Dieting: It Doesn't Have To Suck

If you want to lose weight, you must consume fewer calories than you expend. There is no getting around it. Thinking about exercising harder? That helps, but it won't save you from bad eating habits. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that you have to get your diet in order. Fortunately, it doesn't have to suck.

I'll say it again: you need to eat fewer calories than you expend (on average). Any diet that ever works for anybody does so because it gets them to do this and keep doing it. No special food, eating schedule, or exercise (aside from Olympic-level, full-time-job levels of exercise) will let you avoid this. You really do have to eat less. Sorry. Let me take a moment to expand on the subject of exercise.

I originally dedicated three paragraphs to food in my last post, and there's a reason for that. While exercise is very helpful for weight loss and essential for general health, diet has a far greater effect. Take a look at a 10.3 oz can of mixed nuts. I can eat one of these in a single sitting. It's not even that hard. That's 1700 calories right there. According to a fairly well-regarded calculator, I need to eat 2582 calories per day to maintain my weight. So, that can of nuts is about 65% of my calories for one day. By contrast, if I spend an hour on an exercise bike at pretty high intensity, I will burn about 700 calories. They say you can't outrun your fork, and it's true. Unless you're an Olympic-level athlete in active training (i.e. exercise is your full-time job), you cannot out-exercise a bad diet.

When you think "diet", do you think "eating bland, boring salads all the time"? Well, that's a perfectly valid diet for weight loss, but it's not your only option. In fact, if you want to eat nothing but Twinkies, multi-vitamins (scurvy and rickets are bad), and green beans (inadequate fiber is not a pleasant experience), you can lose weight that way. (Yes, somebody actually did that.) You just have to eat a sufficiently small quantity that your total calorie intake is low enough. That probably won't be very satisfying if done with Twinkies, though. It's much better to reduce your meat and processed food intake and increase your vegetable intake. Why? Well, vegetables are not very calorie-dense compared to meat and processed food. Thus, you can eat a satisfyingly large volume of food without going overboard on calories.

If you think you don't like vegetables, it may be that you just haven't had them prepared to your liking, or you haven't tried the right ones. Try a few different ways of preparing them. Personally, I avoid steaming vegetables; I find that it tends to make them unappetizingly mushy. I prefer to saute my vegetables in olive oil (substitute other oils as desired, and don't use a ridiculous amount), but I also like them lightly coated in oil and herbs and baked. A slow cooker may be a wise investment: it's easy to make a large amount of healthy stew or chili on Sunday and not have to cook again until Saturday (depending on how many people you have to feed, of course).

As for which vegetables, my go-to veggies are carrots, onions, celery, and spinach (or collard greens). With the occasional exception of spinach and onions, I never eat these raw. Especially celery. It just tastes awful to me raw. Carrots aren't much better. I suspect this is due to alkaloids in these vegetables and my personal sensitivity to alkaloids. Fortunately, it doesn't take much cooking to destroy these unpleasant substances, and a bit of oil and a generous helping of herbs will cover up whatever's left. I also like to add beans to my dishes. They add fiber and protein, and they're tasty. Which beans I use depends on what I'm making; different kinds of beans go better with different types of food. For example, I tend to use black beans with poultry and red beans with red meat, but sometimes I also go with edamame or lima beans instead. Edamame have a particularly good carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, if that's important to you.

Also, oils (olive oil is a good one) are not the enemy (but don't go overboard with them), and herbs are your best friends. I honestly cannot emphasize the value of herbs enough. A bit (or a bunch) of oregano, basil, and sage can turn an uninspiring dish into a delicious one, and the amount of calories added is too low to even think about. Add just enough oil to make them stick to whatever you're cooking, and you're good to go! Unless you have high blood pressure, don't shy away from salt, either. Generally avoid sugar, but if a recipe calls for a fairly small amount (e.g. tomato sauce), don't sweat it. I recommend avoiding non-fruit carbohydrates in general, but the composition of your diet really isn't as important as the total amount of calories and whether you can stick with it. It may take weeks, months, or years to reach your goal weight (depending on where you start and where you want to go), and any diet that relies on food that isn't delicious is not going to last.

Lastly, bear in mind that there's no diet that works for everyone, either. The fact that a particular diet worked for me does not mean that the same diet will work for you, simply because you are not me. Therefore, experiment! As long as you are burning more calories than you are eating, you are making progress, so don't be afraid to change your tactics! I've changed my approach a few times for various reasons. It's fine. Figure out what works for you and isn't so onerous that you abandon it immediately. Do make sure you give any new diet a fair shake, though. I'd say that if a diet seems good at first, stick with it for a month or two, then reevaluate. Don't ditch it as soon as the novelty wears off.