Is dieting right for me?
March 1, 2010 8:25 PM   Subscribe

Last week I got the brilliant idea to lose a little weight, so I'm not quite so self-conscious at the beach and clothes will fit me more like I want them to, etc. etc.. but man, this weight loss stuff is weird and hard to understand! Can you help me figure this out or offer any advice?

The usual stats: I'm female, 26 years old, 5'2", 125-129 pounds (or so the scale at the gym says), and I've got a small frame (scrawny wrists and little feet).

I know I'm not overweight, my BMI is in the normal range. But I've always had this doughy little ring around my hips and stomach, and similar on my upper arms. I'm a little ashamed at how vain it seems: my stomach stretches shirts more than I like and I've got wide hips that put me out of proportion. I even feel stupid typing this!

I work out at the gym three times a week, 30 minutes at a time.

I love the Hacker's Diet, but I'm starting to think that just maybe, I'm not it's audience. All the Basal Metabolic Rate calculations confuse me so I can't even figure out how many calories I should be taking in, much less how many I took in on an average day in the past (I can't even recall what I ate most nights last week).

I've felt in such a funk today because I've been so conscious of just 1 DAY'S worth of how many calories I'm eating. It seems too annoying to keep up the kind of calorie counting and reducing advocated in the Hacker's Diet, when I only want to trim down slightly.

I've never done any kind of conscious dieting in my life, so this is all new, weird territory for me. The only time I lost weight on a "diet" was last summer when I spent a week in India eating delicious food every day only to be struck by food poisoning on the very last night. I spent the next week getting nauseous at the mere sight of solid food. I don't recommend this diet.

Help? Are my mushy stomach and cushioned hips just the way my body goes? Is it even worth it to count calories when I'm already at a pretty normal weight and only want to lose 5-10 pounds? I eat fairly healthy already and am moderately active.
posted by little_c to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
30 minutes sounds like too short of a workout to meet. Plus is that cardio? Weights?
posted by k8t at 8:51 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, if you subscribe to the "set point" theory, that you tend to organically favor a particular weight, then the issue with counting calories is that if you just follow your instinct you will end up eating enough to maintain your weight. Exercise doesn't burn a lot of calories unless it's long and intense (I once figured that for the average person walking a mile won't quite burn off a tablespoon of butter).

When I was younger (more like your age in other words) I could shed a few pounds fairly easily by following a few simple rules, basically don't drink pop or booze, don't eat sweets, and don't eat after dinner in the evening. These days, being more like middle-aged (and having quit smoking - smoking being another weight loss miracle not to recommend) this won't quite cut it. But you might scan your diet for the low-hanging fruit.

There was a thread a while ago talking about fructose where the presenter in the main video link gave a "diet plan" they were using for families with children with serious weight problems - clearly a different situation but I suspect that if anyone adopted this it would help. It boiled down to, as I recall (check the video to verify), 1. No liquid calories - meaning no sugared drinks, fruit juices or booze, just water and plain milk, 2. If you eat sugar, you have to have some fiber too, 3. Wait 20 minutes before getting seconds of any meal, and 4. You have to buy "screen time" with physical activity (which he acknowledged as very tough to do).

Frankly it might be a sensible time to start thinking more seriously about how you eat. They tell you your metabolism slows down as you age but it doesn't quite penetrate what that means - it means you can eat exactly the same way you always did and progressively gain weight and it's that much harder to be active. But I can relate to how tedious calorie counting is.
posted by nanojath at 8:53 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love the Hacker's Diet, but I'm starting to think that just maybe, I'm not it's audience.

All those numbers are really freaky, I'm completely with you. After paying some attention to your diet, have you come to any conclusions about what your problem areas are? Snacking between meals, eating too late, picking unhealthy foods, too big portions in general?

I would work on identifying one big thing you can fix. Maybe brushing your teeth early so you won't eat after dinner, or not buying snacks at the grocery store.

That said, if you're trying to get rid of just a few pounds of doughiness diet probably won't help because it won't build any muscle to make you look toned. (The plight of us "skinny-fat" people, huh?) You'll probably have to start some more workouts, which I'm sure more people will give you advice about.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:58 PM on March 1, 2010

I just had a conversation with my roommate, who is super in shape and pretty muscular, about this. He's been doing a lot of reading and says that building muscle (lifting weights) will help you because the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn. Having more muscle helps your cardio to be more effective. Additionally, he recommended running in the morning for the best fat burning work out.

Best of luck to you!
posted by too bad you're not me at 9:04 PM on March 1, 2010

I highly recommend you use something similar to The Daily Plate ( You can enter in your current weight, height, and sex and then you decide what your weight goal is - whether that's to lose or gain from half a pound up to 2 pounds per week. Then it will tell you what your average calorie goal should be per day.

The other great thing about the site is that it has a very large database of food with calorie information in it, even for many restaurants and fast food joints, in addition to items you'd find at the grocery store. So it makes it really easy to track your calories every day, and you know your target.

I've been using the site for several months and it has worked well for me. My weight goal is to lose 1.5 pounds per week, except that I never count calories on the weekends, so that target really only applies to M-F. Seems to work fairly well - and averages out to something closer to 1 pound a week.

I'm not sure what to tell you for a diet, except find what works for you that fills you up for your three meals and calorie goal. It definitely helps to cut out empty calories like soda and alcohol.
posted by CallMeWhiskers at 9:05 PM on March 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

I lost weight successfully when I counted calories. It's actually pretty easy- just keep a little notebook and write down everything you eat. Use the data on the package and measure out servings when you can, otherwise eyeball it and google "(food item) nutrition data". Lots of chain restaurants post their nutrition data online, too. If you eat the same stuff over and over, that cuts down on the research time too. I'd spend maybe ten minutes tops at the end of the day calculating calorie counts for stuff I'd eaten over the day.

I used something like this, basically whatever comes up on google, to calculate approximately how many calories I wanted to be eating every day (ie, the basal metabolic rate - two hundred calories or so, less if I was exercising). I entered my data into excel and calculated my daily average, and I also weighed myself once a week to make sure what I was doing was effective. I tried not to get too hungry, and I didn't otherwise pay a lot of attention to what I ate.

It worked, and just paying attention to what I ate made me aware of what was calorie dense, what made me feel full, what was worth the calories- would I rather have two bowls of cereal or half a candy bar, for instance. For me, I realized I really didn't know how it felt to be full, or how much was enough food. Calorie counting helped a lot with that.

As for exercise, it sounds like you could step it up for sure. Try tracking whatever it is you're doing and stepping it up- if you do the elliptical, for instance, try going for longer at a higher resistance. Adding in weightlifting would also probably help you feel better about the way you look because you'll have some muscle definition.

Honestly, you'll probably get tons of advice in this thread, from "you don't need to lose any weight, you just need to feel better about yourself!!" to people advocating a raw food diet and intense weightlifting. Really, the important thing is to figure out your own goals and find a way to track how well whatever plan you settle on works, where "working" is defined as "bringing you closer to your goals".
posted by MadamM at 9:06 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

There are a couple things going on with exercise. A big one is that if you loose a pound of fat and gain a pound of muscle, you will burn a lot more calories even when you're just sitting there.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:27 PM on March 1, 2010

I am very close to your stats, and when I want to tone up a little or lose a few pounds, I focus on drinking tons of water, eating MORE fruits and vegetables, and exercising. Specifically, I recommend running, if that agrees with your body.

This works well for me because I like exercise and I don't respond well to restricting my diet. When I count calories, I get obsessive and wind up cutting back too much, and either break down with a pint of ice cream or get really moody. When I exercise, I find that I naturally want healthier foods to nourish my body. Try including fruit or veggies with every meal, and limiting snacks to fruit, veggies, and nuts. Drink water constantly and add one to three miles of running (depending on whether you've done any running recently) to your workout plan.

I prefer to feel like I'm giving my body more of what it needs, rather than denying it what it wants. Five pounds is a reasonable goal, and I agree with the previous poster that there is probably "low-hanging fruit" in your lifestyle. Just make some healthy lifestyle tweaks and your body will respond.

I have been making gradual changes to my lifestyle, and whenever I lose patience and want to see results faster, I tell myself, "This is my body at this lifestyle. As I increase my running mileage or [fill in new good habit here], my body will change to reflect that adjustment." Please think of any changes as updating the way you live, not as "dieting" in the traditional, short-term-fix way we usually define it in American culture.
posted by TrixieRamble at 9:54 PM on March 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm currently a hell of a lot more overweight than you, and I've spent quite a lot of my life getting rid of excess fat with varying degrees of success, and I can assure you that although there's no World's Best Practice method that works for everybody, the common feature of all the most effective ones is that they are slow and gentle. If you're achieving a loss rate of around 0.2-0.5% of your body weight per week, you're doing it right.

Make one lifestyle change at a time, and see how you go. If it doesn't work or stops working, make another. For most people, the simplest single thing that could possibly work is keeping a scrupulously honest food diary, trying hard not to make any other change to the way you eat or exercise; after two weeks, analyze it and work out a substitution for something calorie-dense that your diary shows you're eating a lot of.

Daily weighing can work well for some people (you need to learn to ignore any given day's single result and work with the average for the last seven days); others prefer to judge their success by the fit and feel of clothing. Do what works for you.

I'm currently having excellent results from an appetite suppressant prescribed by my doctor. Sibutramine has substantially reduced my food cravings and it also raises my resting metabolic rate. I had to take a month-long break from it due to developing a very sore arse, but having rediscovered the magic that is psyllium husk, the drug and I are now best friends again. Do take your doctor's advice if you want to play with appetite suppressants, because most of the non-prescription ones are dodgy as hell.
posted by flabdablet at 9:54 PM on March 1, 2010

Oh, and one shout-out to the "feel better about yourself" point. The "doughy little ring" might always be there, and just get smaller and smaller. I got to 10 pounds lighter than my healthy normal weight when I trained for a marathon, and I still had fat pooching out right below my belly button. I have always hated it, but recently realized that every woman on my mom's side of the family has it. Even my aunts who are natural beanpoles, much thinner than I am, carry fat in the same place. So now, I try to think of that part of my body as part of my family, part of my history, and I hope, part of what will make a cozy spot for my babies to grow some day!
posted by TrixieRamble at 10:01 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

The ONLY WAY to lose weight at all is to tip the scale (pardon the pun) of calorie consumption to calories burned.

Look at it this way: 3,500 calories ~ 1 lb. Experts say it's not safe to lose more than 2 lbs a week, so that means you need to cut back somehow on 7,000 calories a week, at most. Divide that over 7 days and you have 1,000 calories less at day, AT MOST.

Now what do I mean by 1,000 calories less a day? There are two ways to achieve that goal. The first is to really restrict your diet by 1,000 calories. So if you typically eat 2,000 calories a day, you'd cut that in half. However, that kind of restriction is super dangerous and can cause hell on your metabolism making it harder to lose weight in the future. So what you can do instead is eat 500 calories less a day, and somehow burn 500 calories a day.

Keep in mind, these are the highest numbers. Most people try to cut back 250 calories a day and burn 250, or something along those lines, for about one pound of loss per week.

Do you have a smart phone? Counting calories is really easy online with website apps like Sparkpeople, Daily Plate, LiveStrong. You don't have to figure anything out other than how much of each food you're eating. The website calculates everything else for you. I strongly suggest you try counting calories on a site like that for a week or so, because it will BLOW YOUR MIND how many calories you are consuming when you think you're being "good." It will reveal to you, at least, some of your bad or unknown habits so you can be more aware of them even if you decide calorie counting is not right for you.

And if you want to look better in clothing, strength training is really the only way to tone up. Some load-bearing cardio (like running) will help you burn the fat and build some muscle, but even yoga is better than no strength training at all.
posted by Brittanie at 10:03 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

nthing increasing your physical activity, and adding some strength training. (In fact, you'd likely notice some weight loss/overall toning if you did things even without changing your diet.) Weight lifting can be kinda intimidating, but IMHO, worth that initial awkwardness. Cardio's necessary, of course, but as a woman I find lifting weights more fun, with more visible results. There are numerous online resources to help you plan everything out before you go to the gym, so you don't feel like a dork among all those testoneroney muscle heads.

And another vote for the water trick. I make myself drink one big glass of water before each meal, one glass during the meal, and I try to down a glass whenever the thought crosses my mind during the day. This will help limit your appetitte.
posted by nicoleincanada at 1:55 AM on March 2, 2010

I have been counting calories too, and lost a bit of weight since the New Year. I use the LoseIt app on the iPhone to help me keep track of what I eat, and how many calories I have burnt besides my BMR. The app is pretty good at what it does, and the price is free.
posted by hariya at 2:22 AM on March 2, 2010

being now 34 I feel like i've slowly but surely been gainign a few kilos every year since my mid twenties - and not a lot. just a kilo here or there. and I just find it really hard to get back down to that 20something weight. (although i've never counted calories and I pretty much eat what I want) although my eat what i want is already pretty restricted. I seldom snack. and almost never eat high sugar stuff.

I'm thinking if I replace the daily can of soft drink with lunch with Water and try and get 30 mins more excercise a day I might be able to loose that 5 kgs or so.
posted by mary8nne at 3:06 AM on March 2, 2010

Weight training is the way to go for us 'skinny fat' types. It's the only way to really shift our proportions over, say, a month. But worth it to fit into awesome jeans without looking like an emaciated alien in the chest area...
posted by honey-barbara at 3:44 AM on March 2, 2010

You might want to try pilates and/or yoga. They are surprisingly good workouts, and pilates concentrates on strengthening the core, which will help tone your stomach and improve your posture. I have been lifting weights and doing cardio for a while now but when I added a weekly class of each pilates and yoga I was really happy with the results. The classes made me feel sore in my abs, arms and thighs, exactly where I want to firm up. My posture has improved a lot too. People are really noticing that I have lost weight lately, even in my baggy winter clothes.
posted by Melsky at 4:18 AM on March 2, 2010

Brittanie has it.

I'm working on a weight loss of about 20 pounds over a year. Because I, too, had never done anything like this, I went to a nutritionist. She had me keep a food diary for a couple weeks before hand, and then we went over it in detail to figure out where I can cut out 200 to 220 calories a day. I have. It's pretty easy. And it's working. In conjunction with my normal workouts (high intensity interval cardio, yoga, weight training - 4 times a week), I'm down 10 pounds since last Fall. And I haven't massively altered my diet.

Some examples (with the usual caveats that these work for my particular body, stats, lifestyle, etc): my daily latte is now made with skim milk; my afternoon snack is lowfat cottage cheese instead of full fat; I eat my lunch salad with lemon juice and salt and pepper as dressing instead of olive oil.

Also, that yoga? Making my legs and arms look awesome.
posted by minervous at 5:05 AM on March 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

I was about to type the same thing as minervous, and add that maybe rather than weight lifting, which as a girl I actually sort of enjoyed but also found slightly boring - you might try Pilates, since it really focuses on core strength, and your core is what you are identifying as a problem area.

Also, it looks like for a small frame, you could stand to drop a few pounds to be "ideal" but more than likely if you just shape up what you eat (lots of good tips here already) and do something to build muscle along with more intense cardio, you'll start getting there.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:44 AM on March 2, 2010

I agree with those who say you should be looking to work out, not to diet. 30 minutes 3 times a week is bare minimum not to be considered sedentary. To burn more calories and build more muscle (which will help you reach your appearance goals, particularly where your arms are cocerned) follow the FIT formula: increase either your Frequency, Intensity, or Time at exercise, one area at a time. And I think you could begin with frequency.

A balance of cardio and weight training is a good idea - maybe 3x/week, 45 minutes each cardio with 2-3 weight or resistance sessions (resistance can certainly include yoga, pilates, etc). You can combine cardio and weight training in a workout - there are some advantages to this (your muscles stay warm throughout) and you can get a good session in an hour and fifteen minutes, making for just one longer day a week.

One you've adapted to working out 5 days a week, you can look at ways to increase the intensity of your exercise - stepping up the pace or incline on your cardio workouts, doing intervals - or increase the time spent working out - though I think once you get beyond an hour a day you are getting pretty serious.
posted by Miko at 6:09 AM on March 2, 2010

here's the dirt simple way to use the hacker's diet, without worrying about the math. sign up for the online tools. enter your weight for about 10 days without making any dietary changes. this gives you a good baseline. then follow these rules:

1) Is your weight trending down? good, keep doing what you're doing.
2) Is your weight staying the same or going up? eat a little less each day until you're trending down.
3) repeat until you reach your goal weight.

You don't need to count calories so much as remember what you ate, and if you start trending up, eat less. The rest of the hacker's diet is just tips and tools to satiate hunger sensations to ensure you're burning fat.
posted by jrishel at 6:11 AM on March 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! I appreciate the input, as I already feel uncomfortable enough talking about losing weight - because I'm not overweight, and because I generally believe it doesn't matter what one looks like physically. Well, maybe that last part isn't true anymore. It's confusing!

Anyway, it sounds like I should try the following:

1. tracking what I eat but not actively restricting calories or anything, until I have an idea of just how much I'm consuming - then I can cut out problem stuff.
2. adding strength training to my workouts.
3. getting back into yoga.
posted by little_c at 6:21 AM on March 2, 2010

I did the Paleo diet for a couple of weeks and the pounds dropped off (I'm not really overweight but wanted to squeeze into my skinny jeans). I don't think I could keep up such a restrictive diet for a long time but it worked for a short time for me.
posted by MsKim at 6:34 AM on March 2, 2010

As someone who's fairly active (which is: regular running and biking, some occasional weight training and yoga, a couple seasons of rowing with a social club) and also tends toward the skinny-fat, the one thing that led to an avalanche of comments about lost weight was when I started swimming. It's an aerobic activity that you really can't cheat at.

As far as dieting, I don't even bother. You know which foods are healthy and which aren't--try to focus on the former but don't beat yourself up for occasionally indulging in the latter. (I can't fathom keeping track of everything I eat; it seems needlessly stressful. But if you can...well, great.)
posted by kittyprecious at 6:52 AM on March 2, 2010

Here are the websites that helped me lose a metric buttload of weight:

Nutrition Data (for tracking what went into my face and making sure I was eating appropriate amounts of protein vs. carbs vs. fat)
Stumptuous (weight training, nutrition advice. I need to start visiting that site again because I've gotten super-lazy about hitting the weight room.)

Bear in mind that there's no such thing as a quick-fix weight loss plan. If you do some weird fad diet, sure you might lose a few pounds, but as soon as you return to regular eating habits, you'll gain it right back and then some. If you want to look better in clothes, have less body fat, or whatever, the only way to have long-term success is to adopt long-term changes in your diet and exercise habits.
posted by kataclysm at 6:59 AM on March 2, 2010

I appreciate the input, as I already feel uncomfortable enough talking about losing weight - because I'm not overweight

Overweight is kind of a meaningless term. What matters, for both appearance and health, is not your scale weight but your body composition. Someone can be a "normal weight" or even "underweight" but still be overfat, aka skinny-fat, like folks above have mentioned. Heavy weight training with sufficient protein and overall caloric intake will help you build muscle. Eating less than your caloric maintenance level while still getting adequate protein and lifting heavy will help you lose fat but maintain muscle.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:11 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've felt in such a funk today because I've been so conscious of just 1 DAY'S worth of how many calories I'm eating. It seems too annoying to keep up the kind of calorie counting.

You HAVE to do it. There is no way to lose weight without reducing calories and you pretty much need to keep track of calories if you want to reduce them. You also need to work out too. If you don't need to lose as much weight, you can probably cut your calories by less.

Losing weight is hard work! If it were easy, everyone would be the weight they want.

A lot of diets give weird food restrictions (like the atkins, or whatever). I think they really work by limiting your choices, which makes eating far more boring. If you wanted to you could pick out some boring foods which make up a ballanced diet and eat only that. You'll probably end up losing weight that way, without needing to count specific calories.
posted by delmoi at 8:21 AM on March 2, 2010

There is no way to lose weight without reducing calories

That's not correct. You can lose weight by increasing the rate at which your body burns calories and by increasing the number of calories it burns.
posted by Miko at 8:36 AM on March 2, 2010

For example, while training for triathlon I needed to increase my calories to something like 2200 a day, and still lost weight because more of the calories taken in were used directly in activity or indirectly by an increased metabolic rate due to added muscle.
posted by Miko at 8:37 AM on March 2, 2010

It sounds like you don't really care about what you weigh (numbers on the scale), but you'd like to lose a bit of fat, and maybe gain some muscle so you're happier with your appearance and your size.

As such, I agree with all the recommendations to add some strength training (some kind of yoga count, I think).

I actually don't think that tracking calories is necessary for now. You could add strength training and increase your exercise - maybe go to the gym 4x a week for 45-50 minutes, plus go on a hike for a couple hours once a week, if weather allows. I would guess that would be enough to add some muscle and lose some fat, thus changing your appearance and size enough to make you happier while avoiding the whole counting calories that you don't like.

Of course, eating more fruits and vegetables and not eating when you're full is generally a good idea, whether you're tracking calories or not.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:01 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

That's not correct. You can lose weight by increasing the rate at which your body burns calories and by increasing the number of calories it burns.

Er, that's true. I was thinking of net calories, since that what I actually keep track of.
posted by delmoi at 9:58 AM on March 2, 2010

If you want to focus on net calories and like the general concept of the Hacker's Diet, another (really lightweight) site to track your progress is physicsdiet.

I don't want to count calories unless I absolutely need to, and my first line of defense is developing better intuition for which foods are more satisfying and lower calorie without writing down every detail, and physicsdiet is working fine for me.
posted by tantivy at 11:12 AM on March 2, 2010

A woman who is very slightly more fat than she wants to be does not need the same plan as someone who is very overfat and really needs to lose a lot of scale weight to be able to see body composition changes. What does that mean? Well, for starters, you do not always need to track calories to lose weight (and let's note that what the OP really wants to do is lose FAT, not necessarily weight), and this is a great example of an instance when that can be the case. If you want to change your body shape in a positive, maintainable way, and your weight is already well within healthy norms, merely dieting is a piss-poor way to do that. You're quite likely to end up starving your body of any extra muscle it might have, feeling very hungry all the time, and not looking much better. And, btw, that whole calories-in-calories-out notion has been pretty thoroughly debunked. Counting calories to lose a very small amount of weight is using a fire axe to cut sushi. You might succeed, but it will only be by chance.

OP, you're on the right track. Watch what you eat to find opportunities to substitute healthier alternatives and find the areas of your diet that need work, but don't obsess over calories. Stress your muscles and make them grow. My recommendation in these cases is always the same: find some physical activity that you enjoy and work at it. It will not only make you fitter, but it will give you more appreciation and knowledge about your body.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:18 PM on March 2, 2010

Response by poster: ch1x0r, thank you for clearing things up for me! I started lifting weights at the gym this morning - it's a start.
posted by little_c at 6:23 AM on March 3, 2010

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