Weight loss, practical advice for getting started – Part I – Calories

I’ve decided to start a little series of posts on what *I* suggest as a path to lose weight.  These will be summary versions of what I have shared with my ‘mentees’.  This is information – your part is to implement it – it doesn’t work just by reading it :)   Read and then digest in stages if it is overwhelming for you!

I don’t know everything about weight loss, but I am well-read and practiced on the subject.  2.5 years of intense study so far – I should have earned a 2nd degree by now! (they don’t bestow those for self-study :(   but I am certified in weight management if that makes you feel better;) )

Calories and Food Info

Why are we counting calories? If weight loss is your goal, you need to concentrate on your food!  You cannot make up for your food choices with exercise.  Exercise has a different function, which is very important, but 90% of weight loss is related to what goes into your mouth.   If you can only learn one lesson at a time, learn this one first.

Calories (roughly 3500 account for a pound of body fat)

It doesn’t sound fun to count calories and all the fad diets will tell you it’s stupid… but the most successful diets count calories even if you don’t know it.  What do you think weight watcher points are?  And the Medifast or Jennie Craig?  They tell you exactly what you can eat so that you get a certain number of….. calories!  Would it be easier if I just told you what to eat?  perhaps but unless you will be happy eating chicken and lettuce with the occasional potato every day for the rest of your life, your best bet is to just get over yourself and LEARN a few things so that you can enjoy chicken, lettuce, PLUS the occasional beer or cupcake too!

It’s not that difficult once you get used to it – people generally eat the same foods so once you know that an apple has 80 calories you don’t even have to look it up any more!  I’ve been counting calories for 2.5 years, and I rarely have to look anything up.  Some people like to log it into something like MyFitnessPal, while others (me) prefer pen and paper.  My tracking is very rudimentary – I write the calories and the protein content and that’s it.  In fact once you get enough practice you’ll be able to make educated choices withOUT your little pad of paper (example, you are on vacation!)

I do want you to track it, at least at first. If you keep a running tally in your head, 70 calories gets rounded down to 50 and so on and you end up eating 200-300 more than you “remember”.  At least for 6 weeks I want you to track the calories and protein at a minimum.  Besides did you know the people who track lose more weight?

How do you find the calories?  On boxes, cans, bags of food or you can look it up online really quickly.  I would try to use an official food database rather than user-entered information.  One time I logged chicken in MyFitnessPal and it was counting it as only 30 calories so just be aware.

Tips for calorie counting:

  • eat one ingredient foods – it is easier to portion out your foods if they are separate rather than in a casserole type dish.
  • buy a cheap scale – I found a digital one online for $6 but I do NOT get crazy with it.  I use it to see whether I am serving myself 4 oz of meat versus 8 oz – I do not fuss if it says 4.12!  It is useful to me to get my portions reasonably correct (especially since I had trouble with portion control when I was overweight) – what does a 4oz potato look like??  Then when I am away from my own kitchen I know how much to put on my plate.
  • estimating portions without a scale:  http://img.webmd.com/dtmcms/live/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/media/pdf/diet/portion-control-guide.pdf
  • look up the calorie content before you go out to eat – so you know what to choose and how much of it to eat (hint:  salad is NOT always the best option)

Protein (4 calories per gram)

You can read about all the ways your body uses protein (and I encourage you to do so!  the more you know…)  For weight loss, it helps maintain muscle while you are losing weight.  The total ratio of muscle to fat in your body will determine your ability to burn calories every minute of the day.  So if you plan to lose 20 or 50 pounds, you do NOT want that to be mostly muscle, you want it to be fat – the extra stuff that doesn’t DO anything on your body.  Protein also takes a lot of energy to digest so your body is working (ie burning calories), it digests more slowly leaving you feeling fuller longer, and it slows the digestion and insulin response of whatever you eat with it (think carbs!).  AND your body is unable to manufacture it’s own protein (read up on essential amino acids) so you must replenish it’s supply throughout the day from food.

You will learn to be a protein hunter!  Literally when I am looking for something to eat at any meal or snack I ask myself “what protein am I gonna eat?” – everything else is built around that.

Carbs (4 calories per gram)

They get a bad rap, but carbs are the energy source your body needs to function.  Not just for exercise, your body needs carbs to even RUN YOUR BRAIN FUNCTION (which explains why if you have NO carbs you get “foggy”).  Less or more carbs are up to you but do NOT try to eat none.  Even if it works for quick weight loss, most of that is water and muscle … you’ll end up “paying for it” later!  If you do find your body works best on lower carbs I encourage you to eat carbs at least before/after your workouts so you’ll have energy to give it your all.

Preferred sources of carbs are veggies, whole grains, root vegetables – NOT processed foods or sugar or flour.  We all need to treat ourselves once in a while but they are not good sources of real food.

These staples were my intro to good carbs and works well for me:  oats, potatoes, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and veggies!

Fat (9 calories per gram)

Fat gets a worse rap than even carbs!  Your body uses fat for essential functions (like vitamin absorption) so do NOT eat no fat!  I am guilty of this and sometimes have to track my fat grams to make sure I am eating ENOUGH.   Don’t run for the fried chicken just yet… fried food is never a good source of fat :)   Yummy, yes, good for you, not so much.

Good sources are nuts/seeds (and oils and butters made from those), coconut oil, olive oil, fish oil, fatty fish (like salmon).

Fat is very calorie dense so you need to measure – the difference between 1 Tb and 1.5 Tb is a lot.  On the other hand because it is so calorie dense it is usually the most tempting to cut from our diet to “make” our calorie limit – this is me! – so we need to make sure we are getting enough.  (Minimum for me is about 30 grams)


When to eat?

I like to eat 5-6 times a day.  This gives me something to eat every 3 hours or so and keeps me from feeling “starving”, when you are likely to eat anything you can get your hands on.  it also keeps me from getting snacky because by the time I am hunting around for something to snack on it’s time to really eat again!

What about “diet” breaks?

If you JUST started dieting you probably don’t need a break for the first 4 weeks, but if you’ve been at it for a bit, you might like to introduce ONE higher calorie day per week.  This will give you a mental break as well as a diet break for your body which can help resist plateaus.  This is not a free for all… you simply eat 300-500 more calories on that one day than you do the rest of the week.

What to eat?

This list was helpful for me in the beginning when I was searching for some general foods to include in my “new” way of eating:


And remember meals don’t always have to be “recipes” – a chunk of chicken breast, small potato and a salad are easy and great for ya!

Can I just eat HEALTHY?

Eating healthy and eating for weight loss are NOT the same thing – unfortunately.  Using our fats as an example – almonds, peanut butter, olive oil are very healthy for you and actually essential in small amounts, but they are also calorie dense so if you just eat them willy nilly you will find your weight going up, not down.  Just that extra TB of olive oil in the pan for your chicken or as a dressing on your salad will add 100-200 calories to your meal.  This will add up to 1 pound of weight gain in less than a month JUST for that extra splash of oil.  Fruit is another good example – very healthy for you but fruits have a fair amount of sugar, so eating them nonstop will add a lot of calories to your day.

PS – stay tuned for the rest of the series :)   And again, digest it in chunks if it’s too much info at once!  Join us on Facebook if you haven’t already!

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