Sunday, July 30, 2006

How I Lost Weight 

After being heavy for many years, it finally came to a head around the beginning of 2002 for me. I was 220 pounds (I was actually 235 at one point), wearing XXL shirts and enough was enough. Over the course of a year, I managed drop down to 145, a total of 75 pounds lost, coming out to around 6 pounds a month. It was a great experience for me, raising my self-esteem, making clothing easier to find, etc.

Three years later, I've gained about 30 pounds back. While I wouldn't consider 175 all that overweight for me (I'm about 5"9'), some of my shorts are starting to get a bit tight. In revisiting in my head what worked for me before, I thought it'd be nice to write it out in the spirit of life hacking.

Instead of some sort of radical change in behavior (aka Cold Turkey), I eased into some subtle life changes, and that made all the difference. I have to preface this by saying that I never had any actual eating disorders that I know of. Just a relatively sedantary person (I work at a computer and most of my non-work is spent there as well) whose eating wasn't amazingly healthy but not totally horrible either. I was also in my 20s, though that didn't keep my stomach from never totally going away. ;) But hopefully this can be helpful to most people that just need a push in the right direction.

The first thing you have to understand is that food is not the enemy! Food is what gives you life and eating should be an enjoyable part of life. Setting up eating as some sort of battle puts you into bad mindset that I'd think is the sort of thing that leads to eating disorders. If your main idea of food is denial, you're setting yourself up for failure, since humans hate denying themselves things. The trick is to change your habits and expectations so that denying yourself only happens occationally in extreme circumstances.

For me, I think the biggest single thing was learning to eat slower. It may sound silly, but I found it incredibly important. Too many of us get into the habit of eating until we're full instead of eating until we're not hungry anymore. That is a very important distinction and it is easy lose sight of it if you aren't paying attention. Eating too fast makes it worse since there's a lag time for your body to catch up with what you ate.

Try to purposefully slow down. Chew more than you normally would and try to really taste each bit of food. Maybe pause for a minute and then continue eating. As an experiment you can time yourself eating normally, then the next time you have that meal, try to take twice as long to eat the food. When you eat slower and also pay more attention to eating, you'll likely find that the food seems like a bigger meal than it used to be. You may even find yourself enjoying the food more.

Now you can combine the above with smaller portions. Don't suddenly cut your meals in half! If you're eating a grinder, maybe take off a third of it. If you usually have six pieces (like the little sqare pieces) of pizza from the local shop, try having five pieces, maybe use a couple less noodles in your spaghetti. But eat it slower and more carefully so it takes time similar time to eat as it used to. In this way you can slowly work your portion size down, changing what seems "normal" to your mind and body.

Don't be afraid to throw food away! Many have had parents who have told them to finish their plate. That they're lucky they aren't starving children in Africa. This is meant well, but I think it becomes destructive later in life, especially when you're paying for food and don't want to "waste it". But you have re-orient your mind. Eating food when you aren't hungry is even more of a waste! Unless something is artificially depressing your appetite (medicine, depression, etc), eating when you're not hungry is incredibly wasteful. Not only do you not need the food, but it is going to become fat that you'll have to get rid of later.

Consider this: you buy a grinder and eat two thirds of it. You no longer really feel hungry, but you figure you should eat the last third. This is exactly the kind of thing that can build up over time and cause you to gain weight. If you're not hungry, either take the rest home to eat later or just throw it away. If you find yourself consistantly having too much left over and it isn't something you like to warm up later (like a hamburger), that's a clear sign that you're buying too much food! Instead of large, get a medium, or even a small. Many places will try to manipulate you: "It's only 50 cents extra for twice as much food!" But if it's too much food, then not only are you eating too much, you're also paying 50 cents too much.

The only time to go for the big portion is if you're going to have leftovers. In fact, a great benefit to eating smaller portions is saving money. The foot-long grinder you used to wolf down now becomes two meals, a savings of 50%! My Mom and I had both lowered our portion sizes at the same time and when we went out to eat at a restaurant, we found that most of the time we could buy one meal and that was plenty of food for both of us.

You'll probably notice that I haven't even started talking about food choices yet. That is deliberate, because it is what people always focus on, but is only a part of it. When I lost weight, I still ate plenty of pizza (though mostly home-made), spaghetti, and ate out. Never feel like you have to eat only "healthy" food to lose weight. Still, I did try to steer away from the worst case offenders.

I think if you drink a lot of soda, you should probably try to wean yourself off of it. I hate the taste of diet soda, so that wasn't an option for me. Try some juice, iced tea, milk, water. If you can't get off of soda, try to at least to make the portions smaller. But for me, I found that after getting away from soda for a while, it isn't really something I miss that much and I don't drink it that often anymore.

For snacks, I'd try to get away from cookies and go more toward things like pretzels. And if you're a person that tends to snack every night while watching TV, trying to break that cycle can help things. But how? And what about things like when a co-worker brings in left-over cake? There is certainly some sort of denial that has to come in somewhere. For me, instead of focusing on the food, I'd try to think about what I was trying to achieve. Sure eating a piece of cake is fun, but only last a couple of minutes. If you weigh less, you'll likely feel better all the time.

If you can avoid not eating it for the time that it's around, then it'll be gone and you don't have to worry about it anymore. Relating to that, try not to have temptation around you. If there's cake left from a party, bring it into work or give it to someone else (or even throw it away) so that you won't have the temptation constantly there. It takes a whole lot more work to go out and buy something than it is to eat something already in the house. If you can convince yourself not to buy a snack while you're shopping (and try to food shop right after eating a meal if possible, so you're not hungry while buying) then you're a lot less likely to run into problems.

If you can't break the habit of snacking while watching TV, besides trying healthier snacks (stuff like mini-carrots can be fun), there's other techniques. Like don't bring the box into the room with the TV. Instead, put some in a bowl and take it with you. If you have to actually get up to get more food, you're less likely eat mindlessly, and it'll also slow you down. Also, a lot of it is just keeping your hands busy (like how smokers get used to fussing with the cigarettes). If you're just watching random TV to pass time, you could try some other hobby involving your hands. Or you could do word puzzles while watching TV or something.

But don't feel like you can't ever snack or even have something like ice cream or cookies or cake. Just don't do it all the time, try to have smaller portions when you do, and experiment with less fattening versions (frozen yogurt, etc).

Last is exercise. Exercise definitely helps speed things along, or at the very least tip the balance if you're on the edge of losing weight. Obviously, it also helps out your body, giving you more energy and helping you do basic tasks (go up the stairs easier!). When I lost weight, I was pretty conservative on the exercise front. I did start off with a stationary bike, which helped me to kickstart things, though it was hard to keep up with it. Eventually, I found what worked best was taking a walk during my lunch break. This got me out into fresh air and I could also indulge in some photography.

Lately, I have a new exercise friend called Dance Dance Revolution, the dancing video game. I got a cheap pad from Toys R Us, a Playstation to USB converter from online, the free Stepmania software, and songs (through methods I won't get into!), and I was off and running. If you have a playstation or xbox around, it'll be easier just to buy an official game and go from there. The nice thing is that not only are you exercising, but there's variety and a challenge (both mental and physical).

Riding a stationary bike is incredibly boring, but there's always something new to try and learn with a dancing game. You could even get into the social aspect at arcades if you wanted to. Similarly, you could get some inline skates or rollerskates and go to a local rink. Or get dance instruction or even try to skateboard. For me anyway, I get distracted too easily to be able to keep up with normal exercise. If I feel like I'm learning and challenging myself, that makes it much easier for me to stay motivated.

I did keep a daily weight journal (be sure to weight yourself right in the morning after bathroom, since you weigh more later in the day), which helped me keep track of progress. But be carefull! Weight fluctuates due to how much water you're retaining and all kinds of other factors, so look at the general trend of the last weeks instead of freaking out if you go up a pound one day.

Also, if you do a lot of exercise after having done none, you'll get those cool things called muscles, which have weight! If you find your weight not dropping much, but your body thinning out, then you are probably fine. And even just having muscle will burn more fat in and of itself. It may not be a bad idea to measure yourself occationally to keep things in perspective. As in all of the rest, try to take a measured realistic approach to things.

In the last three years, I got kind of complacent and let my portion sizes creep up, snacking too often, stopped walking (though started up the DDR lately). But even that only comes out to gaining less than one pound a month versus the six a month I was losing. I have the confidence that I can adjust things back without too much pain and start losing again, which is a powerful feeling in and of itself!

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