by Chad Kerksick PhD January 09, 2012 4 min read
As someone who has examined a number of research studies devoted to weight loss and conducted a handful of them as well, the process of losing weight is anything but easy. One approach of a respected university colleague of mine tells his classes, “Just don’t eat. You want to lose weight, just don’t eat and you’ll lose weight!” Is he right? In a matter of speaking, he certainly is. Is this the “best” or healthiest strategy? I think most people would argue the answer to these questions are “no”, it isn’t the best or healthiest strategy. He actually uses this strategy as an introduction into the fact that no single strategy is best or can universally be suggested to all people. We are all built differently, both physically and mentally and what works for one person may not work for others.
Much to my chagrin, the concept of calorie balance is important, very important. While many people discount it or like to abuse it because of its simplicity, no single theory exists to explain some of the results and conclusions made by professionals today. It’s not exciting and isn’t something you’ll see being sold on an infomercial, but it makes up the basis of nearly every weight loss or body composition strategy with documented success. Many reports about the energy balance theory and published studies regularly show that people are not very good at reporting how much they eat each day. Error rates of 20 – 25% are common and the magnitude of error may be worse for overweight or obese people, two populations that need to be more accurate. Why does this happen? How can a person think they are only eating 1,800 calories each day but in actuality consume 350 – 450 more calories than this each day? Are people in denial, do they pathologically lie to themselves each day thinking that if they continue to live in their own little world of denial it won’t be true? I don’t think so and in fact, I think more and more people are starting to take notice of their health, particularly as health care costs climb and let’s face it, people who are overweight and sedentary are expensive when it comes to health care. Maybe I’m having a delusionary moment, but we all have them about various things.
One area at the center of not knowing how many calories you’re slugging down each day relates to the numerous ways in which food manufacturers can trick you into thinking certain foods are better than you may think. The media and advertisements should also accept some blame as well. Other aspects to consider are our undeniable lust for tasty foods and the state of time poverty in which everyone seems to live each day. Another sad reality is many restaurants and even more food items which are deemed to be healthy are adulterated to the point where they can be downright bad for you. Don’t believe me, look up the calorie contents of some popular turkey sandwiches at Panera or salads from Applebees or Cheesecake Factory. Granola may be one of the worst offenders! Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying don’t go to these places or avoid these foods, but rather be aware and be careful.
How do you become informed? For starters, you must accept the reality that many of those foods which are emotionally satisfying are not what you think they are and then you must be willing to make some concessions. Skip the chips for fruit or drink five beers instead of ten are two ways to save some calories. Eating a smaller portion, pouring chips or any other irresistible finger food into a separate bowl may also provide some help. The number of tips goes on and on and that’s good because what works for me may not work for you and what works for you today may not work in a month. No simple strategy exists to become more informed. Detailed websites, extensive calorie counter books or well-constructed applications (apps) for your smartphone may also provide some help, but the best strategy is the one that will be used and used often.
In summary, calories are everywhere and they permeate all aspects of our world. Realizing this as a fact and working each day to make better choices is one strategy that can and should be universally applied. It’s a long fight, one that many folks would consider is never-ending and for the most part this is true. However, fast food is not going away any time soon as is our love for tasty foods which means that the battle against caloric intake will continue to rage on. This topic is important because many people have no idea where they are starting and when sacrifices are made and emotional energy is burned, certain outcomes are expected. Failing to achieve these outcomes is hard to swallow and for many, a lack of success is not worth the effort, where in actuality the deck was stacked against you before you even started. In the end, for any individual who wishes to lose weight or improve their body composition, accepting the responsibility and learning to keep better of track your calories is a strategy that will help to achieve your goals today and several years from now.