(migrated from an old blog)

More basic concepts in this post. This time it’s about dieting.

Before everything else, I’d like to make it clear that when I mention “calorie” below, I am referring to kilogram calories i.e. the one shown in the nutritional information labels at the back of food packages.

You don’t need to count your calories, but doing so will really help.

Counting calories is like meticulously noting every expense you make everyday to manage your finances. I think the latter is overkill; I personally just make sure I don’t spend too much on non-essential stuff.

Similarly, you can get away with some rules of thumb, like “Eat in moderation” or “Avoid food with a lot of refined sugar”. Combined with regular exercise, you will probably get results in a couple of weeks.

What calorie counting has over these simple rules of thumb is that you could see where you are failing in controlling your calorie intake. One common mistake is drinking a lot of juice or iced tea throughout the day: if you don’t count calories, you might not realize that four servings of those are equivalent to a single meal (480 calories). By determining these simple pitfalls, you could easily change your diet accordingly.

It’s going to be technical from here on. :P

One pound of fat is equal to 3,500 calories.

This is the simplest equation relating food intake to weight loss. Simply put, if you want to lose one pound, you’ll need to have a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories. Likewise, if you want to gain one pound, you’ll need to eat 3,500 more calories than you use.

Estimating the amount of calories you burn everyday will help you determine how much you can eat and how much you need to exercise to lose weight.

In order to do this, you can calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) using this link, then follow up by using the Harris Benedict Equation here.

As those sites will tell you, consuming less than the calculated value will cause weight loss and vice versa.

e.g. If the result is 2,000, by consuming only 1,500 calories per day, you can expect to lose one pound a week (7 * -500 = -3,500).

A weight loss rate greater than 2 pounds per week is dangerous for most people. Anything greater than 2 pounds will most likely result in greater weight gain in the future

or in simpler terms:

Never starve yourself.

If you’re planning to lose 10 pounds in a month, forget it.

The problem with the calorie counting approach is that most people don’t know how the body works when it comes to calories. Having a naive approach on weight loss, one might consider getting a deficit of over 1,000 calories per day. For sedentary individuals, that’s basically fasting – just 1 full meal a day.

Unfortunately, after hundreds of thousands of years of wilderness survival, the human body has evolved to react to famine. Once the brain has noticed the sharp decrease in food intake, it will tell the body to go into starvation mode. This will result in two things: First, the body’s metabolic rate will go down in order to save energy; and second, the body will focus on storing energy in the fat tissues until the “famine” is over. Pretty much a nightmare scenario for a person who wants to lose weight, huh?

To avoid this, people new to dieting should take things slow at first. Cutting 200 calories won’t be noticeable, but it could still make you lose a pound in just two and a half weeks. I would suggest that you first reduce the amount of high calorie foods that don’t fill you up (e.g. candies, ice cream).

Space your food intake such that you don’t feel famished. Never skip a meal.

These pieces of advice make you avoid going into starvation mode.

A good spacing for food intake is 3 hours. For average people, that would be “breakfast – snack – lunch – snack – dinner (- midnight snack)”. A four hour spacing is ok, but I doubt you could last for 5 hours without eating without causing your body to lower your metabolic rate.

Fad diets might work, but don’t count on it. A balanced diet is still the way to go.

There are three major components/types of food: carbohydrates that provide energy, proteins that help build up the body, and fats that provide additional nutrition and energy. A balanced diet means eating a decent amount (not a lot) of carbohydrates, some protein, and a little fat.

Fad diets focus on removing one of those three components, or changing the allocation to a different ratio, or adding some other weird component into the mix. There are problems with these approaches, though.

Removing one component is dangerous. Removing carbohydrates would force you to take in more fat than what is advisable. Removing fat deprives you of the nutrients that are only available in fat (EFA, fat soluble vitamins). Removing protein… well… that’s too crazy if you ask me. Changing the ratio from high carb : medium protein : low fat is just as dangerous.

Adding some weird component should always be taken with a grain of salt. As of this writing, there is no extensive scientific evidence that a single food or drug that can safely and significantly reduce weight on its own. For example, food that increase metabolism (e.g. caffeine, other stimulants) often only increase the calorie usage by around 100-200 calories, and Orlistat (Xenical) has a lot of side effects.

In short, just stick to the normal ratio of carb/protein/fat. Body fat is a result of excess calories so it doesn’t matter what type of it comes from. Reducing the overall calorie intake will be enough for the diet part of controlling your weight.

Forget glycemic index. Just make sure you include protein or fat in your snack so that you’ll feel sated longer.

Ever experienced being hungry in the afternoon and you decide to eat something full of sugar like some scoops of ice cream or maybe some chocolate chips? If you recall that day clearly, you would probably remember craving for food just an hour or two afterwards.

What happened here was an insulin spike. You ate something full of refined sugar and this quickly raised your blood glucose level. Your body noticed this so it released a lot of insulin to control the glucose level. Because of this, your blood glucose level plummeted. Then your body reacts to the very low blood glucose level by telling you that you are famished and you need to eat NAO!!!

This is a very common scenario. When people tell you this, they often follow it up with explaining the “glycemic index” of foods: food with high GI (mostly simple carbohydrates) quickly increase your blood glucose level, while food with low GI release the energy slowly and in turn avoids the insulin spike.

Ok, so I did just that. :P

Anyway, those people usually stop right after telling you to avoid eating food with high GI and vice versa. Unfortunately (or fortunately), that’s not the whole story. There is a way to avoid insulin spikes when eating high GI food: include low GI food in the mix. This could be in the form of protein or in the form of fat. Not only does this promote balanced diet, this also, as mentioned in the header above, makes you feel sated longer.

Regardless of whether you are counting calories or not, you must be familiar with how many calories are contained in the food you eat everyday.

I’ve already mentioned one value above: a serving of juice or iced tea is 120 calories. Now take into account that a cup of rice is 250 calories. While the latter is still relatively high in calorie content, it is more filling (in the sense that you probably won’t eat rice as often as you could drink juice) and healthier. Deciding on which food to eat will be slightly easier if you knowing their relative calorie content.

Beyond calories, I suggest that you should also be familiar with the protein, fat, and fiber content of food. Fiber is often overlooked by people nowadays, which is sad considering its health benefits and the diseases related to lack of dietary fiber.

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