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The Dieting Maze: Promises, Promises!
There are promises everywhere: Just stand at the grocery line and read the headlines of every magazine cover. The false promises scream at you:
- “I lost 50 pounds in two weeks, and didn’t stop eating anything I love!”
- “[Famous Doctor] knows the secret hormone that will end your body fat!”
- “How does [big star‘s name] stay so thin?”
- “You can lose 20 pounds in a week with this one special secret.”
- “How to lose weight off those hips in just 5 days!”
- “Get rid of that belly fat with just five minutes of exercise every day!”
- "Don't Eat these Five Foods and you'll Lose Weight Quickly!"
Maybe your mother taught you that all-important maxim: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” If she did, and you believed her, you can ignore these endless taunts of how you can lose weight and get fit in less than a heartbeat. If she didn’t, maybe you are drawn in, maybe you think, “it might work for me!”
Science is still trying to figure out how our body uses food, as well as how much food and exercise we need...
...we do know that metabolism has a lot to do with what our body does with food.
To think about dieting, you must first think about metabolism.
Metabolism: What is it?
Our body needs food and energy at a cellular level, but no matter what we eat, the cells can't use it in the condition it is in when we eat it. Food goes through several chemical processes after we swallow it — our body will break it down into a state that the cells can use.
Metabolism, then, is the chemical process by which food is converted into food and energy for our cells. If our body doesn't need all of it, it will be stored for use later.
The energy is needed to do everything that you do: not just for exercise class or for your weekend marathon, but also for brushing your teeth or watching television. Those cells are in your brain, your heart, and your lungs, as well as in your muscles.
Metabolism never sleeps; it is working every minute of every day.
There is a close link between nutrients, energy, and metabolism.
Water and Food: Their Link to Metabolism
Here are three reasons why your cells need water:
- In order to maintain their shape and size;
- To regulate your body temperature 2; and,
- To cause metabolic reactions that help your body process and create energy.
"German researchers found that drinking 6 cups of cold water a day can raise resting metabolism by about 50 calories daily—enough to shed 5 pounds in a year. The increase may come from the work it takes to heat the water to body temperature. Though the extra calories you burn drinking a single glass don't amount to much, making it a habit can add up to pounds lost with essentially zero additional effort." 3
Every body is different and unique. It doesn't matter if you are young, old, man, woman, thin, heavy-set, tall, short. Food will technically do the same in every person's body, but genetics and gender also play a role.
Here is a list of some foods that are considered to be good for boosting metabolism:
- lean meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, pork;
- green tea;
- eggs, cheese, milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt;
- asparagus, spinach, avocados; and,
- tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans, chestnuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios, hickory nuts, pine nuts) WARNING: Tree nuts are considered a priority allergen by Health Canada.
Not only what we eat may make a difference, but how we eat may also help our metabolism. These two paragraphs come from an article in Prevention Magazine:
"Some foods take more work to eat—and therefore burn more calories while you're digesting them. Just the act of chewing foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean cuts of meat can increase your calorie burn by up to 30%.
"In a Japanese study, researchers found that women who ate the foods that required the most work had significantly slimmer waistlines than those who ate the softest, easiest-to-eat foods. The fiber and protein in such foods take so much effort to digest that your body doesn't absorb some of their calories." 4
Making use of your Knowledge: First determine your Basal Metabolic Rate
To decide how much food, water, and exercise you need to keep your metabolism fired up, you need to know your basal metabolic rate.
According to Wikipedia, "Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of energy expended daily by humans and other animals at rest. ... The release, and using, of energy in this state is sufficient only for the functioning of the vital organs, the heart, lungs, nervous system, kidneys, liver, intestine, sex organs, muscles, and skin."
In other words: You must know the minimum number of calories your body needs to survive — to keep your body functioning.
There are internet calculators that will determine your BMR by asking for your height, weight, age, and gender. They can vary considerably. Mine, for instance, tells me that I need anywhere from 991 to 1117 calories a day, depending upon which calculator I use, just to keep my body functioning.
But other things affect the BMR, such as menopause, pregnancy, or even while losing weight.
So, all in all, it's pretty tricky to figure out the minimum number of calories you need to stay alive and healthy, but to not gain weight. The best you can do is use the internet calculators, be as honest as you can about your height and weight, and see what numbers they come up with.
After figuring out your BMR, don't quit — there's more to calculate!
Using our BMR, we know (roughly) how many calories we need to stay alive. But how do we use that knowledge to lose or maintain weight?
To answer that question, you need to know two things beyond knowing your BMR:
- How many calories do you eat every day?
- How many calories do you burn every day through daily activities and exercise?
Here's an example of how you can calculate whether you have a calorie deficit or surplus on any given day:
To maintain weight: Let's assume that a six-foot 30-year-old male has a BMR of 2000 calories a day. If he eats 2000 calories a day, then there's no problem. Keep the calories going into your body the same as the calories burned, and you will maintain your weight.
To lose weight: Let's stay with the person mentioned above who needs 2000 calories a day just to stay alive. What if he eats 2000 calories that day (the required amount just to keep his body going) but what if he exercises or walks as well? If he burns 500 calories, he will have a 500-calorie deficit. Over time, if he does that every day, he might lose weight.
So we have reached a very basic principle: if you burn more calories than you eat, then you are more likely to lose weight. The accomplishment of that principle is harder to fulfill because there are two unknowns:
- How do you know what your calorie intake is?
- And how do you know how many calories are burned during a particular activity?
How do you calculate the calories you have eaten?
That's a simple question but not quite so simple an answer. It can be done in several ways:
- Read the nutrition labels on the food (sample label at the right).
- Use an internet database of foods. (Some are clubs that you have to join.)
- Buy a calorie-counting APP (there are many).
- Check out specific companies on the internet; many provide nutritional information for all the foods they sell (Cob's Bread, Arby's, McDonald's, and many others).
- Use a food scale. Weigh everything you eat (in grams) and then you know the calories you have consumed.
Keep a diary of the foods you eat, so that you can keep track of how many calories you are eating through the day. Develop your own database of the foods you commonly eat — indicate caloric values equivalent to a certain size portion. This just saves time when filling in your diary each day.5
You will learn quickly that eating less will also be useful in keeping the total calories eaten per day at the right level.
It was in 1826 that French physician wrote: Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es. "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."
Keep these simple principles in mind:
- Determine your metabolism rate by using a calculator on the web.This will tell you the minimum number of calories you need per day to survive.
- Set a limit to the number of calories you will allow yourself on any given day.
- Keep a diary and a reasonably accurate accounting of the calories you eat every day.
- Plan to exercise each day: an exercise class, a walk, whatever you choose, but don't leave it out.
- Find a way to determine how many calories each activity burns. There are websites that give you general ideas, or you can use a computerized tracker.
- Make sure that you burn more calories than you eat. A deficit of 150 to 300 calories is a good place to start.
- What you eat is up to you, but use your calories wisely. A 300-calorie chocolate chip cookie is not going to provide your body with the nutrients it needs. Eat healthy, eat smart. Don't waste your calories.
How do you calculate calories burned?
There are websites that show you charts of activities and the calories burned, but there is not always an indication of age or gender, weight or height — all of which makes a difference in determining how many calories are burned. I found one that takes into account weight, distance, time, and speed, as well as the incline (steep or flat) or whether or not you are running or walking. But it's difficult to discover one that takes all of these into account. It's even more difficult to find one that goes to other activities besides running and walking.
A very popular item these days is a calorie tracker: I used one called FitBit6, and Nike and Apple make similar devices. I now have an Apple Watch. Before these electronic gadgets, there were the pedometers (just attach to your clothes and it will count how many steps you take); pedometers do not tell you how many calories you have burned, however.
These newer items are worn on your wrist or clipped to your clothes and keep track of the calories you are burning; the totals can be read on the device itself, your computer or your phone and you can also log in your calories eaten. They can easily keep track for you whether or not you are achieving a calorie deficit on any given day.
How accurate are they? In my experience, not terribly accurate, but they do give you a guideline.
Exercise will make your metabolism work more efficiently:
- It helps to turn food into energy.
- Muscle cells need a lot of energy, which means they burn a lot of calories. In fact, they burn more calories than fat cells, even when you're not exercising.
- It becomes even more important as you get older. You naturally lose muscle mass with age, which slows down your metabolism.
Research shows that we need to do two things in our workouts:
Move! You can walk, run, dance, skip rope, swim. There are any number of things. But we know that cardiovascular exercise gets the heart pumping and your body becomes a more efficient calorie-burning machine.
Lift Weights! Twice a week, do at least 10 repetitions on each major muscle group, and don't forget their opposing muscles. Not only will you improve your metabolism, but you will also strengthen your muscles and bones.
We can't all be Olympic swimmers....make your dreams realistic!
How many times have you — and this applies to either gender — looked at another person and thought, “Wow, I wish I looked like him/her!” Whether we are admiring a model, a bodybuilder, a professional athlete, or someone on the street who just “looks great,” we all fall into the trap of thinking and hoping that we can look like that, too.
What is their secret? we ask ourselves. What do they do? Do they exercise? Lift weights? What do they eat? If I can just do what they do, I’m sure I can look the same. That’s what we dream.
But dreams can turn into nightmares...
There is one little fact — genetics — which we all forget when we start that dream. And because of genetics, we are more likely to be disappointed.
It simply doesn’t work that way. In their book, Body by Science, authors Doug McGuff and John Little discuss this phenomenon — believing that if we want to look like someone else, we just have to do what they do in order to achieve it. “Such claims,” they say, “are made all the time, and, despite their proliferation, they’re wrong.”
This is how it happens. You watch champion swimmers at the Olympics and you observe their appearance. It seems logical to assume that these athletes do something unique that allows them to have that kind of body.
But it is an assumption, McGuff and Little say, that is a “misapplication of observational statistics.”
So what is really happening?
“If you should ever [watch] a swim meet and sit through the whole day’s competition from the initial qualifiers to the finals you would see these ‘swimmer’s bodies’ change dramatically over the course of the day. This speaks to the fact that it isn’t the activity of swimming, per se, that produces this ‘type’ of body; rather, a particular body type has emerged that is best suited for swimming [and they become the champions]. In other words, the genetic cream rises to the top through the selective pressure of competition. Competition, it can be said, is simply accelerated evolution.”
You can want to have the body type of a swimmer, but...can you achieve it?
McGuff and Little finish their discussion about swimmers and their body type by saying: “We draw an inference that is invalid because we are lacking a broader context, which in this instance should have included all of the different body types that also trained [for] the event.” 7
They continue: “It [isn’t] the body type that did well in the activity. It is the genetic endowment that produces the body type. Therefore, if one desires to have the body type of, say, a champion swimmer, the best course is to start by having the same parents as that champion swimmer — rather than his or her training methods.” [my italics]
Avoid the Quick Fixes
Even though we know what the research says about diet and exercise — that permanent weight loss and lifelong fitness are achieved slowly and over time — we are still drawn in by these quick fixes. Just as a reminder, here are some of the bogeymen of the diet and fitness industry:
The Quick Fix, usually with a False Promise: Any suggestion that you can lose lots of weight in a short time, or you can eliminate fat from your stomach or hips in less than a week is probably not true. Research shows that permanent weight loss and long-term fitness levels only happen when we combine a balanced diet with a healthy fitness regime on a regular basis. It’s a lifetime change and you can’t be in a hurry.
One-size-fits-all and the Personal Anecdote: There’s nothing worse than that niggling feeling that you just need to do what that movie star does or what your best friend just said: “My boyfriend’s sister lost 30 pounds by using a rowing machine — she did it for two hours every day for two weeks. And she didn’t stop eating a thing she loves. All the doughnuts she wanted.” It is so tempting to believe that “if it worked for her, it will work for me.” Cars may come off an assembly line, but people do not. We are very different from each other: height, weight, gender, genetics, hormone and glucose levels, eating habits, fitness routines...just to name a few! To follow in the footsteps of what a friend has accomplished may be setting you up for a huge failure.
Drastic measures: If it sounds drastic — “Just eat nothing but kale for a month” — it’s probably not a good idea. Drastic measures — “Exercise every day for three hours” — may actually harm your health and cause you to over-train or become ill. Use common sense; if it sounds like too little or too much, it probably is.
Special equipment: Avoid those infomercials that are selling the “new and latest” device for exercising your abs or your thighs, or any other part of your body. Research has shown that we cannot “fix” one part of the body at a time. If we lose weight, we don’t lose it in one place. Instead, we lose weight over all our body — slowly, moderately. We have to work on everything, and everything may eventually improve. Chances are, you’ll stop using this special equipment a month after you buy it because you will not see improvement. There’s a good chance that it will end up on your closet floor gathering dust.
Endless, repetitive routines: Repetitive routines can cause injury...and, they can be quite boring. Variety is the secret, whether it’s your diet or your fitness regime.
Guarantees: If they say it will work in five days, or your money back, they know that you are not likely to send it back, even though it didn’t work. The guarantees often mean nothing. It’s only a carrot they hold out to tempt you to buy the item in the first place.
Better safe than sorry
There is no easy answer. As already stated, lifetime health and fitness occur slowly and steadily over time, and you can’t have one without the other. The diet and fitness regime you choose must become a lifetime commitment. Before embarking on either, follow this checklist:
Check out the research. Find out all you can about the diet you intend to use, and/or the fitness plan you intend to follow.
Seek professional guidance. Personal trainers, group fitness instructors, nutritionists — these people have been trained and are knowledgeable. They can give you guidelines. There are also plenty of self-help books out there on diet and exercise — just avoid ones that seem to be using some of the same tactics already mentioned above.
Do no harm. Yo-yo dieting and stop-and-go fitness training are dangerous to you and your health. Start slowly, monitor your progress, and stay on track. Ultimately, your personal welfare is the primary concern. Try to avoid the quick fixes.
Be who you are
In the end, there is no need to desire another person’s body type. Instead, you accept the one that you have. The answer is to live well: Exercise, eat good food, learn how to de-stress, have fun, enjoy relationships. Then you will have the best example of your body type imaginable!
- Book Review: Body by Science
- Canada's Food Guide: Nutrition and the Older Adult
- Genetics and Our Health: How much can we control
- Our Digestive System: How it Works
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.
These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. ↩︎
In the process of creating energy from the food you eat, your metabolism generates heat. You sweat when you’re overheated to release that heat from your body, and you drink water to replenish the water loss. ↩︎
From a Men's Health Magazine website, an article titled: 15 Easy Ways to Speed up your Metabolism. (See http://www.active.com/fitness/articles/15-easy-ways-to-speed-up-your-metabolism.) ↩︎
From an article in Prevention Magazine: http://www.prevention.com/weight-loss/weight-loss-tips/foods-boosting-metabolism ↩︎
I know this sounds hard but it is well worth the effort. ↩︎
It fits into a small 'bracelet' which you wear on your wrist. ↩︎
Thanks to authors Doug McGuff and John Little for their book, Body by Science. Published by McGraw-Hill, 2009. ↩︎