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Winning the Losing Game: Calories In vs. Calories Out

A diet rich in vegetables and protein helped BU Today reporter Vicky Waltz lose five pounds in five weeks. Photo by Paul Heerlein

Last February, BU Today reporter Vicky Waltz set out to drop a few pounds and get in shape. After hiring a personal trainer through BU’s Fitness and Recreation Center, Waltz sweated through a semester of rigorous cardiovascular, core, and weight-training exercises.

This week we revisit four of Waltz’s eight articles. Monday she kicked off with an introduction to her fitness quest. Today she focuses on healthy dieting, Wednesday she discusses the importance of having a strong core, and Thursday she writes about weight training.

Calories In vs. Calories Out

By Vicky Waltz

When I hired a personal trainer to help me shed 17 pounds, I knew I would be told to make some serious lifestyle changes. And while I was fully prepared — perhaps even eager — to jump-start my regular cardio routines with intervals of resistance training, crunches, lunges, and squats, I was not looking forward to dieting.

I’ve been told that some people find dieting easier than exercising. I am not one of them. I would rather run two miles than deny myself a slice of pizza or a glass of wine. I also know that losing weight requires consuming fewer calories, so after the New Year, I vowed not to eat any desserts for three months. I made it 44 days.

Last week, I left the FitRec Center after a grueling workout session with trainer Stephanie McNamara (SED’07) and saw a Ben and Jerry’s delivery truck parked across the street. The door was open, the driver was nowhere in sight, and as I quickly made my way down Commonwealth Avenue, I found myself reciting, mantra-like, “Don’t steal the ice cream truck, don’t steal the ice cream truck.” I did not steal the truck, but for the next few days all I could think about was chocolate. On the weekend, I baked cookies for a fundraising event, a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip and a pan of chocolate-toffee bars. Bringing the leftovers home was a big mistake — I ate five the first day and nine the second. I’ve tried not to beat myself up over this, but ever since, I’ve been focusing on those cookie calories every time I work out.

I didn’t always have this problem. In Ohio, where I grew up, children younger than four or weighing less than 40 pounds are required by law to ride in a car seat. At six, I weighed only 38 pounds, and consequently spent my entire kindergarten year listening to my friends chant, “Vicky’s a baby, Vicky’s a baby!” every time my mother strapped me into my car seat. When I finally gained enough to donate the car seat to Goodwill, my family and I celebrated with ice cream sundaes.

I no longer have problems putting on weight. I outgrew my picky childhood and discovered how great food tastes, and now the only things I refuse to eat are brussels sprouts and Oreos. For the most part, my diet is healthy. I dine out only once or twice a week — and never at a fast food restaurant. I avoid anything with trans fats, I don’t drink soda, and I try to limit sweets and fried foods. The only time I eat meat is when I visit my great-aunt in Pennsylvania, because she fixes roast beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy the way my grandma used to. The rest of the time, my diet consists mainly of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, cheese, and fat-free milk.

Doing the math

Why did I gain 17 pounds in 18 months? Probably, I have learned, because I am no longer 21, and my metabolism has slowed. Also, I eat more than I really need. To learn more about sensible eating habits, I enrolled in Healthy Dieting, a course offered through the BU Nutrition and Fitness Center. Taught by registered dietitian Stacey Stimets, the class aims to establish realistic goals for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

On the first day, Stimets had us calculate our body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat based on a person’s height and weight. It’s not a good screening tool for pregnant women or lean individuals with significant muscle mass, but I am neither pregnant, lean, nor muscular, so my results promised to be a reliable guide. At five-four and 155 pounds, my BMI is 26.6, which means I am slightly overweight. Ultimately, my BMI should be 24 or less. We also calculated our daily energy requirements, which determine how many calories we need each day to maintain our current weight. My results indicate that I eat approximately 2,210 calories a day.

Hmm, 2,210 calories — that seems awfully high. No wonder I’ve put on weight. In order to lose a pound a week, Stimets says, I must reduce my intake by 500 calories a day, or 3,500 calories a week. I do a quick calculation in my head: if I burn 650 calories at the gym five days a week and reduce my calorie intake by just 35 calories a day, I should lose about a pound a week. That sounds reasonable.

I also learned of a recent study conducted by researchers at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge indicating that eating less and exercising more are equally good at helping take off the pounds. Whether lost by dieting or running, a calorie appears to be a calorie. But just because I’m hitting the gym five times a week doesn’t mean I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want.

When I began exercising, I was hungry all the time. The first two weeks I felt that I had to eat about every two and a half hours. And even though I was eating nutritious food like apples and nonsweetened fat-free yogurt, it felt strange to be constantly chewing. My personal trainer suggested I add fish to my diet. High in protein and heart-healthy fatty acids such as Omega-3, oily fish like salmon and trout are highly recommended for weight loss because they fill you up and take longer to break down than the sugars found in grains and starchy vegetables. And on Stimets’ advice, I now put blueberries and almonds — which contain powerful antioxidants and protein, respectively — in my morning oatmeal and afternoon yogurt. 

By the third week, my body had adjusted to the increased physical activity — I no longer needed to eat every few hours and I lost three pounds. And in spite of a back injury that forced me to cut back on my exercise routine for nearly two weeks, I lost another two pounds, bringing the total over five weeks to five pounds. I was pleased.

The mind game

Still, at times I become discouraged, particularly when I eat too much. Bread and butter — high in sugar and saturated fat — is a weakness, as are dried mango and wasabi almonds. I’m trying to put the recent cookie binge out of my mind, because I’m sick of obsessing over it. I wish that I didn’t take an all-or-nothing approach to “forbidden foods,” but until I can trust myself not to gorge on sugary treats, it’s best to stay away from them.

Coincidentally, just last month psychiatric researchers at Harvard Medical School declared that binge eating is the country’s most common eating disorder. A survey found that 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men suffer from binging — bouts of uncontrolled eating, well past the point of being full — at least twice a week.

“A binge eater,” the report said, “might eat a full dinner, then a quart of ice cream for dessert, followed by a bag of chips.” I have never gone to quite that extreme, but I’ve been known to polish off a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or an entire box of macaroni and cheese in one sitting. I’m not a binger per se, but I worry that the tendency is there, so I asked my classmates for advice.

Suggestions ranged from storing food in difficult-to-reach places, such as high cupboards, to buying individually packaged dessert items. I think the most feasible solution for me, though, is to eat something from my least favorite food group — fruit — before indulging in anything else. That way, I won’t be as likely to eat as much of the less-healthy item.

Although I’m still learning about nutrition and healthy eating, I do feel more knowledgeable than when I started the class. I’m certainly more aware of my calorie requirements, and best of all, I’m discovering new foods. Okra has become one of my favorite vegetables, and a friend gave me an excellent recipe for African groundnut stew. I know there will be times I’ll eat too much of the wrong thing, but I also know that if I beat myself up over it, it will only undermine my self-confidence.

Now that my back is nearly healed, I’m looking to add spinning class, lunges, and abdominal exercises back into my fitness routine. And combined with my newfound knowledge of nutrition, I’m hoping to really blast some fat in the upcoming months.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

This article originally appeared on BU Today on March 5, 2007.