Losing weight is, mostly, pretty simple. But we sure as heck do a lot of things to make it complicated, don’t we?

I’m going to lay it all out here: Dieting 101. Now, I am not a registered dietitian, so I’m not going to get all fancy with meal plans, but this is all generally accepted information based on science, for healthy adults. In deference to those who like their information a little overcomplicated with a touch of “advanced techniques,” (heh), I will throw in some tweaks to make you feel better about it, and also some math.

How much do you really need to eat?

How much energy (i.e. how many calories) do you burn over the course of a day? This should be the starting point of any eating program, whether to maintain your weight, gain weight, or lose weight. We need real facts and figures if we want this to work, right? I much prefer working with actual data because it won’t lie. Plus it beats kinda/sorta having an idea of what you kinda/sorta think you might be/should be doing, and then saying a little prayer before you mount the scale for your weekly weigh-in, doesn’t it?

First:

  • Weigh yourself
  • Measure your height

Second:

  • Go to this site, input the numbers plus your age, and you’ll see how many calories you would burn WITHOUT any activity (your BMR). This is an estimate, obviously, but it’s based on a formula that’s been tried and true for years.

Third:

  • Now, use the Harris Benedict Formula to calculate the additional calories you use during activity. Here’s a little helpful complicating info: Almost everyone overestimates their activity level. Be a rebel and be honest about it. 🙂
  1. If you’re sedentary with little to no exercise: Calories = BMR x 1.2
  2. Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days a week): Calories = BMR x 1.375
  3. Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days a week): Calories = BMR x 1.55
  4. Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): Calories = BMR x 1.725
  5. Extra active (very hard exercise/sports and physical job or twice a day training): Calories = BMR x 1.9

Here is an illustration of what activity levels ACTUALLY are, vs. what you might IMAGINE they are: I’m a personal trainer who strenuously works out several days a week, teaches group ex classes 4 or 5 times a week, plus works in a pretty big area and easily walks 10,000 steps a day, not including the steps taken during classes/practicing. I also practice choreography for my classes between clients almost every day. I routinely pick up and carry weights as part of my job and demonstrate exercises many times over the course of day. Bottom line, I’m pretty much constantly on the move.
Reality check: I fall into the “very active” category above, NOT the “extra active” one. So, chances are, YOU fall into the category just below the one you chose for yourself. Sucks, huh?

Now we have real data to work with — how many calories your body burns every day.

Fourth:

  • Eat less than that amount every day, spread over 4 to 6 feedings a day. Now, this number is kind of controversial. Jillian Michaels of Biggest Loser fame touts 4 meals a day, while bodybuilders spread their meals out even more. More on this below.
  • A few very minor guidelines, not written in stone. Unless you’re obese and/or a binge eater (in which case, you should be talking to a professional, anyway), don’t eat a LOT less than the estimated caloric burn you came up with above — a general rule of thumb is to create a 500 calorie daily deficit, which equals a pound a week (1 pound = 3,500 calories, so 7 x 500 would theoretically get you to that goal). Eating too little isn’t sustainable long-term. Don’t believe what you see on The Biggest Loser — that is on TV because it’s not normal and is a “show.” Slower and steadier is the way for people living normal lives.
  • If you’re a small woman who already burns a relatively small number of calories a day, you need an even smaller daily deficit, over fewer meals a day. Dividing a relatively low number of calories into 6 meals doesn’t work. I am in this group, and I am here to witness to you that safe, sustainable weight loss for smaller people takes longer. And that means little slip ups mean bigger problems for us. Again, it sucks, but it’s life.
  • Play with your calories it a little and see how your body responds. Don’t eat less than 1,200 calories a day. Going much lower than 1,200 puts you at risk for not getting enough nutrients and also for getting super hungry and veering off course into an all-out eating frenzy, something we want to avoid. If you’re an athlete and you ramp up your training significantly and drop your calories really low, don’t expect good things. Lower calories generally mean a lower training volume. If you want to train hard, you might have to allow yourself additional calories (and again, this goes mostly toward advanced exercisers/athletes — if you’re not sure whether you’re in this group, you’re likely not.).

Fifth:

  • You should make sure that your meals and snacks (and btw, I don’t really like using the word “snack” because it conjures up visions of potato chips and Ho-Hos. I am not talking about snack products. I am talking about mini feedings of “real” foods between your regular meals) are balanced — ideally, they all should contain a veggie or fruit, a protein, and a small amount of fat. Some of them can contain starchy carbs (whole grains, rice, potatoes, legumes, etc.), but watch carefully your calorie expenditure on the starches because they add up fast.
  • Try to eat whole, real foods. If something contains more than 5 ingredients, it’s a food product. Avoid loading up on sugar or fake foods. Don’t eat junk. Eat your veggies. You know all this, but chances are you don’t do it. Very few Americans eat a balanced healthy diet any more. We’ve been conditioned not to, and in fact, some of my clients report being ridiculed by others when they start making healthy choices. Sad, huh?

Sixth:

  • But I’ve done all that, and the scale isn’t budging!
  • REALLY? Have you really done all that? You’ve figured your caloric needs, tracked how many calories you REALLY are eating (including all the little nibbles you might have grabbed here and there), and the scale ISN’T moving? Huh. REALLY? (If you’ve been dieting successfully for a period of time and then the scale stops budging, I’ll stop with the REALLYs? Otherwise, I want to follow you around for a day and see what’s really happening.)
  • If the scale is stuck, we can get a little bit fancier (i.e., complicated), looking specifically at the macronutrients in your diet (the ratio of protein/veggies/fruits/starches/fat) you’re getting. But I’m not going to go there now, because there are so many what-ifs involved. But look at how many starchy carbohydrates you are eating, and if they make up the bulk of your calories, eat fewer of them, and add more veggies and lean proteins.

Seventh:

  • Keep a food journal. Use one of the great online tools — through myfitnesspal.com, livestrong.com, fitday.com, sparkpeople.com, or your favorite — to track your actual calorie consumption. It’s very educational.
  • You can’t be bothered? I know it’s a pain, but if you are looking at weight loss (or gain), do it anyway. It’s the best tool you’ll ever use in your journey to reshaping your body, and also in improving your health.