Welcome to my weekly feature covering ways us activists can lead healthier lives. For a full explanation check out the inaugural edition here, but in short, most of us do a terrible job of taking care of our minds and bodies. This is a science-based exploration of how to change that, so we can be around for many years of fruitful activism.
There are many reasons for wanting to lose weight—health, fitness, aesthetics, and so on. Whatever the reasons, the health benefits are undeniable (we’ll look at the science below). Yet there likely isn’t a topic more full of confusing contradictory information, not to mention disinformation as scammers prey on people eager to people’s desires to trim fat.
While this discussion can get complicated, particularly if you’re trying to get down to very low levels of body fat, we’re not going to go there. Instead, we’ll focus on the basics of weight loss for health. And those actually aren’t that complicated, nor require excessive pain and sacrifice on your part. It certainly doesn’t require running, as we’ll see, which is good. Because I never liked running.
In other words, we’re going to keep this very simple.
ARE YOU A HEALTHY WEIGHT?
To be very clear from the start, this isn’t about “fat shaming” or otherwise placing judgment on people’s bodies. Healthiness doesn’t require someone to be rail thin, and it certainly doesn’t require fitness-model levels of athleticism. So how can we tell if our weight puts us in danger?
- If your BMI is less than 18.5, it falls within the underweight range.
- If your BMI is 18.5 to 24.9, it falls within the normal or healthy weight range.
- If your BMI is 25.0 to 29.9, it falls within the overweight range.
- If your BMI is 30.0 or higher, it falls within the obese range.
I am currently 5’ 8” and weight 160 lbs, so my BMI is a little above 24. I am right on the range of being overweight. The problem with that? Look at the picture to the right. I carry some fat around my belly and waist, but it’s nowhere near “overweight” range. The problem is that BMI doesn’t take into account … pretty much anything—muscle mass, bone density, age, sex, or fat distribution. One healthy, athletic, 14-year-old softball player, classified as “obese” by this measure, had this perfect rebuttal: “So, let’s say there is a fairly athletic woman who maintains a decent diet, she’s five feet, six inches, and she weighs 190 pounds, but 80 per cent of her body is muscle.
That doesn’t matter when calculating BMI! … How could someone who stays fit, eats healthy, and has a low metabolism be in danger of heart disease and diabetes?”
So let’s dispense with BMI. It’s bunk. There’s a better way.
Waist Circumference Measure
Recent science has discovered something fascinating: fat itself isn’t the devil, it’s fat around the waist. The bigger your waist, the greater your chances of heart disease and other maladies. As this Harvard overview notes, “studies [show] that so-called ‘abdominal obesity’ was strongly associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death, even after controlling for body mass index (BMI).” In other words, forget BMI, it’s about the waist size.
Simply put, apple-shaped bodies are in greater danger than pear-shaped ones. Men carry most of their excess fat around their waist, women carry it on their butts and thighs. Thus it’s not surprising that men are twice as likely as women to suffer from cardiovascular disease. But even women with large waist sizes are in greater danger.
- The Nurses’ Health Study, one of the largest and longest studies to date that has measured abdominal obesity, looked at the relationship between waist size and death from heart disease, cancer, or any cause in middle-aged women. At the start of the study, all 44,000 study volunteers were healthy, and all of them measured their waist size and hip size.
- After 16 years, women who had reported the highest waist sizes — 35 inches or higher –had nearly double the risk of dying from heart disease, compared to women who had reported the lowest waist sizes (less than 28 inches).
This one is quite simple to measure. Simply wrap a tape measure around your waist—the area between the top of your hip bone and the bottom of your rib cage. For me, it’s about an inch above my belly button.
Men: Increased risk at 37”, danger zone above 40”. Women: Increased risk at 31.5”, danger zone above 35”
I measure 33”, which is nowhere near danger zone. Whatever my aesthetic concerns and goals might be (I’d love to see abs someday!), I know that I don’t have to worry about elevated risk for cardiovascular disease.
This is easy to track, too. Measure regularly and take a weekly average of your numbers. Measure at the same time every day, since your waist will be larger after a meal, or after you drink a carbonated drink, or even if you eat something that bloats you up. I measure first thing in the morning after I go to the bathroom.
If you want to complicate things and add math to your life, add an extra measurement around your hip. Ultimately, it will still measure whether you have an apple-shaped body or not, which you can get with a simple waist measurement. I won’t belabor it, you can click on the link above if you want to learn more. There’s nothing wrong with it! You can always try it to compare to your waist-only results. It’s just unnecessarily complex.
BENEFITS OF LOSING WEIGHT
There are several health reasons you might want to lose weight.
- You came in above the danger zone in the measurements above, and thus are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and associated conditions like diabetes.
- Less heartburn. Extra pounds put pressure on your stomach, forcing acid to shoot up into the esophagus. “Researchers who analyzed 10,000 women in the Nurse’s Health Study found that weight gain of 10 to 20 pounds was associated with a threefold increase in heartburn symptoms … Obese people are nearly three times more likely than normal weight people to have heartburn.”
- Less knee pain. Each extra pound that you carry puts 4 lbs of pressure on your knees when walking. Lose 10 lbs, it would be like losing a 40 lb rucksack. “According to one study, 3.7 percent of people with a healthy weight … have OA of the knee, but it affects 19.5 percent of those with grade 2 obesity.”
- It helps manage arthritis. Related to the above, less pressure on joints from excess weight means less pain. But in addition, lower weight slows cartilage degeneration, lowers chances of gout attacks, and can even lead to remission of the disease.
- Lowers systemic inflammation. As you’ll see over and over again in this series, systemic inflammation is the enemy, and is a contributing factor to almost all of our maladies like cancer. Losing weight lowers your chance of cancer among other diseases.
- Better sleep. Extra weight can cause sleep apnea. As we’ll see below, this is a virtuous cycle, as the better you sleep, the better your chances of reaching a healthy weight.
- Feeling younger. The less weight you carry, the less hard the body has to work to move you. That means more energy, just like when you were younger.
- More energy means a better quality of life—more mobile, better sex, more fun around kids and grandkids. Just being able to climb a flight of stairs without huffing and puffing can mean the world.
Alright, you’re sold. You want to lose weight. What now?
In the broadest sense, the key to weight loss is to burn more calories than you consume. CICO—calories in, calories out. This is a bit of a simplification. There are activities that can signal to your hormones to either hoard or burn extra calories, but for purposes of this article, focusing on the basics of getting into healthy weight territory, CICO will do the trick.
Now, in broad strokes, you need to burn a net 3,500 calories to burn a pound of fat. So if you want to lose a pound a week—a healthy sustainable rate—you would aim to average a daily caloric deficit of 500 calories. Note that as you lean out, your body adapts, and you would need to burn more than 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat, but again, for the purposes of this article, I’m assuming a surplus of excess unhealthy levels of fat. If you’re just getting started in your weight loss journey, CICO and 3,500 calories per pound of fat are a great start.
Since this article focuses on the basics, I won’t get into how to measure your metabolic rate (how many calories you burn in a day) or calorie counting. There’s no need until you decide you want to get down to lower body fat levels than necessary to be healthy. I’ll discuss those in a future article. For now, I just want you to know that if you eat an excess of 3,500 calories or so, you’ll gain a pound. And if you burn that amount, you’ll lose a pound.
There are two tools at your disposal—a weight scale and a measuring tape. Remember, the goal here is to lose fat off your weight, so you certainly want to track that. However, men, in particular, have their most stubborn fat around their waist. In other words, depending on your genetics, it could be the last fat you lose. (That’s certainly my cursed case.)
The scale measures weight loss, which is not really what you’re looking for. Your problem isn’t weight. If you’re carrying around a ton on muscle, that’s good weight. If you have thick bones, that’s neutral weight. If you’re well hydrated (a topic for a separate post), that’s good weight. Fat outside your waist region can be aesthetically problematic, but isn’t as bad as belly fat. The scale can give you a good sense if you’re moving in the right direction, but it doesn’t tell you the full story. And those scales that measure body fat percentage? They are bunk. I wish they weren’t. But they simply don’t work.
The scale will also be sensitive to food … inside you, whether in your stomach or intestinal tract. You can have a disparity of 6-8 lbs between morning and evening depending on what you eat and drink and when you poop. So always weigh yourself at the same time every day. I do so in the morning before I eat or drink anything, but after I’ve gone to the bathroom.
And never worry about day-to-day fluctuations. No, you didn’t gain or lose 3 lbs in a day. Remember, you’d have to eat 3,500 calories (generally speaking) to gain a pound. So why the big changes sometimes? Beside what’s in your digestive tract, you may be carrying excess water weight. Carbs, specifically, retain water. So if you have pasta the night before, you might hold an extra 2-3 lbs in water alone. Then, you eat more carbs and protein the next day and that water flushes out, and you think “I lost 5 lbs!” No you didn’t. It’s best to average out a week’s worth of measurements to track progress.
Finally, don’t discount the power of your mirror. That’s right! The mirror can be a good guide to whether you’re getting the results you’re looking for.
Diet Versus Exercise
The adage in fitness circles is that “abs are made in the kitchen.” In other words, if you want to lose weight, the biggest gains are made via your diet. Simple math bears this out.
Jogging for an hour, a long freakin’ time, burns around 400 calories (more or less dependent on pace, your weight, and your fitness level). A cup of cooked rice (a real cup, not your big coffee mug) is 200 calories. It’s easy to pile 2-3 cups onto your plate. A bag of Doritos, just 12 chips, is 150 calories. A slice of delicious cheesecake (my favorite) is 400-600 calories. How many times have you seen someone do exercise, and then treat themselves to a huge meal as “reward”? Not to mention, exercise makes you extra hungry! It’s easy to eat more than you burned, leaving you at a net disadvantage when the final metabolic math is tallied up.
There’s no doubt that exercise can help, but it’s relatively easy to cut 500 calories from someone’s diet, it’s a lot of work (and time intensive) to burn 500 calories via exercise.
Obviously, there’s no need to pick one or the other. You can always burn a couple of hundred calories via exercise, and then eat at a smaller caloric deficit, to reach your caloric targets. Just know that the biggest impact will come from diet.
Weight Loss: The Low-Hanging Fruit
So how do you lose this weight? For purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the easiest high-impact actions you can take to move into healthy-weight territory. This won’t get you into fitness-model levels of leanness, but you don’t need that to stay healthy. These are things you can do, without a regimented diet, to get to a healthy weight level.
- Drink only water, tea, or coffee. Zero calorie drinks are fine. Point is, don’t drink any calories. There are 139 calories in a can of coke. Three cans of coke are around 1/10th of a pound of potential fat. A cola Big Gulp is 350 calories. Gross. Don’t drink fruit juices either. You need fruit’s fiber to activate its myriad benefits. If you grind that fruit into liquid, it starts looking more like sugar water.
- Don’t drink alcoholic beverages. I know, I know. Booze is awesome! But try and save it for special occasions. It really isn’t good for weight loss or sleep, which is also necessary for weight loss. Some of you might want to point out that certain alcoholic beverages—wine and beer, in particular—have some beneficial phytonutrients. And yes, they do. But if you’re trying to lose weight, there are better ways to get that nutrition without the excess calories.
- Fill up on veggies. There isn’t a serious diet that will restrict your calories from healthy vegetables like broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, etc. A diet rich in all the colors will provide beneficial phytonutrients, and the fiber in those vegetables will mitigate the calories you absorb from them while satiating you. The rule of thumb is a palm-sized protein (meat or vegetarian), and then as many veggies as you want. Vegetables are so good, in fact, that if you ever start counting calories (a more advanced strategy we’ll discuss in a future advanced weight loss article), you can simply skip the vegetables. No one ever gained weight eating their veggies.
- Drink water. Drink lots of water. Drink it before meals. It takes up space in your stomach. If you like it, carbonated water is great, as the gas makes you feel even more full. Additionally, drinking water boosts your metabolism by up to 30% for an hour after drinking, burning extra calories. I carry a jug of water around with me and sip on it all day. One study found that drinking a half liter (17 ounces) of water before a meal helped dieters lose 44% more weight compared to people who didn’t drink that water. Holy crap. That’s in addition to myriad other benefits of hydration.
- Protein and caffeine for breakfast. Yes, I know croissants are delicious. But starting your day with eggs or other protein will lead to reduced caloric intake for 36 hours. And while you’re at it, drink a cup of black coffee (just black!) or green tea. The caffeine in both boost metabolism and burn excess calories, while they are rich in additional antioxidants.
- Sleep more. Sleep is so critical to just about all of our health markers, that it may very well be the next entry in this series. When it comes to weight, poor sleep is one of the strongest markers for obesity—89% increased risk among children, and 55% for adults. Indeed, “Women who slept 6 hours per night were still 12% more likely to experience major weight gain, and 6% more likely to become obese, compared to women who slept 7 hours a night.” What’s crazy is that women who sleep less and eat less still gain more weight! As I mentioned at the start, CICO has its limitations, and the exceptions are mostly from hormonal issues. Lack of sleep disrupts hormones, and that creates a cascade of health issues including weight gain.
- Walk in the morning in a fasted state. Walk after dinner. I discussed this in the first article of this series, on walking:
- Walking burns calories, but the numbers are small—a couple hundred calories an hour. For weight loss purposes, that’s minimal. But there’s a better way walking can help with weight loss—one study found that a 15 minute post-meal walk lowered blood sugar levels. That’s great for diabetics, sure, but also for everyone else. Lower blood sugar levels means lower insulin levels—a hormone that impairs the mobilization of fat for energy.
- Walking in a fasted state (in other words, before breakfast) can accentuate that burning of fat. There is no food in your system to spike insulin levels, and the low level of exertion from walking means the body can fuel the effort directly from fat stores. A meta-analysis of 27 studies found that “[t]here was a significant increase in fat oxidation during exercise performed in the fasted, compared with fed, state.” The last two bullet points might seem contradictory, but they’re not—walking in a fasted state burns more fat, but walking after a meal limits the amount of energy from that meal that might be shuttled off into fat stores. Walk 15-30 minutes before breakfast and after dinner, and you have a pretty potent 1-2 punch.
- Look at nutrition labels. Look at the calorie number. Then decide if those are calories you want getting in the way of your goals. I weep every time I look at the box of a Girl Scout’s Samoas cookies. Each cookie is 75 calories! A box of them is 1,125 calories, or potentially a third of a pound of fat. Don’t worry about counting calories at this point, just be mindful of them. And remember, 3,500 of them is an extra pound gained or lost.
- Minimize anything white. White bread, white rice, white potatoes, and pasta aren’t just high in carb calories, but they dramatically spike your blood sugar levels and create cravings for more more more! Also avoid anything with refined sugar—candy and desserts.
- Skip fast food restaurants. You already knew this, right? Their foods are high in everything you don’t want—calories, excessive sodium, and saturated fats. Their foods are literally addicting, leading to overeating. Who can stop at a handful of fries? (A large McDonalds’ fries has 490 calories, or .14 lb of potential fat.)
This is all really low-hanging fruit—it doesn’t require you to know anything about your own metabolic rate, to count calories, to experiment with more structured diets, or to do anything beyond just being mindful of what you put on your mouth, a little strategic walking, and better sleep habits.
What’s more, these are all generally healthy lifestyle choices with benefits beyond reducing fat. The Perfect Diet Doesn’t Exist
There is no magical diet that will work on everyone and “melt the pounds away.” There is nothing inherently better about low-carb versus low-fat versus intermittent fasting versus vegan versus keto versus whatever fad diet is currently in vogue. All of them work the same way—by restricting calories, playing to the CICO formula.
The key is to find what works for you. People get so excited about finding something that works for them that they become obnoxious evangelists. Ignore them all. Just find the mechanism that works best. I will delve deeper into these options in a future article about advanced weight loss techniques. But if you’re just getting started in your weight loss journey, don’t even worry about dieting. The word “diet” itself is loaded with so much negative meaning that it can work at cross purposes with your early goals. Do the stuff I talk about above and that’ll get you so far that you might never need to worry about a regimented diet.
What About Exercise?
Many people think that jogging is a necessary part of weight loss. Others will join Orange Theory and do cardio on an indoor rower, or get a Peloton bike and do spin classes.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these exercises, and they all burn calories. But you don’t need them to lose weight.
To be extra clear, if you like to run, or row, or cycle, then by all means, do it! The best exercise is the exercise you enjoy doing. And if you play a sport, then you definitely need to do sports-specific work to improve your performance. But don’t feel the pressure to do any cardio beyond simple walking (known as low-intensity steady-state cardio, or LISS, in the fitness world).
Of course, and I want to keep stressing this, I’m talking about losing dangerous belly fat, and getting into a healthy weight range. If you want to get down to lower body fat levels, then yes, cardio will be important to make further gains. But as I will explain in a future article, things like jogging are not the most effective or efficient cardio options. Things like interval training, sprints, and other high-intensity work will be far more effective and time efficient.
Can Any Supplements Help Me Lose Weight?
Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t waste your money on weight loss supplements. They are a billion-dollar scam and don’t work. There used to be one that did—ephedra, which raised metabolism levels to burn extra calories. But it was banned because it killed people. Turns out, messing around with your metabolism isn’t healthy.
There are some compounds that will help shed the last few stubborn pounds in extremely lean people, mostly athletes, but they are useless to the vast majority of people.
The one exception has already been mentioned: caffeine. Drink some coffee or green tea and you’re covered. But there isn’t a pill that will help you get into healthy weight territory. Don’t waste your money, and don’t support a scam industry.
Now you know how to determine whether your weight is at unhealthy levels, and the easy steps you can take to avoid its dangers. None of the recommendations here are particularly burdensome or difficult, which is exactly the point. Being healthy shouldn’t be a sacrifice (well, anything beyond skipping a regular slice of cheesecake). You shouldn’t have to worry about falling off any wagon.
I will write an article on advanced weight loss techniques for those wanting to get into better shape, or to more methodically lose weight than one might get from these general lifestyle changes. But that certainly won’t be necessary to reach the kind of healthy levels that can dramatically improve your chances for a long, active, and healthy life.
Wellness for Activists (the series)