I’m eating a lot of beef jerky these days. A decent high protein, low calorie snack. I know it’s probably a net “bad for me,” with all the sodium, but I love it. I’m hooked on the Worlds Kitchen brand, Natural style. All the other jerkys (jerkies?) I’ve tried taste like they’re coated in dried up ketchup or something else gross. This one is pretty close to natural, though there’s still a bit of residue. It’s $9 for a 3/4 pound bag at Fred Meyer, which it turns out, is a pretty good deal. It’s something like $13 a bag on Amazon and at Thriftway. I looked into subscribing to some on Amazon, just because I could, but it turns out I’d save more money just picking up a couple bags at Fred Meyer once in a while. I did subscribe to some Nature Valley Oat & Chocolate granola bars on Amazon, though. Those are yummy. Every month, Amazon’s going to deliver a box of them to my doorstep. What a wonderful world.
Why am I writing about food? I’ve been way too fat for way too long now. I’ve sworn to myself over and over that I’m done being that guy. The fat guy on the airplane that no one wants to sit next to. The one who sometimes has to ask for a seat belt extension. The one who is so fat his back muscles can’t let him stand up or walk anywhere for more than a couple minutes at a time without intense pain and lots of sweating. I’ve asked my doctor for help. I’ve considered surgery or medication or whatever magic wand treatment could make it better. I’ve felt entitled to some help from our modern technological world, and resentful when it didn’t materialize. And I felt incredibly stupid when I finally realized that I needed to take a data based approach to the whole thing. I’m a nerd. Why didn’t I figure this out before? Duh.
When we were in Medford, Oregon visiting family at the end of 2010 (our niece Erin got married, and all the aunts, uncles, and cousins were in town for the festivities), we all took a snow day to go up to the mountains and go sledding. Of course, I never planned to actually go down the hill. I doubted I could even make it up the hill. Initially, I just stayed in the car and screwed around on my iPhone. But I was alone with my thoughts, and the thought of my kids out there having fun without me, of me missing out on that special time with them, was enough to propel me out of the car and toward the hill. In between the parking area and the actual sledding hill, the snow was probably 4 feet deep. I was wearing my usual outfit of cargo pants, Nikes, and my Scott e-Vest windbreaker. I had some gloves, and I borrowed a hat from someone, but I was not exactly prepared to go muck around in the deep snow. What was I going to do when I got there? I couldn’t stand for very long, so I brought a little saucer sled to sit on once I got out there. I never made it.
About half way between the car and the hill (mind you, it was only about 100 yards away), I had already fallen down twice. I was so heavy that my feet kept breaking through the packed snow that everyone else was walking on with no problems. Finally, on my side in the snow, with snow all the way down my pants, up my pants, up my shirt, and other places, I conceded defeat. Not just to the whole snow endeavor, but to my weight. I had reached the point where I was so fat, I was practically handicapped. I could’t do the things a normal person could do. My kids had a handicapped dad that couldn’t play in the snow, or do much of anything else with them. I gave up. I was certain that I had to change, or be utterly miserable for the rest of my (probably greatly shortened) life. I weighed 350 pounds.
That’s how I came to decide two things that I’ve been forcing myself to do since the beginning of 2011. They’ve now become habits. The first thing I decided was that I was done drinking soda. No more bottles of Mt Dew on trips (I had my brother in law pick some up for me while we were in Medford, and it was stashed in the basement like some sort of drug). No more Pepsi when we went out to eat. No more filling up my bottle from the Mt Dew fountain at work 2 or 3 times a day. I have done it before, so I knew it was possible. So, no more sugary drinks. Not even diet soda (which I hate anyway).
The second thing I decided was that I was going to approach my eating/weight like a nerd. To a nerd, everything is a system, with inputs and outputs, that can be learned. I decided to record everything I ate, no exceptions. I had played with several apps on my phone for helping with this, and I knew it was a popular and successful tactic for a lot of people. I wasn’t even tracking my weight before, let alone what I ate. How on earth could I expect to make changes without a way to measure them? Looking back now, three months in, that’s the part that makes me feel so stupid. I mean, what the heck was I thinking? No wonder all the advice I got from my doctor about “just eat a low fat, low salt diet” never worked. I had no idea what I was eating. I decided to try an app called Lose It for iPhone. It’s free, syncs with the web, has a decent food database (which I supplement with DailyBurn’s FoodScanner app, or plain old Google searches when Lose It doesn’t have food data I need). I also bought the companion book to Lose It. I can’t say enough good things about Lose It.
At a fundamental level, I knew that in order to lose weight, you have to take in fewer calories than you burn. Obvious, right? I remember reading about one of my Internet nerd friends, Jeremy Zawodny, losing lots of weight back in 2005 simply by tracking his weight and calorie intake over time with a spreadsheet (start here; there are several good posts linked from that one). He figured out how many calories per day he was burning by measuring his total calorie intake and weight, and based on the fact that it takes about 3500 calories to add 1 pound, doing the math and getting a starting point. From there, it’s just a matter of taking in less than that amount. That really was the key piece of data that made me feel like I could attack this with all my geek faculties. A system to be solved. Thanks, Jeremy, for sharing your experience.
In the beginning, I wasn’t even going to try to change what I ate. I was just going to track it. I had no idea how many calories I was eating per day. 3000? 5000? 6000? On January 1 I committed myself to logging everything in Lose It. A few remarkable things happened. First, I never really did get a good picture of how many calories I was taking in before, because the simple act of being mindful of how much I was eating made me reduce my calories. The first thing Lose It does when you start using it is ask you some questions about your age, height, weight, and goal weight. You can choose the rate at which you want to lose weight, up to 2 pounds per week (which, I’m told is the most it’s really healthy to lose per week). What I didn’t know was that Lose It was going to take that data and calculate a daily calorie budget for me. I didn’t know how much to trust it at first, but as I read the book, I learned how it calculates how many calories you burn just by existing at a very low level of activity (that’s me). It’s called your Basal Metabolic Rate. It turns out that by knowing your weight, height, age, and sex, that formula can pretty accurate give you a baseline for how many calories you burn in a day. Bigger people burn more just from the extra effort of moving, breathing, and pumping blood around a big body. So, with all that in place, and a goal of losing about 2 pounds per week, Lose It told me that I could eat about 2500 calories a day and lose weight. As I logged the things I was eating, and my little calorie meter filled up toward the daily budget limit, I found that I really didn’t want to cross into the red, and took steps to make sure that I didn’t. I may never know exactly how bad my eating habits were, with all the fast food, candy, soda, and other stuff I’d eat every day. But I know it must have been bad.
The second interesting thing that happened was that I started to lose weight right away. I had to buy a scale, because I didn’t own one. Weighing myself daily is a critical data point. And the initial success I saw really gave me hope and motivation to keep going. I learned pretty quickly that over the course of any given week, my weight fluctuates within a few pounds. I had to learn not to be disappointed when I stepped on the scale in the morning and weighed a pound or two more than the day before. Here’s another place Jeremy Zawodny helped me. He warned of this, and said to focus on the running 5-day trend for your weight. If it wasn’t for that, I might have despaired and given up. I’m so glad I didn’t. The plateaus are still irritating (I’ve been hovering around 317 for two weeks, even though I’ve been well under my calorie budget every day), but it helps if I try to see them as an opportunity to learn more about the system by experimentation. Is it certain food types that make my weight stall out, even when I’m under my overall calories? Are there trends in my activity level that might give a clue that my metabolism is slowing down? There’s still so much about how all this works that I don’t understand. I feel like a newbie, because I am. But I’m building habits, and making progress, and figuring it out as I go along.
Here are a few other important things I observed.
Advertising, culture, fast food, and society are a really bad path for your health. “Duh,” right? I never would have argued that any of that is good for you, but the fact is, I used to enjoy the hell out of a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese Extra Value Meal (a Number 3, no onions, Large size with a Coke). When I looked at the calories contained in the stuff I used to eat, though, I had to stop. I was blowing three quarters of my daily calorie budget on a typical trip through the McDonald’s drive-thru. And any other restaurant is probably just as bad. It sounds cliché, but now I try to make better choices. A 10 piece Chicken McNuggets is only 425 calories. Still not exactly health food, but better than before. Now, I almost never eat at fast food places anymore.
I had to find snacks I like and not let myself get hungry. Besides the fact that it’s easier to pig out when you’re feeling starved, when you let your body get really hungry, you’re telling it “I live in a place where famine happens, so you’d better store up every last bit of the next thing I eat. It could be a while before we get to eat again.” I almost never used to eat breakfast – a bad habit I developed in high school (I preferred to trade sleep for the time it took to make and eat breakfast). Now, I make sure to eat at least something in the morning: a banana, a cheese stick, a hard boiled egg, etc. I try to get some protein in the morning, because it’s fuel for my brain, and makes me feel full longer. I make sure I eat a snack at about 10AM and 2PM, usually a Nature Valley granola bar (the crunchy kind, not the chewy candy bar kind). They’re only 190 calories for a 2-bar pack. I make sure to keep 2 or 3 of them in my man purse at all times. The Oat & Chocolate flavor is my favorite. It tastes better than a candy bar, still only 190 calories.
Find a way to deal with your sweet tooth. I am a candy lover. I have a reputation at work for the “candy drawer,” always stocked with something sweet to snack on. Pretzel M&Ms. Starbursts. Holiday candy, chocolates, and everything else you can imagine. People would come by to grab a handful, but most often, I’d reach down and have a handful or three for myself. I knew I couldn’t just cut out candy altogether. I discovered that Jolly Ranchers are actually pretty low calorie – only 70 calories for 3, or 23 calories a pop. So I’ve started buying the big 5 pound bags of them, and making sure I always have a few in my bag, at my desk, and in my pocket. They last a long time, don’t taste funny like “diet” candy, and I usually only end up eating only 2 or 3 of them in a day. That takes care of my candy craving for now.
Since I gave up on soda, I’ve been drinking a lot of water. A LOT. Usually 2-3 liters a day. I picked up a nice Camelbak water bottle, and it goes with me everywhere. I’ve talked with people who are trying to avoid soda, and they say they just can’t stand to drink water without some sort of flavor in it. They go for diet soda, or sports drinks, or whatever. Personally, I’ve always liked plain old tap water, so it suits me just fine. I don’t know if it’s done anything to my weight, but I know it’s good for my overall health, and it has the added bonus of making me get up and walk to the bathroom a few more times per day.
I am a creature of habit. Once I find a meal I like at a restaurant, that’s usually the only thing I order. Just ask the staff at the places I go – Monster Burger at Red Robin, Pad See Ew, mild, with beef at eSan Thai, Arroz con Camarones at La Fogata. At work, I’m the same way for lunch. There are two cafeterias at our campus, and even with all the choices available, I usually end up getting the same deli sandwich (if I eat at JF3) or a double bacon cheeseburger with tots (if I eat at JF5). When I started counting calories, I started making better choices in my sandwiches (whole grain bread, light mayo, etc.), but when I added it up, even that “lower calorie” sandwich was still about 700 calories. That’s when I remembered that my friend and coworker Jerry eats oatmeal every day for lunch. I decided to give it a try. I keep a couple of boxes of instant (“just add hot water”) oatmeal in my desk. At lunchtime, I eat a couple of those with a packet or two of raw turbinado sugar, and I love it. Fills me up, takes mere seconds to make (there’s hot water on tap at the coffee machine around the corner), and it’s only about 200 calories. It’s my new lunchtime habit. I try to keep some beef jerky and pretzels in my cabinet, too, in case I get hungry during the day, and my regular 10AM and 2PM granola bars aren’t cutting it.
The Lose It app allows you to log any and all exercise you do during the day, and counts it as “negative calories”. That is, if your daily calorie budget is 2500 calories, and you do 500 calories worth of exercise, you can eat 3000 calories (2500+500) that day, and still be on track. Plus, tracking calories burned presented another opportunity to get a new gadget. I looked at pedometers, the FitBit, BodyBugg, and more before I finally decided that I wasn’t going to log my exercise. That does NOT mean that I’m not exercising – in fact, I’m walking more than I ever could before. After losing thirty plus pounds, my back doesn’t hurt so much when I stand or walk. I actually enjoy walking now. I decided not to log the “negative” exercise calories because the net result would be giving myself permission to eat more. I figure exercising but not logging is sort of like getting a raise, but pretending you didn’t, and putting the extra income straight into savings instead. Hopefully, it will manifest itself as speedier reduction in pounds.
Another thing I learned very quickly is how many people I know are already using Lose It (or something similar), and how positive their experiences have been. I didn’t go around announcing what I’m doing, but in conversation, I’ve discovered about a dozen people that are Lose It users, and in some instances, we’ve been using the social features of the app to monitor and encourage each other. It’s been a great help and morale boost. If you’re a Lose It user, and we know each other, drop me an invite.
So what now? This is only the beginning. I’ve got a long way to go until I hit my goal weight (185 by next summer, if everything stays on track). I know there will be bumps in the road (I’m already starting to get discouraged with a “plateau” I’ve been fighting). I didn’t want to write about this until I was actually doing it; until it had become a habit. I’ll probably post updates occasionally, but since this is a lifestyle change, rather than a temporary project, I’m not going to be going on and on about it, any more than I’d bore you with the details of what shoes I wear day to day. Thanks for reading this whole thing. I hope it was at least entertaining. I’d never presume to think that it will be inspirational, but it was quite therapeutic for me to write. Drop me a note, or write up something of your own if you have thoughts to share.