glow notes

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Hunger and weight loss or, what do I eat and how much?

Because I've lost a lot of weight over the last few years, I answer a lot of questions from people about how I did it. And I hear the same misconceptions that I used to have about getting fit and healthy. One belief that I've seen is that you have to go hungry to lose weight. While this was true in the 80's when we weren't eating any fat, we're past that now, aren't we?

You don't get to lose weight and pig out. But if you're really, truly, hungry (my test: does an apple sound as good as a snickers bar? OK, you're really hungry), you need food. If you're getting hungry but eating all the food you should be, maybe you're not getting the right macronutrient profile for your body. For many people, each meal should include protein, fat, and complex carbs. Also, I've played with various meal configurations and find that five mini-meals works best for me - I'm almost always eating so I never get very hungry. What does a day's food look like? Here's yesterday:

7am - coffee, sprouted grain toast with almond butter (200)
10:00 - zone bar (210)
1:00 - big salad with jumbo shrimp, low fat dressing, 1 ounce tortilla chips (350)
3:30 - chocolate whey protein drink with big old crunchy green apple (200)
6:00 - turkey meatballs with marinara, 1/2 serving whole wheat pasta, cooked spinach, mixed berries blended with yogurt and 50 grams soy ice cream. (500)
Total calories: 1460

I never felt hungry for more than 1/2 hour, and never very hungry. If I did, I would have eaten a bit more. Notice that each meal includes fat and protein as well as carbs. I'm not a perfect eater by any means. Ideally I'd eat a smaller dinner and a larger lunch, and Zone bars aren't as healthy as real food, but they're chocolate-y and easy and give me protein. And ice cream isn't in the diet of most body builders. The point is, this plan works for me. It works for my body and it works for my brain.

In determining how much I should eat in a day, I calculate my caloric need for my goal weight and use that as a top number. The basic formula is 14-16 calories per pound of body weight for an active woman. Ok, so at my goal weight of 120, I should be eating 1680-1920 calories per day (depending on whether I got a lot of activity that day). Cool, I'll make a number in between - say 1800 - my high number. If I'm well and truly hungry, and not fooling myself, I can have that much food energy in a day. My low intake threshold is my current weight times 10. I need at least 1300 calories a day right now. Less would be risking muscle loss and really ugly hunger. I set my target in between the two numbers at 1600 and adjust up or down as activity and hunger dictate.

I have a free meal every week or two. The calories of one meal won't hurt you, and some experts believe that it can help your body lose fat, plus it can help keep you from quitting. One note on that is that free meals used to send me into binges, so I avoided them. It's only the last year or so that I'm able to set up the boundaries necessary to enjoy a great meal, then go right back to planning my food intake. So, play with it and see what works for you.

If this seems like a lot of planning, it is. I am a planner. On the other hand, my husband plays it by ear. He's using the same basic outline, but he loosely adds the numbers up in his head rather than counting and logging. It works for him.

Here's the basic road map for this plan:

1. Do the calculations above, decide on your target, then break the number of calories into five small meals. For a 1500 calorie day, your mini-meals should average 300 calories. (For a more specific estimate of caloric needs, use this caloric needs calculator).

2. Eat a small meal every 2-3 hours. Each small meal should contain protein, fat, and carbs.

3. Eat whole grains, lean protein, nuts, legumes, fruits, and veggies as the bulk of your food, but allow yourself foods you enjoy within your calorie guidelines. I eat a small serving of ice cream or soy cream almost every evening, and I often eat chocolate. You're looking for a ratio of about 80% super healthy, 20% yummy.

4. Remember to drink lots of water, sometimes dehydration mimics hunger.

5. If you choose to have a free meal, decide on a day and really enjoy that free meal. Have something you well and truly want, not something you think you should want. If you want fast food, go for it. Ditto a steak dinner with a potato, beer and dessert. Ditto a huge plate of pasta with butter and cheese. But stick to that ONE meal.

This is not a formula. Everybody is different. Don't hesitate to experiment. If you don't like this plan, research options and work with some other models. Some people work well with the model of learning to recognize true (not emotional) hunger and eating exactly what they truly want. Others do well by using a higher protein, lower carb diet plan. Some people like to use a list of foods that they can eat to satiety, while avoiding other foods that are more nutrient dense. There are many many ways to make this work for you. There are personality variables as well as biological ones, so a bit of tweaking may be necessary to find the perfect fit.

A final note: don't hesitate to get help if you need it. If you feel that you are hungrier than you should be or you are having trouble with bingeing or you are eating the right amounts but not losing weight, find a medical or mental health professional that you trust and ask for help! I did, and it has transformed my life in ways that go WAY beyond food.

Also, what's not working isn't a failure, it's a clue, so don't beat yourself up. More on that later.

What's working or not working for you?

Resources:
Mistress Krista on food (click on "eating" and then "dieting 101.")
Geneen Roth, author of many books on recovering from compulsive eating

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