Losing Weight: The 50/50 Rule

Here’s a really simple rule, that is incredibly easy to follow if you make meals for yourself, rather harder to follow if you eat out quite a bit, and almost impossible to follow if you primarily eat fast foods:

No more than 50% of your plate should be taken up by high-density calories, such as meat or macaroni and cheese; the other half should hold healthful vegetables and fruit.

Actually, it makes me slightly ill, now, to think of a plate that is half full of macaroni and cheese, but I’ve eaten countless plates full of the stuff in my day, so a slightly-smaller plate with only half that much would certainly have been an improvement.

It’s a really good rule, and very simple to implement when you’re preparing your own meals: it’s the work of a moment to envision how your proposed meal is going to look on your plate, and to think of what can be done to fix it (smaller meat portions, or add a vegetable, perhaps?)

Say, wouldn’t that delicious meal be even better with a little broccoli?

Fighting the Metabolic Syndrome

Of course, we don’t just want to lose weight. There’s the hell of the Metabolic Syndrome, also known as Syndrome X, where you’ve got insulin resistance, and consequently high blood sugar, high levels of abdominal fat, high blood pressure, low HDL (the good one — you don’t want this to be lowl), high triglycerides, and high uric acid levels — just everything basically going to hell in a handcart, and about as ready as you can be for heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, gout, dementia, blindness, and liver failure.

What shall we do? Cut down on fats and protein? Careful, that can increase insulin production and promote heart disease.

Perhaps we’ll eat fewer carbohydrates, and more protein and fat? Well, except that if you’re eating a lot of saturated fats, you’ll promote heart disease. President Clinton lost a whole lot of weight on a low-carb diet in 2004, and then had to go in for bypass surgery, if I remember the story right.

Low-fat diets can work, if you’re actually getting a lot of your calories from healthy vegetables, and not stuffing yourself with a lot of high-caloric-density “white foods” like sugar, white flour, white bread, white pasta, and white rice.

Low-carb diets can work, if you’re eating a lot of fish, especially salmon or other fish high in healthful Omega-3 fatty acids, or if you’re eating grass-fed beef, rather than corn-fed beef (the former having relatively more Omega-3 than the latter). But most of us eat the cheaper corn-fed beef, extra high in saturated fat, yum.

But in the end, deprivation diets, in my experience, have led to relapse and rebound. I want to be able to have the occasional slice of pizza, and mug of beer (because pizza and beer are delicious).

Well, but what will work? Exercise.

Exercise builds muscle and burns calories, which lowers weight, which directly correlates with reduction in blood pressure, reduction in blood glucose, and an increase in HDL (good cholesterol).

In the last few weeks, I’ve been exercising about 1,000 calories a day, which, all other things being equal, would clobber about 100 pounds a year. It takes about two hours a day, but is much better than an early death, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve worked up to it gradually over 13 weeks, and I’ve got an exercise buddy (Industry Figure Larry Helmerich, who is a grandfather, by the way), which really, really helps.

And plus, since I only want to lose at most a pound a week, I’m in the enviable position of trying to find several hundred calories a day of delicious food to eat, so that I don’t lose weight too quickly. Ha! It’s a great life.

If you’re pretty far behind, you might want to exercise a lot more — with a buddy!

Losing Weight: Throw Out Your Dishes

…well, don’t throw them out. They’re probably nice, and throwing them out will make you sad. But put them where you won’t use them everyday, and go out and get some slightly smaller ones. I guarantee you that this is so powerful that after just a week of eating off of your wonderful new smaller plates and bowls, you’ll be as excited about this as I am.

People are no damn good…at estimating size and portions. They’re subject to all sorts of visual illusions, and two are particularly notable:

1. If you give people larger plates and bowls, they will fill the plates and bowls with 20% to 30% more food, to make the plate look right. And they’ll still eat most of that food, in either case (eating 92% of it, on average).

The thing is, larger plates make food look small. I remember when we got our big plates and bowls several years ago (the classic Fiesta pattern), and thinking to myself, “Wow, those cereal bowls are enormous!” But right away, I started filling the bowls with about as much cereal as they could hold, with room for milk. Any less just didn’t look right.

2. Give people short, wide glasses, and they’ll serve themselves more than if given narrow, tall glasses. We’re just built to give more emphasis to height than to width.

I read about all this in Mindless Eating, and it just sounded so right, particularly in the light of my cereal experience, that I ran out to IKEA and bought inexpensive smaller plates and bowls:

Old Plates: 10 1/2"
New Plates:  9 1/2"

Old Bowls:   6 1/2"
New Bowls: < 5"

Plus, the old bowls’ walls were almost vertical, going staight down, while the new bowls have a more spherical, classic bowl shape. They hold much less than the old bowls.

The effect, back at the house, was immediately apparent.

How about a scoop of ice cream? A nice scoop of ice cream in one of the old bowls just looks sad (I would usually put three scoops in those bowls, though I could imagine someone drawing the line at two), but in one of the new bowls, a single scoop looks like the happy, delicious treat that it is.

Or oatmeal? I always used to make a double serving of oatmeal (and think of that: every morning!), because the bowl just looked wrong, and empty, with only one serving. I can’t even fit a double serving of oatmeal in the new bowls, and the single serving looks terrific in there.

And the plates are working just as splendidly. I’ve gone back to putting a single chicken breast on my plate, (alongside its vegetables, of course), instead of feeling as if it’s not really enough if there aren’t two.

Even when the effects are less pronounced, if all that happens is that I put proportionately less food on the plate, did you know that the 9.5-inch plates only have 80% of the area of the 10.5-inch plates? That’s math, baby! And 20% less food.

And did you know, back in Grandma’s day, dinner plates were smaller, just like the people?

I’m going to have to take pictures to adequately convey this. Coming soon!

Container size really, really implies portion size.

Losing Weight: How to Eat a Little Less

I recently finished reading an absolutely riveting book (Mindless Eating, by Brian Wansink) on this very subject. The author is the Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and he and his team have done some fascinating research on the external environmental cues which signal us to eat, or to stop eating.

To quickly (and somewhat brutally) sum up the book, his group has found that we are all subtly influenced by these environmental cues to eat more or to eat less, and that if we consciously manipulate our environment so that it influences our unconscious to eat less, then we can easily eat less, and lose weight.

Not all of the effects are especially large, but they don’t have to be to add up to a large difference.

I’ll serve up some practical suggestions in coming posts, but let me just start with one of the things that they did that made me laugh:

The researchers, in conjunction with a movie theater, popped up enough popcorn for everyone in the theatre, and then let it…ripen…until, after about five days, the pocorn was so stale that it squeaked when you bit into it.

Then, one Saturday, everyone who came to see a particular matinee for an action movie got a big free bucket of the terrible popcorn, more than they would eat. Randomly, half were given the “medium” size, which in a movie theatre means that they got way, way too much popcorn, and half were given the “large, bigger than your head” size.

Everybody also got a free beverage.

The researchers spied on the moviegoers, and found that they would take a few bites of the horrible popcorn, then set the bucket down on the ground, and pretty soon would pick it up again and nibble some more.

When the movie was done, the reasearchers came on the P.A. and asked everyone to bring up their buckets to the front, and weighed them, to see how much popcorn each person had eaten from his bucket. They also asked the people with the large buckets if they thought that they had been influenced to eat more.

Almost to a man, the patrons smugly denied being influenced, but the people with the large buckets ate 53% more popcorn, an average of 173 calories more per person.

Container size implies portion size.

Losing Weight: Just a Little Less, Just a Little More

Here’s a fun fact:
    Most Americans gain about a pound a year, after adulthood. Say, from age 20 to age 50.

Let’s apply our rule of thumb from two days ago: how much are they overeating, or underexercising?
    +1 pound a year = +10 calories a day.

What would we have to do to turn that into weight loss?
    A new 20 calorie exercise, such as walking another 2 or 3 minutes, is a net -20 calories per day.

That turns our +1 pounds a year into a -1 pounds a year.

That’s 2 or 3 minutes a day. Imagine if we walked another 20 minutes a day!
    No, that’s crazy talk.

If you’re not in a hurry, you only have to eat a little less, and exercise a little more.

Losing Weight: You’ll Have to Exercise a Little More

If you’ve ever read anything about losing weight, you’ve probably read somewhere that muscle burns more calories in your body, just keeping itself alive, than fat does.

“More” is a funny word. “More calories burned…” How much more?

A pound of muscle burns between 40 and 120 calories a day, just staying alive. 80 calories a day, say.

And a pound of fat? It burns…a little less. Actually, I lied: it burns so many fewer calories per day that if you were to guess, you likely wouldn’t be even close, unless you’re one of the surpisingly large number of people who guess zero calories a day. And they’re silly! It couldn’t be zero! Fat is not a dead thing, it’s alive, it’s animal cells, gotta burn something to live. So of course it’s not zero! No, it’s 1 to 3 calories per day, to keep a pound of fat alive: call it 2 calories a day, on average. Much larger than zero! And much, much smaller than 80.

So, if you add a pound of muscle that didn’t used to be there, that’s a new 40-to-120 calorie deficit every day, just keeping that muscle alive. And remembering our rule of thumb from yesterday, that’s going to be 4 to 12 pounds of weight lost, the first year alone, just because you acquired and maintained that new little muscle. That’s splendid!

In contrast, what if you try to lose weight by dieting alone? There’s every chance that your body, when looking for something to cannabalize, might decide to devour some delicious (and expensive-to-maintain) muscle, rather than precious fat. After all, food seems to be a bit scarce. Plus, you don’t seem to be using that pound of muscle, watching TV and all.

If your body does decide to devour, say, a pound of muscle to make up for the calorie deficit, then that’s going slow your metabolism by 80 calories a day, eliminating 8 pounds a year of weight loss, which brings everything back in to balance. Problem solved! You’re not going to die of famine after all, and you still have most of your precious, and apparently beloved, fat!

Let’s review:
  1 pound of muscle burns 40-120 calories a day (4 to 12 pounds a year).
  1 pound of fat burns 1-3 calories a day (about as close to zero as we can get).

Same thing if you start slacking off on your exercise: pretty soon, your body decides to exchange that pound of expensive muscle for a pound of fat, and your metabolism slows by 78 calories a day, making you eight pounds fatter in the first year alone.

So, want to take weight off, and keep it off? It’s not going to happen without faithful, consistent exercise.

You’re going to have to exercise a little more.

Losing Weight: You’ll Have to Eat a Little Less

I’ve recently read a few books that gave me some incredibly useful insights into losing weight.

Brace yourselves: I’m probably going to be a bit of a nut on this subject for the next few months, at least.

First, the best rule-of-thumb ever!

Background: it takes a 3,500 calorie surplus to create a new pound of fat, or, equivalently, a 3,500 calorie deficit to lose a pound of fat. And, there are about 350 days in the year. (We’re rounding! See, your elementary school Mathematics teacher told you that you’d use this stuff some day.)

So (the rule!): for every 10 extra calories that you eat, every day (or every 10 more calories that you burn, every day) you can expect to gain (or lose) a pound of fat, every year.

Do you eat a 70-calorie snack every day? That’ll be another 7 pounds gained, every year.

Did you add a 200-calorie exercise, that you do every day? That’ll be a 20 pound loss, the first year alone, with more to follow.

Of course, we’re just estimating, but that’s pretty close, on average.

You’re going to have to eat a little less.