18 in '18: An Adventure in Weight Loss

I set out on a journey to lose some weight this year, partly expecting to fail, as in the past. To my surprise, I’ve reached my goal with three months to spare.

My motives for the project were mixed. I wanted to be a better steward of my body, abilities, and energy (1 Cor. 6:19, 4:2). I wanted to demonstrate to my son the power of daily discipline over time (1 Tim. 4:8, 2 Tim. 1:7, 1 Cor. 9:27) and strengthen my ethos in conversations with him about his personal goals. I also just wanted to look and feel better. I have to be older, but I don’t have to be heavier.

What has worked for me may not work for anyone else. But if you struggle with your weight, there may be some ideas here you can use.

Principles

Many factors went into making this effort successful. The biggest influence was unexpected success at work in pursuit of complex, but measurable, goals. I wondered: if, at work, I could reach what seemed at first to be impossible output targets, could I get rid of pounds the same way?

The target took shape as a New Year’s resolution: I’ll lose 18 lbs. in 2018—given my past patterns and my small frame, a substantial goal. The following were the core principles.

  • Incrementalism: the cumulative impact of small successes, and small adjustments to routine can be surprisingly large.
  • Consciousness: settling on specific, measurable goals changes how we think and tends to result in small but helpful changes we don’t even know we’re making.
  • Metrics: tracking the right measurements increases consciousness of the right particulars and drives the right small, cumulatively-impactful changes in behavior.
  • Focus: chances of success are much greater if the aim is weight loss, not a “healthy diet” in general.

Regarding focus, googling “weight loss” yields a heap of complicated, contradictory advice. Experts insist that calorie counting doesn’t work and that only a long-term change in lifestyle toward “healthy eating,” etc. can be effective. Others insist on everything from dietary supplements, to essential oils, to eating foods with amazing “fat burning” powers—and, of course, consuming several lake’s worth of water every day! Then there’s the boundless topic of how to exercise for weight loss.

It made sense to me to ignore all that and focus on what I actually wanted to achieve: a lower number on the scale. So I didn’t set out to make big changes from my current routines—just the opposite: I set out to make the minimum changes necessary to achieve one desired result.

Strategy

An approach eventually emerged from the principles above. Six features stand out.

  1. Slow: Since losing weight too fast is a health risk, this is a slow strategy. Goal: about a pound every couple of weeks.
  2. Calorie-based: Since weight loss is unavoidable if calories-in < calories-burnt, this is a calorie-deficit approach. Goal: achieve and sustain calories-in < calories-burnt.
  3. Small-deficit: Since extremely low calorie intake risks a metabolic slow down, this is a small-calorie-deficit strategy. Goal: adjust calorie intake just low enough to make gradual weight loss happen.
  4. Satisfaction: Since perceived hunger leads to eating, this is a “maximum satisfaction per calorie” strategy. Goal: identify high (and long-lasting) satisfaction per calorie (HSC) foods. Favor these options over low (and brief) satisfaction per calorie (LSC) foods . (Goal ≠ eat “healthy.”)
  5. Elegance: Since processes that are complicated and laborious break down more often, this is a simplified-routine strategy. Goal: establish simplified eating patterns and maintain them. Make it as easy as possible to control and sustain.
  6. Measurements: Since weight loss is the goal, and calorie-control is the means—and declining physical activity (due to metabolic slow-down) is a potential barrier, this is a three-metric strategy. Goal: track weight, calories, and steps, using the first to measure progress, the second to regulate the means, and the third to avoid declining effectiveness.

I launched the plan in earnest the last week of March, and the results surprised me.

  • After a few weeks, daily food consumption was down considerably, but my perception of being hungry was about the same as before I started.
  • Walking: I had intended to slightly increase my daily step count by walking around the office more and taking an evening walk a couple times a week, using a cheap, wristband device for step-counting. Instead, walks became an every-evening habit. At work, I found myself not only walking around the office more, but walking around the building. A phone app pulls data from the counter and charts progress, and watching the daily and weekly numbers get higher and higher was fun.
  • Pounds started coming off almost immediately. Daily weight bounces around, so I looked for weekly trends. Within three weeks, a weight loss trend of roughly .5 lb. per week was evident. The trend continued, and sped up a bit, averaging 3.3 lbs. per month over six months (so far).

Tactics

Along the way, I accumulated adjustments to my daily routine that proved helpful. Here’s a few highlights:

  • Procrastination. Leverage the tendency to not get around to doing things. In response to feeling hungry, it often works to eat a small, HSC snack and tell myself, “I’ll eat more of that in few minutes, when I get done with this task.” Half a day can pass before I get around to eating more. A swig of cool water or a Tic Tac, with an internal “I’ll eat soon,” also works surprisingly well.
  • Placement. Somebody said that if you want people to do something, make it easier than the alternatives. Knowing the times of day I tend to start craving food, I position the best snacks ahead of time so they’re the handiest. Sheer laziness often results in better eating.
  • Portion size. Those who say “portion size is the key to success” are on to something. I don’t know if the stomach actually shrinks; I do know that after months of smaller portions, the subjective experience of feeling full now occurs after eating quantities that would have seemed like a snack a year ago.
  • Fast food. Fast food is generally not linked to weight loss! For me, though it has proved to be tactically helpful. Fast food vendors usually report the amount of calories in each item. So with a little trial and error, I found several orders that were HSC. (For example, the Southwest Salad at McDonald’s—without dressing; the lime glaze is enough—is 350 calories, and for me, it’s usually good for four hours or more.)
  • Extreme simplicity. For most of this weight loss period I have eaten the same six or eight meals over and over. I know how many calories each provides and about how many hours I’ll get out of them before I want to eat again. If I get overly bored, I mix it up for one meal—adjusting calorie intake before or after (or both) to compensate. I eat ice cream a couple of times a week.
  • OneNote and Excel. The OneNote app is accessible in Windows and Android, and I use it for a host of things anyway. It proved to be an easy way to track daily weight and calorie count (one “page” per day.) I keyed wieght figures into Excel every few weeks or so to get a chart view of how things were trending … just like at work.

Challenges

There have been a few challenges along the way.

  • Clothing budget. Having to buy smaller clothes repeatedly can get expensive, especially if your job environment requires a different wardrobe than your at-home-chores and your church activities. It’s a “good problem to have,” but good problems are still problems.
  • Social eating. Gatherings of coworkers, friends, and family frequently feature LSC foods—sugary fluff like cookies, donuts, cake, etc. To stay on track during this effort I avoided these situations but didn’t eliminate them entirely. One four day weekend at Mom’s created a noticeable uptick on my weight chart.
  • Food costs. A focus on calorie-control tends to de-prioritize other factors, such as how much food costs. Some of the best HSC snacks have been on the expensive side, such as the Jack Links beef strips (not to be confused several of their “beef steak” products, which aren’t as meaty or as tasty) I enjoy between meals. These do cost far less at Walmart.
  • Nutrition and hydration. Keeping the focus on eating for weight loss rather than “eating healthy” has proved effective, but it has been necessary to keep one eye on maintaining decent nutrition and hydration. Salads, V8 (the original, real V8), and handy bottles of water have worked together to avoid problems.

But is it sustainable?

Everyone’s biggest concern is how to avoid gaining all the lost weight back again. Some who recommended other approaches to me suggested that my calorie-control strategy will only result in a temporary weight loss.

But that’s fine with me. This approach has resulted in a clear, repeatable method. I now know I can lose weight any time I want. Like riding a bike or swimming, it’s a learnable, reusable skill. And months of gradual weight loss has formed habits that are unlikely to all disappear when this adventure is “over.”

But the adventure isn’t over. I’m not yet at my ideal weight, and the approaching holidays are likely to result in some regression. No worries, though. If I really let lose, I’ll gain 10 lbs., and I can always lose 19 in ’19. If you want to, you probably can, too.

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There are 19 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Aaron, thanks for an extremely helpful article.  My own weight loss program is a bit less aggressive, but I've lost 12 pounds in 12 months,, and I'm happy with that pace.  I hope to lose another 10 to 15 pounds over the next year or so.  (And yes, I just gave away a big bag of brand new dress shirts that no longer fit.  I have a habit of purchasing extras whenever I find a good sale, and keeping them in the package until needed.  It hurts to see several hundred dollars worth of quality dress shirts (original retail prices) going out the door, but its a wonderful reminder of success.)

G. N. Barkman

Ron Bean's picture

I've done the yo-yo weight loss thing for decades. I'd lose and then slowly gain it back and then lose.....you know the routine. I finally had to get serious about it and got some great advice from professional nutritionists.

-There are all kinds of ways to lose weight----the goal is to lose it forever.

-Get ready to change your life style PERMANENTLY!!! For most men that's 1500-2000 calories a day. (I chart using a helpful app.)

-Restaurants and prepared foods are bad for you. Too many calories and way too much salt.

-Portion control is key. A serving of meat is 4 ounces or the size of your wallet. A serving of ice cream is a kiddie cone. A serving of cereal is about 3/4 cup.

-That being said, consider a meal like a big steak a "Treat" not a treatment.

-Avoid non-nutritional foods like the plague. For me that was chips and donuts. (A Krispy Kreme equals 45 minutes on a treadmill at 3 miles an hour.)

-Your doctor will be polite but if you ask him if you're overweight---BELIEVE HIM!

-If you're a man and your waist at your belly button is 40 inches or more----YOU"RE FAT!

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Aaron Blumer's picture

At this point, I'm not really seeing what's wrong with the yoyo. If I slowly gain it back, then lose it again, and repeat, that's fine with me.

Bert Perry's picture

I'm down about ten, would like to go 10-15 more.  One of the things I've found most helpful is to remember that a lot of fast food substitutes salt, sugar, and fat for other markers of taste, and you can pile up calories in a hurry.   One meal of fast food, even within caloric limits, is worth 2 lbs the next day simply from water retention for me.  Fruit and vegetables are golden for filling me up without fattening me, too.  

Regarding needing to buy new clothes, it's not as much of an issue for me since I tend to wear things looser than most, more of a 1950s style than today's, and my shoulders and hips are pretty stable vs. weight--I can gain or lose 5% of weight without needing to change anything out.  The main thing that changes is how much my wife will "taper" my shirts so they don't billow at the waist.

(pro tip; many good menswear shops are selling slacks in a modern, snug fit and a more traditional, loose "old man" fit....the latter looks better on most of us and is very robust vs. weight loss)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

One meal of fast food, even within caloric limits, is worth 2 lbs the next day simply from water retention for me.  Fruit and vegetables are golden for filling me up without fattening me, too.

For me, fruit and veggies are "necessary," so I try to include enough, but I don't generally enjoy them much.... And, realistically, I am not going to stick to a diet I don't enjoy.

On water weight ... the chart shows more bouncing ("deviation from the mean," for math lovers) over the last several weeks. I don't yet know why, but your comment has me thinking it's probably water related.

...then again, the battery just died on the scale (quickly replaced) so maybe I should blame it on the scale.

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, another cause of variance that I've noted over the years is that if I work out enough to get sore, e.g. squats, the inflammation in my muscles causes weight to "spike" a pound or two as well.  Shall I accuse you of working out?  :^)

Seriously, the best resources--e.g. Mayo Clinic Diet--that I've seen note that this variance is normal.  You simply want the overall healthy trend, whether that is downward or stable.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Steve Newman's picture

I'm trying to get back to my weight at the time of marriage (-70 pounds) by May of 2020. I'm down about 10-12 pounds since the start of summer. I like your approach, Aaron. I will sometimes "binge" on vegetables, salads, etc. and water in a day. One of the benefits is losing some water weight. Water weight is often due to too much salt. I love salt, it's one of the toughest things to give up. Some ways are to look for lower salt versions of favorites (lower salt bacon is pretty good!) and to use non-sodium salts. Drinking lots of water is a great help. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

Congrats on your progress, and I hope you get there. 

I confess I don't understand the whole salt and water weight thing, but so far it hasn't mattered for me. I just keep the calories down and keep the step count steady.... and as much as possible, eat what I enjoy (though pretty often less of it than I might like. Not much less though).

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, talk to your doctor for a more complete explanation, but basically everything in your body works on electrolyte balance.  Get extra sodium, and your body will retain extra water until the kidneys can excrete that sodium.  A lot of blood pressure drugs, like HCTZ (hydrochlorothiazide), are diuretics and work on this principle.  

Another note, per Steve Newman's comment, is that it's amazing how overdone a lot of foods are in terms of sugar, fat, and salt.  Once you get out of the habit of eating foods that really overdo it, you start doing crazy things like noting how sweet carrots and homegrown tomatoes are.  

Along those lines, a lot of diet plans work predominantly psychologically, knowing that if you can persuade someone to make a change for a short period of time, and build a habit.   For example, Mayo's diet plan starts out with a two week detox from sugar, TV, and a couple of other factors.   It's startlingly like the "put off/put on" approach many of us would use with regards to besetting sins.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Thanks. I guess if the approach I'm using stops working, I'll get more interested in these things. I have consistently low blood pressure (well, it gets higher when I'm sparring on SI at times!), low blood sugar, and decent blood numbers on the lipids and such, so... All I feel the need to do right now is get skinnier.... which is already happening without swapping a lot of foods I like for foods I don't.

Phase 2 should probably be to move a bit into actual improved fitness. The walking doesn't do a whole lot on that front. So I need a strategy for building the core muscles and cardiovascular back up in some way that isn't going to bore me out of my mind! That's always the main barrier for me with all that.

Bert Perry's picture

The website "Art of Manliness" has regular features on all kinds of exercise from the very ordinary to some really interesting stuff.  You might check it out.   One thing that might appeal to the theologian in you is "rucking", which is more or less to weigh down a knapsack or backpack (say with Calvin's Commentaries or something) and go for a hike.  A lot of people who don't like running, but need aerobic exercise, swear by it.  

I've ordinarily been a runner/hiker/cyclist/swimmer, but my daughter got me into powerlifting, which was part of her therapy when she broke her leg.  Imagine me with her--she's about half my weight--in the weight room doing squats or deadlifts with other people lifting twice what I'm lifting or more.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Thanks for that image Biggrin

I actually really enjoy laser tag, and it's pretty aerobic, judging from how winded I get. But the nearest place to do it an hour's drive, and it's expen$ive. 

Indoor/court soccer was another one I would do until I just about dropped, years ago. If it's set up ideally, it's like an iceless hockey rink, and the ball is always in play....also don't know of anywhere near (or far) to play. Players at similar levels of no-longer-skilled and no-longer-in-shape would be necessary for it to be fun. 

Maybe I'll have to start something.

josh p's picture

Congratulations Aaron. That’s a great accomplishment. 

Rucking is really fun. It’s low impact and there is no wind noise (compared to things like running or cycling) so a person can listen to their Bible, a book, etc. There is something ignobling about being outside enjoying God’s creation and building leg strength. It also strengthens your whole core which helps with posture and other things. I did it for just a little while and was amazed how easy hiking was afterward. 

Lately I have been cycling to work which has several benefits besides exercise. I have also been trying to watch my eating (calories) and the pounds are coming off nicely. Cycling is fun for me because it’s easy to track one’s improvement. Every time I ride I check to see how I did which makes for good accountability. Especially if other people are following your app!  

Aaron Blumer's picture

Thanks. 

I like the idea of rucking, because I have always loved the woods, but I currently have some back problems and it sounds like that might be an issue?

One of the motivational factors for me to lose weight was the hope that losing the spare tire would help my back. It hasn't yet, as far as I can tell, but I'm not done yet either.

 

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, I'm no big expert on backs and things, but one thing I experienced a few years back may shed some light.  I was doing some exercises (bodyweight squats) while on break from training at work, and one of my coworkers said "Oh, you've got back problems, I see." I was somewhat surprised and admitted that, no, I hadn't had any big problems with my back.  He responded by noting that I was doing, without knowing it, exactly what his doctor or physical therapist had told him to do.

Now of course, I have absolutely no clue what your back problems are, or exactly what exercises will or will not help, but suffice it to say that the little I do know is that (a) weight loss is great (note Todd Mitchell's comments in the marijuana thread) and (b) a bit of exercise, especially those that work the "posterior chain" from the hamstrings through the back, can also be great.  I had a friend who found that when he did about a third of the exercises his physical therapist had recommended, his back (which has some severe degenerative disease in it) stabilized enough that he could at least work part time.  It was a huge, amazing difference.  He went from basically bedridden to pulling boxes of tools out of the back of my pickup when I visited him.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Yeah, I've been putting off getting the MD's involved, mostly because we were in transition to a different health plan and "insurance" is messy enough without the complication of "partly this plan, and partly than plan" and so on.

If the current trajectory continues (very slow improvement: ice is amazing), it might work out on its own. If not... I'll have to see if I can get to a physical therapist who can tell me what to stretch or lift or not lift (well, I kind of know that!) and see what happens.

G. N. Barkman's picture

I've had back issues for a long time, but always manageable, thank the Lord.  Exercise is the key.  Several months ago, I read that strengthening the glutes was very helpful for back problems.  I decided to start riding a bike, and voila, I now have virtually no back pain or debilitation.  Biking has other benefits as well.  Perhaps you should give it a try.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, knowing how "interesting and entertaining" back troubles can be, suffice it to say that it's my prayer that you soon see the way clear to visit your doctor about this.  I visited Mayo's site (as is my habit of course) to see what's out there, and beyond "take a  walk", let's just say that they didn't point in any particular direction.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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