The Science of Losing Weight
Stop guessing and start thinking – Total Row presents the science of losing weight.
I Want to Lose Weight; Where do I Start?
It’s always fascinating when such a basic and common question can be so seemingly complex. Not a week goes by at Total Row without someone asking us in not-so-exasperated terms, “I’ve been trying to lose weight, and it’s not working; what am I missing?”
The marketing behind fad diets, mystery pills, and quick-fixes has inundated us with more information than we could ever hope to understand. Considering most of what is marketed to us is simply wrong, also doesn’t help the situation. However, we are hear to tell you that while the path may not be easy, it is not complicated.
Read on to learn a simple equation you can use to determine how much you should be eating, and how we at Total Row can design a complete program for you to use.
Science Stuff: What it Takes to Lose 1 Pound
Everything we will discuss here will be based on science. This isn’t an empirical study. This isn’t based on some crazy diet my cousin adopted and lost a bunch of weight in 20 minutes. This is a real formula for success.
The most important metric you should remember from this article is that 1 pound of fat = approximately 3,500 calories. While you may have read this before, we are going to show you how to actually incorporate this knowledge into a training plan.
Important: Everyone’s body is different and while this equation theoretically holds true, in practice the result won’t be exact. This is from a myriad of reasons beyond the scope of this article. Just suffice it to say the 3,500 rule is a good place to start!
Losing 1 Pound a Week
Here’s the easy part: if we burn approximately 500 more calories a day then we consume (3,500 / 7 = 500), we will lose 1 pound of fat over a week.
Here’s the hard part: we must burn approximately 500 more calories a day then we consume, to lose 1 pound of fat over a week.
The Basics: In order to lose weight, we must burn more calories than we consume. This is just math. (Remember, I said this was simple, not easy!)
By definition, a calorie determines the amount of energy to raise the temperature of water through 1 degree Celsius (i.e. the amount of energy/heat transferred to water so that its temperature will increase). While functionally different, this is the same basic energy transfer that is required to keep our bodies operating, moving around, and exercising. Without an energy source to do these things, our body’s basic functions would be impossible.
An analogy to this is putting gas in your car. Without enough gas in the tank (energy/food/calories), the vehicle won’t run. Your body is that vehicle, and the food you eat is your gas.
If our daily activity requires more calories than we consume, our body is required to pull it from another source: either from fat stores or from muscle. Therefore to lose weight, we need to use more calories than we consume.
Now that we understand why we need calories and how many are in a pound of fat, let’s dive into the important question that you have likely already asked: “how many calories am I burning a day?”
How to determine caloric requirements
For the majority of people, determining the amount of calories they require on a daily basis is the hardest part (and also the most important). We use 3 basic methods at Total Row, and our recommendation usually pulls from all 3.
Body Composition Analysis
Total Row Members have access to our BIA Body Composition machine. This machine breaks down your body composition into muscle, fat, bone, and water. It takes this information and combines it with other inputs such as age, weight, and sex, to calculate a basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the amount of energy your body burns at rest on a daily basis (i.e. the number of calories required to keep your body functioning and for you to stay alive).
This BMR is critical, because a caloric intake below this rate is the equivalent to our gas in the car analogy – you just won’t run properly. As you exercise and increase movement throughout the day, this base rate of calories required will be increase to your actual daily calories burned (also projected from the test).
In losing weight, our goal is to find a suitable target between the BMR and total calories expended. This is the amount of daily calories we start with. It is more calories than our body needs to function, but is less than the total amount we are expending.
We describe our Body Composition test in detail here.
Food Journals are one of the single best tools you can use in your health journey. Not only are they easily accessible with all of the tools and apps available to us, but they will reveal an assortment of hidden, daily eating habits. At Total Row, we use MyFitnessPal.
It’s important to track your food intake for at least 1 full (normal) week. This lets us (1) count the calories you are consuming and compare to your Body Comp results, (2) find easy areas of improvement and major trouble spots, and (3) get to know your habits better. A food journal is a fantastic compliment to BIA results, and is a MUST for anyone beginning a weight loss journey!
Trial and Error
Even with the best technology available, it sometimes takes a little trial and error to find the right caloric requirement for you. Try increasing your calories one week and see how your body responds. What happens if you decrease calories? How do you feel in terms of energy and athletic performance?
Changes should be small, precise, and tracked with a food journal. Using a trial and error method with wholesale changes will mask what is making the biggest impact.
This method can be time-consuming and frustrating (this is why it’s our 3rd option). However, don’t forget that sometimes you need to experiment with your diet and calorie intake.
The Rubber Meets the Road: How we approach your plan
At this point, the most complex stage of determining our caloric requirements is behind us. Now, we need to establish our goal weight loss trajectory.
Here’s an example of how this iterative process works:
Let’s say you you want to lose 5 pounds in 5 weeks, have a BMR of 2,000 calories a day, and a normal caloric intake of 3,000 calories a day that keeps you at a pretty set weight. Remember our 3,500 calorie rule. This means you can keep your exercise level the same, drop your calorie intake to 2,500 a day (3,000 – 500 = 2,500), and should theoretically drop about 1 pound a week. Conversely, you could keep your same 3,000 calorie daily intake, but burn an incremental 500 calories each day (that’s about 30 minutes of very hard rowing).
Either of the above examples would allow you to hit your goal, and of course, there are an infinite number of options in the middle. The key is that your plan should be though-out, tracked, and measured.
At Total Row, we like to retest our BIA every month or so, to reestablish our boundaries and goals. This is because the timing and pace of your actual weight loss depends on a variety of constantly changing factors, such as age, muscle mass, fat mass, starting weight, and others.
It’s important to use all of the tools available to help with your weight loss journey. Some of these tools are very complex, and some of these tools are very basic – we need them all! Combining the information gathered from these tools with the knowledge of an experienced professional is a great step in the right direction.
The least advisable way to start any plan is at an extreme. Reject crash diets, wonder pills, and quick fixes. With the right plan and commitment, most weight loss dreams are attainable!