Weight loss: How to get better mileage from your meals

Weight loss is challenging. While we all want to find that magic fat-burning strategy that allows weight loss with unlimited calorie intake, that is just not realistic. To achieve a healthy weight, the secret is fueling for performance and getting better mileage out of each calorie we consume.

Why do we eat?

The answer should be simple: we eat to fuel our body.

Muscles and organs require fuel to function, and that fuel is found in the foods you eat. Sugar, starch, fat, alcohol and protein are all used for energy (a.k.a. fuel) by our bodies.

The problem is that we do not simply eat based on physiological fueling needs, but also for pleasure.

We eat in social settings even if we’re not hungry. We might buy popcorn at the movie shortly after eating dinner. Or we ‘clean our plate’ because it is considered good etiquette — even if that plate contained more fuel than our body required at that time.

Think of a car when it’s time to refill on gas. You cannot over-fill the gas tank because the extra gas spills onto the pavement when the tank is full and never enters the car. Our bodies are different. We can eat more calories than we need and the extra calories are moved to body fat. Fat cells are like an energy storage tank that holds calories for future use — one pound of body fat stores about 3500 calories that can be used by our body when food is scarce.

Fuel requirements

Muscles and body cells burn energy every day. When we breathe, muscles contract and use blood sugar in the process. The brain alone burns about 300 to 400 calories per day. So, the more muscle you have, the more calories your body needs every day.

Each person has different daily energy needs that include the following:

  • Resting energy needs — what our body needs to maintain life (i.e. heartbeats, breathing and brain function). Our energy needs slowly decrease every 10 years, so our calorie needs are less at the age of 60 than at the age of 30. Also, our needs are higher as a child in order to support growth and development.
  • Activity needs — what our body needs to move through the day. This includes movement and exercise needs.
  • Stress needs — extra calories needed if we are seriously ill or recovering from injury or surgery.

Why do we gain weight?

If the body burns fewer calories than it consumes, we will draw on stored body fat and lose weight.  If we eat more calories than our body needs, we will increase our fat stores and gain weight. Interestingly, if we eat exactly what our body needs but increase exercise, we may lose weight or lose inches and maintain weight because body fat is converted to muscle mass.

Strategies to lose weight

To lose weight, we need to draw on stored calories in fat cells by eating less than we physiologically need that day, or by working out to burn more calories than we consumed.

Below are seven winning strategies to support healthy weight loss:

  1. Move more

People who work out for 60 minutes five times per week are more successful with weight loss because they burn more calories and lose weight even with a little more food on the plate.

  1. Eat more vegetables

The goal for weight loss is five or more servings of vegetables per day. The average American consumes only one to two servings per day. A serving is ½ cup cooked vegetables, 1 cup raw vegetables or 2 cups of salad greens.

  1. Cut out the dietary fats

The fats we snack on or add to foods really pack in extra calories.

  1. Eat breakfast

Research suggests that people who skip meals tend to struggle more with weight loss.

  1. Limit sugar

Choose water or unsweetened tea to eliminate a significant source of calories in your diet. The rule should be to chew your calories and not sip them. Choose desserts only on special occasions — most days fruit can be the sweet finish to your meal.

  1. Eat for hunger and not for pleasure

Eat when you feel physical hunger but decide to stop eating when the hunger pains stop. Check-in halfway into a meal or snack and stop eating if you feel satisfied. It is okay to leave food on the plate.

  1. Plan your plate

Use the plate below to plan the right portion of meat, starch and vegetables. Keep fats to under 50 to 100 Calories per meal. Add a fruit and a low-fat dairy food or bread to finish out the meal.

If you are struggling with weight loss, talk to your doctor or find a dietitian at Baylor Scott & White Health.  

About the author

Julie Paff
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Julie Paff, RD, LD, CDE is a registered dietitian and a certified diabetes educator on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Health. She has 37 years of professional experience in four states. Her passion in managing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and chronic kidney disease. Julie teaches Diabetes Boot Camp at the Cedar Park Clinic and the Georgetown Specialty Clinic in Central Texas. She sees patients for diabetes education and nutrition counseling at Round Rock Specialty Clinic, Cedar Park Clinic and Georgetown Specialty Clinic.

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Weight loss: How to get better mileage from your meals