Weight Loss, Not Nearly as Pleasant as Weight Gain

In the last few weeks, quite a number of people have asked me how I lost weight after I tipped the scales at 180lbs in high school [180lbs at 5’5” = BMI of 30 = obese. For photographic evidence click here.].  I suspect the holiday season and its customary gluttony has sparked an increased concern with weight loss.  I’m excited to see this concern PRIOR to an indulgent holiday.  Of course, the first step is never putting the weight on in the first place!  If that is somehow not a possibility [it should be!] or you still have weight to lose, I’ll let you in on my response to the recent questioning –

“It was painful!”

“I’m glad it is over because it was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life.”

Alright, I am being a little bit dramatic, but it is absolutely a contender for that #1 spot.  That may not be the case for everyone, but I suffer from an unfortunate confluence of several personality traits.

[1] I LOVE to eat to a downright pathological degree.  As an adolescent I ate voraciously, to the point at which no more food could physically fit into my digestive tract.  My body would occasionally express its displeasure by initiating nausea and vomiting several hours after attempting to process the extraordinary influx of food.  This happened on a near monthly basis for several years.  By high school I’d mostly figured out how to stop prior to my body’s breaking point, but I still had no real satiety signals to speak of.  That brings me to…

[2] My satiety signals are so meek, they might as well be non-existent.  This is very likely due to years of oppression, but even now I struggle to detect signals that I’ve eaten an appropriate amount of food.  This problem is compounded by the fact that portion sizes in United States have become so distorted, it is easy to forget what a normal human being should consume in a single sitting.  I have YEARS of nutrition training and even I need a reminder occasionally.  Thank you food scales and nutrition facts labels!

Am I full yet?

[3] I need to see results quickly, if not immediately or I will desist from a behavior that causes me discomfort.  Eating fewer calories, or even meticulously tracking food intake, is a mentally and physically exhausting endeavor.  I want steady and significant results, be it pounds or inches lost, or I will stop.  There’s no “slow and steady wins the race” with me.  If I can’t tell with an absolute certainty that I’m moving towards the finish line, why run the race?  Oh, did I mention I abhor cardio?

These three factors meant that weight loss was going to be painful.  I prefer to condense discomfort into the shortest timeframe possible.  It’s why I love powerlifting and sprinting, but hate marathons.  [If you can tolerate marathons, or even enjoy them, this weight loss strategy may not be for you.]  All that being said, there is still a pain-to-reward ratio I will tolerate.  After a little experimenting, I found an 800-1000kcal diet paired with 2 hours of moderate cardio 5 days a week was manageable. Barely.  [NOTE: This was my regimen to LOSE weight, not my permanent diet and exercise plan.]

Fed up with how her diet is going, Charlene takes more serious aim at her target weight.

Weight loss is not QUITE as simple as a numbers game.  The simplified [calories consumed] – [calories expended] = [weight loss or gain] is, just that, a SIMPLE equation.  There are nuances to this equation, ways to amplify weight loss, but if you’re not interested in understanding and sorting through these nuances, then weight loss can basically be boiled down to calories.  These little units of energy are relatively easy to keep track of and when you are trying to lose weight, they are the enemy.  If you are overweight, then you already have plenty of them stored in your corpulent body.

When I undertook my successful weight loss attempt my first semester in college, I only understood this simplified equation.  My numerous previous attempts at weight loss had involved diet pills and hours of cardio.  Needless to say, they were not successful.  The utilization of diet pills without modification of the underlying problematic diet combined with the law of diminishing returns with hours of cardio led to numerous failures.  When I started college, I had no real concept of what a “healthy” diet was or how many calories my body required to maintain proper functioning.  I only recognized that my diet needed modification.  Permanent modification.  Luckily for me, the food provided by Tulane University’s student dining hall did not meet the standards of my palate.  [In hindsight, I find this extremely humorous.  I’d become accustomed to a fast-food laden diet, but student dining hall food was not palatable.]  Upon falling ill after both occasions eating in the dining hall, I turned to Lean Cuisine to provide my sustenance.

Successful marketing led me to naively believe these meals were “healthy,” and they are reasonably so, but most importantly they are DRAMATICALLY lower in calories than the fast food I was accustomed to eating.  Three Lean Cuisine meals per day ≈ 1000 calories.  I’d cut my caloric intake from over 3000 kcals/day to 1000kcals [or less if I skipped breakfast].  The weight loss that followed was dramatic.  The caveat was… I was always dully hungry.  For the six months it took to remove the weight I’d managed to accumulate over ten years, I was ALWAYS hungry.

Here’s the simplified math.  [Again, remember this is simplified.  I cannot stress this point enough.  Everybody responds differently to caloric deficits.  The amount of muscle mass you have matters.  The macronutrient composition of your diet determines your hormonal milieu, which in turn affects how efficiently you utilize the fat stored in your adipose tissue.]

1lb of human fat ≈ 3,500 kcals.  [Explanation here.  Zoe Harcombe actually disagrees with utilizing this number, yet she does a pretty good job of explaining how the calculation can be derived. ]

Let’s hypothesize that, like me, you want to see results quickly.  [Remember that after you’ve lost the weight, you CANNOT go back to the diet that resulted in your becoming overweight or obese.  I believe anyone with any sense would realize that the behavior that got them in an unfortunate situation in the first place should not be resumed once they have extricated themselves from said unfortunate situation, but I’m covering all bases.]  Let’s say you want to see a 3lb weight loss per week.  We’ll use my former obese sedentary self as an example.

Caloric Requirements per day = 1900 kcals [Mifflin St. Jeor Equation]

3lbs of human fat ≈ [3 x 3,500] = 10,500 kcals

10,500 kcals / 7 days = 1500 kcals per day

1900 kcals normally used per day for bodily processes

-1500 kcals in order to remove a pesky 3lbs

= 300 kcals allowed per day.

Above is a simple explanation of why weight loss is painful.  [It also doesn’t take into account that as you lose weight, you must reduce calories further, since your caloric requirements per day will be reduced.  Yes, that means it’s even more painful.]  Even losing just 2lbs per week requires restricting daily caloric intake to 800kcals.  And obviously, you have to sustain this caloric deficit for longer than a week… At 18, I was 180lbs.  I reduced my weight to 140lbs.  That was a 40lb weight loss.  At a pace of 3lbs/week, a 40lb weight loss takes over 13 weeks.  That’s over 3 months.  Three months of eating only 300 kcals every single day.  Obviously, that’s a virtually impossible endeavor.  It ultimately took me about 6 months to get the weight off.  Even then, it was PAINFUL.  I’m not saying all this to dissuade people from undertaking the endeavor.  Quite the contrary, I strongly encourage people to attain a “healthy” weight.  That’s why I’m trying to explain, you have to be MENTALLY prepared for such an undertaking.

Ten more reps! Don’t crap out on me now!

For those of you cardio lovers who are upset I left energy expenditure out of the above calculations, you are not “burning” as many kcals as your think.

In brief, let’s return to my former self as an example.  I needed 1900kcals per day to maintain my weight.  That’s approximately 80kcals/hour [1900/24 = 79.167].  I’m simplifying again because more kcals are required during waking hours than during sleep.  After you chug along on the elliptical for an hour, let’s say the elliptical tells you that you’ve expended 400kcals.  That means you expended 400kcals INSTEAD OF the 80kcals you would have utilized had you just stood still.  Therefore the additional kcals “burned” over your baseline is 320kcals [400-80 = 320].  Woohoo!  If you’re still looking for that 3lbs lost per week [which requires you consume only 300kcals per day], on this ONE particular day you can consume 620kcals.  That one hour sweat session didn’t even cover that McDonald’s GRILLED CHICKEN sandwich [350kcals] you were going to reward yourself with.

I will no doubt have upset some people by suggesting that weight loss is always painful.  If you have more patience and you can sustain a 500kcal deficit in your diet [which would hypothetically result in a 1lb weight loss per week], then go for it.  Simply understand that you will have to employ this strategy for 10 months, assuming you never make any mistakes or face any setbacks.  Exam weeks? Birthday parties? Holiday festivities?  So, more realistically, a year or so of monitoring everything you eat and drink.

A year or more of monitoring my food intake and feeling deprived was too much for me to stomach.  I just wanted to get it over with.  I went “balls to the wall” or full throttle to finish the task in six months.  To all those people who warn that losing weight quickly is unhealthy, I would say “absolutisms are unhealthy.”  Sure, yo-yo dieting is not ideal.  If you can’t discover a sustainable diet to consume AFTER weight loss, then you’ll regain the weight.  However for some people, such as myself, dramatic weight loss is the jumpstart needed to make the necessary dramatic changes in the diet.



Note: If I were to have to redo this, I would do it a little differently now.  I would still stick to an average 1000kcals, but I’d alternate days of caloric restriction.  3 days at 1500kcals and 4 days at 625kcals.  That way on SOME days, I’d have a more comfortable caloric intake.  I would complete strength training workouts on those 1500kcal days.  I would consume a much higher protein diet than provided by Lean Cuisine meals.  Protein would contribute at least 40% of my daily caloric intake.  I currently do intermittent fasting, Lean Gains style [16 hours fasting/8 hours eating window], which I would highly recommend.  Condensing meals into a shorter timeframe allows for bigger meals and, as I may have mentioned, I’m a huge fan of eating big meals.

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