Eight Months, 85 Pounds Lost: How I Did It
Determination and data. When people ask how I lost 85 pounds in eight months, that’s what I tell them.
Determination and data.
When I’m feeling more breezy, I say, “Eating better and moving more.”
But determination and data are really the story.
This is a crazy long post about my journey. I don’t imagine many will read the whole thing, but I am hoping people will find parts of it helpful. I’m writing it less for my own benefit and more because others have asked me to describe the journey, what I did, and how I feel now. But I’m dividing it in parts because you might only be interested in pieces of the story. You can skip to what you want. The order:
- The Context: How I got to the point of needing to lose an insane amount of weight, and what spurred me to start.
- The Process: A zoom-out view of the steps I took, from start to finish. Not as much detail here, but more of an overview of the major areas I changed (exercise, eating, tracking).
- The System: If you want specifics, this section goes over my plan in pretty good detail, and what the results were like.
- The Lessons: Some big things I learned from the process, stuff that wasn’t obvious from Googling or talking with doctors. Weight loss has a lot of ups and downs. I share what I learned in this section.
- The Tools: Some technology stuff and other things I used to find success on this journey. App recommendations, etc.
- Conclusion: What has the impact been? What’s next for me?
And here we go.
This all happened in the year 2015, but really the story began in late May. I’d already known I was far more overweight than was healthy for me, and I really ballooned up at the start of the year (I gained about 25–30 pounds in the early part of the year based on my own hazy estimate). Little things were adding up — getting out of breath while playing with my energetic son, feeling sluggish, sleeping terribly, difficulty navigating Lehigh’s hilly campus, a bad blood pressure diagnosis (pre-hypertension) and so forth.
Being obese put me at risk for a lot of bad stuff: heart disease, diabetes, joint and muscle problems, among other things. It took five months to get to the point of starting, but I’d known for a while the time had come. Turning 40 really has an effect on you, and I crossed that barrier last January. It’s weird, it’s like a switch flips on your metabolism and it just slows down. Calorie levels that were once fine for you suddenly are not. I’ve talked to a lot of men in the past six months that have experienced this age 40 thing.
The beginning of the change started when I preordered my Apple Watch in mid-April. I am a gadget guy and that was a big lure for me, but I wanted some of the health tracking features just to get a sense of where I was. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much I’d use the health features, but I was curious and I was looking for some way to help me change. When it arrived in late May, I strapped it on and went for a walk to test out the calorie tracker and learn a bit about the exercise-logging features. That was it. There was no well thought out plan to start the weight loss journey. It began with a random, unplanned walk.
This is as close as I’ll get to making my story sound like magic: the Apple Watch triggered my curiosity in ways I couldn’t have predicted. I burned 150 calories in a 20-minute walk. What did that mean? How many calories burned equals a lost pound? How many calories was I eating every day?
What did I weigh? I stepped on the scale. Gulp. It read 271.1 pounds. I wouldn’t find out until later that weekend that it meant I was 72 pounds overweight (and about 42 pounds obese), but even without that knowledge I knew that wasn’t good. For context, when my son was born in 2011 I weighed about 230, “merely” overweight.
Something had to change.
I’m writing this all down because people ask how I did it. I am convinced this system would work for most people (with some customization of course based on your age, health and body factors), but I do realize every person’s body is different because of various medical conditions or other causes such as hormones that affect loss levels. But if you can pull this off, determination is your secret sauce and you have learn to love your inner data nerd.
What followed in the next week after that initial weigh was a series of decisions that led to a massive life change. There were four main phases to my loss, and all of them were hugely important in different ways.
I used Google (#1) a lot to find out of things I didn’t know (thank goodness for Google): how to best track my calories, my weight, my fitness, to set goals, and to motivate myself. The Livestrong site had a lot of great information on topics such as eating and exercise. I learned about my daily calorie needs based on my height, weight, and activity level. I learned that cutting out 500 calories a day from that total would let me lose a pound a week, and that 1000 less a day would let me lose two.
I learned about MyFitnessPal (#2), a smartphone app that probably is the greatest invention ever. It uses a food database that lets me track my calories as closely as I want to. I started measuring and weighing my food, logging it religiously, and got a handle on how much I was eating. Once I had a handle on my intake, I cut to levels I needed to lose 2 pounds a week. I started to get smart about cutting corners, eating whole foods that filled me up and figuring out how to squeeze the most out of my calories consumed. I ate something sweet for dessert almost every night, folks — it can be done. Once I was eating right, I felt like I was eating all the damn time. I can’t say there was a point where I felt like I was starving myself. Not ever.
Folks, the research that says that food journaling is the best predictor of losing weight and keeping it off is, in my experience, totally accurate. You can’t just estimate it. Losing weight, maintaining weight — it’s a science. You need a certain number of calories in your day based on your age, height, weight and activity level. If you eat less, you lose; if you eat more, you gain. Getting as close to that mark as possible really matters. You’ll never be completely dead-on, but it’s easier to adjust for a few ounces gained and lost than hop on the scale and wonder how you ended up gaining 10 pounds.
I began to move more (#3). I started slow, walking three days a week for a half hour. Within a week I made it an hour. Then I added a day. By about one month, I was walking at least an hour six days a week. By late July I was plotting running my first-ever 5K, and began to “run” three days a week starting with 6 1-minute intervals a session. It was embarrassing, but I kept going. On Oct. 16, 2015, I ran that 5K in less than 30 minutes. I loved the experience. But the lesson here is I ramped up slowly, methodically, trying not to do too much at once lest I get injured and lose momentum. The Apple Watch was great for this.
You know what’s cool about exercise? You get to eat more. The Watch estimated my calories burned, and MyFitnessPal then upped my calories allowed based on that movement. It’s like free calories. The integration between my exercise tracking and MFP was great, kind of the data hub of my entire weight loss experience. Every day I knew my goals and targets, and planned accordingly. I planned my day’s eating during the morning, or the day before. I ate food with purpose for the first time in my life.
With those three parts now getting fixed, the pounds felt like they were melting off (#4). I weighed myself daily (this is essential). I was losing about 1% of my weight a week, anywhere from 2 to 3 pounds. I met with a nutritionist, concerned I was losing more than the recommended 2 pounds per week. She said it was fine at that pace so long as I was eating the right things, and we reconfigured my diet to add more protein in snacks and spread out my protein intake in general so I was losing fat weight, not muscle.
What was the system? Before I get to that, a caution. Think of this as a framework rather than a set of hard-fast rules. This took a lot of trial and error to help me calibrate it to my level of comfortability and goals. This is not some off-the-shelf system that you can duplicate exactly. Everyone is different. But I think the general ideas here absolutely can be applied broadly. If you want to try it: modify it to meet your goals, lifestyle, and abilities and be engaged in changing things up as you go to tweak the engine to perfection.
In sum, the system that basically emerged from this process: track your food every day with a calorie goal that targets weight loss, weigh yourself every day, and start small on exercise but commit to eventually moving at least 45 minutes a day five days a week.
I let MyFitnessPal determine my calorie goal at first, then targeted it more with a nutritionist after that. What I did, essentially:
- Daily weighs: I’d get up in the morning, use the bathroom to empty out everything I could, and then did a weigh without clothes. I tracked it daily using an iPhone app called WeightDrop. WeightDrop gives you charts (including BMI), tracks your progress to your weight goal, and gives you a daily/weekly look at your loss. For iOS users, it also connects to HealthKit, meaning the weight you enter there can sync to other apps that use it such as MyFitnessPal (which will in turn adjust your calorie targets automatically).
- Tracked Calories to hit the target: I did snacks between breakfast/lunch and lunch/dinner of about 50–125 calories (high protein snacks, aiming for 10g), then took the remaining calories and tried to divide it evenly between meals. I weighed and measured all my portions, and I used MyFitnessPal to track it all. I had a simple mantra: “If I can’t account for it in MyFitnessPal, I won’t eat it.” Sometimes that was unrealistic, so I used a generic food in the database and tried to overestimate the portion just to be safe. Chain restaurants have online nutritional information, and I often looked at those before we went out to dinner. In a pinch, you can use an app like Nutritionix to get a decent estimate. But really the best way to do weight loss, for reasons that are obvious from a food tracking perspective, is to prepare your own food.
- All I tracked closely were calories consumed, fiber, protein and sodium. Carbs? Meh. Fat? Meh. If you’re eating whole foods, whole grains, tree nuts, leafy greens, vegetables and such you’ll be OK in those areas. Calories are the thing that matters, and if the calories you’re eating are of high quality then you don’t have to worry about carbs (the classic example is soda, a high-calorie and empty-carb beverage that doesn’t fill you up but limits your intake). Thus I tracked calories for weight loss, fiber a way of forcing myself to eat more vegetables and whole grains (I shoot for 38g per day), protein (100g on walk or rest days, 110 on running days) to make sure I wasn’t losing muscle over fat as I ramped up workouts, and sodium to keep me motivated (more on sodium in the next section).
- Drink more water. At least 72 ounces on walking days, as much as 120 on running days. I used AddWater Pro to help me remember how much I drank.
- Exercise. First thing I’d recommend is getting something that will estimate your exercise calories. I do think Apple Watch is the best because it has more features than FitBit, but there are other devices. Having a handle on this is important because it helps you adjust your calorie goals daily. Use either the device itself or a separate app to log exercise, which will then send those calorie burn totals to MyFitnessPal so your eating goals can be adjusted upward. All of the major devices connect to MFP. By July I was running more, and by September I had a pattern down of walking about five miles two-to-three days a week and running 3–5 miles three days a week. That is plenty of activity. But really, if you want to customize this, walk at least 30 minutes five different days a week and try to keep it about a 3.5 mph pace. Anything after that is bonus.
- By August I had added some weight training on walking days, about two days a week (but often just one). I have tried to keep my legs strong for the upgraded activity, and it’s especially important if you want to take up running. I’ll admit I haven’t been as good about weight training as I should be, but there are big benefits to keeping it up (namely, it increases your metabolic burn).
It all worked. All of it. I never hit that plateau I was always warned about, a leveling-off in the weight loss. I think part of this is because I kept adjusting my calories downward to account for lost pounds while also steadily upping my exercise. My body never got used to one calorie or activity level; it was always guessing.
By the end of next week, I will weigh 185 pounds based on my current rate of losing. That is my goal, and it’s 15 pounds less than the upper limit of what’s considered a healthy weight for my size and age. More context? The last time I weighed 185 was during my senior year of high school — 22 years ago.
That’s 86.1 pounds less than I weighed eight months ago. My metabolic age dropped from 55 in July to 38 by December.
I hesitate to give advice because, as I said before, every body is different. But I think I’ve learned some general things that I think can help almost everyone who is wanting to try this.
Sodium is a momentum killer
I want you to look at this chart below. I think it’s the single most important story of my weight loss experience. This is a 3-month look at my drop from 220 pounds to about 191 pounds.
You probably see a downward trend — it’s a regression line that’s implied from the start to the endpoint. And you’re right! But in that trend is a lot of noise, a lot of ups and downs from my daily weighs. Look closer at a recent 1-month stretch
If you consider I was eating at a 1000-calorie deficit during these eight months, the zero-point is what I need to break even and maintain my previous day’s weight. You want to know how many days in my eight-month stretch I ate at or over the zero-point (i.e. maintained weight at best, or ate enough to gain a little bit)? Three. And yet so many days I gained weight from the previous day’s weigh, sometimes as much as 2 pounds.
For perspective, to truly gain 2 pounds of fat in a day I’d have to eat an extra 7,000 calories above and beyond my zero-point (something like 9,700 calories in my case). I don’t even know if that’s possible. So I was losing fat weight, but gaining some other kind of weight.
So what was going on? Sodium. One thing MyFitnessPal does well is track nutrients as well as calories, and some Googling showed me to look at salt levels. Between data on my daily weighs and looking at the previous day’s eating I began to realize how much salt intake affects my weight by causing water retention. An extra 500 mg of salt could mean as much as 1.5 pounds gained. Technically I was losing weight in terms of body fat, but the water added was making it appear as if I wasn’t losing weight because of temporary bumps upward in water weight. Again, in eight months I lost body fat on all but three days as far as the calorie numbers are concerned, but those daily weighs didn’t reflect it. Restaurants are the worst about this. You can eat from the healthy menu and still load up on sodium.
So I went to war with salt. You’ve heard salt isn’t good for you in excessive amounts. What I tried to do was twofold. First, I tried to keep it at the recommended 2000 mg or less. Second, I tried to keep it somewhat constant day by day to try and minimize its effect. Fridays were my “benchmark” weigh days where I could get a longer-view comparison of weight loss by cutting through the noise of daily weighs, and so I’d try really hard for Wednesday and Thursday to be days of consistent salt intake of about 1800 mg. That not only kept my salt level constant for those two days prior, but it was constant relative to the two days prior in the week before. In theory, at least, it’s apples to apples.
Except when it’s not, of course. Did you know ibuprofen makes you retain water? And Sudafed, of all things? Getting sick or getting a headache can affect water weight too.
Sometimes it’s just hard to cut the salt on certain days. You go out to dinner with the family and it’s just hard to avoid the salt content. Again, when in doubt, eat for calories first and try to limit the salt. Log the salt content as best you can and keep in mind your overage when you weigh the next couple days as you flush it out of your system.
Bottom line is if you’re meeting your calorie goals, you’re more than likely losing weight unless you’ve hit a plateau. Focus on the benchmark weekly weighs for comparative purposes, and you should be OK. I think people get frustrated and quit when they see a pound gained from a previous week and they’re confused. It’s probably salt’s fault. Just keep at it. Tracking your calories and salt in combination with weighs on a daily basis will put you in tune with how your habits affect your daily weight.
Track your food
It’s tedious at first, I’m going to warn you. But it gets easier as you go and it helps so much. You have to embrace your inner data nerd. Those numbers are so important. Think of it this way: how can you truly cut calories if you don’t know what you’re consuming? MFP is great. You don’t have to enter every food, although you can. It’s a database, and every user who has entered something makes that food available for others to log. You also can use its barcode scanner to scan products.
And when I say track, I mean weigh and measure your food too. I used this cheap Ozeri scale. It’s great, and it’s fast. I don’t measure cereal by the cup, I weigh the portion. It’s as accurate as I can possibly make it. But the hard work pays off, as it helps you refine the numbers game every day in pursuit of your calorie targets.
You (and your family) have to make time for exercise
The one thing most of us lack is time, and fitting in a workout of a half hour to an hour is difficult. This was the biggest area of sacrifice for me. When school started, I was up at 5 am so I could get in my workout and be back to help with my son’s morning routine. If there was an area that was a hard slog built on discipline, it’s definitely been early-morning exercise. Don’t discount, too, the impact on your partner. When I go out in later morning on weekends, my wife has to watch our son. So bear that in mind and be sensitive to it. You’re in it together.
Don’t try to be a hero
A lot of my friends have faced diet burnout. Based on my own interactions with them, I’ve concluded that many tried to do too much change all at once, as if they could correct years of unhealthy habits in a day. Think about my case. I completely changed my eating, tracking and moving habits. But I focused on the tracking first, then the better eating. I slowly worked on the exercise part. But I didn’t wake up on Day 1 and have this super awesome system that I suddenly had to follow religiously. I think it’s unrealistic. Some people can do this, of course, but change is hard and we should treat that difficulty with some care.
People asked how I kept the willpower to keep going. I think the whole concept of willpower is bullshit, because it reduces choice to some magical intangible that you never quite know how to capture. What I did is more about motivation to be disciplined, and the way I did that was by trying to amass as much small success as I could (daily, real progress) so that I’d keep the motivation to do more. In truth, I worked for small victories. Building new habits is hard, so I set modest goals and kept upping the temperature every few days to a week. It never felt like too much. I never felt like I was starving. I never felt overwhelmed. Pretty soon it felt like a game, like I was competing against myself as I tracked my eating and exercise data together throughout the day.
What I’d advise is that you select one of the three areas (calorie counts, healthy eating, exercise) to work on, set a goal, and go for it. Once you think you’re mostly there, add another area. Start slow on exercise. Particularly if you’re sedentary, you want your body to get accustomed to the new activity lest you get hurt.
I am distrustful of weight loss systems that double as brand names (looking at you, South Beach Diet and Atkins) and fad diets (that includes all the latest superfood crazes, where people think they can lose a bunch of weight be eating nothing but acai berries). I think it’s easy to burn out. You aren’t used to this, and it’s not habit yet. You need to give yourself a bunch of little victories to motivate you to keep going and, more importantly, to keep increasing your goals.
Listen to your body, and be prepared for setbacks
Twice I had to shut down running because of knee pain. I’m at that stage right now, as a matter of fact. I went back to walking and doing some stationary bike in the meantime, trying to keep my calorie burn up. The thing is, the amped up exercise won’t always go perfectly, so have a backup plan or be prepared to cut your calories if you need to rest your body. And do rest your body. Don’t overdo it or cause further injury out of stubborness. I’m pretty sure my current knee pain is because I increased my run mileage too quickly.
Routine is good!
I know it sounds boring, but my snacks, breakfast and lunch were the same most days. Why? Because it was easier to account for calories, easy to prepare for a busy day, and it gave me more flexibility to get creative with dinner. I found a rhythm in eating the same thing, which helped build habit. For dinners, at first I ate a lot of chicken, whole grain rice and vegetables, but I also subscribed to Cooking Light and looked for good recipes that were low in calories and sodium. That magazine is awesome.
Remember goals are just that
The great thing about eating at a 1000-calorie deficit is that you can not meet it but still lose. Some days I was hungrier and ate an extra 250 — that’s still a 1.5-pounds-lost weekly rate. Other days I basically ate to maintain my weight. The time around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are a good example. I think I still lost weight most days that week because I was tracking, but I tried to eat with maintenance in mind those weeks with the idea I’d be back at it when it was over.
The reason I say this is it’s easy to kick yourself for not meeting your daily goal, but if you set realistic goals and meet them most days, you can still eat a bit more other days and be OK. Don’t lose motivation over a few bad days, and don’t miss out on Christmas dinner fun for a stupid diet. Your goal is to lose weight, not be miserable over one day.
There’s a difference between habit and a data point in time. If your habits are good, having an off day once or twice a month is fine.
You’re going to need support. I waited to see a nutritionist until I’d lost 23 pounds, and I only did it because I was afraid I was losing too much too quickly. I wasn’t, but I still wish I’d seen her earlier so I could’ve been better about water intake and protein consumption.
Find people to cheer you on. The Facebook likes helped a lot, but my wife and friends who were following closely had immeasurable impact.
I also found a lot of help online, as I noted before. The next main section will detail some tools I used to support the effort.
Help from work?
While we’re talking about helpers, check to see if your employer has a wellness program. Lehigh University, my employer, has a great program called Be Well. You get rewarded for doing stuff you’re already doing as part of the weight loss routine, and I got things like Amazon gift cards to help pay for workout clothes (moving more can get expensive!) as well as a monthly paycheck add-on to help offset the cost of gym membership.
These programs are becoming more popular with every year because they really do help bring down health care costs in the long run. See if your employer offers it, however modest it might be. It might help you make progress.
Be realistic about the finish line
Truth time: my body still shows the residuals of years of weight gain. The dirty secret of weight loss is you’re not going to finish with a beach bod at my age unless you have surgery or go hardcore on weights. But I was never doing this for looks. This was about health and growing old with my family. I honestly don’t care if I have loose skin in places that used to be larger.
I do look different, of course, and I feel a lot better. But I think we picture ourselves with washboard abs, as if that is the end goal, thanks to media imagery around working out. The goal should be to be at healthy weight and fat levels. Everything else is gravy — but the healthy kind!
I mentioned iOS HealthKit before. I found it essential not just to use a suite of apps and technology to help me, but to use products that were interconnected so that data I entered in one would be ported to other apps. My guess is Android has something similiar. Use it.
MyFitnessPal (link) — I use it to track calories, although it does other things. If you don’t use HealthKit to track your weight, you’ll need to manually update it every few days to adjust calorie goals. As you lose weight, you can’t eat as much because your body needs less! Bonus: there is an iPad app and you also can enter information on the web. There’s some really cool advice to help you get started here. You can also do custom calorie goals if your dietician gives you a different goal than the app does. One caution on this app: unless the item has a verified check mark, what you use from the database is the result of crowdsourcing. Sometimes people enter in only partial nutrition information, or they enter it wrong. Always eyeball an entry versus the label the first time you use it. After that it’ll be in your favorites and you can use the correct one every time.
Nutritionix (link) — Great app for looking up nutrition data at chain restaurants. MyFitnessPal has a lot of this in its database too, but Nutritionix is a great supplement.
AddWater Pro (link) — Easy way to track water intake. Drink more water. It’ll make you less hungry.
WeightDrop (link) — Useful app for tracking daily weighs. I like the data vizualization part, and that it syncs to HealthKit.
HeartStar (link) — I was tracking blood pressure with a monitor when I had the hypertension scare. This also syncs to HealthKit.
5K Runner (link) — I used this to go from no running to my first 5K. It’s an eight-week program, although it took me 10 weeks. Don’t be afraid to repeat days when it gets hard. There are a lot of “couch to 5K” apps out there to choose from, though, so find one with a program that suits you.
MapMyWalk (link) — I used this as I was ramping up walking. It syncs with HealthKit, so those calories burned show up in MFP.
RunKeeper (link) — Once I’d done my 5K, I started using this app to track my runs, although it also tracks other exercises such as walking and biking. Syncs to HealthKit, and it’s a social network so you can connect to friends and cheer them on.
Strong (link) — This is an app to help you plan for weightlifting and core work. Customizable and useful.
Fitness Tracker — I’m a huge believer in Apple Watch. Generally speaking, only use the exercise calories to adjust your eating goals for the day, but the nice thing about Watch is it tracks your calories burned throughout the day, and on some days I was walking around campus more. You also get lots of other nice data both during exercise and throughout the day, such as heart rate. While generally you only take into account exercise when it comes to calorie consumption, on some days I adjusted for this extra activity and ate a bit more. You kind of learn when you can do this if you’re tracking things daily. My rough rule of thumb: Take the total calories Watch says you’ve burned, subtract your workout calories, and increase your calories to account for any total above 750. So for example, if the Watch says I’ve burned 1300 calories and I had a 450 calorie workout (which already would be accounted for in MFP), that difference is 850 calories. I’d eat the extra 100 calories above the 750 difference. Make sense?
I wrote about Apple Watch’s benefits back in June, but I’ll sum it up here. It’s more than just calorie tracking. The little periodic taps on the wrist about standing more, moving more, calorie burn updates, and so forth help you create a type of mindfulness throughout the day about your health. You may not need it, but I definitely did. I go through my day being more aware of my health picture, and that’s a good thing.
Cooking Light (link) — Great magazine. It has an array of stuff from longer meals to quick meals. I looked at calorie, protein and sodium levels in the nutrition data they give you with every recipe. A lot of these recipes already are on MyFitnessPal, and if they aren’t then they’re easy to enter. I rediscovered my love for cooking because of Cooking Light, and I’ve been spending a lot of time the past few months trying out meals that don’t sacrifice flavor for calories.
So where am I today? Nearly at my goal. I feel great, I really do. Much more energy, much more positive about my life and for my future. I did this for my wife and my son, to make sure I’m going to be around and part of their lives as much as I can be.
There are no guarantees, of course, but my odds of living longer are better now than they were at 71 pounds overweight.
My next challenge is to get the maintenance thing down. Basically eating to maintain, and tracking weight weekly and adjusting calorie goals based on the net gain or loss from the previous week. I’m very aware of the fact that most people who lose a lot of weight tend to gain it back within a couple years. I’m determined to not let this happen. The system won’t change, really. Track what I eat, keep exercising, be mindful of my health.
Eat better and move more, in other words.