Sunday, March 17, 2013

The great diet secret!

It’s actually not a secret at all. It’s just a truism that regularly gets swamped by all the rampant bullsh*t that passes for diet advice on so many web sites whose sole purpose is to part you and your money :-)

So … back to the great secret …

Wait … give me a moment to Photoshop it so that it carries the weight of the one true key to dieting …


Yes, that is worthy of this one single concept. What it means is simple … if weight change is positive, meaning that calories in is larger than calories out, then you gain weight. The corollary is that you lose weight if you exceed your calories in with what you burn.

What is interesting is that the first thing people assume with this formula is that the only way to win is to exercise your fricken brains out.

And I am living proof that this assumption is wrong, wrong, wrong.

By the way, I take no credit for this. The better web sites (e,g, Weighty Matters) talk about this stuff all the time. Diet makes up at least 80% (and for a lot of people far more) of the problem … and paradoxically it is also the only real solution. If you can get control of this formula, you will win the game. In fact, that is exactly how I treat it … as a game. I want to win, and to win I need to see certain numbers …

Example 1: The measured results of this formula.

First off, it is not easy to “wing it” when you calculate based on lots of assumptions. The amount of discipline needed to make that work does not exist in most people. This is why programs like Weight Watchers use “exchanges” or other artificial methods for measuring. Trading fats against carbs or concentrating them all at one meal is something you do when you get so many chits to use in a day.

But this is merely masking the underlying system shown above. They are using wild estimates to average out your eating to get to a calorie deficit. Plain and simple.

So how do I do it? Easy, I enter the numbers into a web site ( that tracks it for me. The graph for the last 30 days happens to look like this.


Can you see the cheat days? Pretty obvious, aren’t they Smile

In fact, I’ve had some pretty lazy days as you can see from the small deficits and some of the blown out days. The one a couple of weeks ago was a Sunday morning breakfast at Broadway. One of the best breakfasts you could ever eat. And I compounded it by eating a slice of pizza later on.  The 3 bad days a month ago were based on frustration I was feeling at my extended plateau. I decided to kick my metabolism in the pants. It seemed to only slow my weight loss a bit but it allowed my body to rest a bit from trying to make do on a calorie deficit. You have to watch your metabolism and try to not give it any reason to shut down. Starvation does that and is in fact counter-productive.

Example 2: The weight tally …

You get told over and over to not get too hung up on the scale. And over the short term that is absolutely true. How your clothes fit is a better indicator than the scale for a number of reasons. Exercise builds muscle and that weighs more than fat for one.

But … I still weight myself and I try to take into account exercise patterns. And I did lose weight more consistently while exercising, even though I was building muscle. So I still prefer to know.

But the great value of tracking your weight is the long term graphs that you can tie back to your behavior as shown in the graph above. So here is that graph:


I had a wonderful run for most of last year, from February through October. The two obvious plateaus in the middle were my trips to Winnipeg. But otherwise I was in great form. I was extremely busy with travel and a new relationship from October through mid-January and the wheels came off of everything at that time. That spike in the graph is for real. I was 18 pounds heavier at the beginning of February than I was at the beginning of November last year.

And I am still not all the way back. This is a setback that will be 6 to 7 months in duration. And all I did was stop watching what I ate. I stopped entering it into the web site and I stopped even pretending that I cared. The main damage was a 13 pound 3 week orgy of eating from mid-January for three weeks. That is all it takes to f*ck it all up.

It took me two weeks to get that reversed. I knew that it was time to regain control. I tried each day and just missed on a few of them. Saying “I’ll try again tomorrow” becomes your mantra (you all know exactly what I mean.) But in the end, you have to try hard every day until that little switch goes on in your head and you are officially immune to the chips and the sugary drinks.

And you can see the results in the second downward trend. Impressive, yes? I think so. And that double hump flat spot is those two periods of red days in the first graph. Yes, it lines up exactly, as you would expect.

So I have tons of this empirical evidence. I’ve been doing this a long time now and having these graphs makes it blindingly obvious how much the formula at the top controls it all.

The problem, of course, is that it is easy to decide that you will start going to the gym next week and then pig out all weekend in preparation for the “big event” … which then never really comes.

But the thing is … this is all bass-ackward thinking. In fact it is impossible for your exercise habits to counteract your lack of eating discipline. It will simply never happen.

Example – you grab a quick “little” snack between breakfast and lunch or late at night while you watch more tube than you should. Two slices of white bread with some peanut butter and jam. Simple, small, what could go wrong?


That’s what. 400 calories in what, 5 minutes? And how long would it take you to walk it off at a moderate pace?


Yup … 80 fricken minutes!

That’s a serious amount of walking to cancel out a mere 5 minutes of mindless snacking. And that is why it makes exactly zero difference for most people if they go to the gym or not. Because the formula wins and you can eat vastly more calories than you can burn off without getting into seriously heavy workouts. A meal sized Ceasar Salad is close to 1000 calories, as is a small pizza. A Big Mac is somewhere north of 600 calories.

You need to plan for such expenditures and you need to avoid piling on unnecessary calories. A Coke is one of the most evil things you can do to yourself. No only does it carry massive calories, it also brings zero nutrition. And the icing on the cake is that it spikes your insulin something wicked, which leads inevitably to type II diabetes.

Once you start tracking what you take in and burn off, you quickly learn new behaviors. I am very careful to keep a jar of dry roasted salted Almonds around as my snacks. I keep a supply of Diet Dr. Pepper as well. And when I feel a bit peckish, instead of piling on 400 calories with PB&J on white, I grab a small handful of Almonds (6 to 10 grams is about right) and a drink and that holds me for the rest of the 3 to 3.5 hour interval between meals. I typically eat 4 a day … breakfast, lunch, dinner and final snack. I grab a few Almonds to fill in between, and my target is 1400 calories, which gives me a 600 calorie deficit. Of course, you can see from the first graph that I am more typically at 1500 in a day, for about a 500 calorie deficit.

Which is great … because 500 calories a day adds up to 3500 a week, which happens to be exactly 1 pound lost per week. And that really works.

So … let me boil it down as a parting gift:

  • Try to record what you eat – every day. Try to use an automated web site like but there are many and any of them is better than not tracking your weight and exercise. Leave nothing out, as you are only cheating yourself.
  • If you plan to weight yourself every day, enter that data into a spread sheet or into your weight tracking system (I use my food tracking web site for that too.)
  • If you seem to stall, don’t worry. You measure a couple of pounds lost in terms of weeks … not hours or days. So be patient.
  • Keep safe snacks around – I like Almonds from Costco (Kirkland brand in the plastic jar) and I like Diet Dr. Pepper. I also like a coffee several times a day and I am not shy about adding 5% cream, around 50 to 60 grams. But I track that too.
  • Exercise is about improving your fitness and stamina. Weight lifting raises your metabolism as it builds muscle. Do this for your body, not to lose weight. But it will help. And make sure you add it to your activity log, as each of the tracking sites tracks both sides of the equation.
  • Remember to take a diet day off now and again to really satisfy that craving. But don’t reward yourself too often or you will soon have nothing to celebrate.
  • Sometimes you can diet really hard for a few days in a row. If you have been eating pretty well, cutting back dramatically can have a dramatic effect. But don’t stretch it out. Like anything do that in moderation. And by the way, I am not talking bulimia here … just a few hundred extra calories in deficit.
  • Watch the salt. If you eat a salty meal, expect to see 2 extra pounds on the scale for half a week. But it comes off very suddenly after that.

Ok … that’s enough. As with anything, you have to remember that YMMV. This is not a one size fits all technique, but I can assure you that no one can escape the formula. Eat more than you burn and you are going to lose. (And remember that you have a basal metabolism rate that burns even while you rest. For me that number is just over 2000 cals. And that is where my target of 1400 comes from.

Good luck.