This began as a discussion of the calories expended in various types of everyday physical activity. It seemed like a valid topic at first, but quickly faded, for two reasons. Reason number one: just ask Google. Throw such words as “activity” and “calories” at it, and you’ll get plenty of activity calorie charts, plus sales pitches. In those results you’ll see the term “MET” often associated with hospital and university sites, so add “MET” to your key words to fine-tune your search and weed out some of the snake oil peddlers. You’ll instantly find many calorie equivalence charts for everything from eyebrow plucking to pro wrestling (it’s not real wrestling, but it’s certainly real exercise and it takes bigger tights than most of us need).
But first ask yourself what you’re going to do with those calorie expenditure charts. Do you really think you will measure and chart your stairs, the distance to the bathroom and coffee pot (hint: there’s a relationship there), the hike to your clunker parked by the front office door or your new Beamer parked sideways at the back of the lot, your lawn mowing time, vacuuming, the gym, gardening, the softball game (yeah, sure, THERE’S a weight-burner!), hoisting the remote … you could go nuts with all this and still have a huge margin of error even if you didn’t lie through your teeth about how much exercise you get. That’s reason number two: there’s more slop in those calculations than in your diet … if you’re lucky … and you’re no more likely to keep up the chart than you are to keep up the Cabbage Soup Diet. (Don’t even ask about the cabbage soup diet. At least the charting activity won’t drive your friends away, and diet is about food, folks, not gimmicks. Soup in general can be an effective long-term weight loss booster, though, and we’ll cover it soon.)
Even if we could and would calculate and log our daily activity calorie expenditure, that’s only half the battle. For the chart to be of any use, we’d also have to chart our daily calorie consumption equally rigorously. Some people do; nutrition chat group perusal indicates that more than a few dieters count their raisins. That sounds sad even as a joke, but even sadder is that some people actually do fret over a dozen raisins, an ounce of chicken, an extra celery stick, or a spoonful of peas. You can bet that many of them are obsessed and underweight, even anorexic, and many more need to worry more about that dumpster full of chicken buckets and pizza boxes behind their house than about celery sticks. Any adult whose weight can be affected by their raisin and pea count has a medical problem needing treatment, and anyone of ordinary height who tops a couple hundred pounds needs to count their Big Macs, not their celery sticks. Calorie content charts run scores of pages, and counting calories by the spoonful is an obsession, not a diet, unless one has a specific medical problem such as diabetes. A muffin a day = 50 pounds of weight gain per year, but the problem isn’t the number of raisins in the muffin; IT’S THE MUFFIN!
Before we can generate a weight management plan from all that research, charting, logging, and arithmetic, we need to calculate how many calories per day we should eat to maintain our current weight. Even that’s complicated; the National Academy of Sciences says that, for men, it equals 864 – (age x 9.72) + [weight (in pounds) x 6.46 + height (inches) x 12.8] x Activity Level. Worse yet, that Activity Level thing comes from a whole ‘nuther chart, which rates 40 minutes of jogging, 80 minutes of aerobic dancing, or seven miles of brisk walking -- every day -- as moderate activity, worthy of only a 1.27 Activity Level factor. Given that most of us lie about our weight, exaggerate our activity level, and would rather run a marathon than do math, weight management by charts quickly resembles ironing our underwear … it takes way more time than it’s worth.
Weight management isn’t about heavy charting except for people who choose to make it about charting. The real measure of how well our weight management efforts are working lies not in charts, but in our body fat. If it’s increasing, the charts might serve us better if we ate them for lunch or lifted them 200 times per day. Ultimately we tire of living by the charts, fake or forget ‘em, and revert to the old eating habits that put on the excess weight to begin with. Unless you’re actually managing your weight successfully with charts, they’re just a time-consuming hobby, not a health tool. The real issues are whether you have too much fat on your carcass and/or whether your diet is healthy, and those are easy to determine without piles of charts.
Your diet quality is OK if it’s close to the Mediterranean diet, discussed many times in this column. Your diet quantity is OK if your body fat level is reasonable. You can get a body fat reality check from friends, a bathroom scale, a couple of doctors, and/or a BMI chart (Google BMI charts start with http://www.consumer.gov/weightloss/bmi.htm). If these leave any doubt, measure your body fat level with a pinch test (ask Google about body fat pinch test). If those tests agree with statistics that you’re overweight, you know what must change: more calories out and fewer calories in, until your pants fall down. That requires actual changes in activity and eating habits, not mere charts.
There are valid cases for some charts, particularly for people who hate physical activity but are willing to force themselves to exercise just enough to stay healthy. These people deserve our admiration, because forcing ourselves to work out consistently requires a great deal of discipline. Charts are also valid for those who find charting and logging food in and activity calories out fascinating or motivating, and it won’t do any harm until distracts them from their sleep, jobs, or weight management.
A third valid purpose for using charts is helping us face facts. You’re heard it many times from people who don’t chart their food and activity -- “Oh, I eat like a bird and still put on weight … it’s genetic” -- and a talk-show caller said her little boy puts on three pounds a day lying in his hospital obesity ward bed being fed intravenously.
Bullfeathers! Buzzards eat like birds too, genes don’t trump the laws of physics, and has anyone inventoried the FURNITURE in this boy’s room lately? At this pace he’s going to need his own zip code by the time he’s old enough to drink beer through that tube and there won’t be any air left on the planet cause he’s converted it all to lard. Don’t you suspect both of these people might benefit from charting at least their food intake?
If you chew The Right Stuff, eschew the wrong stuff, and put on some muscle, the only calculations necessary will be budgeting for a new, smaller wardrobe as the months and years go by. More years will go by, and the money saved by reduced long-term health problems will pay for the new wardrobe. For most Americans, a more svelte appearance isn’t just for fashion magazines; it’s for our health. Every 40-inch belt should have a surgeon general’s warning on it.
I hope this repeated emphasis on weight management doesn’t wear too thin, but excess weight is one of the biggest health threats the nation and a 150 million of its citizens face, yet is one of the simplest problems – in theory – to solve. It doesn’t take chemicals (most weight loss chemicals do more harm than good), it doesn’t take surgery (although many people choose the risky surgery over self-discipline), it is curable (unlike some equally harmful diseases), and curing it puts money in your pocket. In other words, you don’t need no stinking pills, surgery, miracle cures, or deep pockets to manage your weight. The size of our jeans lies more in our heads than in our genes, and I hope each new approach to the problem and its solutions will reach a few more people.