Algorithmic Weight Loss
Update: Many people have asked me how can the Body Mass Index be right when people who are very muscular are heavier than fat guys their exact volume. The truth is BMI and any other metric is just a tool to measure your own progress. Another one that I found interesting is the waist size around the belly button. Apparently, there is a nice heuristic that tells you how big it should be: half of your weight. Here is a simple calculator to tell you the optimal weight and waist size given the height and sex:
How is that right that a male should have the same waist as a woman when they have 2 points of extra BMI? That's the muscles that you should have :) The rest of the article applies just as well. Use whatever metric you feel comfortable with. Now for the meat of it:
As many other people, I am not satisfied with my weight. Putting aside the medical implications of having a lot of fat around my internal organs, I am mostly motivated by girls looking at me not as a hunk of a man, but as a fat old guy. I've tried various diets, which all worked in some capacity, but in the end I've just gained back the weight, in something called the Yo-Yo effect. So I've decided to approach the problem in a rational manner.
In order to solve the problem, one needs several pieces of information. First, you need to define the problem. Then you have to measure it, see if you have it or not and in what degree. Only then you can think of solutions, having the tools to measure your progress in applying them. Finally, you have to compare the solutions in terms of effort and results, predicted and actual.
Defining and measuring the problem
So yeah, I am overweight, but how is that a problem? Being overweight or obese may increase the risk of many health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. There is a whole damn list. In order to define the term overweight, people have used various metrics, the most common being the Body Mass Index or BMI that takes into account just your height and weight. Recently that metric has been updated to include other factors, like age, race and gender. There are a lot of sites on the Internet that compute this.
I am going to eschew the fancy calculators and instead use the BMI calculator from calculator.net. For my input, the desired weight if I were to be smack in the middle of the normal range is 84 kg. That's surely a bit extreme for a guy who is 197 cm tall, but let's go with it. If I had that weight, I would have a BMI of 21.64. As it was a month ago, it was 31, meaning Obese class 1. Well, I don't want to be obese!
But what does make me fat? I mean, if I could change the gravitational pull, like going to Mars, I would be lighter, right? My BMI will lower considerably. But it wouldn't solve my problem which is actually related to how much extra fat I carry around.
There are three ways of losing fat:
- Using more energy than you put in
- Tricking the body to not store it and/or eliminate it
- Mechanical removal
For my intents and purposes, I will not discuss the last two. I don't want to have unnecessary surgery performed on me and if I had some medicine to make me eliminate fat, I wouldn't be able to know enough to judge the side effects. Either way, I wouldn't recommend things like that on my blog without being an expert, due to the inherent risks. The thing is that what I am going to propose at the end of this blog post - that you have to read to the end - is that how you lose fat is irrelevant, as long as you do. But I'll get there.
Now, burning fat requires a negative balance of calories. Stuff you put in has to be less than the stuff you use. If you look up how many calories are stored in a kilogram of fat, you will get a huge value: around 7500. To put that in perspective, running or cycling for 10km at a reasonable pace consumes about 500 calories and a whole Domino's pizza is around 2500. Fortunately, there are inefficiencies in processing, storing and using fat as an energy reserve, but we can use this as a comparison.
While healthy and promoting muscle growth and a sure way towards those girls seeing the hunk beneath all that fat, using sport to lose weight seems terribly inefficient. That being said, the long term effects of sport are that your metabolic rate increases. That means you normally burn more energy, even if you are not constantly exercising. However, understanding how much effort to expend, in what way and what are the long term effects pushes me more toward the unknown territory of "maybe it works". Going there would not be rational. So while I will hold sport as an optional nice to have, it is NOT a solution.
If you are wondering how many calories you are using in a day, there is the Harris-Benedict formula that computes the BMR and then you multiply it with your daily activity level. Just to put more nails into the sports coffin, the daily activity level is a number between 1.2 (sedentary) and 1.9 (extra active). So the best you can achieve through sports is a 50% increase in your energy use if you are "extra active". No, thanks! For me, the calorie burn from a month ago was 2678 in order to maintain my weight.
So if I am not burning more energy, I have to input less. The same useful calorie calculator tells me that in order to lose weight I have to eat 1678 calories, so 1000 calories less than what I am burning. That is why a lot of diets are based on "eat only low calorie food that tastes like crap at fixed hours to the second, while avoiding anything that feels like an actual meal", with painstakingly complicated menus of what you are allowed to eat. Well, those are complications I don't need. And this calorie calculation adds even more complexity. I have actually lost 10 kg in a month, so now the daily calorie use is 2522, a sliding value as I lose weight!
How are all these metrics calculated? They take into account some constants, like my height and age and gender, and then some variables, like my weight. In order to affect any of them I need to simply lose weight. I have a simple way of measuring weight - with a scale, I have a target - 84 kilograms, a starting point - 120 kilograms. I also have a solution for decreasing the weight: eat less. This also leads to muscle loss, which CAN be solved by physical exercise, but that's another story.
As I said, there are more ways to lose weight, but there are even more ways of eating less. Less carbs, less fat, eat only certain things, avoid certain things, fasting, eat many small meals, eat one enormous meal very rarely, don't drink sugary drinks and alcohol, drink disgusting vegetable concoctions, etc. While trying other diets I've discovered several impediments to losing weight that are based more on human nature than anything else:
- it's much easier to start eating than stopping
- strict schedules constrain my way of life
- diet food is bland at best
- the world is constantly bombarding me with offers to eat and drink
- once I've slipped, it's hard to get back on track
- eating is social
- eating is a habit to pass boredom
- food is a source of comfort
- complex diet systems are easier to cheat and I always find how
- dieting goals can be daunting
- losing weight is slowing down as you go along
- your body learns that they should burn less when you eat less, decreasing the metabolic rate. Your subconscious learns that if it makes you feel miserable enough you will slip and eat
I would like a diet that takes all that into consideration.
Let's start with ambitious dieting goals. Let's say I wanted to lose weight until I got to 84 kilograms (which I will actually never do, because it's insane) meaning I would have planned to lose a third of my weight. Isn't that a little daunting? You start off fast, because the first thing you lose is a little water and you say "wow! 5 kilos in a week, if I keep it up I will lose 40 kilos in two months!" and then the next week you barely lose one kilo (because it was your birthday and you deserved that cake!). Well, not only it's not because of the cake, it's also because of all the other points on the list above. Your weight loss is slowing down, your body is switching to a slower burn, social events are constantly bombarding you with high caloric foods, your diet is depressing you and your normal solution for depression is to drink booze and eat comfort food, once you started with the slice of pizza you couldn't just stop there, and so on and so on. In the end, after two miserable weeks you have all the reasons to stop dieting and continue with your normal routine. Nothing from a normal diet is pushing you towards keeping with it. It's torture.
Yet it all started with an ambitious goal. What if the goal was closer, as in "baby steps"? If I weigh 120 kilos, I can consider a victory getting to 119. An therefore lies my solution.
My take on the solution
My system is simple. You have three parameters: your weight target, your weight decrement and your grace period. Also, choose a dieting method. Any dieting method, and/or even some other solutions like sport, medication or medical procedures. This is how it works for me: my target is 84 kg, my decrement is 1 kg and my grace period is two days, which I intend to increase progressively as it becomes harder to lose weight. The method I chose (because of the first point) is to not eat or drink anything caloric, therefore fasting. I started at 120 kg and with the decrement of 1 kg, I need to not eat until I get to 119 kg. Once I get to that, I can eat. And I mean eat anything, drink anything, as much as I want. After that first meal, I have the grace period until I apply the decrement again.
Here is an example: I started on the first of May. Just by not eating for a day I lost more than 1 kilogram. On the second of May I had 118.5 on the scale. So I ate normal stuff, which made me get to 119.5 the next day, so I didn't eat that day at all. Next day I had 118.1, so I could eat again. On the fourth of may I had 118 kilograms, but the grace period of two days from the first meal had expired. Now the weight I needed in order to be allowed to eat was 117.
What are the advantages? I need a fancy list to enumerate them all:
- the Yo-Yo effect works for you now! You gain weight, then lose just a little more
- as long as you get to your target you may continue to keep the diet without the decrement. You can continue your entire life eating whatever you want, as long as you are at your desired weight
- you don't need to feel guilty about eating what you like and you don't have to stop once you started eating
- there are no schedules or special menus as long as you are on target
- you can pause the diet whenever you want. If you go on a vacation and you gain 10 kg, all you need to do is diet until those 10 kilos are gone, and then you are on track again. Same for social occasions, you don't have to be the guy that says no because he's on a diet.
- the dieting method is irrelevant, as are the various metrics and computations. It's as easy as getting to the next decrement. There are no complexities and no way to cheat
- it's so simple you can automate it in a computer program or smartphone app
- you can adapt parameters to your weight loss rate. As long as you plan to lose 10 grams in a billion years, you have a plan and can get on target. Take it as slow as you want, you will get there eventually. In other words, you need to get under a curve on a graph, not feel constantly bad if you have not reached your target yet
- and this is the best yet: if you eat a lot when you are allowed to, the later dieting will punish you for it. You get punished for indulging yourself and rewarded for losing weight. You are motivated to eat less, with less calories, but you choose it with your own free will. Your body also learns this and starts burning fat to get to the good part
So, I am writing this article a month after I've decided to try this. I started at about 120 kilograms and now I have 107 kilos. It's not a lot, but I haven't felt I was really dieting. I drink a lot of water and I supplement it with vitamins and mineral pills if I have to not eat for a few days. I have the feeling the water is helping the losing of weight as I was usually getting the water only from the food I was eating or Cola and now I drink at least three liters of water a day. Our office is a "pizza office" so I slip often, but I don't feel bad about eating a slice of pizza, it still way under the calorie limit that leads to weight loss. At first I would eat a whole pizza, then fast longer afterwards, but after a few tries, it's much easier to just taste a slice and stop. My body is not usually craving anything and when it does, I just promise myself I will get that as soon as I get on target. And this has the extra advantage of delaying gratification. Often, when I can eat whatever I want, I remember the list of things that grabbed my attention and most of it is not appealing anymore. I started cooking weird stuff, just because while I am not eating I get ideas of what I would really like to eat when I get the chance.
In fact, I am starting a diet every two days or so. I lose a kilo, the diet is over, then I start another. In total I am reducing my calorie intake, but only by eating less of what I was already enjoying. I occasionally ride a bike or eat stuff that fires the metabolism up, but those are just extras. Even if I am allowed to, I stopped drinking so much Coca Cola. Strangely, I thought that it would taste better after a long pause, but it's just the normal aromatic sugar water taste.
Now, I doubt that eating once in two or three days works for everyone. Do whatever is easier for you: don't eat sugar, set your decrement to 100 grams, do those only meat things, eat only leafy veggies, whatever! For me, not eating is much easier than eating and stopping or eating bland things. I need my sausages and pizza and food that is so spicy that you need to keep eating it lest your mouth catches fire and alcohol and fizzy drinks and all the unhealthy crap that people usually eat. This doesn't stop me from eating that, but it slowly erodes my need to. It's an interesting side effect that I intend to explore further. Also, while there are reports of apparent health benefits for intermittent fasting, they have no part in my decision to do the diet the way that I am doing it.
So what is my real target? I am still deciding. I started with 97 kg just because I was expecting to give up around 110. Now I am thinking I haven't weighed 97 kg since high school and then I kinda felt I was too fat. Who knows. The beauty of this is that the graph stays there. Even if I stop for a few years, it just patiently waits for me to get under it. I feel no pressure which is more than I can say about any other diet I've tried or heard of.
I am not the only one saying that fasting is good and apparently the term has been increasing in popularity and study exposure. A web page that seems to list various sources for benefits of fasting is The Benefits Of Fasting
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