Eaten too much over the festive period? I know I did! So now maybe we’re both among those people whose New Year resolution is to lose some weight.
Back in September, I somehow came back from my cycling trip to the USA weighing less than when I’d gone out there. In a way I’m lucky as I seem to burn a comparatively high number of calories when I exercise – even though my diet out there was pretty ‘all consuming’, it seems that overall during that trip I managed to burn more off than I put on.
Unfortunately that approach to refuelling continued even after my return to the UK, and it accelerated even further over the festive period, during which I also found myself exercising less due to work obligations. The result was that, when I weighed myself this morning, I found Strava had nudged me up into a new weight bracket, and not by a small margin either! So my focus now is to shift the weight as I look ahead to March’s Surrey Half-Marathon.
I have the added motivation of knowing that I’ve done it before so I can do it again. A few years ago I weighed over 110 kg (almost 18 stone), but then one day a colleague mentioned a diet she was going to start following and asked if I’d be interested in joining in. I was and signed up, and was amazed at the results: at my lightest, I weighed around 75 kg (less than 12 stone).
The following steps outline how I did it back then. I will say up front that I did it by signing up for a commercial diet, rather than by following one that I fashioned myself. I can’t promise that it will work for other people, too, but it definitely did work for me. And I should stress, of course, that I’m not an expert and that following this advice is at your own risk!
1. Calculate Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
Your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR, is the amount of calories you burn every day just by existing even with zero activity, i.e. the calories you’d burn if you lay in bed without moving, just from breathing, your heart beating and other metabolic functions taking place. It’s based on height, weight, age and gender.
My first step towards knowing how many calories I needed need to eat each day in order to lose weight in a controlled fashion was to calculate my BMR. I used an online BMR calculator.
2. Calculate daily calorie needs
Next you need to consider how many calories you need in order to fuel what you actually do each day, i.e. based on whether you are sedentary, lightly active, heavily active, etc. Again, there’s a handy formula to help do this.
I calculated my daily calorie needs based on being ‘lightly active’ to cover my day-to-day activities, i.e. walking to the bus stop, climbing stairs, etc. I did this because, although I also do regular intense activity such as running, when I do those activities I use a fitness tracker which includes calculated calorie burn, and I wanted to discount those activities at this stage: I just wanted a figure that would allow me to calculate how many calories I need based on my ‘background’ activity.
3. Calculate daily calorie intake needed to lose weight
Counterintuitively, if you’re heavily overweight you should aim for more calories than an ‘average’ person. When I started dieting I weighed almost 18 stone and from memory my initial target calorie intake per day was around 3000 – way above the NHS’s ballpark guideline for a man of 2500.
The theory behind this is that if you totally cut off your body’s calorie requirements you will trigger an adverse reaction: it is better to aim a few hundred below your daily calorie intake and then over time slowly further reduce the amount you consume as you lose weight, rather than to go ‘from feast to famine’. I found it also gave me time to adjust my habits, and for my stomach to slowly start shrinking as I gradually reduced my intake over time.
Again, I used an online calculator, but I have to be honest and say I can’t remember which one! They do all give slightly different outputs, so maybe the best thing to do is use a few and then find an average result. They will usually give you different calories requirements based on how much weight you want to lose over a given period: I aimed to lose 0.5 kg per week.
4. Track your calorie intake
This is where the financial expenditure came in. My colleague tempted me to sign up for Diet Chef. It meant that my overall spend on food did increase compared with previously but, for a lazy man like myself who doesn’t like cooking, the fact that the food was delivered in sachets that you just reheat really meant it was a diet I found easy to stick to.
I did have to add to the Diet Chef products in order to get up to my daily calorie target. I still took a ‘lazy man’s approach, using portion-controlled servings such as Uncle Ben’s boil-in-the-bag rice and measuring out frozen peas and carrots. This isn’t the ideal way to do things (plenty of people would say you should ‘eat fresh’) but it was still a huge improvement on my previous diet and meant that for the first time in my adult life I was getting something approaching a nutritionally balanced diet.
I used an app called MyFitnessPal to track the number of calories I was eating on a daily basis and make sure I was eating enough. I found it really easy to use: very often you can just scan the bar code of a product and it will add all the relevant information for you, showing you how many calories you have left during the day.
5. Calculate additional calories burned during activities
Remember that in Step 2 I discounted the calories that I burn during exercise because I wanted to come up with a more accurate figure than just using an estimate? It was important to add them back in by actually monitoring the calories I burn during exercise on a day-to-day basis.
I found the best way was to use the MyFitnessPal app combined with a fitness tracker, in my case a Garmin GPS watch that includes a heart-rate monitor (or ‘HRM’). The monitor measures how often your heart beats and, using other factors such as your current weight, can calculate how many calories you burned during that particular exercise.
The MyFitnessPal app does include a facility to add activities and calories burnt directly, but it seems excessively generous. For instance, when I do Pilates I don’t wear my watch/HRM but I do log that Pilates session on MyFitnessPal. (Yes, Pilates does burn calories: if you’re not sweating by the end, you’re not doing it right!) After experimentation over many months, for any exercises that I enter into MyFitnessPal directly I now delete 1.5 calories per minute of activity. So for 60 minutes of Pilates, I enter that into MyFitnessPal and then amend it to remove 90 of the calories – this seems to work well for me and produce a more realistic outcome.
But for cardiovascular exercise such as running, you can link up your Garmin account with your MyFitnessPal account so that the number of calories you burn automatically filters through – and as calculated by the Garmin, which was measuring your actual heart rate rather than using an estimate. Once you’ve done that, you can treat yourself to a small extra healthy treat to make sure you compensate for the calories you’ve burnt!
I think some people forget to do this: if they have a target of 2000 calories per day and they eat that amount, they don’t compensate if they burn 350 calories by going for a run and end up eating 1650 calories that day, which may well be too low. It’s better to treat yourself and eat something additional to, get back up to your target, being satisfied in knowing that you are developing your body through exercise as well as by being ‘food conscious’.
6. Repeat the process
As you lose weight, the number of calories you need each day will decrease, so every now and again I went through the whole process again to come up with an updated daily target.
I’ve now moved away from the Diet Chef diet but still follow the same principles of counting calories.
I found over a period of months this approach really worked for me. I hope it does for you, too.