Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Achieving A Healthy Weight Part I: A Thousand Small Decisions

Weight gain results from a thousand tiny choices

I'm trying to lose weight. The risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, gall bladder disease, and cancer all seem much more real in middle age than they did when I was younger. Especially since I can name people in my immediate family with all of those problems.  

I know the research about weight loss and maintaining weight loss — and I'll be writing about it later in this series.  But I also know the research on efficacy.  If I give up on maintaining a healthy weight and decide it's all in my genes (pun intended), I'll keep gaining.  It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Weight Gain During Adulthood. The average adult gains 1.1 lbs. per year. Not the 5 lbs. people talk about putting on over the holidays or the 'freshman five' or the 10 lbs. many women feel they gain after a baby. Just one pound a year. It doesn't sound too bad.  

But think about what a pound of fat is. You probably have a clear visual image of it right in your refrigerator. It's called BUTTER. Each extra pound you carry is a block of butter smeared onto your body. Thirty pounds? Thirty blocks of butter. Think about what carrying a grocery bag full of it would feel like. Well ... 

One pound a year, of course, is just the average. People who start out overweight tend to gain more and lose less. 

I know. Depressing.

Nonetheless, I wanted to try.

Data and Research

I began with the science: National Institute of Health, Harvard School of Public Health, the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics. The basic information is pretty straightforward:

  • Healthy weight loss requires both good diet and exercise
  • People who lose weight slowly are more likely to keep it off
  • It's easier to lose weight than to keep it off (it's easier not to put it on in the first place)
  • It takes a 3,500 calorie deficit to lose a pound.  That means you need to eat 3,500 calories fewer than you're burning to lose just one pound. (Later in this series, I'll talk about that number and the controversy surrounding it in more depth.)

I'm a data person. As I learned when I first got my pedometer, a lot of times what we think is true about our behavior, isn't.  So for the last six weeks, I have logged every single bite I've put into my mouth. (If you are interested in doing this yourself, I highly recommend computer databases. The one I use is free, can be accessed through the web, and works on my cell phone too. Thus I could check up on calories BEFORE I ate them, not just after.)

The progam I use sets a calorie limit for me that's 500 calories less a day than it calculates I need.  (It gives me extra calories to eat when I exercise.) In theory, if I hit those numbers, I should lose a pound a week. I've also gone to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease body weight simulator and used their somewhat more sophisticated calculations. It gave me the same numbers within 20 calories a day.  

A Thousand Small Decisions.

What have I learned?  

  • How very easy it is to eat more calories than you need
  • I don't know anything about what has a lot of calories and what doesn't
  • Very small changes in my diet can add or subtract half my calorie budget for the day
  • I eat less the day after I overeat if I listen to my body
  • It's not that hard to stay within the calorie budget. But I need to think about it to stay on track.

Your eating habits are probably different from mine. Your knowledge of calories may also be different — I have never been on a diet before.  I learned that starch — rice, pasta, bread, potatoes — has a lot of calories. I learned that meat and alcohol have a lot fewer calories than I thought. I learned that dark beer has a lot more than I thought. And cheese — we won't even TALK about the calories in cheese.  

I also learned that what seem like small treats can have a big impact on your calorie profile. For example, the other day I had a small cappuccino without sugar and a croissant and used up almost 1/3 of the calories for my day. Who would have thunk it?

What you learn from tracking your food will probably be different from what I learn. But there's something that does generalize: having knowledge is empowering and lets you make better decisions. That's useful.

Yesterday, I took a flight from Sweden back to Cleveland. By taking the cheese off my salad, skipping the extra butter and salad dressing, and having the Swedish flat bread instead of the big dinner roll, I cut 600 calories out of my day. Efficacy. Which was all to the good, as eating well while traveling is a challenge.

What people say.

During the last few weeks, every person who has found out I'm monitoring my calories has told me how healthy they eat and how little they eat.  This is particularly true of people who are overweight.

I'm sure they believe that. I certainly did. I have also learned, monitoring my calories and eating, that I WAS eating pretty healthy. My problem is a thousand small decisions that I make every day. And my own ignorance, which meant that I was making those decisions in ignorance. Information is power.

This is not to say that people who are overweight are lying to themselves or that they don't have good information about nutrition. Maintaining a healthy weight is an very complicated — some say intractable — problem. But I do think that  people who don't have good data can easily become overweight.  

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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