How to Eat Through Losing 200 pounds in 2 Years

So I'd decided to lose weight.  I was more than willing to make that possible, but I'd tried to diet in the past, and it never stuck.  Don't try to diet, my girlfriend told me.  Instead, make some sustainable changes and see what happens.  She wanted to get back into the shape she was in when she was a model and participate in fitness competitions, and she suggested we could push each other.  I had never thought about it from that perspective, and having someone in it with me was a welcome change.  We outlined several changes I should make, and I was more than willing to give them a try.  I now had a mission.

Over the course of the next several months, I built a new way of living.  I started with just a couple of changes, and once I had embraced and gotten used to those, I'd move on and add another.  Lifestyles are built over time, so expecting anyone to be able to change everything they do overnight is unrealistic.  Playing the long game is key.

Ultimately, losing weight is just a game of numbers.  Burn more calories than you consume and you lose weight.  That part's pretty simple.  The key is to figuring out how to sustainably and happily consume less and burn more.  The types of foods consumed to take in calories and the activities used to burn them matter.  I'll talk about what I've done to burn more calories in a future post, but for now, here are the steps I've taken to improve the calories I take in.

Stop drinking soda.  This was the first change made.  I was heavily consuming diet soda, sometimes a two liter or more per day.  While I thought I was doing the right thing by drinking zero calorie beverages, studies have shown that the interaction of low-energy sweeteners with brain chemistry over time alters how your reward functions respond, which is why consumption of diet soda is actually linked to greater obesity.  I stopped cold turkey and, aside from a sip of the Coke from our minibar in Venice this year, I've not consumed a single drop of soda since.  That sip reminded me I'm not really missing anything.  Dropping soda has had two side benefits.  It's altered my taste perception and, while water used to taste flat and boring, it now tastes quite refreshing to me.  In addition, since soda had been my only significant source of caffeine, eliminating it from my diet has made my sleep much more regular as I've found it easier to both fall asleep and wake up in the mornings.

We made an exception on pasta in Venice.
Eliminate most carbs. Step two was eliminating carbs, particularly non-fibrous carbs, from my diet.  Carbohydrates promote insulin release, and insulin promotes storage of fat in adipose tissue (body fat).  Reducing carbs reduces the insulin response, thus reducing fat storage.  So I said goodbye to bread, pasta, sweets, pastries, and white rice.  Eventually, after noticing I'd tend to gain weight after eating any kind of rice, I greatly reduced the frequency I had rice of any kind to once every several days or weeks.  My carb intake has primarily been through vegetables, though as you'll see later, potatoes eventually joined the verboten list.

Target a reduced calorie count.  I had done calorie counting in the past with reasonable success, but doing that alone wasn't sustainable because so many of the foods I enjoyed tended to have higher calorie densities.  With the other changes to my daily diet, ongoing reduced calorie intake became possible.  I target between 1200 and 1600 calories per day, and I'm successful and satisfied most days.  The foods I'm taking in these days tend to have less calorie density, which greatly helps.  I have found that some restaurants are nearly impossible to eat well at, as even their salads are these 1800+ calorie monstrosities (I'm looking at you, Dave & Busters).  So I'm a lot more selective about where I eat and I examine menus more closely to find appealing options that are not as high calorie.

Remove juice and milk from daily consumption.  This was difficult to wrap my head around at first because as a kid I was taught these were important sources of nutrients.  But the problem is they're both filled with sugars.  I replaced drinking juice with eating the periodic whole fruit (often an orange), and I reduced milk to a cheat/reward day treat.  I've found that by eating healthier foods, I've not really missed the vitamin and mineral boosts that these beverages give.

Vegetable stew makes for a great series of meals in winter.
Increase vegetable proportions.  This was key.  Vegetables provide nutrients and most of them are much less calorie dense than other foods.  For example, the calories for a serving of rice is 206 while for a serving of green beans, it's 31.  Eating more vegetables has allowed me to eat almost the same volume of food while taking in fewer calories.  As a picky eater, it's not been easy, but I've been finding that preparing the vegetables I do like in a variety of ways helps keep things fresh and interesting.  I've particularly increased my intake of prebiotic vegetables like onions and leeks to help with my digestion.

Reduce red and other fatty meats.  Fat slows down digestion, and red meat can sit in your system for a while as a result.  I enjoy beef too much to eliminate it altogether, but I did make it a rarer treat.  My meat consumption has focused on poultry and fish, with the periodic uncured leaner portion of pork.  I'll tend to grill more than any other way of cooking meat.  I've also embraced the news that eggs are considered healthy options again, though I'll alternate between whole eggs and egg whites in my cooking.

Eliminate snacking.  I came to realize a significant portion of my pre-change calorie intake had come from food I'd consume between meals.  Snacking became more of an activity to keep myself happy or to help pass the time rather than a real response to hunger.  I decided not to allow for between-meal food except in instances where I was truly hungry and the next meal was still some time away.  In those cases, I decided to go with a vegetable-based snack, either a small salad or pickles.  Pickles in particular make good snacks because they're low calorie, provide a boost of Vitamin K, and those that are fermented (as opposed to pickled in vinegar) are probiotic.

Say goodbye to potatoes.  For the first year, I continued to include potatoes as a major part of my diet.  As a Midwestern boy, I grew up in a meat and potatoes kind of family.  I had some form of potato almost every day.  However, I plateaued in year two and my girlfriend convinced me to give up the potatoes to help break me out of it.  It worked, but it was perhaps the toughest part of my dietary changes I've made.  I now only have potatoes as a very rare treat.

Some places, like Jaleo in DC, make the tastiest salads.
A salad a day.  I'd been eating salads frequently, but during another plateau, I decided to make the pledge to eat a salad for at least one of my meals each day, and it really got me back on track.  Healthy salads are low calorie density.  I tend to go for a mix of greens, a healthy dose of peppers and onions, pickled vegetables when available, and a small amount of lean protein.  When I add cheese, I tend to go for the harder cheeses, preferably cotija.  I leave the croutons or chips aside.  And I go for a low calorie vinegar-based dressing.  I've also discovered that using dijon mustard as a dressing is low calorie and makes for a tasty addition to a salad already packed with flavor.

Embrace fasting.  This is the most recent addition to my regimen.  My girlfriend is a fan of fasting and has done 30-day water fasts in the past.  I've not embraced long term fasting, but I have been won over to the benefits of intermittent fasting in preventing physiological adaptations to set calorie diets.  I don't tend to plan my fasts, but instead have started adding them ad hoc to my routine when circumstances look unlikely for me to have healthy options for meals.  For example, my company loves feeding us well at events, meetings, and training courses, but often the options presented don't really allow for me to follow my usual regimen.  Instead of accepting the choices and declaring a cheat day, I now use this as an excuse to start a 24 hour fast.  Adopting this practice actually helped me break out of another plateau that let me lose the last few pounds to get to 200 lost.

I don't consider any of these things impossible changes to make, and I look at these changes as permanent and lifelong.  That doesn't mean I never treat myself, because I do.  The way I time and manage those treats is a topic for another post down the road.


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