Sunday, October 20, 2013

Do Numbers matter?

Numbers are making us crazy. Nowadays, numbers make the world go round. How much did GDP grow this year? Did my real income increase? Should I save more? Is it clever to invest at a low interest rate? Numbers are in fashion, and we keep trying to express everything around us through mathematical models.

There is a lot of math involved in weight loss. How many calories do you eat? How many calories are you burning? What about carbs? How much do you weight? What is your body fat percentage? What about your BMI? The list goes on and on and on...

Today I want to filter out which numbers matter, and which measures you should forget about. I will look at the three most common measures of weight loss and fitness. I will talk about calories, weight, and body fat percentage. At some point I will look at low carb diets separately, and I believe that it is almost common knowledge that BMI is a very general and imprecise measure, so I won't really bother with it (unless you would like me to). Let's get started!

Calorie Balance

This is the most basic formula for weight loss: eat less calories than you are burning. My dad (a neurologist and psychiatrist--I blame him for everything that's wrong with me) used to tell me that only people with an eating disorder count calories, but I believe that's wrong. Keeping an eye on your energy intake and exertion can really help you to jump start weight loss. And don't just guess. At first, it is tedious to look up the nutritional information for all the food you are eating, but soon you will get the hang of it, and THEN you can start guessing. Try to make your meals no more than 600 calories (on average, the body can't take in more than that), and I found that 400-500 calories per meal is perfect. You don't feel too heavy, and you aren't starving. The easiest way to find out your energy/calorie needs is online, and you can Register for free at to help you assess your nutritional needs and come up with customized nutrition and exercise plans. Let's see: I can do the basics with you. First, it is interesting to know what your Basal Metabolic Rate is. This is the amount of calories you burn just to survive--breathing, digesting, basic movements, brain functions (if you're lucky...). 

Based on my information, the calculator tells me that in a somewhat sedentary state, I would burn 1,415 calories a day. Now let's see what happens when I put in my daily exercise level:

Now that you know what you can eat, start tracking your daily intake, and make sure that you don't eat more than you are burning. Generally, if you want to lose weight, you should cut your calories by around 500. Do NOT cut out more calories than that, as you would not reach your metabolic needs, and your body functions would suffer. I know this seems pretty basic, but this is what really helped me in the beginning, and it is what most people struggle with the most. Just changing my eating habits and really being conscious of what I am eating has already made a huge difference even without working out every day. Once again, just to remind you: Calories In < Calories Out


For us women, there are two taboos: nobody who wants to get out alive should start talking about 1) age and 2) weight. We don't like revealing how old we are, and how much we weigh (even I am starting to do that--and I am only best years are gone!). Personally, I don't believe in weight. If you are overweight to the point that you are at risk of serious health issues, you definitely need to take into account how much you weigh, and it is a good tool to track your progress. But that is only for the beginning. The closer you get to your ideal body shape, the less important it is to weigh yourself. I went to the gym with a friend of mine today, and she was really upset about the number she saw on the scale. I know it is hard to ignore it, but I usually just do not weigh myself. If, however, you are OCD and you want to keep exact records of all possible measurements, keep this in mind: weight fluctuates. There are many factors that influence your weight: how much water have you drank throughout your day, when was the last time you ate, did you exercise before, are you on your period, what time of the day is it, etc. So if you want to get a good idea about the changes in your weight, make sure you control for all these possible factors. I recommend, however, that you should rather go by how you feel and look. I believe that the importance of weight decreases with your progress.

Body Fat Percentage

Now this is an interesting one. When I started working with Michael here at, he gave me access to an account, and I took all the necessary measurements to calculate my BodyFat%. The program told me I am a proud 15%, which I am more than happy with. However, when I started Uni back in Edinburgh, I went to the gym and took two different tests, both of them telling me that I have a BodyFat% of 25. How could I have put on 10% Body Fat in 2 months? At first I was shocked and upset, because I thought all my hard work and effort somehow didn't pay off. I did some research online, and the results were even more confusing. Let's look at some of the evidence.

This time, if I believe the gym, I would look like the girl in the red bikini in the center left picture. It is not that far away from the truth, however, I think the 20-22% range would be more accurate. My 15% measurement this time doesn't give accurate results, however, at least it is rather flattering.

There are so many different formulas for calculating BodyFat% out there, that you will never get a definite answer. You should treat BodyFat% similar to your weight--it is a rough measure that you can use as a tracking tool for progress, but most of the time you might be better off just ignoring it unless you use professional guidance to track your weight loss journey, as online examples not offered by professional fitness services are dangerously unreliable. 

So how can you keep track of progress?

If you have read my last post (and I hope you all did), you will know the answer to this question. Take a before picture, and then take a picture of yourself every 2-4 weeks. That way you are able to actually see your progress. You will also be able to feel the difference, as your jeans are getting bigger and you aren't struggling to get up to your first floor flat anymore. Another good way of keeping track of your achievements is measuring the diameters of your problem zones. Take the measurements of your arms, waist, hips and upper thigh every time you take a selfie, and if you have been good with your diet and exercise, I promise these numbers will fall.

Where does this leave us? Use 'fitness measurements' as rough guidelines, and don't get too hung up about them. The only thing you should care about in the beginning is the amount of food you are eating (and don't forget those drinks!) relative to your exercise routine. In the end, numbers don't really matter; the most important part is seeing the change, feeling healthy, and being happy. I mean, Who likes math anyway?!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for an interesting blog. What else may I get that sort of info written in such a perfect approach? I have an undertaking that I am just now operating on, and I have been on the lookout for such info.