stool, and helps you feel full. Sources include oatmeal, nuts, beans, apples, and berries.
Insoluble fiber is found in seeds and skins of fruit, as well as whole-wheat bread and brown rice. It also helps with hunger, but also helps with staying regular.
You don’t *need* fiber to survive, but it will certainly help with your health and help you feel full while losing weight. Don’t rapidly increase your fiber intake from nothing to a great amount over night or you may be suffering horrible stomach pain.
What happens without fiber?
How do I use this info?
The American Dietetic Association recommends 10-13g of fiber per 1000 calories consumed, while the standard American diet tends to get much less than that.
From a nutrition coach point of view, I’m cheating a little bit here. By looking at protein and fiber amounts as goals, I’m guiding you toward better food choices without labeling any foods as good or bad. So in this case, it’s a sneak way to say eat your vegetables, at least 3 fist sized portions a day. You can get fiber from non-vegetables (and should), but vegetables take up more room in your stomach, and are lower calorie while providing fiber as well as vitamins and minerals.
Some ideas for sources of fiber: http://www.bodybuilding.com/content/40-high-fiber-foods-you-must-try.html
For more reading, check out this article by Lyle McDonald, the person who got me interested in nutrition initially. http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/nutrition/fiber-its-natures-broom.html
I eat lots and lots of fiber from various sources (black beans, refried beans, apples, chia seeds, oatmeal), and lots and lots of vegetables because I have a big appetite. Getting it from whole foods is better, but I sometimes supplement with psyllium husk (generic, unflavored Metamucil).
Exercise And Movement
What’s the difference between exercise and movement?
Exercise is specific activity for a specific desired result, things like strength training, your HEMA specific training, cardio, etc.
In the context of weight loss (and not health or improvement of your fencing), at least 2 days of weight training (that hits every muscle group) would be a great idea as this would ensure (combined with a sufficient protein intake) that the weight you lose is not muscle mass.
If you have more time and/or desire, 3-4 days of strength training and 2 short sessions of high intensity intervals (HIIT) and a short 20 minute light intensity cardio session per week would be even better.
More on workout specifics for HEMAists in a future article.
Movement is pretty much all other, non-scheduled activity in your day. Movement that is *not* exercise is actually the largest part of our metabolism and calorie burn. In research this is referred to as NEAT, which is non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). “This is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12468415
A great example of this is a friend of mine from high school. We were the same height and age, but he was a constant fidgeter. He would be always bouncing his legs, needing to stand up and move around, always doing something. In my case, I could sit perfectly still for hours and not really need to move. We could both eat the same foods and portions, and even have the same scheduled exercise routine, but this component of our metabolisms would lead me to get fat while he was skinny.
Some suggestions as to how to get in more NEAT activity:
- Switch to a desk that does standing and sitting, not just standing OR sitting.
- Take an active break every 30 minutes, meaning just walk around, get something to drink, use the bathroom, etc.
- Take a walk after meals. If you can’t do that after every meal, make it a point to take a 15 minute walk after at least *one* meal.
- Any time you make a phone call, walk around, don’t stay seated. Worst case scenario, at least stand up.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Park farther away in the parking lot.
Being more active ALL day is incredibly important as it helps with blood sugar control, and fat burning hormones. And guess what? Those things are related to hunger and cravings. So moving during the day is going to help, and generally do so without increasing your appetite. Scheduled exercise isn’t natural. It’s something that we’ve invented as a culture because we’ve stopped moving all day.
I am generally working at a desk and typing more than 8 hours per day on weekdays, and I generally work at a computer a few hours per day on the weekend. I try to get up and go for a brisk walk at least once an hour. I try to stand and fidget when on the phone or waiting for something (like not sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s or car mechanic, etc). I also park farther away in the parking lot.
I have scheduled workouts in some form every day (some are active recovery days) as when I don’t do this, I tend to get super lazy. My spirit animal is a sloth, as I have to really force myself to do these things.
Water and Hydration
If you’ve read the Fuel Your Fight article about tournament hydration and nutrition, I gave some specific guidelines for normal hydration needs. Those specific recommendations are:
For those using imperial system
For every pound you weigh, ingest .45 oz to .6 oz of water.
Example: If you weigh 220 lbs, 99-132 oz of water per day.
For those using the metric system
For every kilogram you weigh, ingest 30-40 mL of water.
Example: If you weigh 100 kg, that’s 3-4L of water per day.
With that said, for the purposes of weight loss, you can keep things simple and just do your bodyweight x .5 in oz. So a 220 lb person would drink 110 oz of water per day.
If you don’t drink anywhere near that amount now, trying to get a higher amount over night may result in a ton more bathroom trips. It would be easier to slowly ramp up. Also, unless you have a medical reason to cut back on salt, don’t cut out salt from your diet, especially if you are increasing your water intake!
I drink a cup of water every time I fill up my coffee cup, and ensure that I have 1-2 cups at every meal. I stop drinking anything after dinner so that I’m not going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. When you first start losing weight, going to the bathroom extra is normal as you are getting rid of excess water weight.
Optimize Your Sleep
Sleep is included because it is the glue that binds the rest of this together. If your sleep quality and quantity aren’t optimized, you will face the loss of impulse control, increased appetite, increased stress, less desire to be social, less desire to move around, and reduced willpower; when our willpower is low, we will always make the easiest/most convenient choice. Essentially, this is the largest failure point for a life-long weight management.
To optimize your sleep, please consider:
- Tracking your sleep. Most people overestimate the amount of actual sleep that they are getting. If you have or are getting a tracker like the Fitbit, get the one that tracks sleep too.
- Cut back on using electronics before bed (30 minutes before at least!) and install something like f.lux https://justgetflux.com/ for your computer to block blue light (which prevents you from falling asleep). Apple and Android phones have night time modes, and you can also buy glasses to wear at night to block blue light as well.
- Optimize your sleep environment. Make your bedroom darker by using blackout shades, put tape over bright indicator lights on electronics, or even wear a sleep mask. Reduce noise pollution with earplugs, a white noise generator, or listening to soothing music to drown out the disruptions. Reduce the temperature in your bedroom by about 5-10 degrees below what it would normally be during normal waking hours (varies per person). Remove unnecessary clutter to make the bedroom a more restful and relaxing place.
- Have consistent bedtimes. Our bodies like sameness and routine. If you stay up late, and wake up tired, you are creating a sleep deficit that sleeping in on the weekend cannot ever fully erase. However, it does help. I’ve found that going to bed around the same time every day (with exceptions for social obligations) has vastly improved my sleep.
- If you drink caffeine, consider cutting back. There is no need to cut out coffee or caffeine entirely, but setting a hard cut off point (something like 2pm) in your day may help you get to sleep better and faster at night.
- Consider supplementing melatonin after consulting with your doctor. Melatonin is the hormone that your brain produces that helps you get to and stay asleep. “For regulating the sleep cycle, doses of melatonin between 500mcg (0.5mg) and 5mg seem to work. Start with 500mcg, and if it doesn’t work, work up to 3-5mg. The benefits of melatonin are not dose-dependent – taking more will not help you fall asleep faster”. It is non habit forming and may be worth your while to look into if your doctor approves. It doesn’t require a prescription or anything and is available over the counter, but it’s a great idea to include your doctor on decisions like that, or at least let them know.
I asked one of my clients about how their sleep has helped with their weight loss and this is what they sent me.
“I didn’t really connect the two until Chuck started hint dropping, but one thing that always stood out to me was how much easier it was to make decent food choices and avoid hunger on weekends. Why was most of my hunger problem occurring during work days? Then with a hint from Chuck I kinda just stepped back and thought, “Oh, it’s because I sleep as much as I want on weekends that I don’t wake up hungry.” Now of course ‘as much as I want’ isn’t really possible during the workweek without getting fired for showing up 3 hours late, but it really impressed upon me the importance of getting to bed at a decent time of at least get ‘enough’. This means when I wake up before work, I’m less exhausted, less grumpy, and more importantly…less hungry. This also helps me retain more willpower to make sure that when I DO choose to eat, I’m making a better choice instead of just brainless clamouring to get whatever form of energy inside me that I can find. It’s become so noticeable that even 30 minutes to an hour of earlier bedtime makes a very tangible difference the next morning.”
Manage Your Stress
We often have this notion of what stress means, but can basically encompass any stimuli that happens to us, both internal and external. Eating at a calorie deficit is a stress. Exercise is a stress (stress can be positive too). Watching the news is a stress. Too much caffeine is a stress, too much sugar is a stress. Even things we might not think of, like noise pollution, artificial light, they can all be stress to our bodies and minds.
So what can we do to manage our stress?
- Try the app Headspace, it has a 10 day free trial. If you like it, sign up.
- Try to reduce some of the stressors when you can, so getting out of artificial light, cutting back on caffeine and sugar where possible, etc.
- Human contact reduces stress (become a hugger) and so does petting/snuggling with a pet. 🙂
- Spend some time outside, in nature. Or at least get some sunshine.
- Figure out some music that calms you down.
- Try some breathing techniques. Here’s a simple one. Push your tongue to the roof of your mouth really hard and hold it there. Close your eyes. Focus on that, and take big deep breaths. Do that for 10 seconds.
- Break your work down into 25 minute chunks, followed by a short break. Use a timer or timer app. This is called the Pomodoro Technique.
- Bookend your day with rituals. By starting and ending your day the same way, every single day, no exceptions, you bring a sense of order to your life.
I am currently trying out Headspace. When I’m in my car, I try to listen to soothing music, which for me is anything with the cello. My favorites are Zoe Keating and Tina Guo. I try to hug my family (including my giant fluffy dog) as often as possible, but especially when stressed. When it’s sunny here in Pittsburgh, I do my best to be outside.
The Small Details – Everything Else
If you find yourself worrying about how many carbs you eat, or how much fat to eat, or what supplements to take, or what vitamins to take, or how many meals to eat per day and you aren’t consistent with both the big picture and big details, you may be suffering from “majoring in the minors.” That is, you are focusing on the things that matter the least before the things that matter the most.
All of these small details can make a different, and some of them simply come down to personal preference. Some people do better with a lower carb intake, others don’t. Some people do fine with skipping breakfast, other people are more consistent when they eat smaller meals every 2-3 hours. Think of these things as something that’s experimental. Try something, if it doesn’t work, ask why. If something works now, it might not work for you later as circumstances change. But as long as you keep the big picture and big details in mind, don’t sweat the small stuff!
- Calories: Start with bodyweight x 10, adjust based on changes on scale and body circumference measurements.
- Protein: Ideal body weight in grams of protein per day. Try to get 30-40g per meal. Protein helps you feel full and aids recovery.
- Fiber: 10-13g per 1000 calories consumed. Try to get it from whole food sources like vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains.
- Exercise: Two types of exercise matter: scheduled exercise for a specific reason (get stronger, faster, bigger, etc.) and all day movement. At the very least, try to get 2 full body strength training sessions in per week, and then work on getting up and moving around as much as possible during your day.
- Water: Your body is mostly water. Drink your bodyweight in lbs x .5.
- Sleep: Quality and quantity matter. Sleep impacts impulse control, appetite, willpower, stress, movement. Optimize your bedroom environment. More sleep is magical.
- Stress: Everything is stress and not all stress is bad. How you perceive and manage the stress you have is more important than the amount of stress. Hug people and/or pets, go outside, breathe and listen to music. Rituals bring order so start and end your day with them.
- Everything else: Calories first, then big details, then everything else. Don’t major in the minors.