By Noel Dickover, August 2015
In late 2013, I was pushing close to 300 pounds, and was suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea. I had to use a CPAP machine at night to prevent myself from waking up in a panic, gasping for breath. Worse, my feet were going numb due to back problems, muscle issues or blood sugar problems — the doctors were not able to identify the cause, so they simply prescribed medication to take away my nerve sensation. I began to question whether I would get to see my own children graduate from college, get married and have grandchildren of their own.
I knew I had to do something, but I felt that yet another diet would lead me right back to where it always did — failure. Instead, I decided to try a different route — I began to think about a gradual approach of changing my movement and eating habits toward a more healthier alternatives that I still enjoyed.
Since my high of 297 pounds in October 2013, I’ve lost over 100 pounds, and my belt size has gone from 48 to 36. I no longer have diabetes, and am proud to be one of less than 2% of those who have been able to quit taking Metformin after starting it. My blood pressure at one point was 139 over 97 — my last reading was 112 over 74! My sleep apnea is long gone, and I’ve gone from stress eating to using creative movement routines to alleviate stress.
Throughout this journey, I never counted calories, fat grams, water intake, nor have I regularly stabbed my finger to see my sugar level. The only external measures I use to measure progress are a scale and my belt size. Even more incredible, I’ve accomplished all this while sustaining a broken foot in July 2014 that did not heal well enough to remove my cast until April 2015!
This is not a story about dieting, and I don’t have a product to sell. I can eat what I want, whenever I want, in whatever quantities I want. I do make lots better decisions than I used to, and my life is no longer defined by uncontrollable food cravings or binges.
This is a story about how I learned to get healthy gradually, without guilt, and without unrealistic goals that everyone seems to think are necessary to lose weight. Hopefully you will find ways to apply the approach I have taken into your own journey.
Diets as Psychic Prisons
Over the last 30 years, my weight has risen progressively higher, usually spiking after another failed diet. Like almost all morbidly obese folk, I’ve experimented with my fair share of weight loss schemes, from nutty food regimens like Atkins and SouthBeach, to deranged 7 day cleanse diets, to cocktails of chemically-based metabolism boosters and appetite suppressants that caused jitters and bizarre mood swings. Like most dieters, I never had confidence that diets would amount to anything other than short term gains. Through dieting, my weight yo-yo’d more up than down for 20 years. With each attempt I would lose 10 to 20 pounds, only to gain it all back and more — this cycle was endlessly repeated, only with new and improved gimmicks that I hoped would be the magical ticket I was seeking. After each attempt ended in failure, intense guilt and loathing soon followed. It seemed clear I just didn’t have the willpower that skinny folk have.
Unfortunately I’m not alone. A recent report on obesity that followed over 150,000 people concluded that if you are overweight, you are likely to remain that way regardless of the actions you take to get healthy. Of the morbidly obese patients in the study, meaning those in excess of 100 pounds or more — just one of every 1,290 men, and one of every 677 women returned to normal weight. The full range of solutions offered up for weight loss, regardless of the cost, simply do not work.
In 1980, 15% of the population was obese, with 1.3% morbidly obese. By 2008, obesity had grown to more than 34% of the population, with 6% now morbidly obese. Meanwhile, spending on diet products has skyrocketed. In dietary supplements, spending has more than doubled since 2002. Estimates vary — in 2006, $35 billion was spent on weight loss products, but most estimates now put that figure over $60 billion by 2014! People are spending money in increasing quantities on diets, while we continue to get fatter as a population. By 2010, a full 63% of Americans were overweight.
While there is a clearly a correlation, I think its possible a causative link exists between dieting and weight gain — meaning diets cause the average person to gain more weight than they would have otherwise. Diets ask us to adopt a strange set of tools and behaviors that look nothing like what healthy people do. Have you ever seen a skinny person keep a food journal? How many of them are meticulously counting calories, fat and all the rest? When is this magical switch supposed to occur whereby people who follow all of the experts’ advice for weight loss make that transformation toward doing all the things healthy people do as a normal course? The truth is for the vast majority of us, there is no transformation; — as the study above shows, there is no light at the end of the dieting tunnel! Dieting simply doesn’t work.
Bottom line, if you’re looking for the best way to become morbidly obese for the rest of your natural born life, go on a diet! Set weight loss goals! Count your calories, fat and sugar, and keep daily records of your food intake. And then, a few months later, after you’ve failed, self loathed and binged a bit, go on another. This time, try kicking it off with a gym membership that you’ve given no thought about how to integrate into your life. You’ll learn all the behaviors necessary for long term, sustained weight gain. You’ll received advanced training on eating binges and intense craving, and will regularly stress over fruitless expenditures and delusional decisions, along with the self loathing that accompanies it.
Diets are psychic prisons for your mind!
Like real prison, you are forced to go to diet-induced “psychic prison” because you’re bad! You’ve done something wrong, and now need to atone through misery!
When you decide start a diet, you have literally agreed to create your own self-imposed psychic prison for your mind. This causes you to assume contradictory roles of both the inmate and jailor. You are responsible for both policing your activity, but like all who are incarcerated, feel the intense longing for what you cannot have — intense and constant food cravings are at the core of your existence. This creates perpetual internal conflict which endlessly fuels your weight gain. Implicit is the notion that your behavior and eating habits are the root cause — that until you make a radical change, you cannot be rehabilitated. Like real prison, diet-induced psychic prisons imbue people with crippling behavior patterns which will lead to cycles of repeated negative outcomes.
Each diet foists unfamiliar, unpalatable food choices you are forced to eat in some capacity for the rest of your natural born life, assuming you stay with the plan. They require a radical break from your current eating habits, usually through a controlled set of phases or steps that can be outlined and followed in a plan. A magical gimmick often drives the diet — a radical health insight, pill, or purchased food product that forms the basis of the unique offering. Coupled with this are the resplendent exercise gizmos of all flavors that constantly seek to assure you your sit-ups will be easier, and that your magical workout to Skinnyville won’t last more than 10 minutes a day.
I’ve done my share of diet psychic prison time, on and off for the last 30 years.
I’m not going back. I can eat what I want, when I want, however much I want.
Phase I — Solitary Confinement: Diets often commence with a solitary confinement phase of food choices — choices which we tolerate for a few days, but are forced to endure for weeks if not months. The rationale is that your behavior is so catastrophic, you must detox completely before any progress can be achieved. The stated reward for completing the cataclysmic beginning? You’re offered the equivalent of food furlough which gives you somewhat edible, but certainly not enjoyable, choices for the rest of your life. You like to eat spaghetti or bread? Too bad, never again! Its only broccoli and tofu from now on, but eventually we’ll let you have low sodium soy sauce and skim cheese with your tofu!
Time for a Psychic Jail Break! At some point, your diet finally becomes unbearable and you snap. You just can’t take it the regimen any more. It might be triggered by a life event, or just daily stress, but inevitably culminates in a psychic jail break.
And like all good jail breaks, you’ll want to make the most of it! You might start with a chocolate shake and chicken wings at 10:00 pm while watching the game with friends. But fuck-it, you’ve blown it, so you might as well go to IHOP in the morning to devour that huge steak burrito for breakfast you’ve been craving.
Intense guilt follows shortly afterwards...
Shortly after the jail break, you might return to diet prison, or you might not. But at some point you will return, and will repeat the cycle endlessly, each time with false hope some new found magic. If you’re like me, years of yo-yo dieting will leave you significantly overweight and in increasingly poor health.
Make a Permanent Escape! I’ve done my share of diet prison time on and off for the better part of 30 years — I’m not going back. I can eat what I want, when I want, and however much I want. I just make healthier decisions now. When I don’t, it’s usually on my terms. If a friend unexpectedly drops by at night, I’ll go out and have a good time, even though it results in waking up a few pounds heavier. It will slow my metabolism a little, and perhaps set me back a few days. That’s the impact. There is no failure or guilt here, just life choices.
When I began thinking seriously about how to change my life, I didn’t know where to start, but I knew I wasn’t going back to diet prison. I had a bevy of health issues, so it wasn’t hard to find small places to start experimenting. I choose both a movement idea to experiment with. This resulted in attempts to stretch my feet out each evening, and make healthier eating decisions late at night. I was evaluating my food choices, but had no real compass guiding my behavior. Frankly I was still flailing — some days doing well, and others poorly, with crushing failure each time I faltered.
My job takes me to some fascinating places — in the beginning of 2015 I traveled to Yangon, Myanmar. After work wrapped up, I found myself in Shwedagon Pagoda, a stunning 2600 year-old gold structure surrounded by an elaborate set of ornate temples and buildings. I used to meditate regularly up until my early 20s, and was hoping to recapture that thirst in this historic and holy place. I had this notion that meditation could help me gain insight on how to get healthy. While positioning myself in front of a lavishly adorned deity statue with gaudy flashing colored lights, I sat, closed my eyes and meditated for what felt like a half hour.
When I opened my eyes, I was presented with this monk (pictured above), patently waiting for more than 20 minutes for me to open my eyes. He wanted to know my story, and we had the most incredible conversation. He told me he left to become a monk at 3 years old because “family life was hard.” I’m assuming hardships involved food or conflict issues, but never asked. He was very animated in talking about Shwedagon Pagoda and spent the bulk of the conversation relaying his journey to town every Saturday to perform a series of chores and activities at the Pagoda. He revealed how his efforts and the perpetual efforts of his fellow monks over more than two thousand years cultivated the life energy and nurtured the harmony of the pagoda. Shwedegon Pagoda had embraced monks just like him for the duration of its existence, and would do so well into the future. In short the change this monk was trying to achieve, involving deeply meaningful tasks, took place in timescales that well exceeded his own lifespan! He wasn’t interested in getting anywhere — he wasn’t focused on a short term goal — it was pure journey.
Journey toward getting healthy
After the monk and I parted ways, I seriously contemplated what it would mean if I looked at my potential recovery as a journey with clear direction, but without a clear end point. It would not be a quick journey. I spent 30 years developing my failing health profile, it made sense to give myself significant time — many years perhaps — to get healthy. Nobody is delusional enough to believe they could stay on a diet more than a year — we try to last just long enough to depart with at least a shred of dignity so we have a story to share about another flawed diet.
I looked for small changes — changes that I could
successfully and permanently integrate into my daily routine.
Thinking about change in multi-year timescales implies a gradual approach. Numerous life events that impact weight gain, a key source of tension for dieters, will regularly and repeatedly occur during this time — unexpected visits by relatives leading to late night food excursions, holidays, graduations, and all the rest. Gradual change implies living your life in a normal and happy manner. I was not “planning for maximal weight loss.” Instead, I looked for small changes to make — changes that I could successfully and permanently integrate into my daily routine.
Plan for Multiple Years: Changing the time horizon to a multi-year path fundamentally altered my approach to getting healthy. I decided to dedicate 3 years to this path toward gradually becoming healthy. I didn’t imagine I’d be healthy or even normal weight by then, but thought it was long enough that I wouldn’t stress about meeting short term weight loss targets. No stressing whether I am “on course” or behind. A time span 3 years gave enough time to evaluate whether my journey was successful.
Here’s the first concrete step I took:
If I make one small change, like going from “inhaling my food,”
to thoroughly chewing it, then if I keep that change for the rest of my life,
I will have taken a huge step toward getting healthy.
All my life I’ve inhaled food. Just a few short bites and down it goes. Where’s the harm in that, right? (more on this below). Each of us is uniquely different. We arrived at our current condition through our own exclusive path, so why would our journey to getting healthy all be the same? Your journey towards a long term, sustained healthy lifestyle will not be like mine. You may not inhale food, but you “know” of behaviors and activities to regularly engage in that lead to poor health. Choose one — any one — a behavior, a new form of movement, a change in eating habits.
Don’t choose right now! Choose when you’re ready. This is not a “you must get up off your chair right now or else” type gung-ho solicitation. Experiment with it— find a way to integrate this change into your life. If what you are trying doesn’t work, try something else, until you find a change you can happily lock in.
Gradual change means finding small, potential changes that you experiment with, and either integrate in your life or discard. This is a deliberate process, one without stress or grades. Look to integrate new changes carefully, with no more than one, perhaps two at a time, if you include both movement and eating options. Each attempt leads either to a new small but permanent change, or more learning on what doesn’t work for you. The path you choose will be uniquely your own, and will be based on your timeline, your life circumstances and your health profile.
A journey toward gradual health means:
- Clear direction, but no clear, measurable end point: You know the direction you need to take. It involves numerous but gradual small changes in behavior, eating and movement. But you really don’t know the specific course you will take, which impacts how you measure success. I was not going to “have a weight loss goal” as so many experts demand. The only goal that mattered to me was to be healthy, which implies being normal weight. Short term weight loss goals are fool’s gold (but you can gamify your weight loss! — see below).
- Heal at your body’s pace: Your body should determine the pace of your healing. If you paying attention to it, you’ll become aware of what’s possible. You can push your system a little, but attempting to lose weight faster — or going for “maximum weight loss” as its called in Dietland may lead to short term gains, but almost always ends up as long term loses. You are doing the equivalent of stretching a rubber band and expecting it to stay taught after you remove your hands. If you lose weight faster than your body is ready for, it will rebound.
- Experiment before deciding: Integrating a new behavior, lifestyle alteration, new stretch or exercise is a seemingly small change, but is monumental if you make it stick. This is nontrivial and may require multiple attempts before you can do it consistently.
- Changes must be enjoyable: Changes that become permanently integrated into your life will be enjoyable ones. If it’s something you dread, you will eventually stop. This means replacing bad food choices with healthier ones that you enjoy! If you don’t enjoy it, keep looking for other alternatives. Same with exercise — it must be something you get satisfaction from if you expect to continue it.
- No restrictions, just better decisions: I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I’m not in diet prison. If I force food restrictions on myself, I will dream, than fantasize then fixate on accomplishing the health goal to get the restrictions removed. This is diet-speak for, “Fuck you, once I accomplish your goal, I’m binging, baby!” Instead of giving up all junk food at once to go “cold turkey,” I gradually and deliberately found ways to improve my eating habits and activity level.
Good habits compound
When you’re overweight and exhibit negative health habits, they tend to compound. My weight gain led to lower back pain, and crippling ankle and foot problems. My weight gain also led to diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea. Bad behaviors for health are similar to bad financial behaviors that lead to spiraling debt, but the reverse is also true.
Here’s the good news — small, positive behaviors for improving your health compound as well or better than negative behaviors!
When I started my journey I didn’t even fantasize I would be anywhere near 50 pounds lighter a year later, but in reality I flew by 250 pounds. Here’s the good news — small, positive behaviors for improving your health compound as well or better than negative behaviors! Stretching regularly will lead to more flexibility, which leads to more movement, and better food choices. Over time, each of these behaviors leads to weight loss at a rate far faster than I could have dreamed!
You will not be successful if you attempt to change everything at once, nor do you need to. That’s a recipe for failure and guilt. Instead, focus on integrating one new change at a time. Do so slowly and deliberately. You may not be able to give up eating primarily pizza, beer, hamburgers, fries and soda all in one week. Dietary changes should be gradual and deliberate, as should exercise routines, and overall behavior changes.
Gamify Your Weight Loss
Most professional advice on weight loss will emphasize the critical need to have clear weight loss goals. The Mayo clinic recommends you make goals that are “specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and trackable” — realistic in this sense means between 5–10% body weight. If you are morbidly obese, why would you only want to lose 5% of your body weight? I‘ve lost over 1/3 of my body weight, but I’ve never had a weight loss goal that I inevitably end up fixating over. This is a short term goal, which perpetuates the quick fix mindset towards health. I strongly recommend you throw away your weight loss goals, along with your calorie counters.
While I argue against clear, measurable, attainable, realistic and trackable weight loss goals, I do agree its necessary to have a clear process for gauging progress, one which focuses energy toward a goal. With the help of a gamification expert, I devised a process of gamifying my weight loss.
Gamifying your weight loss in 10 pound increments with steady state breaks removes the “always on” stress that diets require
Lose weight in 10 pound increments but not all the time: Aside for the first 12 pounds or so, I’ve lost my weight in 10 pound increments. I accomplished this by undertaking a series of “health sprints” followed by steady state “breaks”. Diets require you to be close to perfect all the time — we don’t work that way. We are more successful varying our routine. I give myself time to prepare for a health sprint, and then give myself time to go easy in the interim rest periods. In my rest period, or steady state break as I call it, I’m probably not going to “go hog wild” with hamburger binges at 11:30 at night. But I am more likely to have an occasional healthy hamburger (grass-fed, all natural burger on a good bun, not McDonalds) at 1:00 pm during my steady state, then I am during a health sprint. I will still be exercising and generally eating well according to the small changes I’ve made, but I won’t be optimizing. Here’s how the gamification process works:
“2” — the start of the health sprint
Whenever I reach the “2,” in the 10 pound increment, such as when I reached 282, 272, 262, 252, 242, 232, 222, 212, or 202, I “lock in” on my eating and movement to perform a “health sprint.” This means I am generally engaging in movement every day (exercise or stretching), and am trying my best to eat reasonable, healthy foods until my weight gets to the next lower “7”, such as when I went from 282 down to 277. Even if I eat poorly at 277, chances are good I’ll still be below 280, which keeps me in the 10 pound increment. In game terms, once I reach the “7”, I tell myself I have successfully reached the 270s! This is in effect attaining a “level up” in my personal health game.
7 to 2 — the healthy steady state break
Once I get to the “7”, such as 287, 277, or 197 as in my current situation, I slowly ease up and settle into a healthy steady state. This may last weeks, or even longer in the case of lower weight levels like 227, 217, and 207. But eventually, I slowly start drifting down to the “2” again, and get ready for another health sprint. This drifting is most often caused by the newer behavior or activity changes I’ve added, or because I’ve started slowly locking down my habits to get ready for another sprint.
This approach toward gamifying your weight loss in 10 pound increments removes the “always on” stress that diets require. It also removes a time component — you don’t really know when you’ll leave the 260s, which is just fine. Your time horizon is such that you plan on getting healthy eventually, over time — not next week! Gamification also provides a clear signal when you gone off the rails in a significant way. Its never fun going up a level in a game — the same thing applies here. The days I went back up a weight level — and I did multiple times — had me seriously focusing my actions to return.
Weight loss levels get harder over time
Gamifying your weight loss in 10 pound increments mimics normal game dynamics. Like most games, the levels get harder as you progress in lower weight and improve your skills. It’s relatively easy to drop from 282 to 277, but is significantly harder to go from 222 to 217. The gamification works because you too are improving. The actions you take at 222 to get healthy will be significantly different than what you did at 282.
In my journey, there were times when my body seemed determined to stay around a particular weight. Looking back, the 270s, 220s and the 200s were especially difficult to overcome. But if you generally stay on your path, eventually you will find yourself ready to do another sprint, and with success, will level up to your new weight class. This provides a sense of joy and accomplishment that helps sustain your journey. Over time, you will be amazed how far you’ve come!
Internal Health Measures
Deluxe, often expensive Internet of Things (IoT) personal tracking devices like Fitbit or the new Apple watch are the rage right now. Just pay $99.99 and get your calories counted, heart rate monitored, your blood pressure measured, your steps counted, your sleeping patterns graphed, and bloody sugar levels tracked regularly. I really have an aversion to the entire product set, because the focus is wrong. These products get you to think of your body as an mysterious black box that requires external scientific measures to generate reliable data.
Your body is a living system. It doesn’t operate in “per day” increments.
Your body operates in the here and now, whether or not you’re noticing.
You can become aware of it…will you?
Further, these products seem to buy into the delusion that external goals should drive the pace of your recovery, not the actual and current condition of your body. You want to lose 30 pounds in 6 weeks? You can now measure your progress in real time! These products optimize your time, and our bodies just have get with the program! To be clear, I am not opposed to datasets or sensors for data collection— my day job involves finding aggregating and applying data from harsh environments in really creative ways. I just think the costs for using it personally far outweight the benefits.
That said, I do have friends who are using IoT products to successfully lose weight. If you’re using Fitbit, cell phone apps, Apple watch or some other hip device and its helping you get healthy, congrats and keep rocking it! If its working over the long term, use it! The section below provides an alternative approach to external measures — one that is at odds with the current external measures trend. So if you’ve settled into a happy partnership with your Fitbit and are afraid of offending it, feel free to skip down to the “Movement and Eating” section below.
The anti-Fitbit approach
Experts say you should drink X cups of water per day, Y calories per day, that you should limit your carb and fat intake to Z grams — you know the routine. With no data other than my own experience in losing over 100 pounds, I’ve decided that’s all bullshit — the whole approach is flawed. As we see above, this advice is not helping people lose weight. Worse, the reliance on external measures solidifies the view of the human body as a near undecipherable black box — one that causes us to quickly lose confidence in our own perceptions. And in doing so, we stop paying attention to clear signals and rich feedback our bodies are constantly providing. Not surprisingly, the new innovations in personal tracking devices line up perfectly with new and improved, data-enabled 5 step diet plans, that if you only follow to perfection will allow you to…its all bullshit.
Your body is an organic, living system. This means it doesn’t operate in “per day” increments. Your body operates in the here and now. Whether not you’re pay attention, your body continually regulates itself in real-time. Diets are designed as if your body was an engineered machine that is missing a gasket or two, but living systems simply don’t function that way — they aren’t analogous. Engineered machines like precise instructions and reliable measurements, and constant improvement. But your body is constantly adjusting to a whole series of internal and external purturbations — this implies prescribed totals quickly lose their utility. There is a tenuous connection at best between what the prescribed daily totals for someone like you “should be” and what your body actually requires at this very moment.
Your body’s actual functioning in the present and next few hours are critical, but daily totals at the end of the day are near meaningless. I’m suggesting that like most skinny people, it is important for the rest of us to develop a deeper awareness of our body’s functioning — one that will inform our decisions on food and movement choices far more effectively than any professional health plan.
Look inward for your measures
To paraphrase Darth Vader,
“The power of the Fitbit pales in comparison to power of your own ability to understand what is occurring within you in the ever living present. I find your lack of faith in yourself disturbing.”
You either “do” or “do not” need water right now, but chances are, if you’re exercising regularly and regulating your metabolism you‘ll be drinking water heavily. Put simply, guidelines to drink 12 cups of water per bullshit period time in absence of actual movement will not improve your health or disposition.
As a living system, your body still abides by the laws of nature — if health goals are disconnected from your actual state of health, they won’t succeed. You might lose that fast 5–20 pounds, but we both know you’ll have more weight than you started a few months later. Long term change comes from understanding your body’s current state — this gives you the knowledge necessary to make the right changes for you, one by one, gradually and permanently over time. Understanding your body’s current state requires learning to pay attention to what is happening inside. This is a very knowable thing — something a large percentage of skinny people do naturally.
The Measures that Matter: If I’m not counting calories or fat, or poking myself daily for sugar levels, how can I gauge progress? My approach to getting healthy has as its core developing deep awareness of how my body functions. Like all gradual change, this is a long term effort that yields greater dividends the more skill you attain. Understanding both my internal motor and physical condition has been critical to my journey. For measures directly affecting weight loss and diabetes recovery, I pay attention to three key things:
— Energy level — Metabolism — Sugar level
ENERGY LEVEL: Start with your energy level. Everyone can feel if they are energetic or not. I’m asking you to pay regular and explicit attention to your energy level, not unlike your awareness of the room temperature. This takes practice — for me it took well over a month to really lock this in.
I would try to ask myself almost hourly, “On a scale of 1 to 10, what is my current energy level?
Once you do, you’ll begin notice a clear relationship between food you eat, both type and quantity and its impact on your energy level. For me, this was the key to changing my eating habits. When I looked at a lunch menu and fixated on something large and heavy, once I knew intimately and repeatedly what happens to my energy the immediate enjoyment factor drops — I started selecting better choices because of it. Again I stress that this is a not a day revelation — this takes weeks if not longer.
Over time, you can use your awareness of energy levels to make small changes in your food and movement choices. Awareness of your current energy level will prompt you to find reasons to get up and move around once an hour, or you might find yourself eating more snacks along with smaller sized meals far more often. This approach is VERY different from keeping track of calories. In essence, you are paying attention to the internal impact of the calories in the here and now. That’s the only time they calories are relevant. The fat either will or will not have been added to your gut by the time you calculate your caloric intake the end of the day.
Once you are comfortably keeping track of energy levels and regularly notice the impact of your food choices, you are ready to gain better awareness of your body’s motor — your metabolism.
METABOLISM: Energy awareness is the gateway to gaining awareness of your metabolism. Your metabolism is the engine that powers the living system that is you. Its processing can be felt, and eventually optimized in the sense that there are natural ways to speed it up. But in the beginning, start paying attention to it in the same way you do your energy level. This will take you a few months of effort, so don’t be discouraged if you aren’t successful after a day or two.
If you’ve ever lost weight, at times you can “feel” almost a tingly sensation when you perceive you are losing weight — this is usually accompanied by higher energy levels. Similarly if you pay attention, you can “feel” when you are gaining weight. This is not magic — its a knowable thing that lots of skinny people take for granted. If you gain awareness of your body’s engine, you can gain control over your weight loss. If you understand what your metabolism is doing, you have the knowledge necessary to guide your eating and movement choices.
Get to Know Your Stomach: The key for sustained attention to your metabolism is your stomach. If you’re like I was, you have no idea what’s happening in your stomach. I rarely paid attention to how my eating habits directly led to mood swings or energy spikes. As a consequence, I used to ingest 2–3 Pepsid ACs a day — now I take less than that in a month! If acid reflux is a regular part of your day, chances are good that your stomach seldom processes your food properly, and has long since resorted to just “sending it on” to the small intestine where your food sits and is digested slowly and poorly.
Chew Your Food! If you’re interested in developing a deeper awareness of your stomach, try learning chew your food very thoroughly. I used to decide I was full when my taste buds were satiated. By this point, if the food was tasty, my stomach was usually stuffed to the point of breaking. To stop the cycle, the stomach eventually initiates its “nuclear option” —stomach acid starts shooting up into my mouth to ruin my taste. Acid reflux is the stomach’s way of getting the mouth to stop overeating. Like all nuclear options, the side effects aren’t good. If you chew your food thoroughly, you are pre-digesting it for the stomach in a way that it can take the next step in the digestion process. Food that’s properly chewed leads to quicker, better faster processing by the stomach, which leads to a faster metabolism rate. More importantly, it allows you to pay attention to your body’s engine.
I went from chowing down three large meals a day to consuming
lots of small meals all day long
Over time, I began looking for ways to optimize my metabolism. I did this through food choices, supplements and most importantly, my eating frequency. I went from chowing down three large meals a day to consuming somewhere between 10–20 small meals all day long. In keeping my metabolism at a high burn rate, I usually try to keep my stomach just above empty. As soon as I feel hunger pangs, I eat a small snack. I have lots of healthy, but mostly delicious things to eat. I now keep snacks everywhere and am constantly eating. As a consequence, my stomach has shrank so much that even if I wanted to binge, I can only eat a small amount before feeling bloated.
SUGAR LEVEL: After a few months of paying deep attention to my metabolism, I began to regularly sense of my sugar level. At first, it was most easily felt when I had something overly sweet. Most people can feel a sugar rush if they eat large quantities of candy. This is no different, except in the sense I became hyper-aware of it, even when I wasn’t indulging in sweets. As I ate food, I became aware of its near term impact on my sugar level. My goal was to stop the spikes in sugar (which often correspond to spikes in energy levels), and to slowly lower the overall sugar levels over time. As I mentioned earlier, I applied this approach without regularly poking my finger, so I can’t give you any statistics of my rate of decline. I will say that over a period of 6 months, my doctor slowly lowered and then eliminated my drug reminen.
If you’re diabetic and on Metformin, the challenge in getting off is that Metformin is designed to keep your sugar levels in the normal range (this is a good thing). Once I developed better awareness of my sugar level, I attempted to keep my sugar levels regularly slightly below what I perceived as normal. This led to doctor-approved reductions in Metformin (from 2 pills to one, to a half, and then finally the doctor removed them altogether). If you try this approach and start getting faint spells (this definitely happened to me), it’s probably a sign your sugar level is too low. If so, this is where you want to talk with your doctor about reductions in Metformin intake.
The measures that matter — the ones that will help you get healthy — are internal
Use of Personal Tracking Devices Sap Confidence in Internal Measures: The Fitbit approach will give you exact measures (we hope), but at the cost of reducing confidence in your ability to understand your internal operations. By relying on external measures, you give more credence to its “rightness” and less to internal measures that are inexact and untrackable. But the measures that matter — the ones that will help you get healthy, are all internal. I’ve only listed those critical to metabolism, but your perception in engaging in movement and exercise is just as critical— the two are connected.
Sure, you could poke your finger 20 minutes after eating each meal — this would work as a method for understanding your spikes. But it’s not necessary- there’s nothing magical about becoming aware of your internal workings. Large numbers of skinny people manage themselves naturally by paying attention to their bodies. This is a learned skill — one you can develop and improve on over time. If you learn to pay deep awareness to your internal measures, you will find they are transformative in their ability to change your future in ways that external devices simply cannot touch.
Movement and Eating
Movement and eating healthy are both critical to weight loss. If your diet consists of pizza multiple times a week, sports bars late at night, pop tarts in the morning and 2–3 cans of soda a day, you will need to make some changes in your eating habits. Likewise, if you pride yourself on your couch potato ways, you will also need to make some changes in your movement. This is different from saying you will never eat pizza again, and will have to do a full circuit routine every day. Make the changes gradually, in ways you enjoy. Getting healthy is not about pain and force of will. It’s about finding enjoyable but healthier alternatives to eating, and enjoyable ways of movement. In my case, over the course of my journey, I gradually went from being a stress eater to a stress exerciser — this from someone who never enjoyed exercising before.
I have a lot lessons to share, and decided to give a sampling below. If these are of interest, let me know in the comments section below, and I will create videos or something to go into more detail.
Garbage In, Garbage Stays!
We all have different eating habits, but it’s clear that processed foods aren’t food. Processed foods are made to look edible, but your body has limited ability to process them. They slow your body’s metabolism and leave long term residues. Processed foods have significant, long term negative impacts on your health.
If you want to improve your metabolism and develop deep awareness to what is happening inside of you, you’ll need to slowly ween yourself off of processed foods. Processed foods are designed to be addictive, and usually contain a potent cocktail of sweet, salty, and fatty flavors. The combination of the three removes your ability to control your cravings. Lays potato chips really do have truth in advertising — they are designed to ensure that you “just can’t eat one!”
This doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to eat all the foods you love. But it does mean you find yourself paying more for better quality alternatives. I’m a chocoholic, and MUST have chocolate every day. Now I go with all natural 65-70% cocoa (80% enters the no taste zone) with delicious additive ingredients like berries, coconut or nuts. I still want hamburgers and fries every so often, but it’s never at McD’s or Wendys. I go to upscale, grass-fed beef places, and often substitute sweet potato fries. You’ll still be eating most of the things you enjoy, but hopefully, you’ll do so in moderation, and not at 10:30 at night!
Gradual approach to exercise
When I was 270+ pounds (for the majority of the last 15–20 years), every so often I would attain the willpower to try exercising as a regular routine. I usually started out well, but soon after I would end up pulling a muscle so severely that I was forced to stop my exercise for a week, which get me off track, often resulting in ceasing my efforts altother. I’ve also tried gym memberships that, after an initial crazy and unsustainable burst, I stopped going but still kept paying; a personal trainer who regularly pushed me to exhaustion, and various other delusional fits and starts. I haven’t tried exercise boot camps, but can already see the futility there — yet another short term quick fix approach that will ultimately lead you weighing more than you started.
Start with What You Have: Purchasing a gym membership is not a “first step” toward getting healthy. It’s a loss of $50 bucks a month. If you don’t use it, it doesn’t exist. Instead of wasting money on something you may not use, start with what you have. In my case, I had some small free weights, a chair, a sitting bench and a floor in my bedroom. This was more than enough to get started.
Movement is Fun First, Useful Second: So many sales pitches for exercise products talk about optimizing your time. Basically they say, “You only have to suffer 20 minutes a day. But its ultra comfortable suffering!” (jail break alert). I optimize enjoyment in my movement routines. I don’t “try to get through them” as quickly as possible, and I don’t really schedule them. I often integrate movement routines in small bits throughout the day. If I have time for an early morning workout, terrific! I love that, but it doesn’t kill my day from a movement standpoint if I miss it. And at this point in my journey, I NEVER exercise because I have to in order to get healthy. I do my routines because my body now craves it, and really, because they’re really fun! If movement is fun, as opposed to exercise you need to endure, you’re more likely to sustain your efforts for life.
Injuries Do Not Have to Kill Your Progress: Unfortunately for me, after I was in better shape to exercise, I broke my foot in a freak accident. After a short period of self-pity, I found new methods of movement ones that would allow me to continue improving my movement and health. I gravitated toward exercising wooden swords on my son’s old, sparsely used plastic Tae Kwon Do kicking post. Because my foot was broken, I focused on my core, with various routines using four different sized wooden swords — I always had one foot always planted. This exercise regimen had the amazing side benefit of bestowing significantly increased flexibility in my back. For me, what could have been a setback to getting healthy became a reason to try something new and different — to get creative and see what worked for me.
Stretching Over Exercise: If you’ve been sedentary for an extended duration, you probably aren’t ready for a full exercise regime. In my case, my foot pain restricted my exercise options. Instead, consider a goal of increasing your flexibility through stretching. For my first five months of weight loss I exercised sparsely, but engaged in stretching on a daily basis. Over time, stretching became a meditative release for me, something I looked forward to performing.
Quality Stretches Last Minutes, not Seconds: The purpose of the stretch is to slowly get the muscles to release their tension — to become looser. This doesn’t happen quickly. In practice, my stretches can easily last 4 or 5 minutes. For me, it’s a meditative thing. I don’t go for as hard a stretch as possible. Instead I stretch to the point that it’s definitely uncomfortable, and keep it there until I feel the muscle “release” a little. I normally stretch until the muscle releases, and then keep the stretch until it stabilizes in its new looser position. Over time, I gradually increased my flexibility throughout my body to the point that I looked forward to regular exercise.
Stop Counting Reps and Listen to your Body! I used to buy into the optimization thing, which includes tracking reps and weight, with the intent of improving it over time. This is pretty much the accepted way most think of exercise. I always tried to beat my previous score well before I was ready. In practice, I focused on reaching “the number”, such as a set of 10 squats. But by focusing on reaching 10 squats, I wasn’t paying attention to how my body was responding. For me, this is a recipe for disaster. I usually end up pulling something at rep 7, but still power through until 10. If I had stopped a rep or two earlier, it would have been a minor thing, but instead I’d end up with a debilitating tear. In exercising, I now listen to my body first and foremost.
My approach for the past year has been to perform my current exercise for as long as I can, without keeping track of the number. My focus is on my body so if something feels wrong, I stop immediately and stretch out the area. If not, I go as long as I can before exhaustion or lack of will to continue stops me. Sometimes I like to go all tough guy and push myself, while other times, my body just doesn’t feel like it. Instead of “pushing through”, now I simply do a lesser workout when my body pushes back.
My routine, if you can call it that, is never regular, but is usually both fun and stress relieving. I’ll hang out on a stationary bike if I want to meditate, but far more often I’ll have lots of different activities to try. This includes 4 sizes of wooden swords that I jazz on, various forms of plank exercises, to recently experimenting with running. Bottom line, I’m don’t optimize my exercise time — I optimize my enjoyment. Slow improvement works fine for me, especially if its enjoyable enough to do it regularly.
Posture: Get rid of the zombie walk
Good posture is a critical to living a healthy life. As I started to lose weight I became increasingly interested in examining my posture. For the better part of at least 20 years, I had what I affectionately refer to as the “zombie walk.” Because of my immense belly size, I ended up balancing my weight on my frame —on the stress points — the lower back and ankles in my case, the knees in others. I also developed significant stress on my neck, which was caused by moving my head back in order to counter-balance the weight of my stomach. Walking for me involved “falling forward” not too unlike a zombie with my legs locked. The zombie walk as the two-fold negative benefit of damaging your stress points, while expending as little energy as possible to move around. Go to any public gathering where people are milling about and you’ll see the zombie walk practiced in abundance!
I’ve since changed my posture to maintain the majority of weight on my upper legs and core. This took many months of practice to make the shift, and requires lots of strength exercises (squats) to adequately support the weight. The advantage of my new posture is my stress points no longer holds the majority of my weight throughout the day . Moreso, by shifting my weight bearing to my legs and core, I burn up the calories just by walking around!
Bottom line, if you are significantly overweight your current posture is may be the result of your body attempting to mitigate your weight gain. Your current stance and gait may work for you, but it may also be leading to long term debilitations in your movement and flexibility. If so, experiment with changes to your posture, especially as you lose weight. As your body type changes, so too should your posture.
Fascia — where your tension is stored
This is a new discovery for me, but I’m beginning to understand that our stress and tension can be transferred from the mind to the body. I add this section especially for those suffering chronic foot pain — up until a few weeks ago, my toes were still regularly going numb, and pain still persisted. Over time, tension and stress, either from physical or mental ailments can end up being transferred and stored in the body’s fascia, a thin tissue that covers all our muscles throughout the body. I developed what I refer to as “human barnacles,” where masses of tissue have solidified to almost feel like bone. This dynamic exists all around my body from the fascia in my chest releasing tension in my shoulders.
A few weeks back, I found myself in Neredu Valley, as remote a location as you can find in India, and where many of the pictures you see here originated. There I had a chance encounter with Nath Yogi named Ashwin Mohan, who shared this massage technique with me. I think Ashwin calls it yogamukti therapy, which incorporates really empowering ways of mind-body healing. In a cursory look, in the US, I think the non-spiritual part of what Ashwin talks about is referred to myofacial release.
Even after losing over 100 pounds, and getting in the best physical shape of my life, I still had numbness in my feet. I have a drawer full of wool socks I wear starting in late fall due to them always feeling cold. But by softly working out the fascia tightly coupled to my shins, for instance, tension is immediately released around my big toe. After like 10 minutes of Ashwin massaging my feet and legs, I had this strange sensation flooding my feet — something new and wonderful. I asked Ashwin what it was. He said, “That’s the blood returning to my toes.” The fascia had tightened to the point that it was restricting the muscles and blood flow! Since then, I have spent the better part of the past week slowly working out fascia tension in my legs, which immediately loosens my feet! I showed my chiropractor this technique — he applied it to my back, which led to significant easing of tension in my legs, feet and neck. I understand its also effective for migrains and headaches.
Up until last week, I still pictured body image as being that of someone far heavier. Once I’ve started working on alleviating and removing the tension in my fascia, it has changed my body image completely. By getting rid of all my stored tension in my toes and shoulders and back, I now feel like a normal sized person!
What’s Next for Me?
I’m over 20 months in to my 3 year journey to get healthy. The fact that I’ve lost over 100 pounds does not mean I’ve finished. Currently I’m sitting between 197 and 192 pounds in a steady state. I still intend to lose more, but realistically, my focus has shifted towards other health goals like continuing to heal my lower back, feet and ankles. I’m learning ways to use my body’s energy for self-healing, but that is another post.
Each personal health journey is unique. I hope you start yours!
Note on the Inclusion of Nature Photos: A number of the photos you see here are from a very recent trip I made to a healing and meditation center Neredu Valley, India, a very remote part of Andhra Pradesh, India. In addition to serving as a capstone experience to my health journey, I add these photos because the guidance in this story is very eastern in flavor. To me, the photos totally add to the vibe. The leopard track is an external measure of its existance. The woman serving coconut water epitomizes healthy movement and eating, and so on. Apologies if they don’t work for you.
And regarding that capstone experience in Neredu Valley, in addition to Ashwin, special thanks to Arjun, Deepta, and especially my son, Justin for that magical time in Neredu (and to my wife Nam for all those yummy food experiments). Also thanks to Vuaneeta strives to live her life in Neredu always in the present; but who will never read this as she is disconnected from that “thing.” Also, special thanks to Gigi for the edits!
One last thing…
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