Thursday, March 24, 2016

Apps for Weight Loss

I mentioned in my previous post that I'm about halfway through my goal of losing 15 lbs. This is not exactly my first time needing to lose weight. Let's face it - if you're human, chances are there's been at least one moment in your life where you needed to go on a quest of self-improvement. Luckily, it's just 15 lbs. this time around, and not the 130 lbs. I had to lose once before. The thing is, that although I am seeing success, in some ways this has been much harder than that 130 lb. weight loss journey. Since 15 lbs. is something I think more can relate to, a more common struggle than the 130 lb. struggle, I thought it a good idea to share some tips on what's been working for me.

When I had 130 lbs. to lose, the hardest part about losing the weight was all in my mind and soul. It was more about being ready to do it, to be willing to take on a challenge, to be unafraid of the outcome. Once I realized I had to do it and do it for real, I was able to take the bull by the horns. The actual doing it wasn't hard to figure out, when we think of the math and science behind it. If we remove all emotion and just look at the numbers....It's simple calories in vs calories out.

I often had people say that they have 10lbs to lose and were finding it very difficult - they couldn't understand how I could be successful in losing so much. The thing is, the less you have to lose, the harder it is to do so in many ways, because your caloric need isn't very high to begin with. I had lots of calories to work with so I didn't have to work as hard to trim down. I had an advantage over the average person looking to lose the 10lbs. Let me illustrate it further.

When I was a 28 year old woman, weighing in at almost 290lbs., I would burn over 2000 calories a day just living and breathing, even if I were to lay in bed all day. Once I got over myself and started to do the math and science, adding in activity to burn more calories, the amount of calories I could eat to have a deficit each day was still pretty generous. I did nothing to track it because it was simple science; if I didn't eat crap most of the time, I would lose weight.

But now, as an almost 36 year old woman ( I'm older!) who weighs a lot less (so I'm smaller too), my BMR is much less. I only have 1500 or so calories a day to work with. What complicates this is that I'm already really active, but how do I know how many calories that entitles me to in addition to my BMR? And I already eat healthy, most of the time, so cutting the crap out of the diet isn't the fix this time. I guess I'd been having too much of the good stuff. How do I know how much to cut? Or what to cut? Then there are all the factors that impact metabolism. Oh, and when you lose a few pounds, the math changes again. You think you have it figured out, but now you weigh less so you burn less with every activity. Unfortunately, the food doesn't change their calorie levels to balance it out.

We all have a tendency to overestimate how much we burn when we exercise. We also tend to underestimate the number of calories there are in food. We think, I ran, therefore I can eat all the food I want. But you can't outrun bad nutritional choices. You can easily negate the calorie burn of a workout with one bad choice.

So, because it's now suddenly complicated, I decided to seek help. When I worked at the gym, we got our clients to use an online platform for tracking. Unfortunately, the platform we used was not user-friendly and it turned me off of the idea of using an app. But I had heard people talk about the success of using an app of sorts so I didn't fully disregard the suggestion. An app can helps you make sense of the math, but also to hold yourself honest and accountable to your plan. After some research about a month ago (only some research, I didn't go on an extended search), I settled on an app that has proven to be easy to use and has worked well for me so far. I thought it worthwhile to share more here on this blog after I told a friend about it today - I realized I had a lot to say. The app is called Cronometer and no, they didn't ask me to write about them. This is my unbiased opinion. There very well could be something much better than what I've found, but it's working well for me so far.

Some of what I like about the app is that there's an desktop platform and also a smart phone version. The phone version cost me about $3 to download, but it was a worthwhile spend as it means I can track on the go as well. The app does all the math for me, updates my calorie allowance and burn from activity when I log a weight change, it generates reports on my progress, it knows all kinds of common and uncommon foods already so I don't have to add custom foods often, it remembers what I regularly eat and suggests (it knows I don't skip my morning coffee!), and I can add custom recipes that include all the ingredients for recipes I prepare at home and it generates the nutritional content of the recipe. It also goes beyond the basic macronutrient counting of carbs, fats, and proteins and tracks the micronutrients too. This is helpful for me as I've been iron deficient before. And you can also set your own targets for if you want to lose, maintain, or gain weight, but also targets for your macros that match your goals. So it doesn't shout at me about having a high carb ratio as a runner.

This isn't meant to be a review of the app I use, but rather, I thought I could offer a couple tips for using this app, or any other calorie tracking app you wish to use.
  1. Don't double-count them calories!
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is what you would burn even if you were to lay in bed all day, just so your body can maintain it's normal functioning. The question is how to account for the other stuff you do in your day that burns calories? My answer = make a choice - but don't double-count! Here are the choices:
    • Choice 1 -  Set your BMR as if you are sedentary so your allowance is just your basic BMR based on your age, sex, height, and weight. Then add all your activity yourself, add in your workouts and other higher-calorie-burning activities. To calculate your BMR, there are a gazillion calculators online to help you with this. Cronometer has one built in.
    • Choice 2 - There is also the option of using the Harris Benedict Equation which multiplies your BMR by an activity factor, based on how active you are. It then gives you an additional calorie allowance per day based on an assumed average. Do not add workouts on top of this - the equation is meant to offer an average of what you'd burn in a week and therefore what you can consume. If you set up your BMR including an activity factor, you can't double-count by also adding in this morning's run. Nice try! Again, lots of online calculators to help you know your activity factor, but Cronometer has it built in, if you choose to use it.
What works for me?
    • I go with option #1. It's a bit more work to log each workout, but I wanted to be more accurate with my tracking. The other thing is that when I do a big workout, I tend to be a bit hungrier that day and naturally I will eat a little more that day as a result. For example, when I do a long run, there are additional consumed calories with energy gels, post-workout protein, etc., and I may even eat a whole extra meal. It adds up to a bunch more calories. I don't want to feel bad for wanting more food that day than on a rest day because, well, I shouldn't feel bad. If I base my daily allowance on a weekly average, I will be "overeating" on those days.  But on that long run, I burned over a 1000 calories so it's more than OK. 
    • This same approach keeps me honest and on track on those days I am not active at all. If I am hungry in the evening and the app says I have almost reached my allowance for the day, I will have a controlled portion of say a bit of fruit or veg even though I might be craving something larger. Or if I really want a treat, I have to make sure to do something additional that's active like go for an evening brisk walk.
2. Plan for success and log your food and activity ahead of time!
I love love love this feature of Cronometer and it's something I recommend doing. Yes, you can log tomorrow before tomorrow happens. This comes in handy when you have meal planned in advance, know exactly what you're having the next day for one or more meals, or have your workout pre-planned. It saves time, logging everything daily, and then you know you're setting yourself up for success in your planning. I'll give you some examples:

I have been having smoothies for breakfast and have already logged my common recipes. I have leftovers of a big bowl salad I made today that I can have for lunch tomorrow. Again, the recipe is already logged. But now my friends have invited me out for a drink tomorrow. How do I not go over my limit once I factor in dinner too? I go into tomorrow's page, log the smoothie, log the salad, and log the beer that I am excited to indulge on with my friends! I have not had any of these things yet as tomorrow hasn't happened, but now I see what I have left to work with for deciding on my dinner. Or perhaps it offers insight into what I should aim to burn a bit in my workout, so it might alter my plan slightly now. Make sense?

Another example, I log all the things I want to take with me for snacks and meals for a work day, so I can see if I'm packing too much. I do this because let's face it, if it's in my lunchbag, I will eat it. It won't go back home with me. If in the process of logging it, I see that I've gone over what I should, I don't pack it. And in the case of me not eating something I thought I might, or not finishing it, I can simply delete it or edit the portion size later to match reality.

3. Always be conservative with your estimates

Maybe it's that I don't fully trust an app to know me and the machine my body is, or how it works? Maybe I don't trust myself to know my elementary school math with complete accuracy when it comes to basic units of measure. Or it's just because of my assumption that I mentioned above that we all have a tendency to overestimate how much we burn when we exercise and that we also tend to underestimate the number of calories there are in food. So if I ran for 45 minutes, I might log it as 40 minutes. Or if I am logging what I ate and I think I ate about a cup of something, I might log it as a cup and a half, because chances are, I am eyeballing it wrong, and I didn't use a measuring cup or scale to know for sure. I round up my calories in and round down my calories out.

I could go on and on, but I will stop here. If you read this and have additional questions, let me know. I would be happy to give you my two cents.

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