Health and fitness is not a subject that I thought I would ever find myself writing about. I’ve never enjoyed strenuous exercise and have had an unhealthy appetite for soda, fast food and candy for as long as I can remember. I’ve been at least twenty-five pounds overweight since I graduated college. I had the ultimate “dad bod” and had largely resigned myself to the physical condition that I was in. Toward the end of April, I stepped on the scale and saw the number 181.6. I had gained thirty pounds since graduating college nine years ago, and I decided that it was time to make a change and establish some healthier habits.
Like everyone else, I pretty much knew the basics of what I would need to do. I would need to exercise more. I would need to make healthier food choices (whole foods, fruits, vegetables, lean meat, far fewer processed grains and much less junk food). I also knew that I would need to consume fewer calories so that my body would burn off fat and that exercise would play an important role in weight loss (but not in the way I thought). I also knew that I couldn’t just follow a fad diet for a couple months, because becoming healthy over the long term is more about establishing healthy habits than it is about limiting one’s consumption for a short period of time.
Last week, I stepped on the scale and saw that I weighed twenty pounds less than what I did at the beginning of this journey. I am still about 6.5 pounds away from my goal weight of 155, but the finish line is within sight.
Here’s what I learned along the way:
- Most of us eat way too much food. In order to lose 1.5 pounds of fat per week, I had to restrict myself to 1,600 calories per day (but I could eat more if I burned calories exercising!). 1,600 calories is more than enough to keep me full during the day if I eat at the right times and make healthy choices (lots of fruits and vegetables, meat, fewer carbs). I estimate that I was eating 2,500 to 3,000 calories per day before I started my diet. It wasn’t uncommon for me to order a 1,500 calorie meal while eating out. In order to make sure that I stay at my 1,600 calorie per day goal, I use the MyFitnessPal app to track my consumption.
- Most of us eat the wrong types of food. The standard American diet consists of way too many carbohydrates, not enough protein and healthy fats, too much processed food and way too much sugar. Most of our dinner plates should be made up of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meat, whole grains and stuff that humans would have eaten 20,000 years ago. Whole foods tend to be less calorie dense (so that you can eat more of them without gaining weight) and have far more nutrients.
- You need to eat breakfast. One study I read showed that the overwhelming majority of people who lose weight and keep it off eat breakfast. It would be easy to think that skipping a meal is a great way to reduce caloric intake, but if you’re hungry all morning you tend to sabotage your lunch and eat more calories than you would if you just had breakfast to begin with. Eating in the morning is also a great way to keep your metabolism up, which is another key to weight loss.
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the best exercise for weight loss. I have been walking three to five miles per day on a treadmill for years, but it turns out it’s much more effective to lose weight if you do a series of short sprints of intensive exercise, known has high-intensity interval training or HIIT. HIIT will increase your metabolism, causing your body to burn more calories even after you are done exercising.
- Your metabolism will sabotage your efforts. Most diets don’t work because they encourage you to make immediate and dramatic changes to the amount of food you eat and the types of food you eat. This causes your body to think that food is scarce, resulting in your body’s metabolism slowing down significantly (meaning your body is burning fewer calories per day). Although you may be cutting calories, you won’t lose fat because your metabolism adjusts to your calorie consumption. Rather, making slower and more gradual changes in your lifestyle along with doing things like HIIT and taking cold showers will allow you to maintain or improve your metabolic rate.
- You need accountability and education. I knew that I was more likely to stick to my goal if there was someone checking in on me and seeing how things were going from week to week. I hired Chris “Coach B” Buckley to be my health coach. I meet with him on a weekly basis to learn, strategize, and deal with any food issues I may be struggling with. Chris taught me about HIIT exercise, the importance of eating breakfast, the importance of thoroughly chewing your food and the importance of eating real whole foods. I would not have had the success that I have had without Chris’s help.
- You need encouragement. I’ve been participating in the /r/loseit and /r/progresspics community on Reddit. Reading stories about people that have lost more than 50 pounds and the strategies they used reminds me that it’s possible to have the body I want if I am willing to put in the work.
- There’s no magic pill. I even considered weight loss supplements and did some research to see if there were any actually backed by data. In what should be no surprise to anyone, most of the supplements sold on Amazon to support weight loss have mixed reviews and no conclusive evidence they work. While some people in the Reddit “loseit” community have said they’ve had success with one supplement or another, the results seem to be very inconsistent and not backed by any scientific research. I decided to forgo any weight loss supplements and stick with a basic multivitamin, fish oil and a probiotic.
If you’ve made any dramatic improvements in your weight or health over the years, I would love to hear about the strategies that you used and what worked for you in the comments below.