* Except this: All that matters is that you consume fewer calories than you burn.
Any weight loss advice that goes beyond this simple statement is, at best, fluffy nonsense designed to make losing weight seem more complicated than it really is. Because the more complicated it seems, the more likely you are to pay for personal training, diet books, and other such things. That’s my exalted opinion after years of listening to various fitness advice, spending more than $3,000 on personal training, reading books like this one, getting into pretty damn good shape (~10% body fat), then getting into pretty awful shape (40+ pounds of mush), and finally going through the process of losing it all again. I bought into a lot of that fluffy nonsense, and all I learned was that I should have just listened to what my mother had been telling me for years: “You need to eat less.” Bah!, I said. I will just exercise my ass off, eat only the “right” things, eat exactly six times a day, in exactly the “right” intervals, and then I can eat as much as I want. (Not whatever I want, but as much as I want.) Turns out, Mom’s simple advice was more in line with reality.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on personal training or read stupidly long books or rub your stomach while patting your head and hopping up and down on one leg to lose weight. You just need to create a gap between how many calories you ingest and how many you burn. That’s it. Once you accept that as the foundation of weight loss, the “how” of it all becomes pretty obvious. Eat less, exercise more (and harder). If you’re not losing weight, you’re simply eating1 too much for your current lifestyle. Eat less. Exercise more. Exercise harder. Repeat until you start losing weight at the desired rate. And once you get where you want to be, for god’s sake, don’t resume your old eating habits! How do you think you got into this mess to begin with? Were you born fat? I don’t think so…
Here’s where I’m coming from. I’m male, 34 years old, 5' 8", and as of today weigh 188 pounds. Seven weeks ago I was 202. Eight months ago I was 222. And two and a half years ago I was 183-ish and just over 10% body fat. My current goal is get below 180 and be lean as hell. So what the hell happened between 183 and 222? Life. I got caught up with my career (read: obsessed) and everything else got thrown to the wayside. Before that happened I exercised 5 days a week, 2 hours a day. Every workout consisted of an hour of weights and an hour of cardio. And I was eating a lot of food. I would guess at least 3,500 calories a day, maybe more. So when I rather spontaneously stopped working out and didn’t curtail my food intake, it didn’t take long before it caught up with me. I gained about 40 pounds in approximately 4 months. I kept telling myself that when the time came to get back into shape, it wouldn’t be a big deal. I’d just pick up my exercise routine right where I left off and the weight would magically melt away. I was in for a bit of a disappointment.
A little background is probably necessary at this point. My weight has yo-yo’ed more than a few times in the past 15 or so years. Never quite 40 pounds, but more on the order of 20 to 25 pounds. When I was in my early 20’s, exercise seemed like a magic weight loss panacea. Even a moderate amount of cardio on a regular basis would annihilate any excess baggage in no time. I’m talking 6 weeks to kill 20 pounds. But this has become less and less true the older I get. By the time I was 28, I had to seriously bump up my exercise regimen in order to get back into shape. And when I finally decided to get serious about shedding my most recent weight gain, I hit a wall: Despite 10 hours of hard exercise a week, I was not losing weight. I also vastly underestimated my ability to resume my previous exercise regimen. After being 40 pounds overweight and living a largely sedentary lifestyle for over a year, I couldn’t even come close to the vigor of my old routine. I used to run about 23 miles a week. Now I could barely do 10 minutes on the treadmill without risking crippling shin splints. So by the time I had managed to get my endurance up enough to do 10 hours of exercise a week, I had already invested a significant amount of time and effort. Imagine my frustration when my weight hadn’t changed much. Exercise alone got me from 222 to 216, and stopped firm.
I was forced to face the obvious: my diet had to change. This really pissed me off. I love eating. Hell, I love over eating. Eating just a bit too much is… well, kinda orgasmic. (Oh please, you feel the same way. Don’t kid yourself.) Cutting back my food intake was right up there with quitting smoking as one of the most difficult lifestyle changes I’ve made. But I was out of options. Everyone’s metabolism slows with age. Just the way it is.
Many so-called weight loss gurus suggest counting calories. Personally, I find this way too tedious. Are you really going to accurately measure and weigh everything you eat and write it all down? Seriously? Regardless, I find this approach a little counter-productive. First of all, striving for a magic daily number of calories is largely missing the point. The exact number doesn’t matter, as long as it’s less than what you burn. Second, a magic number encourages you to drop your caloric intake too much too soon. Here’s a better method. You eat pretty much the same stuff every day, right? Well, try to eat exactly the same stuff every day. You have now established your caloric intake baseline. Next, start reducing your portions. I used to put about 9 or 10 slices of turkey on my sandwiches, plus 3 thick slices of cheese. Over the course of several weeks I got this down to 6 slices of turkey and 2 thin slices of cheese. This constituted one of my daily meals. Eventually, I split this into two meals, half a sandwich each. Relatively speaking, the number of calories I consume at each of those meals was significantly reduced. I did this for all of my meals. If you’re like me and HATE being hungry, I have good news: if you ease your portions down slowly, your body will get used to it. The smaller meals will satisfy you. This was a great relief to me because when I tried drastic, overnight cuts I kinda freaked out. I would get so hungry I couldn’t think straight. I’d get all panicky and start worrying I’d never lose the weight. These days I’m shocked by how little I eat. But don’t let me mislead you: sometimes you will just have to deal with being a bit hungry. Suck it up.
At the same time that I was reducing my food intake, I was increasing my exercise regimen. But for a time there was a fair amount of two steps forward, one step back. I am not the most patient person in the world. Once I decided to lose weight, I wanted it gone yesterday. In some ways, this attitude hurt more than it helped. I repeatedly increased my exercise workload too much too fast and got hurt. Pulled muscles, shin splints, and knee problems repeatedly forced me to cut my workouts back before I finally recognized that I needed to moderate the intensity increases. But eventually I hit the jackpot: 2 hours a day in the gym, 7 days a week (75% cardio), with the right amount of food intake and I started losing 2 to 2.5 pounds a week. Hooray! It’s been 7 weeks now since I hit this sweet spot and have shed 14 pounds. I’ve still got 8 pounds to lose before reaching my next goal, but I’m satisfied enough with my weight now that I’m going to aim for 1 pound of weight loss a week and only go to the gym 5 days a week. 14 hours a week is hard to keep up. (For me at least.)
So, essentially, my sage weight loss advice boils down to this: “Eat as little as possible, and exercise as much (and as hard) as possible.” Everything else was really just my story of getting my food intake down and my exercise regimen up. This leads me back to my original point. Any advice that deviates from this pithy little slogan is probably bullshit. I’ve heard people say don’t eat after 6:00pm. Don’t eat dairy. Don’t eat high-fat foods. Don’t eat sugar. Eat exactly 6 meals a day. None of that matters. Eat nothing but twinkies if you want! You probably won’t feel real good, but as long as you eat less than you burn you WILL lose weight. I’ve also heard “don’t do more than 45 minutes of cardio a day!” When my old trainer found out I was doing 90 to 120 minutes of CARDIO every day, he practically scolded me: “Stop that! You’re burning mostly muscle!” My response? I don’t care. I just want my weight down. Turns out he was full of shit anyway. From what I’ve read, you will lose an average of 75% fat and 25% muscle when you have a caloric deficit. The truth is, the more exercise you do, the more calories you burn and the easier it gets to create a calorie deficit in your diet. You will lose some muscle. Who cares. It’s not like it’s gone forever. For myself, I eventually want to drop below 175 specifically so I can put 5 pounds of muscle back on and still weigh in at 180. So do lots of cardio, as much as you can. Lift weights or do body weight exercises too, but keep in mind those exercises don’t burn as many calories. And whatever you do, don’t waste your time or money on gimmicky weight loss bullshit. Eat less. Exercise more. That’s it.
Update 4/24/2016: It’s been about three and a half years since I originally wrote this post. Should anyone be curious, I’ve never gained back any of the weight I lost. I hovered at around 185 pounds for a few years, so I obviously didn’t quite reach the goal stated here. Extreme dieting is tough to keep up for extended periods, and I think I was just satisfied enough with my weight and appearance that I didn’t feel like working off those final few pounds. Not yet, anyway. About a year ago I found myself sufficiently motivated to finish what I started and dropped another 15 pounds over a period of a few months. I’ve weighed in at about 170 pounds ever since, aided in no small part by my running addiction. The “technique” I used - if you can call it that - is exactly what I harped on in this post: Eat less, exercise more (and harder). It does take discipline and a willingness to endure discomfort, but it’s all that matters - unless you cheat2 and get surgery or something.
If you have some sort of medical condition that influences your body composition, this advice may not apply. But I will go out on a limb here and posit that most overweight people do not have a medical condition; they simply eat too damn much.
- Or drinking, unless it’s water or some other zero-calorie drink.
- I’ll breifly re-emphasize what is already stated in my disclaimer. If you have a legitimate medical issue that inhibits your body’s metabolism, I’m not talking to you. That’s different situation entirely. I’m talking to the folks who have a food intake problem and nothing more. I’m also operating under the assumption that most overweight people do not, in fact, have any such medical issues. I base this theory on the fact the obesity crisis is a new problem that has arisen in parallel with the wide availability of inexpensive, high calorie fast foods.