Weight Loss: There Is No Magic

I spent the weekend in the company of relatives I don't see very often, and I found myself answering a particular set of questions over and over again. Specifically, people noticed that I had lost a considerable amount of weight since they had seen me last. This is true: over the past three years or so, I have lost about 90 pounds. Many of them wanted to know how I had done it, and I found myself telling the same story again and again. So, I'm going to tell that story here so that more people can see it.

I guess I should start with a bit of background. I was never a particularly fit child, but I wasn't obscenely fat, either. I steadily gained weight through my adolescence, reaching 200 pounds in high school. (Or maybe early college. I don't quite remember.) I didn't gain a tremendous amount of weight in college, though (no "freshman 15" for me), but I certainly didn't lose any, either. Things really started to go off the rails after I graduated. With a decent salary to pay for food, I stuffed myself. I thought nothing of buying a medium bag of peanut M&Ms and devouring it in a single sitting. I usually only did that once a week, but even so, that's a considerable amount of calories. At the same time, I lied to myself. I told myself that I "wasn't that fat" and similar nonsense. I reassured myself with my "not really bad" cholesterol levels and "not going to be diabetic soon" blood sugar when I went to the doctor.

The turning point came after a vacation in Colorado. Nothing dramatic happened. There was no health scare or injury or any such thing. I just looked down at the scale, and it read 235 pounds. For some reason, seeing that number on the scale lead me to decide that I simply couldn't go on like that. I had to change. Somehow, the delusion of health just shattered in that moment. This is the closest you're going to get to magic in this story.

(Well, there was another thing at the back of my mind: a rather planetary friend from high school had become trim and fit. If he could do it, why couldn't I?)

In those days, I would have a beer with supper every night, and also with lunch on the weekends. That was the first thing to go. Next up: junk food. I didn't cut it out entirely, but I only bought it in quantities that would be OK to eat in a single sitting, since that's exactly what I would (and still will) do if I bought it. So, instead of buying a medium bag of peanut M&Ms, I would buy a one of those small 1 or 2 serving bags at the checkout. I also increased the amount of vegetables in my diet, since vegetables are fairly non-calorie-dense. A heaping bowl full of fresh spinach is around 40 calories, for example. That's nothing. Adding more vegetables added satisfying bulk to my meals without adding too many calories. This was enough to get me started.

Within a year or so, I was down some 40 pounds, and I was feeling a bit better. Over the next two years, I lost an additional 50 or so pounds. As of today (August 24, 2015), I'm still going, although my goals have changed. I'm no longer trying to be non-fat; I'm now trying to get my body fat low enough to see my abdominal muscles. The healthier I've gotten, the harder it has been to lose more weight, as it should be. If you're embarking on a similar journey, know that it will get harder as you make progress, but know also that as you see yourself change, you will get more motivated. After I lost the 40-some pounds, I didn't really see all that much of a difference. After losing about 20 more, I could scarcely believe what I saw in the mirror. So, keep track of your weight. Take joy in watching the numbers get smaller, and before long, you'll see the difference.

If you think restricting your calories like that will be less fun than continuing to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, well, you're right. It will be less fun in the short term. (And "short" is relative: this process could take months or years.) So, you need to keep your eyes on the prize and not give up. When you're tempted to eat the wrong foods, remind yourself that you can eat less-healthy food later, after you've lost the weight. Plan a feast to celebrate when you finally reach your goal. (Mine is a big bowl of fried rice with sesame chicken and a pint of Ben and Jerry's. And maybe some cake, too.) Think about how delicious that feast will be, and remember that "cheating" on your diet won't make it come any sooner. If you're tempted to just have that feast anyway, without meeting your goal, think about how much more enjoyable it will be when you can look in the mirror afterward and say, "Oh, yeah. I look GOOD." Oh, and a reasonably-sized treat (e.g. one non-giant cookie or a Snickers bar) once a week won't sink you.

Of course, at some point (well, probably several points), you will slip up. You will go to a party or on a vacation or something, and your weight loss will pause and possibly even reverse a bit. Yes, you can (and probably should) feel angry at yourself for this. You messed up. Go ahead, be angry. After all, if you just let yourself off the hook for it, what's to stop you from just "slipping up a bit" every day? After giving yourself a thorough thrashing, let it go. Yes, that's right. Let it go. If you thrash yourself too much, despair will set in, and you'll go off the rails just as surely as if you had let yourself off the hook. Remember: you lost that weight before, and you can do it again. Just get back on track, and in a week or two, your slip-up will be nothing but an unpleasant memory.

So, what do you do once you've lost the weight and want to keep it from coming back? Simple: calories in = calories out. On average. You can run a calorie deficit during the week and overeat a bit on the weekend. Or you can have a cookie with lunch every day. It's your life. You choose! Just remember: you're in it for the long haul, so make sure you can enjoy it.

Next time: how to eat right without hating your life.