Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Calories

Ask anyone what it takes to lose weight and they will most likely recite to you the following:
Calories Out> Calories In

Simple, right? As long as your are working out and burning more calories then you consume, scientifically, you should lose weight.  I subscribed to this belief for a long time. I did the calories counting, I tracked all my food and activity and at the end of the day my goals were not met and I was left exhausted from all the tracking and math.  This would leave me extremely frustrated.  Why wasn't all the working out and starvation working for me? I MUST be burning enough calories to create a deficit. 

Well....if only it could be that easy. 

The equation  above that we have all been taught fails to take a few things into account, namely Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Your BMR is how many calories you burn at rest.  To calculate your true BMR you must account for muscle mass and there is much controversy among scientists as to how many calories a pound of muscle really uses. So how is someone suppose to know exactly how many calories they need to burn to create a deficit? It is not as if the human body is as simple a car. With a car, we can measure how far we can go on a gallon of gas and how much we would need to drive to run out.  The way the human body uses calories is vastly different from machines and extremely individualized.  There are so many things to take into account when trying to measure calories such as genetics, sleep, medications, stress, illness, past dieting and age.

And here is the other shocker--- our bodies are made to survive! If you underfeed your body (reduce your calories), while increasing your physical demands for the long-term, there is a good chance your body will maintain it's adapted lower level of energy expenditure and store any addition energy (remember your body is trying to survive) as FAT.  Not only is this counterproductive to what you want to achieve (weight loss) but over time, this method can damage your metabolic rate and your body's normal functions. This only makes dieting harder and harder. Not only does this do damage to your physically, but think about the mental stress that you put yourself under by counting all those calories and not getting the results you want. Pure frustration!

Now there is a lot of science that goes behind why this equation doesn't work and I won't pretend to really understand it all, but in the most simplest of form, it goes back to thermodynamics. Remember that from high school physics? Specifically, the first law of thermodynamics states that the process if increment in the internal energy of a system is equal to the increment of heat supplied to the system, minus the increment of work done by the system on its surroundings.   WHAT?? 

Let's break that down a bit more to: 
"energy can neither be created or destroyed" 

AH...everyone remembers that saying.  You with me?
This law is where we get the equation that calories in must be less then calories out to lose weight. 

Here are some things to consider that make the law of thermodynamics not applicable to the human body when trying to lose weight
  1. When we eat, we consumer carbs, fats, and proteins. Proteins do other things in our body like build muscle and repair cells. Fat acts as a vehicle for nutrients and does its job insulting and repairing cells. So fat and protein are actually used by our bodies, they  act as our bodies fuel, they are not calories that are burned or stored like carbs
  2. Also mentioned this above...BMR is hard or impossible to calculate so we never truly know how many calories we are burning in 24 hours
  3. As with all physics laws, it is assumed that your body (the system) is a perfectly efficient calorie burning machine. And in case you didn't know it, your body is NOT ever 100% efficient. It is not a closed system, rather your body is affected by things such as genetics and environment

Still not convinced?
Have you ever known someone that can eat everything in sight and not gain a pound? We all know them and all hate them. And you have asked yourself, why?! Why can't I be like that?
And this person, that eats everything and maybe does nothing, it your simplest form of proof that the calorie in vs. calorie out equation is flawed.

So moral of the story...to give your body the best chance at getting to its optimal weight and to reduce your mental stress...STOP CALORIE COUNTING!
Eat real nutritious food, work out, sleep and repeat daily. 


Habits

Giving up sugar, grains and other processed food for 8 weeks is not easy for anyone.  We partake in many things daily that become habits. How many times have you checked Facebook today? While these daily habits are part of our routine, they may not always be the best for our well-being or productivity.  BUT breaking a habit is HARD.  Even when we know something is bad for us, our desire for normalcy and reward are so much stronger then the desire to break a habit.

For as long as I can remember, I had a bowl of cereal for breakfast. This started when I was young and my mom and I would sit down for breakfast, each with a bowl of cereal and watch the Today show before she went to work and I went to school. During college, I undoubtedly had cereal for breakfast because it was cheap and fast and I probably had it for lunch and dinner sometimes as well. Going into adulthood,  I graduated to more "healthy" cereals and would throw bananas or blueberries in them to get some additional nutrients. Of course, when the mood would strike me, I would buy a big box of Captain Crunch (opps all berries!) and pop in a good movie, get in my PJs and eat the entire box! Yes, an entire box of Captain Crunch that would eventually leave the roof of my mouth numb and my stomach aching. But for me, cereal was comfort food and was a part of every morning of my life for as long as I can remember.
So when looking at my diet and taking on this nutritional challenge, I knew the cereal had to go.  Even the healthy cereal that I was eating each morning was filled with sugar and gluten and drowning in a couple cups of milk that became a sugary drink at the end of each bowl.

While cereal is good and easy for me, giving it up was more about giving up a habit. I had to rethink the way I approached breakfast. Everything about my mornings triggered my desire to pour a bowl of cereal.   In the book The Power of Habit  by Charles Duhigg, habits are learned behaviors performed automatically. Once a habit is formed, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making leading to automatically unfolding patterns.

Duhigg reports that there is a simple three-part look at the core of every habit: the cure, the routine, and the reward.

So for my cereal habit, it was:
  • the cue: waking up....just the act of getting out of bed triggered my need/want for cereal
  • the routine: every morning was the same- walk the dog, shower, cereal while reading the news, leave for work
  • the reward: nothing tastes better then cold milk on slightly sweetened cereal with a banana thrown in.
So when taking on this nutrition challenge, I knew giving up cereal would be hard and that I would have to focus on each of these components.  Not only did I have to set myself up for success (ie. having food that I could quickly prepare for breakfast), but I had to increase my awareness of what cues that would trigger a desire or craving for cereal or something sweet.

What has worked for me is to change the cues and routines. The simple act of changing the order in which I do things in has helped. I don't eat after I have showered and gotten ready, rather I eat first and then get ready for my day.  I have added in hot tea in the morning and find a different route each morning to walk my dog.  I am amazed at how these small changes have helped me focus on what my goals are for the day and have empowered me to stay away from cereal.  Of course, the biggest factor has been to not have cereal or milk within reach. Out of sight, out of mind! (easier said then done...lots of grocery stores along the way to work)

I have found this not to just be applicable to just my morning habits, but also to other things that may trigger an urge to indulge in something not so healthy.  This new sense of awareness of cues have helped me to  easily identify what is triggering me and I can remove myself or distract myself from the situation. One of my biggest cues for wanting to dive into a box of cookies is stress. When I am stressed, all I want is baked goods. I will take any baked goods....high quality or not. So recognizing this, I have become aware of these cues and when I become stressed and am about to run to the nearest bakery, I instead, take my dog out for a walk, do 10 mins of yoga, listen to some music, make myself some tea, read a book or the most successful tactic, go to sleep!  Before I know it, the stress has lessened, I have avoided indulging in something that would not make me feel good and can go on with my day knowing that I stuck to my goals.

It is truly amazing how much our actions and habits can be changed with the simple act of awareness. Being aware of what makes us do the things we do is a powerful tool to behavior change.