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TWIL: How Calories Work

Keeping with the spirit of the “new year, new me” attitude, a group of people at my job decided to start a Biggest Loser-style weight loss competition. I was there for its conception; before the new year, a coworker stopped to chat with me on a stairwell about how inactive they felt and how they wanted to do a better job with meal-planning. We jokingly agreed that it would be a fun idea to have the competition, and went on our merry way.

Fast forward to about a week later- this same coworker emailed the competition idea to a manager, who then created a flier she planned to email to the entire office. The three of us discussed the terms of the competition in the manager’s office. Originally, they wanted everyone participating to put $10 into a pool. Whoever lost the highest percentage of their body weight would get most of the money from the pool, while the second and third place winners split the rest. I didn’t think it was serious until my manager sent out the first email with a picture of a scale she bought.

I’m not really a competitive person. I also don’t like sharing my weight with other people. So I’m not participating. Besides, they ultimately decided not to do a cash prize, so, I mean, what’s the use? But watching my coworkers get involved and excited is starting to rub off on me.

I want to get involved, but I prefer to go at my own pace. I’m pulling out my old FitBit, buying some healthy snacks, and trying to fit more physical activity into my schedule (key word: “trying”). The thing is, I’ve tried the weight-loss game before, and the results were…eh. It’s hard to be motivated about something that hasn’t really worked.

I wanted to look at what I was doing wrong. I’m not keen on restricting myself from eating things I like; I’m a picky eater as it is, so if I cut out too much I won’t be eating. I also don’t like the concept of working out at a gym in front of other people. I’m sure they’d be busy with their own workouts, but my anxiety won’t let me think anything other than “I’m probably doing something wrong and everyone here is judging me for it.” I tried to eat less trash and at least take more walks, but, again...eh.

I took a nutritional science class in college, so I vaguely remember that calories are important to the process. What I didn’t know – or at least, didn’t think about – was why they’re important. I’m sure it was covered in one of the class units, but, honestly, it was a miracle I did as well in that class as I did. On the rare occasion I did go, I paid very little attention. But that’s another story for another day.

The long and short of it is – burning more calories than you consume is how weight loss happens.

This probably isn’t groundbreaking information, but, when I read about it, I realized I had never thought about it that way. I mean, it makes sense. But there are a lot of words surrounding food that come up when it comes to eating healthy – calories, carbs, fat, and whatever else you’d find under “Nutrition Facts” on your food packaging. The general idea seems to be that getting the amount of each of those things as close to 0 as possible means healthy eating. You can figure out an example of nearly all of it by looking at a food pyramid, and from there, common sense would tell you not to eat an entire cake and to maybe throw a few vegetables into your diet. But as far as calories go, you’d have to look elsewhere to figure out what one actually is.

According to good old Wikipedia, a calorie is a unit used to measure energy. There’s a whole thing about water and the difference between small and large calories. Apparently the large one is what’s used in the context of food. Essentially, calories keep your body running smoothly. You need them, which means you need to eat. The recommended number of calories you take in depends on factors like your size and gender, and your body burns those calories throughout the day, whether you’re super active or not. Basically, you need more than 0 calories.

Whether you lose, gain, or maintain weight depends on how many calories you burn. For instance, someone who works a desk job burns way fewer calories than, say, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. So while his social media pancakes look like a good time, any average person who doesn't spend a good portion of their day in the gym or in action movies wouldn't be able to burn off the delicious calories they contain.

Initially, I learned that 500 was the magic number. If you burned 500 calories more than you consume, you could lose about a pound a week. 500 calories more, you gain a pound. 500 + 500 = 2 pounds. You get the idea.

But according to WebMD:

Now researchers believe weight loss is a slower process and that a decrease of 10 calories a day leads to a loss of about one pound in a year, but it can take as long as 3 years to get there.

This is more complicated math that makes the process more discouraging. But, as many health bloggers and Instagram gym rats like to repeat, it takes a "lifestyle change" to make a difference.

Instead of just eating less and hoping for the best, incorporating more low-calorie foods that have things like fiber and protein (i.e. vegetables and stuff) into your diet can help make a difference. And instead of killing yourself with an awful workout, try to find little ways to move around and do it more often. Also, like yourself more as you are. If you aren't comfortable with yourself before your body starts to change, you'll still find things you aren't satisfied with when it does.

And be patient. When a lot of us don't see results, we feel defeated and stop trying. But once we know how the process works, the best thing we can do is keep going and trust that it works.

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