Tag Archives: diet

To Lose More Weight, Eat Early, Not Late

(That’s right: the headline does rhyme.) Research done in Spain seems to indicate that advice like having a big breakfast and not eating late dinners are actually not old wives’ tales. The study followed 420 fat people (equal numbers of each gender) for 20 weeks: half of them were early eaters, that ate their big meal before 3pm, and half were late eaters. This was a weight loss study, so they all ate a paltry 1400 calories per day, and got similar levels of exercise and sleep. But, the ones that ate early, lost 30% more weight: 22 lbs vs 17 lbs for the late eaters.

The scientists don’t really know why, or if it’s even a causal relationship — a third factor, say… nervous pacing, could’ve caused both the early eating and faster weight loss. But if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s worth giving it a try; after all, what you believe about weight loss has a significant impact on how effective it is.

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Posted Calorie Counts Are Not Very Accurate

One of the provisions of Obamacare is that all restaurants with more than 20 locations are required to post the number of calories in their menu items. (Even though Obamacare was passed in 2010, the requirement doesn’t go into effect until the second half of 2013 because of red tape: the FDA had to first come up with regulations, hold discussions on them, get final approval, and then publish them for six months before they take effect.) Most people that aren’t in the business of selling junk food see this as a great step forward in helping people realize exactly how much stuff they’re eating. But, the system is far from perfect.

200 calories' worth of apples. Photo from wiseGEEK.


The government-sanctioned way of figuring out how many calories are in food — and so far, the only practical way to do it at all — is called the Atwater System, and is named after the chemistry professor at Wesleyan who developed it around the 1890s.  Mostly, it involves burning food in a bomb calorimeter to figure out how much energy it has, and subtracting what’s been left over after digestion. But, according to NPR, this process has some flaws:

  • Processed and unprocessed foods are treated the same, even though our bodies would extract more calories from processed foods, which have in effect been pre-digested. Meaning that if two foods have the same number of calories on the label, if one of them is raw (like fruits and rare steak), your body will end up with less of its calories than the processed one (like candy and hamburgers).
  • Processed carbohydrates are particularly bad because they don’t make us feel full. The calories from a chicken breast will keep someone full a lot longer than the same calories in a chocolate bar.
  • There are also upsides though, because for some foods, the body spends a lot of energy digesting them — or doesn’t get as much energy out of them for various reasons — making the caloric count on the label higher than what you actually end up with.

200 calories' worth of Hershey's Kisses. Photo from wiseGEEK.


So even if the number of calories on the label or menu accurately showed the amount of raw energy in food, they don’t accurately represent how much of that energy our bodies absorb, or how long that energy will last us.

And as it turns out, the labels are not likely to even be accurate. In New York City, most food already has to have caloric labels, so Casey Neistat — the filmmaker who, among other short films, made an interesting video a few months back about how toothless the NYC soda ban really is — decided to test their accuracy. He took five items that he was likely to eat in one day to a food lab and had their energy measured. All but one came in over their stated number of calories:

  • a yogurt muffin actually had 735 calories instead of the 640 on the label
  • a Starbucks coffee had 393 instead of 370
  • a Chipotle burrito, 1295 instead of 1175
  • a tofu sandwich, 548 instead of 228
  • a Subway sandwich, 351 instead of 360 — the only item that was under

Starbucks and Chipotle you can forgive, because no matter how hard the employees try, no two coffees or burritos will be the same. Subway came in under that amount most likely for the same reason. But the muffin and the tofu sandwich were pre-packaged and probably should have been closer to their goal. Part of the problem is that New York City doesn’t enforce the accuracy of the calorie count — only their presence.

But regardless of blame, at the end of the day Casey ate 3321 calories instead of the 2773 calories the labels showed. That’s 549 extra calories that he didn’t intend to eat and wouldn’t have accounted for; as he points out in the video below, it’s the equivalent of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or two donuts.

The take-away? Calorie counts on the nutrition labels are not very accurate, and even if they were, they still wouldn’t represent how many of those calories your body gets, or how long it will keep hunger at bay.

At best, the number is a guideline that opens our eyes to unbelievable truths, like that a donut is the equivalent of two grilled chicken breasts. In that way, counting calories is like a very poor window thermometer that tells you if it’s warm or cold outside, but its temperature can be off by a few degrees. Still, it’s better than no thermometer.

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From NPR and The New York Times

People Who Eat Healthier Snack More

Market research firm NPD Group followed people’s eating habits for two years and found out that those with the healthiest eating habits had 36% more snacks than average; the ones with the least healthy diets snacked 29% less than normal. Conclusion: snacking helps you keep to a healthy diet.


What should you be snacking on? The Huffington Post compiled a list of snacks that nutritionists eat:

  • Greek yogurt
  • Snack-size vegetables, like carrots
  • Apples (probably also pears, nectarines and bananas)
  • Roasted walnuts or almonds
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Edamame
  • Avocado

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From NPD and Huffington Post, via Lifehacker

Science Tells Us What Works For Weight Loss

AsapSCIENCE makes short videos in which they explain the science behind various things — like hangovers — and then give you tips that make your life better. Their latest video has the dos (and a don’t) for losing weight:

  • Exercise: big surprise. The calories you burn during exercise come mostly from carbs; later, while you rest, it has no more carbs to get energy from, so it burns fat instead. So after you exercise, eat meat or cheese — not pasta. Also, don’t work out hungry, and your exercise routine should include weights, interval training, and metabolic resistance.
  • Don’t skip meals: when your body gets stressed out, it will release a hormone called ghrelin that makes you want junk food. That stress can be from working too much, not getting enough sleep, being too hungry, getting in a fight with your mistress, or what have you. You can resist that urge for a while, but your will power is limited, and your body will win out since it obviously always wins — otherwise you wouldn’t need to lose weight. (Crash diets don’t work for a similar reason.) So rather than skip a meal, eat a chicken breast and an orange, because that’ll keep you from giving in to pizza and a hot fudge sundae later.
  • Sleep as much as you need: see above
  • Avoid stress: you better have read that bullet about the ghrelin!


Not Ghrelin


  • Eat breakfast: not necessarily when you wake up, but eat when you first get hungry. That will keep your metabolism burning faster the whole day, and bring your blood sugar and hormone levels to where they should be.
  • Eat more meat: a little bit more protein keeps you full a lot longer. The body’s response to protein is to release a large amount of the peptide YY, which reduces appetite.
  • Eat low-fat dairy: the calcium binds to fat in your stomach and makes a substance that can’t be absorbed. The result: less fat gets from your food to your spare tire.
  • Drink soup and smoothies: thick liquids take a lot longer for your stomach to process, making you feel full longer than if the liquid and solid food were separate.
  • Count calories: studies show it does wonders for weight loss. Besides telling your brain what your body forgot (i.e., when to stop eating), it also shows you the price of junk food, when you realize that a can of soda and two cups of cherries have the same calories.
  • Use smaller plates: this is a psychological trick that makes the same amount of food look bigger, only because we want our containers to be overflowing with food. If you use smaller plates, you’ll be more satisfied with less food. There are other psychological tricks you can play on your brain, like having people tell you a meal had more calories than it actually did (which makes you feel full), or that your exercise routine is more effective than it actually is.

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From YouTube, via Neatorama

Calorie Counting Is Like Training Wheels For Eating Well

Tony Horton, the P90X guy, has been writing for Ask Men lately. In this week’s column, he talks about calorie counting and takes the same view Churchill took on democracy: it’s pretty bad, but it’s the best we’ve got. The reason it’s bad is because even if done extremely well and diligently, it’s a poor approximation. There is no way for the average person to exactly count how many calories are in an apple or a chicken wing. And there is no way for them to know how many calories they burn throughout the day from various activities and the base metabolic rate.

Photo by John Schilling


Actually, there is a way: hunger. But the problem with hunger is modern Western culture. Hunger is not always true hunger, but a craving for junk food that tastes good, for a reward at the end of the day, or for something to do because Boardwalk Empire is good, but kinda boring. The challenge for most people is to be able to tell the difference between hunger and cravings, to distinguish the true meaning of cravings, and to quench them with healthy choices: banana instead of ice cream, salmon instead of potato chips. And calorie counting is a great way to start on that path: it shows with numbers just how bad unhealthy food is, with its high calorie content and low nutritional value.

And after that information is ingrained into the super-ego, we can consciously make healthy food choices that the id will accept and eventually get our instincts back on a healthy track like they were meant to be, before sugar, preservatives and chemicals hijacked our diet.

From Ask Men

Low-Protein Diets Don’t Work Too Well

According to a new study (PDF) in the Journal of the American Medical Association, if you eat too much but avoid proteins, you gain less weight than someone who eats normal amounts of protein, but more of you turns to blubber. So if you overeat, go for the protein instead of the carbs.


The study wasn’t about weight loss diets, because they had people eat an extra thousand calories per day. They divided the subjects into low, normal and high-protein diet groups and the ones in the last two gained about the same amount of weight, but much of it was lean body mass and their base metabolic rate increased, which means they were burning more calories at rest. The ones in the low-protein group, on the other hand, gained about half the weight, but much of that was in fat, and they even lost lean body mass.

From The Journal of the American Medical Association (PDF), via NPR

Why Crash Diets Don’t Work

Your body is really not a fan of quick weight loss — or maybe it’s just the more primitive parts of your brain. In any case, a new study shows that you need a lot of will power to lose weight fast and keep it off, because even a year later, your body still remembers it used to be fatter. In its infinite wisdom, it will try to make you eat more, because it feels less secure in its ability to survive… in case you got stranded somewhere with no 7-Elevens. (Apparently this need to survive in unlikely scenarios trumps more likely concerns, like the ability to not get heart disease, the ability to be attractive, and the ability to go up stairs without wheezing and having people stare.) Metabolism was also down.

So that’s why people usually gain all the weight back, and then some. Which just reinforces what the fitness community’s been preaching for years: eat healthy, eat less calories and exercise — for the rest of your life. You’ll end up losing weight slowly (you also gained it slowly, since you probably didn’t gain 30 lbs in 3 months), and your body, like the frog in boiling water, will get used to being thinner and not raise alarms about it.

Details of the study? Sure: the (Australian) researchers put 50 fat people on a crash diet (550 calories/day, meaning a quarter of normal) for 2.5 months. They lost about 30lbs each, or 14% of their body weight; they also tested their blood for levels of hormones dealing with appetite and hunger, and they were in “eat more” mode. Then they went back a year later, and the people had gained back about 13 lbs each and were now down to 8% weight loss. They also measured their hormones again, and they were still telling people to eat more. For example, leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, was low; ghrelin, which says you’re hungry, was high.


Ghrelin is not the same thing as Gremlin


From The New England Journal of Medicine, via NPR

Eat Healthy To Lose Weight, And Other Myths

Livestrong has an excellent slideshow about the most common dieting myths. The biggest one they address is the myth that you can lose weight by doing something other than eating less calories than you burn — which is unpossible. In order to lose weight, the only thing that matters is calories in minus calories out. This includes the following dieting tips” we hear often:

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals to boost your metabolism. Your basal metabolic rate will stay pretty much the same as long as there’s enough food. This method might help you eat less calories per day, in which case it’s great — but eating six 300 calorie meals a day is the same as eating three 600 calorie meals.
  • Unprocessed foods will help you lose weight faster. It doesn’t matter if you eat 600 calories in apples or in twinkies; the only thing that matters is that you burn more of those calories than you eat. The nutrition professor that lost 27 pounds on a Twinkie diet proves this. Eating healthy is good for you in other ways, like disease prevention, but for weight loss only calories matter.
  • Eating fatty foods makes you fat — as if the fat from pork somehow bypasses your mouth and goes straight to your thighs. All food is processed by the digestive system and turned into energy; leftover energy is turned into fat. If you eat 2,000 calories a day, all from fat, but you burn 2,500, you’ll lose weight. If you eat 2,000 calories a day in proteins and carbs but you only burn 1,500, you’ll gain weight. The source of the calories is irrelevant.
  • Eating carbs makes you fat. Same idea as above — the number of calories is the only thing that matters, not where they come from.
  • White bread, rice, etc makes you fat. See the pattern? Whole grain bread may be healthier for other reasons, but eating a truckload of it will make you just as fat as eating a truckload of white bread.
  • Dairy makes you fat. Hopefully the overarching message has sunk in by now; if it hasn’t… wow. The interesting thing about dairy though, is that yogurt has actually been proven to help with weight loss, but the reason isn’t known — maybe it’s a mild appetite suppressant, since dairy should be disgusting.

    This is the guy that lost 27 pounds by eating Twinkies. TWINKIES.

  • You can trick your body into losing weight without decreasing calories. The reason diets like Atkins work is exactly because people reduce calories. How much meat and cheese can you eat without washing it down with a coke? Most diets that have a gimmick like that actually trick you into eating less calories, by removing high-calorie foods like sugar from your diet. So they trick the mind, not the body. As long as it works, kudos to them — but it’s not because they figured out some secret of getting the body to burn fat.
  • The Paleo diet will help you lose weight. If you eat less calories it will, otherwise it won’t do a thing. See above.
  • Eating late at night makes you fat. The idea here is that your body uses a tiny amount of energy while asleep, so all the food you eat before you go to bed will be turned into fat. In reality, you use just a slightly smaller amount of energy while sleeping, because you don’t move around as much. But your body still burns calories at a high rate, since it’s still making you breathe, keeping you warm, digesting food, etc. And it takes about 6 hours for it to digest a meal — unless you go out for a run after dinner instead of watching TV for a few hours, you’ll burn roughly the same calories as when you’re sleeping. Not to mention that what matters more is the calorie deficit on a longer time scale, like a few days or a week; not per meal or per day.
  • Diet sodas trick your body into getting fatter, because it makes your body crave more sugar. They (and regular sodas) may make your tolerance for sweets higher, but sweets aren’t crack.
  • Weight loss supplements work. Research shows that any effect they have is minimal. The only thing that is proven to work is diet and exercise.

A protein (myoglobin)


The article also sets us straight about protein, salt and sugar:

  • Sodium is not really that bad for you. It was another one of those things the government got wrong in the 1980s, like that fatty foods are bad for you. For people with high-blood pressure sodium is bad, but for the rest of us, it’s fine.
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup, or corn sugar, is not worse than regular sugar. It would be like saying a punch in the face is worse than a kick in the face. They’re both just awful for you, and you should cut them out as much as you can.
  • There’s no 30 gram limit of protein that your body can digest from a meal.
  • Protein shakes don’t make you bulky. It depends how much protein shake you have, because per serving, they don’t have many calories.
  • Protein bars are really unhealthy, because they’re packed with a ton of sugar to cover up for the awful, awful taste of protein and make the bars palatable.
  • You don’t have to eat right after a workout just because your body burns protein like a champ about 2 hours after working out. Like in most cases, listen to your body and eat when you’re hungry. If you don’t have enough protein, you’ll suddenly crave meat or nuts or whatever — your body is magic like that.
  • Protein is not bad for your kidneys, and has never been proven to be.

From Livestrong

Mind Over Fatter

According to two separate articles, a diet is only as good as you think it is. This revelation comes from two studies: one, in 2006, in which a group of housekeepers were told they got a pretty good amount of exercise, and it was healthy for them. The other group of housekeepers got told nothing. What happened? The first group lost two pounds in a month and their blood pressure dropped. The second group, bupkis.

Banksy's maid in Chalk Farm. Photo by Rachel Slack.


The second study in question, from last month, is based on more treachery: all of the subjects were given the same kind of milk shake, but some were told it had half the calories it actually did, and others were told it had twice the actual amount. The researchers then measured the levels of a hormone (called “ghrelin”) in the subjects’ blood, which are higher if you’re hungry. The people that thought they ate the half-calorie milkshake had a lot higher levels (almost unchanged from before they ate the milkshake) than the ones who thought they ate the double-calorie milkshake. Even though they had the same milkshake.

Sycamore Fig Tree


What does this mean? Well, maybe Jesus was on to something:

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Matthew 21:18-22


So pray to lose weight, and if you have faith, it won’t actually matter if God heard your prayers.


From Psychology Today and IO9, via Lifehacker