My new year began like many others before — with me feeling a sense of optimism for the fresh start and a simultaneous relief that I could finally get back to healthy living again. Christmas had been enjoyable and as over-indulgent as ever.
I make it sound as though I’d been coerced into over-eating and over-drinking during the holidays. In reality, I had my usual annual downfall into dietary abandonment and over-indulgence that began in late October.
For many years I’ve managed a solid 9-months of healthy living. Once Christmas approaches, I’ve typically lost my resolve and my commitment wobbles. This year, in spite of best intentions not to allow the pattern to repeat itself, I found myself doing the same. Again.
In my defence Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns and restrictions were easier to cope with during the spring and summer months, when it was a joy to be outside exercising. We also lost my father-in-law to cancer in October, and the effects of his passing were difficult to manage for us all.
My alcohol consumption escalated — not to a catastrophic extent but I found myself having a couple of beers most evenings rather than just drinking at weekends or on special occasions. I lost interest in watching what I ate and exercised less and less as the holidays approached.
These combined slip-ups resulted in my weight climbing to its highest for over 5 years. At my annual medical in November I weighed in at 212 pounds. By January 1st it had climbed further to 220 pounds.
I’d already decided before the end of 2020 that with my 45th birthday approaching I would be taking a more moderate approach to life — holding myself to less ambitious and punishing standards, setting more attainable goals and taking life a little more lightly.
As far as my weight, I knew that I needed to get in better shape and maintain it for the long term, albeit as part of that more moderate life. I put a plan into action.
On January 15th I stepped on the scales again for the first time since January 1st, keen to see if my efforts had made any difference.
I’m proud to report that I’d lost 13 pounds and 2% body fat — still some way to go, but a positive start.
I’m conscious that by many standards, losing almost 1 pound per day isn’t considered a healthy or sustainable way to lose weight. What has surprised me is that I didn’t set out to lose it as quickly, nor have I taken extreme measures to do so.
I think I’ve just hit upon a formula that works for me without it feeling too punishing or restrictive.
I want to share what I did, if only to encourage others who might be looking to do the same that big effects can be achieved without too-radical a set of changes.
You can’t out-train a bad diet
This is the mantra that I’ve kept in mind while trying to lose this year’s holiday weight. In past years I’ve started January with a bang; trying to work out daily, often twice per day in a gung-ho, all or nothing bid to lose weight and build muscle.
I’m reasonably determined and disciplined as an individual. I’ve managed in past years to keep this up for months on end. But as I get older, I inevitably feel the pain of such radical steps. I get injured more frequently and recovery is slower. Invariably, after nine months of commitment I burn out and slip down the slope to abandonment once again, just in time for the holidays and their excesses!
This year I figured that I’d focus on my diet as the means by which I lose the weight, rather than training like I have in the past. Exercise would be a bonus and a catalyst to my efforts, not the basis of the whole thing.
Keep it simple
What works best for me is simplicity. I need a few basic rules that I can stick to rather than a complicated and potentially confusing program that confuses and demoralises. The same basic principles will form the basis of a more sustainable, ongoing regime once I reach my target weight and want to maintain it.
Here’s what I’ve committed to:
- A basic adherence to the Slow Carb diet — where refined carbohydrates are avoided, the majority of carbs come from green vegetables and protein is king. I know that bread and sweets are my dietary kryptonite and that I do better with high protein, low carb regimes generally. Slow carb is my default diet when I’m focused on what I’m eating.
- Avoidance of all dairy (aside from cottage cheese) — I’ve no idea why cottage cheese is different to other dairy produce but I’m glad it’s on the slow carb list, as I love it! This seems an important rule as in late 2020 I was drinking a lot of cappuccinos and lattes — two or more per day which is a lot of calories when added up.
- Avoidance of alcohol (other than on special occasions) — In line with my moderate approach to life, I wasn’t about to sign up for Dry January or commit to zero alcohol. My commitment is not to drink alcohol unless a social occasion calls for it. My recently widowed mother-in-law moved into a new home this week and we drank a champagne toast to her new start — I wasn’t about to be the only one drinking orange juice, so I had one small glass and savoured the moment.
- Whey Protein shakes are the only supplement — I’m keen to lose fat rather than muscle mass and have allowed myself one or two shakes as part of my daily food intake. It’s filling and tasty and should hopefully prevent loss of too much muscle mass.
- One cheat meal per week (if necessary) — At the peak of my fitness-regime last year I allowed myself a cheat day where I could eat or drink anything I wanted. With 24 pounds to lose, any more than one meal ‘off plan’ is too much of an indulgence at this point and more than I deserve. As it happens, enjoyment of the results to-date have outstripped my desire for a cheat meal anyway.
That’s as complicated as it gets.
The importance of tracking
I firmly believe that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. For this reason I wanted to capture data as I went along so as to remain mindful throughout each day that I was following a program — it’s about the act of measuring and logging rather than analysis of the data afterwards.
Logging meals — I log every meal and drink consumed (aside from water and black coffee) using the free version of the MyFitnessPal app. It’s simple and easy to use and I can put up with the adverts which make it free. Most foodstuffs are listed in it, along with details of their respective nutrients. The functionality for scanning barcodes returns a result 9 times out of 10 which makes it easy to log different foods when they’re pre-packaged.
Through logging my meals I’ve established that a daily calorie intake of 1700 per day seems enough to trigger the desired weight loss and not leave me feeling too hungry to sleep or function. I’ll eventually increase this once I’ve lost my holiday weight.
Weighing food — I’ve started weighing portions of food rather than guessing at what I’m eating. It’s highlighted that I tend to radically underestimate what I’m consuming! I’ll hopefully develop more of an eye for portion size as I go on but for now it’s useful to make sure I’m logging what I actually eat, not what I think I’m eating.
Not weighing myself too much — aside from a weekly weigh-in at the same time of day in the same clothes, I don’t go near the scales. There seems little point and after two weeks it reminded me that progress takes time!
Similar meals each day
I’m pretty comfortable treating food as fuel, not as a treat or something that has to be varied or exciting most of the time. It’s nice to cook and eat different foods now and again (within the bounds of my regime). But generally speaking I’ve eaten from the same subset of meals on most days and again it keeps things simple.
It makes it easy to shop for. It makes it easy to batch prepare meals in advance and it makes it easy to log the meals in the app.
The exception to this is in trying to make family meals a little more inclusive and sociable so that I can eat similar foods to my wife and kids. Even then, if the family is having food like a chilli for dinner then I’ll have a portion of the same but with broccoli and brussel sprouts rather than rice and nacho chips.
I may introduce more variety in the long term to make it sustainable but for now it definitely helps to limit the range of foods I’m eating.
No excessive complications
For it to be simple and easy to follow, I’ve deliberately avoided including further constraints or rules. I don’t try and eat within a particular time window nor do I eat specific food combinations or use supplements (besides protein powder) to speed up results.
This is as important for the weight-loss phase as it will be for maintenance. We all lead busy enough lives as it is without having to accommodate complex rules or remembering to take costly pills or potions at a particular time of day.
Simplicity is key.
Exercise as a catalyst
As I mentioned, exercise is important in its own right for physical and mental health, but also as a catalyst for weight loss. Crucially though, I was determined that I wouldn’t try again to train myself into shape but would instead focus on diet.
Since the new year I’ve approached exercise in a more measured way, in a style more befitting my age.
I exercise regularly because it makes me feel good and it helps me to sleep better (which also helps weight loss and recovery) but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t exercise on a given day.
I don’t force myself to workout if my body tells me I need to rest (in which case I just do a 20-minute yoga stretch routine on YouTube) — I consider that restful anyway!
Daily walks — I’m lucky to live in the countryside with quiet places to walk outside my front door. In recent years I’ve taken an hour’s walk before work and Covid-19 has made that all the more practical (and essential). I realise that this is in itself good exercise but it’s the basis of my active life and I really don’t think of it as exercise.
Running and weight-training where appropriate — My weekly aim is to complete three workouts of half an hour or more. Anything more than that is a bonus. It’s typically made up of a three-mile jog, twice each week and a full-body weight-training session once per week. YouTube is once again useful for providing half-hour (or longer) full-body workouts that can be done with minimal home exercise equipment.
My goal is to get down to 196 pounds and then see how I feel.
Tomorrow will be the second weigh-in of the year and I’m confident I will have lost a few more pounds on top of the 13 lost so far. I’m also pretty sure that at some point I’ll hit a plateau where it will become harder to shift the remaining few pounds.
I’ve spent most of the last 5 years weighing around 200 pounds which I’m happy with as a 6-feet 1-inch tall man. If and when I get to 200 I’ll see how I feel and maybe try and lose a little more or focus on building more muscle mass while continuing to lose body fat.
When I get there I’ll definitely be increasing my daily calorie intake — it’ll be necessary to build more muscle or simply to maintain what I’ve lost already. Crucially, I expect to follow the same basic principles of diet as I am following now.
Some of my standards may relax a little — I may indulge in a few more treats and cheat meals now and then, but I’ll still log them. I may allow myself a few beers now and again.
All that said, I feel like I’ve discovered a regime that works well for me now, and I’m happy to commit to it as the basis of a healthy life.
Simple is easy. Simple is sustainable. Simple works.
I’m not a dietician, a personal trainer or a doctor. I’m just a guy trying to live a healthier life. If you’re interested in doing the same, go for it; just don’t take anything I’ve shared above as advice or suggestion — seek out professional guidance as I have.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Carles Rabada on Unsplash