Losing weight is nothing but a numbers game. If the number of calories burned is greater than the number of calories consumed -- bingo! Weight loss.
So why isn't everyone thin?
Many people have no idea how many calories they should eat -- or expend -- to lose weight. It can be hard to accept that a half-day's allotment of calories can be blown with one Starbucks blueberry muffin and a handful of M&Ms pulled from the office candy jar. Or that 30 minutes of any sort of movement doesn't come close to an extended, heart-pumping workout.
The average 120-pound woman should eat only about 1,300 to 1,800 calories a day, depending on her age, height and activity level. The average 170-pound man, about 1,870 to 2,550 calories.
(Hint: If you have a desk job, rarely get your pulse rate up for extended periods or are anywhere near middle age, shoot for the low end of that range.)
Further, those calories-burned numbers on cardio machines are not one-size-fits-all; nor are they always accurate.
Southern California residents Anne Bogart and Shay Watson know they don't have the best diet and exercise habits, but they're fairly clueless about how many calories they're consuming -- and not expending -- throughout the day, even though both want to lose weight. For Bogart, a 48-year-old work-at-home mother, the call of a beckoning refrigerator is a difficult thing to resist. When she takes breaks from business calls and writing, she often heads for the kitchen and grabs a snack. Or three. Or four. The director/producer also eats while preparing meals. And that little-bit-here, little-bit-there nibbling adds up. Although she treks to the gym a few times a week, she doesn't work out especially hard and she's sedentary much of the day.
For Watson, a 33-year-old events planner, the days typically consist of client meetings, often at restaurants or tastings -- and we're talking cake, not carrot sticks. Because networking is a big part of his business, he also drops in frequently at parties. Although he gets a fair amount of exercise, the calorie burn isn't enough to keep him trim.
On days when appointments don't include meals, the president and founder of L.A.-based Aesthetica Events may go for hours without eating until a blazing hunger drives him to chow down on fast food. Exercise consists of twice-a-week sessions with a trainer, and he takes hourlong walks on the beach several times a week. But that's not making enough of a dent in the calorie-dense, rich foods he enjoys, such as cheese, steak and desserts, plus wine and mixed drinks.
Like many men, Watson doesn't count calories, although he's aware of his bad eating habits, such as finishing friends' meals. "When I'm at a cake tasting, they'll ask me if I want the rest packed up to go," he says, "and nine out of 10 times I'll say yes." Since he knows so many chefs and restaurateurs, he's often comped appetizers and desserts, which he doesn't turn down.
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We helped Shay Watson and Anne Bogart do their calorie math. Then we sought advice. Weighing in are:
Janet Walberg Rankin
Professor in the department of Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise at Virginia Tech
Co-owner of Mohr Results, a Louisville, Ky.-based nutrition and fitness facility, and formerly the assistant director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh