Wednesday, March 4, 2020

One Weird Trick That Helped Me Lose 100 Pounds

Diet and exercise, if you want to know the truth -- which I guess is two weird tricks. Actually there were lots of weird tricks along the way, which I can explain. But I should start by saying that I’m not a doctor; I have some limited expertise in music trivia, letterpress printing, bloviating about politics, and quieting groups of unruly teenagers in order to force-feed them facts about American history. I’m not qualified in any way to dispense medical advice, and besides, what worked for me may not necessarily work for you. So consult a healthcare professional before trying anything as radical as diet and exercise.

Now, the first thing you need to do in order to lose a hundred pounds is to make yourself a hundred pounds overweight. Not gonna lie; this part is pretty fun. It involved unlimited portions of all my favorite foods, weekly growlers of craft beer, regular desserts with the family, lots of carby snacks like chips (and, well, more chips), cheesy breakfast burritos several times a week, bowls of cereal before bed in case I had to go to sleep the least bit hungry, and very little of that pesky exercise. True, this also involved some denial and self-loathing, but hey, life is full of trade-offs. And this worked for me until it didn’t.

I knew this couldn’t go on forever, but part of why I thought (for way too long) that I could get away with it was that I had successfully lost fifty pounds before. Three times.

Each time, I gained the weight back and then some, like the majority of dieters do. The first time was in my early forties, after gradually gaining weight throughout my thirties. It all kind of blurs together now, but one regimen involved Weight Watchers and yoga. A second try, in my late forties/early fifties, featured another for-pay program whose name escapes me, but it included a survey to customize a diet for your particular body type, and there was lots of weight training and hiking. Yet again, in my late fifties, I started out by consulting a healthcare professional, who mostly counseled mindfulness and portion control. I did a lot of swimming and biking, and was determined to keep the weight off this time, and for a couple of years, I did. I understood that this was a lifetime commitment, not a crash program, and that I had to stick with it.

Then I had a series of health problems that precluded regular exercise: a lung inflammation that lasted nearly a year; a pinched nerve in my neck, a couple of painful back injuries, and a bout of cellulitis that left me hospitalized for a week and hobbling for months. Along the way, my resolve weakened and I stopped weighing myself regularly. I told myself (or maybe my gut brain told my head brain) that if I couldn’t exercise, there wasn’t much point to eating healthy. (I know!) So shortly after my 61st birthday, I found myself much heavier than ever before. And I had a new health problem to deal with: alarmingly high blood pressure.

On Father’s Day, 2018, my family gave me a Fitbit, and I started taking weight loss seriously again. Once I replaced the battery in my long-neglected bathroom scale, I weighed in at exactly 270 pounds, and I began by simply walking more. The Fitbit reminds you to get up and walk around once an hour, and sets a basic goal of at least 10,000 steps a day. Their website explains that that’s a bit more than most folks do every day, and so you have to go out of your way to meet the goal: park on the far side of the parking lot, take the stairs instead of the elevator, that sort of thing. I made a point of going the long way around the alleyway whenever I took out the garbage. Some days I did eight or nine thousand steps, some days eleven or twelve. Funny thing, though: when summer was over and I went back to my gig as a schoolteacher, I notched 25,000 steps the very first day! I’m lucky to have a job that keeps me on my feet.

But as Sue explained to Mike on Veep, it’s not just about the steps; the number of floors climbed matters, too. And I happen to live in a neighborhood with a few steep hills to keep me challenged. As I started to shed pounds, I was able to do steeper hills and longer walks, and before long I was back to hiking Tumamoc Hill, a local landmark that had helped me with previous weight-loss efforts. It’s around three miles round trip, but the steep 700-foot climb has an average grade of about eleven percent, which sure helps get the heart moving. In bad weather, I could substitute a 17-story building near my kid’s school, whose stairwells I could climb -- initially, at least, with some considerable effort.

The other weird trick, er, lifestyle change I made was to switch to a vegan diet. I had been a vegetarian for many years before lapsing back into omnivorousness, so this wasn’t a huge stretch for me. Cutting out meat, eggs and dairy (about 95% of the time), along with all the beer and desserts I’d been enjoying, helped me shed pounds rapidly once I left my sedentary life behind.

I vowed, though, to strive never to be an “asshole vegan.” So I don’t post slaughterhouse videos, I don’t harangue people online, I don’t interrogate my hosts about their ingredients; after all, a little parmesan in the salad isn’t going to kill me. I may enjoy a little seafood, two or three times a month.  I try to avoid proselytizing my dietary preferences. A vegan diet may or may not feel right to you. Both my doctor and his nurse told me they could “never do that!” -- they would miss meat or cheese too much. But they both agreed that the more you cut back on those foods, the healthier it is for you, your wallet and the planet.

In any case, under this regime, I lost ten pounds a month in the first four months -- which led me to confidently predict I could drop a hundred pounds in a year. It didn’t turn out that way.

I hit a plateau at 230 pounds -- and not for the last time. It took me two and a half months (roughly from Halloween, through Thanksgiving and Christmas, to just after New Year’s) to lose the next ten pounds. And then I worked for another four months to lose ten more pounds after that. It was frustrating, but I didn’t let myself be discouraged, because, again, I’d been through this before. I understood that this was a long-term project, and that I just needed to keep at it, even if it was clear that it might take longer than I hoped. Part of what happened was that I had hit a natural rhythm where I lost weight during the work week and then gained some of it back during the weekend.

I didn’t always do 25,000 steps a day in my classroom, but I was always up on my feet. Instead of taking a nap during my lunch break, I’d get up and walk the halls. Sometimes I found time for a quick bit of power walking before or after work. And I tended to eat more sensibly throughout the week. Then, during the weekends, I did a bit more lounging around. And after those first four months, I was a bit less rigorous about completely eschewing sugar and alcohol. And during weekends, I’d always be more likely to have a splurge meal or two with the family at our favorite restaurants. Fortunately for us, we live in a UNESCO-designated World City of Gastronomy.

One of the things about restaurants is that most of them use far more salt than is necessary. It’s like, I can add more salt if I need it, but there’s no way to de-saltify a restaurant meal. This tended to add “water weight,” which could take a few days to work off. It wasn’t unusual for me to burn off four or five thousand calories in a single day, and still find I gained weight after just one splurge meal. Without much exercise that day, I could shoot up three or four pounds overnight after a restaurant meal. This could take much of the workweek to undo, and some weeks the best I could do is just get back to where I was the week before.

As a general rule, it’s much easier to just eat sparingly in the first place than it is to do sufficient exercise to work off a splurge. But sometimes the splurge is necessary, because all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And living in Tucson, there’s a lot of gastronomy to explore. There are a lot more vegan options today than when I first started as a vegetarian in 1995 -- terrific vegetarian eateries like Tumerico and the Tasteful Kitchen. Even chains like Sweet Tomatoes and Sauce can easily accommodate my preferences. And some local eateries, like Boca Tacos or Ermanos Craft Beer & Wine Bar, had enough healthy food options that I could get away without gaining much weight. Other favorites, like Saffron Indian Bistro or Raijin Ramen, guaranteed me a few extra pounds on the scale the next morning -- but it was always worth it.

If I had to work out a little harder, I would work out a little harder. After losing the first fifty pounds, it became less arduous. I started climbing the 17-story building twice, or thrice, or sometimes even four times. On Tumamoc Hill, I could repeat the steepest portions at the top a few times before heading back down. And in the spring, I started riding my nifty Sunseeker recumbent tricycle to work once a week. A recumbent is much more suitable for a gentleman of my advanced years, and this particular model is built for comfort -- it ain’t built for speed. Much of my route takes advantage of Tucson's scenic Loop Trail, a first class work of bicycling infrastructure (for this country, at least). It's a 20-mile round trip to work, which takes an hour or more each way, so it wouldn’t do as a daily commute. But it sure did help work off some of those restaurant meals. In fact, it burns off about 1600 calories, there and back.

The weight started coming off more consistently again that spring, so that just before the end of the school year, I weighed in under 200 pounds for the first time in years. Of course, I gained back a bunch celebrating my birthday, and then there was a family trip to LA -- which is also no slouch in the gastronomy department. But then I had a summer vacation to devote to healthier living.

I started doing my own personal triathlon whenever time permitted: Ride the recumbent over to Tumamoc (3.5 miles); then hike up to the top one or more times (at least 3 more); then ride over to the local community center (4 more miles) and swim around sixty laps (about a mile); and then pedal back home (the last mile). That tended to help me burn enough calories to shed more pounds. By the end of August I was down to 180 pounds. For those of you following the math, that’s 90% of the way to my goal of losing 100 pounds. And then I got stuck there for another four months.

It wasn’t for lack of trying; I kept up with my basic regimen. I didn't have any more time for triathlons, but I got in at least some exercise every day, and often several times a day. I did the bicycle commute once a week, and added in weekend rides with the family. I still had the basic rhythm of losing during the week and gaining back on weekends, but throughout that fall, I mainly stayed in a range of between 174 to 184 pounds -- but mostly, right in the middle. I simply couldn’t lose those last few pounds.

It’s true that this coincides with the holiday season, with all its temptations, but I didn’t splurge all that much. It may be that the body just really wants to store some fat during the winter months, or that the body just needs to pause on the proverbial plateau from time to time. But it seemed like the more weight I lost, the harder it was to lose the rest. So drastic measures were called for -- if only temporarily.

The most drastic measure, for me, was running. I hate running. I always have, going back to junior high P.E. And I still hate it. But I do it.

Initially, I was able to lose a lot of weight by doing a lot of walking. But walking takes a long time, and doesn’t burn that many calories. If I wanted to make that last push to my target weight, I had to burn off between 4000 and 5000 calories a day for a consistent stretch. So I ran. Or rather, I trotted.

I do a slow jog at around 4 mph, and I find that I can burn nearly 200 calories with a 10-minute run, and close to 300 with a 20-minute run, which is the most I’m usually willing to do. Sometimes I'd just do a weird little 2-minute jog around the parking lot. But if I can fit in two or three of those little trots, it goes a long way towards hitting my daily totals. This is not something I could have done at 270 pounds, but it’s feasible now, though aggravatingly tedious.

I combined that further uptick in activity with one last weird trick: intermittent fasting. I recognize that this is one of those regular weight-loss fads that periodically sweep the nation. Let me repeat my admonition that you should not take medical advice from a social studies teacher. But I did talk to my own doctor about this, and he had generally positive things to say about the health benefits of fasting. I had occasionally done 3-day fasts before, and after the first day, it’s not that difficult. And the start of this whole process coincided with my decennial appointment to get a camera shoved up my butt, generally requiring a 24-hour fast - which I had stretched into 60 or so. That had really helped to kick things off.

Intermittent fasting means different things to different people. One friend told me that she just never eats anything after dinner, so that she fasts for 14 to 16 hours before breaking fast the next morning. Another friend says he only eats one meal a day, but eats pretty much whatever he feels like at that time. And according to our friends at Wikipedia, these are variations on one of the three main types of intermittent fasting, “time-restricted feeding” (the other types being “alternate-day fasting,” which switches from feast to famine over a 48-hour cycle, and “periodic fasting,” like the 2- or 3-day fasts I had done in the past). And in each of these methods, “fasting” can mean restricting yourself to about 25% of your normal caloric intake, not necessarily a complete hunger strike.

And it turns out I had been doing something similar all along. Once I had cut out all the desserts and that bowl of cereal before bedtime, I was doing about a 12-hour fast each night. It was hard at first, but I assuaged hunger pangs with lots of sugar-free breath mints. I also drank lots of water and enjoyed some nice herbal tea, with the drawback being frequent night visits to the bathroom.

To lose those last ten pounds, I combined my annoying bouts of running with a bit more time-restricted feeding. I’d make myself a fresh fruit and soy milk smoothie for breakfast, then mostly stick to a liquid diet until dinnertime. I’d have coffee, tea, lemon water, vegetable broth, and/or store-bought smoothies throughout my work day. Some days I’d have a bit of solid food, like a green salad or a banana. On weekends I’d go back to my regular routine. This wasn’t that hard to get through, and within a couple of weeks, I had finally hit my target weight of 170 pounds. In total, it had taken 594 days, or just under 20 months.

It wasn’t easy, but here’s the thing: I mentioned at the beginning that it had been fun to gain all that weight. For me, anyway, working to lose it all was also fun. I mostly chose exercise that I enjoyed, like hiking, swimming and bicycling. My vegan diet includes lots of delicious foods, and leaves room for occasional indulgences. I got a sense of satisfaction from doing the work and doing it well. The hard part now is to keep the weight off, which is a challenge for nearly all dieters.

Part of what happened in the past was that I found that I could gradually relax my standards on diet and exercise without regaining pounds. So I gradually relaxed a bit more, and a bit more after that. If you stop using that bathroom scale every day, it can creep back on you. Maybe what I have going for me now is that the pounds tend to come back a lot less gradually at my age, so I have an incentive to remain vigilant. Now the goal is a maintenance diet.

Basically, that’s what I was doing this fall, except that I was maintaining at 180 pounds instead of 170. Now I’m mainly bouncing around in a range between 168 and 172. I don’t need to keep up any drastic measures now to stay where I am, but I do have more tools in my kit if vacations and splurges move me back up again. I stay active and mindful during the week, enjoy some downtime on weekends, and keep my fingers crossed.

I had my annual physical a week after I finished, and the good doctor was suitably impressed. I have a healthy heart, and can finally drop the blood pressure medication. But one of the things he noted was that there were a lot of loose folds on my now-spindly frame. This shouldn’t be surprising; it turns out that when you lose weight fairly rapidly, lose a hundred pounds or more, and/or lose weight in your senior years, the skin isn’t going to just snap back into place.

“I could refer you to a cosmetic surgeon,” he offered. Well, thanks, but not a chance. First, I don’t like the risks of any kind of elective surgery, and the costs, discomforts and recovery time make this a non-starter. Also, I don’t need to look like a 25-year-old, so I’ll wear my turkey neck as a badge of honor, thank you.

But more importantly, I heard recently -- and not for the first time -- about a young woman who died from complications arising from weight-loss surgery. Our culture can be unbelievably cruel to people perceived as overweight, particularly women. Take for example the harrowing tale told by actress Elna Baker on This American Life. With a third of Americans classified as overweight, and another third as obese, the fat-shaming and bias that many people internalize cannot be ignored. The stress that comes from other people’s expectations can be a health risk, too.

It’s important to remember that people come in all shapes, and that you are lovable at any size. As long as you’re healthy, you don’t need to obsess over having a perfect body. If you’re not healthy, work with your doctor to find a program that works for you, but beware of snake-oil remedies and the many charlatans who profit off the weight-loss industry. And please remember that your worth doesn’t depend on your weight.

I wrote this weight-loss memoir because people kept asking me how I did it, and I said it’s a long story, but I’d try to put it down in words for them. The short answer is: gradually, but consistently. I tried to make decisions that would pay off for my future self.  But the bottom line is to just treat yourself better. Treat yourself with love. Like you matter. That is about the healthiest thing you can do.

1 comment:

  1. This is such an empowering and inspiring story! I am also on a similar journey, and its taking me many years to develop a positive relationship with food. It is taking a long time, so your comments about being committed and patient are so important and motivating. Additionally, your comments about self love are so relatable. I found that once my focus became more about maintaining a healthy body, free of diseases like heart disease or diabetes, i became more motivated and determined.