Between December 2017 and February 2018, I lost 40lbs (~18kg). This was far more than I thought I could manage and in a rather crazy short time span. This blog post is an attempt to describe the changes I made (willfully or not) to make this happen. This isn’t intended as a recommendation or how-to, just an account.
First a bit of backstory
I was relatively fit most of my life growing up, playing soccer my whole life and later as a competitive mid-distance runner in track and field. I’m 5'7" (~170cm), I weighed about 140lbs/63kg at my peak fitness, and my PRs were:
- 800m: 1:57.98 (age 17)
- 1600m (~mile): 4:35 (age 16), with a time trial in fall of 2009 completing 1400m in 3:56 in flats (age 18, ~4:25 mile converted w/ spikes)
I attempted to continue training through fall of my freshman year of college in an attempt to walk on at Texas, but started experiencing severe lower back pain when I ran. I did physical therapy for about 6 months with little success (my core was/is really weak due to lordosis, and with some weight gain it seemed to make it more of an issue), and stopped training in that time. By the end of freshman year, I was up to 155lbs but could still run a sub-5 mile on residual fitness.
Over the next few years in college, I continued to gain weight, rising up to ~195lbs by my final (5th) year. Most of this was due to just eating more in bigger portions. Growing up, my mom prepared almost all my meals, and in hindsight did an amazing job of ensuring I had a balanced diet. A lot of this went out the window once I was living on my own. I wasn’t particularly happy with my fitness by then, but I also was in a pretty good place as far as life/direction/social/etc aspects were concerned, so I didn’t feel much pressure to change anything. After graduating and moving to California in 2014, I stayed around 195 for the better part of the first year. After a breakup in 2015, I temporarily dropped to ~180lbs within a few weeks, which in hindsight was the first sign that I could lose weight rather quickly (though preferably under happier conditions). I experimented with calorie tracking around this time for a bit too via the Lose It app a friend referred me to. I snapped back to 195 fairly soon after though, and gradually went up to ~205 over the next two years. This brings things to December last year.
During the last few years, my diet has largely looked like this:
- Two meals per day (lunch and dinner). Night owl and late riser, so breakfast wasn’t/isn’t much of a thing for me
- Dinner portions tended to be really big, often with a lot of snacking while cooking and second helpings later
- Dinner tended to be late, often after 9pm
- ~1 soda per day, usually coke. Sometimes 2–3 on weekends
- Meals were a mix, sometimes really fatty/unhealthy stuff like pizza and sometimes balanced stuff like chicken and a vegetable.
- ~1 mocha/hot chocolate type drink per day, usually socially
- ~1–2 beers/week, socially
- Football/soccer games a couple days a week
- Bit of a sweet tooth, specifically for sour skittles
Losing it part 1: Sick
First thing I should mention — this was not planned. It became an organic new year’s resolution after it started. It started because in December 2017 I developed a condition called Esophagitis, and in turn suffered from severe dysphagia (trouble swallowing). This was because of acid reflux damage I’d accumulated over the past couple years, and basically my throat would feel constricted and I couldn’t eat solid food. This went on for about two weeks, leaving me on a mostly crackers-and-water diet.
Common causes of acid reflux were basically a checklist of all things I was doing: drinking a lot of acidic (carbonated) drinks, sleeping on my stomach, eating late/soon before bed, etc. So, during this time I was put on a cocktail of antacids while my throat was given time to heal. I also stopped drinking soda and started forcing myself to sleep on my back (this was the hardest part of this whole process).
Fast forward to Dec 29th, I went to the doctor after returning from doing Christmas with family in Portland. I was experiencing possible the worst cold of my life, and I’d had a panic attack on the flight due to my throat having an episode of feeling constricted. I’d never had a panic attack before and it was an immensely disturbing experience. Since they tend to have aftershocks (and I did have another smaller one the day after I got back), the doctor recommended I not drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks for a few weeks to avoid things that would make me feel jittery. I weighed myself during this visit and had dropped to 195lbs (with clothes on), so a little over 10lbs lost now.
Losing it part 2: Dieting
Considering the head start I had, plus not having much of an appetite with the cold, I decided to embrace this. I could feel the weight loss in my clothes (they were feeling increasingly looser), so I ordered a Withings scale and downloaded the Lose It app again. The scale arrive January 4th, and my first weigh in was 188lbs, so down ~7 more lbs from the doctor visit on the 29th. I’d mused the idea of losing weight plenty of times the past few years, and had a magic number in my head of 165lbs as something that was ambitious but still realistic. I think 155lbs is my sweet spot weight based on the end of my freshman year, but that seemed an unrealistic goal. So, 165lbs was the goal. It was also the only goal. I explicitly didn’t want to fall into the trap of overcommitting to a bunch of things (gym, healthier food, caloric intake, etc) and risk feeling unnecessary failure. From past experience and from observing others, these seemed to just add stress, and I wanted things to feel organic.
So, I was using Lose It to track calories (to just understand my intake better, not to stay within a budget). I could eat normal food again by this point, but continued to keep soda and carbonated drinks out of the picture until the end of my antacid course. During the sickness, the first few days of basically not eating were hard, but eventually I sort of basically “got over it”. Friends that do intermittent fasting said this is pretty normal too. I also learned some tricks in this time for tricking my body into feeling full, such as chugging water with meals and eating a couple saltine crackers with it. This is still what I use now to tide myself over at times that I feel hungry when I shouldn’t (late at night, after dinner/lunch).
Meals went back to lunch/dinner, but basically I would eat half of what I’d normally have considered a portion, and drinking water often during the meal. I’d feel full, but most of it was from the water, which would subside in time. I also completely stopped snacking while cooking. I like cooking, but since meals would take awhile to cook, I would snack on chips or other things while I was cooking/waiting. I suspect that this would often amount to an entire meal in itself, which would then of course be followed by the actual meal. Also, if I had a big lunch and didn’t feel particularly hungry at dinner time, I just wouldn’t eat.
Another thing I started doing more was cooking meals in advance and just eating the leftovers later. This is obviously a bit extreme and not something I plan to continue rigorously, but it was an interesting experiment. My theory was that I would be hungrier after thinking about the food for an hour and subsequently give myself a bigger portion, versus just setting up a quick portion of leftovers that I could size appropriately. So, I would eat, and then cook food for the next few days. This was based largely off of the principle that you should eat before you go grocery shopping too. I’ll probably continue doing this to some degree, but mostly because it’s easier to cook in batches and have left overs, and not necessarily to avoid bigger portions at the time.
I focused solely on this portion control for the first couple weeks of January, before starting to incorporate more emphasis on fitness. I think a key part of the success during this time was that I didn’t change what I ate, just how much. Some of the frustrations I’ve heard from friends trying to diet is dissatisfaction with changing their diet drastically, and I’m sure I would hit the same friction. Instead, I continued to enjoy chili, tacos, garlic chicken, and my other go-to’s that I like to cook.
Losing it part 3: Fitness
When I got down to ~180lbs, I decided to try going for a run. I’d played a couple of soccer games and been pleasantly surprised to find that my back wasn’t bothering me. I suspect that this was partially because of feeling lighter, but mainly because of the switch to sleeping on my back. I knew that sleeping on my stomach stressed my lower back, but I was surprised to find that even after just a few weeks, sleeping on my stomach was actually uncomfortable enough now to wake me up in the middle of the night. This marked basically the first time in years that I’d enjoyed a run, and describing that familiar feeling is not something I can easily put into words.
I tried to be intelligent about this, not just jumping back into a regular grind and trying to go by feel. I only ran on Sunday the first week (along with the stair workout and soccer game I was already doing tues/thurs), then the following week I did Sunday/Monday. I bought an Apple watch that weekend to track my runs and activity (again, not to hit a goal, but rather just to track). Stair workout Tuesday, then rested hard on Wednesday (my “activity” tracker for that day is hilariously low), then soccer game Thursday, then ran again Friday and Sunday (with a long day of walking on Saturday). I was rather amazed with how good I felt during this period, and dropped to ~170lbs in this time, getting me to the end of January. That 165lb goal was in my sights.
On Jan 30 I traveled to London for the beginning of a 5 week trip working remote. This was always going to be a more interesting test of keeping my dieting going, but at the same time also seemed likely to help (I eat less on trips, and walk a lot more in Europe). A few days after arriving, I hit 165.
I gained a lot of free motivation in all this with how well things were going, and used that to try to improve other areas. Little things like ensuring I brush my teeth at least once (often twice) a day, choosing to walk more, finally seeing a podiatrist again about my long term plantar fasciitis, etc. Each of these felt organic, and not like added chores I was imposing on myself, and I think that’s played a key role in making them stick.
Running came back quite quickly, I think because it mentally was familiar territory. In the 3 weeks between when I started running again, I progressed from a painful hilly 2.5 mile run at ~10min/mile pace to 4.7 (flatter) miles at 7:46 pace.
There’s a convention that 1lb of fat is ~3500 calories deficit, but for me it seems to be closer to 1000 calories.
Weight would go through dips, taper off a couple days, then dip again. I would weigh myself in the mornings and evenings, with mornings unsurprisingly being the lowest points. Mornings were the weight I went by as they were most consistent, but it was also interesting to see how different foods affected my weight at the end of the day.
- Average overall weekly loss across ~7 weeks → ~5.83lbs
- Average caloric intake (January+) → ~1000–1200cal per day
- Average daily “active energy” (January+, no exercise days) → ~2200cal
- Average daily “active energy” (January+, exercise days) → ~2600cal
As mentioned above, this is meant to be an account of what happened, and definitely not anything remotely resembling advice. My approach wasn’t exactly scientific or probably the healthiest, but it worked for me. Some things I would recommend though:
- Not eating after ~8:30pm
- Cut out obvious unnecessary contributors, like snacking
- The crackers + water trick works really well for satiating hunger at times when you shouldn’t be or otherwise really want to eat
- Chugging water during meals often makes a big difference in feeling full quickly
- Stick to food you like. If you whole sale try to change how much you eat and what you eat, it’s a lot harder. Especially if you have to learn to cook new things or otherwise be picky.
- Adopt changes organically. Go by feel, and focus on consistency.
This was originally posted on my Medium account, but I've migrated to this personal blog.