What does 200 calories look like?

19 02 2013

The obvious follow-up to the question posed in the title of this post is: “200 calories of what?”

A site called wiseGEEK provides an answer (at least for 71 common foods).

By way of example, here’s a comparison of 200 calories worth of broccoli alongside 200 calories worth of bacon:

If you’re interested in weight loss, a click through to the full site is worth your time.


Some more “weight loss” apps

5 02 2013

In a recent post I covered some of the tools I am using to help me stick to my weight loss plan. In this post I wanted to highlight a couple of other apps and tools that I am using:

EveryMove is a system that allows you to earn points toward rewards for almost any kind of healthy activity, for example walking, running, swimming or even just doing yardwork. The best part is if you have a FitBit (or a Nike+ FuelBand or BodyMedia FIT armband) then you simply have to connect that device to EveryMove and the tracking is automatic. You can also earn points by tracking activity via a smartphone app (e.g. MapMyFitness) or even manual logging. An iOS app is available, but sadly no Android or Windows Mobile (at least at present).

In the four weeks since I’ve joined up, I’ve earned a free child’s admission to my local science museum and $30 off ski or bike tuning at a local shop. I’m currently about a quarter of the way toward earning a pair of gaiters for snowshoeing. And all for simply tracking my activity. EveryMove serves as a motivation to exercise on those days when I’m not feeling like getting out there. The company is based in Seattle (where I live) and several of the rewards are for local stores and attractions. However, there are rewards that could appeal to folks no matter where they live, so I’d urge you to check it out. I have no doubt that as the company grows the breadth of reward opportunities will expand. Another similar service is EarndIt. The rewards offered on this site are not nearly as compelling (at least to me) as those offered by EveryMove, but “free” stuff is free stuff. They also offer the opportunity to donate points for things like clean water in Haiti of care packages for US troops serving overseas.

FoodPlanner is not a weight loss app per se, but I find that using it can take some of the guesswork out of my daily caloric intake. The Android app allows you to plan daily and weekly menus and create grocery shopping lists based on your menus. You can import recipes from a wide array of sites — Eating Well and Cooking Light are two of my favorites. There is also a  (fairly rudimentary) web application that you can also use. I use it to plan a weeks worth of healthy meals (primarily dinners in my case) and then created a shopping list so that I can make sure I have everything on hand for each meal. It’s pretty slick.

Finally, there’s One Bus Away. I commute daily via public transit and this app tells me (quite accurately) when the next bus will arrive at any given stop. It also shows me the route and the location of the other stops. With this information I can decide whether I want to stay where I am and wait for my bus to arrive or if I have time to walk to the next stop before the bus gets there.

For example, on my way home I have a connection where I change buses. Some days my first bus arrives to the transfer location just minutes after my connection has left. I can look at One Bus Away and determine that the next bus won’t arrive for 15 minutes and I can choose to set out on foot to get some extra steps in. Some days I’m able to get an extra mile or more of walking in (which translates into more calories burned and more EveryMove points earned)  just by using the information that this app provides. I get home at exactly the same time as I would have otherwise, but I’ve squeezed in some “free” exercise time. The appeal of this one is going to be limited to those in the Puget Sound region as that is the only area the app covers.

If I find anything else that helps me stay motivated or serves to assist in getting me closer to my healthy goals, I’ll try to point these out in a future post.

Weight loss progress

5 02 2013

I’ve recently reached a milestone in my weight loss effort: I’ve crossed over the (imaginary) line between “Obese” and merely “Overweight” in the BMI chart. My BMI currently sits just below 30 which is the cutoff between those terms.

In the roughly four weeks since I started this journey, I’ve managed to lose around 12 pounds. If I continue reaching (or exceeding) my goal of losing 2 pounds per week, I will reach my initial goal of 185 pounds by around the end of May. This goal was chosen because it puts me at the upper limit of the “Healthy” BMI category. Once I reach that level I will re-assess how I am feeling and looking and determine whether my goal weight needs to be adjusted.

I’ve added a new page to my blog to post my weight-loss progress charts.

Busting weight loss lore

31 01 2013

I just read a very interesting article in the New York Times (via Lifehacker) that covers a newly published study on how much of the received “wisdom” around weight loss is not actually grounded in reality. Example: “If schools reinstated physical education classes, a lot of fat children would lose weight. And they might never have gotten fat in the first place if their mothers had just breast fed them when they were babies.” Turns out neither or these “facts” is actually supported by any science.

The study goes on to point out that “[t]rying to go on a diet or recommending that someone go on a diet does not generally work well in the long term.” This is something that I firmly believe, which is one of the reasons that I try never to use the term “diet” when referring to my own weight-loss efforts. Yes, I am restricting my caloric intake, but I am doing it as part of a holistic approach of re-examining my entire lifestyle. I am trying to develop healthy habits that I will be able to maintain even when I reach my weight-loss goal and switch into “maintenance” mode.

I would encourage everyone who’s interested in their health to check out the article.

Weight loss tracking tools (software)

30 01 2013

In my last post, I covered the hardware tools I am using to help me drop fifty pounds on my first step to regaining my overall health. With this post I’m going to complete the description of my toolbox by looking at the software I am using to monitor my weight loss.

The software suite I’ve cobbled together consists of the following:

  • FitBit dashboard – this free online tool integrates with the Zip and Aria scale to track your activity and weight measurements. It also includes features to track food and water intake. Mobile apps are available for iOS (Apple) and Android.
  • LoseIt! – this is a web-based application which allows users to track food intake and activity. It can integrate with FitBit (although it also works as a stand-alone application). Again, mobile apps for both iOS (Apple) and Android are available.
  • TrendWeight – this is a very simple web-based application which tracks “moving average” weight trending (in the style described in the Hacker’s Diet book). It also allows integration with FitBit (to automatically get weight readings from the Aria scale) although it can be used independently.

The FitBit dashboard (obviously) integrates with both the FitBit Zip pedometer and the FitBit Aria scale and also includes features to (manually) track activity, food and water intake, body measurement, sleep, blood pressure, and a bunch more. Some of these can be automated (e.g. the FitBit One can be used as a sleep tracker). It’s a pretty well designed all-encompassing fitness tracker and it might be all that some people would ever want or need. They also have developed an API and integration with a bunch of external websites and services.

However, I wasn’t wildly impressed with FitBit’s food logging functionality, which is where LoseIt! comes in. After using the food logging in both FitBit and LoseIt!, I found the LoseIt!’s system fit my needs best. LoseIt! also includes most of the monitoring functionality of FitBit. In fact, the two applications are fairly similar. I would encourage people to try both and see which one works best for you. The good news is that since LoseIt! is a FitBit partner app, FitBit can be configured to import the meals you log in LoseIt!

The final piece of the puzzle is TrendWeight. This is a fairly simple app which just “smooths” the data from your daily weigh-ins by using a moving average as espoused by The Hacker’s Diet. I find this extremely useful as it means that random upward blips in scale readings don’t cause me to freak out and start re-assessing the plan. TrendWeight is also a FitBit partner which means that scale readings from the Aria are automatically input.

Some other tools I have tried and I would urge folks to check out are Noom and The Hacker’s Diet online.  Noom is a smartphone app which provides much the same functionality as the FitBit or LoseIt! apps. They have come up with a unique way of logging food which relies on estimation (e.g. was that serving of chicken the size of a deck of cards, or the size of a tennis ball?), which might work well for some people. However, the engineer in me couldn’t get past the inherent imprecision — the LoseIt! method works better for me so I discontinued logging food with Noom. Noom also serves up daily content: health and weight loss related articles and suggestions. I continue to look at these on a near daily basis, but that is the extent of my interaction with Noom.

The features and functionality offered by The Hacker’s Diet online is extremely similar to those in TrendWeight. The two big differences are that The Hacker’s Diet doesn’t integrate with FitBit, so one has to manually enter daily weights, and the Hacker’s Diet allows one to track their “rung” on the Lifetime Fitness Ladder, which is an exercise program detailed in the book. At this point I have been using THD online to track my progress up the fitness ladder, but other than that, it doesn’t provide any utility that I don’t get from TrendWeight.

So that is basically the structure of the system I have implemented to track my weight loss. I have no doubt that it will continue to evolve over time, but at the present I feel like these tools are really going to help me stay motivated as I make my way back down to a more healthy weight.

Weight loss tracking tools (hardware)

28 01 2013

So I’ve determined that I need some tools to help me get to where I want to go in the weight loss portion of my journey to good health. After looking around at what is available in the market, I’ve settled on the following:


With these hardware tools (along with a set of software tools I’ll cover in my next post) I’ve created a system which will facilitate tracking my input (calories eaten), output (calories burned through activity) and results (weight and bodyfat % trends).

I’ve been considering getting a FitBit tracker (or something functionally similar) since I first heard of the product segment (in late 2011 with the release of  the star-crossed JawBone Up). It wasn’t until this January that I finally decided my health was worth the $100 investment to try it out.

I was initially looking at the FitBit One, which offers a few more features than the Zip (sleep tracking, stair climb counter, wireless syncing) — the One sells for about $100 v. $60 for the Zip. However, in early January I found a package deal offered by Best Buy for a Zip and an Aria scale (which normally sells for $130 by itself) for $150. I wasn’t really planning on investing in a scale; I already had a perfectly serviceable (although non-connected) bathroom scale. But I saw the value in the package (figuring that if I didn’t like the scale I could re-sell it and still come out ahead versus buying a Zip on its own) and took the plunge. I’m so happy I did, because of the two items I’m finding at least as much or more value from the scale as I am from the tracker.

The scale simply removes one more barrier from the weight loss tracking process: having to manually record and track one’s weight. I simply step on it every morning as soon as I get out of the shower and it does its thing and uploads its results to the FitBit site automatically. It’s so easy and having this daily data is probably not something I would otherwise take the time to consistently track. Having daily weight readings is important to the accuracy of the moving average trendline.

In my next post I’ll discuss the software tools which integrate with the FitBit hardware to flesh out my weight loss system.

FitBit Zip image

The FitBit Zip wireless activity tracker

FitBit Aria image

FitBit Aria “smart” WiFi scale

Weight loss methodology

24 01 2013

The system I’ve come up with to meet my weight loss goals entails:

  1. Logging what I eat,
  2. Logging how much I exercise, and
  3. Tracking my results (i.e. my weight)

As most folks understand losing weight involves expending more calories than one consumes which forces the body to burn it’s fat stores to make up the difference. I’ve been reading The Hacker’s Diet by John Walker. The author is a computer programmer (as am I) and he approaches weight loss in much the same way one would approach developing a computer application. Walker does a very nice job of laying out the parameters of the problem and walking the reader through the process of developing a system to track and maintain one’s weight. The book might not be for everyone, but it’s available free on-line and I would recommend it to anyone who has a bit of an analytic bent.

The primary points I took from this book are:

  • one must expend 3,500 calories (technically kilocalories, but we’re talking about the calories you’ll find on every nutrition label) more than one consumes in order to lose a pound of weight
  • a good deal of the variance in daily weight readings have to do with fluctuations in the amount of water the body is retaining on any given day

This first fact leads us to the calculation that one’s consumption must be 500 calories less than one’s expenditure each day in order to lose one pound in a week (because 7 times 500 equals 3,500). The second fact leads us to the conclusion that using moving averages to “smooth out” the variance in day-to-day weight readings gives a more honest trend of real weight loss. This calculation and this tool (moving averages) will provide the basis for my weight loss methodology.

In my next post I’ll describe the tools I plan to use to monitor and track my consumption, exercise and weight to help keep myself accountable to the goals of my journey to health.