This is where stress comes in — much like memory mediates how we interpret and respond to various experiences, a complex set of biological and psychological factors determine how we respond to stress. Some types of stress can be stimulating and invigorating, mobilizing us into action and creative potency; others can be draining and incapacitating, leaving us frustrated and hopeless. This dichotomy of good vs. bad stress, Sternberg notes, is determined by the biology undergirding our feelings — by the dose and duration of the stress hormones secreted by the body in response to the stressful stimulus.
I’m often to quick to challenge the assumption that counting calories is necessary for healthy weight loss. I state this point often on Twitter, but I suppose I’ve never fully explained my stance. I’ll do so here, trying my best to not offend or ostracize.
It all started with a tweet by yours truly:
Am I gonna have to be that guy who writes a blog post defining what a calorie actually is? Does anyone actually know without Wiki-ing it?
People have referenced “calories” day in, day out in all sorts of contexts, but I fear that not many people truly know what it is they speak of. Let’s cheat and go to Wikipedia:
- The small calorie or gram calorie (symbol: cal) is the approximate amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere.
- The large calorie, kilogram calorie, dietary calorie, nutritionist’s calorie, nutritional calorie, Calorie (capital C) or food calorie (symbol: Cal) is approximately the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. The large calorie is thus equal to 1000 small calories or one kilocalorie (symbol: kcal)
Right off the bat, we’re faced with a dilemma of semantics: these aren’t calories we’re talking about; they’re kilocalories. Furthermore, I tend to challenge the status quo by asserting that we should not refer to calories as “something we consume,” but instead simply as the measure of energy that they are.
The original semantic debate (which raged briefly on Twitter) stemmed from a piece by Matt Gemmell, wherein a line caught my eye and irked me: “Our bodies are burning energy all the time, and we need to consume calories (in the form of food and drink) to supply that energy.”
You don’t consume calories to supply energy—energy is not the result of calories. Nay, you consume food, measured ultimately by its composition of macronutrients, which in turn provide various measures of energy (as stored in the molecular bonds within) which is measured in kilocalories (kcal). Generally, carbohydrates contain four kcal/gram, protein closer to three kcal/gram, and fats around 9 kcal/gram. In any case, calories ought not to be thought of as some baseline for measure amounts of food; just as 100 pounds of brick might weigh the same as 100 pounds of feathers, they are wholly incomparable, and would never be substituted for one another.
If we decide to use calories as our basis for measuring (or planning) weight loss, then we are assuming that, all things equal, net energy loss is the primary driver of said weight loss. All things are never equal, as I will discuss briefly, but I do think this is a valid assumption.
This is, in essence, the first law of thermodynamics. It states that energy cannot be created or destroyed–i.e., the total change in energy equals the energy entering the system (read: food) minus the energy exiting the system (read: exercise, basal expenditure, etc.) This cannot be argued.
What can be argued is whether or not an energy deficit is the primary driver of weight loss, or if an energy excess is the primary driver of weight gain. If you’re gaining weight, are you necessarily eating too much or exercising too little? This is not always the case, as many will agree: “I’m on a diet, but I gain weight just by looking at food!”
To me, citing the first law of thermodynamics—or net energy balance in general—is akin to stating: “Why is Bill Gates so rich? Because he makes more money than he spends.” Sure, okay, but how?
So, thus arises my first issue with Gemmell’s advice: that the first step to weight loss is calculating your basal metabolic rate, and then you just need to accumulate a slight deficit for a long period of time. The problem with this methodology is there is no discussion of where those calories should come from, or what forms of exercise ought to be done, if any. The picture is entirely too simplistic. To carry on the money analogy: if one wants to make more money, and you tell them to just “cut their spending,” they could just stop paying rent and would be set. Except that doesn’t work.
Indeed, that’s an exaggeration, and most people aren’t that silly, but in diet and exercise people do silly things that are often counterproductive to true health. (Let us not forget: weight loss and health are not often one in the same.)
You don’t have to make huge changes; just pay a bit more attention, and whittle away a few calories when you can. It all adds up. By the way, some things may surprise you in terms of their fat and sugar content, despite seeming to be “healthy” (and indeed being basically good for you). Fruit, for example, has a lot of sugar, and nuts have a lot of fat. Coconut is pretty heavy, calories-wise, and many muesli/breakfast bars can rival chocolate for their calorie content. There are healthier options available; your supermarket may have a healthy foods section, but still check the label.
It is absolute silliness to suggest to someone to avoid fruit, nuts, or coconuts because of their calorie content alone—they are some of the most healthful foods one can find. Nuts are quite ketogenic, ridiculously nutrient dense, and hard to overeat in reality; fruits are equally nutrient packed, and indeed quite heavy on sugar. Both ought to be moderated, but certainly not to attain a caloric deficit. Cut the soda, alcohol, and bread before almonds or blueberries.
I have similar complaints about using physical activity for the exclusive goal of “calorie burning.”
Go at a reasonable pace. You don’t need to run, but swing your arms. Move with purpose. You can easily cover three miles in a total of 60 minutes (broken up during the day if necessary), and you’ll likely burn 150 calories or more. Your Watch will tell you how you’re doing, and if you need to burn more calories in the same amount of time, try walking a bit faster, or take an uphill route. Just don’t push yourself too hard.
Why? Why should I go at a reasonable pace? Why should I not push myself too hard? I suppose if one gets genuine joy from running for a full hour every day of the week simply to create an energy deficit equal to a can of Coca-Cola instead of just not drinking the Coca-Cola, by all means, carry on. However, I’ve always counted exercise as a vital part of a physical practice that leads to health and longevity, and this is not gained by plodding along for hours, miserable. And certainly don’t do this:
Keeping your brain occupied makes exercise go faster. Listen to music, or podcasts. Watch TV. If you’re on a stationary bike, read a book or your Kindle. I have my laptop set up on my indoor bike. Just find something that distracts you a bit.
Saying “keeping your brain occupied makes exercise go faster” is almost literally calling exercise “mindless,” which almost offends me.
If you do choose to exercise, attack it with the same mindfulness with which you would attack a nightly meditation practice, or a yoga session; the goal is not to just “get it done.” If you can’t find a movement practice that you enjoy and your only goal is weight loss, then congratulations, you never have to run another step in your life.
It’s not a sure-fire weight loss approach anyway; the American Heart Association has formally stated: “It is reasonable to assume that persons with relatively high daily energy expenditures would be less likely to gain weight over time, compared with those who have low energy expenditures. So far, data to support this hypothesis are not particularly compelling.” Indeed, exercise (“training,” as I would call it) is crucially important for long-term health, but not for weight management.
Since this post is has accidentally transformed into a “my thoughts on how to lose weight” post, I’ll do my best to conclude with some actionable advice.
Do I think calorie counting is critical, or even necessary, for weight loss? I truly don’t, certainly not for long-term, sustainable weight loss. The best possible solution that I’ve found is working to change the way your body processes and partitions the fuel it is given. It is sometimes said: obesity is a disorder of inappropriately accumulating fat, not a disorder of eating too many calories.
So, how does one reduce fat accumulation if calories aren’t the answer? It turns out that there is but one way for fat to be deposited in your body: the hormone insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas when (and only when) carbohydrates enter the bloodstream (unless, of course, you are diabetic, but that’s another conversation.)
I’m not going to lecture on beta cells and insulin resistance, but it’s certainly a topic worth investigating if weight loss, obesity, or diabetes is on your mind. Instead, I can tell you why I think we get fat: excess insulin caused by excess carbohydrate consumption. Changing nothing else while eliminating all sugar consumption, “simple” carbohydrates like bread and pasta, sweeter fruits and juices, and reducing overall carbohydrate intake will result in fat loss.
Generally, I also advocate for an increase in fat consumption and a moderate protein intake. Indeed, that means my diet includes a lot of meat, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, dairy, avocados, olive and coconut oils, berries, and vegetables galore. Admittedly, it looks a lot like a Paleo model, though I don’t call it that anymore. The word ketogenic comes to mind as well.
The subjects I’ve discussed here are detailed and complex enough to write a book on, and many have. I can’t hope to give you every detail you might want in this post alone (though you know how to contact me if you have questions.)
The takeaway should be this: you don’t have to be a slave to the numbers to get the results you want. I would in fact argue the opposite: succumbing to the conventional wisdom of weight loss will only lead to unsustainable habits and disappointment. Take the long road, and be in it for life.
A parting note: I would encourage you all to look past the number on the scale. Weight matters, in both health and our own personal journeys, but there is so much more to our bodies than that. The human body is indeed a remarkable machine, designed to live well past a century, and it is the tragedy of modern medicine that we all have not yet been convinced of that. When you set out to make a change, do it for your health, physicality, and longevity, not the number you see on the scale. And to do that, we’re going to have to dig a little deeper than “calories.”
For simple tasks and reminders, there’s probably no better app out there than Due. It delivers a delightful experience and some genius implementation for entering and “snoozing” notifications.
Seriously: genius. I’ve found no other app like it. When it comes time for Due to remind you of something (via push notification), the notifications continue to pop up every five minutes (you can adjust this amount of time) until you do something. It’s a foolproof way to ensure that it gets done or gets rescheduled, and I wish every todo app out there implemented this feature. Conveniently, you can act on these notifications from the lock screen; a swipe on the notification allows you to
Mark Done or
+1 Hour without having to even open the app.
It’s not perfect for everything, such as what you might put into Omnifocus or your app of choice. I use it for small, menial tasks that I tend to forget about but need to do: brushing my teeth before heading to class, taking this or that pill, checking the mail, calling someone. In the real world, most things just need to get done at some point today. The effortless scheduling + snoozing workflow offered by Due accommodates this perfectly.
The app was recently redesigned; it’s now Due 2, and it’s super pretty and elegant to use. A swipe down brings up a bar that doubles as a search bar and a new reminder input box. When creating a new reminder, you can use natural language input, and it’s parsed excellently, reminiscent of Fantastical and Todoist (natural language input is another feature that I think every app should have.) Due is largely gesture-based, which is ideal these days, and rarely requires extensive button-tapping or other tedious ventures. Also, timers.
Long story short: the whole app is lightning fast, simple, and effortless, and I love it. It’s been on my homescreen for years.
In general, when I find an app or service that “suits me,” I tend to stick with it. This is, however, untrue regarding two types of apps: productivity suites, and read-later services.
Since it’s 2015, anyone who even remotely enjoys reading a variety of online content probably uses (or has used) Instapaper or Pocket. The two are at constant odds of being the read-later “industry leader,” and I have gone back and forth between them probably more than anyone else out there besides Justin Blanton himself.
I’d like to detail a few pros and cons for each. (It should be noted that 90% of my use occurs on iOS, so these are basically reviews of the apps, not their web counterparts.) I’m currently using Pocket, and always seem to go back to it. Why?
Pocket handles “media” infinitely better than Instapaper does.
I also use read-later services as bookmarking services, and send more than just articles to it—often, my Pocket queue contains podcasts that I want to listen to, videos to watch, and websites to check out later. For these purposes, Instapaper doesn’t stand a chance. It’s easier to open one of these links in Pocket and jump straight the website, watch the video, or whatever action I want to take. Opening a link to a webpage or a Youtube video on Instapaper feels like I’m confusing the app.
Instapaper is much better for reading.
Instapaper as a whole is just prettier, and lends itself more to a pleasant reading experience than Pocket does. Instapaper has more fonts to choose from (and more customizable typography in general,) and the light/dark themes both seem very “designy” and reader-friendly. When I want to read a long-form article and plan to be there a while, Instapaper is much more appealing. Pocket, on the other hand, can feel too utilitarian.
Pocket feels faster, and Instapaper can sometimes feel cumbersome.
Articles are just quicker to load in Pocket, whereas Instapaper often feels slow and awkward when trying to open and parse longer or more-complex articles. Instapaper is not slow by any means—Pocket, for my uses, is just much nimbler.
Instapaper is updated much more frequently.
It seems like every couple months, Instapaper has released a fun new feature, whereas Pocket always seems to lag behind. Instapaper has more features in general, with TweetShot being a huge selling point for me. In fact, I can’t remember the last time Pocket was updated (and if it was recently, it must’ve clearly been a rather bland update.)
I simply can’t afford Instapaper Premium
This isn’t truly a fault of Betaworks’. However, for a fully-functional Instapaper (like search, for instance), one needs to dish out $30/year, which isn’t a horrific price to pay for such features, but it’s just well outside of my budget. I’ve always been able to get full functionality out of Pocket without feeling the need to upgrade.
There are perhaps a few other things to bring up, but for the most part, the above covers my primary concerns with each.
Why do I keep coming back to Pocket, then? The biggest points, for me, are the perceived speed differences between the two and the “mood” each app brings. In Instapaper, every article feels so serious and heavy, whereas in Pocket the queue feels lighter and a lot easier to manage. The other selling point for Pocket is how it handles videos and other forms of media, which Instapaper still needs some serious work on. These key things keep me coming back to Pocket, though every month or two I still find myself trying out Instapaper to see if something else clicks.
Earlier I posted some goofy photos to Twitter showing me applying severe compression to my lower legs after some strenuous running practice. Accompanying the photos was a bold statement, “Compression > ice, in almost every situation.” This sparked some interest, so allow me to explain.
If you’ve spent much time in athletic fields, you may have heard of the mnemonic RICE: rest, ice, compression, elevation. The term was originally coined by Dr. Gabe Mirkin, who rescinded the recommendation in 2014 with an article called Why Ice Delays Recovery. It’s worth reading; when an authority declares something as the best and then later retracts that advice, you know something’s up. He goes into plenty of gruesome detail in the article, and cites plenty of sources, so realize that my post will be purposefully brief and simplistic in explanation. If you really want to understand more, go searching. Mirkin’s article is a fantastic overview.
“We all know” you’re supposed to put ice on something when it hurts or is swollen, just like “we all know” that whole grains are good for you and you shouldn’t squat below parallel. (I’m being sarcastic.) The chief issues with icing to me are that it impairs blood flow, the lymphatic system, and principally the inflammatory response. Most of us think of inflammation (and swelling, etc.) as being bad—the NSAID industry is booming, and we all seem to take ibuprofen at the first sign of any discomfort at all. The opposite is true: the inflammatory response and immune cells associated with it are critical in healing damaged tissues. Anyone who has passed a basic human physiology class can tell you that inflammation is an integral part of the healing process. Let me be clear: slowing down inflammation slows down healing.
So I’ve kicked the NSAIDs and I’ve kicked the ice. Both can be resorted to during severe, acute bouts of pain. Indeed, ice works well if something needs to be numbed because it’s that bad. But it’s not that bad, and that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re discussing your achy knees after a long, hard run, or your back after mowing the lawn. Icing these pains and then going out running the next day and doing it all over again is akin to stubbing your toe on the same table every day. Just move the damn table, people.
If you are severely injured, get medical attention. Ice it if it’s that bad. You could even take pain medication. But to treat sore muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc., I use movement, compression, and elevation.
Move what you can, when you can. If it’s sketchy, you probably shouldn’t do it, but resist the urge to just lay down and assume it’ll all get better. When you do move, try not to limp. The goal should be to use and move your muscles and the associated tissues, get blood flowing and lymphatics working, and expedite healing.
“Compression” can range from compression socks to voodoo floss bands (I hate the name, but they’re ridiculously effective, and they’re what I prefer.) The act of compression helps with a couple of things: prevention of swelling, and the facilitation of the lymphatic clearing of extracellular waste, blood flow, tissue perfusion, and so on.
Elevation works alongside compression via similar mechanisms, encouraging the lymphatic system via the assistance of gravity, and again preventing swelling.
Rest, in general, would be discouraged, since movement facilitates a large part of the healing process. Certainly, take a day off from the gym, lest you risk making the injury worse, and don’t flex a broken bone. But if your ankle hurts, I would expect you to walk on it throughout the day as best as possible. If it’s your knee or something, some good bodyweight squats might be in order.
Ice, however, is out. Do you really think that your body’s natural inflammatory response is a mistake?
If you don’t keep up with me on Twitter, you might’ve missed the news that my girlfriend Kristin recently moved out. No, it’s not like that; to move forward in her graduate program, a six-month internship is required, and it just so happened that hers is states away in New York. She left Thursday morning.
I also happened to wake up that morning with a sore throat that has been lingering ever since. It was a pitiful scene: emotional distress from Kris leaving combined with physical stress from whatever “illness” was plaguing me. Plus, physics lecture was that morning, and lab that afternoon. The whole day was off to a bad start. The whole “six months living alone” thing was off to a horrible start.
I’m writing about all this because I haven’t really figured out how to get back on track.
Normally, I’m a man of habit and routine, and when my habits and routines are displaced, things are quick to fall apart. Kris and I had been living together for quite a while, and I was happy with our life together. Now things have changed, and I don’t know what to do.
I’m introspective enough to realize all of this, but not yet capable of working around it. Inspiration came from an article by Mark Sisson entitled Cultivating Health During Crisis, which I had Pocket’d months ago and had never read until today. A few lines hit home enough to inspire me to write about my situation.
The first: “Crisis can suck us into a powerful undertow of fatigue and inertia.”
Anyone who feels the way I feel will immediately recognize this statement. This inertia is hard to break free from once it grabs ahold. The past few days alone have been buffed by excessive intakes of morning caffeine and evening alcohol, each acting as exogenous motivators to wake up and wind down, since finding the endogenous, self-driven willpower to do such things proves too difficult. The gym went on hold, really due to this sickness; I attempted a visit yesterday, only to cut the workout in half and go home after a usually light weight proved too heavy, and my warmup took 30 minutes too long. Worst of all is the dietary change, which is most likely spurred (comically, perhaps) by now living without a girlfriend: fast food has worked its way back into my life, and the fridge is emptier than it has been in months.
I’ve been living like this, more or less, since that fateful Thursday morning. I’m not okay with it, but I have a way of convincing myself that I feel okay with it. Writing that, I realize that it all sounds like an acute bout of depression. There’s no shame in admitting that.
More proof: yesterday was my 23rd birthday. I made no big deal of it, in real life or online, though I was driven for one reason or another to publicly paint quite the depressing picture of my situation that night. Looking back, it was probably some form of cry for help. If I had posted the same thing to Facebook, where my meatspace friends reside, perhaps someone would’ve contacted me or asked to hang out. But I didn’t do that, because again, I suppose I wanted to feel crummy.
The article I linked to above discusses a variety of options for staying alive, healthy, and sane, and I am giving each a fair shot. But when we talk about this stuff, we can’t forget that inertia that makes it oh so difficult to make any progress in the right direction. Mark words it beautifully:
Upheaval of this magnitude has a way of knocking us out of our orbits. Emotionally disoriented and fatigued, we can feel out of sync, stuck in an oddly passive or at least awkward pattern. Life can feel like it’s happening around us. Even our routines can feel foreign as we navigate days with an unusual detachment.
Like most of the longer-form content I write, I will end with no real conclusion or solution. It’s not entirely a choice, after all; I just really don’t know what to do. Each day that goes by, I feel a bit better, both physically and emotionally, which is all the evidence I need to not worry too much about all of this. Kris and I both are aware that we’ll survive the long distance thing and probably come back better for it. Once this cold goes away, I’ll likely be encouraged to eat better, go grocery shopping once again, and get back into the gym.
It’s difficult, and anyone who’s been in this situation knows that. But it’s something that I have to overcome, and sooner rather than later. I think writing this and clicking publish is one of the first steps.