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Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

How To Lose Weight

The most frequent question that I am asked when I tell people that I’ve lost over 150 pounds (so far) is “How did you do it?” The short and possibly glib answer is that I eat right and exercise. The truer answer is a bit longer and more abstract.

Before I can address the real answer, though, I’d like to rephrase the question to: “How do you change from being overweight and out of shape to being fit and healthy?” The real answer is easier to understand now: By becoming a fit person and then acting naturally. Your body will catch up.

Of course, that’s not quite it either. The real question is the follow-up “Well… how do you do that?”

It’s a decision. Losing weight is simple, but it’s not easy. I’ve struggled with writing this post because it’s hard to explain. I think I’ve found a shortcut, though. If you change yourself you’ll change your body. If you start to change your body, you’ll change yourself. Either way you’re going to be on the road to being fitter.

I could prescribe exactly what you should do – certain things like walk two miles a day, or track everything you eat, count your calories, and only intake so many per a daily budget. There are innumerable specifics that would likely result in your weight loss, at least temporarily – but that wouldn’t be useful to you in the long term because doing those things would be outside your nature, and eventually those habits that aren’t yours will fade away. You won’t keep up my habits. You have to make them your own. Losing good habits and re-introducing bad habits has happened to me, too. Any time you try to fight nature, even your own, nature wins every time.

Instead, I’ll offer this general bit of advice that will lead to your inevitable success. I believe this advice is pertinent to success in all things, not just weight loss or general fitness, but I’ll talk of it in these terms. In order to be a success, you must:

Make Things Harder Than They Need To Be

We live in a culture of convenience. Every product, service, program plan, diet, exercise regime, class, and so forth are meant to make your life easier. Work is treated like a four letter word. Companies are happy to take your money so that they can help you do less work. Unfortunately for you, you’ve been conditioned to be fat, dumb, and happy. I can’t help you with the latter two.

Losing weight is like swimming against the current. You have to fight against every impulse, instinct, societal convention, the food service industry, and even other people’s expectations. You’re basically a salmon, except that you don’t have a spawning ground to look forward to once you reach your goal. Although, if you get fitter along the way, maybe you do.

What does it mean to make things harder than they need to be? It means walking when you could drive. It means taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It means cooking instead of eating out or ordering in. It means taking ten steps when five will do. Squaring the corner instead of rounding it. Doing things yourself instead of relying on someone else (or a machine) to do them. It means when you come to any fork in the road you need to take the path that sucks.

Granted, I haven’t given up every convenience. I still use TV remote controls (given modern electronics you kinda have to – most TVs and media players don’t have many buttons anymore). I like to eat out sometimes (sometimes too often). I have texted my wife from a different floor of the house rather than go talk to her. Doing those things doesn’t make me any healthier, though.

If I know what the Right Thing is, and it’s not that hard to do, why don’t I do it all the time?

I fail whenever I try to deny myself something I want. I fail when I give into despair instead of acknowledging my setback and moving on.

How to Resist Temptation

Don’t.

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If you give up everything you enjoy you’ll never keep up with it. Oh sure, you can sacrifice what you enjoy for a while, but eventually your old habits, the things you want to do while you’ve been doing things you don’t want to do, will come screaming back with a vengeance.

You’re never going to succeed if you punish yourself to get there. The “yo-yo diet” effect of losing weight and then gaining even more back again (lather, rinse, repeat) is a common theme in most diets because they’re all about giving up stuff you like to eat. That sounds like a shitty life to me. No thanks.

Much better is to adjust your desire. Change what it is that you want. Remember that scene in The Matrix when Morpheus was explaining the nature of what being The One and how that works in the Matrix?

Neo: What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
Morpheus: No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.

A lot of weight loss advice I’ve read suggests getting rid of unhealthy snacks when you’re trying to lose weight – literally throwing them away – because if you don’t have them in the house, you can’t eat them, right? While there’s a certain logic in that, you can’t really fool yourself into doing the right thing if you really want to do the wrong thing.

If you’re trying to avoid the foods you really enjoy eating because you know that they’re bad for you, you’re doing it wrong. You can always eat the unhealthy thing later. It’ll be there. They’ll make more.

When you’re just starting out doing is almost as good as being. It’s hard to make new habits, but if you can keep the momentum going for a few weeks to a month you’ll start being what you’ve been doing. You’ll be the success you’ve been pretending to be.

When you’ve truly embraced Clean Livin’ you won’t need to avoid the bad foods because they will no longer be a temptation. I’m the guy who can eat a single potato chip. Fear me.

<Lawrence extinguishes a match between his thumb and forefinger. William Potter tries it and burns himself.>
William Potter: <screams> It damn well hurts!
Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Potter: What’s the trick then?
Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

T.E. Lawrence has met his match.
T.E. Lawrence has met his match.

Willpower

The word “willpower” comes up a lot when people talk about dieting.

Your body burns fat far more efficiently than it stores it. Metabolically speaking, losing weight is a lot easier than gaining weight. You just have to let it. As soon as you create a caloric deficit (eating less food than your body needs to power itself) you’ll burn fat (well, sometimes you’ll also lose some lean muscle mass, but we’ll ignore that for now). The system works if you work the system. Your body is burning calories just to keep you alive. You burn calories even while sleeping, although not nearly as many as being more active.

Remember Newton’s first Law of Inertia: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. He wasn’t talking about a human body, but it still applies. Keep your body in motion.

The best part about Clean Livin’ is that it’s not a diet. It’s a means of replacing bad habits with better habits without missing the bad. Diets have a shelf life, like any fad. Diets have an assumed end date. I mean, you’ll just diet for a while and then you can stop, right?

Clean Livin’ means eating healthily and being more active… forever. Well, most of the time. Hey, why not try it just for this next meal. Just for today. See if you can do it through the end of the week. We tend to have an “all or nothing” mentality, especially where our diet is concerned.

It’s hard to do the right thing all the time. It’s much easier to do it at any particular moment it’s at the forefront of your mind.

Make The Right Thing The Easy Thing

There are some simple and easy things you can do to immediately improve your health that stack the deck in your favor.

Some “right things” that are easy to fit into your life:

  • Walking – Adding just 30 minutes a day of extra walking is usually pretty easy. You don’t even have to do it all at once. Take a five minute stroll around the block before you eat lunch, or walk to the store down the street instead of driving there, or hop on the treadmill for 15 minutes twice a day.
  • Easy Elimination – Cut out bad foods you won’t miss. There were a lot of unhealthy foods that I ate and didn’t even enjoy very much. If you choose to eat something that’s unhealthy, and it’s going to count towards your daily budget, at least make sure it’s worth it. If you eat unhealthy things you don’t even enjoy that much, cut them out! It’s easy to eliminate the foods that are just there for convenience (especially at the office when you may not even choose them) and spend those calories on something you’d prefer to eat. Make the most out of your calorie budget. Don’t squander those precious calories on something you consider less than delicious. For instance, I used to drink a few cans of Coca-Cola per day, and eat a bagel or muffin every morning. I’ll still have a bagel from time to time, but it was something I could eliminate and not even miss.
  • Easy Additions – Rather than concentrating on what you can’t eat, just start planning meals around vegetables, beans, and other high-nutrition food. By the time you get to the meat or fish you should already have a healthy meal. Then you can more easily reduce your portions.
  • Get Moving – Whenever you need to do something, ask yourself “Could I do this while moving?” Pace around while on the phone. Get up and walk around during commercial breaks. Use the bathroom on a different floor. Park at the end of the lot. Wash dishes by hand. Fold your laundry. Read while standing.
  • Cook – Buy real food from the outside aisles of the supermarket – fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy – and then cook it yourself. Not only will you know better what you’re eating while you likely eat healthier food, but you’ll also burn calories while cooking it. By keeping fruit on-hand you’ll also have a readily available snack for when you feel peckish.
  • Drink Water – Drink lots of water to flush out your system. Pound down that water. If you drink soda, get a Sodastream instead of buying bottled soda and make your own fizzy water. Replacing sugary drinks with water will not only hydrate you to help you lose weight, but water (even carbonated water) has zero calories. Plus, drinking a glass of water before, during, and after meals will fill you up more than you’d think.
  • Start Slow – You didn’t put excess weight on in a day, so it’s going to take time to take it off, too. Don’t make a thousand changes at once. Make a few small, easy to live with changes first and then add a few more in a little at a time, like when adding dry to wet ingredients while baking.
  • Shrink Your Plate – This one sounds stupid, but if you use smaller plates you’ll probably eat less, and it’ll look like you still have a full plate. I use 8" salad plates for most meals even if I’m already serving a fixed portion size. They’re a good size without being too small.
  • Write It Down – Before you start restricting your calories, just log everything you eat without concern for how many calories it all adds-up to. If you want to get a little helpful reinforcement you can share your food log with a dietician or even just post it on your blog. The simple act of writing everything down may make you think twice about what you choose to eat. Or not, but at least it’ll make you more aware of what you’re putting into your body. I tend to keep a log in a text file in my Dropbox so it’s available everywhere, but if you work better writing in pen on paper, Field Notes notebooks are small, cheap, and sturdy. The best note-taking system is the one you have with you.
  • Make Things More Delicious – Add some umami to your food to increase the flavor while increasing nutrition and decreasing overall calories.

Redefining Failure

Do or do not. There is no try.
Yoda

You can’t really fail at this. Even if you don’t do everything right you’re going to make yourself healthier just by paying attention to what you eat, attempting to be more active, etc.

Let’s say you set a goal to go to the gym every day after work. We’ll ignore that setting a goal like that is a bad idea, but you’re just starting out so you’re likely to keep it up for a couple of weeks out of excitement and momentum. Eventually, though, you’ll miss a day. Maybe you have to work late, or you’re meeting friends that night at the time you’d usually be at the gym, etc. You haven’t failed. You just missed that one time. It’s okay. Instead of beating yourself up about it, just go tomorrow.

If you find yourself always putting today’s workout off until tomorrow, maybe you need to find a new workout. Some activities are more fun than others.

Most important, though, is that you can’t change the past. You ate poorly for lunch? It’s not over! You can still eat better for dinner. Don’t give up because you slipped up. Doing the wrong thing is part of the process of doing the right thing. It’s built-in. You don’t need to feel bad about it. Just do the right thing next time. And the time after that, and the time after that you may screw up again, so pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back on that bicycle.

What Success Means

Keep your eye on the prize. You’re doing this because you want something. Maybe you want to feel better. Maybe you want to look better. The key word in this is you. You can’t do this for someone else. You have to want it for yourself.

Start slow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can make small changes and those will compound like interest into bigger savings down the road. I don’t just mean a longer life (although there are innumerable statistics demonstrating just that) but a better life as well.

I guarantee[1] that once you make even a few simple changes that you’ll begin to feel better after only a few weeks. Looking better may take a little longer, but you have to be patient. Even small positive changes add up over time.

How To Set Goals

Let’s say you need to lose 40 pounds. So what’s your goal? It’s not to lose 40 pounds. Your goal is to lose 1–2 lbs per week, or to create a calorie deficit of 500–1000 calories per day. Your goal is to eat right for your next meal. It’s hard to plan far into the future, but it’s easy to plan for a few hours from now. Doing the right thing now means a payout toward your goal later.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be mindful about your overall goal – just that smaller goals are more realistic and also more likely to be goals you can achieve.

Beware of setting deadlines to your goals too. I was going to write “unrealistic deadlines” but deadlines in general are probably a bad idea if it’s a particular date and not a range. For example, saying “I need to lose 20 pounds by our vacation to Mexico so I can fit into this swimsuit” isn’t realistic. Losing four pounds in the next four weeks, though, is perfectly doable. The more you have to lose, the farther your finish line, and the further in the future, the hazier the goal. Work for now, plan for soon, and you’ll be prepared for the future.


  1. No actual guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Cancel any time. Void where prohibited by law.  ↩

Milestones Ahoy! Under 300 Pounds!

In the past three month’s I’ve reached three major milestones in quick succession:

  • Under 40 BMI (change in classification)
  • Halfway Point (315.5 pounds)
  • Under 300 Pounds

How Morbid

40 BMI is the threshold for moving from “morbidly obese” to simply “obese.” Granted, it’s not much to brag about, but it’s my first major step down the BMI scale (the next is from obese to merely “overweight,” which I’ll reach at 240 pounds for me).

Since BMI is relative to your height (but oddly, not age or gender) your BMI will be different than mine even at the same weight. Still, even a relative win is a win. I’ve apparently reduced my risks of a great number of diseases and have added a couple of decades onto my life.

While I don’t know much about the Obesity Action Coalition, they have more information about morbid obesity.

I didn't lose the weight eating Gray's Papaya dogs, but every once in a while...

Halfway

Since I’ve had to lose so much weight, the halfway point for me was when I lost 135.5 pounds, at 315.5 pounds. By any measure, losing more than 135 pounds is a lot of weight – more than many entire humans!

300

Hail Sparta!

Getting below 300 pounds was a major mental milestone for me. Seeing that number change doesn’t mean that much in terms of how I look or feel, but seeing the first number on the scale change was major, especially since I’m not sure I’ll need to see it change again (I’m still not really sure what my “ideal weight” should be but I figure I’ll know it when I get there and keep re-evaluating as I go).

Since I’m still considering my True Weight to be a two-week average. I just got below 300 (on average) today even though I first weighed-in below 300 pounds (299.8 to be exact) on April 25th, 2010 (two weeks ago).

Derailment

Getting healthy is hard, especially when you started at such an unfit condition as I did. It takes discipline, effort, and commitment. It also takes a long time, so you have lots of opportunities to screw it up. Most people can probably keep up with any kind of fitness regime for a few weeks or months.

After a while you may eat the wrong things more often, or neglect to exercise as much as you probably need to, or consume too many calories a day. You may start to plateau in your weight even though you’re eating right and exercising. Heck, you may start gaining weight back again.  All of these things are extremely frustrating and hurt your long-term progress.

I’ve had some setbacks that I had to correct.  My “every once in a while” foods became more frequent in the Winter, when it was also cold enough outside to make it hard to walk and otherwise be active as often as I needed to. I found myself craving high-calorie “comfort” foods. I stopped going to the gym as often. My daily feedback cycle was causing me to get even more discouraged – even on days when I did everything right I wasn’t losing weight, or wasn’t losing as quickly as I’d hoped.

What Causes Diets and Exercise Plans to Fail

Rodin: Les Bourgeois de Calais detailAs I’ve been having some success at losing weight and staying on track even after some setbacks, I’ve thought a lot about what factors contribute to my failure so I can figure out how to avoid them. I have problems with seasonal depression, and the changes I’d been making to my body only exacerbated my condition once the cold Chicago Winter came.

I was making a list of these factors when I had an epiphany and realized that they all stemmed from the same root cause.  What causes people to abandon clean livin’ and start doing the wrong thing is despair. Despair about such minuscule improvements after putting so much hard work into exercise. Despair about those times when you didn’t have the self-discipline to eat as healthily as you know you should. Despair about how long it’s going to take to get healthy, and whether or not the effort you’re putting into the process really feels like it’s paying off.

Physical fitness is fueled by the hope of a healthy and attractive body; despair is the loss of hope. It’s the opposite of hope – giving into weakness and taking the easy route toward a harder life.

You’d think that everyone would eat healthily considering the benefits – looking and feeling better, living longer, being able to perform physical feats, and being the best version of yourself that you can be. So why doesn’t everyone always do the right thing?

The fact of the matter is that getting fit is going to take a lot of time and effort, and you’re going to slip because you’re human.  You’re supposed to slip and do the wrong thing from time to time. It’s like holding your breath – eventually you’re going to have to take another. You can’t torture yourself or you won’t stick to the process.  I’ve found that it doesn’t even help to build wrong days into your schedule, because it’s hard to tell when that craving for chocolate brownies is going to strike, and if you plan to eat one anyway when you don’t really even want one, well, that’s just working against yourself.

So the only trick to dealing with despair is to not give into it.  In other words, don’t despair about despairing. Remember why you’re trying to be healthier in the first place.  Here are some tips to avoid the trap of falling into despair and staying on your path to a fitter and healthier body:

  • Get regular feedback about your progress. If you’re weighing-in every day you can’t gain that much weight by eating one bad meal. Or even a few. If you see the scale go up in the morning, you can reaffirm your goals for the day on the day that it matters.
  • Reassess your goals at least once a week. How are you working toward getting healthier? What could you do better? What stumbling blocks are standing in your way?
  • Look back. How much progress have you made so far? Look at photos of yourself from a few months ago.  Do you want to go back to that?
  • Remember: you’ve been doing this, which means you can do this.  If you can do it for one month you can do it for another month.

Anything less than forward progress means that you did all that hard work for nothing. There is no option but success.

What a Shame

Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.

— Salman Rushdie, Shame: A Novel

SHAMEOne of the hardest psychological stumbling blocks to overcome is a feeling of shame about your condition. Unlike alcoholism, cancer, depression, and other diseases & afflictions, anyone with eyes can see your weight problem. If you’re as grossly obese as I was, people can tell from pretty far away. “Oh look, there’s a fat person.” An overweight person’s body is a mark of shame that would make Hester Prynne blush.

Feelings of shame are manifested when trying to do common things in a world made for thin people. I had a difficult time fitting into most armchairs, theatre and airplane seats, putting a seat belt on in someone’s compact car, and so on. I’m also pretty tall, at 6’4″, which compounds the problem, but isn’t something I feel shame about, because I’m naturally tall – but I made myself fat.

Guilt vs. Shame

Guilt is the feeling of having done a wrong thing. Shame is the feeling of being a wrong thing. I see a lot of advertising for low(er)-calorie snack foods that come with the promise of being “guilt-free,” but I’ve never seen any foods as promising a release from shame.

What causes shame about our body-image?  While not being able to fit into small spaces itself can be embarrassing, most of my shame regarding my weight was related directly to food and eating.

I found that eating in public, especially if I was eating something less than healthy, made me particularly self-conscious. Most of the time I don’t really care about what other people think, but this in particular made me feel really uncomfortable. Maybe it fed into (excuse the pun) my already intensely negative feelings about my body. For me, eating something like an ice cream cone at a street faire or neighborhood festival is so unpleasant that I just stopped doing it. Granted, I shouldn’t be eating those things regularly anyway, but as someone who enjoys food the shame that I feel about my weight impacts my enjoyment.

While I have a pretty thick skin about most things, I am more sensitive about my body. To a certain extent I can take a fat joke – and they’re usually not very clever. Yeah, I’m fat. I get it. Har har. It can be especially hurtful when you hear friends or family members make a crack about your weight since these are the people you rely on for support, but I can’t be too hard on them. We live in a society that values super-thinness and derides the obese.

My friends have been very very supportive for the most part. They ask me how my progress is going. If they do see me eating something that doesn’t help me achieve my fitness goals, they may say something about it being “not exactly clean livin’, eh?”

One of my co-workers tells me that he hopes I lose weight, but not to the point where I get super-fit, because I’ll be insufferable about it. I tell him that being smug about having lost a lot of weight is one of my primary motivators. He’s put on some weight himself since he’s gotten married, and I joke with him that he’s my own personal Dorian Gray picture – he’s putting on the pounds that I’m losing. Every Monday morning I would tell him how much weight he gained last week based on how much I’d lost. So yes, even I am guilty of making light of other peoples’ weight, although if you knew this co-worker you’d encourage me to be crueler to him. He’s one of those people who talks smack about everything (but in a fun way – he’s actually a really good guy and a friend).

Finding Pride

This is the point where I’d usually offer a helpful tip or trick telling you how I overcame this problem, but the fact is, I haven’t. I still feel a little ashamed of my eating habits, especially if I eat something unhealthy in a public place. I don’t know if it’ll ever get better. The only thing I can tell you is that I try to use my shame as a tool to help keep myself on track. I may eat a cheeseburger and fries from time to time, but the people at the restaurant didn’t see me walk four and a half miles to get to there, or the 45 minutes of weight lifting I did that morning.

Shame isn’t always a bad thing as long as you can learn how to use it to help you meet your goals.

I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.

— Ben Stiller, Zoolander

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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I'm just some guy who lost a lot of weight and studied up on nutrition, diet, and exercise in order to improve my personal fitness. The contents of this site in no way contains medical advice. You should visit your doctor before making any dramatic changes to your diet or activity. While I make every attempt to be as accurate as possible regarding current knowledge and scientific studies (please feel free to let me know when I'm wrong about something), and may from time to time post updates to correct inaccuracies in previous entries, the information on this site is provided "as-is" for entertainment purposes only. Don't do something stupid and then sue me. I'm just trying to help. Thanks.