Fat Robert, Meet Skinnier Robert (How I lost 20 pounds in 6 months)

by Robert Nagle on 1/2/2009

in Health & Nutrition,Personal,self-improvement

On June 13, 2008 I weighed myself and was totally shocked. I weighed 220 pounds!  I had gained a lot of weight, most of it over the past year.

fatrobertsmall Fat Robert, 2007

Skinnier Robert, 2008 Skinnier Robert, Oct 2008

When I was in college I weighed about 170 pounds, and when I went to Peace Corps I weighed about 195. During Peace Corps I kept the weight down (despite the junk food I ate, the fact I was walking everywhere kept me from gaining weight). At my last month in Albania I stayed cooped up in the capitol city (waiting for the political situation to improve), and when I took a physical at the end of service, my weight was 202, which also shocked me.

After that point (in 1997), I kept an eye out on my weight. Between 1998 and 2001-2, I fluctuated between 202 and 210 pounds, usually around 206-7. I remember having lots of difficulty losing any weight, so I concluded that my weight had reached an equilibrium (and I stopped weighing myself, except for once every few months). As long as I was staying healthy and eating healthy, I did not worry my brain too much about it.

In June 2008 I was researching sleep apnea (I have weird sleeping patterns and wondered if sleep apnea were the cause). The research depressed me; it seemed like a long complicated illness; just the diagnostic tests would cost a lot of money. Then I read that a strong risk factor for sleep apnea was being overweight.  The consensus in the  user forums was that reducing weight would significantly help, or at least make clear whether it was the primary cause behind the sleep problems.

On June 13 when I saw 220 pounds, it was a shock to the system. I recognize that BMI was an imperfect gauge of health, but my BMI stood at 29.8, fractions away from obesity. I knew I had gained a few pounds, but obesity…I just couldn’t square that data with my image of myself. I was not a fat person and never would be. I had been overlooking the spare tire I was carrying and had dismissed it by saying, I could lose it, it was seasonal fat, etc. And in fact, during summers I swam a lot, so I was still in relatively good health. But  I was at a vulnerable age where middle age health problems start to appear. Also, I was still at the age where I could change personal habits. I couldn’t predict whether I’d still be able to do this 5 years from now.   Being practically obese meant higher risks of heart disease, sleep disorders, impotence, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. It was a very scary realization; I had been deluding myself; I had blamed this on shot-term factors in my personal life, but this pointed to a longer term problem. Just coasting along with moderately healthy habits was not enough.

Here are the things I blamed: living in Houston, the fact I was taking care of a sick parent, the fact I have a high tech job, the fact that I am a writer (and have little free time), the fact that my bicycle sucks, the fact I had to rely on “quick food” at fast food restaurants when short of time, the fact my mom keeps a lot of junk food in her house, the fact that my job provides free snacks. Actually all of these things were contributing causes. But they were not primary causes.

So I came up with a goal, a timeline and a plan. The goal would be 200 pounds by January 1, 2009. The plan was to keep a webpage devoted to my daily weighings, and in addition to changing my diet and lifestyle, I would need to have a plan for sustaining it past January. I made this webpage my home page on both my home and work computer, and the daily weigh-in was a ritual I tried to do. I know it sounds like a bother, but if weighing myself daily ensured that these 20 pounds were gone forever, that was a small price for me to pay. Here are some lifestyle changes I made:

  1. I totally stopped on fast food except  very rare occasions. (I was already 75% there).
  2. I carefully monitored my intake of chocolate (a comfort food for me).
  3. I totally restricted my free samples at supermarkets (sometimes you can really fill up on those things).
  4. I totally eliminated frozen dinners from my diet, including frozen pizza. (This was very hard, because frozen dinners saved me a lot of time).
  5. I bought individual frozen portions of raw fish, which I used for quick meals. (Microwaved fish is really easy to fix, and doesn’t taste that awful). One advantage of these individual frozen portions is that I know exactly the portion size.
  6. I vowed to do exercise videos more regularly (I  improved on that, although not as much as I had hoped).
  7. I totally refrained from eating nachos at restaurants (it was hard to keep track of what I was eating).
  8. I tried to make do on exactly one carbohydrate snack per day (later on, I refrained from doing that, although I’m not sure I can keep it up).
  9. I started eating lots of frozen blueberries. (I eat them in a bowl. Because they are high in fiber, they decrease appetite. They also taste sweet and are a guilt-free snack).
  10. I continued my habit of eating 8 almonds a day.
  11. I vowed to seek out activities involving walking or physical activity (not really successful at that).
  12. I vowed more self-control on the holiday splurges (I was only partially successful at that).
  13. I vowed to follow Michael Pollan’s advice to eat only food with ingredients my grandmother would recognize (and with no more than 5 ingredients I did not recognize). That meant substituting shredded wheat cereal with oatmeal.  I drastically decreased my intake of bread. One treat for me was fresh baked bread at HEB. But when I looked at the ingredients I saw that it was laced with hydrogenated fat and other hard-to-identify ingredients. I couldn’t believe it. How hard is it to get a decent loaf of bread these days?
  14. I’ve started making breakfast the most important meal of the day, with light lunches and modest dinners. (Note: my work schedule is more flexible than most people’s. If I have to rush off to work during rush hour, I doubt I could continue this wonderful habit).  Ironically I prepare fewer home cooked meals because I worry about my ability to keep portion sizes down.
  15. I was willing to pay more for health (such as better bread, healthy snacks like blueberries and exercise videos) because I knew these expenditures would pay off in the long run. Sometimes, if you eat higher quality food, you eat less of it. (This is not always true).

It was not easy to implement these steps or lose weight.  But after a while I got used to that “decelerating feeling” where my body was downsizing itself. It was mildly uncomfortable, but once you realize what’s happening, you have to resist the tendency to compensate. Once I reached 210, I was ecstatic; I vowed to move on and prepare myself for my European vacation (whose effect on my weight was not yet known). As it happens, my Europe trip had an enormously beneficial (but  short-lived) effect on my weight. I lost 10 pounds in 3 weeks, but within weeks I had gained most of it again. But it reminded me what it was like to be under 200 pounds again. It felt great!

How does life at 200 pounds differ from 220 pounds? I feel less lethargic than before, more in control of myself, a little more self-confident, a little more wary of the American tendency to overeat. I feel a little healthier (not a lot), and I certainly sleep a lot better (that was my main reason for starting this strange campaign in the first place).

This week because I am trying to compensate for the Christmas weight gain, I’ve been trying to lose weight rapidly, which is generally not a good idea. If you work hard, you can lose 2 or 3 pounds a week (at least in the initial stages). But this rapid weight loss is hard to sustain, and eventually you resume normal diet patterns.

It’s easy to gain 5 pounds within 2 weeks as well, so when I’m now at 200, I really think of my current weight as 205 (my absolute ceiling). In fact, I won’t think I’ve truly gotten to 200 until I’ve settled at 197 or 198 for several weeks.  My next goal is to reach 190 by July 1, 2009. I think that is attainable and desirable, but if I don’t reach it, I won’t feel that bad. I’ve passed the main obstacle; everything past this is a smaller obstacle.

In November I bought a pedometer and learned a lot of things about my walking. A healthy person is expected to walk about 6000 steps daily, with the ideal being 10,000. When I recorded my daily steps, I was shocked to find that on some of my days at work I would walk only 3000-3200 steps.  It’s true that I would do exercise videos in the morning, but it made clear to me that without this video workout,  the “normal Houston lifestyle” would be deadly. Unfortunately I had no solution to the  problem – at least one that didn’t take away more of my already scarce free time. I will be obtaining a dog in the next day or two, and I expect that doing that  will easily increase my daily steps to 5000 (although it’s unclear if it will simply reduce my time for exercising).

Another factor in the equation is that I don’t socialize as much as most people. If that were to change (and I had less energy to concentrate on keeping my weight down), I don’t know how it would affect my weight. A lot of people  are parents or actively involved in volunteer groups. They would never have the attention span to concentrate on weight loss.   Spouses can  have dramatic effects on your diet; they whittle down willpower and often bake and cook lavish things in an attempt to make you happy. I wonder if the self-control I have won at such cost will be tossed out in a few months of living with a woman who is a great cook. Also, when you have a significant other, you tend to eat out more. Unfortunately spouses reinforce one another’s bad habits (but with weight gain, I think it’s the other way around; men’s bad eating habits rub off on the wife).  To my future wife who is reading this: I will keep my daily weight journal every day for the rest of my life  to track my progress (forward or backward).

After reading several essays by Gary Taubes, I completely accept the Atkins thesis that carbohydrates contribute to weight gain because it increases appetite. The jury is still out, of course, and calorie reduction should remain the ultimate goal, but Taubes makes a convincing case that reducing appetite is probably the best way to reduce weight.  I also buy into the notion that obesity is contagious and dependent on what kind of people you hang around with. Unfortunately, in the geek world, lots of people have sedentary lifestyles, so there is the tendency to judge yourself against your peers rather than  against some objective benchmark. But BMIs do not lie. Also, the fact that median caloric intake among Americans have increased from 3300 calories in the 1970s to 3900 calories in 1997 is a very revealing (and damning) statistic.

By the way, if you intend to lose weight, I highly recommend taking photographs of yourself before you start (just like those crazy ads in the newspaper). I have almost no photos of Fat Robert; perhaps I was trying to hide facing  myself.

I know my weight will fluctuate over time, and I’m sure I will revisit this post in the future to indicate how successful each strategy has been in the long term. But this is my collected wisdom as of January 2009. Happy New years everyone!

Postscript Jan 19, 2010. Some bad news. I have done some back sliding. Although I basically kept most of the weight off for about a year, over the last 4 months the numbers have gradually been increasing. I finally returned to a semblance of control at 210 and am bringing it down slowly, and now I’m arrived at a long term goal (which I feel is attainable). Keep my weight under 205. It means having to face the fact that 20 pounds may have been unrealistic (given my penchants and lifestyle). On the bright side, I’m going to get a dog soon, and I have high hopes that the extra exercise will have a positive effect.

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