I have lost more than 45kg since last September, and I have many mixed emotions about it. You would think that I'd be proud of the hard work that went into this change, but there's more to it than that.
Picture: Michael D. Brown/Shutterstock
I'm annoyed at myself for getting to 140kg in the first place. I'm frustrated with the lack of understanding that we have around nutrition, exercise, and health. I'm the same person now as I was then. I'm not a better person. I didn't do anything impressive to get fit again. I just made some choices. I'm trying hard to not be tough on myself for how I was back then, nor be impressed with myself for some success in getting a bit healthier.
The change in my appearance has caused some people to ask "How did you lose the weight?" People tend to wait for the answer "diet and exercise", and that could be it. What I have found though is that there's a difference between knowing "these are the changes that I made that brought me this outcome" and "these changes had the following effects in my body, which brought me this outcome". Cause and effect, causation and correlation, they are touchy beasts.
What do I mean by that? Well, first, here are the actions I took to get healthier. I started to mindfully consume for nutrition — sadly, for the first time in my life. Before then I consumed for pleasure/laziness.
I Started With What I Was Consuming
- Drink water. (Yup, before that, I'd persuaded myself that I "didn't like water.") Stop drinking soda and foofy drinks. Substitute frappacinos with an espresso or a black coffee.
- Eat a high protein diet. (Yay omelettes for breakfast!)
- Eat vegetables. I really didn't before. Now I love cooking up veggies in some olive oil. I mean that — I truly enjoy the taste. This has been key: enjoyment over suffering.
- Stay away from sugar.
- Stay away from wheat/gluten (Note: It isn't that I think you should rush to the gluten free aisle of Whole Foods. I'm generally wary about "X Free" as I then immediately research what was added in to keep the taste. For example, fat free normally means an addition of sugar and refined crap. Ditto for gluten free. This is a good commentary/warning for gluten folks.)
Within two weeks I lost 9kg. This was key. I couldn't look at this data and not realise that I had been truly poisoning myself. It was the kick-start that I needed to keep on going. There is nothing more motivating than progress.
I purposefully didn't start exercising yet. I wanted to change one thing at a time. In the back of my mind I had tricked myself into believing "if I exercise I can eat anything… just burn those calories!" With that belief, all I needed to do was exercise, but at my size exercise wasn't fun, and so no changes were occurring. Two weeks in, I now knew that "you can't exercise your way out of a bad diet", or maybe more correctly: changing the diet is incredibly key and it was working that way around.
I started to notice many side effects to the change, well beyond appearance:
- Mentally I was so much happier, my mood changed, and I was able to deal with other things so much better.
- I didn't notice, but I was internally inflamed all the time. I would have coughs that wouldn't go away for months. I was running the car on high RPM constantly and it was killing me. I was pre-diabetic at this point and my insulin resistance was high.
- My skin started to change (no more rough patches).
- Other physical effects that I won't go into now :)
The Tipping Point
What was the tipping point? I don't really know. A few things came together at once. I was starting to worry about not having the chance to see any potential grandkids, or even worse, leaving behind loved ones sooner than that. This thought wasn't due to an illness or anything though, so I don't quite know why the thought was surfacing more and more often. Maybe it was just a natural phenomenon of age?
I listened to a book called "Why We Get Fat" by Gary Taubes in the car ride to and from work. This book did two things: One, it made me re-think the "wisdom" of the food pyramid, "low fat" diets, and nutrition vs exercise. Two, it got me really mad about what stemmed out of the Nixon administration where scientists made the wrong choice (in my opinion), setting up the flawed version of science that lead to the "fat is evil" mess up that's screwed people for decades now.
It's one thing to feel like people are making poor choices on their own accord (another debate surrounding free will can be had here!), but when you see people being told something that you think is wrong, and seeing them suffer because of it, then you get really angry. "Fat Chance" by Robert Lustig hit this home too as he pushed against sugar (where Gary pushes against carbs in general). Too many people think that "fat people are lazy" and get the cause and effect the wrong way around.
All of this added up to me making the most important step of my recent journey (which my wife Emily loves to tease me about, calling it my renaissance [read: mid life crisis]). I gave this all that two week chance. If I could say anything to someone who also wants to make a change, it would be to give change a chance. Try something for two weeks and give it your all. If you slip, don't worry — get up and try again. Don't get bogged down in choosing a diet and falling into the paradox of choice. Just pick a plan and stick to it.
As much as I want to share some of these feelings and help people, I also know all too well how a change has to be self-motivational. Intrinsic. My family had tried to have me change my ways for some time, but ironically if I think deeply about it, it may have partially stopped me from making the change. I didn't want to do it for someone to say "see I knew you could do it!" Very sad and self destructive.
I Changed When I Ate
As well as what I was eating, I started to notice that there was a large change in when. I prescribed to the "listen to your body, and eat when it's hungry, not because it's a certain time" routine. In the past my diet was mainly carbs, and I was always hungry. I wouldn't have one slice of pizza — I would absent-mindedly swallow a pie. I would trick myself to think "you are thirsty! you need a Dr Pepper!" when I was craving the sugar. Now that I had re-balanced to a protein diet, I found that I wasn't regularly that hungry at all. I would rarely eat past 6pm, and my dinner would be a small meal. I hadn't planned it, but I had started to intermittently fast.
I got into this more after watching a show via BBC by Dr Michael Mosely, and reading his book "Fast Diet". I experimented by doing a fast, and was shocked to find that it wasn't hard! I expected it to be crazy hard and that my body would be shouting at me to EAT DARN YOU. Instead, I started to enjoy the senses of feeling a little hungry, but then having the hunger pass.
I Changed My Mindset
It turns out the biggest gift that I have been given through all of this is the change in mindset that occurred with the success. I realised that, if I can make this change, what else could I do? At the same time I started to be concerned that I was rarely present and in the moment. I was always thinking about this, that, and the other. The next meeting. Tomorrows plans. Anything but what was going on in the moment. Was I an automaton moving through life?This triggered a memory of when I saw Jon Kabat-Zinn give a talk at Google on Mindfulness, Stress Reduction and Healing.
I started to study and practice, and quickly learned how friggin' hard it is to be mindful. This mindfulness started to help me with my nutrition too. I started to enjoy abstinence and appreciated that I was strong enough to own this. It seemed like there is an exception almost every day. Someone's birthday. A holiday. "Come on, just one!" I was just at a baby shower where I decided to enjoy the fact that I wasn't having the cake. Instead of fighting it, enjoy it. This was a turning point.
Another technique that helped was a psychological one. I would pretend to take a photo of the food and visualise it as a photo rather than food to consume right there. In my studies, I kept reading about how being mindful of the food that you are about to eat is a large part of the battle. Taking a photo of the food that you are about to consume has a massive effect, as it acts to bring you into that moment. Doing this and/or documenting your consumption is statistically better than going on any diet.
I really despise the word diet too. From the beginning I made it my mission to create a lifestyle not a diet. This isn't a crash course. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin talks about the difference between resolutions and goals. You keep a resolution vs. obtaining and finishing a goal. I don't want to finish. I want to keep going. Baby steps.
I kept getting more meta. First body, then mind, and next up was mindset. I quickly saw that I had created a fixed mindset for myself. If you shared a new food that I hadn't tried I would think "I may not like it, so naaaah why try!" This happened throughout my life. I would default to no. How sad when I hear that out loud!
I Started Exercising
There came a time where I had shown myself the power of nutrition and I wanted to get strong with exercise. I used to love sports. Cricket, football (soccer), tennis, you name it. My fixed mindset had turned this all off though, and I was excited to get back in shape to turn it back on.
I always disliked running. Too much of that discomfort. Too "boring."So, I decided that I wanted to give myself a month to see what I could do. I started slowly. First, I went on long walks. Then I got into the run - walk - run routine. I remember the first time that I managed to run all the way around the block. It felt great! Fast forward a little more and I had my first mile in, and it quickly moved on from there.
I thought that I needed to trick myself, and would listen to podcasts and music while running — anything not to think about the discomfort. I found that the first mile was always the hardest as the muscles and my body warmed up. I talked to a neighbour and friend who was a professional runne, and once she said that the first mile was always like that, I accepted it. When I start out now I prepare myself, and I know that in a few minutes my body will kick in, understand what I am asking of it, and it will get going.
Next I blended the worlds of meditation and running by reading Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham. I went out for a run without anything but myself. No phone or technology. I really enjoyed it! Between the meditation exercises and being in my own head, I had my best run ever. Since then I haven't touched technology for a run. I missed out on some time where I wasn't tracking my runs (I had been using Nike+ Running on my phone), but I then got a Nike+ SportsWatch and I use that to get the data. I also use the Withings scale, and it's great to be able to jump on it almost daily and see the tracking.
I Changed My Sleep Habits
Another piece of the puzzle is sleep. Most of us don't get enough quality sleep. I'm the kind of person who likes to fall asleep to the TV, but I lost that habit due to my wife not allowing it. I tend to do a lot of work at night though (some of my best work in fact) but that screen light would keep me up for a long time. I started to build a routine by doing things like: run, take a warm bath, read a book. This would knock me out every time and I would sleep hard.
I use an iPhone app called Sleep Cycle that you put on the bed and it detects vibrations to know when to wake you up (not in deep sleep if it can help it). This actually worked pretty well for me, but it does have a fatal flaw. I don't sleep alone. Not only does it sometimes think Emily is me, but I often have one little kid jumping into my bed in the middle of the night. So it's far from a perfect solution. I know that sleep is key to health, and I am far from optimising it.
I Had Support
I couldn't have done this without the support of family and friends. There has been an out-pouring of love and I have learned so much from people. You quickly see how many others have been — and are on — the same journey. My wife kindly never complains when I go out for a run at night when part of us would love to just sit and chat more. She doesn't complain when I make some concoction in the kitchen. I also can't believe that she never complained about how I used to be. The people that truly love you come out strong when you go through this. They aren't shocked to see a "new you" because they know that it's one and the same.
One friend told me his story, where he'd lost 40kg and put 23kg back on. I had to ask what caused the reversal, as I wanted to learn from that. He said that one day he moved house, and after a tiring day of moving boxes he stopped in at McDonald's. Fast forward a month later and he had gone there pretty much every day. It's that easy. I am so glad that he passed that on as it helps me be mindful of the long path ahead.
There is much more that I would love to talk about, but I've gone on too long already. Although I don't know which of the myriad of changes I made lead to the improvements that I've seen, that doesn't mean that I won't keep trying the experiments and measuring.
Dion Almaer is a technologist, engineer and human dev aggregator. Follow him on Twitter @dalmaer.