This graph would have been far more dramatic if I hadn’t been too embarrassed to weight myself at my heaviest.
It’s almost New Year’s and that means it’s time to make a New Year’s resolution. For many people, “lose weight” is their resolution this year, and probably was last year as well, and the year before that, etc. I hear you on that. So with that in mind, let me tell you how I lost weight, and am continuing to lose weight.
Before I say anything else, let me say upfront that I’m telling you my personal weight loss journey. None of this is a medical recommendation, I’m not a doctor. I’m not here to sell you anything, I’m not telling you what will work for you. If you’re looking for a magic solution you won’t find it here (or anywhere.) I’m not even going to post before and after photos. This is not a pitch.
End of disclaimer. Let’s start at the beginning.
I wasn’t always fat. In fact, I used to be a skinny guy. In college my weight fluctuated a lot, like many of us. For me it I entered college around 130 pounds and after some ups and downs left grad school at a just over 165. Add in some bad eating habits as I started my career, a messy romantic breakup, and a few years later I found myself at 235 pounds. Yikes.
Today I look at photos of myself from that era and it’s shocking. What did I do to myself? Well, let me give you some clear answers to that question, and then how I got my weight back down to a manageable level.
Packing on the pounds
The path toward fatness was pretty simple: I like learning how things work and I’m one of those types who likes making things, doing it yourself. And I liked pizza and beer. Well, guess what? Making pizza and beer at home is fun and interesting, but it also means you have an awful lot of pizza and beer to consume. Those empty carbs have to go somewhere, and in my case they tended to go into my mouth, and wound up as fat.
Breakups are always rough, especially if you care about the person you’ve been with and have a hard time being apart from them. I wasn’t the first person to gain weight after a breakup, and I won’t be the last. But in my case it wasn’t just overeating from post-breakup depression; all those empty carbs I was consuming were being shared across two people — now they were all going into me.
I kept thinking, week after week, month after month, that I had to take action. Somehow, I had to lose the gut and get back to a reasonable weight. Technically at 5’11” I was over the line into the “obese” column on a BMI chart. Not good.
Could it have been worse? Yes, but it always could be worse.
I didn’t suddenly decide to lose weight on a New Year’s resolution. Instead I thought about taking action for a few years before I decided to actually do anything about it.
While I was thinking about how I should really lose weight I did go out and buy one of those “smart scales” that logs your weight online. It’s kind of silly, but I’m too lazy to chart this stuff in a spreadsheet or anything — more on this later. I also sold the beer making equipment on Craigslist.
For me the deciding factor to finally “Make Eric Fit Again” was pretty simple. I was scheduled to fly to Shanghai for a friend’s wedding. Aside from looking better, I also figured I’d have to be able to squeeze into seats on a Chinese airline meant for your typical Chinese citizen — in other words, not your average American fatass like me.
The first thing I tried was the so-called “juice fast,” a fad at the time. The idea is you don’t eat and only drink mashed up vegetables and fruit, so you’re getting all the nutrients you need and a little sugar. It’s essentially a very low calorie diet. This concept was popularized in the 2010 movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” I didn’t watch this film until later — I was surprised the film was so well received since it’s clearly a thinly-veiled infomercial for a specific brand of juicers. Despite the film, the concept still seems appealing, if not extreme in retrospect.
I did multiple juice fasts for various lengths of time. The longest I ever did was five days, the shortest was two. In all of the times I tried it, I did lose weight. But as time went on, it delivered diminishing returns. That’s a theme we’ll get back to shortly.
Juice fasts also aren’t something I was able to stick to for a long time, and I bet most people feel the same way. The trick to a diet is finding something that works for the long term. Diets aren’t a shortcut to losing weight, they’re a lifestyle change that you need to continue for the rest of your life; otherwise that weight will come right back.
So while I did lose weight, it was clear I needed a better method. My next weight loss experiment was to go low carb, but with a soup and salad approach. This isn’t terribly difficult if you work in downtown San Francisco where there’s soup and salad spots on nearly every corner. My initial thinking was that I’d refuse any bread and just go with the soup or salad on its own. I should mention that I’m pescatarian though that had little impact on this decision — I just wanted to eat healthy and figured, hey, vegetables are healthy.
I eased into this diet over time, adhering to it more strictly as time went on.
What did prove challenging though is that soups and salads aren’t necessarily low carb. Soups are often thickened with flour, which adds an enormous carb load — not to mention calories. Similarly, salads can have this “hidden carb” problem, particularly with sugary dressing or a lot of fruit. Not that I think anyone out there has gained weight from eating too much fruit, but in the spirit of the diet I tried to cut back on fruit to a limited degree.
It turned out that this approach worked quite well once I got in the groove and began sticking with it every day. A lot of healthy restaurants post nutrition facts online which is also very helpful. But I want to point out two important factors here that most dieters don’t consider. One, my version of low carb dieting involved eating an enormous amount of leafy greens. This means I got significantly more fiber than your average steak-devouring low carb dieter. Two, the initial weight loss slowed after a while. Why? The answer is pretty simple, and it applies to any diet.
Let’s talk about motivation and diet. This is the most important part of this post in my opinion.
If you’re dieting you’re going to have to weigh yourself frequently to see if it’s working. Personally I’ve been weighing myself almost daily with a Withings smart scale that automatically syncs to the internet (hello, Big Brother) that I’ve owned for several years at this point. From there I can see that my weight loss has been very rocky, with many fits and starts, and plenty of plateaus on what’s generally a downward slope.
One odd thing about this is that jumped out to me after a while is the shape of the graph. The plateaus seem to occur at nice round numbers, pounds divisible by 5 or 10. I have the strangest feeling there’s a psychological element at play here, and if I’d measured in kilograms the plateaus would have occurred at kilogram masses divisible by five as well. But I have only anecdotal evidence to back this up.
The most pivotal discovery I made is that while the weight simply flew off when I started dieting, it dramatically slowed down the further I went. If you think about this logically, of course someone who’s super overweight would have an easier time shedding fat than someone who’s skinnier. After all, the amount of weight you can lose is a factor of your body fat percentage! We’re talking about a logarithmic scale here, not a linear one.
To me the logarithmic scale factor is important. In my mind, I want to see a nice steady progress towards the goal. As I continued my effort and saw diminishing returns, I started to feel helpless. Should I just go back to beer and pizza because I’m only losing half a pound a week instead of three? On the surface the question sounds absurd, but after years of effort… it starts to feel degrading.
At some point I started realizing that diminishing returns were inevitable. I found I had to accept that this wasn’t a failure at all, but rather an unavoidable artifact of biology.
Let’s break this down with an example. Say you weigh 500 pounds. In that case, losing 10% of your body weight means losing 50 pounds. Sounds like a lot, but 450 pounds is still pretty fat. It’s not a big change… if you’re that heavy you might not even notice. On the other hand, if you’re 100 pounds, losing 10% of your body weight means losing 10 pounds — the difference between 100 and 90 pounds is so drastic for a typical adult it’s potentially dangerous.
The point here is that you have to be realistic about your weight loss goals as you continue losing weight. If you expect a linear progression, as our minds are want to do, you will inevitably be disappointed. You MUST accept that your weight loss will slow down as it continues.
The other point to consider is exercise. Depending on your goals, you may wish to build muscle while losing weight. Not all exercise is intended to build muscle of course, but if you want to do so remember that muscle weighs more than fat. This may give your scale the impression that you’re not losing weight as fast as you could, even if your muscle to fat ratio is increasing.
Personally I’m on my second rowing machine (I used my first one so much that I broke it) but I love the form of exercise. It’s something to do while watching TV or listening to podcasts, and it’s more physically demanding than riding a stationary bike.
A lot of people seem to be under the impression that exercise alone is a path towards weight loss. Technically that’s true, but I haven’t found it to be nearly as an important factor as diet. Unless you’re an Olympic athlete you too should probably focus more on diet than exercise.
In the end, my lesson here with weight loss is this: slow and steady wins the race. I know it’s not what most people want to hear but it’s true. Stay focused on the long term goal, try different methods and see what works for you.
The important thing is achieving the results you want. But you have to be flexible about your expectations in the meantime, because your pace can and will vary. Mine certainly did. 65 pounds later though, I’m glad I lost the weight. You will be too if you choose to stay the course. There’s nothing that feels better than bumping into someone you haven’t see in a while, watching them gasp, and say “Holy shit, you look great!” I always reply with “It turns out there’s something to that ‘diet and exercise’ fad after all.”