I guess I’m like most women. I’ve always worked on the basis of an “energy in:energy out” approach to weight loss and general health. Actually, let’s be honest, my approach to health has generally been about weight first, general well being second.
What I mean by “energy in: energy out” is that I have always laboured under the belief that if you want to lose weight you eat less, right? It makes sense, on the surface. The less that goes into your mouth, the less that goes onto your hips. So far, so logical. Wobbling on shaky feet next to this highly unstable theory is the one that says “all calories are equal”. It doesn’t matter if they’re broccoli calories, or chardonnay calories, they’re all the same.
My first foray into the realm of counting calories was when I joined Weight Watchers post the birth of child number two. I’d not only retained 5kg after our first child, but had managed to gain another 5kg after the second. Ten stubborn kilograms that wouldn’t move. The rules, loosely speaking, were 25 points per day (about 1250 calories. RDI is 1600 to 2000 for the average woman), which you could bank if you hadn’t eaten all of them, and use them later in the week. To be fair to Weight Watchers, only 14 points per week were allowed to be eaten in sugar or alcohol. The sugar was obvious processed sugar from cakes, sweets and desserts, rather than from fruit or juices.
It worked. The 10kg disappeared, I got myself into reasonable exercise habits, and I could still drink wine. Happy days.
Later down the track I gave the Fast Diet (or 2:5 Diet) a go, figuring that if it was about “energy in: energy out” that this was a great way forward. Only two days of worrying about what you ate (or rather didn’t eat) and 5 days of eating what you liked. Only being able to eat 500 calories for 2 days of the week, and as much as you can fit in the other days. There are other diets related to this genre, but the key theme is starving yourself for a certain number of hours per week.
So I added another crumbling pillar to the others – limit the number of meals you’re eating per day. Consider skipping breakfast, because it’s easy to when you’re busy getting everyone out of the house in the morning, have black coffee for morning tea, because milk contains unnecessary calories.
Then snack all afternoon on whatever’s in the fridge. Drink half a bottle of wine and clean the kids plates because your energy levels are low. Eat as much dinner as your husband because you deserve it after “being so good all day”.
You can see where this is going. The food deprivation regime was not working. In fact it was having the opposite effect. My eating habits were far from being as healthy as they should have been, I wasn’t thinking about nutrition or what my body needs to survive. I was just worrying about the calorific value of different foods.
Technically, starvation is defined as depriving your body of more than 15% of your required calorie intake on a regular basis. That is, for a woman, reducing the RDI of 1600 calories per day to 1360 per day – infinitely doable on the average “diet”. Because I was, in essence, starving myself on and off, I was messing with my metabolism. My body thought it was experiencing famine, so when I did eat properly, it celebrated, and stored energy as fat for when the tough times returned.
I’ve already talked about my decision to see a trainer. Part of the work I’ve done with her was looking at my overall diet. This includes how much I’m eating, how often I’m eating, and what nutrients I need to ensure that I met my goals without compromising my general health. In fact, my main goal is to improve my general health, so the types of food I’m eating more of are critical (more on that later). These are the key issues we identified:
- Not all calories are created equal – our body processes some foods differently to others. Generally, it will burn anything simple to metabolise first, and store everything else for later. So alcohol and sugar are first on the hit list, fat and protein later. Fats and protein make us feel fuller for longer, and take the body longer the burn as energy. So while the calorific count may be the same across food groups, we’ll extract more energy per calory from some foods than others.
- Eating less often does not mean losing more weight – Skipping meals is problematic for a bunch of reasons.
- You’re more likely to burn muscle than fat
- You let yourself get hungry, so compensate with junk food (or wine in my case)
- You run out of energy for exercise, or hit the wall during exercise
The major change I’ve made is increasing the number of meals per day I eat. Rather than eating just three meals per day (or sometimes two), I now aim to eat every 3 hours. This keeps my metabolism firing so I continue to burn fat. It stops me from getting hungry so I don’t reach for unhealthy snacks or the wine bottle. And most importantly, it gives me the energy I need to get through the day in one piece.