The "Secret" to Successful Weight Loss
Shedding pounds with reason-based dieting.
Posted Aug 14, 2019
Apologies if this sounds like some kind of gimmicky pitch, but I lost 40 pounds and kept them off—and you can too!
I never expected to be writing those words. Like many adults, however, I saw my weight creep up over the years, until eventually, about three years ago, I was tipping the scale at an unhealthy 208 pounds. My doctor informed me that I was 25 pounds over the high end of my healthy weight range, setting myself up for serious health issues going forward. Clearly, I had to do something.
Rather than turn to the latest popular diet, I decided to take a reason-based approach. That is, instead of following the dictates of some trendy diet prescription—"eat this, don't eat that," etc.—I tried to understand the subject in a more holistic way. Why had my weight crept up over the years? What should I be eating? I looked at the established facts surrounding weight control and healthy eating, and tried to apply rational thinking to my situation. No fads, no miracle diets. The result was not a quick fix to deliver temporary weight loss, but changes in thinking about food and diet that resulted in sensible lifestyle adjustments.
That was in early 2017. Almost immediately I started losing weight slowly but steadily, a couple of pounds or so per week at first, a bit slower as time went on, until I leveled out six months later at about 170. I’ve hovered around that weight for the last two years, weighing in this morning at 168.
I realize that this kind of weight loss—40 pounds—is far from miraculous. Yet I frequently see others struggle to lose weight, and I’m often asked about my “secret.” For those who may be interested, here’s a rundown on the thinking and actions that I applied:
Calories in, calories out. A well-balanced diet requires lots of careful consideration, but the narrow science of weight loss is fairly straightforward: You simply need to burn more calories than you consume. Absent a medical condition that is causing weight gain or obstructing weight loss, the “secret” to losing weight is to live a lifestyle that has you ingest fewer calories than you burn.
It’s diet, not exercise. Exercise burns calories, and there’s no question that exercise is important to overall health, but it’s not the key to losing weight. A two-mile jog might burn about 200 calories—fewer calories than one bagel. If you are seriously overweight, it would take an enormous amount of jogging to burn away all those excess pounds. From a practical standpoint, the effective way to shed calories is at the point of entry: Develop good eating habits. Exercise for your health, but look at your diet to address weight loss.
“Discipline” isn’t the solution. Psychologically, if you are convincing yourself that "discipline" will be your means of eating well, you might be setting yourself up for failure. A "discipline" mindset suggests that there is something truly desirable that we can resist only with great effort. Discipline is imposed on us by authority figures, or we impose it on ourselves. As such, we can sometimes be disciplined for a period of time, but eventually, we tire of it and we break down and return to our undisciplined ways. Therefore, don’t psych yourself up to be disciplined—instead, approach food with an attitude of being informed and intelligent, and having a sincere desire to develop healthy eating habits for life.
Recognize the obstacles to good habits. While good habits are more effective than discipline in leading to long-term dietary success, it’s nevertheless important to recognize the obstacles we face, biologically and culturally, in developing those good habits. Some of the major ones include:
- We are wired to overeat. We are the product of millions of years of evolution, and we carry the same genes that helped our ancestors survive in the wild amidst famines and droughts. Those genes, unfortunately for us, encouraged our ancestors to gorge. We, like our forebears going back millennia, carry a natural biological impulse to pack on calories when they become available. When you sit on the sofa and inhale a bag of potato chips or box of crackers, licking your lips to enjoy every last grain of salt, you are only doing what kept your ancestors alive in an environment of scarcity. The overeating impulse had survival value in such conditions, but it’s important to understand that the impulse is truly dangerous in a society that makes caloric overload possible on a daily basis.
- The double-edged sword of abundance. If obesity is partly the result of our success as a society in making food abundant despite our natural inclination to overeat, that problem is magnified by the nature of our economic system, which makes poor-quality foods such as processed foods with added sugars, salts, and preservatives the most readily available and heavily marketed. We should admire our success as a society in making food abundant, but it’s important to recognize our individual responsibility to consume the good stuff and not the junk.
Next steps. Armed with this knowledge, I considered my specific situation and analyzed my typical daily diet. What I found is that I had several bad habits that were causing me to ingest too many calories almost every day. I was actually pretty good most of the day, but my dinners were generally too excessive. Worse yet, I also had a bad habit of continuing my high-calorie eating with unhealthy snacks after dinner. Looking even closer, I found that most (but definitely not all) of my excessive calories tended to be carbohydrates—cereals and breads at breakfast and lunch; piles of rice, potatoes, pasta, and more breads at dinner; and sugary and salty processed snacks. If you’re seriously interested in weight loss, a similar honest assessment of your own typical diet is a must, for this will help you see where your problems lie.
After the assessment, I made a simple decision to alter my diet to eat less and to eat healthier. This latter point meant fewer low-quality sugars, starches, processed foods and fried foods, and more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It also meant that, despite carbs being a bigger caloric problem than proteins, I should cut back on meat consumption as well. Though I didn’t feel that I was in a position to go completely vegetarian, I did make a conscious decision to eat less meat (and no red meat or processed meats). Fish and chicken are the meats of choice.
A typical day will start with a cup of black coffee upon waking, then a small glass of juice with a multivitamin before I head out the door. Maybe a handful of raisins too. I have breakfast itself—two or three pieces of fruit (always rotating the types)—when I get to the office. This will often carry me right through the morning without another thought being given to food. I’ll usually have some water nearby, which tends to satisfy any small pang of hunger I might experience during the morning. And if I still get hungry before lunch, I have a stash of almonds and other assorted nuts and seeds (never salted) nearby to snack on, always delicious in the late morning and effective in keeping the appetite under control.
For lunch, my favorite is nothing exotic—a peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread, with a glass of either cashew, almond, or low-fat dairy milk. I’ll also enjoy another handful or two of raisins, and this normally carries me through the day. Again, if a pang of hunger hits during the afternoon, it is easily assuaged with some water and some nuts and seeds. Nothing fancy, but healthy and satisfying.
Dinner can vary quite a bit, but fish, good salads, and plenty of vegetables are common. A little rice, potatoes, or pasta is fine, but the portions must be kept small, and absolutely no seconds on those. Seconds on veggies and salads, however, are always good. Meatless meals, such as eggplant dishes or vegetarian burgers or sausages, can be great when done right.
If you eat well all day, you can even enjoy a snack before bedtime—a small sandwich, a Greek yogurt, or maybe even a scoop or two of ice cream or a few crackers with cheese or hummus. Your body can handle the snack without gaining weight because your caloric intake has not exceeded what you’ve burned, especially if you’ve been active during the day. (And you should be active, not so much for weight-loss reasons, but for your health.)
Things to keep in mind. When you really start analyzing your food intake, you come to better understand your cravings. One thing I learned is that it really doesn’t take much to satisfy hunger. Small portions are usually enough because if we are mindful of our cravings and take appropriate steps, huge quantities of food at the dinner table and elsewhere are not needed to extinguish hunger. If we step away after just modest eating and focus on activities that take our minds away from food, we find ourselves quite satisfied and not at all hungry.
For this reason, habits such as keeping your original portions modest in size, and keeping pans that are filled with additional servings off the table and out of reach, will help you avoid overeating. Also, when you’ve finished eating your original portion, get up right away and do something else. Start doing the dishes and talk to your family from the dishwasher. Dinner conversations can continue, but you aren’t heaping more food onto your plate and into your mouth.
Another thing that you will likely discover in monitoring your eating habits is that excess calories are often consumed for comfort in times of boredom. For this reason, having activities to engage yourself can be important. Coaching a softball team might not actually burn many calories, but it gets you out of the house and away from the refrigerator. The same with a book club or any just about any other activity. If you do find yourself sitting in front of the TV, remember the healthy snacks—fruits, vegetables, and nuts are fantastic—and avoid the bowl of chips or sweets.
Throughout this process, and perpetually into the future, you will be more likely to stay on track if you remember that you are not on some fad diet, but that you have rationally assessed your lifestyle and made permanent adjustments based on sound evidence. You understand yourself, your biology, your psychology, and your culture, and you have intelligently addressed a key health issue—your choices about food intake. Sure, you may still have occasional days when you eat poorly, because our culture will almost inevitably make that happen from time to time, but you will not “fall off the wagon” and return to your old habits. You will lose weight, you'll feel better about yourself, and you’ll keep it off.
All of this, of course, assumes otherwise good health, and it’s always smart to discuss dietary issues with your doctor before embarking on any course that will radically change your habits. But recognizing the importance of your thinking and your habits is the first step to making real, permanent changes that can greatly improve your health and your life. If you are taking these steps, I wish you success and I invite you to share your story with me.
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