The 5 best things you can do to start losing weight today
If you’re desperate to lose weight NOW and just want to start doing something, I’ve put together a “quick start” guide of the 5 best things you can do to begin. Like everything on Weighthacker, these recommendations are all based on solid research, and they’ve all also been used successfully in the real world by geeks like you.
I’ve also personally used these techniques to lose (and keep off) 65lbs, so I know from experience that they work. Here you go:
1. Track What You Eat
Human brains are terrible at keeping track of how much we eat during the day and how much food we eat at any given meal. Study after study shows that most of us regularly eat more than we think we do because our brains simply aren’t built to keep tabs on food intake. Even experts in diet and nutrition have a hard time estimating the number of calories in many meals!
That’s a huge problem (literally!), because to effectively lose weight you need to understand how much food you’re actually consuming. So your first step toward weight loss should be to figure that out. I’m not talking about doing anything fancy, just grab a pen and paper or fire up your smartphone and write down what you’ve had to eat today.
If you’re on the Internet all day (ahem) there are also lots of free and easy to use food diary sites out there to help you. I recommend MyFitnessPal.com or LoseIt.com. They take a few minutes to register and set up, but after that tracking your meals becomes just a few clicks.
However you do it, it works. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1,685 overweight adults were tracked for six months while they tried to lose weight. The #1 predicator of weight loss turned out to be how many days they kept a food diary.
“The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost,” said lead author Jack Hollis Ph.D., a researcher at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research in Portland, Ore. “Those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories.”
Start doing that. Now.
2. Eat the Right Amount
Not only do most people not know how much they’re eating, they don’t know how much food they should be eating. In a national survey, 63% of Americans wrongly estimated how many calories they needed to eat each day, and 25% wouldn’t even try to guess. Only 12% got it right.
So your next stop is to visit an online weight loss calculator like this one at the Mayo Clinic. If you input your weight, height, age, activity level and gender, it will tell you how many calories you need each day to maintain your current weight. For example, I need about 2,500 calories a day.
Once you know that number, weight loss is a matter of simple math. There are 3500 calories in a pound of fat, so to lose 1 pound each week, you need to eat 3500 fewer calories during the week, or an average of 500 fewer calories per day. In my example, I’d subtract 500 calories from my daily need of 2500, meaning to lose a pound a week, the right amount of food for me to eat each day is 2000 calories worth.
If I wanted to lose 2 lbs a week, I’d need to eat 7,000 fewer calories, or an average of 1,000 fewer day. In my case, that would lower my daily intake to 1500. You get the idea.
It’s generally considered safe and sustainable to lose 1-2 pounds a week. so I’d suggest starting there. A bonus for those who are significantly overweight is that you’ll probably lose more than that at first, then slowly level off to the 1-2 pound rate. Consider that an incentive to start now.
3. Walk About 30 Minutes Throughout The Day
All sorts of new research confirms something we all intuitively know: sitting motionless all day in front of our computers is really, really bad for us. Luckily what’s really, really good for us is something we were born to do and that takes no equipment or gym memberships: walking. Studies have shown that one of the single best activities we can do for our health is to walk about 30 minutes a day.
Here’s a fantastic video by Dr. Mike Evans, an Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto and a staff physician at St. Michael’s Hospital, that explains why:
Or consider this recent article from The New York Times:
“I personally think that brisk walking is far and away the single best exercise,” said Michael Joyner, M.D., a professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a leading researcher in the field of endurance exercise.
As proof, he points to the work of Hiroshi Nose, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of sports medical sciences at Shinshu University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan, who has enrolled thousands of older Japanese citizens in an innovative, five-month-long program of brisk, interval-style walking (three minutes of fast walking, followed by three minutes of slower walking, repeated 10 times). The results have been striking. “Physical fitness — maximal aerobic power and thigh muscle strength — increased by about 20 percent,” Dr. Nose wrote in an e-mail, “which is sure to make you feel about 10 years younger than before training.” The walkers’ “symptoms of lifestyle-related diseases (hypertension, hyperglycemia and obesity) decreased by about 20 percent,” he added, while their depression scores dropped by half.
4. Eat More Whole Foods and Fewer Processed Foods
In general the more heavily a food is processed, the more nutrients get stripped out of it and the denser in calories it becomes. Ever wonder why flour is advertised as “enriched” with vitamins? It’s because all those nutrients were taken out of it during processing! The processing is done to give flour a longer shelf life, which benefits flour manufacturers but not your health.
Although you can artificially add nutrients back to food, you lose beneficial things like fiber that help moderate the effect the food has on your blood sugar (and thus your appetite).
Whole foods, on the other hand, tend to have more nutrients and a lighter calorie load. Compare an apple to a candy bar and you’ll see the apple is bigger, has fewer calories and contains more nutrients. Smart Weighthackers know that substituting whole foods for processed foods will usually fill them up longer, have fewer calories and taste better.
The easiest way to add whole foods to your routine is either just to buy things that are unprocessed (beans, apples, greens, etc.). That’s not always practical, so pay attention to the labels on the food you’re buying: The more ingredients you see, especially ones that have long names and sound like chemicals (because they are!), the more processed it is.
5. Stop Drinking Calories
You’ve often heard that sugar in drinks like soda contributes to people being overweight. You’ve heard that a lot because it’s true. Today in the U.S. the average person takes in a staggering 20% of their calories from soft drinks.
The energy that comes from this kind of sugar intake is known as “empty calories” because it provides almost no nutritional value to your body but has a high caloric load. And because it’s metabolized differently than actual food, it doesn’t signal your brain and body to be satiated. So it doesn’t count as “food” to your body but it still adds energy to your system.
That means if your body needs 2500 calories a day to maintain itself, after drinking a 150 calorie can of soda your body is STILL going to want 2500 calories of something with actual nutritional value.
If you’ve followed Steps 1 and 2 above you’ll know just how big an impact a 150-calorie can of soda has on your weight.To give you a theoretical example, if you drink just one extra can of soda a day, over the course of a year that’s 54,750 calories, or 15lbs worth of nothing.
That’s not all. There’s also evidence that sugar makes us unable to stay “energy stable,” throwing our whole system out of whack. Take a look at this video by Dr. Robert H. Lustig, MD and UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology. It explains the biochemistry of what sugar does to your body, and it’s an eye opener:
Alcohol also adds empty calories to your system like a sugary drink, and it causes two other problems: it stimulates your appetite while at same time impairing your judgment, making you much more likely to overeat. That means you’ll be adding excess calories on top of empty calories, which is why people get “beer bellies”.
So cutting back on empty liquid calories should be a priority for you. You know what’s great for you? Water.
If you never read another word on this site and only did the things above, you’ll start to lose weight. Try them out and let me know what you think.
One last tip: Learning how to incorporate these changes into your life is like playing a good video game. The first time you play, you’ll probably need to read the manual and go through the tutorial level to get the basics down. Then you’ll make it to the first level and really start using what you’ve learned, and at first you’ll make a bunch of mistakes. That’s called “learning” and you’re supposed to make mistakes because that’s how you get better. Keep at it.
Pretty soon you’ll be well into the advanced levels, kicking ass and taking names. Then one day you’ll end up back at that first level and you’ll breeze through it, chuckling a little bit about how hard it seemed at first.
Losing weight is a lot like that. It seems confusing and daunting when you start. But believe me, pretty soon you’ll be an expert and you’ll look back at the first level with a knowing chuckle at how easy it’s become.
If you found this post helpful, you can get more weight loss tips from my upcoming book Weight Hacking: A Guide For Geeks Who Want To Lose Weight And Get Fit.