Monday, August 27, 2012

Negative thirty pounds in three months

Those of you who don't regularly see me in person (or check out Sarah's photos) may not have noticed me inflating to 280 pounds over the years. Or when the balloon popped, May 28 of this year, and I started watching my weight go down. I crossed 250 this month and wanted to share a few things.

It's hard to put my finger on how it started. I used to eat unconsciously. I inherited a love of great tastes and rich foods from my parents, and I've been addicted to junk for a long time.

I'm not very image conscious, for myself or other people. I can go without looking in the mirror for days. So I didn't notice my appearance myself, for a long time. It came out in smaller ways. I would feel sad when favored shirts would cease to fit. At one point, The top corners of belt buckles started cutting into my gut (tucking in shirts, of course, was impossible), and I would get sore after a day dominated by sitting and programming. Occasionally I would catch myself in the mirror, and see a guy who looked a bit bigger on top than I felt.

I got plantar fasciitis, which is a foot problem caused by strain on your arches. It feels like walking on a nail. It also feels like it should go away if you could just stretch out the appropriate muscle, but this doesn't help. I started to fight it with arch supports in my shoes.

But mostly I just kept going the way I had been going, interrupting my routines with occasional spurts of recumbent biking and dance and exercise video games.

The trigger was finding out my wife had diet-related medical issues, but it could just as easily have been my father's struggle with Type-2 diabetes or my ancestry's struggles with addiction, obesity, and heart disease. For some reason this flipped a switch in my head. I still don't know if it's fear, resolve, camaraderie. I haven't gotten to the center of it yet.

I had no special dietary restrictions other than eating many lower calories. In practice I've been going along with my wife's meal plans, which has cut out a lot of starchy carbs.

It's hard to estimate my calorie intake before, but it was surely over 3000 calories per day, spiking whenever I got ice cream or chips at the store (which happened a few times per week). The calculators told me extreme fat loss, at my weight, would happen somewhere around 2800 calories.

I've ended up around 1800 to 2000 calories per day. I felt that I could do it and just never stopped, but there was something more important behind it.

I had to relearn something I'd forgotten: how to live with hunger. Getting to the end of a work day and really being hungry for dinner was a real wake-up call. So was needing to start with breakfast and eat many small snacks throughout the day, just to keep level.

Calorie counting on the smartphone was what made my life change. For Android, I found Calorie Counter, the one from FatSecret, was good enough. It has a barcode scanner and decent text/product searching. You can add things that aren't in the database from the phone. You can search through the catalogs of all common restaurants. And you can copy things from your wife's food diary when she did the hard work of entering in the thing you made and ate. (I didn't try other apps, I just stopped at the first one that seemed reasonably complete.)

From the first, I resolved to get absolutely every bite accurate in the phone. I felt this was important because I didn't know anything. And also, because I wouldn't know what was going on if I wasn't honest. It developed that random snacking got annoying because I would need to look up or scan something before eating it. This switch from freedom to friction turned out to be a secret weapon.

Eating at restaurants, especially local places without the info, also became frustrating. You have to look for analog dishes from other places. Sometimes the chains were also frustrating, because the dishes are insanely bad for you. Once at a restaurant, I got really upset just looking through a massive nutrition info for something, anything, under 500 calories. I ended up with a salad with a grilled piece of chicken on top. I used a tablespoon of dressing. My son ate the croutons.

This process was very important, because it turned out my intuitions were wrong. Simply, bewilderingly, ignorant. I had no idea how many calories were in an ounce of chicken or cheese or cucumber or chips. I used to think of tortilla chips as a "salsa delivery system", even proud of all the vegetables I must be getting compared to  something like onion dip or other condiments. And a hundred other items that I have grown to know and count over time.

A digital kitchen scale has been very helpful in measuring how much food we are eating. It turns out I don't know how many ounces there are in a bowl of curry, much less how much sugar it takes to flavor popcorn bowl (we like ours with butter, cinnamon, and sugar now; it turns out a teaspoon of sugar is good enough). One thing that really caught me off guard was an ounce of mixed nuts, or of almonds. They barely cover the bottom of a bowl.

I've made new nutritional friends, like greek yogurt, salads, protein bars, and almonds, and bade goodbye to ice cream and candy. I left in chips, because I was worried I might go crazy without them. But I measure them carefully, and they're the sweet chili rice ones from Costco. Juice, beer, and soda became something I drink 8 ounces at a time on special occasions; water is what I eat to trick myself into feeling full.

It's hard to sum up, and I have a number of war stories for another time. If I had to pick three things from the preceding to focus on, it's the calorie counter app, the scale, and hunger. If you want to lose weight, you have to be hungry. This sounds like an oxymoron because being hungry seemed to be the thing that caused you to gain all the weight in the first place. But I know now, I wasn't overeating because I was hungry. If I had been, I would have stopped when I was full.