Least resistance weight loss

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The weight-loss industry preys on scientific naivete, often conflating good nutrition with the caloric deficit necessary to lose weight.

While nutrition matters for overall health, it is substantially more complicated to eat a nutritious diet than one that allows you to lose weight.

If you want to lose weight, focus on weight loss first.

Focus on nutrition once you've reached your target weight.

The advantage of this approach is that you can eat any kind of food you want and still lose weight. Sodas? Fast food? Chocolate cake? All allowed.

There is only one rule for weight loss:

On average, consume less calories than you burn.

I followed this approach for six months and dropped from 198 pounds (90 kg) to 152 pounds (69 kg) while running a steady 1000 calorie/day deficit.

The chariot I rode to a healthier self.

I achieved this by applying my "path of least resistance" methodology: I reshaped my life so that it was easier to lose weight than gain it.

Making weight loss easy means erecting barriers to consuming calories and removing barriers to burning them until you're running a caloric deficit.

Read on for my tips.

Update: After I wrote this, I spent a year taking the same approach to pack on muscle. Click here to read about the experience and my tips.

Why I lost weight

After I hit 25, I started putting on about 10 pounds a year.

As I neared my 30th birthday, I found myself nearing 200 pounds. At 5 foot 8 inches, that put my BMI just into "obese" territory.

My annual health assessment showed a dangerous trend: I had moved into "pre-diabetes" and "pre-hypertension" territory and, by extrapolation, would have both hypertension and diabetes by the time I hit 40.

I also felt like crap.

I didn't sleep well. My clothes didn't fit well. I wasn't happy at that weight.

I'd never dieted or exercised regularly before, but I decided to reach the 150s (safely "normal" weight) by my birthday.

The challenge for me was to shape my life so that losing weight was so easy that it was the easiest thing to do.

If you're struggling with weight, I've distilled my advice from the experience.

The only thing that matters: Caloric deficit

If you search around, you'll find mountains of advice on weight loss.

Take vitamin X. Drink juice Y. Take ice baths. Drink N glasses of ice-cold water. Eat only protein. Avoid carbohydrates. Stay away from food Z.

Not all of that advice is wrong, but ignore it anyway.

At best, these gimmicks will chip away at the margins. More importantly, these often require too much planning and book-keeping to implement. That pushes the cost of losing weight above the path of least resistance.

All that really matters for weight loss is thermodynamics.

The thermodynamic weight loss formula is:

pounds lost = (calories burned - calories consumed) / 3500.

That's it. (It's a close-enough approximation, anyway.)

It doesn't matter what supplements you take, or what kinds of foods you eat.

If you eat 3500 calories above what you burn, your average weight will increase by a pound. If you burn 3500 more calories than you eat, your average weight will decrease by a pound.

Calculate your metabolic rate

To lose weight, you'll need to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR).

Your BMR is what you would burn if all you did was stay alive.

Next, use the Harris Benedict formula to estimate your daily caloric needs with respect to your average activity level.

For most readers of this blog, who I assume have largely sedentary jobs like my own, that means multiplying your BMR by 1.2

Now you have a baseline caloric burn rate.

Track your burn through exercise

Keep an account of how many calories you burn through directed exercise on any given day. Add this to your baseline burn rate.

I bought the cheapest exercise bike on amazon that could track calories burned, the Marcy Recumbent Magnetic Cycle:

It's a great bike. I recommend it.

I used Google maps to measure the distance of my walk to work.

100 calories burned per mile walked is a good estimate for most people.

Track your caloric intake

Look up the caloric content of everything you consume, and keep track on your phone (at first).

That information is on the package or somewhere on the web.

If you can't find the caloric content, estimate conservatively.

After doing this for a couple weeks, you won't even need to track your calories on your phone. You'll just have a running mental tally.

The same is true of counting calories. You'll develop an intuitive sense of how many calories are in what you're eating.

If you prefer an app, I highly recommend MyFitnessPal.

Track your daily min/max weight

Weigh yourself regularly, and record your min/max weight each day.

It's important to track your min and max, since your weight can vary by several pounds across the day.

Get a good scale, too.

Low-end scales have a precision of 1-2 pounds, which might not be able to accurately measure the effect of diet and exercise for a week or more.

You can get a high-quality yet inexpensive scale with 0.2 pound resolution:

It's not hard to drop your min weight by 0.2 pounds in 24 hours, so these give instant feedback.

Psychologically, it's motivating to see min weight decrease a little each day.

Start by breaking even

If you're like me, you'll probably discover that you've been running a substantial caloric surplus.

I recommend aiming for break-even first.

Track what you eat during the day.

After dinner, exercise until you've erased your caloric deficit.

After a couple days of this, food is measured not in calories but in minutes.

A soda became 15 minutes on the exercise bike, so I switched to tea.

A chocolate-chip cookie is 30 minutes on the bike, so I ate half as many.

French fries became 20 minutes on the exercise bike, so I didn't eat them at all. I like them, but I don't like them enough to bike 20 minutes.

Gradually ramp up the caloric deficit

As you start running caloric deficits, you'll start feeling hungry, particularly toward the end of the day.

To adjust to feeling hungry, ramp up the deficit slowly. First, run a deficit of 100 calories per day. After a week, go up to 200.

I eventually got the point where I could comfortably run a deficit of 1000 calories per day. That kills two pounds per week---or 9 pounds per month.

Most resources do not recommend losing more than two pounds per week.

Molding the path of least resistance

If it were as easy as "just burn more, eat less," no one would be overweight.

Losing weight and keeping it off requires tackling the agents of modern life that make "eat more, burn less" the path of least resistance.

Make exercise easy

Going to the gym is a non-starter for most.

The transaction cost of gearing up and traveling to the gym is a substantial impediment, and it makes routine exercise too hard for most.

To minimize the transaction cost of working out, I moved my exercise equipment (mainly my exercise bike) into my home office.

Multitask while you exercise

Combining work and exercise avoids the need to "find the time."

Be honest: you will never find the time.

So that I could keep working during exercise, I bought a couch table, flipped it backward and slanted it up. The desk fits perfectly across my lap and gives my knees clearance to pedal.

I get more work done while I exercise than when I sit at my desk.

And, to the extent that you can, replace driving with walking or biking, so that you'll burn calories while you transit.

Throw out the snacks -- now

When I started losing weight, it was hard to ignore the hunger.

I broke down a couple times and binged on snacks.

So, I tossed anything I was likely to "binge" on: cereal, chocolates, cookies, potato chips--anything.

If the transaction cost of binging raises from "go to the kitchen" to "drive to the store," then you will binge less.

If it feels wasteful to throw out food, that's because it is.

Do it anyway.

Buy less.

Maximize pleasure per calorie

Not all calories are created equal.

Consider the pleasure per calorie of the foods you eat, and maximize it.

I ditched fast food french fries on this principle. I like them, but for the same number of calories, I could have had another half a burger or a non-diet soda, both of which I enjoy much more than fries.

On that same principle, I love soda, but I realized that a small soda per meal meant an extra 50 minutes on the exercise bike each night.

I got rid of soda by "geeking out" on tea.

I recommend a temperature-control electric kettle:

and a bodum assam tea press:

I started off with simple English breakfast tea:

and followed the rabbit hole into Earl Grey, fruit teas, African Roobois Chais, Chinese Oolongs, Mates and more.

Picking up local teas during my travels has become an enjoyable part of my travel ever since.

(I do recommend brewing at the recommended temperature for each type of tea. Many non-black teas are ruined at higher temperatures.)

Hack your BMR by lifting weights

It's not necessary to lift weights while losing weight, but it has advantages.

Lifting weights has two benefits: (1) while running a caloric deficit, it helps prevent muscle loss, and (2) building leaner tissue ups your BMR.

That is, a pound of muscle burns more per day than a pound of fat.

This becomes important because as you lose fat, your BMR will drop.

I began with a simple, 40-Pound adjustable dumbbell set:

but my office filled with plates as I gained strength, and it's a pain to change them for each exercise, so I borrowed a PowerBlock Elite set:

These were great, but when I started to put on muscle for real, I ended up buying a set of SelectTech 1090 adjustable dumbbells:

It's faster to spin the dial than to switch out the peg on the PowerBlocks.

Update: If you want to get serious about weight-lifting, I ended up writing a post after this one in which I documented my progress in putting on muscle (instead of fat) using a similar philosophy.

Exploit fasting

Fasting doesn't mean eating less, but changing when you eat.

If you restrict when you eat, then it's easier to kill a "grazing" habit which steadily adds calories during the day and at night.

Fasting also has effects at the margin by pushing your respiratory quotient into the fat-burning range after 14-16 hours without food.

About three months into my diet and exercise plan, I started a 16/8 fasting plan, where I fasted for 16 hours and ate for 8 hours.

This is actually easier than it sounds: if you stop eating at 6pm, you can start eating again at 10am. No late-night pantry or fridge raids.

Fasting like this cuts you from three to two meals per day, which makes maintaining a caloric deficit easier.

Fasting also makes it easier to enjoy the holidays. After a big holiday meal (which probably puts you up against or over your caloric limit), fast until dinner the next day (24 hours), skipping a meal in the process.

To make fasting easier, drink lots of water, or straight tea or coffee.

These days, there are excellent apps to help you track your fasting, such as FastHabit.

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