Fuel at the Right Level
Once you tackle eating for the right reason (hunger), you can learn to fuel at the right level. Are you balancing your calorie intake with your calorie output?
Why Can’t I Lose Weight Just By Working Out?
Many people who start a fitness program think that adding workouts will assure weight loss. If you are totally sedentary, then yes, any additional calorie burning activity will kick-start weight loss—but only for a short time. Your body quickly adapts to your activity. In fact, you may already have an active lifestyle, walking to the train or being on your feet all day at work, but your body is used to this. You must do more physical activity, but there is a point at which your calorie burning ability maxes out due to time or physical exhaustion.
Most of us know that to lose a pound in a week you must somehow create a 3500 calorie deficit (more workouts and/or less food). Here are some examples of the dilemma you may face early in a training program.
Example 1: Walking a 20 minute per mile pace for 30 minutes burns approximately 160 calories (in a 150# person). You would have to walk 22 times per week (30 minutes each time/20 minute pace) to lose a pound without any food changes (3500 divided by 160 calories per session = 21.8). That is a lot of time spent walking over and above your daily activity. Options? Walk faster, moving to a run/walk format. A beginning running program is designed to condition you to run. It is not a weight loss program by itself as you will not burn enough calories at the conditioning level. Realistically you will need to decrease your calorie intake to lose weight.
Example 2: Running an 11 minute per mile pace for 30 minutes straight burns 370 calories. Walking and running calories burned are not much different per mile. The difference is the distance covered. To lose one pound on this schedule you need 9.5 sessions of running 30 minutes at the 11 minute pace. Options? First, note that losing weight likely requires a daily workout over and above your current activity level and in addition to your training schedule. Second, work on increasing your pace so you can cover more territory. Third, change your calorie intake to fuel at the right level.
What does it mean to Fuel at the Right Level?
You must match your calorie intake to your calories burned to maintain weight. You burn quite a few calories for your
. You should never drop your daily calorie intake below your estimated basal metabolic rate, regardless of your hunger level. If you do you will burn valuable muscle for your energy needs. This is not a healthy way to lose weight. To lose weight in a training program, there is a fine line between matching your calorie intake to your calories burned while still providing ample fuel to perform. Let’s look at the reality of what that means at the beginning of a training program.
Does a beginning runner need extra fuel to cover the workouts?
No. The average size adult has 80,000 calories in fat storage and another 2,000 calories in carbohydrate storage on a typical day. You will not run out of fuel unless you run 20 miles straight, so you do not need a snack before or after a 20 minute run. A snack will erase the calorie deficit you are trying to achieve.
But doesn’t a runner need a sports drink?
You only need a sports drink if you are running longer than one hour or are working out in extreme heat. Do not waste your calories on a regular sports drink at this point. Water is the best option. A low calorie drink is okay, but it will erase some of your calorie deficit.
Stop Rationalizing Bites and Sips
If you find yourself saying “it’s only a bite”—stop! A meal is made of bites and the calories over the day will add up. If you are hungry, eat a meal to match your fuel needs. If you just want a bite, ask yourself why? What is the bite going to do for you? How will it impact your calorie deficit? This is a behavior issue that should be addressed if you are trying to lose weight. I am not anti-snacking, but snacks should be planned into your daily fuel needs (more on that on another day).
Is there ever a time I should eat even if I’m not hungry?
For example, what if you are never hungry for breakfast? First, consider how much you ate the evening/night before. Are you still full? Eating less at night will encourage healthy hunger in the morning. Second, “breakfast” doesn’t have to be a sit down feast of eggs, bacon and a cinnamon roll. Think more on the lines of morning fuel, something to rev you up, not weight you down.
A great way to visualize how to spread your intake over the day is to take in fuel like an upside down pyramid or a diamond, rather than a bottom-heavy pyramid. Why?
First, your body’s store of liver glycogen (the stored fuel that maintains your energy level in your blood) runs out after 12 hours. So, if you ate at 7 p.m. and don’t eat again until 7 a.m., your immediate fuel stores are zapped. Go longer without eating and you will experience a further drop in energy. Problem? You start looking for caffeine or sugar to give you energy, but this is only a temporary fix. Your energy balance will continue to worsen until you eat. At some point your body “takes over” and you will eat on impulse rather than common sense. You could liken this to a hunger level of zero (desert island starving) on a scale of 0 to 10. If you let yourself get to zero, you’re toast. If you let yourself get to zero and you are stressed and tired at the end of the day, prepare for a double whammy food disaster!
Impulsive eating usually results in one or two things: poor quality choices or poor quantity of choices. If you are “starving”, are you going to stop and prepare a salad or thaw and cook a chicken breast? Probably not. Even if you do have quick healthy choices on hand, you may end up eating a greater portion than your fuel needs. Too many calories from even healthy choices can lead to weight gain (or keep you from losing weight).
Ideally you should be fueling your body about every four hours while awake to maintain an even balance of energy. This will help you avoid the energy swings that don’t feel good and promote impulsive eating. I’m not suggesting a full meal every four hours, but fueling with some nutrition based on your hunger level to a point of feeling comfortable. On a scale of zero to ten, comfortable may be a 6 or 7 (if 10 is stuffed).
Are there certain foods that promote this comfortable feeling of fullness?
Be careful with the word fullness. You don’t need to get full, ever. It is better to teach yourself to stop at comfortable (extent of physical nourishment) and satisfied (pleasure from smelling, tasting, relaxing with a meal). Eating more fiber-rich foods will help (beans, grains, fruit, vegetables). Fiber itself does not provide calories, so eat fiber-rich foods instead of just more food. A good fiber source has 3 or more grams of fiber per serving. Eating enough protein and fat also encourage a comfortable feeling. More on nutrition in another module. Drinking more non-calorie liquids is a temporary filler that may help slow down your calorie intake. However, be careful with how much caffeine you consume, as caffeine stimulates hunger in some people.
Also eat more slowly. Rushing through food is not relaxing, so satisfaction is not supported. Keep in mind it takes about 20 minutes for your head to tell your stomach you’ve had enough fuel, so slowing down can keep you from the second or third helping of food. You eat faster when in a car, so don’t eat in the car. You eat faster standing up, so sit down when you eat anything. Liquid calories go in faster, so stop drinking your calories. You eat processed food faster, so choose whole foods you have to chew. You eat faster when utensils are not required, so choose foods that require a fork and a plate. You eat faster when you are distracted, so replace the TV with relaxing music. Get the idea?
Should I follow a calorie level?
Eat food early, eat based on hunger all day and lighten up as the evening approaches. And note that your calorie allotment is not like rollover minutes on your cell phone. Calorie balance starts new every day. You need fuel all day long and only in amounts related to your activity level. That is the problem with focusing too tightly on an assigned calorie level. Every day is different activity-wise. I think you need to be aware of your base calorie needs and what calories you typically take in and burn, but knowing this is for the purpose of being able to adjust your fuel intake every day.
Fuel at the Right Level Action Plan
Awareness precedes action. Here are some ideas to put your calorie balance issues into focus.Don’t assume that because you are in a running program or new fitness program that you will automatically lose weight. Do take the challenge to lose weight with the running program as a partial means of achieving your daily calorie deficit.
Set a calorie burning goal. To lose one pound per week you need a daily deficit of 500 calories. It may be more realistic to start with burning an average of 250 calories over and above your current activity level. You will be able to track this in the Fitness Journal.
Don’t fall prey to runner food requirements (sports drinks and recovery snacks). Yes, you are a runner, but bask in the luxury of not having to worry about those type of requirements right now.
Decrease your food calories by at least 250 daily. Ideally reduce calories from sugary drinks and foods that do not provide nutrition, such as condiments. It is not about elimination of foods, but rather easing off unnecessary calories. Much more on this later, but for now spot check where extra calories may be coming from using Fitness Journal. Don’t worry about numbers. Use common sense, such multiple servings of vending machine snacks and no vegetables, or a jumbo coffee dessert drink, but no water.
Fuel your body every four hours during the day, adjusting the amount of fuel you need to the level of activity for the day. Start your calories early in the day, tapering off as you approach the evening. A balanced fuel level will help you avoid the danger of impulsive eating.
Add fiber to your calories to help achieve a comfortable feeling of fullness.
Slow down! Choose foods and meal situations that promote a comfortable feeling of satisfaction.
Evaluate if you are hungry (right reason), and if hungry, evaluate how hungry (right level). You can use the Simple Food Journal in the Fitness Journal to track this. Make your own hunger scale…and don’t be a zero! Eat when you start to get hungry and stop when you start to feel comfortable. This may sound like I’m asking you to be obsessive or methodical about hunger. No, don’t be obsessive (that will make you crazy), but yes, be methodical. You have to be aware of what you are doing before you can act on the habit. Bad news: diets don’t change habits. Good news: healthy habits change bodies. Habit changes take months (first to undo the negative, followed by the positive), so get started!
Read a great book, Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole.
Talk to your nutrition coach by email about your issues with how to
fuel at the right level.