Added on 2020-02-12: For reference, I’m 6'7” (200cm). I added BMI numbers whenever I mention my weight to clarify this.
Don’t worry, I’m not promoting anything. I have no diet plan or supplements1 to sell you.
At my peak weight some time in the past I weighed 305 pounds (BMI 34.4), according to the scale at my doctor’s office. As of recently (I think yesterday) I’m down to around 218 (BMI 24.6) according to my scale at home2, so I’ve lost 87 pounds (+/- the discrepancy between the two scales). I sometimes tell people about how I ended up here and I realized it would be nice to have a more detailed write up to share, so here it is.
If I had to trace this change back to one starting point, I’d say it was a visit with my then-doctor (the now retired Dr. Michael Pleasants, who was an awesome GP), pulled up a line graph showing my weight over time and pointed out that it kept going up and to the right. This is great when graphing usage metrics or profits, but not so great in this context.
As an aside, it’s amusing to me that I’m such a nerd that the most influential thing he could do was show me a graph. Sure, he’d been telling me to lose weight and exercise for years, but this was data!
But the real impetus to lose weight came from a couple factors. First, I’d developed reflux (which causes heartburn) and it was often quite uncomfortable. One of the main triggers for reflux symptoms is eating too much.
At the same time, I was developing a number of joint pain issues in my right hip, both knees, and both feet. I had tried getting physical therapy for these but every time I tried I ended up in more pain. Basically the exercise for my knees would hurt my hip, or the foot exercises would trigger my knees. I wanted to exercise more but I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t painful. Even the lowest impact activities, like walking, biking, or swimming, were not sustainable.
My Very Complex and Sophisticated Diet Program, Part 1
It was obvious that I had to lose weight before I could do the exercises that would help my joints. So I set about devising a very complex and careful diet program. It went like this …
- Eat less food.
Yep, it was quite an intellectual accomplishment to come up with this gem! I’d finally cracked the code. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can turn this into a best-selling fad diet book and speaking tour, but if there are any agents out there who think otherwise please contact my manager.
Okay, it was a little more complicated than that. I wanted to come up with simple rules that were easy to follow. It was also really important to me that I not think of this as a diet, but rather as a lifestyle change. Everything I’ve ever read about dieting says it doesn’t work. Many of the radical diets that people adopt do lead to weight loss, but these diets are so unpleasant that they’re unsustainable, and then people just go back to their same old eating habits and gain the weight back.
I also wanted to aim for slower weight loss. I am no expert, but my understanding is that your body works hard to maintain homeostasis. Sustained weight loss is the opposite of homeostasis. I was hoping that with slower weight loss I’d reduce the chances of a rebound effect where I was super hungry and I just gained all the weight back.
So here are the rules I came up with for my “diet”:
- No foods are off limits. I could keep eating whatever I wanted.
- I can eat whenever I want to. But I have since stopped eating 3 hours before bed to help reduce reflux issues.
- I can eat as much as I want.
Wait, how is this a diet or even a “diet”? The key rule was the fourth.
- I must use smaller bowls/plates or otherwise serve myself less food.
I allowed myself to eat another serving if I wanted, but I had to actually be hungry. The same applied to snacks. I could eat whenever I wanted but only if I was actually hungry. I would not eat just because it was fun.
In fact, there was really just one meta-rule from which all the rules were derived.
- I can only eat when I'm hungry.
The big exception was dessert. I allowed myself to eat dessert even when I wasn’t hungry because I love dessert, especially chocolate.
For serving sizes, I aimed to serve myself 50-60% of what I had been serving myself before. I mostly used (and still use) bowls for servings since this makes it easy to visually measure the serving size. I used smaller bowls rather than larger. I didn’t weigh things or measure by volume or any other complicated nonsense.
All of this worked really well. Since I could eat whatever I wanted and I could eat until I wasn’t hungry, I never felt deprived. I ate all my favorite foods, but less of them. In the past I would often eat until I was really full and couldn’t eat any more. I stopped doing that. And if I slipped then the reflux punished me severely, which did (and does) make following the rules easier.
I certainly can’t promise this would work for anyone else, but if you’ve tried various silly diets without success then maybe something like this would work. Or maybe it won’t. I suspect how well this works has a lot to do with how hungry you feel relative to how much you need to eat to maintain a healthy weight. My eating literally exceeded my appetite. I’m sure there are people out there who just have “too much” appetite, and are hungrier than they “should” be. This approach probably wouldn’t work for them at all, since the feeling of constantly being hungry would make this very stressful.
So anyway, all of this worked quite well. I think it took maybe 2 years before I leveled out at 245 (BMI 27.6) pounds, for a total loss of around 60 pounds.
Exercising (an Aside, sort of)
After I’d lost a fair bit of weight I definitely felt better. Eating less reduced my reflux pain, and my joints felt a bit better. I could also be a bit more active without getting really sore. So it was time to actually try a serious exercise program.
Previously I’d focused on aerobic exercise but that hadn’t worked, so I figured I’d give weight training a shot. A local gym, G-Werx, donated a 10-pack of sessions to the Compassionate Action for Animals fundraising banquet’s silent auction. My mother bought them for me (insert your own Jewish mother joke here). This removed my last excuse so I couldn’t just talk about exercising. I had to actually do it. Bummer.
G-Werx does what they call “group personal training”. Basically, it’s a small gym with 10 identical machines, 10 identical sets of free weights, plus some other equipment. You go for a session with up to 9 other people and one trainer.
The sessions are either 45 or 60 minutes, and run either 2 or 3 times a week. Each session of the week focuses on different parts of the body. The trainer has an exercise plan for each session, and there’s a decent amount of variety from week to week in the exact exercises we do. We do a variety of resistance exercises with the machines & free weights, as well as body weight exercises like crunches, push ups, etc.
This turned out to be a perfect fit for me on many levels. I really like having a scheduled time to do stuff. I like having someone else plan the workout so I don’t have to put any thought into it. I like having other people there so it’s a social experience. Basically, this format reduces the amount of willpower and energy down to “just leave the house and get to the gym”. That’s perfect!
The other aspect I really like is that there’s a week’s break between working body parts. Some of the exercises do aggravate some of my joints. But because those joints then get a week off, it’s generally not an issue. For example, we do legs on Wednesdays. Sometimes doing a lot of squats makes my knees a bit sore. But that goes away by the Wednesday after. Magic.
And the trainers at G-Werx I’ve worked with (Phil and Mike) do a really good job of pushing people without pushing them too far. Both of them regularly say that if something really hurts you shouldn’t keep doing it. You can always go down in weight or do an alternate exercise.
I haven’t lost any weight from exercising. This shouldn’t come as any great surprise. I’ve gained muscle and lost fat. Plus exercise makes you hungrier (remember, I can always eat if I’m hungry). But not losing weight is fine. Sticking to a steady weight while gaining muscle is a big win for my overall health.
After doing G-Werx for a year, I decided it was time to try something easy, like rock climbing3. I’d tried it a few times before, but my weight combined with my overall lack of fitness meant I couldn’t finish even the easiest climbs. It was fun but I wasn’t seeing enough success to get serious about it. Between my weight loss and increased strength I figured I’d be much better at climbing now.
I was. While I still wasn’t any good at it, I was able to get much further on my first tries, even topping out an easy climb in the gym without too much trouble during my first session. So I started climbing regularly.
Except when I pulled an intercostal muscle, or when I hurt my rotator cuff, or when I sprained my wrist. Climbing is kind of hard on your body. That said, I eventually got to the point where I was going once per week and improving my climbing ability slowly but steadily.
My Very Complex and Sophisticated Diet Program, Part 2
But about 9 months ago I felt like I was hitting a bit of a wall in my climbing.
For those who haven’t tried it, climbing is an interesting sport. Your raw strength is quite important, as is developing good technique. But your strength-to-weight ratio is also really important. This is something that isn’t common to all sports, but it’s very important in climbing.
So if you want to get better at climbing you have a few options. You can get stronger by building more muscle. I was already doing that steadily by doing weight training and climbing regularly.
You can improve your technique. Just climbing regularly helps, and I made sure to try climbs that forced me to practice my technique, not just climbs that I could finish with brute force.
And finally, you can reduce your weight …
Remember in diet part 1 where I said “the big exception was dessert”? Well, it was time to revisit that. I really love dessert. I was eating it pretty much every day. The fact that the Twin Cities has seen a boom in vegan food over the past 5 years or so wasn’t helping. We even have a vegan ice cream shop and a vegan bakery now!
It was obvious that if I wanted to eat less the only sane approach was to eat less dessert. It was the one spot left in my eating habits where I was eating many “extra” calories.
Have I mentioned that I really love dessert? I did consider options like replacing some meals with just dessert. It was a tempting thought. But it’s also obviously a terrible idea. It would taste good but probably make me feel pretty terrible health wise.
So I added one more “diet” rule …
- I can only eat one serving of dessert per week, except for special occasions and vacations.
A special occasion is something that happens infrequently. Having lunch with a friend is not a special occasion. Attending a birthday party or fundraising banquet is a special occasion. And if I’m on vacation I eat whatever I want.
This has been the most challenging rule to follow, and I’ve slipped on this at least once so far, but overall it’s been doable and it’s working.
I’ve lost another 27 pounds so far with rule #5 in effect, over about 9 months (I think). This was accelerated by our 5 week trip to Taiwan this past summer. It was really hot, we walked more than I do at home, and portion sizes are smaller there, so I naturally burned more calories while eating less than I would at home.
The weight loss has been slower since getting back from Taiwan. I think I’ve only lost about 7 pounds over the past 5 months, but there’s still movement.
I’m curious to see where I will bottom out. If it’s low enough I might go up to 2 servings of dessert per week and see what effect that has.
So has this helped my climbing? Enormously. When it comes to applying brute strength to a part of a climb, my ability has shot up. I’ve been able to consistently do more difficult climbs4 and in particular, I’ve gotten way better at climbing on overhanging walls and arches, where your ability to hang on and do powerful moves is really tested.
In conclusion I have no conclusion.
I’m not writing this to convince anyone else to lose weight. If you’re happy with how you look and not suffering from health problems, then there’s no reason to do so. I did it because I was in constant (low level but unpleasant) pain from my reflux and joint issues. I’m in less pain now, so yay. I also enjoy climbing in a way I couldn’t have before, so double yay.
I don’t think my approach will work for everyone else. It may not work for anyone else. It may not even work for me! Ten years from now I could weigh 400 pounds. I rule nothing out.
But if you want to lose weight and you’ve tried a bunch of silly diets, maybe you can try this non-silly, non-diet lifestyle change I’ve described.
If you have joint problems that prevent you from doing aerobic exercise, maybe you can try weight training. I highly recommend seeking out a trainer who has experience working with people with health issues. You want someone who will push you enough, but not so much that your problems get worse instead of better.
And if you’ve ever wanted to read way too many words about my life, you’re welcome.
Susanne, on 2020-02-11 19:41, said:
I really appreciate your honesty and humor in writing this plan! I also struggle with reflux partly due to over indulging. I think I’ll give your plan a try :)
aka snake oil ↩︎
“Easy” is a joke in case you weren’t sure. ↩︎
For any climbers reading this … Previously I’d been able to climb 5.9 pretty consistently, but I couldn’t finish 100% of the 5.9’s I tried. I had done a few 5.10-’s and one (soft) 5.10+, but mostly I couldn’t climb that grade. Now I can flash nearly every 5.9 I try, and I’m pretty capable of 5.10- climbs. I’ve even flashed some in the past few months. I’ve also done some more 5.10+ climbs. ↩︎