The questions I am most often asked about my weight loss are questions pertaining to my diet and meal planning. Before I go any further, I want to explain that when I use the word “diet,” I am not referring to what our culture has come to know as a diet – a specific set of rules and limitations designed for temporary use in achieving short term weight loss, for example, “I am going on a diet.” For me, the word “diet” is the dictionary definition: a collection of foods and drinks considered, as a whole, in terms of its qualities, composition and effects on overall health and wellbeing. I eat a whole foods, plant-based diet – my diet consists of fruits, vegetables, roots, seeds, nuts, legumes, grains and fungi and their derivatives. I could easy digress on the detailed philosophies of my diet, but that would be a blog for another day. While my choices of healthful, organic and natural foods go a long way towards achieving overall health, my weight loss is governed by the simple principle of calories in versus calories out, which I achieve through careful meal planning and preparation.
As much as we try to make weight loss a complicated, frustrating and nearly impossible endeavor, it is really a very simple and reliable formula. If you eat fewer calories than your body needs to maintain your current weight, you lose weight. If you eat more calories than your body needs to maintain your current weight, you gain weight. To lose weight, simply calculate your current Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR: number calories per day your body is using for both normal body function – breathing, digestion, cell multiplication, maintaining body temperature, etc. – plus the energy your burn in everyday activities like standing, walking. ) and subtract calories. The internet has many free RMR calculators. The one I recommend most highly is at WebMD. This site will not only calculate your RMR, it will give you vital information pertaining to your current physical condition, optimal physical condition and detailed calculations for recommended caloric intake for healthy weight loss. This is the information I use for my meal planning.
I do want to make one quick note regarding Hypothyroidism. If you are part of the 4.6% of the adult population who is afflicted with Hypothyroidism, all this goes out the window. If you have difficultly losing weight and display other symptoms of Hypothyroidism , such as fatigue, dry skin, cold sensitivity, increased cholesterol, muscle weakness and aches, thinning hair, joint pain, etc., get thee to a doctor. If you meticulously and honestly count calories, workout, drink water and maintain a healthy lifestyle and still fail to lose weight and you suspect another medical condition could be standing in the way, get thee to a doctor. If you simply struggle to lose weight – like most of us – the problem is, in all probability, simply an issue of caloric consumption.
Even the best of us make mistakes trying to guesstimate caloric intake. I struggled for years, growing increasingly frustrated at my inability to lose weight, genuinely believing I wasn’t eating that much. It didn’t feel like I ate that much. I was hungry all the time, I was eating dry tuna on rice cakes and Healthy Choice frozen entrées– I must have been ok on my calories, right? Wrong. The numbers simply don’t lie, The formula is pretty much foolproof. My success came when I stopped eyeballing my portion sizes, doing “mental math” to figure out my caloric intake, free-wheeling on meal choices and I started meal planning and pre-prepping my food. As a result, I can tell you exactly how many calories will pass my lips over the course of the day – today it will be 1253 (I aim to eat between 1250-1275 daily). By planning my meals in advance, I take out not only the guesswork but also the hours spent standing in front of the refrigerator, scratching my head in bewilderment. I don’t worry about getting the proper nutrition, nor do I worry about getting hungry throughout the day. It is all there, organized by meal in nice, neat little rows of reusable plastic containers and Ziplock bags.
So, how do I do it? First and foremost, I aim for a day of balanced nutritional distribution. I eat three meals and one to two snacks per day, factoring in calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, fiber and protein. If you eat processed foods – anything with a barcode – keep an eye on your sugar and sodium intakes as well – sugars turn to stored fat, sodium causes water retention. Every meal or snack is within 100 calories of the others and other key macronutrients are also within a close range, evenly distributing my caloric and nutrient intake over the course of my day, staving off hunger and keeping my metabolism working at a constant rate.
My second goal in meal planning is to load up on as many nutrient dense, low calorie foods like fruits and vegetables as possible. When working with a limited caloric intake, it is key to maximize every calorie you consume by making sure it comes with a punch of vitamins, minerals and other micro and macronutrients. There is no room in my daily meal plan for the empty calories of sodas, sugary fruit juices, refined sugars and flours, highly processed nutrient void foods and, yes, alcohol. Tracking and calculating foods can seem daunting but, thanks to modern technology, there are easy resources at our fingertips. There are a number of fantastic and free online tools for meal planning and calorie counting. FitDay.com and MyFoodDiary.com are two examples but my favorite is MyFitnessPal.com. MFP lets me plan meals, calculate the calories in recipes, add foods to the already-massive food database, get feedback and support through community blogs and forums, manually enter exercise and link up many third-party fitness apps to track calories burned during workouts. Its free mobile app also had a nifty barcode scanner for adding foods to meals.
The third key to my meal planning is accuracy: I weigh and measure everything. Anyone serious about weight loss should purchase a digital food scale – they are inexpensive and extremely effective. Rather than add a cup of mushrooms to a recipe (face it, no two cups of sliced mushrooms will weigh the same), I weigh them on then add the most accurate caloric count possible to my meal plan. The USDA calculates all nutritional content based on weight in grams – weighing is the way to go. It may seem like an annoying extra step but remember what I said about guesstimating calories? We are terrible at it. Just weigh the food and know for sure.
Pre-prepping has also been instrumental in my success. Most of us are busy people, constantly on the run, and I am no exception. If my food isn’t convenient and can’t go from fridge to mouth in 15 minutes or less, I am likely to skip it and opt for some kind of convenient takeout food. By pre-prepping, I minimize the amount of time, effort and number of dirty dishes to wash. Once my meal is planned and groceries are purchased, I take a few hours in the evening to prepare as much of the food as I can – that can mean washing greens and running them through the salad spinner, chopping vegetables, toasting nuts, even preparing entire recipes. I then divide my meals into containers and organize it in the fridge by for grab-and-go accessibility. For instance, this morning I put a sweet potato in the microwave for 5 minutes. While that cooked, I sautéed pre-washed greens in some coconut oil. The greens went into a bowl, topped by the potato, some vegan chorizo seitan and pre-toasted walnuts. Breakfast was served in under seven minutes and it was high in protein and fiber, contained zero processed foods, additives or preservatives, was only 274 calories and was absolutely delicious.
These are all routines you can adopt and personalize for yourself. To make this work, choose foods and recipes you love. If you hate oatmeal, please don’t plan on eating oatmeal for breakfast (but DO eat breakfast, eat it every day!) Experiment with your favorite things. Scour cooking blogs for new and exciting recipes. Bulk up skimpy serving sizes with veggies (I love tossing bagged broccoli slaw into pasta sauce to bulk up an otherwise sad, meager looking little dinner.) If the mere idea of eating the same food for four to six days in a row comes across as unfathomably boring to you, as it does to many, find a way to incorporate the same key ingredients into slightly different recipes or juggle your meals – what is lunch one day is dinner the next – to help you save money on groceries, be able to pre-prep meals but dodge monotony. The fundamentals are always the same – create a calorie deficit while achieving good nutrition and being accurate and accountable with your calculations. Don’t guess, don’t eyeball portions, have a plan for your whole day in place before you wake up in the morning. Take these principles and find what works for you.