Chubby. I hate being chubby. And yet, that has more or less been the word for me for most of my adult life.
Sometimes the word is slightly kinder, sometimes slightly meaner: A neighborhood blog once described me as “jolly.” ACK. My relatives in India would often generously choose “healthy.” When trying to decide if I was attractive, I’d go with “robust.” My Dad, on the other hand, ever the voice of compassion, would go with “fat.” My scale, going off body mass index calculations, says “overweight” at best and “obese” at worst, and while that is a little ridiculous (and science agrees), you get the picture. Too Much ‘Deep is the norm more often than not.
And then in February of this year, I had to coin a new phrase: I had hit ‘DEEP MAX, the most ‘Deep EVER RECORDED! 218 lbs! GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! 😱😭😵😲 GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
For some perspective, I’m 5’ 11”, and in my book, 190 lbs is “Good”, anything less than 200 lbs is “OK”, and 205 lbs or over is “Oh lordy NO!” I would have given anything to be merely “chubby” again. Something had to be done, and yet I had little hope.
When it comes to my weight, I feel constantly mired in failure, and for good reason: my weight seems to only ever climb, and my efforts to combat this fact always seem to fail. Amidst the despair, I’m left in the crush of a desperate need to fix it and a certainty that nothing ever works. Yep, it sucks.
And yet today, 3 months after ‘Deep Max, I’m actually excited about my weight. WHAT?! Seriously, for me this is a big deal. I have found something that, at least for now, is working, and working amazingly well. And more importantly, I think it might work long term. And most importantly, it is more fun than it is hard. Whoa.
My Weight Since Last Summer
(from my Withings smart scale)
So, if you’re at all interested, read on. I think everything I’m doing should be applicable to most people, even if you’re not interested in the tech part1.
So earlier, when I mentioned that my weight only ever climbs, it turns out that while the “truthiness” of that statement is unquestionable, the actual truth is slightly better (though only slightly.) There have been two previous times, amidst the many, many failures, that things have gone well. Since they were the precursors of what is working so well now, I think they’re worth noting for all the dos & don’ts I picked up, but if you just want to skip ahead to what I’m doing now, click here.
The ‘Deep of Steel Program
The first positive episode was the ‘Deep of Steel program in the early 1990s, where a friend of mine (thanks Ian!) decided to help me lose weight through exercise. Basically, the idea was that I, then the “‘Deep of Mayonnaise” (~ 215 lbs) would hit the gym until I became the “‘Deep of Steel.” It began at the end of my senior year at Duke and ended a few years later, about the time I moved from the South Bay to San Francisco proper. By the end, I was hitting the gym 3 times a week, had a personal trainer, and had made it through the “Cottage Cheese” and “Balsa Wood” stages and had arrived at the “‘Deep of Oak” stage: I weighed 175 lbs! DEEP MIN – my lowest adult weight. I was amazed at what a difference it made… for a while.
My progress lasted for maybe 3 years, but with a constant slow, steady and frustrating erosion until I had gained a good bit back and probably weighed around 200. What went wrong? Maintaining weight through exercise alone is pretty damn hard, and the science backs it up. In fact the science says it is pretty foolish [This is a great read.]. On top of that, I hate exercise – more accurately, I hate “going to do exercise”, but more on that later. Suffice to say that no matter how many times my trainer told me “soon you’ll love coming to the gym, and hate missing even a day!”, I always hated going to the gym. Every. Single. Time. HA-TED.
I should have known then that “officially exercising” was never going to work, but I had no other tools, and as they say, “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And really, the tool I thought was a hammer was really, in my case, a wet noodle. Sure enough, I spent years trying to go to the gym & trying to make progress, even getting more personal trainer time, but all that ever did was increase my frustration. One good break-up later and I was back at 215. ‘Deep of Mayonnaise 4ever!
Weight Watchers Online
Then in the early 2000s, the next big positive episode happened, and perhaps the most profound. I learned a good bit of what I needed to know about “How To Eat” and the results were AMAZING, and pretty damn long lasting.
It began when I ran into a friend who had been doing “Weight Watchers Online”, and he looked amazing. After learning more about it, & realizing there were no classes or meetings or anything, I signed up. Weight Watchers Online was essentially a system of calorie counting, and a website you used to track what you ate, using that system. For me, it was MAGIC. I lost about a pound a week consistently for maybe 10 months, so about 40 pounds! But even more importantly, for the first time in my life, I understood the relative value of what I was eating and had a framework for making good decisions about food: “You can have this pizza now, but then you better have a salad later”. It was a revelation!
As I’ve said, weight loss from that adventure lasted for a good long stretch, too. For three or four years I stayed with 5 pounds of 190 lbs, and then there was another four or five years where my weight started slowly inching back up, but I was ok with it, because I stayed around 10 pounds of 190 lbs. So for a good 8 or 9 years, I was pretty happy with my weight. That was the longest stretch of my adult life.
But over the last few years, my weight has slowly but surely trended up and up, mostly slowly, and for the past two years it has been like a rocket. For most of that time, I’ve tried calorie counting again and again, in hopes of progress and it hasn’t worked at all.
So what went wrong? Two things probably: I think my eating has never been as out of whack as it was back then, when I first did Weight Watchers Online, so all the subsequent times I’ve tried calorie counting have had much more muted results, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, calorie counting by itself is just lame.
How can I say that when it did me so right? The problem can be summed up from this quote from WeightWatchers:
“When we have a 100-calorie apple in one hand and a 100-calorie pack of cookies in the other, and we view them as being “the same” because the calories are the same, it says everything that needs to be said about the limitations of just using calories in guiding food choices.”
Counting calories is only half a framework for what to eat. It tells you a lot about portion control and stuff, but it doesn’t tell you anything about WHAT to eat. (WeightWatchers has updated their program to reflect this evidently, and if you are just starting out trying to control your weight, I’d still highly recommend giving it a try.)
So by the end of 2012, my weight was staying just below the panic point (205 lbs) and I was once again unhappily “chubby.” Worse still I had no tools to deal with my weight: I half heartedly tried to exercise more, but saw no results; I desperately tried to calorie count again, but also saw no results. I was growing increasingly desperate. And depressed. Then my wife won a pair of Fitbits, and so began yet another TRULY spectacular failure. But one that sowed the seeds of my current success.
(from my Withings smart scale)
Fitbit vs Gelato: The Birth of Giuseppe, My Gelato Baby
The beginning of my doom was getting that Fitbit. Simple Fitbits are pedometers: they just count steps over time. And from that data they estimate how many calories you are burning. So when I got my Fitbit, I started marching around everywhere, counting steps, making sure I got in the recommended 10,000 steps a day. I was a CHAMP. I didn’t see my weight go down much, but I knew what was missing – Fitbit showed me how many calories I was putting out, so I just needed to start calorie counting again to know how many calories I was putting in. As long as Out > In, the pounds would have no choice but to evaporate. This time things were going to be different: I would win! (wrong!)
Armed with this naiveté, Kimberly and I set off to Italy on vacation. And even better, I left for Italy at a rare golden moment: I was at my target weight of 190 lbs (due to a completely unsustainable juice fast2.) I was feeling good and confident, all was well!
Since I don’t drink, don’t like seafood & try not to eat too much red meat, I was bored with Italian food pretty quickly. To compensate I ate gelato. Lots of gelato. But I was walking everywhere for hours and hours and hours at at time. My Fitbit gleefully told me I was burning ridiculous numbers of calories a day, far higher than what I was eating, including the gelato. And since I rarely enjoyed the food, why not have gelato. When you are walking 35K steps a day, four gelatos a day, no problem! Wheee!
So, so, SO, wrong. And that is how I returned home with Giuseppe, my gelato food baby. A solid 8 lbs of gelato-induced chub. And he was a tenacious little bastard. I figured I would drop back to normal within a few weeks of returning, but instead Giuseppe started putting on weight too! In fact, that was the start of the great ‘Deepsplosion that ended in me getting to 218 lbs (see pic above). I put on about 40 lbs in 2 years. Wow.
What went wrong? A couple of things leap to mind: 1. When you calorie count, it is pretty well established that you probably underestimate. 2. Estimating caloric output based on steps is probably pretty iffy, and 3. Most importantly, WHAT you eat is pretty damn important. There is just no way to out-walk a four-gelato-a-day vacation!
Now: The Great Tracking
All that brings us to now, and what I’m calling The Great Tracking (I would love a better name! Ideas?). It involves three things really:
- My Apple Watch has made my daily life into fun exercise
- Calorie Counting to keep track of amount of food
- A new sense of what to eat courtesy of Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”
The nugget of all this started when I got the Fitbit. I quickly realized that if I actually knew how many calories I was burning during the day, things could be much better. The thing I hate to do is “go to exercise,” but I do lead a very active life between things like walking, biking, and dancing. If I could somehow make those activities into workouts over the normal course of my day, I’d be much more likely to exercise. I could make my walks longer, I could make my bike rides more intense, I could motivate to go dancing more often. Just don’t make me go to the gym.
When the Apple Watch came out, one of the ways I rationalized buying one selling points was that since it tracked heart rate, it would be effective for counting how many calories I burned during the day. I could do it! I bought an Apple Watch immediately, though I didn’t focus on the health aspect until after ‘Deep Max due to the arrival of our baby. [Ed. note: Full disclosure, yes, I work for Apple, but you can probably do similar things with any fitness tracker that monitors heart rate.]
When I hit ‘Deep Max, I was desperate to make a change, and that is the very day The Great Tracking started. That day, I started calorie counting again with the app, LoseIt3, and also I told myself “Well, lets try to turn my normal walks with Baozi (our dog) into exercise.” I was a bit skeptical because in the end, it is just walking, and between that and the stopping to smell stuff, waiting to cross streets, & stopping to pick up poops, I didn’t think it would be active enough. But, I had nothing to lose, and was desperate to feel like I was doing something. The Apple Watch lets you track your exercise as you do it, so you can see things like your heart rate as you go, so I thought “OK, I’ll just walk the dog, but monitor my heart rate the whole time & try to keep it high.” So I gave it a shot. I decided I would just make sure that I was burning more calories (mostly by just walking the dog!) than I was eating and try to keep the difference as big as I reasonably could4.
Within two days of this, my scale stunned me: it was LOWER. That almost never happens! I thought it might be a fluke, or normal variation, but every time I weighed myself that week, things were slightly lower each time!
Around this time, the final piece of my plan fell into place, in the form of a PBS documentary. I had a path forward for exercise, and for how much to eat, but I was lost on how to approach what to eat.
The previous fall, as my weight had started climbing significantly, I had gone to a nutritionist to attempt to get a handle on my weight. They gave me all kinds of sane and sage advice, but honestly it left me confused and sad: The range of options I knew I could eat was limited because I didn’t have a way to assess what was good, and what was not so good, I just had a short list of approved foods and that was it. To make matters worse, this proscribed diet wasn’t helping: my weight kept climbing. I needed a philosophy around food that helped me make good choices. And note, making good choices also meant knowing when things like pizza, ice cream and cookies were OK.
Anyway, Kimberly was all excited about us watching a PBS program by the author Michael Pollan, called “In Defense of Food,” based on his book of the same title. After a few minutes of watching, my mind was blown: this was exactly the information I needed, in addition to being fun, fascinating, and really smart. In it, Pollan laid out a strong scientific, and eminently reasonable, perspective on food choices and covered things like:
- simple, sane guidelines for what to eat, i.e. what is a “good” food?
- how to not get caught up in good nutrients vs bad nutrients – concentrate on good foods vs bad foods
- why fiber & greens are actually important from a biological perspective (you can’t process them, but your microbiome can!)
- portion control
I can’t recommend it enough! If you don’t have access to it on your PBS station or online, (this might be most of it on YouTube?) I’d recommend getting the book (which I still need to read!) or watching one of his lectures on YouTube. (I’d also recommend this link, presenting some addendum and reasoned counterpoints.)
With all this floating around in my head, I kept plugging away and my weight really started dropping. And, it was more fun than it was difficult. Also, for me, since successful weight loss efforts are so rare, when one starts working I get really excited and motivation becomes easier. It always feels like getting thrown a rope when you are slowly sinking into quicksand. In fact, my excitement, and my Apple Watch, lead me to take the next logical step: more exercise than just walking my dog.
The Apple Watch, in addition to tracking exercise sessions, has a notion of tracking your daily calorie burn, as well as how often you stand, and how many minutes of exercise you do in a day.
It displays these as daily rings, and the purpose is two fold: one, to encourage you to “complete” each ring every day (to stand enough, to exercise enough, and to burn enough calories), and two, to encourage you to complete your rings for as many days as you can on end, making streaks of good days. As simple as this may sound, it is really fun and compelling. Once I noticed that my walks with Baozi were getting me a significant way towards filling in my daily calories ring, it was a short jump to trying to complete all my rings each day. And once I was in the business of completing rings, I kept pushing for longer and longer streaks. And as your streaks get longer, your motivation to keep them going gets stronger, so it is self reinforcing and it is fun. That’s the big surprise.
This is called gamification in the tech world, and it has really started to change my life. The magic here is that I’m more motivated in two different, self-reinforcing ways. The first is that since I now get “exercise points” for things I do anyway, that motivates me to do those things more intensely so as to make them into better exercise (more “points”). For example, I record all my longer bike rides as exercise now & find that I often choose hillier routes just so I get more credit. I do more errands by walking and try to walk faster when I do them. And surprisingly, it is all more fun, because I get to see how well I’m doing on my wrist. I love it. The second motivation is that now that I have a baseline of daily exercise, on days I come up short, I’m super motivated to actually “go and exercise” to close the gap. Yeah, the thing I have always hated, going to exercise, has become easy and fun. Now, it is not at all unusual to find me getting up from the couch at 11pm to make a last dash to make sure I finish that day’s calorie ring. Sometimes, it is as simple as walking up and down the stairs a dozen times, but other times it is feverishly pedaling up the biggest hills in my neighborhood by moonlight because I’ve had an all-too-sedentary day. I even went out and bought a jump rope the other day. Have I discovered a love for exercise? No, but chasing these damn rings is fun enough to keep me at it. 🙂 It’s working.
So here I am, 3 months after ‘Deep Max and I’ve lost 16 pounds, a little better than a pound a week. YIPPEE! At 202 lbs, I’m still too chubby for my tastes – there’s still Too Much ‘Deep, but I’m optimistic I can make it to my goal of 190 lbs, which LoseIt tells me I should make by July 10th. (I’ll update this blog post, regardless.) We’ll see! Fingers crossed. That would be awesome!
Of course the challenges remain, in the near term for example, calorie counting gets to be a chore, and there is unlikely to be a technological solution any time soon, and in the long term, the evidence suggests that my body will be fighting to get back to chubby no matter what I do [Both of these links are a great read.], so I can’t expect this to be too easy, but at least for now it is fun, and I’m psyched for that. Will it stay fun enough for the long term? Or at least fun enough? I hope so, because I’ve seen enough of what my body is genetically predisposed to look like (EEEK), to just let it go. But on the other hand, I feel like I have some really good tools these days & I don’t see why they can’t last.
Maybe someday the word won’t be “chubby,” it will just be “healthy.”
(Note that the tracking got so much better after I got a smart scale – I highly recommend getting one.)
1. Low Tech / Low Cost Options: As much as I love the technology angle of all this, I realize that it is not necessarily for everyone. If you have motivation problems like me ( a nice way of saying I’m lazy!) I really think these trackers make all the difference – but maybe you don’t. I think you can recreate a lot of what I’m doing with a low tech approach:
- If you’re pretty sedentary, get a simple pedometer, these aren’t hard to come by & just moving will no doubt help dramatically. Some state and local health agencies give them away for free. If you have a modern smartphone, many have built in step trackers.
- Use a calendar to track your streaks!
- If you choose walking as your daily exercise, just set out to walk 30 minutes every day (GET A DOG!) and try to break a sweat.
- Keep a tiny notebook with you and make a food log – just google “food log” or “food diary” & you’ll come up with lots of good stuff
2. I did a juice fast in an attempt to see if it would help my weight loss, and it kinda did. After the juice fast was over, my weight dropped about 7 lbs. But there is no way a juice fast is a sustainable lifestyle choice, and more importantly, the nutritionists and doctors I’ve talked to, tell me that, usually after a juice fast, weight drops a little and then comes back fast. I don’t recall why.↩
3. I’ve used both LoseIt and MyFitnessPal and liked them both. I had reasons for preferring each at one time, but I have forgotten the – sorry. Try them out or find a different one you like, there are a bunch of good ones.↩
4. When you use LoseIt, or MyFitnessPal or most calorie counting apps, they will allow you to eat more calories on days that you have worked out a lot, essentially giving you “bonus calories” for exercise. I tend to try to avoid using these, just to make the calorie deficit as big as possible. I wish you could easily turn this feature off in LoseIt (I even emailed them to ask!) ↩