At this point, most of us are aware of the golden rule of weight loss: In order to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. This is known as eating in a calorie deficit. It’s simple, but, based on the fact that less than one-quarter of people who lose weight manage to keep it off, it’s definitely not easy.
There are a lot of issues that keep people from losing weight and keeping it off. Maybe they don’t commit to a lifestyle change and go back to their old diet as soon as they hit their goal weight. Maybe they crash diet for a few weeks and can’t sustain that diet long-term. Maybe they get injured and can’t exercise but continue to eat the way they did when they were exercising.
Based on my own experience and what I see from a lot of other people, another big problem is the fact that most people have no idea how much they’re eating before they begin dieting.
When they decide that they’re going to lose weight, they punch their height and weight into a calorie-counting app and have a number spit back out at them. Then, they treat that number as though it was given to them by God and do their damnedest to hit it every day.
Here’s why that’s problematic: Calorie-counting apps don’t know you or what your life is like (even if you tell them what your average daily activity level is). They have no context and they can’t get specific. There’s so much variance between people, and it’s impossible for an app to understand the nuances of a person’s life and diet.
When you go off of a generic number that an app gave you and treat it as gospel truth, you might end up eating way less than you should to lose weight in a healthy way.
Sure, the number on the scale might go down, but you might also be doing more harm to your body than good. Not only will you likely not be getting all the nutrients that your body needs, but you could also be unintentionally slowing down your metabolic rate and teaching your body to operate on fewer calories.
When you do this, you lower the number of calories you can eat at maintenance (i.e., not losing weight or gaining it) without putting weight back on. In my opinion, this is why so many people regain weight after they lose it. They cut their calories too low, which causes their metabolism to adapt. This, in turn, lowers their maintenance calories to a level that’s unrealistic to — ahem — maintain long-term.
Basically, the mistake people make is cutting their calories to meet a generic number without doing any data collection of their own beforehand.
What do I mean by data collection? I mean tracking your food without the intention of weight loss.
Specifically, I mean spending 1-2 weeks tracking the number of calories you consume (and monitoring what percentage of those calories comes from carbs, fats, and proteins) so you can figure out roughly how much your body needs to maintain your current weight.
Once you know your specific maintenance calories, then you can do some quick calculations to figure out a reasonable caloric deficit, one that you can stick to for the duration of your diet and one that won’t dramatically down-regulate your metabolism.
Let me use myself as an example. When I put my information into a calorie-counting app, the app tells me that I need to heat around 1,200 calories per day to lose weight. Here’s the thing. I’ve done the math and done the tracking, and I know that, in order to maintain my weight, I need to eat about 2,300 calories per day.
Right now, I’m actually in the process of trying to lose a little bit of body fat. If I used the numbers the calorie counting app gave me without doing any data collection on my own first, I’d be eating in a 1,100-calorie deficit (for reference, you need to be in roughly a 500-calorie deficit to lose one pound per week)! That’s huge and definitely not sustainable.
Because I did the work beforehand, though, I know that I can lose a half a pound of weight per week by eating in a 250-calorie deficit (this is how I prefer to start fat loss phases — it’s a little easier on the body and it makes dieting suck a little less).
I’m currently eating (and losing weight) while eating 2,050 calories per day. All because I did a little bit of monitoring before I dove in and started trying to lose weight!
So, here’s what I recommend for you if you’re interested in losing weight:
First, don’t put blind faith in an app. No app knows your body as well as you do. It just doesn’t.
Second, be patient and take a week or two to track your average daily caloric intake before you start trying to take calories away.
Will this delay you reaching your goal weight by a week or two? Maybe. Will it be worth it and potentially help you reach your goal faster since you’ll be working with more accurate information? Definitely.
Third, don’t be afraid to start slow. If you’re eating in just a small calorie deficit, you have more room to take away when you hit a plateau.
I’ll use myself as an example again. If I immediately slashed my calories by 1,100, I wouldn’t have anywhere to go when my metabolism adapted and I stopped losing weight.
Because I’m still eating a relatively high number of calories, though, I’ll be able to take away another 250 or so should I hit a plateau and it won’t be such a drastic difference.
Give these tips a try next time you decide to enter into a weight loss phase. I can almost guarantee it’ll make things easier for you!