If you’re trying to lose weight, a quick internet search will yield all sorts of information about fad diets, metabolism-boosting supplements and other quick fixes for eliminating unwanted fat. You’ll most likely be inundated with myth-driven advice that suggests you adopt unsustainable — and often unhealthy — lifestyle changes to burn additional calories.
The simple truth? To lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. Otherwise, the extra calories turn into fat. So how can you burn calories throughout the day? First, you have to understand how your body uses calories.
3 Ways Your Body Burns Calories
Your daily energy expenditure has three major components:
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR): The number of calories your body burns at rest by performing basic functions, such as thinking, circulating blood, moderating body temperature and supporting your organs.
The thermogenic effect of food: The number of calories your body burns while digesting food.
Your physical activity level: The number of calories burned through movement and exercise.
“Physical activity is the only component where you have much control,” said Cara Mitchell, a registered dietitian with the Medical Weight Loss Center at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. “Your metabolic rate is based on a number of factors, including gender, age and genetics. There are many myths about ways to kick-start your metabolism, but in nutrition science, we don’t have any evidence that that’s possible.”
You can eat food to make the thermogenic effect of food happen, Mitchell adds, but you can’t increase how many calories are burned when you eat that food.
“You can, however, build muscle mass to burn additional calories,” she said.
How to Burn Calories Throughout the Day
Now that you know how calorie burning works, it’s time to get to work.
Mitchell recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day, ideally including some type of resistance training.
“Exercise helps to burn additional calories, while also building muscle mass. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn throughout the day,” she said. “Physical activity also releases endorphins, which enhances your mood and increases your energy levels. It can help relieve stress and promote better sleep. Considering chronic stress and poor sleep both play a role in weight gain, exercise really helps to promote a cycle of wellness and healthy weight management.”
2. Move More
When it comes to physical activity, Mitchell says that any movement is better than none.
“If exercise doesn’t fit into your schedule right now, set an alarm on your phone for every hour at your office and try to get up and do a five-minute walk,” she said. “Do little things, like take the stairs instead of the elevator or use the bathroom that’s farthest from your office. Tap your foot while you’re at your desk. The more you move throughout the day, the better.”
“You can also keep hand weights at the office or beside the couch at home,” she added, “and when you have a few minutes, some quick resistance training can be really helpful to maintain muscle mass.”
3. Eat Breakfast
The thermogenic effect of food is more efficient in the morning than in the late afternoon and evening, so Mitchell recommends eating a big breakfast, a medium-sized lunch and a small dinner.
“If you don’t eat in the morning, you haven’t really gotten your body moving and your digestive system working, so you’re going to burn fewer calories until you eat,” she said. “That’s why we encourage eating breakfast, because it maximizes the amount of energy you’re burning throughout the day.”
“Also, if you’re waiting too long to eat, you’re going to get very hungry, and then it’s hard to control portion sizes and to make smart food choices,” she added. “This is one of the biggest weight-loss deterrents that I see with my patients. Eight times out of 10, the first thing we have to do is get the patient on a consistent eating schedule and go from there.”
4. Consume the Right Calories
The fewer calories you consume, the fewer you need to burn. But quality is just as important as quantity for healthy weight loss.
“We usually suggest consuming about 500 calories less than your BMR to lose one to two pounds a week,” Mitchell said. “This varies based on the individual, but for women, it’s usually about 1,200 to 1,500 calories, and for men, it’s between 1,600 and 1,800. But when you’re minimizing calories, it’s very important to eat the right types of foods. That usually means a high-protein, moderate-carbohydrate diet. Eating protein throughout the day helps maintain muscle mass, so the majority of weight you’re losing comes from fat and not muscle.”
Protein and complex carbohydrates — including starchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains and dairy — will leave you feeling fuller, Mitchell adds.
“If you feel hungry all day,” she said, “it’s unlikely you’ll be able to sustain these behavioral changes over time.”
5. Seek Professional Help
If you’re dieting and exercising and still not seeing results, talk to your doctor about other factors that could be hindering your weight loss, such as medications you’re taking, hormonal imbalances or underlying medical conditions. Mitchell also suggests asking your doctor about reputable medical weight loss centers in your area.
“I would recommend to anyone who feels like they’re spinning their wheels with weight loss efforts to seek out a medical weight loss clinic and see what type of help they could receive from registered dietitians and physicians trained in obesity medicine,” she said.
To learn more about Lahey’s medical weight loss centers in Burlington, Peabody and Lexington, or to make an appointment, click here.