Thursday, October 07, 2010

Adventures in Self-Experimentation

A personal investigation of weight loss through caloric reduction.

I've argued with friends for years that the "secret" to weight loss lies simply in reducing calorie intake. The "secret" doesn't lie in eating "x" of this type of food and "y" of that type or in timing what time of day you eat or in avoiding certain kinds of food. These other strategies only work to the extent that they "trick" you into reducing your caloric intake.

After putting on a few extra pounds studying for the Virginia Bar this summer, I decided to channel Seth Roberts and put myself through a bit of self-experimentation to see how difficult this process would be. I installed the app Lose It! on my iPhone, which allows me to enter what I eat each day and automatically calculates calories consumed. This app also allows me to record my weight each day and track my progress over time.

My strategy in a nutshell: I eat what I want, when I want and simply stop eating when (or before) I hit my daily limit. If I go over my limit one day, I make up for it over the next day (or two). It is surprisingly easy to do now that I have calorie and weight information in my pocket and (I believe) quite sustainable.

Results so far? Three-weeks in, 8.2 pounds lost (already below my pre-bar weight), and still going strong. I'm already nearly halfway to my targeted weight. I've lost this while hosting and attending parties, being socially active, attending family events, visiting my parents, traveling, eating out most meals, etc. It's amazing what a little daily feedback can do.

Some habits and lessons learned so far:

  • Heavy snacking can kill your efforts to lose weight.
  • Not giving in to the munchies isn't as hard as I thought it would be. Knowing how much each little 'indiscretion' will cost me has helped me break the habit of eating when I'm bored or watching a video.
  • It's almost as easy to get out of the habit of snacking as it is to get into it — if you can maintain your diligence long enough to see some positive effects.
  • It's nice to know I can mess up on some days and not ruin my goal. I spread out over several days and get back on track. I've 'slipped' several times (one day in a very BIG way), and have still maintained a downward trajectory. Lose It! will not only tell you your daily progress, but also your weekly. I've messed up on given days, but have always managed to come in under my weekly budget.
  • Some salads actually taste pretty good.
  • My beloved barbacoa burrito bowls at Chipotle are only 560 calories if you don't get sour cream or guacamole (I never used to anyway). Unfortunately, I have had give up ordering the tortillas on the side.
  • I haven't had to rule out any food as being off limits, only watch my quantity of intake.
  • Jared really was on to something at Subway. There are many 6-inch subs that are quite tasty and low calorie.
  • I'm convinced more than ever that most of the weight-loss industry is full of misinformation and ill-informed people giving very bad advice. This gets echoed through the public at large, leading to many strange behaviors and beliefs regarding what is a relatively straight-forward process.
  • Living in an urban environment I average 30-60 minutes of walking a day. While this helps on the margin, a cookie or two can destroy this gain. It is incredibly difficult for most people to get enough exercise for physical activity to have a dominant effect in weight loss. Focus on reducing caloric intake instead.
  • It is critical (and trivial) to record my food and exercise as soon as possible after eating or exerting myself. The longer I go without doing so, the more error-prone my data will be.
  • Weighing myself daily is also critical feedback for keeping myself motivated and informed.
  • I weigh myself every morning after getting out of bed and before getting a shower. I am trying to keep the time of day, scale, and circumstances constant to avoid weight variation throughout the day.
  • I am surprised how powerfully one or two days of failed goals discouraged me when I first started. It's important to realize this will happen on some days, be prepared for it, and still continue to push ahead.
  • I need to be careful not to overdo my reduced intake in the face of positive results. Losing too much weight too fast is not healthy.
  • I am much less likely to eat chips and fries than ever before, now that I know what they will cost me. Ditto for many other kinds of food.
  • It is much easier to avoid eating chips and other foods than to try to eat only a few.
  • Most fast food places have plenty of cheap options for relatively low-calorie foods. Often, these options are easier to find on these menus than at nicer restaurants.
  • A by-product of this experiment is that I am now craving more healthy foods.
  • Whenever a food I'm eating is not in the Lose It! Database, I find the closest approximation I can.
  • Whenever I am uncertain of a portion size, I always try to apply an upward bias to my guess. For my purposes, it is far better to over-report what I'm eating than to under-report it.
  • The iPhone/iPod Touch, in conjunction with Lose It!, makes a brilliant pocket-sized calorie-counter.
  • I wonder what other areas of my life could also benefit from this kind of monitored discipline?

It will be interesting to see how this experiment continues to progress, as I have about ten more pounds to go to hit my target weight. If these first few weeks serve as any indication, I believe it will end quite positively and ahead of schedule.

The main results so far completely substantiate what I have been saying for years. Losing weight is just like building wealth — eat less than you burn and spend less than you earn. There are no magic formulas or workarounds for either. Beware of anyone trying to tell you otherwise.

P.S. — As another experiment, other than the image above, this entire post (including formatting and hyperlinks) was written on and posted from my iPad using PlainText and TextileNote.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations. If it works for you, than that is all that matters.

But you are wrong about calories. Read "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by science writer Gary Taubes.

Triya said...

congratulations Brian. Do you still follow your grandpa's maxim.. "Glad you don't like it!!" Proud of you.

Jason said...

LOL at anonymous. "Despite your weight loss, you are 'wrong', because there is one book that says so."

Greg said...

Indeed, calories in and out matters a lot. But there is just no doubt that what you eat matters a lot too, not the least reasons of which you need certain nutrients to survive.

You can loose weight either by losing fat, or by losing lean mass as well. What you eat and how you exercise during your caloric deficit can make the difference between the two. You never want to loose muscle mass if at all possible. Most ppl are mildly carb intolerant and eating a large amount of carbs can slow your metabolism as well as promote insulin resistance. The anonymous poster had a point. There is not one book to this effect there are reams of research papers and books on the topic.

Zac said...

The research is inconclusive, but the best research suggesting it might matter what you eat essentially just says that certain eating habits encourage you to eat more calories and expend less energy (gorging on candy for instance) and other eating habits are more conducive to an active lifestyle.

But in the end, its calories in vs calories out. Anything that says otherwise is hocus pocus and hand waving.