Weight loss and habit forming
Today marks one year that I’ve been within five pounds of my target weight of 175 pounds. Based on some questions I answered on Twitter, I wanted to share what’s worked for me.
Finding (Fat) Bottom
At the end of 2010 — one of the more stress-filled periods of my life — I weighed 225 pounds. For several months, I had been liberally self-medicating with the abundant and free sugary snacks at Twitter and was doing no exercise at all. When I announced that I was leaving Twitter at a conference in Paris in December 2010, I had a whole “John Cusack in Fat Man and Little Boy, Post-Irradiation Incident” vibe going on. Here’s what that looked like:
One of my goals post-Twitter was to get in better shape, so I started working out with a trainer in January 2011 to try to do just that. Despite training around three times a week, I didn’t really see much progress.
That’s because I was still eating whatever I wanted. In fact, I was probably eating worse than before because I felt it was justified since I was now working out. Also, that winter I was learning to ski, and felt that both counted as a lot of exercise (doubtful) and made it okay for me to eat a steady diet of mac ‘n cheese, chili and beer.
The first real meaningful change I made was around April 2011, when I went to a party that served platters of sushi. I was inhaling rolls. Mid-feeding, I ran into a friend. We started talking about nutrition, and he mentioned how he’d started following the Slow Carb diet. Despite having a lot of friends who had found Tim Ferris-religion, I had never really looked into it, and was in fact somewhat put off by the cultishness that seemed to surround it.
On that point, a brief sidebar: I am not going to advocate for a specific diet. I think there are a number of approaches that work. One of the most frustrating things about nutrition is the disconnect between the inherent murkiness in the data (both in findings of studies and in knowing what you are eating) and the hyper-specificity for which people advocate. I think that people can achieve success with highly prescriptive diets but that is as much a function of starting a habit as it is the nutritional soundness of the diet itself.
That being said, the key insight I gained from this conversation and in reading Ferriss’s book, The 4-Hour Body, was how much sugar was in so much of the food I was eating. Secondly I learned how sugar, more than anything else, contributed to weight gain. Up until this point I had never really thought of rice as sugar. Or juice. Or potatoes. I had been eating honey, fruit, and sweetened-yogurt parfaits with a large orange juice believing that I was making an immaculately healthy choice.
Around this time, I made a conscious choice to start limiting my sugar intake. That meant skipping potatoes and toast at breakfast, eating very little bread, and eliminating fruit juice and all sugary snacks. It also meant cultivating a habit of reading labels. I was shocked to learn, for example, that most “protein bars” contain as much sugar as a candy bar.
I am still tweaking what’s in and out for me. For example, I am a zealot when it comes to steel-cut oats and try to eat them every day, as well as evangelize their glory. I eat fruit and legumes, which some low-carb diets ban. I also try to limit the amount of red meat I eat (cancer, ecology.) But most of the time, I still eat what is basically a low-ish carb diet.
The biggest drawback to this diet is that I am a little fussy when eating with other people. Certain kinds of food, like pizza, are hard to make work at all, and others require some substitutions (fruit instead of potatoes at breakfast or skipping rice/tortillas at Mexican).
My biggest current challenge is that I eat out a lot and cook very little. That makes it hard to know what exactly is in my meals. And when it comes to sauces or curries, a lot of the time the mystery ingredient is sugar. But I also don’t freak out as much when I go off-diet because I have a longer track record of knowing what works for me. This leads into the second big change I made to lose weight.
When I started trying to lose weight in January 2011, I had neither a specific goal nor was I tracking any metrics. Seven months later, I got a Withings scale to track my weight and started weighing myself every morning before breakfast. This made a huge difference.
First, I found that I had already lost 25 pounds in the seven months since December 2010. I knew I was losing weight because of my limiting of carbs but was surprised to find it was that much.
Second, the habit of getting up in the morning and weighing myself first thing helped create mindfulness around losing weight. It was front and center first thing in the day. And it made it harder for me to say, “Let’s just skip the gym this morning.”
Third, I could now see my results! One of my biggest regrets about losing weight is that I didn’t take “before” photos. Having tangible proof that I was making progress was a huge motivator. The Withings scale sends your measurements to their service via Wi-fi. You can view the results graphs on your phone via their apps, which became as meaningful to me as a stock chart or Google Analytics report:
In addition to the Withings scale, the other key tracker I use is Lift (disclosure: Obvious is an investor). Lift allows me to simply track my consistency in following the habits that matter to me. The visibility Lift provides into that consistency both serves as motivation to keep the habit going and helps alleviate anxiety when I stray. For example, here is the monthly view of my “Eat a Low Carb Diet” habit:
As you can see, I am, at best, 66% consistent, and at my best (Nov/Dec), I still had a high-carb meal on nine days of the month. But just being able to see this graph makes me more comfortable when I eat off-plan. “I’m having maple bacon ice cream for dessert tonight, but it’s the first time I’m having sweets in nine days.”
I honestly think that avoiding sugars and tracking progress is 80% of the battle. If I had done just that, I probably still would have reached my target weight. But there are a couple of other things I do that I would be remiss not to share.
Most notably is exercise. I confess to having become a gym rat in the last two years which is still weird for me to admit because I never played sports growing up and looked down at the idea of exercise. But I absolutely love it now. My weekly routine involves a lot of gym time (trainer sessions, cardio, yoga), but that’s not a lifestyle that works for everyone and is definitely not a starting point.
That said, two pieces of advice: First, if you’re going to start exercising, incorporate resistance/strength training. People trying to lose weight often avoid lifting weights because they worry about getting bulky. But my experience is that I saw much better weight loss progress once I started doing more weights. Reddit Fitness (which I recommend and lurk on) has entire sections of its high-quality FAQ dedicated to debunking the bulkiness myth.
Second, cardio is important, but I got better results in terms of weight loss once I switched from running long distances at lower speed to doing high-intensity interval training. Now I run twice a week for only 20 minutes at a time. I alternate between one minute of sprinting and one minute of jogging. Do that eight times with room for cool-down and warm-up and that’s it. Remember to stretch (another of my Lift habits… one I struggle with).
The other major change I made in the last six months was to stop drinking. This has had almost as much impact as other dietary changes, though I recognize that for most people it’s a little extreme. The fact is that it’s pretty easy to consume 20% extra calories for the day through alcohol. And those calories are nutrition-less and can lead to other bad dietary choices. The clincher for me was that I found I slept way better once I gave up booze.
As with the low-carb diet habit, I’m not 100% booze-free. I still have a drink on occasion and, like with the low-carb stuff, the social pressure is the hardest part of stopping completely. But I’ve been pretty amazed at the effect of limiting alcohol, and I want to keep it up. Pro-tip: Ordering a club soda is the way of signaling “I’m not drinking” without having to make a whole thing of it.
I’m a bit compulsive, so the trick for me was to find a way to channel those tendencies into something productive. Tracking proved to be a key tool. Rewiring my brain to think of scarfing bread rolls as the same thing as eating sugar was the other one.
Having always struggled with weight, I still get anxious that I am going to wake up 50 pounds heavier because of the cheesecake I had at dinner last night. But after one year of being at my target weight, I understand more about what it takes for me to live a healthier life. The bigger goal is trying to be more at ease with where I am now rather than always striving for a more ideal future.