The Easiest Way to Lose 125 Pounds Is to Gain 175 Pounds
I let myself go for a few years and then, on a breezy spring afternoon in San Francisco, I found myself riding my bike down Market Street towards the Embarcadero. I stopped at a red light in the Tenderloin and a worn, reedy man panhandling for change headed in my direction. He glanced me up and down as I tried to avoid making eye contact. I was about to say that I couldn’t give him any money, which was true, both because my first professional writing job wasn’t paying me enough to actually cover the rent on my apartment, and because I was so uncoordinated that I was genuinely afraid I would fall off of my bike if I tried to reach into my pocket for change. Before I could say any of that, though, he chuckled to himself and smiled at me. “Good for you, big man,” he said. “Keep riding that bike.” Then he walked away, having flipped my prepared pity on its head, and I wished I could have given him every dollar in my wallet to have not said anything at all.
That was back in 2008, when I weighed a mere 260 pounds. On January 1 of 2015, I lumbered onto a hotel scale which I was really hoping would be out of batteries in Austin and found that I weighed 334.7 pounds. I swore I would do something about it, and while that has been a quickly abandoned threat many times in the past, for some reason, this time it stuck. 364 days later, on New Year’s Eve, I woke up and stepped onto a scale which delivered a much happier number: 206.0 pounds.
I lost just over 128 pounds this year, which is one of those things you’re proud to do but not proud of having needed to do. In addition to trying to put some closure on a particularly dispiriting part of my past, I’m writing this in the hopes of helping people who find themselves in a similar boat, who have approached the New Year with the sort of drastic self-improvement plans that I held this time last year. I’m certainly not qualified to give professional advice on the topic, and I don’t want to suggest that anybody of any shape or size should feel the need to change if they’re happy with how they look. For those people who might want to radically change themselves in 2016, though, or those who are struggling with body image issues, I can tell my story of how I worked my way out of physical doldrums over the last 12 months. At the very least, I can write the piece I would have wanted to read at this time last year.
That starts with how I got to being 334.7 pounds in the first place. I was a fat kid growing up, eventually hitting 240 pounds by my junior year of high school. At 5-foot-11, I didn’t wear that very well. Wanting something better for myself before I hit college, I lost 35 pounds over each of the next two summers, eventually making it to school in the fall of 2001 at 170 pounds, identifying as a quantitatively healthy adult. I spent the next three years fluctuating between 160 and 180 pounds. I was never truly satisfied with how I looked or felt, but it was easy to remember just how much worse it had been a few years earlier.
At the end of 2004, I was set upon by depression, the sort of overwhelming, crippling despair that is difficult to even fathom unless you’ve actually experienced it. I would try to get out of bed in the morning and be so overcome with anxiety that my heart would palpitate. When I did go out, I would be inexplicably anxious to walk through the main paths of my campus and quickly get exhausted without any obvious cause. I took an internship and regularly fell asleep in the middle of meetings without warning. I would look forward to the weekend for respite from letting people down during the week and count down the minutes until the weekend to be over because I needed the routine of the weekdays.
Eventually, the mental and emotional symptoms I had been struggling with faded and became functionally manageable. I was blessed to be set up with an incredible psychologist at my school. Even today, her level of compassion and capacity for challenging and improving my self-awareness informs my own personal empathy and reduces me to awe. In the process of dealing with the depression, though, I developed a coping mechanism which would present an equally intractable problem in the years to come. Somewhere along the way, I became addicted to eating.
It took years for me to actually believe that I had a real problem. I associated addiction with alcohol and hard drugs, vices which thankfully (slash luckily) held little interest for me. The idea of being addicted to food is, at least in most cases, played for a joke; everybody has that friend with a ridiculously unfair metabolism who eats whatever they want and laughs about how they’re addicted to food. This, obviously, is not remotely the same thing. During those fleeting moments when I would recognize the need to change, I would look over this list of questions at Overeaters Anonymous and identify with far too many of the criteria, only to put off the genuine self-evaluation and improvement for some indeterminate date in the future.
My compulsive eating had little to do with hunger and was almost never enjoyable. Instead, it was like trying to chase a vague, indefinable comfort, some satisfaction that never arrived — or even could arrive. It was the fear of missing out, but for food and constantly. I would struggle to pick between two fast food places and just stop at each of their drive-thrus, hiding the soda cup and the wrappers from the first one so the second cashier wouldn’t see, because being caught in my embarrassing act was somehow more shameful than the actual behavior I was committing. The idea of just waiting for another day just wasn’t realistic to me; I absolutely, compulsively had to get that sandwich from Wendy’s. The act of ordering the food, of making the conscious choice to indulge, was far more important than eating the stupid thing.
Most of the time, though, it would be deliveries, always heaping amounts of unmemorable food. Most people in the mood for pizza would go grab a slice. I would go to the Domino’s website and order a medium pizza. When I got fatter, that medium became a large, and then a large with wings. I still name my fantasy football team to this day after the local wing delivery place in Allston. I ordered from them so frequently that the delivery drivers knew me by name, and even worse, I knew them so well that I recognized how one of them wore the same Queens of the Stone Age hoodie every time he stopped by. (It was a pretty cool hoodie.)
I contorted my life and the stories I told myself to fit a horrific eating schedule. As a football writer, I sat in front of the television all day and night on Sunday. That meant a couple of food deliveries, justified in my head because I was too busy to cook or otherwise eat healthy. I would stay up overnight and file my Monday morning column for Grantland at 5 a.m., then get up at 9 a.m. to prep and record our podcast. Exhausted from the lack of sleep, my treat for working so hard the day before would be something unhealthy for lunch and then another delivery during the Monday night game. Throw in more awful food to eat during the Thursday night game (thanks for the extra day of games, NFL) and then going out with friends on the weekends or justifying a relaxing night in after a long week, and there was never a respite. I was constantly able to convince myself that it was OK to put off taking control of my life for another day.
Of course, the same weird bargains I made with myself in my head didn’t extend to working out. Squeezing any possibility of progress out of my schedule was the most exercise I would typically get. I’d take out a gym membership and go months without even thinking about attending. And then, when I’d finally pay lip service to working out, I would find the easiest possible excuse to be lazy. It would be too cold to make the trek in the middle of a Boston winter and too nice outside to justify going in the spring. When I didn’t have a car, it was too much of a hassle to take the subway, and when I did get one, it would be too much of a nuisance to park. I’d sleep in and put off going in the afternoon, only to tell myself that it would be too crowded to go when the after-work crowd hit and too late to go in the evening. In part, it was laziness. Much of it, though, was that I was so far gone physically that I knew just how hard I would have to work to fix things, and how easy it was to just give up and pretend to try again tomorrow.
I recognized my behavior was idiotic and damaging, and there was some part of me which actually wanted to change, but I did nothing. That sentence makes no sense with any sense of perspective or reality, but it’s a measure of how years of bad decisions had warped my brain. I’d eat something unhealthy for lunch and then write the rest of the day off and eat something worse for dinner because I had already wasted the day. I would lie in bed, tell myself I was going to do better the next day, and then inexplicably do the same thing over and over again. I’d go to the grocery store, buy the ingredients to make something reasonably healthy, and then go home and immediately order wings. It was Memento with fried food.
I would set some arbitrary point in the future and tell myself that I could eat whatever I wanted up to that date, only for it to never stick. I’d write off the final two months of a football season and swear to start eating better in February, only to then tell myself that I should relax during my offseason and swear to eat better once football season got me in a routine. I’d get healthy once I came back from vacation. Once I moved out of Boston. Then once I moved back to Boston. I’d save my life once I turned 25. 27. 30.
And so, unchecked by reason, I grew. Morbid obesity costs you some semblance of your agency as a person, and while it’s probably not the worst thing in the world for a white dude in his twenties to see some of his privilege disappear, I can’t pretend it didn’t hurt. Friends who were happy to see me when I was thinner began to drift away. Bereft of confidence, it became increasingly difficult to meet new people, which made me less likely to go out, which reinforced how depressing it was to look terrible. I stopped caring about how I looked. After letting my facial hair grow for weeks out of sheer laziness before finally shaving, the very nice elderly doorman in my building in Vegas saw me and remarked, “Wow, Bill, you look so much younger without your beard!” I glowed for a moment before he followed that up by saying, “It makes you look like you’re still in your twenties!” I was 27.
Outside of a few short sparks of self-assessment which never lasted more than a couple of weeks, I spent those twenties in a fog. I’d fall asleep and wander into a dream where I was some younger, thinner version of myself, recognize how much better I felt, and then wake up to reality, like some sort of phantom appendage in reverse. The writer side of me consciously wished for some moment of clarity that sliced through everything and made it obvious that I needed to change, but that really wasn’t the case. Not that it stopped me from trying to manufacture one. I’d wake up the day after the Boston Marathon and decide that I was going to fix myself and somehow run a marathon one year later, despite the fact that I lacked the stamina to run around the block. I would take a meaningful life event — like the time a drunk driver totaled my car in Vegas — and try to use it as an anchor for change and a narrative into a new life. They served as neither.
All that eventually became my normal. Instead of feeling like the real me was the one who had gotten in shape before college and given way to a temporary weight gain, it felt like the years when I’d had control of my body image were an exception that I would never be able to re-create. I abandoned all hope that things would get better. I’d managed to build a reasonable career and found a level of emotional stability, but I couldn’t fathom that there would be a way for me to ever drastically improve how I looked. Instead, change came from a more familiar process and unexpectedly stuck: I got out of an unhealthy relationship and swore to work on myself out of the fear that I would otherwise have to settle for being unhappy. That happened a few times over the last decade, but this time, for whatever reason, this time, I didn’t retreat back towards my old habits.
I pieced together one healthy, productive weekend in January. I made it to the gym on consecutive days for the first time in years, even if I could barely gasp my way through a couple of abbreviated workouts. I watched and wrote through a weekend of football while my brain shrilly reminded me over and over again that it was time to feed myself shit. I’d open food delivery websites, read the menu, and close the window, or walk to the pantry to get snacks before shutting the door and walking away. I woke up Monday morning having strung together two consecutive healthy days and it felt, even for a moment, like I had found a possible way out.
Even with that modicum of success, I knowingly dismissed it as a hiccup, one that I would destroy with a bad decision within a matter of days. Thrillingly — surprising myself more than anybody else — I managed to keep it going. That weekend became a week. Then two. I hit a month and it was surreal, like I had somehow hopped into the ocean and caught a wave after ten years of getting smacked in the face by my surfboard. I was down 20 pounds and friends started noticing, which was enough to convince my brain that I couldn’t go back on even that tiny bit of progress. And now, it’s been a year and counting.
As I think about what I did to actually get in shape, the actual physical choices I made are a lot less important than they might seem. I knew that a healthy adult male ate about 2,000 calories per day, so I aimed for that figure, eventually settling into a range where I tried to eat between 1,800 and 2,400 calories each day. And I began going to the gym six days a week, almost exclusively using the elliptical machine, since I didn’t think my joints could take much of a pounding after they had spent the last decade in energy saver mode.
Although I’ve adapted and expanded my knowledge and obviously developed a more robust game plan, those two simple concepts are at the core of what I’ve done all year. It was more important to show up every day and emulate that terrifyingly militaristic Tom Brady commercial than it was to worry about interval training and macronutrient ratios.
Instead, other aspects of my rebuild were far more meaningful and seem wholly more important to reiterate here as advice. That starts with a point I wish I had figured out much earlier: you simply have to build a plan which works for you in lieu of copying somebody else’s. You can read a million stories of how people lost weight and drastically improved their self-image, but unless you can apply the principles of what they did to something that actually fits you, it’s almost always going to fail.
There was one piece in this vein I read quite a few times, especially when I was getting started earlier this year. HardballTalk writer Aaron Gleeman, somebody I’ve been reading since I was in high school, wrote about losing 153 pounds over a one-year stretch between 2011 and 2012. (Go read it and come back. It’s great.) When I was reading just about every Google hit for my “lose [large number] of pounds in one year” searches in January and February, it was easy to get discouraged. I’d read articles that seemed to contradict one another while expressing levels of certainty about how their process was the one true platonic ideal of how to get fit now. The simplicity of Aaron’s piece really resonated with me as a stat nerd: burn off more calories than you need to sustain your current weight and you’ll start dropping pounds.
Aaron’s story was easy to relate to, given that we are both sports bloggers with a healthy appreciation for Ma$e’s career, but his path towards losing weight — specifically eating the same meal on a daily basis — never would have worked for me. I strongly suspected that I wasn’t going to be able to diet in the way that Aaron had, so I pieced together an eating plan which vaguely resembled a far healthier version of the things I used to enjoy. Desserts were cut out altogether. Never a big drinker, I took beer out of the equation and didn’t have any alcohol in 2015. I loved wings more than I loved most family members, but I had to cut them out of my life and replace them with grilled chicken. (The one exception was when I inexplicably walked past a buffalo wing restaurant in Tokyo and genuinely thought I was hallucinating.)
In the process, I actually began to re-program my brain into remembering how food could be enjoyable. Those wings in Tokyo were pure pleasure. I’d stopped getting pizza delivered, but I would head out to Pino’s for a slice and actually savor it in a way that simply didn’t occur when I had been eating whatever I wanted. And then, instead of shutting down at the sign of something unhealthy and gorging myself with the idea that I needed to somehow get full before correcting things the next day, I planned the rest of my eating day around that slice of pizza and made my decisions accordingly. My relationship with food evolved into a philosophy which now rings through my head on a daily basis: Don’t be a shithead.
I also found it incredibly valuable to log everything I did in a spreadsheet. In part, that’s because I’m a spreadsheet fetishist who would write longform pieces and love letters in Excel if I could. I’m not sure any of this would have actually stuck if I hadn’t started tracking what I was doing in a spreadsheet. I started really going out of my way to do so a couple of weeks into the process, and it’s been both an invaluable resource and an incredible motivator. It’s impossible to hide if you’re actually counting calories every day, and there were so many times when I stopped myself from eating something because I knew how frustrated I would be if I had to type it into Excel. And likewise, the act of getting home and recording the calories I’d burned at the gym became a weirdly satisfying conclusion to my workout.
After a couple of months, when I realized that this wasn’t just some blip of self-preservation, I built a model to estimate my weight loss, dynamically calculating my basal metabolic rate (BMR) and using a Monte Carlo simulation to predict how many calories I would take in during a typical day. Few creations have ever been simultaneously as nerdy and genuinely sad. I weighed myself far more frequently at first, when I was desperate for positive reinforcement, than I do now. At this point, I have enough data to reliably trust the process. The Sixers are a good rebuilding thing to emulate, right?
Having reliable data also allowed me to set short-term goals along the way to my long-term ideal, another thing I had hugely underestimated in years past, when I would get discouraged by the scope of what I had to accomplish and give up before even trying. This weight loss timeframe estimator wasn’t perfectly accurate, but it was a reasonable estimate and gave me hope of how quickly I could turn things around, especially at the beginning.
Some of my benchmarks were downright embarrassing. I don’t know that anybody should be as happy as I was about only weighing 300 pounds, but that was the first round number I hit. I was in Hong Kong and hopped on a scale which weighed me in kilograms and excitedly typed it into Google three or four times to make sure I hadn’t messed up the conversion. Or there was the moment a couple of weeks ago when I went into a store in Brooklyn and tried on a medium-sized sweater. Having worn a medium at my thinnest before eventually expanding all the way to XXXL shirts by the beginning of 2015, it really meant something when the sweater fit and didn’t look horrific. I started uncontrollably laughing out loud in the changing room (in part to avoid crying), which must have been incredibly confusing and a little terrifying to the tiny female employee on the other side of the door who didn’t know why this lunatic was giggling as he tried on a shirt.
More than anything, though, the lesson I learned from all of this was how incredibly important is it to forgive yourself. Once I got stuck in that downward spiral of eating poorly and not taking care of myself, it was so incredibly easy to beat myself up and dismiss all hope. It’s harder to escape, too, because during those brief moments where I felt motivated to actually try and change things, I’d feel like I needed to be perfect from then on to get out of my predicament as quickly as possible while I still had the, um, momentum. (This is awkward.) When I would inevitably screw up, it would feel like I’d failed a mission and had to start from the very beginning, and that would always lead to giving up altogether. At 25, I’d look back and wish I had done all this when I was 22, and then repeat the same cycle at 28.
It seems simple to say now, but it doesn’t have to be that way! Now, I’m just happy I didn’t wait until I was 40. It’s easy to preach about sunk costs in football, but it’s harder to actually recognize them in my own life. There have been days where I screwed up and ate like a shithead again. I’ve missed workouts. It happens. I’ve woken up the next day and gotten back on the wave. Even right now, I’m frustrated with myself because one of my biggest long-term goals was to get under 200 pounds by the end of 2015. I came up six pounds short. It’s fine. I’ll hit it sometime this month and be just as happy. Instead of being angry at myself for throwing away years of my life, I believe in myself and my ability to enact change in a way that I could not have fathomed this time last year.
Even then, I’ll be far from finished. I’d like to settle somewhere between 160 and 170 pounds, and that will take a few more months. I’d like to transition from simply trying to get thinner to really focusing on trying to be healthier, which will be a more difficult process. There’s the thorny issue of separating self-image and self-confidence from a number, an issue on which I’m making progress, but one that’s always going to be easier as I get happier with the number.
Compared to a year ago, though, I’m in a much better place. I’m typing this in the middle seat on a cross-country flight, which would have been hours of hell for me and my seatmates years ago. My sides and hips are not spilling against and underneath the armrests. The seatbelt — one seatbelt — fits me with room to spare. I’ll take the subway home from the airport and be able to sit down without being self-conscious, because I won’t be afraid that I’m going to take up two seats. Happiness in those sorts of public situations is the ability to be anonymous. I don’t feel any compulsion to eat something awful in the airport to tide me over during my flight or go home and order shit because I had a long day of traveling.
And honestly, I know that things are never going to be perfect, which is fine. My body’s never going to look good. Right now, it looks roughly like a chubby old man was cryogenically frozen for a decade and then thrown in the microwave to thaw out. Even if I get to the number I want, it’s going to be a life-long fight to actually keep that weight off and stay healthy. That’s how addiction works. I haven’t conquered or solved anything.
What I have managed to do is wipe away a lot of what went wrong over the last decade in the course of a year. More importantly, I feel like I’ve found a series of principles that I trust to keep me from falling into those same traps again. After years of being unable to get over my past, it’s impossibly fulfilling to feel like I actually have control over my future.