Weight Loss and Maintenance by Al Coon




"I pushed in the clutch and let it coast over out of traffic, and then looked at my gas gauge. The needle was reading deep into empty, well below the "E." "


"You could drive your compact car from Los Angeles to New York City, at freeway speeds for all 2,859 miles, on the energy contained in 857 pounds of fat. "


" Ignorance may be bliss at times, but in the area of calories and food, ignorance is disaster for anyone with a weight problem. "

Al Coon Feeding Your Engine

Driving Home

My workday was over at the electronics school at Norfolk Naval Station and I was finally driving home. The Virginia day was hot, and I had the windows down in our Chevy Vega as I came around the bend on Granby Street. The Chesapeake Bay lay out before me, reflecting the blue of the sky, as I made the turn heading southeast on East Ocean View Avenue. I was on the last leg of my drive home, and I was feeling pretty good, when all at once my engine misfired. It gasped a couple of times and then just died.

I pushed in the clutch and let it coast over out of traffic, and then looked at my gas gauge. The needle was reading deep into empty, well below the "E." I said something very pleasant, as I am sure you can imagine. However, the worst was yet to come. I had to find a pay phone, so I could call Dotti up, and tell her the good news. She would be ever so happy to hear that she would have to pack up our 5 year old son LeRoy into our Ford Fiesta, and then come and give me a ride to the gas station.

What made this especially embarrassing was the fact that she had just reminded in the morning that I needed to get some gas, but I had forgotten all about it—that is until I starting looking for that phone. Now, I won't tell you what she said to me after I told her about my plight, but it must have been effective, because that was in 1982, and I have never again run out of gas in the intervening 24 years.


Energy Is Good

When we run out of gas, we are painfully reminded that it takes fuel in order to move our cars. It is just as true of our bodies. In order for you to do even the smallest task, to move the smallest muscle, your body must have fuel. Each beat of your heart burns up some fuel. If your body were to completely run out of fuel, your heart would stop and your life would be over.

Fortunately, our bodies are built to protect us against this by storing extra fuel, just in case we don't have anything close at hand to eat. We put some fuel aside for a rainy day in our fat cells. Just how much extra fuel are we storing?

One pound of fat takes up about 2.2 cups of space. Our body's volume will be increased by a whole gallon if we gain 7.4 pounds of fat. (For those who like cars, that would be the equivalent to an increase in engine displacement of 231 cubic inches.) In my weight loss journey, I lost just over 50 pounds, or the equivalent of 6.8 one-gallon milk jugs filled with fat.


The Potential Energy In Fat

But how much energy does that increased volume actually contain? It is really surprising when you think about it. Let's compare our fat with gasoline, the source of energy that I unhappily ran out of on East Ocean View Avenue. One pound of gasoline contains 5080 Calories. (In this discussion, when I mention Calories, I will always be referring to "Food Calories" which are the same as kilocalories in the world of physics and laboratories.) One pound of fat contains 3500 Calories. That is a lot of energy! My friend Tom can drive his Prius 50 miles on a single gallon (6.2 pounds) of gasoline, and on the energy contained in one pound of fat, his car could go an astounding 5.5 miles—while moving his car, luggage and passengers at freeway speeds!

Even a regular compact car, that gets 30 miles to the gallon, would go 3.3 miles on the 3500 Calories contained in a pound of fat.

In an average month, an American household uses up 830 kilowatt-hours of electricity to keep its food cold, and then to warm its food up, to heat and cool its house, and to drive all of its electrical appliances. That is the energy contained in 22.7 gallons of gasoline (about the same amount of energy as used up in driving 690 miles in your 30 mpg compact). How much fat would it take to hold enough energy to power your entire home for a month? It comes to 27.2 gallons, or 204 pounds. At 50 pounds overweight, I was carrying enough extra energy with all the time to power my house for a week!

A single pound of fat holds the equivalent potential energy as 10.9 ounces of gasoline, 4 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy, 3.5 cubic feet of natural gas, 0.22 gals (28 fl oz.) of methanol alcohol, 0.9 pounds of coal, or 1.37 pounds of wood. You could drive your compact car from Los Angeles to New York City, at freeway speeds for all 2,859 miles, on the energy contained in 857 pounds of fat.


Using Up The Excess

Now of course, there is no easy way to put our fat into the gas tank of our car, or to use it to power our homes. When we pedal our bicycles, or we turn the crank on a generator, we do transfer our energy into motion or electricity, but the power we exert is far less than that created by our car engine, or the electricity coming down the wire from our power company. We must consume our stored energy with muscle activity, and that is a slow process.

And that should give us pause. We are carrying around enough energy to do sizeable amounts of work, but the work we can actually do with the muscles of our bodies is relatively quite small. We have a gas tank large enough to power a car for a day or two, covering hundreds of road miles, but our body's engine would take many months to use that same energy up.

So, how much energy does it take to run the human body? On average, for a 40 year old 275 pound female, it would require around 2250 Calories each day to maintain her weight. That is the equivalent energy of 0.64 pounds (or 10 ounces) of fat. If 140 pounds of her weight is made up of fat, she would have a 218 day's supply of extra energy in her reserve tank.

In fact, the reserve supply is effectively larger than that, because as her energy reserve began to be used up, the amount of energy her body used each day would go down. At 225 pounds, she would be using closer to 2000 Calories, and at 195 pounds it would be around 1850. When she hit her goal weight, she would be burning up around 1570 Calories each day.

Putting the relative change in perspective; at 275 pounds, the energy that she would use each day to maintain her weight (2250 Calories) would be the equivalent of the energy it would take to drive her compact car 2.1 miles. When she reached her goal weight, she would be using about 0.4 pounds (7 ounces) worth of fat energy to maintain where she is at; and that would drive her compact car 1.5 miles.


Our Dilemma

We can store a lot of energy in our fat cells, and we don't use a huge amount each day, especially if we are living sedentary lives. In order to move our weight from an overweight condition to a normal weight condition, we have to pay close attention to what we are eating, and to how active we are. If we just let our appetites be our guide, we will be in trouble, and it won't take long to get there for most of us. Notice that the difference between maintaining her weight at 275 and 135 for our hypothetical lady was only 680 Calories per day!

We donít have to go out and binge on a gallon of ice cream, or eat an entire cheesecake in one sitting to accumulate 680 extra calories. Dotti and I used to be big fans of eating our lunches and dinners at McDonalds. (I have eaten breakfast there a few times, but I never was a regular breakfast customer for them.) My regular order was a Big Mac (580 calories), super-sized fries (610 calories) and a chocolate shake (360 calories). So, for lunch, I had 1550 calories. For dinner it was another 1550 calories. That added up to 3100 calories all by itself. I usually had several hundred more calories for breakfast, and for snacks throughout the day. Without any binging, or what I would have considered "out of control eating" at the time, I could put away enough calories to push my weight up in a hurry.

I knew at the time empirically that going to McDonalds made the scale go up, but I had no idea what the number of calories was that I was taking in. I mean, I was "being good," I didn't order a dessert! Ignorance may be bliss at times, but in the area of calories and food, ignorance is disaster for anyone with a weight problem.


Denial--Not an Option

There is a road that leads straight as an arrow between Goalville, where we will be living at our goal weight, and Gainville, where we will be living out of control and seeing the scale increase over and over again. Our perpetual, lifetime journey is set to take us to Goalsville, and to remain there for the rest of our lives. The journey will always be with us (it only really gets started in earnest once we hit our goal weight), and it will never be over, but it will successful as long as we keep our eye on our goal, and never quit struggling to succeed.

In this journey to Goalsville, living in ignorance of, or equally as bad, living in denial of, calories in our food is a sure way to set our direction away from our real goal, and to head right back to Gainville.


Working It Off

We know that it is easy in our society to put the calories in—but how about getting them out? If we use up 3500 Calories more than we eat during a week, we will remove one pound (2.2 cups!) of fat from our body. Now, what does it take to actually drain our reserve tank all the way down, putting us into the Normal Range?

It is a very good indication of how efficient our bodies are at storing away large amounts of extra energy, when we realize that if we weigh 250 pounds, we could shovel snow for 4 and half hours before we would burn one pound's worth of Calories. Or instead, we could use that pound's worth of energy to walk 20 miles. It would take over 32 hours of watching television to burn up one pound's worth of Calories, but, and I find this very interesting, you could burn it up slightly faster if you just slept for a little over 29 hours.

Our bodies are very good at holding onto whatever we give to them. This is a classic case of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!" The physical effort required to not eat 3500 Calories is far less than the effort required to burn up those Calories once eaten.


The Battle of the Mind

However, you and I know that, while it may take a small physical effort to not eat the extra Calories, it is a tremendously difficult psychological effort at times. I think it helps us in that psychological battle however, when we can visualize clearly what a calorie really means to our weight loss journey. When I see a cheesecake, and its 3400 Calories, it helps me to turn to something else when I remember that cheesecake represents enough Calories to put AN ENTIRE POUND OF FAT ONTO MY BODY—a pound of fat that I am going to have to turn right around and lose. If I don't eat the cheesecake, I just wiped out all of that effort that I would have had to invest in losing the pound. Sometimes that bit of knowledge helps me make the right choice. Other times, I eat the cheesecake anyway and suffer the consequences.

Knowledge is not enough all by itself. We need to have many tools in our weight control journey toolbox in order to be successful. However, knowledge can be a very powerful help when we allow it to be.

  • Knowing that if I lose (or gain) 9 pounds I will lose (or gain) a gallon of fat is something that will help me to make better choices when I find myself trying to rationalize eating something that would take me off course.


  • Knowing that I will have to cut back on my eating, or else do something as vigorous as shoveling snow, or chopping wood for 4 or 5 hours in order to burn up a pound's worth of Calories, will often help me to avoid eating those extra Calories.


  • Knowing that I am eating enough energy to power my car for 3.3 miles when I consume 3500 Calories helps me to put things in better perspective, and often to avoid straying off course.

Calories are important, and we couldn't be here without them. They serve a wonderful purpose. We are fortunate enough to live in a land where there are plenty of Calories to eat to keep us from starving. At the same time, our fortune has a dark side to it. We can very easily consume many more Calories than we need, and our bodies, built to deal with circumstances where Calories were scarce, will snap them up and store them very efficiently.

We are presented nearly unlimited eating choices in our lives. Along with those choices comes the problem that freedom always presents: responsibility for self-discipline. Our blessing is our curse, and we must deal with it. And the first step in dealing with any problem is to understand it. Calories are at the heart of what we weigh, and our knowledge about these energy laden units will give us a weapon to use in our battle with the scale. As it is truly said, "Being forewarned is being forearmed."

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