Transcript of my presentation on losing weight skeptically for Skepticamp, Brisbane Skeptics Society – Saturday, 19 July 2014
This is me on Christmas Day 2012. I was Size 24 and weighed over 129kg.
In August last year, I decided to lose the weight. Since then, I’ve dropped 50 kilos – a fairly consistent loss of a kilo per week over nearly 12 months.
My doctor calls me The Incredible Disappearing Woman.
I’m not a weight loss evangelist. If you don’t want to lose weight that’s absolutely fine with me.
But, if you need to or want to lose weight – I’d like to suggest that you do it skeptically.
People keep asking me, “How did you do it?”
And when I say, “Diet and exercise” you can see their faces fall, poor pets.
“Oh,” groaned one guy who clearly thought I held the secret to demolishing the verandah over his toolshed, “I was hoping you were going to say something easier than diet and exercise.”
Here’s the billion dollar secret. Losing weight is about maths, not myths.
You will gain weight if you eat more calories than you burn.
You will lose weight if you burn more calories than you eat.
It’s so astoundingly boringly simple. I may have to throw in a little pole dancing to make this speech entertaining.
Or maybe not ….
It’s not an exact science but, basically, weight loss can reduced to a simple formula.
It amounts to this. You need to know how many calories per day you burn at your normal activity level, you need to boost that with some calories burned with extra exercise, and, to lose ½ kilo per week, you need to eat around 500 calories per day less than you burn.
You can go online and find a basal metabolic rate calculator.
The good news is that even if youspend the entire day on the sofa you’re still burning calories – quite a lot of them. This is your basal metabolic rate – the calories you burn just being a sloth
You’ll also find the factors to account for your normal activity level online. If you’re basically sedentary, multiply by 1.2.
I’m a writer. My activity level is somewhere between comatose and death. Frankly, I just based my equation on the sloth figure.
You’re going to have to do extra exercise. Exercise buys food calories and the object is to reduce how much you eat, not to starve or even to feel hungry. Be realistic. Work out how much extra exercise you can do and factor the calories you’ll burn into the equation.
There are roughly 3,500 calories in half a kilo. So, to lose half a kilogram per week, you need a calorie deficit of around 500 calories per day. If you want to lose a kilo, you need to subtract 1000 a calories. But, be aware, you’ll almost certainly need to increase your exercise significantly to buy more calories to eat or you’ll be on a starvation diet.
Please, don’t eat less than the minimum recommended number of calories without consulting your doctor.
Now, I need to make a major disclaimer here. This is not a magic formula! The figures are a bit fuzzy because half a kilo isn’t exactly 3500 calories but somewhere between 2000-5000.
Your individual physiology and size comes into it and estimating how many calories are in the food you eat is never going to be exact.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t work. It just means you may have to juggle the figures a bit to reach your weekly target.
It’s a starting point. You may find you have to eat less or exercise more. I had to do both, but I did it in consultation with my doctor. You may find you can eat a bit more or exercise a little less and still reach your goal. Good for you! I hate you!
The formula isn’t a ‘magic pill’. But it gives you a no bullshit starting point. And, for most people – not all – but most – eating less calories than you burn will result in weight loss. It ain’t rocket surgery!
Technology can help. I use two free phone apps to help me track my calories in and calories out – one is called My Fitness Pal on which I log everything I eat and all the exercise I do.
And one is called Moves – it makes it easy to track how far and for how long I’ve walked.
Now, here’s a revelation– FAD DIETS WORK!
Because virtually any diet that drops your calorie consumption below your calorie expenditure will make you lose weight, any diet will work – as long as you stay on it, or don’t die in the attempt.
The weight loss industry is a multi-billion dollar scam; not because you won’t lose weight with Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or by drinking diet shakes, cutting carbs, food combining or doing the Lemon Detox. It’s because, realistically, unless you keep paying out to these companies, few people will have the willpower or discipline to keep to their diets.
As for diet books, all the way out claims about miracle foods, super foods, eliminating toxic food groups, or other ‘weight loss discoveries are mostly complete and utter bollocks. If the diets work they work because they limit the number of calories you eat. The rest is gimmick.
You don’t need someone else’s diet plan. In fact, if you go on someone else’s plan you’ll almost certainly fail in the long term because it’s theirs – not yours – and you’re always going to revert to what’s familiar to you.
You don’t want to go ‘on a diet’ at all because that suggests it’s something you are going to go ‘OFF’. Instead, you need to work out a strategy for eating less calories, by modifying what you eat now. You need to look at your calorie allowance and your current eating habits and work out what foods you can keep, what you’re willing to sacrifice, what you can keep if you reduce portion sizes, and what you can swap for lower calorie alternatives.
You will have to change the way you eat. But you don’t have to revolutionise it. It’s really not hard.
Here’s a typical day for me.*
Breakfast: Sour dough toast, lightly buttered with poached egg
cup of white coffee (skim milk, sweetener).
Morning tea: White coffee (skim milk, sweetener)
Lunch: Fruit platter AND 3-4 cracker biscuits topped with hommus
Afternoon tea: Skinny cappuccino (sweetener)
Pre-dinner: Diet Coke in a good wine glass, 30g soy rice crisp snacks
Dinner: 100g salmon fillet , home-made tomato sauce, steamed broccolini and brown rice
After Dinner: (If I skipped the rice crisp snacks) White Coffee (skim milk, sweetener) and
2 squares Lindt chocolate.
But I’m not suggesting you copy what I eat. It’s up to you – not anyone else – to make your food choices – but do try to make healthy ones.
The good news is that one of the biggest – and most harmful – myths about weight loss is that you have to go through Biggest Loser style torture at the gym to lose weight.
Going to the gym isn’t like that. And if it is – find a new gym!
That show didn’t encourage me to lose weight – it made me terrified to set foot in a gym. Luckily, I did join my local gym and I can honestly say that I lost 50kg, and got fit and strong and toned, with very little loose skin, without ever once going faster than a brisk walk, lifting more than 5kg or raising more than a light sweat.
I’m built for comfort, not speed. I have never worked out until I threw up. I Iost 50kg without once having to tie a tow rope around my waist and pull either an F-111, a semi-trailer or a locomotive. Occasionally I puff and pant a bit – that is the extent of my exertion.
Honestly, I’m still not fussed about exercising but I figure it’s the rent I have to pay for the new body.
Once I started talking about weight loss on social media I started getting hammered with weight loss myths – even from my sceptical readers.
One of my Facebook readers scolded me for ignoring the fact that obesity might be due to genetic predisposition or to the inadvertent consumption of MSG.
“It’s not just about diet and exercise, Chrys!”
When I was fat, even I used to buy into what’s been dubbed, fat fatalism. But, except in rare circumstances, it’s bullshit.
I am genetically predisposed to being overweight, I’ve had a hysterectomy, I’m menopausal, I suffer from chronic fatigue, and I have an underactive thyroid. Yet, fuck me dead, when I started exercising and counting calories the weight just melted off.
It’s OK to be fat! What isn’t OK is to believe that you can’t be thinner if you want to be. That misguided belief takes away your choice.
Sure, you might have a genetic predisposition to gain weight, but a 2011 study of nearly quarter of a million people showed genetics can be offset substantially with diet and exercise. And the idea that MSG causes weight gain is a myth. It’s as silly as claiming that mercury in vaccines causes autism. The only ‘hidden additive’ in food that is causing your weight gain is calories.
Many people assume I must have gone on an exclusion diet. What did I ‘cut out’ I’m asked. The assumption is that sugar and fat and carbs make you fat so they have to be eradicated in order to lose weight. Sugar, fat and carbs are essential nutrients. They aren’t ‘bad’ for you. In reasonable quantities they won’t make you fat. What is bad for you is too many of them.
Weight loss is about maths – calories in and calories out. Weight loss myths abound and even skeptics fall for them. I fell for them.
People of all sizes are beautiful. I have no tolerance for fat shaming. But, I’m a big advocate for personal choice.
And the good news is by counting calories and adding some gentle exercise you can almost certainly choose to lose weight, cheaply, relatively easily and keep it off long term. And if someone tells you it’s more complicated than that, just say, “Weight a minute – that’s bullshit!”
* Anticipating the naysayers and food nazis out there, this is a ‘typical’ day’s eating for me only is that it reflects the kinds and quantities of food I may eat during the day. I don’t follow a ‘diet’ or a ‘plan’ so it’s not what I eat every day. Please don’t extrapolate this and say, “She eats too much [xyz]!” or “She doesn’t get enough [zyx]“
You can’t take this an assume it’s all I eat. Some days I eat more. Some days I eat less. It evens out over a week.
Sometimes I’ll have more salad, sometimes a day will include more carbs or protein or fibre or, (shock!) fat! I try to eat a balanced diet, but I’m no fanatic. If I’m out and about, lunch will typically be a smoked salmon sandwich on multigrain bread with lettuce and cucumber. If I go out to dinner, I try to order something low calorie but, if nothing particularly low calorie is available, I order the best I can find and perhaps eat half. I started out feeling a bit deprived by having to choose ‘low cal’ – now I find when I look at a menu those are actually the meals I gravitate towards. I’ve lost the stomach for pasta carbonara – literally!
I no longer drink alcohol at home, but I do have a glass or two on special occasions. Moderation is the key.
If it’s a special occasion, I eat what I want (without going overboard!) and I eat lightly for the next couple of days and try to do a bit more exercise.
The Skeptic’s Diet – Steve Novella – The New England Skeptical Society blog
How I lost 40lb doing everything wrong – Eric Davis – Skeptic North