“How did you lose the weight?”
Combined with “How much weight have you lost,” this is the most common question I receive from people these days. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned, though I’ve found people usually aren’t interested in the level of detail you’ll see below.
So here’s the short answer: I ate less calories and moved more.
I’m not saying anything against surgeries, medications, or support groups. But for me, it was as simple as changing my diet and exercise.
“Yeah, but everyone says eat less and move more. How did you do that?”
- I recorded everything I ate
This was my new year’s resolution this year. I’m not on a diet. I’m not restricting calories. I’m just writing down reality.
Awareness of what I ate was an essential part of changing what I ate. Previously, I ate impulsively. There’s a donut in the break room? There’s pizza available at a church event? There’s chips in the pantry? There’s candy for sale in the gas station checkout? Yes, yes, yes… and let me pull over to get that.
I knew that there was significant research that said awareness itself changes behavior. That’s why there are those solar powered speed limit signs that tell you how fast you’re going and there’s calorie counts on display signs in California.
So, at the end of last year I began entering everything (and I mean everything) I ate into MyFitnessPal on my phone.
It took about three weeks to stop being annoying. After that, recording what I ate became an easy habit. And as someone who likes tracking things, it became a fun game for me. (I know, that’s weird.)
Pretty quickly I began to see the shifts in my eating. Do I really want to have to write down that I ate a second donut? For the second day in a row?
Plus, since MyFitnessPal linked with my smart watch, if I went over my calories I could go for an extra walk to get myself back into the green for the day.
- I switched to five, pre-planned meals a day
One of the challenges I have had in the past with overeating is a fear of being hungry later. That is, if I eat a salad for lunch, will I be hopelessly starving at 3 pm? Better eat a giant burrito just to be safe that I don’t go hungry.
Two strategies helped me change this behavior:
i. Pre-plan my lunches – I identified lunch as my biggest problem meal of the day and the one I most wanted to fix. Why was lunch my biggest problem? Probably because it was separated from my family community. I eat breakfast and dinner with them and I want them to eat nutritious food, but lunch was just me.
So here’s what I do: each Monday morning I go to Trader Joe’s and buy pre-packaged salads and healthy snacks for my office. I also grill chicken breasts at home for the week’s lunches. After a couple of months, I zero’d in on TJ’s Southwest Salad (200 calories), which is now what I eat most work days, combined with a sweet potato (microwaved) and four ounces of chicken breast. (“What, every day?” I’ll get to the boredom part of this later).
ii. Add two small meals each day – This was helpful to me mentally. It really helps to know that I’m never more than a couple of hours away from another meal.
Mid-morning I have a protein bar (this one) and mid-afternoon I have a protein shake (using this blender in my office; two scoops of chocolate protein powder, skim milk, oats, peanut butter, and ice).
- Exercise became a scheduled part of each day.
While changing what I ate was the primary vehicle for weight loss, exercise did help, too. It helped with burning calories, of course, but also with mental health and with feeling stronger in my body.
I know some people hate exercising but I actually enjoy it, especially now (Last January? A little less so).
Of course, finding time to exercise is tough. I get it. As a dad, husband, pastor, and doctoral student I didn’t exactly have time to just hang out at the gym. And as someone who… how can I say this gently…. sweats like a pig, exercise can’t exactly be wedged in between appointments.
So, what did I do?
First, I embraced walking. In an inversion of Churchill’s maxim, I considered what I could do walking instead of sitting. My job is sedentary, for the most part. But could I read while walking? Sure, if I embraced audiobooks. Could I write sermons while walking? Parts of them, sure, as long as I didn’t mind people seeing me carry papers and mouth words on the street (masks helped with that one).
Second, I embraced cheesy, late night infomercial exercise videos. Because gyms closed in March (and have been off and on open since then), I had to stop going to Anytime Fitness on my lunch break. I replaced it with P90X3 and then Insanity Max 30. They’re loud, they’re a little annoying… but they’re also reliable, very low cost (especially when a good friend loans the DVD’s to you – thanks, Michael), and efficient. And since I was eating pre-packaged salads for a quick lunch at my desk I had time to workout during the day.
4. Embraced the habit cycle
At the start of the year, these changes took huge efforts. But as the year has gone on they are easier and easier. Why? Why do some things come so naturally and others seem impossible? And can we choose what to put in each column?
Two books I’d recommend: Atomic Habits by James Clear and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
Both books outline how we can leverage the habit loop to benefit us. Without rehashing each of the books here, the bottom line for me was figuring out:
a. What were my triggers for unhealthy eating? (Exposure to unhealthy foods; lack of an eating plan; boredom)
b. What reinforcements helped me want to practice good habits? (Hope of it making a difference; that I could have a protein shake after I worked out)
5. Cultivated the mental shifts needed for change
a. It’s okay if my meals are boring.
Yes, eating healthy is boring sometimes. But fast food is boring, too. I can eat repetitive, boring meals like salads most of the time and be just fine. Plus, there’s plenty else in the world to be fascinated by.
I’m not saying that I don’t want to cook or eat something exotic. I do! But think of it this way: There are almost 100 meals a month. If I eat five truly interesting ones a month, that leaves 95 other ones that are fuel to live on. Better make those 95 nutritious and healthy.
b. “What do I need to eat?” is a better question than “What do I want to eat?”
Let’s be honest: “What do I want to eat” got me to 273 pounds. My desires around food are not an impeccable guide. I want to eat french fries. Lots of them. But I don’t need french fries. I need leafy greens, high vitamin fruits and veggies, lean proteins, certain carbs, and some dairy.
c. There will be more food available when I need it. I don’t need to fill up like a camel. And so what if I’m hungry for a bit?
I have lived an embarrassingly blessed life when it comes to food. I have never experienced food insecurity or had to really worry about whether there would be something to eat tomorrow.
Yet I would still feel the need to eat more than necessary out of concern that I wouldn’t have another meal for a number of hours later. Shifting my mind to expecting that more food would be available and that I was durable enough to withstand hunger were necessary shifts for me.
d. This is going to take a while. That’s okay. I’m not on a diet. I’m just living a healthy life.
There were a lot of moments this year that it was discouraging not to have made more progress more quickly. (I know, I know, 50 pounds in a year is a lot of progress – but it doesn’t feel like it when you haven’t lost 1 pound in two weeks during certain stretches).