Measuring Calorie Expenditure with a BodyMedia

 know I’ve been M.I.A. for a long time, but I’m back because I have something really interesting to talk about: my BodyMedia!

What’s a BodyMedia?

A BodyMedia is a on-body device that tracks your footsteps, heartrate, sleeping patterns, and daily calorie expenditure, and then uploads them to an online dashboard for you to easily view and track.

It looks like a wristwatch worn on your upper left arm, but in fact it’s a sophisticated device that constantly captures data on your movement, skin temperature, and energy expenditure, then uses this information to determine your caloric burn. It’s more sophisticated than a pedometer or heart rate monitor because neither of those can accurately measure calorie expenditure–this does. Of all the products out there, this is the most accurate, with no guesswork or estimation on your part. You can learn more at the BodyMedia website.

Why Use A BodyMedia?

The BodyMedia produces so much data that I haven’t had time to explore all of it’s potential uses, but for now I’m going to focus on calorie tracking. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, chances are at some point you’ve thought about calories. Too many people obsess over counting and measuring and tracking every bite of food in order to hit some magic calorie goal without ever stopping to consider whether this is the right amount for their body and weight loss goals. Or they spend hours surfing the web and reading articles and crunching numbers trying to figure out how many calories they just burned at the gym and how many miles they need to run to “burn off” last night’s dinner. Or they get hung up on hitting the right number of “net calories” *cough everyone on tumblr cough*, a concept that is inherently meaningless.

None of this makes sense, and none of this is the right way to think about food, exercise, and weight loss. It doesn’t make sense to pull a calorie goal out of thin air without first considering your calorie expenditure. It doesn’t make sense to meticulously track your exercise calories when they’re really just a rough estimate. And it doesn’t make sense to fixate on the calories you burn in an hour at the gym without thinking about the calories you burn during the other 23.

Calories aren’t just something that you burn off running on the treadmill; they’re units of energy that your body uses constantly to survive. Your body doesn’t just shut off when you’re not formally exercising; it’s burning calories constantly as your working, studying, eating, sleeping, and otherwise going through the motions of daily life. This is why trying to eat back your “exercise calories” to hit 1200 “net calories” is so silly: your body doesn’t differentiate between “exercise calories” and any other calories–all that matters is that your intake is less than your output.

Problem is, how do you know your calorie output? A magazine article can’t tell you. An online calculator can’t tell you. And the computer screen on the elliptical sure as heck can’t tell you. These estimates are a good place to start, and they’re certainly better than pulling a number out of thin air. But if you’re going to let your life revolve around those numbers, then you should at least make sure they’re the right numbers, right?

And that’s where the BodyMedia comes in. It eliminates the calculations and estimations and guesswork by giving you an accurate picture of your daily calorie expenditure. It tells you more about your own body than a doctor, trainer, or one-size-fits-all formula ever could. If your goal is to lose weight, it will enable you to calculate exactly how much you need to eat to reach your weight loss goals, allowing you to avoid sabotaging yourself by eating too much or too little. Moreover, you will be able to see the impact that different exercises, activities, and eating styles have on your body both at the time and throughout the day, helping you to find the lifestyle that is best for YOU.

Why I’m Using A BodyMedia

I get asked this all the time at work when my coworkers or tables see my BodyMedia! Right now I’m just using it to gather data and learn more about my body. I’m not actively trying to lose weight in the sense that I’m tracking or limiting my calorie intake–I’m just curious about my calorie expenditure. Specifically I’m interested in how weight-lifting impacts calorie expenditure in the short-term (how much does it increase calorie burn on a daily basis) as well as the long-term (can it permanently increase your metabolism?) I’m also curious about how much I’m burning at work waiting tables.

My BodyMedia Data

First here’s some background on me: I’m 22 years old, 5’8, and about 150 lbs. For the past month, I’ve been lifting heavy weights for 30-75 minutes 4-5x/week. I also have a very active job waiting tables 30-40 hours/week, and am usually fairly active when I’m not at work (biking, housework, running errands etc). Based on BMR calculations, my BMR should be around 1520 calories, meaning that my calorie expenditure should be about 2600 – 2900 assuming a high activity level. I’d estimate I eat about 3000 calories per day, but that’s just a guess since I don’t currently track calories.

I’ve been wearing the BodyMedia since November 9. Shown below are 17 days worth of data (rounded to nearest 10):

During this 17 period, I burned an average of 3290 calories per day. My calorie expenditure ranged from 2430 to 3860 calories. I expended over 3000 calories on 13 out of the 17 days.

My first reaction was, holy shit, no wonder I’m always hungry! This explains why I eat so much! My second reaction was to wonder about the variance from day to day–that’s almost a 1500 difference between the highest and lowest days!

However, this disparity makes sense if you take into account my activity level, particularly the two biggest factors: lifting weights and working. I’ve reproduced the data below using an “L” to indicate days that I lifted, and “W” to indicate days that I worked.

During this 17 day period, I worked 14 days and lifted 10 days. There were 8 days when I lifted and worked, 6 when I worked but didn’t lift, 2 when I lifted but didn’t work, and 1 when I did neither. I summarized the averages for each category below:

  • Worked and lifted (8 days): 3540
  • Worked but didn’t lift (6 days): 3100
  • Lifted but didn’t work (2 days): 3260
  • Didn’t lift or work (1 day): 2430
  • Overall worked vs didn’t work (14 days/3 days): 3350 vs 2980
  • Overall lifted vs didn’t lift (10 days/7 days): 3490 vs 3000


Right now my conclusions are preliminary because I don’t have much data–I just wanted to share what I had now! However, here’s a few of my thoughts right off the bat:

  1. First off all, I’m burning a LOT of calories. Significantly more than you’d expect based on standardized calculations for my age, size, and activity level. It’s a good reminder that estimations are just that–estimations–and the standard 2000 calories/day doesn’t apply to everyone–if you’re young and active you probably can and should be eating more than that.
  2. Lifting makes a difference. I average almost 500 calories more on days that I lift versus days that I don’t (3490 vs 3000). HOWEVER, this doesn’t mean that I necessarily burned 500 calories during that particular hour of lifting–just that lifting increases overall daily burn (the BodyMedia can show the exact calorie burn during a particular time to prove my point, I just haven’t analyzed it that deeply yet).
  3. Also just because I average 3000 calories per day on my days off from lifting doesn’t mean I’d burn 3000 calories anyway if I’d never picked up a weight. Your metabolism depends on your general pattern of activity, not just your day-to-day activity, and I have a feeling that if I took a month off lifting, my baseline would be much lower. I’m not going to do this on purpose, but it might occur naturally, hence my effort to constantly gather data for comparison purposes.
  4. Activity level matters too: an active lifestyle beats hours of cardio. Over these 17 days I averaged 370 calories more on days that I worked (3350 vs 2980). Moreover, when I look at the breakdown of individual days, I can see a big difference–all the days I hit over 3600 calories were ones I worked long, busy shifts and/or was active outside of work (in addition to lifting). Note that none of this is “formal exercise” but it still burns calories.
  5. My metabolism didn’t used to be this fast. In fact, my whole life I thought I had a pretty slow metabolism, based on the fact that I was overweight as a kid despite having normal eating habits. But I believe that you can increase your metabolism by weight lifting and by EATING, and this supports my belief.
  6. On the other hand, I don’t think I’m eating and expending exponentially more calories than the average person–I just think I’m more aware of it. Most people can and do eat more than they realize, but they aren’t really tracking their intake so they just assume they’re eating the “normal” amount you commonly hear thrown about: 1500, 1800, 2000 etc. When people do track calories it’s usually because they’re trying to lose weight, so that number isn’t going to be representative of an average day. And everyone underestimates.
  7. Based on this you can see why low-calorie diets are often doomed to fail. If Joe Schmo thinks he’s eating about 2000 calories a day, since that’s what the cereal box says (seriously, I’m pretty sure this is where I got my idea of a”normal” amount of calories from), then a 1500-calorie weightloss plan sounds reasonable. But in reality, he’s eating more like 3500 calories a day, he just doesn’t know it. So when he goes on a 1500 calorie doctor-approved diet plan, he feels like he’s starving–because he literally is. After a few days he can’t take it anymore and goes on a fast food binge. Or decides dieting is impossible and gives up altogether. Whereas if he had changed his target to 2500 calories he could having stuck to the diet for much longer, steadily losing 2 lbs/week until he hits his goal.

Stay Tuned…

I need to wrap it up for now, but I’ll be back with more posts as I get more data and delve more deeply into the data I have. I hope this was helpful and feel free to get in touch with any questions; I intend to be more active on here from here on out!


Confession: Sometimes I Feel Guilty About How Much I Eat

Copied from my tumblr yesterday morning. Going to make more of an effort to cross-post to here too!

Sometimes I feel guilty about how much I eat. 

Not like “OMG I’m going to get fat guilty” but more like “why do I get to eat this much” guilty. Or alternatively I wonder how other people can eat so little, or how the heck I ever used to.

Case in point: yesterday, ate about 1850 calories according to LoseIt. Low (for me) because I went to bed early (for me—10:30pm) so was only awake about 9ish hours yesterday.

Woke up at 4am starving. Couldn’t get back to sleep and have been up since.

Like, for some people 1850 calories is a binge day. Some people don’t even eat that much on Christmas or Thanksgiving, or so it seems.

For me, 1850 calories is, “let me tally up what I’ve eaten in LoseIt so I can determine whether or not I need to take a sleeping pill to sleep through the night.” Yes, I did. And it got me 5 hours of sleep, so I’ll count that as effective.

But then I’ll start reading the blog of someone who’s eating 1200 calories day in day out and it’s like how do you do that? Aren’t you hungry? If so why do you have to be hungry all the time and I don’t? Am I crazy to eat/want this much food? Why do I get to eat so much?

Okay here are my answers for myself (aka why I “get” to eat 2500 calories/day):

  1. I’m not trying to lose weight
  2. I’m not trying to maintain an unnaturally low weight (I’m ~140)
  3. I’m tall (5’8) and pretty muscular so I need more food than a smaller girl
  4. And I’m young which makes my BMR higher
  5. I’ve made my metabolism pretty fast. I can literally feel my stomach burning through food.
  6. 2500 calories matches my daily calorie needs based on BMR (2300-2575) so it’s probably accurate
  7. I eat a balanced macronutrient ratio composed primarily of lean meats and proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fat. Almost no starch. It’s not just 2500 calories of crap.
  8. 2500 is an average. I include alcohol and everything else in that. Most people eat more than they think because they don’t average—if you eat 1200 calories Monday through Friday and 3000 Saturday and Sunday including alcohol then you’re actually averaging 1700 cal/day, not 1200.
  9. The blog world is not the real world. Need to keep reminding myself of that!
  10. But within the blog world, the girls with bodies with bodies that I want eat pretty much like I do. 

Of all those points, #10 is probably the biggest reason I eat like I do. When I first starting lifting and reading the blogs of girls who lifted, I would see these girls who were 5’2 and 115 lbs eating 2400-2500 calories a day. I started to think “if they can eat that much and they’re still way tinier than me, why can’t I?” So I did. I had never heard of BMR and had no clue how to calculate how many calories my body actually needed. I sort of thought it was some magical property of weight lifting that let people eat that much. Now that I know how to do the math, I can see it’s right on track and makes sense, it’s not just magic.

And let’s be honest: when I’m reading through the archives of a blogger who attempts to eat 1100 calories a day and a year later still hasn’t lost any weight, why would I want to model myself after that person? I’m not trying to be mean, just giving myself a reality check because it’s easy to get caught up in the mindset of “well they do that so I should be too.” My philosophy has always been don’t follow the nutrition/exercise advice of someone that I wouldn’t trade bodies with, and overall the people I see who are successful and have a healthy attitude and life balance eat. Not starve. 

My point is…well I don’t really have a point, just me rambling. I’ve been up since 4am (as I said) lying in bed reading blogs and listening to the rain. About an hour ago I ate breakfast (3 whole eggs scrambled with mushrooms, spinach, tomato, avocado, and feta cheese) and now I’m thinking about 2nd breakfast—probs an apple and PB as I’m out of banana to make smoothies and the Royal Farms below my apartment didn’t have any when I ventured out in the rain at 7am (sad!) Normally I hate the rain but I’m okay with it today since it’s a) not cold just nice spring rain and b) it will help me be productive (laundry, cleaning, finishing up econ project do today). 

Peace out/Happy Monday!

The NUMBER ONE Reason You’re Not Losing Weight (And What To Do About It)

To lose weight, you need to eat at a calorie deficit. Period. It doesn’t matter how clean/organic/low-carb/vegan/healthy your diet is; if you’re not eating at a deficit, you’re not going to lose weight.

Most people know this. The problem is, most people go about this the wrong way. They latch onto a number of calories that they THINK they should be eating every day, but which is more likely than not too low (1200 seems to be popular among people who pride themselves on “doing it the healthy way”, those who are reallllyy delusional about their ability to stick to a diet might aim for 800 or 500 or less), and end up on a starvation diet that isn’t sustainable and ultimately backfires with failure or weight gain.

This usually ends up playing out in one of the following ways:

  • A) You wake up every morning full of determination to stick to your diet–until 3pm or 7pm or 11pm rolls around and you’re so hungry that you find yourself eating everything in sight. You go to bed disappointed and frustrated and vowing to do better tomorrow–but the same thing happens tomorrow. And the next day. And next…
  • B) You eat “perfectly” almost all of the time, weighing every lettuce leaf and logging every calorie–except two or three times a week you find yourself binging like crazy on foods you wouldn’t even normally eat. 
  • C) You lose weight successfully for a couple weeks, but then all of the sudden you find yourself binge eating once, twice, three times a week, even though you never did so before losing weight

And you wonder why you’re not losing weight–after all, you’re only eating 1200 (or 1500 or 1800) calories a day! (On the days you track calories, that is). Why are you the heaviest of your friends, even though you’re the healthiest eater? Why can’t you be one of those girls who eats whatever they want without gaining weight? (Despite the fact that naturally thin people generally don’t binge eat.) It’s just not fair!

If this sounds familiar, then you’re not alone. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and in fact I did for years. Part of the problem is that oftentimes people underestimate both how many calories they need AND how much they’re actually eating. If you told me at age 16 that I could have lost weight eating 2000 calories a day, I would have refused to believe you. After all, 2000 calories was what “normal” people ate, and I just knew I had a slow metabolism so obviously I needed to eat less than that just to maintain my weight, and even less to actually lose.

In reality, as an active 16 year old girl I WOULD have lost weight eating 2000 calories a day. Instead, I planned my days around eating 1000 or 1200 or 1500 calories so I’d bring only about half that amount’s worth of food with me to school, then by the time I got home I’d be ravenous and eating everything in sight. As a result I was eating much more than I realized, even though I felt as though I was constantly on a diet.

As rule of thumb, you’re eating more than you think. The average person who isn’t tracking calories probably doesn’t know how much they’re actually eating to maintain their weight, and what that means is that the difference between your normal intake and your intake when you’re actually tracking calories is going to be greater than you realize. And while 1200 (or 800 or 1500 or 500) calories might sound doable when you’re sitting there on a Sunday night with a full stomach determined to start your diet tomorrow, it’s going to feel a lot different when you wake up in the morning and have to eat that amount every. single. day. for the next three months. That’s why I shake my head at girls who are all “Yay I ate 500 calories for two days now I just have to keep this up for the next six weeks!1!” Well of course your body can operate on 500 calories for two days in a row–otherwise the human race would have died out years ago–but that’s not gonna last forever and then where will you be?

The answer is that eventually your body isn’t going to be able to take it any longer, and it’s going to look for calories and energy wherever it can find them–usually in the form of fatty, sugary, calorie-dense foods. Notice my use of the phrase “find yourself eating” multiple times above? This isn’t the same as deciding to break your diet because your co-workers ordered pizza–this is literally your body taking over and acting on its own volition because it is so nutrient deprived. That’s why often bingeing can make you feel like you’re not in control–because in a way, you’re not.

The problem with this is that you end up eating a lot more than you think. It takes less than 10 minutes to eat 1000 calories of cookie dough, peanut butter, ice cream, cheese, etc. If you do that 3x a week, that’s an additional 3000 calories a week, or 430 per day. So if you think you’re eating 1200, you’re really eating 1630. 3000 calories translates to almost a pound of weight not lost–or even gained–in just 30 minutes worth of eating! And if you can eat that much in 30 minutes, think about how much you can eat over the course of a whole day. If you eat 1200 calories six days per week, but 5000 on the seventh, then your average is actually 1740!

Of course, those averages are still fairly low, so you probably could still lose weight this way…but wouldn’t it be easier to eat 1600 or 1700 calories every single day and never feel hungry or deprived rather starve yourself six days a week and feel bloated and out of control on the seventh? There’s also the fact that bingeing tends to get worse, not better, with time, and binges become larger and more frequent. Let’s say you binge two days a week instead of one–now you’re averaging an additional 1000 calories per day, and chances are you’re not losing weight anymore, even though it feels like you’re always on a diet–because 90% of the time, you are.

Most people’s impulse at this point is to start cutting calories even further. They conclude that they’re just unable to lose weight on 1400 calories or however many they’re budgeting, and decide they need to eat even less–without taking into account the binge eating or overeating that makes their average well over what they think it is. However, this is the worst possible approach, because it just perpetuates the cycle into more and more dramatic extremes. 

Now here’s the really scary part: have you guys heard of the Minnesota Starvation study? Matchstick Molly gives a great overview of it here. Basically, in 1950 the government conducted an experiment on the effects of starvation on 36 men who volunteered for the study as an alternative to military service, all of whom were in perfect psychological health with no disorders or food issues. They were given 50% of their daily calorie needs for six months. Over the course of those six months, the men became increasingly obsessed with food: they began to think and talk about food all time, hoard food, steal food and binge compulsively; they began to develop psychological problems like nervousness, social anxiety, disorders, and even psychosis, as well as physical symptoms like dizziness and headaches. Most of the men never fully recovered from this starvation period and struggled their whole lives with their weight, compulsive overeating, binge eating, and food issues. Also, their metabolisms decreased significantly. What this means is that your body’s natural reaction to starvation can actually cause a psychological eating disorder whether you are predisposed to one or not, increasing the likelihood that you will struggle with weight and food your entire life. Do you want to do this to yourself??

Okay, so if you’ve stayed with me this far then hopefully I have you sufficiently freaked out. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to discourage you from eating at a calorie deficit and losing weight! You just need to be smart about it so you actually DO lose weight and avoid making sacrifice’s for nothing. So here’s what you should do: 

1. Calculate your own calorie needs for weight loss

Just because a website or magazine or diet plan says that you should eat X number of calories per day to lose X number of pounds doesn’t mean that it’s right! Beware of a one-size-fits all diet plan: do you really think that someone who’s 5’10 and 200lbs is going to need to eat the same as someone whose 5’1 and 120 lbs in order to lose five pounds? Also keep in mind that the younger you are, the more calories you burn even if all other factors are equal. For example, a moderately active 5’4 140 lb 16 year old girl would need to eat about 1550 calories to lose a 1.5 lbs per week whereas a 45 year old women would need to eat 1350 for the same weight loss. So a calorie plan designed with an adult in mind is already likely to be insufficient for a teenager.

To calculate your own calorie needs, first find your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate ie the number of calories your body would need if you were lying in a coma) which you can do here.  Then multiply by your activity level factor which you can find here; I also wrote a guide explaining this process in more detail here. This will tell you how many calories you need to maintain your CURRENT weight. Chances are that it’s more than you think! Subtract 500 calories from that number to lose 1 lb per week, or 1000 to lose 2lbs per week. Unless you are obese, you should not attempt to create a calorie deficit of more than 1000 calories per week. Why? Because it’s not sustainable, for the reasons I explained above. Also, you should not set your goal as less than 1200 calories per week (that’s probably where this number comes from–but it’s a baseline minimum, not an ideal target). If eating 1200 calories doesn’t make much of a deficit for you, then you probably don’t have much weight to lose anyway. Either that or you should increase your activity level to see greater results at this level of intake.

2. Be realistic about your deficit–it has to be sustainable

Just because 1200 calories is the minimum you should eat doesn’t mean you should shoot for that amount. Be realistic–are you going to be able to keep it up for as long as  it takes to lose all the weight you want? If not, you’re better off creating a smaller deficit and attempting to lose 1-1.5 lbs per week instead of 2. Yes it’s tempting to try to lose weight as fast as possible, but it’s not worth it if it’s unsustainable. Which is better–losing 4 lbs in 2 weeks and then burning out, or losing 2 lbs in 2 weeks and then continuing on to lose 20 lbs over 20 weeks? (That may seem like a long time but just think if you had started out 20 weeks ago!) Ironically, the MORE weight you want to lose, the less of a deficit you’ll be able to create. If you just want to lose 3 lbs, you could theoretically get away with eating 800 calories a day because you’d only have to keep it up for a week. If you want to lose 30 lbs, that’s not going to work–you have to set your sights on the long-term and be realistic.

3. If you want to calorie cycle, plan for it

There’s nothing wrong with eating 2000 or 3000 calories some days as long as you plan for it in your weekly budget. Personally I prefer to eat this way because it fits better into my lifestyle and makes it easier to transition into maintenance in my opinion. So instead of saying I’m going to eat 1800 calories per day, for example, I’ll say that I’m going to eat 1800×7=12,600 calories per week divided into 4 days at 1500, 2 days at 2000, and one day at 2600. I might not follow this perfectly, but it gives me the flexibility to have a higher calorie day without getting off track for the week. If I had allotted 1800 calories every single day and then ate 2600 one day, I’d be 800 over budget for the week–but if I tried to correct by eating 1000 the next day I might get overly hungry and end up triggering a restriction/binge cycle. So you can avoid this by planning ahead.

4. Eat enough protein and healthy fats

The less calories you have built into your daily budget, the more strategic you need to be about how you’re getting those calories. Many people have a tendency to gravitate towards low-calorie, high-volume foods…but the problem with this is that these foods usually are low in fat and protein, meaning that you won’t be getting enough nutrients and are more likely to wind up bingeing or overeating to compensate. You still need a certain amount of fat and especially protein even if you are restricting calories. (The jury is still out on this one, but I personally agree with recommendations that say 1 gram for every pound of your ideal body weight…this is probably a little high for some people so I’ll say 2/3 gram for every pound of your ideal body weight, MINIMUM). What that means is that you are going to have to reduce carbs to make room for your protein intake…and I’m sorry to tell you this tumblr, but that means you are probably going to have to restrict your fruit. I LOVE fruit and could probably win first place in a watermelon eating contest, but I limit it to 2 or maximum 3 pieces/servings per day if I’m losing weight. (That being said, obviously fruit is always a better choice than a piece of candy or something with no nutritional value at all).


Seriously. You have to. There is absolutely no point in measuring out your Special K with a food scale on Monday if you end up eating the whole box on Tuesday, or shaving 50 calories off your intake when you’re regularly having 2000 calories binges. This is the equivalent of spending 10 hours color-coding your notecards, then sleeping through the final. Or hiring a consultant to perfect your resume, then blowing off all your job interviews. Or collecting beer bottles to save 5 cents, then ripping up all your cash and throwing it in the air and stomping on it. You get my point. Seriously, if you’re binge eating on your diet, then everything else you do is pointless until you can figure out how to stop it or at least get it under control to the point where it’s not impeding your progress. And the best way to do this is to increase your target intake. Most people are going to resist this because it goes against their intuition, but I think I’ve done a pretty thorough job of illustrating why if you’re bingeing then you’re actually eating a lot more than you think. If bingeing adds an additional 500 calories to your daily average, then any increase up to that amount will put you ahead of the game. Start with another 200 and see what happens. If you don’t believe me, try tracking ALL your calories over the course of the week and see what your average comes out to–you will probably be surprised!

In conclusion, I hope this was helpful! I see this problem ALL over tumblr and it’s something that I’ve struggled with myself, so it’s a topic that is very relevant to me. I really hope it ends up being useful, and as always message me if you have questions!

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