January 6, 2022

Is It Possible to Lose Weight with Diet Alone?

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Shanthi Appelö, registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Together, they explore if it’s possible to lose weight with diet alone.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

  • What are the key factors to losing weight.
  • If it’s possible to lose weight while only focusing on diet.
  • The benefits and drawbacks of focusing solely on diet for weight loss.
  • Recommendations on how to responsibly and safely approach losing weight when focusing on diet.

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, episode 97. Coming up, we discuss if it’s possible to lose weight by solely focusing on diet.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast, the podcast dedicated to navigating how we can all improve our health and wellbeing through small healthy habits that we can start implementing right now. Happy New Year, it’s the season of New Year’s resolution, so perfect topic. I’m your host Chuck Gaidica. Every other week, we’ll sit down with a certified expert to discuss topics that cover nutrition, fitness, and a whole lot more, and on this one, this episode, we’re diving deep into weight loss and if it’s possible to achieve that with diet alone. With me today is registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Shanthi Appelo. Hello again.

Shanthi Appelö:
Hello.

Chuck Gaidica:
Happy 2022.

Shanthi Appelö:
I know, we were just talking before this and you were reminding us, we have to start writing 2022 on our checks.

Chuck Gaidica:
Isn’t that wild? If you still write checks or write anything that isn’t populated automatically. Well, it’s so good to have you back, and I know you not only enjoy being outdoors and movement and all that, but you also enjoy experimenting in the kitchen. So, I think you’re a perfect person to help us navigate this idea because when it comes to weight loss, just go check out at the grocery store right now. We’ve gotten past the Christmas magazine covers and now we’re onto intermittent fasting, lose it fast and keep it fast, breakneck speed. We’re listening to all these things and seeing these images of, I guess, what some are tried and true diets and some are what’s old is new again, and then the ones that say you can just lose weight if you just go on this diet. So, I guess before we get to that big question, can you discuss with us… Let’s talk about the key factors that go into losing weight and why these should be at the top of our minds on a new journey here in 2022.

Shanthi Appelö:
Well, the most fundamental part of losing weight is going to be a caloric deficit, which means that you are burning more calories than you are taking in. So, that’s the main concept, but it’s not the full picture. So, obviously there are better foods for us that are going to make it easier to lose weight over time. Food makes us feel good, certain foods more than others are helpful to our health. So, there’s so many more pieces to the puzzle, but ultimately it’s calorie deficit that’s going to be produce weight loss.

Chuck Gaidica:
So, I’ve been on two diets my whole life because I don’t get enough food with one and here’s the thing, I’ve heard this my entire life, caloric deficit, take in less than you need, but you can’t eat Twinkies. You can’t just eat 900 calories of Twinkies every day, or am I wrong? Could you actually lose weight if it were bad food for you?

Shanthi Appelö:
You possibly could, but it wouldn’t be great for your health. It wouldn’t be good for your heart health, you might increase your risk for diabetes. It’s also not going to make you feel great. You might start suffering by having some vitamin deficiencies if you’re not getting enough of the good food, so there’s definitely a lot there.

Chuck Gaidica:
So, what are the key factors beyond I take in less than I’m supposed to for my body, my metabolism? What other things should we be thinking about on this journey of some kind of a New Year’s resolution maybe?

Shanthi Appelö:
Well, exercise is definitely a huge part of this. It contributes to that caloric deficit if you will. There are also a lot of things that you can do to make things easier for yourself too. So, think about getting enough sleep. If we don’t get enough sleep, when we’ve talked about this before, we just aren’t able to control our hunger hormones in the same way. So, those hunger homerooms get out of whack and it might be easier for us to overeat. Some other things is like if we have a ton of processed foods, like you mentioned the Twinkie, it might make us more prone to overeating. So, there’s a lot more there, but you can definitely lose weight with diet alone. It’s definitely not going to be as effective, and it’s not as good for you as if you include exercise, but it’s actually easier to lose weight on a diet alone than it would be with exercise alone, and one of the reasons for that is because exercise doesn’t burn as many calories as we actually think.

Chuck Gaidica:
That just hit me the other day. It actually was yesterday. So, I’m on my exercise bike, it’s an assault bike. It’s the ones with the moving arms and I’m on it and I get done and I input it into my app on my phone and it says it will take off 118 calories for the day for a half an hour on your bike and I’m like, “Really? I just did all that for 118 calories.” Now intellectually I know that that times seven days a week or whatever, it adds up to a nice number, but to your point, when I look at it, if I were to just eat a little better and trim down the calories, I’m with you. I think I have much more impact on what I’m putting in my mouth than unless I’m running a marathon or going biking for 30 miles, of course that makes a difference, but that’s really interesting when I saw that number yesterday and I thought, “Wow, I really can impact my health better with diet, not necessarily alone, but yeah.”

Shanthi Appelö:
And, we’ll dig into this a little bit more, but just to what you were saying, not a lot of calories. If you think about the elliptical, that’s a very common form of exercise if someone’s going to a gym. If you weigh 185 pounds, you’re going to burn, if you kind of do it vigorously about 373 – 380 calories on that elliptical trainer and that’s less if you weigh less and more if you weigh more. So, that’s not a lot and weightlifting, if you do kind of general weightlifting, 126 calories for 30 minutes. So, it’s definitely more effective to kind of affect the equation of calories in, calories out with only diet, but another thing about exercise and we’ll dive in more to this, but when we build muscle, we’re going to be burning more calories at rest as well. So, it does kind of help with weight loss beyond just burning the calories in that exact moment while you’re exercising, but it actually helps in the long term to burn more calories too.

Chuck Gaidica:
And isn’t that true, even as we age, right? If you’re in your 60s, 70s, and 80s, even then lifting lightweights has been shown to help with your metabolism and bone strength, and there are lots of other benefits you keep talking about and it’s just true. You really are helping yourself beyond quote, unquote a diet.

Shanthi Appelö:
Definitely. Well, I think too, it’s it important to recognize how we actually use our calories in a day. So, let’s talk about this a little bit. So, obviously the things that we do, that our body does every day to function, that’s our metabolism, that’s going to be part of the calories that we burn in a day. So, even just having your heartbeat, even breathing, those are going to burn calories and then we also burn calories by just simply digesting our food, that’s about 10 to 15% of the calories we burn in a day, and then finally that physical activity.

Chuck Gaidica:
Come on, really, that much?

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah, 10 to 15.

Chuck Gaidica:
Wow.

Shanthi Appelö:
And then physical activity, obviously, even when you’re walking around the house, walking up and down the stairs, and then anything that you add that is structured exercise is going to be included in that. So, those are kind of the only one that we can really affect here is that physical activity when we’re not controlling our eating.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, and let’s face it, this episode is dropping at the beginning of January, and in Michigan, even if you had a walking path, it may have ice and snow on it now. You can’t go for the bike ride. It may even be tough to walk in the neighborhood if you don’t have a sidewalk. So, this notion that somehow we can impact our lifestyle change by addressing diet is really, I think, encouraging because for some of us, we can’t get out and do the things we will in May or June, right?

Shanthi Appelö:
Right, yeah. So, there are definitely some benefits, especially in the winter for that. So, for some people it can feel really overwhelming first of all to focus on both diet and exercise. It feels like, “Okay, if I just focus on this one thing, I’m going to feel less overwhelmed rather than adding so many things to your goals.” Also, if you think about food versus exercise, exercise is something that you physically have to do or a period of time in order to burn the calories.

Shanthi Appelö:
So, you’re adding time to your day in exercise whenever you do it. So for example, if you’re starting an exercise routine, you’re probably building in an hour a few times a week. And so, for some people that can be difficult, not only to plan, but just to make time for it. However, with food, it’s something you’re going to do either way, and if you’re changing to a healthier lifestyle, maybe you are spending some more time in the kitchen and you have to dedicate time to that, but also there are ways to not add any extra time by eating healthy. So, that is another benefit of just focusing on diet there.

Chuck Gaidica:
And, you’ve kind of mentioned this, sort of touched on the idea that there is also movement in our day where whether it’s just around the house or if you’re a busy mom or dad with kids, you’re up and downstairs maybe, you’re going to the laundry room. You’d be surprised if you’re not tracking already how many steps you’re getting at an average day, but there is something to that idea of just the average amount of movement. You could kick that up a notch or so, and that could help undergird a nice diet program, right?

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah, definitely. The more that you can build in movement to everyday life, the better, whether that is just taking more stairs or parking further away, for sure.

Chuck Gaidica:
What do you see as… The first thing that comes to my mind is whether you’re a man or a woman is body image issues, but what’s the downside to focusing strictly on weight loss and diet?

Shanthi Appelö:
So exercise, we’ve talked about a few of the benefits, but obviously it adds to that calories out of the equation when we’re thinking about that caloric deficit, so it becomes greater, and then there are so many benefits that are metabolic that are associated with exercise. So, let’s just dig into diabetes. People with diabetes, for example, they’re going to become more sensitive to insulin that they’re already making if you have type two diabetes than if you didn’t do that exercise. So, that means that we’re going to do like a little quick lesson of diabetes here. So, basically we have food that we consume and in order for it to be used for energy, it has to get into the cell and what helps it get into the cell from our blood is going to be insulin. So, I almost think of it as a little lock and key. Insulin is going to unlock this door for the food that we’ve broken down into blood sugar, so that I can get into the cell to be used for energy.

Shanthi Appelö:
So, this insulin with people with diabetes sometimes just doesn’t work very well. We have insulin resistance, we’ve heard that word, so then it makes it more difficult for that insulin to work. So, the key just isn’t really opening the door well. It’ll open the door, but it’s not a great key, it’s not a good fit there. So, what exercise does is that it actually helps increase the sensitivity to insulin. So, it makes that lock and key work better, so that we can actually use that energy from blood sugar. So, that’s one of them and it also uses glycogen, which is our storage form of glucose or carbohydrates and it’s using it while you’re exercising and you actually get the benefits of reducing your blood sugar several hours after you finish your exercise too.

Chuck Gaidica:
Ah, so the machine keeps machining, huh?

Shanthi Appelö:
The machine keeps machining, it does. And, you’ve heard muscle weighs more than fat, right?

Chuck Gaidica:
Right.

Shanthi Appelö:
And so, muscle also burns more calories than fat does. So even when you are sleeping, that basal metabolic rate is going to be increased if you have more muscle, so that’s a huge piece of it.

Chuck Gaidica:
So, those are some of the upsides and positives, and I guess back to this question, is there a downside to focusing on diet alone? What if you really truly want to be a healthy couch potato? You’re saying to yourself, you know what, I’ll walk around the family room, I’m not going out because there’s a blizzard and I’m going to go on a diet, is that okay or are there other downsides? You just have to kind of watch out for any other landmines. Do you see any landmines that could come your way if you’re just focusing on diet?

Shanthi Appelö:
Right, so obviously we just talked about how adding exercise to the equation, there’s so many benefits and whenever we only focus on diet, we’re not going to get more of those benefits that are associated with exercise because the only two ways influence that calorie deficit is exercise and eating less. So, exercise also helps with lowering blood pressure, it helps with cholesterol, so that LDL cholesterol that isn’t good for our heart health, triglycerides are also reduced. We reduce anxiety, our overall wellbeing is better when we exercise. So, that’s another drawback of focusing on diet alone is that we’re not going to get those benefits associated with exercise.

Chuck Gaidica:
And, is there anything to this idea? I look at this all the time and I wonder, so if we’re looking at caloric deficit or if I’m adding exercise, I’m trying to do this in a balanced way, can I go on too low of a calorie diet?

Shanthi Appelö:
Yes.

Chuck Gaidica:
I can, so what if I jumped on 1,000 calorie a day diet because I want to lose weight for getting into the bikini and it’s a rough thing for me, but I’m going to try for the summer. So if I did that, will my metabolism slow down? Is there trying to go too low for a calorie count for the day?

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah, that is definitely a thing, and in the nutrition world we deem that nothing under 1,200 calories is safe.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, okay.

Shanthi Appelö:
But, really the best way to calculate your calorie need for weight loss is going to be calculating what you need for maintenance, so basically if you were to leave your weight the same, how many calories, and then we subtract 500 per day.

Chuck Gaidica:
How do you know how many calories you need for your weight though?

Shanthi Appelö:
It’s your favorite equation.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh.

Shanthi Appelö:
Dunder Mifflin.

Chuck Gaidica:
Dunder Mifflin.

Shanthi Appelö:
But, Mifflin St. Jeor. That’s the equation, and there are a ton of online calculators for this. So, you can find it in apps, you can find it online, but subtracting 500 from that is good. So if you’re a woman, for example, and your maintenance calories are about 2,000, 1,500 calories is going to produce about one to two pounds a week of weight loss. One thing I will say though about these calorie numbers, they’re so individualized of what’s going to work for you. So, if you think 1,200 calories is the very lowest, it might not be good for everyone. So, I think 1,500 is great for women. It’s still realistic, you can still enjoy your life, and then 1,800 calories for men is another doable number. So that 1200 calories, it is like the lowest number you can go down to in a safe matter, but it’s also really difficult to follow.

Chuck Gaidica:
And, it’s really interesting to talk about this equation again, going in search of, and the one thing you mentioned, which is a huge takeaway, I know I kind of beat myself up for only burning 118 calories on my bike, but intellectually I know, and I said it, if I do that seven days a week or I do it five days a week for the entire year, how it adds up. When you say you’ll lose one to two pounds a week if you’re in a 500 calorie deficit from where you should be, honestly, do the math. Most of us don’t need to lose 100 pounds, but in 50 weeks you almost could, 50 to 100. That inspires me in a way where I think I beat myself up too much when I don’t look at the small numbers and how they’ll add up to the larger number if I’m just patient, if I’m just sticking to the plan the best I can, right?

Shanthi Appelö:
Right. Are you ready to be uninspired?

Chuck Gaidica:
Yes, I will. Go ahead. Wait, let me grab the chair arms here. Okay, go ahead.

Shanthi Appelö:
Well, so this is another thing to only focusing on diet alone. So, once you’re losing your weight, you’ve reduced your calories that you’re eating in a day and you’re following it and you’re losing weight. There’s going to be a point where you’re not going to continue to lose weight because as your maintenance calories are going to be lower because you have less body weight to carry around. So, the basal metabolic rate might be lower. You’re also eating less food. So, that equation that we were talking about of breaking down food, those calories burned are going to be a little lower and your physical activity, we were talking about how many calories burn in 30 minutes doing the elliptical for a 185 pound person, if you have now reduced that weight to 155, you’re also burning less calories in general.

Shanthi Appelö:
So, you are also going to have to start reducing your calories further and this is one huge piece of the puzzle here with focusing only on diet. It’s going to be really difficult to maintain that weight loss or keep it off if you don’t add that exercise because it’s going to reduce so many more calories in a day, but it’s also going to help with that muscle that’s going to keep burning and all of that. So, it’s almost like what they refer to as a plateau. It’s common to get there, so you’re going to have to make additional changes if you want to keep losing weight.

Chuck Gaidica:
But you know why that’s tough, it’s because we’ve all got friends who are 155 and who eat pizza and burgers and cake, and they’re just doing all this and you look at them and you’re like, “Come on, really?” My wife is one of those people. She’ll eat a Cinnabon and then she goes, “I lost two pounds.” I hate that, I can’t do that. My body does not work that way. So, I guess that’s one of the things that can influence us from around us. We’ve got friends who maybe are already at their ideal weight and we get there and we’re thinking, “Well, why do we have to work so hard to keep it at that?” It’s tougher for me, I can say that, to get to a weight without hitting a plateau and then all of a sudden seeing it creep back up.

Shanthi Appelö:
And, it all comes down to that individual metabolism. We were talking about that basal metabolic rate and maybe for them theirs is a little more effective, and it is unfair, but I think too, there’s so many more things to it. We can see people enjoying a huge Cinnabon or something, but in everyday life, maybe they tend to have smaller portions or whatever that may be.

Chuck Gaidica:
Is there anything we can do? You’re talking about the digestive process. Is there anything we can ingest part of this new diet that actually helps to kick our metabolism up? If I ate apples and celery, is that better than… And I use Twinkie, sorry for picking on them, but is it possible that we can eat something better and different that actually helps the metabolism?

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah. Well, it’s interesting you say that. I feel like, isn’t it celery or lettuce? I can’t remember which one where you actually burn more calories than you intake.

Chuck Gaidica:
It’s probably both if you think about it.

Shanthi Appelö:
That’s not my example here, but in those same lines, if we go back to that thermic affect food or the calories burn from just breaking down food. Technically it’s greater for protein foods, but because it’s such a small equation, think 10 to 15% of our calories burned. It sounds like a lot, but in theory, if you’re just increasing your protein intake in order to burn more calories that way, it’s not going to have that much of an effect on your overall burned calories.

Chuck Gaidica:
So, does this lead us to asking the next question, in your view the best, most well-rounded diet or lifestyle change? Is that going to include the little bit of protein? Give us your picture of what that means, whether it includes fasting, it doesn’t. Is it keto? I don’t know, just in your mind, what is the best, most balance way to attack this for 2022 for us?

Shanthi Appelö:
I think it goes into a lot of what we talked about, really figuring out what you need for your maintenance and subtracting from that because you cannot lose weight without a calorie deficit. Whenever we look at research studies, it might seem that some diets more effective than others, but whenever we control for muscle mass, we control for water weight and things like that, ultimately calorie deficit is the only way to lose weight, and of course there’s more pieces to the puzzle. So, let’s go into that. Let’s just start with subtracting those 500 calories, and to make it easier. We always want to make it easier because eating less and eating smaller portions isn’t as easy as we’d like to think sometimes, so making sure that you feel full after a meal. So, we as dietitians want to recommend five fruits and vegetables per day for good health.

Shanthi Appelö:
But, it can also help you lose weight because these foods are going to be rich in fiber, and so they’re going to make you feel full when you’re done eating. We also want to make sure we’re getting enough protein foods to help with this too. It’s about we one gram per kilogram of body weight, just as a very average. Look into specifically what works for you, but if you get enough protein at each meal, it’s going to keep you fuller for longer, so that you’re less likely to go back and snack. Another thing is to focus on just skipping some of those processed foods because we had a whole episode on this, it really affects our hunger hormones. If we have more of those processed foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar, we’re going to be overeating or we’re more likely to overeat and go out of control.

Shanthi Appelö:
And, then that same vein with those hunger hormones, keeping them in check by just getting enough sleep, and then we talked earlier about like, “Okay, well technically you could eat just Twinkies and lose weight.” It’s definitely true, but we also want to think about our overall wellbeing and how we feel because ultimately our diet might make us feel better when we’re losing weight from an image standpoint, but we also need to think about how it makes you feel just consuming these foods and how it affects our hormones and how it affects our heart health and our overall risk. So, it’s more than that, but it’s also just plain calorie deficit in one way. I also really like to encourage, be realistic. This is the one question I want every to ask themself, is this something I can see myself doing next year, five years from now, 10 years from now? Because oftentimes we think of a diet as something we do until we get to our goal.

Chuck Gaidica:
And, that’s a really good point because that is that lifestyle change. That’s the change that I think you would be looking to encouraging us to consider is how do we change the lifestyle, increasing activity, adding weight lifting, going on a calorie deficit, all that becomes a lifestyle. So really moving forward, you don’t think of it as a diet, it’s just the way you roll.

Shanthi Appelö:
Right, and if you think about those people that have maintained their kind of healthy weight for a long time, as a general rule of thumb, we see those people with those healthy habits of building exercise into their life, of controlling their portions, but enjoying the foods that they like sometimes. There’s good truth to it.

Chuck Gaidica:
So, you’ve mentioned protein a lot and not because we need to consume a lot, but I want to go down this path for just a minute because there are the people that will swear by keto. Maybe in 2021 they were on it, it worked for a good part of the year and then all of a sudden it didn’t for whatever reason. So, now when you say eat five fruits and vegetables a day, I know for a fact, because I’ve thought this way when I’ve tried keto or something closer to keto, I look at a banana and I think that’s evil. That’s filled with sugar, there’s no way. I’m going to become a diabetic if I were to eat bananas and apples every day. So much of that is kind of ingrained in us by media or other people we’ve talked to. So, we have to at our thinking, as well as all this other diet stuff we’re talking about moving forward into the new year too, don’t we?

Shanthi Appelö:
We do, and you know what, I used to think bananas were evil too.

Chuck Gaidica:
I love them.

Shanthi Appelö:
And, I’ve obviously changed the way I think, but back in college I did a low carbohydrate diet and I was so successful at it and it was one of the things that got me interested in nutrition. I was like, “Wow, this is really effective.” But after that, I had to heal my mind because first of all, I reverted to other ways of eating because it was really difficult to hang onto and to do that always and not to eat pizza when your friends were eating pizza, but I had to really reframe my thinking because I also thought carbohydrates were evil, whether they came from fruits or from pasta or just cake.

Shanthi Appelö:
Carbohydrates were evil in general, so we do have to reframe our way of thinking and noting that vegetables, fruit like bananas, come in with so many benefits with all the nutrients that they provide, all the fiber that they provide. They’re just a different source of that, and yes, they do have sugar and yes there’s a way to overdo those fruits, but having that limit of two to three a day, even more if you’re substituting it for dessert is great for you and comes along with so many benefits, so don’t think of them as evil.

Chuck Gaidica:
And, I know that that’s not really the case intellectually, but protein, even if you’re plant-based or you’re leaning toward plant-based, that can still be black beans or legumes, or you can have fish or lean chicken. There are ways to add that little package of protein to nearly every meal, so that balance that I know you’re encouraging us to find is still there.

Shanthi Appelö:
Right, and I think there’s a big misconception with protein too. I’ve focused a lot on it, but in the body building world and the exercise world, we’re always focusing on building muscle, making sure we get enough protein for it, but this is what I’m encouraging here is more to make sure that you’re feeling fuller for longer and for you to kind of get what you do need to lose weight and to maintain that muscle mass. So, if you’re eating more protein than carbohydrates, that does tend to be more successful, and we’ve talked a lot about water weight, so low carbohydrate, we’re going to be losing a whole lot of water just because of the ways that glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates is bound to water. So, those are kind of those other kind of that play into the weight loss that make it look like weight loss, but might not be true fat loss.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, that’s a whole other episode. We need to tell everybody, we need a few more hours on this episode. We got to go along because there’s just so much good stuff. All right, well, can you kind of wrap it up for us here on some good takeaways? And, I know we’re going to have you back, so we can dive into some of this other stuff because you’re a treasure of so much knowledge to give us, but encourage us. Come on, it’s 2022. I’m ready to go and I’m ready to pull in my belt. Wrap it up for me.

Shanthi Appelö:
Well the question here was, can you lose weight on diet alone? You certainly can. It’s effective, but as tempting as it may be, make sure you include movement even if it’s not structured, even if it’s just building it more into your day because it’s so important for your longevity, staying independent as we age, and just feeling good in general.

Chuck Gaidica:
All right. Well, a thumbs up to this. You’ve given us so much good stuff. Shanthi, a Happy New Year again, and the next time we chat, I bet you’ll be able to tell I’m thinner. You’ll say, “You sound thin.”

Shanthi Appelö:
You sound…Your breathing is great.

Chuck Gaidica:
I hope so, I really do. Listen, take good care of yourself and thanks.

Shanthi Appelö:
Thanks, Chuck.

Chuck Gaidica:
And, thank you for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like the show, you want to know more, I encourage you to go online. It’s at ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast. You can leave us reviews or ratings on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, and you can get new episodes for the new year and all the old episodes. This is season five, so there’s a lot of good stuff out there. Leave us a review, do that for us, and again, you can check us out and subscribe on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica, be well.