432 · 8 May 03
According to a bathroom scale I purchased shortly after college and have owned ever since, I weighed 150 pounds at some time around 1990, and 200 pounds by the middle of 2002, following an approximately continuous pattern of slow weight-gain. Between early July 2002 and early May 2003, this same bathroom scale reported a rapid and steady decrease in my weight from 200 pounds to 150 pounds. During both of these periods, the scale reported reasonable and consistent weights when used to repeatedly measure other people, so I have no reason to suspect that it is malfunctioning or significantly inaccurate.
Meanwhile, visual inspection of my body, in varying degrees of detail, by both me and others, has yielded the consensus opinion that this recent decrease in reported weight has been accompanied by an approximately proportional reduction in my body's fat content. In another form of witness, a pair of jeans with a declared 36-inch waist fit me tightly in July 2002, and could be pulled off my body without undoing its buttons by March 2003, while a pair of the same brand and style of jeans with a declared 32-inch waist now fits me loosely.
Those are facts, simple enough to state even if you aren't in a position to verify them personally. It's much harder to say how, exactly, I have lost a quarter of my body weight in less than a year. That is, I have done a number of things intended to contribute to this result, but my weight-loss experiment has used only a single subject, and has manipulated many uncontrolled variables at once, and is thus scientifically inane. Maybe I have experienced a synergistic effect of the exact measures I believe myself to have taken, but more likely, some of them have been productive, some have been incidental, and maybe a few have even been individually counter-productive. I have no way to disentangle them. I also have no idea if my metabolism is ordinary or unique, nor whether what I've done was hard or easy, nor whether it would be even harder or easier for other people.
But as usual, all we accomplish by stating every applicable caveat is stasis. I have lost weight, more and faster than I feared or anticipated. 150 was a half-joking goal, but I made it, and from 150 I can tell that I am close, but have a little farther to go. How did I get this far? We try, stubbornly, to learn from the half-truths that flutter through the gaps where we cannot prove they exist. Where facts elude us, we collect theories, and in time the unscientific experiments we conduct, one by one, accumulate into bodies of evidence. Stating theories, in itself, means nothing. My theories are worth something, if they are worth anything, if they do something for you. So here, if you want to join my experiment in honor of this milestone, are the nine things I think you should believe.
1. You are not a customer.
I am not selling you anything. Many individual people are not trying to sell you anything. Most corporate forces are trying to sell you something. If you are overweight, it is probably, in whole or in part, because you have been sold too many things. You must not allow this to happen. Food companies exist to sell you more food, even though both of you know this is not what you need. Do not allow them to make poor eating decisions for you, and refuse to support companies that exist for this purpose. Do not buy self-destructive body-image illusions, do not buy a lack of self-respect. And if you are overweight and wish not to be, know that improvement is not an act of consumption, either. Ignore the diet industry, which has no more concern for your health than the food industry it is supposedly counterposed against (except they're more often synonymous). Biology trumps commerce. Be an organism, not a buyer.
2. Do not make food decisions when you are hungry (or bored).
Eat breakfast. This seems counterintuitive, especially if, like me, you were already in the habit of skipping breakfast. Surely eating three meals is worse than eating only two. But it's fairly simple to discover how this isn't true. If you don't eat breakfast, you will begin building your hunger for lunch as soon as you wake up. By lunchtime, you will be very hungry, and you will think that since you are hungry, and have deprived yourself all morning, you have earned a nice big lunch. Later, you will be fat. If you eat breakfast, even a small one, you will be in a better position to make rational decisions at the day's other mealtimes.
Deprivation, in general, is not the way to improve yourself. Deprivation will tend to make you unhappy and irrational, and if you make losing weight an unpleasant experience, you are reinforcing the idea that eating bad food is fun, and thus are setting yourself up to gain back, later, anything you manage to lose now. This is the wrong way to think about the problem. You are not trying to lose weight for a little while and then resume your "normal" life, you are trying to change your parameters of normal. You are trying to recalibrate your body so that its feedback mechanisms kick in again, and it tells you if it needs more food. Which it usually doesn't, and if you're fat, it won't for quite a while.
3. Care more about food, not less.
Don't eat crap. There are many short phrases to which my diet plan could be reduced, and this is probably one of the most succinctly comprehensive. I attribute my weight gain mostly to the idle consumption of food that I didn't even particularly enjoy, most of it under the heading of "snacks". Do not eat cookies extruded by factory spigots. Do not eat anything made by applying lard and artificial flavors to reconstituted potatoes. Think at least three times before eating anything that is advertised on television, or that comes in a package that has had more design energy put into it than you would put into leaving a note for the UPS person. If you are doing something so unengrossing that you have to eat while doing it to stave off boredom, go do something else instead.
Do eat good food, but eat as an affirmation, not just of your body, but of the food and its authors, especially when one of its authors is you. The more of your own energy you put into the food you eat, the more complex sustenance you can take from it. And conversely, the more a food as been manipulated by anonymous forces, the more inexorably it will kill you. Frozen dinners are bad. Instant anything is suspect. Fast food is pure evil. In general, the bolder an ingredient's natural colors, the better it is for you. Take the time to cook, and then eat slowly. Not only will eating slowly give your body a chance to respond to food, which is informative, but it helps you appreciate the food, and part of feeling satisfied by eating is appreciating food enough.
4. Use the machine you're fueling.
You need to exercise. That is, maybe you don't, technically, and in theory you could make all the progress you need by simply changing your diet. But it won't actually work. You need to take positive action. You need to participate, physically, in the physical process of improvement. If you have let yourself get fat, the largest part of what you're correcting is your relationship with your body. So get to know it. Run, or lift weights, or bike, or row. Do something at least four days a week that elevates your heart rate and keeps it elevated for 20 to 30 minutes, something that you'll feel tired and exhilarated after. You're going to have a new body, at the end of this process, so start thinking about the new things you'd like it to be able to do.
5. Keep track of your progress.
The first four things will be enough to start the process. It will seem like it should be more complicated. You've heard hundreds of stories about how hard it is to lose weight, after all. But most of them were made up to sell you something, and the rest of them were wrong for other reasons. Losing weight is both easy and simple, and the best way to convince yourself of this encouraging contention is to weigh yourself as it happens. Weigh yourself every morning, in the same place in your morning routine each time (and you'll need a morning routine, if you don't already have one, because you've got to manage to exercise and eat breakfast now), and keep a chart. From one day to the next, your weight will go down or up or stay about the same, but it will go down more often than up, and as your chart begins to cover weeks and months, the line will slope steadily downwards. Once you have lost 5 pounds, you will know you can lose 10. When you've lost 25, you'll know you aren't crazy for aiming for 50. Once you've lost 50, you'll realize that what you're doing isn't actually losing weight, it's resetting your body.
6. Defer revelation.
Let your clothes balloon. It may be very tempting to try to buy new, smaller clothes as soon as you possibly can, as another tangible measure of your progress. Don't. Buying new clothes you're only going to shrink out of again is a waste of money, and a bad encouragement to quit before you're done, but more importantly, you will get better physical reinforcement from feeling your existing clothes getting baggier than you would from continually buying incrementally smaller clothes which then feel exactly the same. Don't turn a physical process into a head game.
At some point, of course, you will begin to look ridiculous in your old clothes, but I assure you that when people make fun of you for having lost so much weight that your clothes don't fit, you will be able to handle the humiliation. Also, the big waves of reinforcement from casual acquaintances in your life will come when you make a sudden dramatic change, and since you won't be making sudden dramatic changes in your body size, it's better to reserve the ability to make them with your clothes. Although, when you're ready, do try to replace everything at once. It's quite amazing how idiotic I looked wearing a new size-medium stretch T-shirt tucked into old jeans that had long since transitioned from snug to comfortable to billowing.
7. Get support.
Reinforcement is important. Let your friends help you. You are not alone in the world, and like most of the big things you will try to do with your life, you will try to lose weight in the context of other people. If you allow them to be sources of excuses and procrastination, they will become pressures toward failure. If they don't offer to help, make them. Get them to split entrées, or join a gym with you, or drag you up mountains, or be dragged. Somehow, get them invested in your success. Improve yourself as a member of your communities, not just as an isolated body.
8. Use the other machine you're fueling.
Weight loss is satisfying, but as a hobby it's incredibly dull. Plus, sooner or later you're going to have lost all the weight you need to lose, and then where will you be? Be engaged, be curious, have interests. If you can combine your interests with your exercise (learning languages is particularly good for this), or with your dietary changes (cook, or find some new restaurants from which to bring home leftovers), that's excellent, but even if you can't, concentrate as much energy on the other things you care about as you do on losing weight. Your goal is a vibrant stable state, which is about much more than metabolic rates and fat saturation.
9. Change everything.
In fact, while you're changing your diet and your exercise, change anything else you can think of. Get a better job, find a better apartment, commit to your relationship, hone new skills, give away things you don't need, sort through your battles and pick which ones you really care to keep fighting. Refuse to accept inertia or decay. Be a person who can change, and who is aware enough, and willing, to focus on anything that starts going wrong. The project, again and again and again, is self-improvement. If you've neglected your body, you've probably neglected other things.
So start fixing everything. Fixing your weight is fairly easy, in the end, and dangerously finite. You only have so much extra weight. And when you've lost it, you'll discover that not being overweight doesn't make you a better person, and being underweight is of no value at all. Disappointingly, fat is amoral, in absence as in presence. Weighing 150 is not an accomplishment. I weighed 150 before. 50 pounds is a lot, but that's a testament more to the duration of my denial than to the strength of my will. I am more sheepish than proud. I let myself get to the point where I had 50 pounds that weren't contributing to my life. I let myself find ways in which to start to disappear. But I don't want to disappear, and neither should you.