Shall I just starve myself?!

Picture the scenario, you’ve pigged out all Christmas and it’s week one of your New Year’s resolutions.  You hunt high and low for your gym membership card, accept the fact that it’s gone forever and reluctantly pay your £10 at the gym reception for a replacement card.  You stand in front of the camera posing for a new photo with a queue of other members looking on behind you and you are handed a new membership card with an even fatter photo than last time.  They’ve moved things around since you were last there but you locate the treadmills (as have 4,000 other guilty people) and off you go.  Twenty minutes into your walk/jog you are hyperventilating but it must be doing you good, even though you skipped breakfast (and therefore have no energy) as you were too hungover to face food (and are therefore dehydrated).  You start getting used to the machine again, your old friend of a little over a year ago, which helped you shift 3 pounds in 6 months, taking you from morbidly obese to very obese on those oh-so-useful charts that make bodybuilders and professional rugby players look fat (although you are unlikely to tell them to their faces).  You scroll through the functions and you come across the calories used in your 30 minute outing:


“One hundred and twelve!”


It’s so depressing, it has happened to us all, I don’t know why we look because we know it’s going to upset us but we can’t help ourselves.  Like being told “If you don’t want to know the score look away now” or “look away now if you don’t want to see the answer at the bottom of the screen”.  You don’t want to look as you know it’ll ruin your fun but you do.


What does this number actually mean though?  Well we know it’s not enough to burn off the tin of Quality Street that we devoured with our other half last night (as we had to finish off all the Christmas chocolates before we could go on a fitness regime), after a casserole washed down with a bottle of Merlot.  I don’t know exactly either.  I could look it up on line just like you could but let’s say it’s about 5 chocolates not 55.


What we need therefore is a starting point, a reference so that we can embark on an exercise and healthy eating plan and know that something is actually going to change.


When I ask people if they managed to do that run they promised me (and more importantly they promised themselves) they would do or whether they got their old bike out the shed, pumped the tyres up and actually rode it I often get replies like:


“No but I did have a lot of housework this week”


“No but I walked the dog 5 times”


“No but I lifted a lot of logs in the garden”


But you’ve had a house/dog/garden for years and you have said that you would like to change your shape, not keep it the same.  In my job I see people doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results!   I see people jumping on the scales week after week, praying that their weight has gone down.  These people are often highly educated, often run successful businesses, manage teams of hundreds of people or have raised a family single-handedly.  They would learn by their mistakes pretty quickly in any other scenario but this one, it’s bizarre…


To your credit, you are burning more calories than you would be watching TV so we need to give you some recognition for this.  Well done.  There you go.


What we need is some sort of starting point or reference point i.e. we need to know how many calories we use a day just being us.  Our daily calories we need to live is simply the amount of calories we need to lie down all day multiplied by how busy we are.


The amount of calories we need to maintain our current weight is dependent on our age, gender, weight, height and activity levels.  It is therefore known as our Total Energy Expenditure.


We could calculate this figure using fancy sums but an average female needs about 2000 and an average male needs about 2500 calories per day.  If you are not average, a mathematician or simply have too much time on your hands then please go online and find a formula to find the precise amount!  Not bad eh?  So you can have the whole box of chocolates – if you eat nothing else that day!!!  Don’t do that.


So now we know how many calories we need to maintain our current bodyweight all we have to do is burn a couple more than this each day and we’ll lose weight.  Simple.


Before you go starving yourself, I’m sure you have read articles stating that “safe” weight loss is around 1 to 2 pounds per week.  Why is that?  Well, if you know that you need 2500 calories to live and then you start taking on only 500 calories a day then look what happens:


1.  You get tired; your body hasn’t got enough energy to function, you may feel dizzy (a sugar low) and you may not be able concentrate.  Not ideal if you’re driving on the motorway or about to go to a job interview!


2.  If you are going to the gym you are unlikely to be able to run faster, lift more or swim for longer as you are like a car running without any petrol.  Not great psychologically and let’s face it we want to feel as positive as possible about all this right?


3.  If you have used all your energy up by midday (very likely on 500 calories a day) then why is it that you are still able to walk, run for the bus, play tennis, walk to the park with the kids (albeit hungrily)?  Well, the body stores some glycogen (basically energy) in the muscles in case you run out of food so it will draw this energy from your muscles.  Therefore any muscle that you have gained doing bodypump classes, cycling or free weights will diminish as you’re using it to provide the body with basic energy.  You really don’t want that to happen as your muscle to fat ratio will get worse!


4.  If you starve the body then, being a very adaptive chap, it will go into survival mode; what I mean by that is the body will do anything it can to preserve energy if you’re not feeding it so it will hold on to as much fat as possible. It slows down the metabolism of fat as it might need it to provide you with energy AS YOU’RE NOT GIVING IT ANY!  We want to speed up your metabolism, not slow it down!  Think of the word “breakfast”, meaning “to break the fast” i.e. you have fasted all night long.  While you are sleeping therefore the body experiences a long period of time without being given any fuel.  That’s one reason why they say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Try to eat something as soon as you can in the morning as your metabolism has slowed right down.  I’m not suggesting you get up at 3.00 am for a snack by the way!  What do you mean you’re still on your way home from the nightclub at 3.00 am?!!


5.  You need energy to burn fat!  What?!  You need energy to pick up a coffee cup from a desk, to walk to the train station, to concentrate at work in fact your body needs energy to carry out every function.  The function we really really want it to carry out is to burn fat.  If we don’t give our body any food we don’t have the energy to burn fat so keep on eating!  There you go, some good news.


There you go then, some good arguments against starvation.  Anyway who wants to feel hungry all the time?  That’s what you have probably called “dieting” at some point in the past; we’re creating a new way of life.  A sustainable future.  “Diets” don’t work anyway.  Well if they did you wouldn’t be reading this would you?  Whatever “diet” you think you should do; whether it be no carbs, low carbs, alternating protein with carbs, sachets, shakes, powders, soups, counting points, counting calories, eating less or the Outer Mongolian Riverdance Eat It If You Want It Diet, you’ll only ever be able to keep the weight off if afterwards you find a balanced, healthy, natural diet that is sustainable forever so you might as well start with that one!!


All we need to do is take on slightly less calories each day than we use.  Roughly speaking we’re trying to take on 250-500 calories a day less than we use.  You’re never going do that exactly but that gives you a rough idea.


Personally, I’m not going to start counting calories for all the money in the world as it’s dull, time consuming and, most importantly, I know I won’t stick at it.  I do however think it’s important to understand calories to understand just how simple weight loss is. 


Just for a second, instead of calling them calories let’s call it energy.  We need a certain amount of energy to go about our daily lives.  When we eat we either use that energy to do things or we store it as fat.  That’s all fat is; stored energy.  We want less fat so we need to eat just enough to function properly but no more, so that the body uses a little bit of its fat (stored energy) each day.  It sounds like a tightrope balancing act to me which is why I won’t be counting calories.


Going hungry or “dieting” is not the answer.  We should never feel hungry.

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