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What’s Better – Eating Less or Moving More?

So you want to lose weight (or rather, lose fat), and you’re looking for the perfect program. You’re seeing claims like “abs are made in the kitchen” and “exercise doesn’t cause weight loss” and lots of citations. How can this be?

These are simplifications. Most people underestimate what they eat and overestimate how much activity they do. If you’re trying to lose fat, you could do it with exercise, but for most people that takes way too much time — according to the USDA, the average calorie intake in the US is over 2700 per day. That means most people would need 2 to 3 hours a day of continuous moderate activity to burn the excess calories. That’s a LOT! And many people still end up rewarding themselves with treats (or just extra food) because they exercised (much less than 2 hours a day), so they might end up eating even more.

You need a balance. You need a basic level of nutrition (plenty of protein, fiber, and micronutrients like vitamins) and a basic level of exercise for good health. You can definitely get enough nutritious food within your minimum calorie requirements, so budgeting for that is easy. You also need to be aware of your total calorie intake, balanced by your activity level, in order to control your weight. This is the part that gets tough, because it’s easy to get lost in the tiny details of counting calories, and some people will simply never follow through with close monitoring. That’s OK — just be aware that, to control your weight, you’ll have keep yourself honest in other ways.

One Thing You Can Do Today to Eat Better

Eat more lean protein and more vegetables. This doesn’t necessarily mean draining the fat off your protein-rich foods, although that helps, but it does mean a baked chicken breast is better than deep-fried chicken strips. A baked or grilled chicken breast still has enough fat in it to let your gut know you ate good food, and vegetables fill you up as well as giving you the fiber you need. US daily recommendations for protein are low, but the amount of protein that is too much is likely extremely high, especially if you are active (that is, using the protein.) Even very conservative estimates say a 150-lb person can safely eat 150 grams of protein a day, roughly triple the US daily recommendation. It’s hard to eat too much — 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is tough for many people, because protein is so satiating.

OK, Two Things

Eat your lean protein and vegetables earlier in the day. Many of us pass a half a dozen Starbucks on the way to the office. That’s a lot of tempting refined carbs and sugar at a point in the day when we may feel too rushed to make good food choices. Having a cup of Greek-style (strained) yogurt before you leave for work can quickly and easily give you a nice little calorie hit (about 100 calories per 6 ounces) and enough protein (12 to 14 grams per 6 ounces — twice the amount of regular yogurt) to walk right past the coffee shop. This is also the “secret” behind recommendations like “bring chopped carrots with you to snack on at your desk” — fiber-rich foods like vegetables fill you up and make it easier to pass on the donuts in the break room.

Cartoon by Mark Parisi, and yeah, the cat is sure — kitty needs those calories (and that protein!) for recovery!

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