One of the things I’ve gotten really interested in the art & science of losing weight. As time marches on, the science of how weight is gained and lost has become fascinating to me. Now, when I mention “science”, I don’t mean anecdotal evidence or even well-defined observational studies; I am talking about well controlled, experimental evidence that is both peer reviewed and replicable. Too many observational studies fail on both of those counts, yet in the diet industry, both observation and anecdote is accepted as gospel fact and that’s just wrong. And thus we have so much bad information and bad science about how weight is gained and lost all while we have an obesity epidemic. What a mess.
I am realizing that this is not going to be one post… so I’m going need to create a category just for this stuff.
You may ask “Scott, why do you care?”
Well, let me tell you why.
I am 5’8″ tall. I was always a chunky kid in school. Sometime after high school and before college, I got on a bit of a fitness streak. I’d work all day, go pick up a friend and we’d go work out for the next 3 hours, 5+ days a week. I ate little besides salad and protein and my weight dropped from 164 to a low of 128ish. No clue what my body fat was but I had to use suspenders to keep my 28″ waist Levi 501’s from hanging around my knees. I was skinny, had tons of energy and was in pretty decent shape but who can keep that pace up? (Back then, I had no clue about much of anything regarding anatomy, weight loss, fitness or muscle mass. I’d simply ride a stationary bike as hard as I could for 45 minutes a day and then go lift heavy stuff. I would alternate weight days ‘to give the muscles a chance to rest’ but overall, it was a really stupid approach… that worked resoundingly well. Yay for starvation, lifting heavy things and the resiliency of youth.)
Fast forward 25 years and I have a failed marriage, a failed business and about 60 pounds of excess weight. In those famous words of the band Talking Heads, “How did I get here?”
The easy answer that is accepted by almost all of the weight loss industry and endorsed by the US government is “You ate more than you exercised off. If you move more and eat less, you will maintain your proper weight!”
That is so simplistic and easy to understand. If I wasn’t such a lazy slob, stuffing my face with Cheetos and fast food, I never would have gained that weight. Gosh… I am really glad someone laid it all out for me like that. Losing weight is simply a matter of taking fewer calories in than you burn. Calories in vs. calories out. A simple equation.
Only problem I see with that explanation is that it completely ignores the idea that a human body is an incredibly complex machine that creates it’s own hormones that control everything from energy storage to insulin production to fat burning; all of which operate independently of what your conscious mind thinks you should do. In fact, calories in vs calories out is so simplistic as to be almost criminally ignorant of how a human body actually works. It denies the role of hormones in weight loss or gain; it pretends weight loss is a simple calculator. It minimizes the roll of stress hormones, insulin resistance, food quality, and cellular metabolism down to “Drop the cheeseburger and run more fatty”. It’s condescending and really, really wrong.
Weight gain and weight loss is no where as simple as “Calories In vs. Calories Out”. I wish it was that easy.
In early 2009, I went to a friend’s birthday party. I was coming off of the crash of the real estate industry and the failure of my biz and I was in horrible physical shape. Such bad shape, that I really didn’t want to go to the party because I couldn’t find a shirt to wear that fit; all of my clothes were tight, even my ‘fat clothes’. I knew my weight had ballooned over the past few years, but man, I *was* trying to keep it in check. I ate a healthy subway sandwich almost every day for lunch- totally stuck with the turkey breast, veggies and maybe a slice of cheese (which always lead to feeling guilty). I ate a healthy breakfast of whole grain cereal or oatmeal to control my cholesterol. Dinner was my failure… it had to be. I had two ravenous teenagers so I’d end up making a lot of one-pot meals; stuff like spaghetti or dirty rice or something similar- cheap food that could be produced in bulk. With working all the time to support the failing biz, there wasn’t a whole lot of time or excess money to cook healthy, filling stuff and I must have just really overate dinner- that’s where “Calories In/Calories Out” bit me in the ass… it had to be.
Back to that fateful birthday party…
A few days after the party, the pictures started appearing on-line and I was horrified at what I saw. There I was, preserved for eternity: bloated, sweaty, red-faced, and as fat as I had ever been. I looked like a heart attack waiting to happen. The self-loathing hit hard. I dug out my old, unused bathroom scale and stepped up to the plate. 220. Wow. I have no idea if I ever went higher than that because I didn’t step on it again for a month. I was too scared and ashamed.
That very day, I started making changes. Changes based on what I knew to be the truth about weight loss- I was a fat lard-ass because I ate too much food and never exercised. I bought some running shoes and began to walk every night… cuz, ya know, exercise burns calories- right? At first, I could barely do a mile. I’d put on my head phones, head out rain or shine, turn around at the half-mile point and feel like passing out by the time I got home. I had zero endurance. Food wise, I thought my breakfast and lunch was fine. I just needed to change up on my dinners and make sure I wasn’t snacking. No wait, that’s not it, everything was saying to snack more and eat smaller, evenly spaced meals through out the day… that six meals a day were better than three. Maybe that was what I was doing wrong. Either way, I needed to avoid all fat and eat celery and oats and lots of whole grains and wild rice.
Every time I looked in the mirror, guilt over food and shame about the way I looked stared back at me. Time for another walk.
Within about two months, I was regularly walking two miles a night; sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. I wasn’t feeling nearly as exhausted when I hit home. I started taking short hikes with friends- I was the fat sweaty one that everyone thought was going to drop of a heart attack on the hike, but I kept at it. I restricted everything I ate. I left food on my plate, skipped meals entirely and pushed myself to walk three miles a night to try and prep for an upcoming 12 mile hike up Eagle Creek trail. I wanted to do the whole thing without holding the group back. I was terrified of being “that fat guy who had to turn back at mile 2”. Shame can be a powerful motivator.
The hike was a blast and it motivated me to keep doing what I was doing. The weight loss was really slow; sometimes weeks without a pound dropping, but that was ok. I was making lifestyle changes and I really, really wanted to keep the weight off forever. Approximately 18 months into the changes, I was under 200 pounds. That was a good day. After three years, I was hovering around 175 and since it had been so long, I considered my weight loss ‘successful’. In fact, the definition of ‘successful weight loss’ is losing the weight and keeping it off for 2 years; five years is the gold standard. If you keep it off for 5, you should pat yourself on the back because you join an elite club of approximately 10 people worldwide who’ve lost weight (without surgery) and kept it off for five years. (ok, that’s a gross exaggeration, but realistically, the statistics are not in your favor to lose weight and keep it off for 5 years- think single digit percentages.)
2013 rolls around and I am healthier, I know a heck of a lot more about the body because I read every study about it I can get my hands on, and I stopped seeing a woman I really loved. Simply the right person at the wrong time and it wasn’t working for either of us so we had to stop and go our separate ways. Boom. 5 pounds creeps back on and will not go away. I read more about weight loss, ride my bike a lot more, and generally worry that I’m going to gain it all back. But at least the gain stops at 5 pounds… that counts for something doesn’t it?
June, 2014 and I am hit broadside by some moron running a red light. He hit right in the rear door on the driver’s side- point of impact was about a foot behind where I was sitting. If I’d gone a tiny bit slower or not punched the gas as soon as I saw he wasn’t slowing, he would have nailed my seat and I may not be sitting here now. I was so lucky to walk away from it. It twisted my back and neck something fierce, and pretty much destroyed my summer/fall for exercise. It just hurt too much to bike or run. Boom. Another 10 pounds creeps back on by November. Shit. 190. Clothes don’t fit, I’m stiff and sore all the time, and I generally feel like hell. I watch my calories like a hawk but I cannot lose weight for the life of me. I track every calorie I put in my mouth through my fitness pal, I keep studying and reading; was the biking and walking I did really that critical to my losing weight? Have I really become that fat, lazy slob again who weighed 220?
Is that my destiny? I’m just supposed to weigh 220 and look like a heart attack waiting to happen?
The answer to that is a resounding no. When I lost the weight originally, I didn’t count calories, didn’t track my workouts, didn’t weigh myself daily and obsessively balance everything according to calories in/calories out. I ate good food with the proper macro nutrients to lose weight, drank less alcohol and exercised because it’s fun to do. That’s how I’ll lose it again.
Much more to come…