Math Is Why America Is So Fat

So I went to my annual physical (which I hadn’t had since 2011) and I was told that I needed to lose weight if I didn’t want to die of a heart attack at some point in my life (my take-away message). I mean, search  anyone can die of a heart attack, more about so the best we can do is manage our chances to the best of our ability. One way to do that is to manage weight. This involves “exercise and eating right” which is what you hear every single health and fitness guru and commercial tell you.

What the hell does “exercise and eating right” mean, physician exactly? Exercise is pretty simple: get off your fat ass. I bought a FitBit, which has been serving as a totem to remind me to get up and move (I sit at a desk all day). I have been walking the dog in the morning before work, getting outside to do walking laps at work twice per day, and have been using the dust collecto…elliptical machine…that we have at home. FitBit wants me to hit 10,000 steps per day, so FitBit can go fuck itself because even with the regimen listed above (which I can achieve because I’m at work and need to get the hell outside), I’m not going to hit 10,000 — close, but no granola bar. Still, the 9000+ steps I do manage is about 8975 more steps than I was taking previously, so I’m pretty focused on the exercise part.

The eating part, though…that’s a lot tougher, but not entirely for the reasons you’d think. One thing my doctor said that resonated with me was “portion control”. Here in the U.S., we’re blasted for eating unhealthy foods, but what really gets us, I think, is that we’re given so damn much food. We like to eat food because it tastes good, and because we’re on the tail end of the generation that was raised to clear it’s plate before we could leave the dinner table. That’s a pretty bad combo right there, because we end up eating way more than we really should. We’re given more, it tastes good, and we don’t want to feel that we’re wasting food. If you’re a parent, it’s worse when you eat what your kids don’t manage to finish.

Still, our bodies require a certain amount of energy in the form of calories, based on our age, height, current weight, and other voodoo. If we don’t satisfy this need, we go into ketosis which is a scientific term for tapping the fat reserves, although you’ll hear fitness-terrorists refer to it as “starvation mode” because technically it’s what your body does — naturally — if you aren’t meeting your caloric needs.

So we’re supposed to essentially burn more calories than we take in, and that’s “losing weight”. There’s a lot of other aspects of “eating healthy” like fat and sodium and protein, but as far as losing weight goes, it makes sense that for all the calories we take in, we need to expunge an equal or greater amount through exercise.

Which leads me to this:


See, this is my stats from the FitBit site, circa 2:30 PM today. So far, I’ve had breakfast, lunch, some snack, a coffee, and a lot of water. I’ve also walked the dog and completed two circuits around the office park. I’ve burned 1920 calories, and have taken in 1075 calories. Technically, I’m doing well per the logical assessment of how we’re supposed to lose weight, right?

No. Because I’ve got this nagging at me (from


Look at that asterisk. I’ve “earned” an extra 490 calories. Out of the aether, I have been granted some kind of cosmic dispensation to take in another 490 calories.

Hold up: I need 2700 calories according to the Mayo Clinic. The meal plan that FitBit has me on wants me to take in about 2225 calories per day to reach my weight loss goal of 14 pounds (1 stone for my international readers). I’ve burned 1920 calories so far today, and have eaten 1075 calories so far today. By my math — fucking math — I need to eat 1380 calories to reach that 2225.

Is that right? I have no fucking clue. FitBit gives me a vague bunch of numbers and graphs in fancy “Web 2.0” fashion. Another dashboard tells me I can eat another 1150 calories. Add that to what I’ve eaten today and you get 2225, which is on target for my plan. But if I eat 1150 to reach the 2225, my total day’s caloric intake exceeds my current caloric burn of 1920. Making maters worse (in my mind) is that this 1150 they tell me I can still eat is a shifting goal based on my daily need and what I burn. If I hit the elliptical when I get home, I’ll burn more calories, and that 1150 need will increase.

If I’m understanding this correctly, and omitting considerations surrounding other elements (fat, sodium, et al.) I’ll need to actually eat more the more exercise I do. Where in the manual is this actually explained? Nowhere, that’s where. It’s totally counter-intuitive. The platitude of “eat well and exercise” is about as reductionist as this subject can get, and considering the amount of math and sliding scales that exist under the covers, I can totally understand why people may start on the fitness trail and get quickly derailed. It’s also why nutritionist and fitness coaches have to have degrees and certifications.

The best I can do at this point is rely totally on these charts and graphs, logging every food and recording every exercise. As I go, I’ll see what I’m taking in and what I’m getting rid of, and hopefully get a better feel for the rhythm of weight loss. But right now, the numbers and their esoteric calculations are throwing me off. Fucking math.

One Comment
  1. Assumptions are the mother of all fuckups. But even if they do have some live data available like Fitbit does, you’ll have to make some assumptions. Like what you’re going to do for the rest of the day. Based on your body mass and fat %, they can probably estimate how many calories you’ll use if you stay completely idle. But that’s about it. They can’t know whether you’ll get additional exercise or not. So the system will assume that your day will proceed as it has so far.

    For example, if you tend to move a lot in the morning and then slump on the couch in the evening, the estimate will be off. But it will get closer and closer to the truth as the day gets closer to the end. Likewise, if you have dinner and check the meters immediately afterwards, they will show that you’ve fulfilled your eating quota.. and at the same time show that you’re over your calorie balance. But if you don’t eat for the rest of the day, the balance will gradually move back to the center.

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