This guide has been two years in the making. Two years' experience of trial and error, sorting through what's fact and fad, battling with body dysmorphia, and coping with my abrupt and dramatic change in lifestyle. Despite all of this experience, though, I still don't feel like an expert on weight loss, health, or nutrition. I'm not a doctor, and I have not personally conducted any scientific studies. With that said, all information posted here has been carefully researched and double-checked to ensure it's factual, up-to-date, and proven by the people who are doctors and scientists. You will find no misconceptions or fad diet posts here.
Another important thing to note is my perspective on weight loss and health, and my belief that they are two completely separate things. I believe BMI is a load of cock, that one's weight isn't always indicative of one's health, and that even if someone's health is poor due to their weight, it's still not my or your place to criticize them or their personal life choices. I do not believe in body-shaming of any size or shape.
With that said, I do like to put my personal weight loss story out there in a non-obtrusive, guilt-inducing way, for those who do want to lose weight in a healthy manner. With all of the misinformation out there, I think it's a positive thing to want to show people that weight loss doesn't mean being miserable, depriving themselves of food, exercising until they puke, taking pills or supplements, or hating their bodies. For many people- myself included- a healthier lifestyle seems too complicated and confusing. I personally grew up a completely sedentary, nerdy child, who subsisted primarily on fast food, ramen noodles, and microwaveable food. I didn't eat vegetables and didn't even understand the concept of a calorie. I was feeling the unhealthy side effects of all the junk I was putting into my body, but when I thought about change, it seemed too overwhelming because of all the contradicting information out there. I didn't know how or where to start, because it was a lifetime of bad habits I had to break.
This guide is for all of the people out there who feel like I did.
Did you know studies show somewhere between 80-95% of people who lose weight gain most or all of their weight back within two years? Why do so many people struggle to lose weight, and then when they finally succeed, struggle to maintain? I can tell you the answer to this from personal experience: it all depends on whether or not you see your weight loss as a diet, or a result of a lifestyle change and healthier habits.
Years and years ago, I used to daydream about losing weight, and would paint this picture of weight loss in my head: I would suffer by eating less, eating bland food, and by sweating my butt off at the gym to "punish" myself for being fat. I would somehow magically wake up skinny overnight, and then I could resume my old bad habits and go back to "living" again. I imagine many others have the same idea of dieting, and as a result, this is why so many people fail before they ever start, or gain it all back after losing it.
The most important thing about weight loss, and the key to your success, is how you see it. Losing weight successfully means you can't ever go back to "normal." You have to change up what normal means to your mind. Most people who fail at weight loss do so because they saw their weight loss as a result of a diet. Diet is a very bad word in my mind, and has a negative connotation for me. I've since learned that diets do not work; lifestyles do. And there's a reason I stress calling it a lifestyle change and not a diets. Diets just aren't maintainable. We're human. Even now, after one year of weight loss, and then another full year of maintenance, my food quality ranges from healthy and wholesome to, "Ooh, is that CAKE?" Remember this: too much restriction can be just as bad as too little moderation. The best "diet" is the one that is balanced and maintainable for YOU. If that means cake twice a week, then have your cake!
Despite the complicated fad diets and fitness magazines claiming otherwise, studies show that weight loss occurs when you consume fewer calories than you burn. Not what kinds of calories, or when the calories were consumed. Just calories. Calories in; calories out. "Wait, what does that even mean?," you frantically ask. "How do you know how many calories you burn? How many calories should I be eating? Criss, this is so complicated!" No, calm down, and I'll explain.
You burn calories in everything you do. Talking, smiling, eating, pooping, sleeping. You burn calories simply by existing! To find out how many calories you burn a day simply by existing, you need to find out your BMR- your Basal Metabolic Rate. This isn't how many calories you need to eat a day to either maintain OR lose weight; this is simply the base number of calories you'd need to stay alive lying in a bed all day in a coma. Click here to find out your BMR!
Cool! Now you know your BMR. That's only step one. Let's next determine how many calories you need to maintain your current weight where it's at. Go to this link to find out your maintenance weight! (And bring out your handy calculator.) At 5'3, 25 years old, and 132 pounds, my BMR is 1407. I'd consider myself lightly active, overall, so according to the chart, I'll multiply my BMR base number by 1.375. I get 1935. That's how many calories a day I need to maintain 132 pounds. Need help finding yours? Post in a comment and I'll try my best to help you.
Okay, and now the reason you're here: to find out how many calories a day you need to lose weight. This one is easy: If you want to lose weight, subtract 500 from that maintainable number (not the BMR, but the bigger of your two numbers). That's IT. That's your number. If you go below it, don't go below 100-200, and not every single day. For example, at my current weight of 132 (as of writing this post), my maintenance level is 1935. If I want to lose more weight with my current activity level, subtracting 500 from 1935 yields 1435.
Things to keep in mind about BMR:
Your BMR changes often, based on your age, current weight, and most importantly, your activity level. It needs to be adjusted often. I didn't eat nearly as few calories when I first started my weight loss journey, and then there are some times where I am literally playing World of Warcraft all day long (don't judge me!), so I'll eat fewer calories because I am sedentary. I go through phases where I am really, really active, or really, really not active. You have to be the one to judge your own activity level, because only you know what you are doing all day. Please also remember that being active can also mean on your feet all day at work, taking care of children and housekeeping, and even shopping! The lowest level (sedentary) means basically lying in bed or sitting down almost literally your entire day, everyday.
One important note: don't try to calculate your calories burned through machines. Those machines grossly over-calculate your burned numbers. If you feel like you are really, really active, then add another 100-200 to it or reassess your maintenance weight by going up a notch in activity levels. At my current weight, I generally stick with 1200 on nonactive days and 1400-1500 on active days, and don't bother trying to figure out an exact number burned. It's really hard to know how much you burned, since so many factors go into how many calories you burn doing every little thing. Don't over-think it!
Be careful, too, with how low you dip your calorie deficit. You might grow impatient and want to speed things up by decreasing your calorie intake, but it's actually counterproductive and can hinder your results. Besides that, it makes you weak and tired, and your body won't have the nutrients it needs to sustain itself. You might be losing pounds on the scale, but when you starve yourself, your body feasts on muscle too. If you have a lot of weight to lose, losing weight too quickly can also result in more loose skin that you'd have if you had paced yourself better. Remember that there's no finish line in this; it's a journey to a healthier lifestyle on which you've embarked.
Don't fret too much over excess calories. One pound of body weight equals 3500 calories, so eating an extra 500 calories per day will result in one pound gained in a week. One pound. So when you inevitably eat something you think you shouldn't, and gain water weight on the scale the next day, don't freak out. Unless in one day, you managed to consume 3500 excess calories, you did not gain as much weight as you think.
Let's talk about food specifics. If you're like me, you're used to eating convenient, processed junk food. Fast food, packaged food, frozen food, and sodas, aw yeah. Wait, no! That's terrible for you, and it's not even because it's probably high-calorie; it's because it's full of chemicals, sodium, and unnatural ingredients that hate your body. Lots of these things are even pointed at as causes of cancer, including sugar-free, "low fat" products aimed at the dieters. Yes, that's right: those "alternatives" to your favorite meals are actually just as bad or worse as the real thing.
One thing to realize about being healthy is that calories are not the most important thing here. Yes, eating too few or too many calories can cause weight loss and weight gain, but that should not be your primary focus. If you actually just swapped your regular eating habits for eating whole foods instead of packaged junk, you'd actually lose weight without ever having to track a calorie. In fact, a lot of people prefer to not ever count calories, because it can incur dangerous, obsessive thoughts. Yes, if you ate nothing but McDonald's everyday, but stayed 500 calories below maintenance, you'd still lose weight. You won't be getting the nutrients you need, though, and you'd be putting a lot of sodium and chemicals in your body. You'd probably be hungry still, since their foods are so calorie-dense for such a small quantity of food, which means you'd be more inclined to over-eat. You'd probably be tired and not feeling at perfect health, and your digestive system might hate you for it.
Well, cool, but that doesn't help you, right? What sorts of things should you eat, then? Preferably anything that isn't frozen or that comes in a package with a long list of ingredients! As they say, if the list of ingredients is longer than 10, it's not "real" food. Veggies, fruit, meats, fish, and nuts are generally what I eat. If you like to cook, you can really experiment with things! Personally, I still don't cook a lot, but I've learned a few things along the way, like how to make a healthier pizza or grilled cheese sandwiches.
"But what about macro-nutrients?," you'll ask. "I was told if I eat over 50 carbs, I'll never lose a pound!" Contrary to popular belief and bro-science, eating a certain amount of any macro-nutrient doesn't yield more or less weight loss, according to reputable studies. That doesn't mean eating a certain amount of carbs is silly, but it does mean that low carb won't affect your weight loss. I personally try to reduce my amount of carbs to mostly natural carbs like the kind you find in fruit and vegetables, simply because they make me hold more water weight. It doesn't make me lose more weight, but it helps me with my bloat problem. As long as you're primarily sticking with whole foods, there's not really a right or wrong answer to this. Just try not to get too extreme with things!
As for when to eat, it's been proven that your metabolism doesn't actually speed up when you eat more often or what time you eat, which is a common misconception. Eat when you're hungry, and if eating small meals often helps you not over-eat, then that's what you should do!
I'd recommend not weighing yourself daily, because like calorie counting, it can incur obsessive and dangerous thoughts. It can be especially destructive when you aren't realistic about the number you see, because so many things can affect it. The number on the scale is never a true representation of your body weight and body fat percentage. How recently you've pooped, how much sodium you've consumed the last few days, how much water you've consumed, how dehydrated you are, how much you've exercised, if you're PMSing, etc; all of these things can affect your scale number.
Speaking of water weight, it's a tricky, fickle thing, and I hate it. Ever drastically change your eating habits and find that you're losing A LOT of weight immediately, and then it slows down to a normal pace? That's water weight. Your body is usually holding onto a lot of it, which can really affect your scale number and even your tummy measurements. If I eat something that's really high in sodium, for example, I can "gain" as many as five pounds and two inches in my waist overnight. Fortunately, as you might recall, you have to eat 3500 EXTRA calories to put on a single pound. You might think it's due to your wonky metabolism causing you to gain five pounds overnight because you had that chocolate cake and those salty potato chips, but really, it's just bloat. Drink extra water and exercise, and bam, your weight magically goes back to the number you expect.
You can really help reduce your water weight by drinking more water, primarily! It seems silly, but if you're dehydrated, your body actually holds onto the water. The more water you drink, the less water weight you'll hold. It's also good for weight loss, because it can help flush out toxins and aid your digestive system, both of which affect your scale number.
Another reason why putting so much stock into your scale number is because if you're exercising, chances are you are gaining muscle as well. Granted, if you're a female, chances are you aren't actually putting on as muscle as you think that quickly unless you're eating well over what you're eating to lose weight. But strength training can cause your muscles to retain fluid as well, so while it might seem like you're gaining 3-10 pounds in two weeks after starting weightlifting, yet your measurements aren't showing it, it's because your muscles are retaining water to repair themselves. It's normal and expected, since it's part of the muscle-building process! That's good.
If you need something to gauge your progress, take measurements and judge by how your clothes fit you. You might be surprised at how they contradict your scale number!
When it comes to weight loss, there is nothing more upsetting to me than the wealth of misinformation that makes people believe they need to consume some sort of weight loss "aid" or supplement in order to successfully lose weight. A lot of the products are unhealthy and full of dangerous chemicals that can harm your body, and many of them in the past have caused lawsuits because they did turn out to harm people. Even with that knowledge, people still risk their health and take these pills and drinks because they are overwhelmed by weight loss and just want the magical solution without changing their habits.
Maybe taking the drinks will increase their metabolism and cause them to lose weight while eating pizza. Let's just say that your best-friend-for-like-ever, Kaywinnit, just lost 60 pounds while drinking Pluxus Slim, but never changing her eating habits. Yay, Kaywinnit! Kaylee reached a weight she finds good and healthy, so she stops buying and paying for that extremely expensive drink that caused her to lose weight, and continues eating the same way she's always eaten. Months later, she's realized that she's put all of her weight back on! Why's that? Because Kaylee was never taught anything about her body or her health, and never looked at her eating habits. It was never about changing lifestyles or being healthier for her. Worse is that Kaylee probably feels worse afterward, and thinks that she's doomed to never lose weight.
Fad diets too can be unhealthy. What's worse is that you'll look at magazines or infommercial s, claiming you'll lose inches off your belly if you only eat whatever they're trying to sell. All that does is perpetuate the wealth of misconceptions and poor information out there, and make people feel more overwhelmed when they try to sort through what is true and false.
Another problem with popular and perpetuated ideas of weight loss is that exercise on its own can make you lose weight. Unless you're running multiple miles per day or a training athlete, a nonathletic person's exercise isn't enough to negate excess amount of calories derived from poor eating habits. As they say, abs are made in the kitchen; not in the gym. That doesn't mean exercise isn't helpful in weight loss, because it can certainly aid your weight loss! It can burn calories, increase your metabolism, make your body run better and increase your overall health, and help you gain muscle you might lose from eating at a calorie deficit. But it's not totally necessary, either, and there's no need to get extremist about it unless you just really, really love exercise. I actually didn't really get into fitness until I had lost most of my weight, and I wouldn't call myself fit by any means. I lift weight three times a week for about 25-40 minutes a session, and sometimes play Dance Dance Revolution/In the Groove because it's fun and because it's the only cardio I can stand. That doesn't sound too extreme, does it? There's just this big misconception that you need to exercise in order to lose weight, and you have to be extremely obsessed with it. You don't have to go that often or that long!
One thing to keep in mind about exercise is the idea that you can spot reduce areas you don't like by exercising certain areas, which is very false! Where you gain or lose fat is totally dependent on your genetics, and exercising certain areas or eating certain things won't change that. However, let's say that you've got flabby thighs you want to be sturdier (which was my problem). You can't "replace" fat with muscle (they are two different things), but you can gain muscle underneath to make it look firmer, which the definition of what most people think "toned" means. That also debunks yet another myth that lifting weights when you're trying to lose weight results in you looking "fatter." Nope!
I won't tell you what exercise you should do because everyone's goals are different. Some people just want to get their bodies more active; some want to get super fit. You have to find something that suits your needs, interests, and lifestyle. With that said, if you're looking into weightlifting, I did write a guide aimed at women interested in weightlifting, simply because there are just so many misconceptions regarding women, muscle, and weightlifting.
What people don't tend to tell you about weight loss would be the emotional side effects of your body undergoing a transformation, or how to cope with all of the reactions of the people around you. It's tough, because you're going to have people from your closest friends to your co-workers coming up to you, and giving you unsolicited opinions on your body. Some will tell you that you don't need to lose weight, or that you're looking too thin. When you encounter people who tell you these things, try to be firm about letting them know it's your life and not their place to criticize. Only you know your body and your eating habits.
Some might also indirectly insult you by making you think you are better after your weight loss, but remember this: your self-worth isn't determined by your weight or your measurements. You are the same person before and after, and anyone who makes you think you are more or less because of your body shape or size needs to be removed from your life. Even after you lose weight, your weight will fluctuate the rest of your life, so basing your self-worth on something as flexible and fickle as your weight is dangerous thinking.
Sometimes it's also hard to also cope with not seeing your progress because your mind takes a while to catch up with your body. It's hard, too, when you see your progress, but you get so intent on chasing perfection that you want to speed up the process. These things are dangerous thoughts to have, and I recommend joining support communities to help deal with them.
• If you are losing more than 2 pounds a week, with the exception of water weight initially, then you are losing lean muscle. Muscles that keep your body alive. The only exception is when you first change your eating habits, you might lose a larger amount due to water weight.
• Don’t reward successful weight loss with unhealthy, processed food. What you’re doing is creating a bad relationship with food, and you are confusing your brain. Isn’t it counterproductive to gain weight due to excess unhealthy foods, to cut out unhealthy foods in order to lose weight, and then when you lose weight reward yourself with the very thing that restricted your progress in the past? This is my biggest tip: when you tell yourself “NO CHOCOLATE, IT’S BAD FOR ME,” you want it more. You put it on a pedestal, and you think about it more and more. And when you finally cave in, you’ll binge. That’s why I don’t restrict in my diet; I moderate. I want a soft taco supreme from Taco Bell? Okay, I can have it. I’ll look up the calories online to calculate into my daily calories, and if what I eat is more than I normally eat, no big deal; it's just a single day. If I’m going out with friends, I’ll fill up on something healthy like broccoli before going so I won’t overeat at the restaurant. If I’m eating something at home, I’ll eat it with a side of something healthy so again, I won’t overeat.
• MEASURE YOUR FOOD. I can’t emphasize this enough! You may think that spoonful of peanut butter is one tablespoon, but it’s twice as high as the spoon and spilling over all the sides. You think you’re eating a certain amount of calories, except you’re over-estimating your portions. Get a food scale and some measuring cups. It’ll be the best weight loss decision you’ve ever made, I promise!
• Take LOTS of pictures during your journey! If you are less motivated when you look at them, then take them and put them away in a folder on your computer. Wait until you’ve lost some weight and THEN go back and look. There were times when I didn’t feel like I had made much progress at all and wanted to quit, but when I would go back to my older pictures, I would see how much progress I had actually made. You might surprise yourself!
• Find ways to be held accountable. If that means writing down things in a personal little diary nobody else sees, go for it! If that means tracking your activity on Fitocracy, starting an anonymous weight loss tumblr to track food, making a bulletin board and putting stickers on it for everyday you were active, or to even publicly talk about every success and trial on your personal facebook, go for it! Know what makes you tick and what will help you stick to it better.
• Find a partner! Losing weight was a lot easier when I had friends to do it with. Don’t have friends in person who will talk weight stuff with you? Find people online! There are loads of communities out there.
• Food is not the enemy. Repeat with me: food is not the enemy. Food is not bad. Eating food does not make you fat. Food is fuel. Fuel gives you the energy to get through the day, and to work-out. Working out is nice. Therefore, food is nice.
• Got off track for a day? Did it start with a single donut and end with a whole box of pizza? That’s okay! Hey, guess what? You’re human, and so am I. Nobody can be expected to be perfect everyday. It’s okay to indulge your cravings sometimes! Enjoy the hell out of that pizza and don’t let the taste of guilt make it not worth it. Start over tomorrow and don’t let it weigh you down.
• Exercise is not a punishment for eating bad or for being "fat." Exercise is about being healthy and rewarding your body with healthy activities. If you are miserable with your current exercise, find something that doesn't make you miserable!
• Try to be realistic about your expectations of your body. Even when you reach your "goal," you still aren't going to be perfect, because nobody is. Be happy with your body, regardless of its natural shape, fat you think shouldn't be there, stretch marks, and even loose skin. We're human.