Engineering Your Weight Loss

Posted by Filed Under: Weight Loss

the beaten pathSo, last week we were talking about teaching the boy to run. This week, I’d like to take a stroll down memory lane…

A little more than two years ago, I was on the verge of being fat. Like BMI of over 30 fat. (BMI being the U.S. Government’s measure of big bone-ed-ness). And I didn’t want to be fat. The problem, though, was that I didn’t want to eat well, and definitely didn’t want to give up beer.

So, being an engineer, I realized that I had a pretty well constrained problem: My body was rapidly storing fat, and I did not want to
continue adding fat. In fact, I really, really wanted to part with some of the fat I was carrying. The question was: “How?”

To an engineer, almost every situation in the world can be analyzed by looking at two things—”Conservation of Mass” and “Conservation of Energy.” In approaching a system through a “conservation” framework, the first step is to designate a “closed system”—in this case, the carcass that I haul around associated with my earthly essence.

What Goes In …

The next step is to realize that in a closed system, the total amount of mass in a system is going to be the mass initially present, plus any mass added during the period of observation, less any mass removed. Written in math, it looks like:

MSys = Mgozin – Mgozout

Similarly, with energy:

Esys = Egozin – Egozout

Now, applying this model to myself, I realized that there’s one more equation that needs to be accounted for, and that is that in the body, Mass and Energy are directly related in that one pound of body mass is equivalent to 3,500 calories (or KCal, for folks who actually care about units). Going back to math, we’ve got

1 LB = 3,500 Cal

Food: More than Just Something to Eat

In the body model, food, even though it has physical presence, is really just a carrier for energy. So, even though there’s functionally
no difference in mass between a pint of bitter and a pint of water, the pint of bitter represents the better part of 200 calories, or a little less than a tenth of a pound of body mass. In other words, the volume and type of food that I ate was largely immaterial—provided that that food had fewer calories than I was expending to get through the day. Most of the food and beverage I consumed did not actually enter the closed system of my body—it always stayed on the side of my mouth, stomach, and intestines that vented to the atmosphere, or was transported via my bloodstream to my kidneys, where it was then pushed
across a membrane and stored for venting to atmosphere. In any case, roughly the same mass of material came out of me as I shoved in my cake-hole.

For an (at the time) 196 pound person, most folks would say that I needed about 2,000 calories a day to maintain (i.e., not gain, or not lose) weight at my somewhat sedentary lifestyle. To lose weight, therefore, I needed to make sure that all the calories I ate
were either less than 2,000, or that I exercised to make up the difference. In other words, I would lose weight so long as:

Egozin = Egozout

Simple, right?

Well, I’m guessing that most of y’all reading this realize that it’s not that simple, for the following reasons:

  1. Calories sneak up on most of us something fierce. That donut hole or TimBit that won’t hurt? Roughly 60 calories, or, given my tendancy to eat them in threes, about 10 percent of my total calories for the day (absent exercise). Likewise, an extra beer while watching the game is another 10 percent. So, by doing the easy thing twice, I’ve gotten a fifth of my daily calories without any real satisfaction to my hunger.
  2. Little bits add up. Sure, I may only be 100 calories over (that’s less than a can of regular soda!). But do that consistently for a month, and there’s another pound on the scale.
  3. Blowing off running or hitting the gym needs to be offset in calories. In other words, eating the same on non-workout days as on workout days leads to both #1 and #2 above…

What To Do?

That little bit of engineering made the three points above really stick out. Likewise, it made me realize that progress wasn’t going
to be had in leaps and bounds, but was something I needed to do incrementally. The three rules above work in the opposite way, too,
just like a well-designed circuit:

  1. Small cuts add up. Diet Coke, black coffee, or water instead of regular soda? About 120 calories each, or saving about 10 percent of my total calories between lunch and dinner.
  2. Little bits add up. A 150 pound person burns about 100 calories a mile, regardless of speed. Park in the far lot from the office and walk a quarter mile each way—that’s 135 calories a day burned back when I was closer to 195 pounds.
  3. Doing a big workout can mean a little bit of extra apples in the old feedbag. Within reason. As long as the “gozins” are less than the “gozouts.”


It was slow going, but in the first eight months of running consistently and actually caring, about 20 pounds came off without me really having to think about anything. Two years later, and I’m down below 170—still about 20 pounds above where I want to be (150 for my height), but not pushing obesity. Small and incremental change got me where I am. The next step is finding the next tweak to implement and sustain to get me to my goal.

About Bill Jankowski

Jank is the nom-de-plume (alias) of Bill Jankowski. Jank is a runner (defined as “one who runs”, without any necessary claims of athleticism). More accurate would be to say that he enjoys the company of his iPod, and goes to great lengths to get long periods of time alone with his thoughts. Plus, running is a wonderful way to keep his ego in check. He’s been physically active since he was a kid (assuming that, for the years 1995-1999 and 2001-2003, drinking counts as “active”), playing Soccer, Flag Football, Basketball, and Softball while in college (for his fraternity’s B-team)(Actually, add 1990-1994 to the years of inactivity). In addition to running, Jank swims (controlled drowning), bikes (’cause his mom suggested he play in traffic as a kid), and kayaks (see swimming, but with sharks and props). An engineer by the grace of God, a (recovering) submariner by the graces of the taxpayers of the United States, and an MBA by mistake, Bill enjoys gear (oooh, shiny!), cycling (oooh, shiny bikes and clothes!), and poking at accepted ideas with a pointy stick. In 2004, Jank decided he didn’t want to go full-over to being fat, and took up running (instead of stopping eating). In 2005, he finished his first marathon (WooHoo!) in October, and his second two weeks later (dumb idea). He is still recovering. Bill lives in Connecticut (the poorer, eastern part) with his lovely wife Melissa (who is far more fit than he is and way less navel-gazing about it), and their two sons, Jake and Nate, who, in addition to having deliberately cool names, are the finest children to grace the Earth (clear proof that “evolution through natural selection” is bunk; although he still questions the monthly bill for “Pool Boy” despite not having a swimming pool). His rants can be found at; his best stuff is found here at CRN.

  1. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on August 31st at 3:44 am

    One thing to be careful about here is that you can not use the energy > calories formula except very carefully as you have to lose weight.

    If you do not eat enough calories for your activity levels, you will actually gain fat because your body will think that you are enduring a famine and it will begin to store fat as a safeguard. When that happens, it becomes very difficult to lose weight, and if you do you lose muscle mass and not fat.

  2. Dori on August 31st at 6:42 am

    I love the formulas! I’ve been in denial about how little things add up–thanks for putting it so succinctly.

  3. jank on August 31st at 8:42 am

    Blaine – very, very true. But, in general, even when folks start counting calories, they tend to still underestimate what they’re eating.

  4. Dr. Lee Miller D.C. on August 31st at 12:11 pm

    Just an additional point to help people decide what they should be eating.

    Carbohydrates- 4 calories/gram
    Protein- 4 calories/gram
    Fat- 9 calories/gram
    Alcohol- 7 calories/gram

    These values can help explain why fats, and the occasional drink can sabotage a weight loss program. Knowing nutrient density also helps you make better food choices.

  5. Reba on September 2nd at 7:18 am

    I LOVE it! What a great formula and I love the logic. It’s so entertaining to boot that I’m positive it will stick in my head quite nicely. 😉 Thanks

  6. Linda on September 5th at 12:21 pm

    So you’re sayin’ that if your intake is greater than your output your upkept WILL be you downfall! Great post.

  7. Joan on January 8th at 3:57 pm

    Your breakdown of energy intake and expenditure is beautifully simple. It is true that small things can really make the calories add up, but making equally small cuts to your diet can reduce the amount of calories you consume.

    Blaine, I agree that you need to make sure you consume enough calories otherwise your body will hold on to every ounce of energy you put into it. Starving is not a healthy way to lose weight. When I first began dieting I kept a weight loss journal. Here I documented all the calories I ate and the exercises I did. It was a bit of a tedious process, but I learned so much about how many calories foods contain.

  8. Ludo on June 4th at 10:39 am

    To lose extra pounds, I’d recommend hiking trips at this point. Say you go hiking for 2 weeks, you can lose 5-10 pounds for good. Regular trips are good as well, as long as you spend your days visiting stuff on you own (plus a little help of public transportation here and there obviously).

    I’ve been using this technique in the last 3 years, and it seems that at least 50% of my weight loss occured that way. I