04/11/2009

Losing Weight

I've been overweight pretty much all of my adult life.  Not gut-bustingly fat, but, um, "solid".  "Chubby", as one of my friends said the other day.  I honestly believed I was "big framed" or some such nonsense, and was envious of my sister for having inherited the "right" genes from the other side of the family that kept her looking so slim.  (Of course I didn't realise how much effort she put into that; I do now).

What made it kind of worse for me was that I spent my teens being super-fit - I was a county-standard competitive swimmer - but a bout of glandular fever when I was sixteen confined me to bed for several months.  I lost my fitness and stamina and couldn't motivate myself to regain them.  My loss of interest in swimming coincided with growing interests in other things over the next few years, like socialising, girls and alcohol, all conspiring to put me on a different path.  Then university and a desk job did the rest.  During my twenties the pounds piled on and I did no regular exercise.

I have no idea what I weighed during this time because I didn't check, but I do know that I realised I needed to lose weight by my early to mid-thirties, by which time I was 89 kg, or just over 14 stone.  That's a BMI of nearly 30, bordering on obese, according to the NHS calculator.

The problem was I had no real idea how to go about losing weight.  Generally, the whole thing depressed me, because I thought I'd have to change my lifestyle too much, or it would be too impractical.  In particular, I was under the impression (as I think many people are) that losing weight would require a serious exercise plan, with frequent and prolonged running or swimming sessions.  And with one kid already and another on the way, I didn't see where I was going to find the time.

What changed my mind - and generally inspired me to get on with it - was coming across The Hacker's Diet.  It's a free web-book about losing weight, from the point of view of a software engineer, John Walker, who happens to be the founder of Autodesk.  As he says in his introduction, he couldn't understand why he could manage a multi-million dollar company, but he couldn't manage his own weight.  He decided to research this problem like he would any other problem.  He realised it was simple: "eat less food than your body burns".  This simple realisation motivated me more than anything else; it put the possibility of weight loss within reach for me.

I first started trying to lose weight about five years ago, and managed to lose about 9 kg, so I ended up at about 80 kg.  But then our daughter was born (our second child), and the late nights, lack of sleep and general irregularity punted me off track.  For four and half years my weight drifted slowly upwards again and when it got to 84 - over 13 stone - I decided to start again.  Properly this time.

So, since March, I've lost over two stone - 14 kg, to be precise, from 84.2 kg on 23 March to 70.2 kg today.  That's a BMI of 23.4.  It's the kind of amount that is noticeable, both to me and to other people.  I get asked, "How did you do it?", or "Have you been working out?" a lot.  People are impressed.  Which is nice.

The thing is, it wasn't difficult.  Sure, it took about 7 months, but that wasn't week after week of self-denial, agonising hunger pangs or strange recipes.  It was just consistency and persistence.  All I did was be more aware of how much I was eating - or, as a friend put it, I stopped overeating.  I haven't changed my diet at all, I just eat less of it.  I still have snacks but instead of having an entire 100g bar of chocolate of an evening I'll have a few squares instead.

The key for me was counting the calories.  I'd not done this before, so I was surprised when I worked out what a typical day's intake had been.  When I measured it properly - weighing portions and calculating the calories - I figured out that I'd been hitting about 3,000 calories in a typical day.  No wonder I was overweight.  That 100g chocolate bar?  500 calories, thanks.  A nice big bowl of breakfast cereal?  Probably about 400 calories.  The rule of thumb for an "adult male" (me, apparently) is 2,500 calories, so clearly consuming 20% of that in chocolate is less than ideal.

One of the other motivational things in the Hacker's diet is a set of tracking tools.  If you weight yourself every day, your weight will fluctuate naturally - largely because of what water you have on board at the time (you're 70% water, after all).  The tools smooth out these variances and give you a more accurate picture of whether you're losing weight - or putting it on.  If you can keep the "trend" weight going down, then you're doing fine!

So, each day, I weigh myself in the morning (after taking a leak but before eating), do 10 mins of exercise (situps, running on the spot etc).  Then whenever I eat, I try to know what portion sizes I'm eating, and I keep a tally of the calories as I go.  When I started, I had to weigh out the portions but now I know pretty much what I'm getting.

If I record everything then I know when I'm getting to about 1,800 calories for the day and so I can try and make sure I'm not going to go beyond 2,000.  It doesn't always work, but most days I'm there or thereabouts and so, slowly but surely, the weight comes off.

So, to summarise, here's what I learned - for me, at any rate (ymmv):
  • They key to losing weight is to consume fewer calories that I burn.  It's that simple.
  • Measure what I eat and work out its calorific value.  I can't easily judge what is "enough food" - otherwise why would I have been overweight?
  • I don't have to do mad amounts of exercise to lose weight.  Exercise helps for lots of reasons but it's not what makes me lose weight.
  • Track my weight, calories & exercise, so that I can look back and measure my progress.  It's very motivating - and makes me appreciate the effort it took to get there and more likely to want to maintain that.
I know this is a long post but I hope someone somewhere reads it and realises that they too can lose weight easily.

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