Burning takes energy; it’s hard work

With a 1,684 calorie basic background burn rate, it is pretty easy to understand why eating less than that will thwart any weight-loss efforts you might undertake, isn’t it?  Well, isn’t it?

Actually, for many of us it isn’t immediately obvious why that wouldn’t work.  The problem lies in the fact that it actually takes energy for the body to go through the rather complicated process of burning fat.  This is energy that it needs in addition to the basic background calories necessary for breathing, circulating blood, and digesting food.  Yes, burning fat is different from the background task of digesting food.

This complicates the matter of weight loss, but fortunately there is a pretty simple way to figure out how to optimally plan for this and burn accordingly.

Sedentary Burning Doesn’t Work For Me
The biggest thing to understand here is that while a sedentary burn plan might be successful, it often leads to failure and frustration.  What do I mean by this?  Well, in addition to the background calories burned, most people also burn about another 20% of that number in daily activities such as walking around, cooking, talking, playing with pets, etc…  For that would add about 320 calories to my daily burn, meaning that I could eat about 2,000 calories a day and maintain my present weight.  By lowering my calorie intake by 500 each day I could burn approximately 1 pound per week.

In my experience, and this is purely in my experience and the research I have done, this is an approach that works for specific individuals but certainly not for me.  The problem with this approach is while it takes 7 careful days of eating only 1,500 calories each day to lose just 1 pound, it only takes 1 day of eating a few hundred calories too many to put 2 or more pounds on.  This syndrome is most typically characterized by the “I take 1 day off per week” approach.  I have seen this approach lead to disappointment and frustration in many people.  The frustration is furthered by the fact that they are hungry for six days of the week and then unsatisfied by the indulgence on the seventh day because it leaves them feeling bloated and guilty.

What Does Work Then?
I have had significantly more success in losing weight and keeping motivated by eating a good amount of calories each day and then burning off a target number of calories to reduce my resulting total by about 500 each day.  I mention the “500 each day” goal as it translates into roughly 1 pound of weight loss per week.  This can vary week to week based upon a plethora of other factors, but over time it will work out as a pretty consistent average.

Putting it Into Action
Now we’re getting down to the actual content of the plan.  This is where things get a little trickier, but with a basic set of guidelines it becomes rather simply to turn a solution into success.  Let’s assume for a minute that two things are true:

  1. My BMR won’t change.  I will still burn the same number of calories each day to breathe, circulate blood, etc…
  2. My sedentary burn rate won’t change.  I’ll still burn another 20% of my BMR in basic day to day activities.

This means that I will already be burning about 2,000 calories each day by just being me and doing what I do.  That’s the start point that we will work from to define a set of goals.  Incidentally, this background burn start point is the information that is lacking from most people’s diet plan.  I will often find that friends I talk to vastly underestimate the number of calories necessary just for the basic functions of life.

I want to burn about 500 calories a day more than I consume.  Furthermore, I want to spread out the burn and consumption of the calories throughout the day.  Let’s start by understanding the credit achieved for certain activities.  I’m planning to use walking as a way to lose weight.  On average, a person weighing around 200 pounds (me), walking at around 3–4mph will burn about 100 calories in 15–20 minutes (or approx. 1 mile).  So I know that I can burn 100 calories by taking a 15–20 minute lunchtime walk.  In addition to my lunchtime walk I try to do at least another 20 minutes of more aerobic activity each day.  This can be 20 minutes on the punching bag, a half-hour of Wii tennis, or a beginner yoga workout.  This more strenuous exercise burns about 200 calories.

So each day I’m planning to exercise for another 300 calories or so.  This may seem low, but in my experience keeping up an additional exercise burn rate of 300 calories per day is actually a really good starting goal and isn’t as easy as it sounds.

With my BMR, sedentary burn rate, and exercise burn rate, I’m now burning about 2,300 calories per day.  (1,684 + 336 + 300 = 2,320).

My goal is to burn 500 more calories than I burn, meaning that I have a target intake each day of 1,800 calories.  That’s actually quite a lot of calories provided I can make good choices and avoid too much over-prepared food (typically called “eating out”).

Why is this any different?
Why is this different than simply doing nothing and eating just 1,500 calories per day?  The biggest difference is that in consuming less calories per day than my BMR, I am making my body really work to just perform the basic functions of day to day life.  It’s not that it won’t technically work for weight loss.  However, if you’ve ever had that really fatigued and hungry feeling that comes around a couple of days into a new diet and doesn’t seem to ever really go away, it’s probably a symptom of the fact that your body is working extra hard to find the energy it needs just to perform basic functions.

By giving my body the basic calories it needs to perform daily function and then adding in some extra calories to fuel both sedentary function and exercise it means that I don’t get that fatigued feeling.  I find that the sweet spot for the burn rate seems to sit just between the BMR and BMR+20% numbers.  So in my case, somewhere between 1,684 and 2,020.  This is because burning fat actually requires energy and if your body is already low on calories it will be straining in order to find the necessary fuel to perform fat conversion.  It’s not that it won’t work or will work any less efficiently in terms of the burn rate, but the effect on fatigue and subsequently upon motivation are quite clear.

It’s a different approach and doesn’t work for everybody.  Furthermore, my understanding of the subject is still limited as I’m still researching and learning more and more about biomechanics in an attempt to understand the problem more clearly.  However, what I can state firmly is that with success as a metric, the second approach has been much stronger.  I’ve consistently been losing 1–2 pounds and about .75% body fat per week and so far haven’t felt fatigued, grumpy, or overly hungry.  This is a good definition of success from my perspective.

I’ll keep charting the numbers and seeing what effects various changes have on overall trajectory.  I also expect that around the 170lb mark my weight loss will slow quite dramatically.  This has happened twice in the past as I reach a zone where there are less and less fat stores to be tapped.  With a goal of 150lbs that will make the last 20 a more difficult task but hopefully by then I’ll have enough momentum, stamina, and routine to carry me over the finish line.  If not, it might be time to take it back to the drawing board and think out the plan again.  I’ll update as I go along and find out what happens.

Stuart Thompson

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