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Weight Loss - Deciphering the Black Box


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Everyone knows that they must eat healthy to lose weight, but very few people understand how exactly what you eat affects weight loss. Without this knowledge, a diet is simply a black-box; lack of success is far more likely to be greeted with helplessness and self-pity, rather than optimism and renewed enthusiasm. In this article, I have provided guidance to help you understand how exactly what you eat affects your weight, hopefully helping you design a diet that help you meets your goals.

This is an area that I'm extremely passionate about, and one I have learned an incredible amount about over the last few years. The general confusion people have around this topic, and the widespread struggle people have faced in reaching their weight loss prompted me to write this piece. I hope that this can be useful information to you, and help dispel the myths and half-truths that are abundant in the nutrition world.

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Weight Loss - Deciphering the Black Box

  1. 1. Weight Loss – Deciphering the Black Box By Keshav Rajam The Black Box Losing weight and developing an aesthetic physique is in the forefront of many people’s minds, yet an incredibly small fraction of the population has a working understanding of the basic principles of nutrition. People tend to latch onto diets that they stumble upon in fitness publications, which promise earth-shattering weight loss in the blink of an eye. But when results aren’t achieved as advertised, people often lose motivation, give up, and blame their genetics. There is hardly a worse feeling than following a strict diet to the best of your abilities, only to see the scale not budge even slightly. What is required then, is an understanding of the physiological processes behind weight loss, to understand exactly how what you eat affects your weight loss or lack thereof. Without this knowledge, a diet is simply a black box. Lack of success is far more likely to be greeted with self-pity (I can’t lose weight no matter what, I might as well give up), rather than optimism and renewed enthusiasm (my current plan isn’t working, but I know exactly what I need to change to make it work). This difference in mindset, fueled by a knowledge of the principles of nutrition, is often the difference between success and failure. In this article, I will cover these principles, helping you design a diet that will make dieting flexible, successful, and most importantly, enjoyable. The Universal Law of Dieting All successful diets are governed by one universal law: To lose weight, one must create a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit in simple terms means consuming less calories than one burns. According to the law of thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. This means that that the “calorie deficit”, or the difference between the calories you consume and the calories you burn, needs to be accounted for in some way; in this case, it is from the burning of fat and muscle tissue. Without a deficit, your body doesn’t have the need to tap into its stored energy reserves, and weight loss won’t occur. It is a beautiful, yet highly simplistic process than people often lose sight of when dieting. People often fall into the trap that if they eat healthy (focusing on foods such as grilled chicken, oats, brown rice, broccoli etc.), and work out, they will “get in shape” and lose weight. “Getting in shape” usually refers to losing fat and developing a lean physique, which requires a calorie deficit. Eating healthy food does not guarantee a calorie deficit; if you are eating as many calories as you burn, you will not lose weight no matter how healthy the food is. The total calories you eat is far more important than the type of food you eat when weight loss is concerned. An understanding of this basic concept is absolutely critical to ensure successful weight loss. The challenge, however, lies in creating a calorie deficit over time while minimizing the side-effects associated with dieting, particularly hunger, cravings, and loss of mood. Everyone knows they must eat less to lose weight, but very few people are able to do so without feeling deprived; no eating plan will be adhered to in the long-run under such taxing conditions. There are several ways to address this challenge that I will outline in this piece. All these methods can be combined to design an eating plan that will enable you to achieve your dream body while also maintaining your sanity. Sound good? Satiability and its Role in Weight Loss
  2. 2. The first, and perhaps most commonly used weight loss strategy, is to focus on food with a high degree of satiability, meaning that a relatively fewer number of calories from that food keep you full for longer. Foods with a high degree of satiability are characterized by high protein, fat, and fiber content. 500 calories from grilled chicken, vegetables, and almonds is likely to keep you full for much longer than 500 calories from pasta, soda, or chocolates. Filling your diet with these types of food is thus much less likely to leave you hungry and thinking about food constantly. This is the idea behind all low-carb diets, such as the popular Atkins or Ketosis diets; by cutting down on foods that are not very satiating (particularly white carbohydrates), and instead focusing on foods that keep you full longer (grilled meats, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, high fiber foods), you are able to successfully eat fewer calories without feeling as hungry. Eating traditionally “healthy” food is just a means to achieving a calorie deficit; eating healthy in itself won’t cause fat loss. This leads me to another extremely important point – Junk food doesn’t make you fat. Excess calories make you fat. One can lose weight eating only fast food (as was demonstrated by a man in Iowa, who lost 34 pounds eating just McDonald’s), and one can gain weight eating only healthy food like salads and grilled chicken. The determining factor at the end of the day is not the type of food you ate, but rather the calorie balance that was created. Create a calorie deficit and you will lose weight, no matter the source of the food. Flexible vs Strict Diets Dieticians often recommend extremely strict and boring diets comprised of exclusively “healthy” food since most people lack the dedication, time, and knowledge to accurately track the calories they consume; they usually just eat until they feel “full”. For these people, focusing on food with high satiety (“healthy” foods) will mean they are likely to feel full by eating fewer calories, thereby creating a calorie deficit and subsequent weight loss. This causes people to think that it’s the healthy food they are eating, and not the calorie deficit, that is responsible for fat loss. However, if one accurately tracks calories, they can fit in ice cream, fries, hamburgers, or any other “junk” food and still lose weight, given they are still eating less calories than they burn. The more you “cheat” the more hungry you will feel while trying to achieve your calorie goals, due to the low satiety of junk food. I recommend the 80-20 rule between calories from healthy and junk food; this level of flexibility allows a person to create a successful diet while still having the opportunity to indulge in moderation. This approach goes a long way in ensuring the diet stays on track, helping prevent the almighty binge which can often undo weeks of dieting. Remember, you are in this for the long run, so use the basic principle of a calorie deficit to create a diet that can stand the test of time. Meal Size, Meal Timing, and “Mini-Meals” A critical concept that has caused a lot of commotion in the fitness industry is that of meal size and meal timing. The latest trend endorsed today is to eat 5-7 small meals spaced evenly throughout the day (“mini-meals”), with the intention of “speeding up your metabolism”. Proponents of this diet enthuse that eating several small meals will “stoke” the body’s metabolism, in a similar way that adding small amounts of wood to a fire will ensure that it burns more vigorously. Supporters of this philosophy also claim that large meals, especially at night, cause excess fat gain as your body “doesn’t need all that energy before bed”. There are two major shortcomings of this mini-meals concept. Firstly, one’s metabolism, which is simply the amount of energy one requires on a daily basis, is determined primarily by a combination of genetics, physique, and physical activity. Eating small meals every few hours isn’t
  3. 3. going to increase the amount of energy you burn, given all other variables stay constant. The claim that large meals cause fat gain is also incorrect. It is the calorie balance in the long run (over days, weeks, and months) that determines your weight loss or weight gain, not the precise time in the day that you eat. The basic concept of a calorie deficit reigns supreme, no matter what diet you are on. Eat carbohydrates before bed if you want to, as long as you are hitting your daily calorie goals; these carbs won’t magically turn to fat! To summarize, meal size and meal timing have no effect on body composition. It is the total calories consumed over the course of the day that determines weight loss. Eating every 2 hours is highly inconvenient and completely unnecessary. Don’t be that person who goes to work with 5 pre-packaged mini meals in his laptop bag. In fact, eating less frequently can actually be advantageous for weight loss. Several people tend to feel more satisfied eating 2 big meals a day rather than 5-7 smaller ones. This concept of eating fewer, bigger meals while dieting is a key component of an eating plan called Intermittent Fasting, a concept several professional athletes, models, and bodybuilders have utilized to great success. It is also a strategy I use when attempting to lose weight, and is one I highly recommend, particularly if you are constantly hungry using a traditional “mini-meals” approach. A typical eating plan using intermittent fasting would involve eating your first meal around noon, and your second meal around 8PM. This 8 hour period is called the “feeding window”, while the other 16 hours (8PM-Noon) is called the “fasting window”. During the fasting window, it is important to avoid consuming calories. Black coffee, tea, and water can be consumed, and are often great ways to reduce your hunger. From my experience, the only time you are hungry on this plan is for an hour or 2 in the morning; for the rest of the day, you feel satisfied and don’t even feel like you are “dieting”. At this point you’re probably wondering why the plan I outlined above doesn’t include breakfast, forever branded to us as the “most important meal of the day”. Skipping breakfast might be concerning to some, but it is not something you need to worry about. You won’t lose muscle or slow your metabolism by holding off eating for a few hours more; the body takes far longer to go catabolic. Get through that brief period of hunger in the morning, and you will have 2 big meals waiting for you at lunch and dinner. It is truly a fantastic and highly effective approach in my opinion. Remember, eat whatever you want, whenever you want, as long as you maintain a calorie deficit. One Step Further: Macronutrient Breakdown While the calorie balance is the determining factor behind weight gain or weight loss, there in an added layer of complexity that should be considered when designing a diet: macronutrient breakdown (the proportion of protein, carbs, and fats that makes up the total calories one consumes). Creating a calorie deficit will create weight loss, but the composition of this weight loss (whether it is from fat or muscle tissue) will depend largely on the macronutrient breakdown and exercise program a person is following. For most, it is preferable to lose fat rather than hard-earned muscle. If one’s goal is to reduce the loss of muscle mass during a period of restricted calories, two principles need to be followed in addition to simply creating a calorie deficit:  A high-protein diet  A strength training program
  4. 4. Eating a high protein diet ensures that when the body does require protein for rebuilding purposes, it takes this protein primarily from the diet rather than from breaking down hard earned muscle tissue (muscles are broken down to amino acids, a form of protein usable by the body. Consuming a high protein diet thus provides a “buffer” of sorts). Strength training, on the other hand, gives your body a stimulus to retain the muscle you have, which increases the likelihood of fat being burned for fuel instead. So, much protein is “high” protein? For those looking to maintain or add muscle mass, the following macronutrient breakdown is recommended:  Proteins: 1 gram / pound of bodyweight (or 2.2 grams per KG of bodyweight)  Fats: 0.3-0.4 grams / pound of bodyweight (or about 0.7 – 0.9 grams per KG of bodyweight)  Carbs: Fill the rest of your calorie goals with carbs  Fiber: 40+ grams a day to improve satiety and digestive health Remember, just as calorie is a calorie regardless of its source, a gram of protein is a gram of protein regardless of what food it is from. Your body doesn’t know the difference between protein from grilled chicken or from fried chicken; it is the identical chemical compound once it is digested. Hitting your calorie, protein, carbohydrate, and fat goals are FAR more important than stressing about where these calories and macronutrients come from. It is better to stick to healthier foods in general because they contain micronutrients such vitamins and minerals, but from a body composition standpoint, it makes no difference whatsoever. This concept of flexible dieting is called IIFYM “If It Fits Your Macros” (Macros referring to daily macronutrient targets). There are plenty of online resources to explain this concept in further detail should you be interested. To illustrate this concept, imagine you weigh 200 pounds and your plan is to eat 2000 calories per day with the intention of losing fat and preserving muscle. You would eat 200 grams of protein, which equals 800 calories (1 gram of protein = 4 calories). Add around 70 grams of fat, which is 630 calories (1 gram of fat = 9 calories). That’s leaves 370 calories, or 92.5 grams of carbohydrates (1 gram of carbs = 4 calories). You might be surprised that fats are so high, but it is vital to consume a relatively high fat diet for several reasons. Fat is very satiating and keeps you full for a long time. Additionally, fat moderates your endocrine system, so eating a low fat diet for prolonged periods can result in your hormones, particularly your testosterone level, going out of whack. Finally, eating fat trains your body to burn fat for fuel, transforming it into a fat burning machine. It has been drilled into our heads since we were born that “fat makes you fat”, but in fact, the truth couldn’t be more different. Fat is a vital part of your diet for these reasons and must be consumed in adequate quantities. Counting macronutrients, in addition in calories, can prove to be quite time-consuming and mentally taxing. For those looking for a more straightforward approach, I recommend this strategy: count total calories consumed as accurately as possible, approximate protein consumed, and fill in the rest of the calories with a balance of carbohydrates and fats. In the long run, as long as you are not severely neglecting fat consumption, you should be in the ballpark of your carbohydrate and fat targets; this method will achieve great results as long as your protein intake is sufficient and your calories consumed is accurate. I highly recommend meticulously tracking calories consumed, as it is quite easy to underestimate this number, particularly if you are just starting out. Glycemic Index: Does it Matter?
  5. 5. You might be thinking at this point, “What about the Glycemic Index of Food? Isn’t that hugely important”? I recommend not stressing about the glycemic index or the glycemic load of food that. Several fitness publications have talked about this concept in detail, but the truth is that it is largely immaterial if you aren’t diabetic, and here’s why: the glycemic index of food is rendered largely irrelevant if carbohydrates are consumed along with proteins and fats, which is the case 99% of the time. Proteins and fats slows down the digestion of these carbohydrates, converting a high GI carb (simple or white carb) into a lower GI one (complex carb). For instance, white rice consumed with grilled chicken and almonds behaves like a complex carb, such as brown rice or oats. The reason low GI foods are recommended (and white carbs are considered the enemy) is because they contain more fiber in them, making them more satiating. The whole theory of high GI foods “spiking blood sugar and causing fat deposition” is highly sensationalized; don’t worry about GI, just focus on the larger picture. If you haven’t heard about GI, that’s great, you’re lucky – ignore it and don’t stress. Creating a Successful Eating Plan Since my recommendations revolve around creating a calorie deficit, it is worth discussing some strategies in setting calorie goals and counting calories and macronutrients consumed. The first step is to calculate the number of calories you burn during the course of the day. This can be done use a TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) calculator, which determines your daily caloric expenditure based on your physique, gender, and activity level. Several TDEE calculators can be found online, and serve as a good benchmark for the number of calories you burn on a daily basis. Once that number is established, you need to set a daily calorie goal to eat. One pound of fat contains 3500 calories, so if you want to lose one pound per week, you need to create a weekly calorie deficit of 3500, which equals a deficit of 500 per day. Double this deficit number if you want to lose 2 pounds per week. Use the guidelines presented above to design a diet high in protein, fiber, and fats (relatively), and low in carbohydrates (particularly grains, starches, and sugars), while still maintaining a calorie deficit. Combined with a solid strength training program, this diet can help you build a lean and aesthetic physique. Even if you aren’t particularly concerned with building or maintaining muscle, I hope that the guidelines suggested above will help you shed body fat while keeping hunger and cravings at bay. Counting calories is annoying, and frustrating at first, but I highly recommend doing it if you are serious about losing weight and have had limited success by not doing so. Simply eating “healthy” and hoping you lose weight could work, but it is not guaranteed to. Calorie contents, by size and weight, of various foods (even restaurant chains) are easily available online and on several mobile applications. Below, I have provided an example of counting calories and macronutrients from a sample day. It is a variant of Intermittent Fasting, where I consume small pre and post-workout meals to help fuel my workouts and aid in recovery:  Meal 1 (Lunch) – Chipotle Burrito Bowl with Double Steak (722 calories, 80 P, 60 C, 18 F)  Meal 2 (Pre-Workout) – ½ Cup Oats and Protein Shake (267 calories, 30 P, 30 C, 3 F)  Meal 3 (Post-Workout) – Protein Shake (121 calories, 25 P, 3 C, 1 F)  Meal 4 (Dinner): Half Rotisserie Chicken without skin (460 calories, 60 P, 10 C, 20 F)  Meal 5 (Dessert): One cup ice-cream (298 calories, 5 P, 38 C, 14 F) Total = 1868 calories, 200 grams protein, 141 grams carbohydrates, 56 grams fat.
  6. 6. The plan above allows me to easily hit my calorie and macronutrient goals (I weight 175 and aim for 2000 calories per day while trying to lose weight), while allowing me to consume a delicious diet that even has room for ice cream. After a week or 2 of counting calories for everything you eat, it will become second nature. Track your weight everyday at the same time and take weekly rolling averages, since weight fluctuates quite a lot due to changes in water retention. Initially on a diet, weight loss is rapid due to loss in water weight from eating fewer carbs (a trend often associated with most calorie restriction plans). If you think you are eating at a calorie deficit and are not losing weight, it means only one thing: you are eating the same amount of calories that you are burning, and are in fact not creating a calorie deficit. Either the TDEE calculator overestimated your caloric expenditure (something that is quite common), or you are underestimating the calories you eat (also very common when you begin counting). In this case, reduce the calories you eat, or increase the calories you burn (through additional exercise) until your weight loss is at the desired rate. Aiming for a loss of 1-2 pounds per week is usually a good rule of thumb. Slow and steady wins the race. Weight Loss Plateaus, Carbohydrate Refeeds, and Leptin A topic that has caused much frustration and anguish to millions of people, right from professional bodybuilders to average Joes, is the dreaded weight loss plateau. Just when progress seems to be going smoothly, and the fat is melting off like snow on a crisp spring day, weight loss stops out of nowhere, seemingly for no particular reason. Days pass by, even weeks, but the scale doesn’t budge. In the short term, there is nothing to worry about, as fat loss can often be masked by water retention. However, if weight has remained constant for 3 or more weeks, it likely means that you have hit a weight loss plateau. No need to fret though; there are ways to break through this glass floor and even ways to prevent it from occurring in the first place. A true weight loss plateau can only mean one thing: you are eating as many calories as you burn. The calorie deficit, which had been causing weight loss up to now, has been gradually wiped away. Calorie deficits disappear primarily due to two factors: you are subconsciously eating more calories, or the body is burning fewer calories, or both. The former is easier to fix, as it just involves a closer examination of one’s consumed calories, and adjustment as necessary. The latter reason, however, is an area worth discussing further. As one diets, a phenomenon called “metabolic down-regulation” takes place. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, as one loses weight, there is less of you to move around, meaning your body needs less calories to perform daily functions. The second reason is slightly more complex; after extended periods of constant dieting, the body senses that it is starving, and aims to hold onto whatever fat it still has by slowing the metabolism, primarily as a self-defense mechanism. The leaner one gets, the more our bodies fight back; it cares more about survival than flashing a set of abs to impress the girl or guy standing next to you. The key, then, is to diet without letting your body know that you’re dieting; you need to confuse your body. The solution? Carbohydrate refeeds. Eating a high amount of carbohydrates periodically helps reset leptin, a vital hormone necessary for fat burning and metabolic upkeep. Low levels of leptin, which are associated with periods of sustained dieting, slow down your metabolism and bring fat loss to a screeching halt. Periodic high-carbohydrate days can help break through weight loss plateaus by boosting leptin levels, and hence your body’s metabolism and fat burning capability.
  7. 7. I would suggest placing these high carbohydrate days (called carbohydrate refeed days) once a week (twice a week if you are already very lean, and once in two weeks if you have a lot of weight to lose). On these days, structure your diet as follows:  Total calories: Eat at maintenance calories (0 deficit), based on the TDEE calculator  Protein: 1 gram/pound of bodyweight (no change).  Fat: Keep fat as low as possible. < 50 grams is ideal. Fat has a negligible impact on leptin levels, so it is better to replace fats with carbohydrates on these days alone.  Carbohydrates: Fill the rest of your diet with carbohydrates, until you reach your maintenance level of calories. Pancakes, pasta, bread are all on the table, so carb refeeds provide a fantastic mental relief as well. You can feast on carbs guilt free knowing that it is actually helping your weight loss in the long run. Eating a high level of carbohydrates also replenishes your muscle glycogen storage, ensuring the intensity of your workouts don’t suffer. Pretty awesome right? Maintaining optimal hormonal levels during dieting is absolutely vital to prevent your body from fighting back, and carbohydrate refeeds are a potent trick that should be in every dieter’s arsenal to battle past plateaus. Remember, a structured carbohydrate refeed is not a cheat day. Refeeds are planned primarily to reset the body’s hormonal balance (primarily Leptin), while cheat days are more for a mental relief. Cheat days are fine occasionally, just keep them in moderation. Stubborn Fat Reduction I’d like to end by touching upon an area that has been thoroughly misunderstood among novice dieters: stubborn fat and fat spot-reduction (losing fat from a specific part of the body). Most people carry fat in their torsos, particularly on their abdomen, lower back, and chest. People often seek ways to lose fat in that area specifically; how many times have you heard someone ask “How can I lose my beer belly?”, or “How can I lose this annoying chest fat?” They then go about doing hundreds of sit-ups, push-ups, and other exercises to feel the “burn” in that problem area, thinking that the sensation is fat melting away; this couldn’t be further from the truth. The “burn” people speak of is simply lactic acid build up, a by- product of metabolic activity during periods of strenuous exercise. The truth is, you can’t remove fat specifically from a certain area of your body. As you diet and lose weight, you will tend to lose fat in a largely sequential manner, in an order determined by your genetics. It is a “first on, last off” process, meaning that the first place you gain fat will likely be the last place that it comes off. Most people have these problem areas in different parts of the body, manifesting itself as chubby cheeks, thunder thighs, or flabby chests. To lose fat in these spots, you will need to just keep dieting and know that eventually it will come off, even if it will be the last place for the fat to melt away. This is why fat in these areas are called “stubborn fat”; they require a great deal of time and dedication to be burned. It is much easier to get ripped arms than it is to get a six pack, mostly because the fat in the abdomen region typically takes a lot longer to disappear. Accept your genetics, and understand that you can’t spot-reduce fat from a specific part of your body. Stay patient, and eventually the fat from even the most stubborn of areas will come off. Remember: first on, last off. Stay Strong, Stay Focused
  8. 8. Hopefully this article has provided you with some useful information regarding a nutritional framework that you can use to achieve your weight loss goals. There are an incredible number of myths and half- truths in the nutrition industry, most of which are designed to sell supplements. I’ve tried to provide you guidance on the basics, which will help you design a diet and fitness plan that suits your lifestyle, and more importantly, a plan that you enjoy and can stick to in the long run. I think the beauty of the framework I have outlined is the level of flexibility that it offers. I intentionally provided very little guidance in terms of what specific foods to eat, how much of them to eat, or when to eat them. It is up to you to design a diet that you enjoy. All too often, I have come across diets that require you to eat a specific set of foods at set times during the day, which can get boring very quickly. With the approach I have outlined, you can eat a different set of foods every single day and still lose weight providing you are maintaining a deficit. Further, should weight loss not be at the desired rate, you will know exactly why, and can adjust accordingly; dieting is a black box no more. Weight loss is a slow and gradual process, and requires time and dedication for you to succeed. That is simply the truth of the matter. However, armed with the knowledge I have share with you, you can make the necessary changes in your lifestyle to ensure you succeed and get the dream body you always desired. Diets are overly restricted dictatorial regimes than often fail for precisely that reason; they are far too inflexible. What I have outlined isn’t what one would traditionally call a “diet”; think of it more as a flexible eating plan. Good luck, and happy eating. Let’s summarize the key points outlined:  Calorie deficit is what causes weight loss, irrespective of the type of food consumed.  Eating predominantly satiating foods helps one stick to a calorie restricting diet without feeling as hungry.  Fat doesn’t make you fat – excess calories make you fat. Calories are king. You can eat junk food and still lose weight effectively.  Meal size and meal timing does not matter. Eat whatever you want, whenever you want, as long as you are creating a calorie deficit.  Glycemic Index is irrelevant to weight loss.  Find your TDEE using an online calculator, subtract 500-1000 from it, and track your calories carefully to hit this number. Tracking calories is vital to ensure that you meet your goals.  3500 calories equals one pound of fat. Eating 500 calories less than you burn on a daily basis will cause you to lose one pound per week (500 * 7 = 3500).  You can’t spot reduce body fat from certain areas of your body. Stubborn fat will come off last, so stick to your diet and exercise plan and be patient. Eating at a calorie deficit and you will lose weight. I bet my bottom dollar on it. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to me at