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
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)
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.
Do or do not. There is no try.
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 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.
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