“Why can’t I lose weight?”
These may be some of the most frequently spoken words I’ve heard as a practicing physician. Many people are simply dumbfounded by their lack of progress when attempting to lose weight. It is not uncommon for patients to swear up and down that they are “doing everything they’re supposed to” and still not losing a pound. While it is true that there are some rare conditions that will cause someone to be unable to lose weight despite diet and exercise, such as under active thyroid and other hormonal imbalances, the truth is that the vast majority of people underestimate the amount of calories they take in and overestimate the number of calories burned during exercise.
Do Some Simple Math
One can have a clearer picture of the calorie balance issue with some simple math. One pound of body fat is equal to 3500 calories. In other words, if over a period of time, someone has an excess intake of 3500 calories more than what is burned, a pound of body fat will be gained. Similarly, if one burns 3500 calories more than one takes in over a given time period, one pound of body fat will be lost. The good news is that people naturally have a head start with regard to burning calories. The human body will burn roughly1200 calories a day, just by existing and carrying on the routine activities of daily living. Add to that some walking, running up stairs, catching a bus, doing the laundry, etc., and it isn’t hard to fathom a 2000 calorie burn a day- without exercise- that’s the good news. Now, the bad news- most non dieting Americans will consume somewhere between 3000-3500 calories per day. Unfortunately, plenty of us will eat well more than that. The math? 3500 calories minus 2000 calories burned leaves us with a net positive calorie balance of 1500 calories. Now, most of us will not put all those extra calories right on our mid sections or thighs. Some of us will eat less, work harder, and burn more than 1200 calories at baseline. However, it is easy to see how quickly the positive calories can add up. The other piece of sobering news- the exercise you do doesn’t burn as many calories as you think. For instance, running, walking or jogging a mile burns up the same amount of calories- 100. Whether you run the mile in an Olympic 4 minutes or walk it in 20, 100 calories is all you get. In other words, if you jog 3 miles 3 times per week, you’ll burn an extra 900 calories. Assuming your caloric intake doesn’t change, you’ll lose approximately a pound a month. Pretty slow, huh? The worst part is that many people will miss workouts routinely, and start to sneak an extra snack here and there to “reward” themselves for their exercise routine. Considering 2 chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk can cost you around 350 calories, it’s easy to see how at least one workout per week can be negated by a snack. Moreover, many tend to “forget” these brief indiscretions when trying to lose weight. There are usually more of these episodes than we care to admit and a simultaneous tendency to increase our meal portions.
Be honest with yourself. Keep a food diary and document everything you eat with its caloric content. Also, be realistic about exercise. Dieting without exercise and vice versa make losing weight much more difficult than it needs to be. The combination, however, of careful diet and exercise can be a very powerful and potent weight loss combination.