New Year’s Weight Loss Advice

It’s come to my attention that many people make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight. I didn’t do that in 2010, but I did weigh almost 250 pounds on March 1, 2010 and this morning I weighed 180 pounds which goes to show that it’s possible to lose weight. So I thought this might be an opportune day to share some advice.

For me the saga began, appropriately enough, with the decision to pay for a few sessions with a personal trainer since I felt I wasn’t really getting much value out of my workouts. The trainer made a very persuasive admission against interest that if I was interested in losing weight I wasn’t going to achieve a huge amount working with him. Serious athletes obviously burn a ton of calories, and even modest amounts of regular exercise are good for you, but it’s just extremely difficult to burn a large number of calories in a short period of time. What’s more, people who burn more calories normally get hungrier. You need to reshape your whole relationship to food.

For me that meant first and foremost getting really serious about counting calories. You need to look up how many calories you likely burn in a day. And how many calories you would burn if you were at your goal weight. And you need to work out a planned pace of weight loss and figure out how many calories that leaves you to work with. On top of that you have to realize that you’re going to be eating calories you can’t count a certain amount of the time (over at a friend’s house for dinner, say) and it’d be smart to assume that you’ll overshoot on those occasions. Consequently, your target needs to be pretty aggressive, especially at first. Then you’ve got to start looking up how many calories are in things. Since you presumably don’t want to be agonizingly hungry all the time, you should start by really rigorously reducing your liquid calories. Black coffee, water, and Diet Coke are your friend. In terms of booze, try to go for straight liquor rather than beer and if you must drink beer drink Miller Lite, which has the highest alcohol/calorie ratio (another way of saying it’s basically water).

You need to start seeing which eateries in your area publish nutritional information and start studying this stuff. That’s for two reasons—one is that you need to know. The other is that based on what you observe you can make inferences about the calorie count of food at other places. I found a lot of this stuff to be really unintuitive or at least non-obvious.

In terms of cooking for yourself, you also need to count. I find that a pernicious semi-myth has arisen that cooking for yourself at home is healthier than eating out. Obviously, there are things that are true about that. But it’s also a bit of a puritan fallacy—losing weight requires some self-sacrifice, and so does eating out less. It turned out when I looked at it that, in practice, I was cooking a lot of awfully high calorie stuff for myself. That’s largely because I like the food that I cook for myself, so I was cooking (and eating) a lot of it. It was also in part an aversion to “waste.” If you’re cooking for one or two people, a lot of the stuff the sell in the supermarket comes in portions that are too big. There are lots of ways around this, including freezing the excess, saving leftovers for the next day, etc. But if you’re a person like me who has trouble with food related self-discipline, remember that it’s perfectly legal to throw a perfectly good chicken thigh in the trash if the pack of thighs you bought contains more chicken than you want to eat.

Pay attention to your snacking. I was snacking like a madman, it turns out.

In exercise terms, I’ve found it helpful to try to incorporate more physical activity into my everyday life. I started trying to walk faster when I go places. I work on the 10th floor, but I use the restroom on 11. I walk up the stairs in the morning to my office, and I usually walk up the stairs (3rd floor) to my apartment.

Weigh yourself once a day, at the same time of day, and keep track. Try not to drive yourself crazy by doing it more often than that.

Last: Travel. It’s hard to keep this up when you’re traveling. Certainly, I could have made faster progress were it not for the trips to China, Israel, Mexico, Germany, Vegas, Maine, California (twice), New York City (twice), and New Haven during the relevant period. That said, I traveled a lot and got the job done. So it’s possible. If you need to throw your regimen out the window for a week or a weekend, then so be it, you’ll take up where you left off when you get back. But common sense doesn’t go out the window. Just because you’re in Ramallah doesn’t mean you need to munch on crackers while blogging.

So that’s my advice to you, and I’d be grateful for advice from those who’ve achieved significant weight loss in the past about how to shift gracefully into “keep it off” mode.