Eat What You Like, but Less Of It

If I were to write a diet book, that would be the title.

One year ago today I started tracking my weight. I had been overweight for a long time, but I had never made any serious effort to do anything about it. I actually didn’t even know how much I weighed.

Now, one year later, I’ve lost 70 pounds, I’m well within the “normal” BMI range for my height, and I feel better (both physically and psychologically) than I have in years.

A lot of people ask me how I did it or what my secret was. The truth is, there is no trick, and you probably already know the answer: diet and occasional exercise. That’s it.

I never knew how easy this could be. My whole life I believed it would take more effort than it actually did. I think a lot of people have these same misconceptions.

But there are a few things I learned along the way that helped me stay motivated. These changes have made a huge improvement in my quality of life and I hope by sharing my experiences I can inspire others to do the same.

Note: These are just my personal experiences of what worked for me. Different things work for different people, and what worked for me may not work for you. This is not medical advice. Consider talking to your doctor before starting a new diet plan.

Motivation

A year ago I decided to buy a scale. I’m a nerd, so I had been eyeing Wi-Fi scales for a while. I love Internet-connected devices, and the idea that I could step on a scale and immediately log the results for later viewing on my phone or computer was really appealing. I wasn’t even really committed to the idea of losing weight at the time; I just thought the technology was cool. (Think of everything a Wi-Fi scale enables! You could even configure it to post your measurements on Twitter every day if for some reason you hate your followers!)

After doing some research, I purchased the Withings WS-30, and I highly recommend it. It’s fairly basic in terms of capabilities — it only measures weight, not body fat or anything else — but it’s fast and very consistent. If you have multiple people using the scale it will automatically determine who is stepping on and log the weight for the correct person. You don’t have to tap it with your foot first or wait for it to turn on or anything, you just step on, wait a few moments, and you’re done. In short: I love this scale.

There are also models that measure body fat, such as the Fitbit Aria or Withings WS-50. Either of these seem like a good choice, but from my reading it seems like the body fat readings (on both of them) tend to be somewhat inaccurate and inconsistent. They also apparently add some delay to your daily measurements. Ultimately I decided to save some money and go with the simpler WS-30. If you’re really into body measurements, you might want to get one of the other models.

Daily Measurements

I think it’s important to not only measure your weight every day, but log it as well. This is where the Wi-Fi scale really shines. I knew if I had to manually record my weight every day (in an Excel sheet or something similar) that I would quickly get lazy about doing it. The great thing about a Wi-Fi scale is that it handles this for you: there’s no need to try to remember what your weight was every morning as you stumble over to your computer or phone.

There’s also a level of accountability: I can’t trick the scale, I can’t fudge the numbers or skip a bad day when recording them. It just works on real, measured data. (Technically, you could add manual measurements with the Withings or FitBit apps, so you do need at least some level of self-restraint here.)

After measuring my weight every day for a few weeks, I noticed a funny thing started to happen: I wanted to make the scale happy. I wanted the number to go down every day, and that motivated me to keep doing things to lose weight. I started associating the feeling of being full after a big meal with regret, knowing the scale (and my graphs) would reflect poorly on me the next day.

Gradual changes in weight can be hard to detect without actually measuring them. If you just look in the mirror every day, you probably aren’t going to notice yourself getting thinner (not immediately, at least) and you may quickly give up. If you measure your weight at the same time every day (usually when you wake up) you have raw, hard data to go on. That way you can know for sure whether what you’re doing is having a positive effect.

You will notice day-to-day fluctuations but what’s important is the overall trend. This is why logging your daily measurements becomes so important.

TrendWeight

Speaking of trends, I must link to an excellent site called TrendWeight. This site connects to your Withings or FitBit account and automatically pulls in your latest weight readings.

Both Withings and FitBit have their own apps and websites where you can view this data, but I really like the clean, clear view that TrendWeight provides. I found its trendline analysis to be extremely helpful in determining whether a high (or low) reading was a one-day anomaly or part of a bigger trend.

Here’s a graph of my weight over the past 3 months, generated by TrendWeight:

This is a live, automatically-updated graph. Really! Come back tomorrow and it’ll show a new reading with an updated trend line. You can click the above graph to view my entire weight reading history.

There are a few other sites that can link to and analyze your weight readings, including WeightGrapher, Beeminder, and even one from Microsoft called HealthVault. Microsoft also has apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone that connect to your HealthVault account. Withings has a list of compatible third party applications here.

Having access to all this automatically-generated data helped keep me on the right track and kept me motivated to keep losing weight. I had clear evidence that what I was doing was actually working. But what was it that I was doing?

Methods

The first thing I tried doing was going to the gym. For the first couple weeks, that’s the only thing I changed. I went to the gym 4-5 days per week and did about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (stationary bike and elliptical). If you look at my weight history, you’ll notice I didn’t actually lose any weight during this time.

I was discouraged, but I still wanted to try to make the scale happy. After doing some reading, something finally clicked: calories in, calories out. The reason I was overweight was because I was taking in more calories than my body was using. It really is that simple.

The first step to correct this is to calculate your BMR. This number is a function of your height, weight, age, and gender, and it represents how many calories your body burns simply by living. If you laid in bed all day, that’s how many calories you’d burn just by existing.

Once you have your BMR, find how many calories you actually burn in a day based on your activity level. Be honest with yourself here: if you sit at your desk all day, that doesn’t count as being “very active.”

Then, to lose weight, you just have to take in fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight. A good rule of thumb is 1 pound = 3500 calories: for every pound you want to lose per week, you need to have a deficit of 500 calories per day. So if your body needs 2500 calories per day to maintain its current weight, eating 1500 calories per day will lead to you losing 2 pounds per week.

It’s also important to set reasonable expectations of success. If you set out to lose 20 pounds in a week, you will fail, and enter yet another cycle of discouragement. Losing 1-2 pounds per week is a much more reasonable goal. You may be able to lose a little more per week if you’re starting out at a higher weight, but don’t try to push it. (Of course, if you’re not hungry, don’t eat just for the sake of reaching some number of calories. Think of it as a ceiling.)

As you lose weight, don’t forget to recalculate your BMR periodically as your body begins to burn fewer and fewer calories.

Starting Out

Keep track of everything you eat. Absolutely everything. Make a note of how many calories each thing has. (Don’t forget drinks, too, if you drink anything that has calories.) Ate a few chips? Write it down. Better yet, weigh them first and find out exactly how many calories you’re about to eat.

This also serves as a good sanity check when you’re feeling hungry: “I’ve already had 1000 calories and it’s only noon, maybe I just need to drink some water and wait a little while.”

Personally, to keep things simple, I only tracked calories. I just used a simple Excel sheet to plan my meals to make sure I wasn’t going over my calorie budget. You could just as easily write down what you ate on paper or use a phone app like LoseIt or MyFitnessPal. Some people may prefer the more detailed analysis you can get with these apps, but I found it took a bit too much effort for my taste. Do whatever works for you.

Determining how many calories are in a particular meal is much easier with prepackaged food, but once you have a few weeks of experience with this you’ll get a much better “feel” for how many calories something has. You have to be careful with this though, as it can turn into a bit of a trap — you have to make sure your perception isn’t drifting over time. You’ll probably want to spend at least a few days per week eating only foods with known calorie amounts.

It may take some time to get used to eating smaller amounts of food, especially if you’re used to going way over the amount of calories you should be eating. You might start by trying to just “break even” with your body’s calorie needs and scale back from there over a few days or weeks.

The Long Haul

Whatever changes you make, it’s important to make sure it’s something you can stick with for a while. It might take a long time for you to reach your goals, and it’s probably not reasonable to expect to eat nothing but broccoli and spinach for the next 12+ months.

For me, I found it wasn’t so much about what I ate, but rather how much. I think of it in terms of a calorie budget. If I want a dessert, I can have it, as long as I budget for it. You can’t sneak anything by here: you eat it, you pay for it.

But I also found that certain foods did a better job of keeping me full. I’ve become a huge fan of full-fat yogurt for this reason. I find that when I eat fattier, higher-protein foods I stay full  longer than when I eat higher-carbohydrate foods.

You’ll come up with your own techniques, but I think it’s important to differentiate between techniques and things that actually make your body lose weight. For example, eating smaller amounts of food throughout the day may help prevent you from feeling hungry but, on its own, that won’t help you lose any weight; you still need to make sure you’re not eating too many calories in total.

It also helps to be flexible with your eating habits. If you’re not feeling hungry, you don’t have to eat just because it’s a certain time of the day. I’m finding that if I have a big lunch, I might not eat dinner later (or I might just have a small snack instead). Actually, eating larger meals earlier in the day seems to help me a lot since I don’t have to wait around feeling hungry all day before dinner.

At this point, I don’t put much effort into determining how many calories are in what I eat on a daily basis, partly because I’ve nearly reached my goal but also because I now have a much better sense of when and how much I should be eating.

Misconceptions

Don’t lie to yourself. There are so many misconceptions and traps people (myself included) fall into that make it difficult or impossible to lose weight. It’s easy to fail before you even begin.

“I’m eating a normal amount of food.”

“I started exercising but I haven’t lost any weight
because I’m gaining muscle.”

“I have a slow metabolism. It’s just my body.”

“I worked out, so I deserve a little treat.”

No, no, no. Just stop. Don’t make excuses for why you’re not losing weight. You’re only going to hurt yourself and delay your own progress.

It is absolutely necessary to identify and stop bad behaviors. I think my worst habit was emotional eating: I ate when I was frustrated, I ate when I was happy, I ate when I was sad. And I told myself I was eating a normal amount of food.

You have to be willing to admit you were wrong. You don’t have to admit it publicly, you just have to admit it to yourself. Whatever trap you may have fallen into, you have to pull yourself out and fix the problems it caused. Question every thought or justification you have about food. Again, be honest with yourself.

Question every justification you’ve made against exercise, too. I told myself exercise would be difficult and unpleasant. It wasn’t. (Admittedly, I’ve gotten a bit lazier about this, and you can see a clear change in my weight trend when I stopped exercising regularly.)

Results

I feel better. I’m less self-conscious. I feel like I’m more in control of my body. I feel like I now know how exactly the foods I eat will affect me.

I used to feel guilty (and self-conscious) about eating “bad” foods like desserts. Now I just budget for them. There’s no shame anymore.

I get less winded. I didn’t even notice it before, but I definitely notice it now that it’s gone.

I cleaned out my closet! I had to buy a bunch of new clothes, so it became much easier to donate the old ones.

If I had to sum up the changes in one word, it would be better. I am better than I used to be. And you can be too.

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