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How to lose weight without starving yourself

Dec 31, 2013 • general

As this is New Years time, I wanted to write about a goal that many make every year: the goal to lose weight. For technical writers and other IT professionals, staying fit and healthy can be a real challenge. We sit in desks and stare at computers all day, generally being as sedentary as can be. It's easy for our bodies to degenerate into unhealthy blobs.

As a technical writer, physical activity is not the norm on the job. In fact, you can show up at 9am, sit in your desk pretty much all day, and leave at 6pm, getting up only for bathroom breaks and lunch.

As a technical writer, you have to be extra vigilant to stay in shape. All the wearable fit tech trending in 2014, like Nike Fuel, Jawbone Up, or Fitbit, isn't going to really solve the problem (though they would no doubt may make the process more fun.)

Here's basically how you lose weight: burn more calories than you consume. It's a math problem, essentially. That's not the difficult part. The question is how you operate on fewer calories than you need without feeling like you're starving.

In general, to lose 2 lbs a week, you have to limit your calorie intake to about 1,500 calories a day (actual numbers depend on your size, of course). The problem is that 1,500 calories barely makes it past lunch. Unless you eat about 2,500 calories in a day, you'll feel weak and lethargic -- starving.

The trick to overcoming the starving feeling is twofold:

  • Eat healthier food (which allows you to eat more and hence feel more full)
  • Exercise more (which adjusts your net calorie count and suppresses your appetite)

Eat healthier food

If you eat healthy food, mostly fruits and vegetables, you can eat a lot, and it's more filling than junk food. For an example, check out this stunning visual Photographic series showing what 200 calories looks like in different foods.

For example, you can eat a whole plate of broccoli or about 2/3 of a Snickers bar:

200 calories food

See also this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0j9ozbN681s

You can eat an orange and a whole plateful of spinach, and you'll be full for hours. Or you can eat a bag of chips and be full for an hour before feeling empty again.

Healthy food doesn't have to taste like grass. Rather than eating raw spinach, for example, sauté some onions and mushrooms, add some sausage, and put in a couple of handfuls of spinach. Add a couple of eggs and stir it around for 5 minutes until the spinach is droopy but not lifeless. You'll find this spinach is the most flavorful, filling food you've ever eaten.

Same with broccoli. Sure, eating raw stalks of broccoli isn't going to be fun. But steam the broccoli, add some butter and cheese and salt (but not too much -- just a bit to flavor it), and bam, the broccoli is actually edible. It even tastes good!

How about apples? Apples are pretty nutritious, but they're a bit boring. The next time you eat an apple, throw in a tablespoon of peanut butter. Not too much peanut butter (maybe 1 tbsp), but enough to add a little excitement. You'll soon be eating several apples a day.

Don't like grapefruit? Try this. Peel about 6 grapefruit and cut them in half, and then dice them into thumb-size pieces. Put the pieces in a container full of sugar water so they soak. When you're hungry for grapefruit, spoon some from the container into a bowl. Delicious!

Of course you can add too much sugar, butter, cheese, peanut butter, dressing, or whatever to fruit and vegetables in an effort to spruce them up (and therefore cancel their healthiness). But adding a little "excess" so that the food is more enticing isn't a sin. It's the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

Get more exercise

Eating fruits and vegetables helps you feel full longer, but it isn't enough to take away hunger pangs. You have to exercise too. If you exercise for an hour, you can add the calories you burned to your total calories available. This becomes your net calorie intake.

For example, ride your bike for an hour and bam, you've just increased your net calorie limit from 1500 to about 2200.

Go on a 30 minute walk at lunch and a 30 min. evening walk after dinner and voila, you earned yourself an extra 600 calories for the day.

When choosing exercise, I recommend alternating between high impact and low impact activities. I love to play basketball (which is high impact, especially on a cement court), but after playing for a couple of hours, my joints and bones get tired and my body gets sore. Sure it's good exercise, but if it puts me out of commission for several days, that exercise works against me.

However, by alternating high impact activities (usually sports, which are fun) with low impact activities (such as swimming, biking, or walking -- often less fun but still rewarding), you can both recover and burn a lot of calories without wearing out your body.

With low-impact activities, I listen to books from Audible to make the exercise more enjoyable. For example, last night I walked about an hour while listening to Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart.

If you're looking for some good Audible book recommendations, try these:

  • Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  • The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan
  • Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
  • Inferno, by Dan Brown
  • The Millenium Trilogy (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), by Stieg Larrson
  • State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

And some non-fiction:

  • Big Data, by Viktor Mayer-Schöberger, Kenneth Cukier
  • Too Big to Know, by David Weinberger
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
  • No Easy Day, by Mark Owen
  • Forged in the Name of God, by Bart Ehrman
  • Your Brain at Work, by David Rock

I love listening to audio books. The $15 a month subscription fee with Audible is money well spent. The narrations are clear, professional, and delightful to listen to. Most of the actors use voices when reading characters. If you want to save money, libraries also have lots of audio books for free.

Of course the more you exercise, the hungrier you'll be. But exercise reduces your overall appetite, so you'll save calories overall.

Between the extra nutrition you get by eating healthy food and the extra calories allotted due to exercise, the 1500 calorie limit is actually achievable. With an hour of exercise, your net calorie limit ends up being about 2300.

You'll still be a bit hungry, but not starving. And after a few days, you'll hit a new normal where your standard mode changes a bit. You won't be full, but you won't be starving either. You'll be somewhere in between. At first you'll feel a bit hungry, but then as time goes on and the new normal kicks in, your half empty stomach at 8pm will feel somewhat normal. Not entirely normal, of course, because your body is losing weight so the extra fat has to burn. But you won't be starving, and so it's bearable.

Finally, in trying to lose weight, remember to be patient. Even though losing 2 lbs a week may be the goal, losing 1 lb / week is probably more realistic. But the cool thing is, once you start making progress, it's exhilarating. You feel greater than ever before, with more energy, self-confidence, agility, quickness, and endurance. These positive results feed in to your motivation to keep you moving forward.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.