Author’s Note: This is one in an occasional series on how I lost weight – about
30 40 pounds so far. Most of the principles I followed are based on The Okinawa Diet Plan. While these methods worked well for me, please see a doctor before embarking on ANY weight-loss plan. I explain more about dieting here.
“Calories count, no matter what you read in the press. The laws of thermodynamics have not been reversed.”
Those words, which were spoken by Dr. Barbara J. Rolls at a recent meeting on the obesity epidemic, are crucial to understanding why it’s so difficult to lose weight. Here’s an explanation by Rolls, a professor of behavioral health at Penn State, as summed up by The New York Times:
With respect to weight gain and loss, the laws of thermodynamics can be translated as: Calories consumed must be used or they will be stored as body fat. The body does not waste energy, no matter what its source. When people are placed on carefully controlled calorie-restricted diets, the amount of fat in the diet – whether 25 percent or 45 percent of calories – has little effect on weight loss.
People who claim that they can eat as much as they want (of protein and fat, for example) and lose weight as long as they avoid certain kinds of foods (carbohydrates, for example) are really eating less (that is, fewer calories) than they did before.
If you have any doubts about what highly calorie-dense food can do to your waistline, as well as health, you haven’t yet watched Super Size Me. In that documentary, a fit Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month. Each day he’s eating thousands of calories over his daily needs. By the end of the movie, his cholesterol has skyrocketed, he’s gained about 25 pounds and his doctors are in palpable fear he might die.
When it comes to McDonald’s, all their food is calorie dense. Even the salads are as fattening as a Big Mac because of high-calorie salad dressings. If you want to see what I mean, read this older post about a calorie counter I found at The Washington Post. The calculator shows that “a Big Mac, Hot Fudge Sunday, Medium French Fries and Medium Coke totaled 1590 calories. That means a person could only eat two pieces of bread for the rest of the day to stay under their caloric needs.
Fortunately for me, I had long ago broken my fast-food addiction. It wasn’t too hard, because I got tired of feeling sick after each meal. I do like to eat out regularly, but I now believe that the food at many of my favorite restaurants were also too calorie dense.
The problem of course is finding a way to avoid all those calories. Based on the guidance of The Okinawan Diet Plan, I used two simple strategies to lower the calorie density of my meals: 1. Eat water-heavy food. 2. Eat lots and lots of vegetables. It turns out most stews and soups filled me up with far fewer calories than most traditional meals. Water-heavy fruits and veggies had a similar impact, with fiber providing additional benefit.
Here’s why these two principles work so well:
“People tend to eat a consistent weight of food,” Dr. Rolls has found. When consuming a calorie-dense food high in fat, people are likely to eat more calories just to get in a satisfying amount of food. …
“People given the message to eat more fruits and vegetables lost significantly more weight than those told to eat less fat,” Dr. Rolls said. “Advice to eat more is a lot more effective than advice to eat less. Positive messages about what can be eaten are more effective than restrictive messages about what not to eat.”
This is backed up by solid science:
In her (Rolls) studies, people ate a constant weight of food, but if water contributed significantly to the weight and volume of the food, they ate about a third fewer calories. In one study, Dr. Rolls and colleagues tested the amount people ate when offered a 270-calorie chicken-and-rice casserole with a glass of water to drink, as opposed to the same ingredients prepared as a soup. The soup eaters spontaneously consumed 100 fewer calories, she reported.
In other studies, when participants were given a water-rich first course – soup or a salad, for example – before their main dish, they ate significantly fewer total calories than they did if the main course was given without the low-energy-density appetizer. In addition, study participants given foods containing lots of water and fiber ate less throughout the day.
Thus, by decreasing the energy density of foods, people naturally eat less, not just at an individual meal but all day long, Dr. Rolls reported. This was true of lean and obese participants in the study.
The only downside was I had to do considerably more preparation for the meals I brought to work. Because of my strange hours and Los Angeles’s horrible traffic, I usually eat lunch and dinner at work. Because of the huge amounts of fruit and vegetables I am now eating, my wife, the Inland Empress, thankfully bought me a huge new lunch bag to accommodate the bulkier foods. But the results are worth it. I’ve lost 30 pounds at this point, and I feel better than I have in years.
If you are not sure of how to calculate the least calorie dense foods, check out my last post. Also, I use a chart like this one: Calorie Densities of Selected Foods, to determine what I can eat a lot of, and what I must eat in small amounts. I will get more into food specifics down the road.