In the last 10 months, I’ve lost 50 pounds. And in the last couple of days, I’ve been writing about the process: the emotional ups and downs, the letting go of old neuroses and the adjustments to a whole set of new ones, the arguments I’ve been having in my head with the fat-positive movement and with the skeptics who are battling the fat-positive movement.
But I haven’t talked yet about how, exactly, I’ve been losing the weight. Which I realize is a little cruel of me. After all, when anyone talks about weight loss, that’s what most people want to know: “How did you do it?”
So here, at last, is the actual “diet” part of the Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet. It’s not a diet, per se; I’m not going to tell you that I eat twelve meals a day every two hours, or that I limit myself to six servings of pork a week, or that I only eat plankton and spelt and a vodka martini on the full moon. What I’m going to talk about is practical strategies that have helped me lose weight… and emotional/ psychological strategies that have helped me stay on track with the practical strategies.
I should spell out before I begin: None of this is meant to be prescriptive. I’m not an expert: I’m not a physiologist or a nutritionist or a researcher on weight loss. I’m a lay person who’s found some things that are working for me. Some of it may work for you. Take what you need; leave the rest; pay attention to the current research; talk to other people about what works for them.
(A little of this, by the way, is stuff I’ve written before. I apologize to regular readers for the repetition; but it seemed like a good idea to have it all in one place.)
The answer was “Yes.” And the things the success stories had in common turned out to be almost embarrassingly straightforward. They are:
Keeping a food diary.
Eating a low-fat diet.
Not skipping meals — in particular, not skipping breakfast.
Losing the weight slowly — no more than two pounds a week.
Weighing yourself regularly.
Getting support from family and friends.
Making all this a permanent lifestyle change — not just pursuing weight loss as a one-time thing and then going back to old eating and exercise patterns, but continuing to do all these things even when the weight is lost.
It sounds so easy. The devil, if I believed in one, is in the details.
So let’s talk about the details — both the finer points of these basics, and some of the psychological and emotional tricks for keeping the basics on track.
“Calories in, calories out” is something of an oversimplification of the mechanics of weight loss. For one thing, if it were true, crash diets would work — and they really, really don’t. But there’s a big chunk of truth to it. To lose weight, the main thing you have to do is take in fewer calories than you expend; to maintain weight, the main thing you have to do is take in the same amount of calories that you expend.
And every study I’ve seen or heard of shows that people — pretty much all people — are terrible at estimating how much they eat… both how large their portions are, and how calorically rich the foods they eat are. (When I started counting calories, I had some serious sticker shock about some of the foods I ate on a regular basis. Nuts? Bagels? Snickers Bars? Cornbread? Oh, my God! I had no idea! But the flip side of that is also true; donuts and chocolate chip cookies aren’t nearly as calorically rich as I’d have thought, and I incorporate them into my food budget on a fairly regular basis.) What’s more, studies show that fat people — which includes me — are worse at estimating their food intake than other people. Counting calories — not trying to reduce my calories, not trying to eat a low-calorie diet, but literally counting the damn things as they go into my mouth — is essential.
Which leads me to the next two parts:
And in a weird irony, keeping a food diary is a way of keeping myself from obsessing over food. In the past, when I was trying to do “natural” eating and just follow my “natural” hunger cues, I’d get seriously hung up on whether what I was eating was right for me or not, or whether I even was hungry for it. I have finally accepted that my “natural” appetites and hunger cues are idiots. They think that I’m living in the African savannah 100,000 years ago back when our species evolved, and that I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, and that if I don’t eat this entire gazelle right now I might starve to death. The food diary keeps me much more sane. With the food diary, I plan what I’m going to eat; I write it down; I fit what I’m eating into my budget; I don’t eat what doesn’t fit. And then I forget about it, and go do something else.
So when I eat at home — and when I prepare my lunch to eat at work — I measure. Everything. My cereal, the milk on my cereal; my yogurt, the honey on my yogurt; my pasta, the sauce on my pasta, the Parmesan cheese on the sauce on my pasta.
It sounds like a hassle, I know. But I got used to it very quickly. And now that I’ve been doing this for almost a year, I’ve gotten better at estimating food quantities when I can’t measure (when I’m eating at a restaurant or at someone else’s house).
So I eat already. Regularly, throughout the day. Including breakfast. (See “Eating multiple small meals” below.)
I found this very demoralizing when I first started losing weight. “One to two pounds a week? That’s going to take forever!” But I was startled at how fast this really is. Two pounds a week means ten pounds in a little more than a month. And a weight loss of ten pounds is where most people start noticing a difference in how they look and feel.
An acquaintance of mine put this in a way that I love: “I like to eat — so I exercise a lot.” That’s me in a nutshell. I love to eat: I’m a sensualist, and food is one of the great sensual pleasures life has to offer. I’m willing to eat my rich treats less often and in smaller portions… but I’m not willing to eat nothing but brown rice and vegetables for the rest of my life. So I exercise.
I don’t give a shit what kind of exercise you do. Some weight control experts insist that you have to exercise for at least half an hour at a time to get any benefit, or that you have to do a combination of cardio and weight training, or that you have to exercise in the morning. Fuck that noise. The best exercise is the one that you’ll do. Baseball or ballroom dancing or bocce; walking or weightlifting or water polo. Find a physical activity you like to do, and do it.
Regular exercise does a whole lot more than just help me lose weight. It improves my energy, my mental focus, my sleep, my tendency towards depression, my libido. There are lots of excellent reasons to get regular exercise… even if you don’t lose weight. But it’s a pretty essential part of weight loss as well. (When I don’t feel like doing it, I always try to remember that I never, ever, ever have been sorry that I worked out. Well, except for two or three times when I was seriously sleep-deprived. No matter how crummy I felt when I headed to the gym, I have always felt better afterwards.)
Once a week works really well for me. If I weighed myself every day, I’d get obsessed and freaked out over every minor meaningless fluctuation. Once a week keeps me aware of where my weight is and what its broad trends are, without freaking out over minor changes (see below). If I’ve gained weight for more than a couple weeks in a row, or if my weight loss has plateaued for more than a couple/ few weeks, that tells me that I need to change something: I need to dial down my calorie budget, or step up my exercise, or be more rigorous about keeping my food diary. (Or do some fucking cardio already instead of just doing my beloved weights all the time.)
Now, “once a week” is an area where I’m departing somewhat from what the research suggests. The research suggests that weighing yourself every day is correlated with successful weight loss and maintenance. But I know myself, and I know that it would take me to the bad place. So as long as what I’m doing is working, I’m not going to stress out over this one small modification to the program. And what the research most strongly suggests is that, however often you weigh yourself during weight loss, the important part is to keep doing it that often once you’re on maintenance. Consistency seems to be key.
It doesn’t have to be a spouse or a lover; it can be a friend or a family member or a support group. (Although some sort of support from people you live with is obviously a big, big help.) But getting support from other people who are also working on weight management seems to be one of the most central factors in doing it successfully. And it also helps to get support from the other people in your life who aren’t necessarily losing weight but are supporting you in your efforts. (If for no other reason, it helps to not have well-intentioned people pressing rich food on you because they don’t know that you’re trying not to eat it.)
But according to the research I’ve seen, the key to maintenance is to keep up all these patterns once the weight is lost. The mistake that too many people make is to see weight loss as a one-time thing, something you get over with so you can get back to your old eating habits. That doesn’t work. I’m going to have to keep counting calories, keep measuring my food, keep up the food diary, keep exercising, keep weighing myself… for the rest of my life.
Again, I can’t speak about maintenance yet. (Assuming I do keep the weight off, I’ll give another update.) But I’m assuming that once I’ve reached my target weight, very little is going to change about how I manage my food and exercise and whatnot. My calorie budget will go up somewhat. That’s going to be the only practical difference.
So those are the fundamentals.
How do I make it work?
Which reminds me:
The part of our brains that tells us “That’s enough food” has a delay — about 20 minutes, the last time I read the research. (And while I don’t know this for sure, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this is slower for fat people.) Like I wrote in Part 2: Our appetites evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, in an environment of scarcity. Our appetites evolved to get us to eat as much food as is available, whenever it’s available. Our appetites have not yet figured out that we live in an environment where food is easily and cheaply available on every street corner. Our appetites are dumb.
So if I’ve eaten what I’ve budgeted for, and I’m still hungry in 20 minutes, I wait. If I’m still hungry after that, I have a glass of water. If I’m still hungry after that… then I eat already. That’s not fake hunger, that’s real hunger, and I have a piece of fruit or something. But ninety percent of the time, waiting and water does the trick.
So when I’m at a party, I try not to sit within eyeshot and arm’s reach of the food table. When I’m at a buffet, I try to sit with my back to it. When I’m in any sort of place with an essentially unlimited supply of food, I browse first, looking over the options to see what I really want; I put the things I want on a small plate; and I go hang out somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind.
Oh, and speaking of which:
If you’re a big lefty pinko freak like me, it may help to think of this as a political issue. Fat positivism may feel like a big “Fuck You” to body fascism… but eating healthy can feel like a big “Fuck You” to the purveyors of quadruple- patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick.
If you hate weightlifting, don’t do it. I am, as I said, a huge advocate of doing whatever form of exercise you enjoy and will stick with. But if you can find a form of exercise that will put on muscle as well as burning calories, go for it. (And don’t assume you’ll hate weightlifting if you haven’t tried it. I’m having a ball with it. It has become one of the great sensual pleasures of my life.)
I did an experiment a few months ago. When I was at the gym, I weighed myself at the beginning of my workout, and again at the end of it. And I found, very much to my surprise, that I’d gained half a pound. (I think it was the massive amount of water I drink when I work out.) If I can gain half a pound in an hour and a half workout, it makes no sense to get all worked up if I gain half a pound in a week. If I keep gaining half a pound week after week — or if I don’t lose anything week after week when I’m trying to lose — that’s something to pay attention to. I might need to step up my workouts or dial back my calorie budget. But if it just happens one week, I just need to keep doing what I’m doing… and see what happens.
Instead, the metaphors Ingrid and I have been using are about money. We have food budgets. We call high-calorie foods expensive; low-calorie foods are cheap. I can spend or save my daily budget as I like: I can spend my calories on a donut if I’m willing to have a light lunch, or I can save my day’s calories if I know I’m going to have a rich dinner out.
I don’t think of high-calorie foods as a forbidden sin that I’m a bad person for wanting. I think of them as expensive luxuries that I can treat myself to if I save up.
So instead of saying, “I can never have butter or chocolate or donuts again,” I say, “I can have butter and chocolate and donuts if I can fit them into my food budget.” I can have butter if I have small portions; I can have chocolate if I had a fairly light dinner and have room in my food budget at the end of the day; I can have a donut if I’m willing to skip my end- of- the- day chocolate.
And once a month, I give myself a meal where I don’t count calories at all, and just eat whatever I want. Again: If I never let myself relax and just fucking eat already, I’d go nuts. Every time I counted calories, I’d be wishing that I didn’t have to, and longing for the old days when I wasn’t. But I know that I can forget the calories once a month… so it’s not that big a deal. (Twice a month in December. I let December be a maintenance month: as long as I didn’t gain weight, I wasn’t going to stress out if I didn’t lose any.)
But if you’re like me, and the thought of a life without butter and chocolate and donuts scarcely seems worth living, this is at least worth trying.
It went great. It went faster and easier than I’d ever expected. So I kept going. But if I’d started out thinking that my goal was to lose 60 pounds, I think I would have gotten very discouraged, and might have even given up. 20 pounds seemed achievable. (And in fact, when I lost the 20 and decided to keep going, I again said “I’m going to lose another 20… and then re-assess.”)
And I think that was the right thing to do. I needed to completely change my habits — not just the ways I ate, but the ways I thought about food and eating. I needed to think about food as something I always keep track of. And my instincts and guesses about how large a serving was, or how much was in a cup or an ounce or a tablespoon, were way, way off. Not to mention my instincts and guesses about how calorically expensive certain foods were.
Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’m a little more relaxed about it. I have a better sense of what things cost, and I know which foods I really need to keep rigorous track of and which ones I can guesstimate. I’m more likely to do rough equivalents: if I can’t find sweet potato pie in my calorie counting app, I don’t bother to look it up on the Internet — I just call it pumpkin pie, and call it a day. I’m more likely to collapse all my hors’ d’oeuvres into one or two that are pretty similar. And I’m less likely to bother writing it down if I have just one bite of something.
Which is where weighing myself regularly comes in. See above. If I start gaining weight again, I’ll know that I’m slacking too much, and need to get more rigorous.
I know all that’s so. But last year was among the most stressful in my memory. I won’t bore you with the details; suffice to say that it sucked beyond my powers of telling it. And I was still able to lose weight.
I was able to do it, I think, because forewarned is forearmed. I knew that stress could be a hunger trigger — so I learned to tell the difference between stress hunger and real hunger. And I was able to do it by reframing. Instead of saying, “I’m having a bad week/ month/ year, I deserve those six donuts,” I said, “I’m having a bad week/ month/ year — and weight loss is one of the few things in my life that’s working. It’s one of the few things I’m being successful at. It’s one of the few things that’s making me feel better. It’s one of the few things that I have some degree of control over.” And, of course, being in good health and eating a good diet and getting regular exercise are all excellent stress-management techniques. So I framed weight loss, not as something that was adding to my stress, but as something that was alleviating it.
But as Ingrid reminded me: I have quit smoking. I quit drinking caffeinated coffee. I quit eating pork (well, mostly). I started a writing regimen that I’ve stuck with. I learned to be a better housekeeper when Ingrid and I moved in together (and believe me, that was a major behavior change). Behavior change may be hard… but I seem to be someone who’s reasonably good at it. And in fact, many of the strategies I used to change those behaviors are ones I’ve applied to weight loss.
If you’ve made other behavior changes in your past, and have stuck with them… remember that. Use the memory to bolster your confidence. And think about what you did to make it work.
But as everyone knows who’s studied behavior changes — from quitting smoking to quitting heroin to quitting leaving disgusting piles of dishes in the kitchen sink — setbacks and slips are often part of the process. Setbacks and slips are part of how we learn what does and doesn’t work. And the reality is that when I was trying to lose weight before, this new research about weight loss wasn’t available (or if it was, I didn’t know about it). So when I started this new weight loss program, I started reframing my previous failed attempts, not as evidence that weight loss was impossible, but as part of the process of learning what does and doesn’t work.
And in one of the cruelest ironies of weight loss: As you lose weight, you need to reduce your calorie budget. It takes fewer calories to maintain a lower body weight than it does to maintain a higher one. When I started, my daily calorie budget was about 1,850; it’s now just under 1,700. And every time I’ve had to dial down my budget, I’ve had a bad week or two, before my body and my hunger triggers adjusted to the new allotment. And that was especially true the very first time I had to dial down my budget — the first couple of weeks of the program.
But the bad times pass. I can move on from the birthday cake I’m not going to have… and enjoy the conversation I am having. I’ll have a day where I go over budget due to circumstances beyond my control… and then I’ll be back on my budget the next day. I’ll have a moment of regret over my body not being what I want it to be… and then I’ll get back into feeling how much pleasure I’m getting from it now. I’ll feel a little hungry for a week when I have to dial my calorie budget down… and then I’ll adjust, and be fine.
It can be hard.
But it gets easier.
At least, it does for me.
So how does this work for you? If you’ve lost weight successfully… what have you done to make it work? And if you’ve been unsuccessful at weight loss… what made it hard? And what do you think might make it easier if you try again?