Things I Learned During My Weight Loss Journey

My first blog post is going to be non-technical, because why not? Over the past 3 years I’ve lost about 50lbs, down from a height of around 205lbs (I’m 5’9-ish). I am not at all an expert on nutrition, weight loss or fitness; there is an insane amount of information out there, and it is very difficult to separate fact from fiction. I read a few things and went with my intuition for the most part, and it seemed to work out for me. I think most people just want the broad strokes that will get them most of the way there, the 20% of information that accounts for 80% of the results. So I’m going to share the information that was helpful to me–it may or may not be at all helpful to you, and I make no claims of scientific accuracy (though most of these things are common knowledge).

1. Diet and exercise are key, but diet is more important for weight loss

When people ask what my secret strat is to lose weight, I tell them flatly “I ate less and exercised more.” Most people are disappointed to hear there isn’t some shortcut, given the number of fad diets and fitness regimens out there. Most of the reputable-sounding stuff I’ve read says it comes down to burning more calories than you consume, and my experience seems to bear that out. However what most people are surprised to hear is that exercising, while obviously imperative to good health, does not burn all that many calories for non-athletes. You will be quite disappointed if you look up how many calories a given amount of exercise will burn (I seem to remember something about 27 flights of stairs equaling a half-oreo, but don’t quote me on that). On the other hand, not eating something with a ton of calories, or eating something with less instead, is comparatively easy.

Therefore, if you want to lose weight you should focus most of your effort on eating less rather than exercising. For some people this is a blessing, as an exercise regimen is very difficult to stick with and can lead to burnout quickly. On the other hand, it also means that you can’t just eat whatever you want and exercise it away, or ‘reward’ yourself for jogging a mile with some junk food. Diet is the key; exercise is secondary.

2. Liquid calories (soda) are an easy victory

You’ve probably heard that soda is bad for you, that it’s full of sugar and calories. That’s definitely true. What I don’t think is as commonly known though is the extent to which it (and other sugary drinks like juice, iced tea, and premium coffee things; beer too) is responsible for daily calorie intake, and the resulting obesity it causes. From what I understand, your body doesn’t really register liquid calories; they don’t make you full. So it is extremely easy to just crush out thousands of calories from soda each day. I’ve read/heard several pretty amazing anecdotes about people who just gave up soda and lost considerable amounts of weight.

The upside of this revelation is that not only is soda likely one of the largest sources of your daily calorie intake, it is also the easiest to cut without much pain. For one, giving up soda is not going to make you hungry in the same way that dieting can. But if you’re like me, that is not enough; water is not going to cut it, and you need something sweet to satisfy a primal craving deep inside you. Luckily, there is this wonderful invention called aspartame, and its derivatives Splenda/sucralose. There are diet versions of almost any drink you can imagine, and they are delicious. If you’ve tried diet soda and didn’t like it, I urge you to try it again (it will be easier once you give up regular soda and start getting those cravings), and try different brands (I personally prefer Coke Zero). Diet soda can be an acquired taste, but at this point I actually prefer it to regular soda. If juice is more your thing, there is Diet Snapple, Vitamin Water Zero, etc. I’m also a big fan of artificially sweetened iced tea drink mixes. You can make a ton for only a couple bucks and it’s about 10 calories a glass.

Will aspartame give you cancer? Maybe. But at least you’ll die thin, right? You may also have read that diet soda can cause you to eat more because it tempts your body with calories but doesn’t deliver. If this is the case for you, don’t drink it. For me, it actually has the opposite effect. Carbonated beverages actually decrease my hunger level and thus are good substitutes for snacks and what not. Your experience may vary.

3. Junk food has addictive properties; go cold turkey

I’ve read theories that state fat, sugar, and salt (contained in “junk food”) have the same addictive properties as hard drugs. While I don’t have anything to compare it to, I’m receptive to the idea based on my experience with junk food and dieting. When I started trying to lose weight, I pretty much went cold turkey and did not eat any “bad” food for months, mostly because that is just sort of my personality. I had pretty intense cravings for junk food during the first couple of days; intense in a way that was almost alarming. But after those first few days, the cravings vanished. I had “kicked” junk food and no longer had “withdrawals.” It made the whole dieting thing a lot easier.

When I was satisfied with the amount of weight I had lost and it began to plateau, I started to allow myself to eat some junk food again. As far as I’m concerned, eating tasty things is one of the fundamental joys of life, and as long as I consumed them in moderation there was no reason to deny myself. As soon as I had some again though the cravings immediately came back, which was not that big a deal at this point. But it made one thing very clear: if you allow yourself ‘rewards’ or to ‘cheat’ while dieting, you might as well be the heroin addict who treats himself to a hit every Saturday. You’re pretty much making it impossible to kick the habit and torturing yourself in the process. I think this is why so many people give up on diets.

The biggest challenge is always when eating out with others. It always feels like a special occasion, and you’re at a restaurant and don’t want to squander the opportunity with a salad. Depending on the place, it may not even seem like there are any healthy options on the menu. Basically, it feels like the perfect time to cheat. Resist; there’s almost always something you can order, usually a salad or (if you’re like me and don’t like vegetables) some sort of turkey sandwich.

4. Portion control, consistency, and other diet tips

Dieting is hard, and if you make it too hard you’re never going to stick with it. As I mentioned above though, you can’t let yourself cheat. But there are some small things you can do to make it easier. For one thing, you don’t have to eat just vegetables and tofu. You can eat normal food, just eat less of it and less frequently. One of the easiest ways to do this is portion control. Many foods aren’t really bad at all if eaten in controlled portions; they become problematic when they are eaten until you feel full, which is not really related to how much you eat so much as how much time has passed since you started eating. Food companies have caught on and are starting to sell foods in smaller portions rather than large containers to make this easier. Try carefully portioning your food (especially snacks) and resist the urge to get more. If you can resist that initial urge you’ll find you’re quite satisfied with just a modest portion.

I have the unusual ability to eat almost the same thing every day, but most people I’ve found need a bit more variety. That’s fine, but try to introduce some consistency into your diet; unplanned eating is the enemy of any diet. Plan out your meals and snacks, including portions. Make sure it is still food you like (again, most foods are okay in portions) otherwise you will go crazy. I would always have a handful of trail mix for a snack each day between lunch and dinner. It contained M&M’s, and nuts which in general are high in fat. But it is very filling, nuts are nutritious, and the M&M’s kept me from completely loosing all excitement about my food.

Drink lots of liquid. Most people will tell you to drink lots of water, and that is probably the best option, but if you’re like me and water just doesn’t do it for you, any low to zero calorie drink will suffice (Coke Zero or artificial iced tea in my case). Drinking liquid fills you up and can diffuse hunger pangs and cravings, especially if the drink is sweet.

There’s always the question of what to do when you’re hungry and are far away from your next scheduled meal or snack. I’m sympathetic in this regard, I’m not going to tell you to just ‘suck it up’ because I know it can be uncomfortable and will make it difficult to stick with your diet. I do encourage you to try and ignore your hunger initially; you might be surprised to find that after an initial period of discomfort, it will disappear and you will completely forget about it until you remember it is time for your next meal. This gets progressively easier the more you do it, especially when you escape the junk food cravings.

If ignoring it or drinking liquids doesn’t help, fall back on a safety food. These are foods you can pretty much eat whenever and a good amount of without really adding many calories to your daily intake. Rice cakes are a bland but perfect example. Popcorn without all the butter/salt/etc is another. Pretzels to some extent, and of course fruits and vegetables. Eat these when you are uncomfortably hungry (in small portions if possible); knowing you have them to fall back on is often all you really need. I used to eat rice cakes for this purpose originally but I quickly found I did not need them after a short while. When you are more confident in your ability to avoid slipping, you can substitute other more filling but riskier foods in moderate portions for the odd times you need a boost.

I should insert a quick disclaimer here that when I say dieting and hunger pangs, I’m not talking about a starvation diet. I’m still talking about eating breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner, and maybe evening snack. I generally like to eat every 3 hours or so, in small portions of course, which from what I’ve heard is actually supposed to be better for you than eating giant meals anyway.

5. Replace dinner with exercise

This may not be the case for everyone, but one thing I found during my weight loss crusade is that while exercise may not be the fastest way to create a calorie deficit, it is a great way to dampen hunger. I started playing soccer and going to the gym after work, and I often found that I would not have an opportunity to eat dinner at a normal time and would get a little hungry. However, as soon as I started exercising the hunger was gone, and would often simply not come back for the rest of the evening.

I soon found myself just exercising instead of eating dinner, and instead just eating a packet of oatmeal. I know that sounds daunting, and I was surprised at first as well; I always thought dinner was the biggest, most important meal of the day and would often eat large-ish dishes of pasta or rice with meat. I hadn’t even planned to start skipping dinner, it just sort of gradually happened without much effort. As it happens, this is doubly beneficial as it turns out (according to some sources) that dinner is in fact the least important meal of the day. You have probably heard that you shouldn’t eat before bed, as your body will keep converting the unused energy into fat. I believe this applies to a lesser extent to the evening hours in general–if you can avoid consuming carbs during this time, I can’t imagine it could be anything but beneficial.

6. Protein and whole grains are your friend

I mention this last because, due to certain circumstances, these did not help me with my weight loss personally. But they seem to be almost universally recognized as beneficial. By “they” I mean protein and whole grains.¬†You’ve probably heard about the Atkins diet or the Paleo diet that finger carbs as the main culprit behind weight gain rather than fat. I’m inclined to believe that this is the case, and you should seek to limit carb intake when possible. I realize this is tough though, and as someone who considers themselves a ‘grain-itarian’ I sympathize. The less controversial versions of these theories state that you should try to balance your intake of protein/carbs/fat in a ratio of about 40/40/20. Protein, apparently, is the greatest thing in the world–it makes you feel full and doesn’t cause weight gain (except maybe in your muscles). If you do eat grains, make them whole grains as they are more filling as well and decidedly less unhealthy than refined carbs.

Other misc tips

-Weigh yourself every day, preferably at the same time each day. I like to do it in the morning before I take a shower, when my stomach is empty. Your weight fluctuates throughout the day so it helps to have a fixed time for comparison purposes.

-There is a theory out there about calorie cycling, essentially eating a large amount of calories at once every week and dieting in between. When my weight loss stalled and I figured I wasn’t likely to lose any more, I started giving myself one day a week to go nuts and eat whatever I wanted. I still watched my weight carefully to make sure it did not go up; what I found was that it actually seemed to jumpstart my metabolism and I started losing more weight this way. I wouldn’t try this though until you are confident in your ability to control yourself and have stopped losing weight from regular dieting.

-Subway, despite the tacky marketing ploy, is actually one of the only chain restaurants that has healthy options that taste great. I have a 6-inch turkey sub on white bread (whole grain would be better if you don’t have IBS) with a little bit of lettuce and honey mustard sauce for lunch every day. It is not the best strategy from an economic standpoint but it certainly is good for weight loss. Check out their menu online, there are many great options.

Writing this has made me realize I have a lot more to say on this subject than I thought. I hope these tips can be helpful to someone on their own weight loss journey, and I especially hope nothing I’ve said here is scientifically inaccurate or god forbid, harmful. I make no claims here, only that these things worked in my case. Good luck!

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Up until now I’ve maintained my minimal web-presence at http://people.brandeis.edu/~zbrod. I wrote the static HTML and CSS by hand and hosted it via FTP. While I made a noble effort, my lack of design skills are evident and the site is a pain to update and maintain. One of the most valuable skills a software engineer (or anyone for that matter) can possess is the ability to use the right tool for the job rather than re-inventing the wheel or over-engineering everything. With that in mind I’m going to give WordPress a try. So everyone not-reading this, please bare with me while I attempt to setup my new personal website.

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