Whatever dieting works for you

When one hits mid-life, one is obligated to have a crisis, right? For me, I thought it was time to take a bit of interest in looking after my body, beyond just being vaguely conscious that cycling as my main mode of transport and eating whatever in moderation aren’t particularly bad lifestyle choices. It’s time to ward off the risk of spread and get into shape.

I’ve never tried this dieting lark before. Of course, one hears things about Atkins, not mixing food groups, 5:2, or whatever is today’s money-spinning fad. What little I’ve seen in print is generally along the lines of how hard it is to keep the mental discipline, and what a chore it is to keep track of calories. So typically for me, as a dieting newbie it’s time for some research.

One of my first major research findings was that there is lots of potential out there for lots of lovely numbers. Another was that I need to think about exercise as well as my diet, so that’s twice as many lovely numbers. And then there are lots of websites offering lots of lovely calculators to complete.

I typed my height and weight into one website calculator that gave me my BMI. But I’ve read that most of the England rugby team would be obese if measured by BMI, so clearly fat and muscle percentages are important too. In the absence of a skin-fold caliper (“Can you pinch an inch?” is one of those annoying ad campaigns that have bored into my brain and laid maggot eggs that hatched into meme weevils and now feed off any intellectual capacity I might once have had), I fed a body fat calculator my height, neck, waist and hips measurements… which happily also provided my waist to hip ratio. So now I know that my BMI is OK if towards the top of the green range; my fat percentage is probably too high (although the┬ástory I’m sticking to is that the measurement is too coarse); and my waist to hips ratio is ideal :-).

It’s important to be realistic about my aims, and knowing my frame size and body typewill help. So into another calculator I type my wrist circumference, and find out my frame is small. On the other hand, my elbow breadth indicates that my frame is large. This is going well. Let’s instead look at some photos of famous ectomorphs, mesomorphs and endomorphs so I know which celebrities I wannabe. Or probably the most useful suggestions were to look in the mirror periodically to check on my physique, and to take various body measurements at fortnightly intervals and be heartened if they go in the right direction.

But how to set about going in that direction? Typing my height and weight and target weight into another website gave me targets for daily calorie intake and calories expended on exercise, and hence a likely date for meeting that weight.

Time to start a spreadsheet.

I set up my sheet of fortnightly body measurements, and my sheet of daily calories and exercise. Then I set up a sheet for my first day of counting those calories.

Again, the most useful online hints are along the lines of: what are the best foodstuffs; to occasionally go over the daily intake target to keep the body guessing; to eat little and often to keep the metabolic rate up; when to exercise after eating; what to eat after exercising.

I don’t buy into the mega-bucks diet food processing industry. I don’t think of myself as a foodie, and I’m quite happy with a fairly unvarying diet, but I’m also pretty good at eating well – whole grains, fresh fruit and veg, largely home-made and very little processed food. I actually find the sight of low-calorie artificial ready meals and cakes on supermarket shelves to be pretty nauseating, wondering what processing has substituted what manufactured chemicals for what natural foodstuffs.

Hooray for food labelling! Websites and packaging give me the calories per weight of pretty much all foodstuffs, except the mystery chutney in my cupboard. My frequently used munchies are all itemised in my spreadsheet. I can calculate calories in my various stock homemade stews. All my recipes are itemised too. I can give you daily numbers for my little-and-often intakes at breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner, and supper.

What about the lovely exercise numbers?

I don’t have a blood pressure monitor, but the last time the doc measured it it was pretty good. I found a phone app for measuring my heart rate, which is easier than taking my pulse and correlates to it well enough. From that, a heart rate calculator can tell me my maximum heart rate and my training zones for fat burning and cardio exercise.

Another website or dozen provide calculators of how many calories various activities burn. Their best advice? Do things that you enjoy and will keep up.

I’m never going to keep up going to a gym, partly because I’d have to cycle there, and partly because of the music. I like the outdoors, and would be happy to get most of my exercise from walking or at a Green Gym. I’m less interested in being rained upon in winter, or in joining the ranks of runners in public view. So, to supplement the cycling as favoured mode of transport, I decide to buy a fold-up nordic walker machine with electronic gizmo. It sits in my guest room most of the time, and I put my exercise clothes in there too. I have my playlist of mostly Mozart on my mobile. It’s easy just to step in, get changed, and go.

The electronic gizmo has a heart rate monitor, which I check against my pulse. It seems pretty accurate at rest. In flow it might be a bit less accurate, but I’ll go with it as a measurement of whether my exercise is moderate or vigorous. The gizmo also tells me how many calories I’d be burning… were I a 185lb man. Note to manufacturer guys – let’s be a little less sexist in our assumptions, hey, and provide a way of inputing minor details like, oh I don’t know, weight? I suppose I could factor it down, but instead I use a website calculation of calories based on my age, weight, number of minutes, and the moderate/vigorous axis.

As for my cycling, Cycle Streets tells me how many calories I burn for each bike journey. I have to assume a cruising speed, but the timings suggested are pretty close to my out-turn and take account of incline, so I’ll go with their suggestions too and ignore the inevitable discrepancy with other websites.

Then I might add in a bit of walking, resistance workout, housework, concert singing, gardening, and other significant activities. All the numbers for calories burnt per minute are available online. The variety is good, to prevent the body from getting used to a routine. There are even side-benefits; the hated-but-now-more-desirable lawnmowing is particularly good exercise, and my garden is looking more kempt than usual.

I added a graph to that sheet of daily calories and exercise, and hey presto! Here it is.


The point of all of this is that it’s important for each person to find out what really works for them. I have found out what works for me, and because I’m a data geek, what works for me are data collection and spreadsheets. I enjoy weighing and calculating, typing the data in, and planning how to massage my meals and exercise the rest of the day to meet my targets. When I think about food now, I think less of its epicurean desirability than how it will affect the figures on my spreadsheet. As a result, except when I’m out and it would be socially frowned upon to whip out the kitchen scales, it’s been pretty easy to regulate my calorie intake. Exercise is a bit harder, because it requires finding the time, but the numbers have helped my motivation there too.

I’m never going to, say, sign up to Weight Watchers. But I know that other people will find it easier if they have someone they have to share numbers with, who will keep them on the straight-waisted and narrow-hipped. It might be helpful to keep going in a group with mutual support, or not helpful if they see that group as sitting in judgement on their progress or lack of it. You may be able to tell I’ve never been to Weight Watchers and have no idea how it is organised!

What works for a person just might not be that obvious. It might not be widely pushed by the media (graphs don’t sell magazines quite as well as slebs). Maybe a song-writer could get into exercise by writing songs with beats to target heart rates or stride frequency and testing them. I bet those Weight Watcher devotees who moan about calorie counting would find it hard to imagine my approach. But take another look at my graph; you can just about see that I’ve had to change my daily exercise target as my weight has gone down. And my fortnightly body measurements tell me my hips have shrunk two inches. I may have stumbled upon my approach, but it’s looking good so far!