How I lost 50 pounds this year (part 2 of 2)

Previous: “Why I lost 50 pounds this year

“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?”

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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).

Seven reasons why I lost 50 pounds this year (part 1 of 2)

At the end of 2019, shortly after the birth of our third child, I weighed 273 pounds. At 6’3, that meant that I was 33 pounds into the “obesity” part of the BMI chart and 73 pounds overweight. I was eating terrible and felt sorry for myself. I was moderately active (playing with my kids and playing ice hockey once a week), but I knew my health was going in the wrong direction. People in my family have developed type II diabetes and I could see that I was following their footsteps if something didn’t change. 

Almost every week when I’d drive home from my hockey game, I’d fantasize about how things would have gone differently if I had been in better shape. And when I’d get dressed for work, I’d complain about how nothing seemed long enough to cover my stomach (outwardly blaming it on my height but knowing it was my weight). 

So, I decided to do something about it. And today I weighed in at 222 pounds, down 51 pounds from my weight at the beginning of the year. 

November 2020 – 222 pounds

Since I often get asked, “How did you lose the weight?”, I thought I would put down what worked for me. I do so with some sheepishness, though, knowing that listening to other people talk about their weight loss can be boring, annoying, or worse. I don’t offer these thoughts from a place of superiority or triumph; after all, the only way to lose this much weight is to gain far too much weight in the first place. And I realize that I benefit from a number of factors (age, gender, physical ability, lack of food allergies, access to nutritious food) that make this easier for me than for others. Plus weight is dynamic; who knows that I will not be even heavier in a decade than I was last year?  Additionally, I’m not a dietician and I don’t know if how I lost weight is a good plan for you. 

November 2019 – 273 pounds

Last thing: I have no interest in shaming anyone about their weight. I have found that when people ask me about weight loss, they are thinking about their weight, not their own. They are either looking for a strategy they can use or an excuse they can have. I get that. While I think that losing weight has been helpful for me, it may not be for you. I’m happy to encourage you, but have no interest in making you feel bad. 

So, how did I lose 50 pounds?

I came to grips with why health mattered to me.

For me the “Why” portion was more important than the “How.” When I was heavier I understood the problems with fast food, eating added sugar, and my approach to food in general. The problem was not a lack of head knowledge, but rather a problem of the will that came out of a posture of the heart. As a Christian, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me: As Romans 7 makes clear, it is one thing to know the right thing to do; it’s a whole other to have the desire to do it. 

I’ll write another post soon on the practical “how” questions – what I ate, how I developed habits, what apps I used, etc. But those things all required the energy of “why.”

So, why did I lose weight?

1. I am a bodied person who is as fragile as anyone else – I’ve been blessed with terrific health in my life. I say “blessed” because it is true: I haven’t done anything to deserve it (quite the opposite, actually). But that doesn’t mean that I am impenetrable. Part of middle age is realizing that while my death is inevitable, how I live between now and then is (in part) up to how I treat my body. I know that there are some who claim that Christian theology who would deny this – they say that pure faith will heal us of any disease. That’s a dangerous heresy called the “Prosperity Gospel.” It is better to consider Paul’s words about our contribution in preparing ourselves physically and spiritually.  

1 Timothy 4:8 – “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

2. No one else is responsible for my body – This sounds weird coming from someone who is almost 40, but I needed to recognize that no one else is responsible for my physical health. I’m an adult. While people can be helpful in providing encouragement, support, and community, it’s no one else’s fault if I “have to” grab fast food for lunch. It was helpful for me to consider the outside forces that affected my relationship with food and health: my family of origin, my marriage, my responsibilities as a father, my workplace habits, and my American culture. But there’s a difference between being aware of those things and abdicating responsibility to them. 

3. It is an act of love to my family, my church, and my neighbor – My obesity was a small burden for those near to me now and threatened to become a large burden as I got older. Deciding that I would voluntarily limit my energy and mobility while increasing my risks of stroke, diabetes, and so many other illnesses meant that I was saying, essentially, “I don’t want to care for my body now, but I expect you to care for me later.” 

This has only come into sharper relief during COVID. While I’m not hugely fearful about COVID, I am aware of the role that obesity plays in the morbidity rates of COVID, both directly and through diabetes. 

Obligatory fat pants picture

4. This is a season of preparation – A few years ago I was struck by John Maxwell saying, “The wise man uses his younger years to create options for his later years.” What do I want my later years to look like? Am I able to integrate my current self with the potential of a seventy-five year old version of myself?

5. Because obesity is painful – There’s a saying about change: Change only comes when the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change. And the problem with excessive weight is that the pains obesity brings are dull (aches, strains, embarrassment, shame, etc) or they are in the future (potential heart disease, future risks of cancer, etc). So my challenge was bringing that pain into the present, pain I have developed a lot of defense mechanisms to avoid. 

6. Christian maturity is measured in part by being self-controlled – There are a lot of virtues that develop as part of growth in the Christian life (in part shown in the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5). One of the fruit of the Spirit virtues is “self-control.” It is the mark of an elder (1 Timothy 3:2). Young men are specifically exhorted to develop self-control (Titus 2:6). 

So, how can I say that I value self-control when I need a whole bag of sour apple gummies? For me, the excuse was how self-controlled I was in other areas. I don’t drink, control my temper and tongue, etc. But self-control is a good to benefit from, not a limit to be restrained by.

Will power seems to be a limited good (according to social science research). But self-control has a spillover effect. The more I develop self-control in one area, the more it helps in other areas. (More on how I used my limited will power to cultivate self-control in the next post).

7. It is an act of love for my spouse – As with most happily married men, I could say, “Why lose weight? Who do I have to impress?” In fact, I did make the mistake of saying that to my wife once. While she was gracious with me, it was clear that she would like for me to want to still impress her. And I want to give her the gift of a husband whose body she finds as attractive as possible. Will I ever look like a 25 year old male model? No, but there are increments of value between that and apathetic obesity.

Coming up next: How I lost 50 pounds this year