Lionel's Blog

I'm an engineering manager at Braintree. I write about politics, psychology, and software.

I've worked on a few open-source projects and infrequently blog.

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Notes on weight loss

09 September 2016

Since November of last year I’ve been trying to lose weight. I didn’t start trying at a moment of personal crisis or anything like that; I was just frustrated with my health and appearance and decided to make a serious effort. The previous attempts I’d made at weight loss boiled down to going to the gym a bit more and had no real impact. I had never tried dieting. But, sitting around in my apartment in the late fall, I decided to give it a serious shot.

It’s now September and I’ve gone from around 230 lbs to 205, a loss of 25 lbs over 9 months. 2.7 lbs per month is not a rapid pace at all, but it’s sustainable. Here are the results in graph form (the graph doesn’t start until after two months of sustained dieting in which I lost about 7 lbs):

Weight loss over the last 8 months

My program was pretty simple:

  • Count calories with help from MyFitnessPal. I targeted a 500 calorie per day deficit.
  • Weigh myself every morning, put it in Excel and graph it.
  • Light weight training, which I had been doing on and off for years.
  • In the spring I started jogging and playing ultimate frisbee.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started doing this. I had a number of preconceptions that, in retrospect, were totally stupid. Here, in no particular order, are some lessons I’ve learned and thoughts I’ve had:

  • Diet really is 80% of weight loss. The human body is simply too efficient; exercise can supplement a diet but can’t be the main event. If you eat 500 calories per day above target you’d have to work out for like 4 hours every day to make up the difference with exercise.
  • This sucks, because working out is pretty fun and dieting is not.
  • Dieting made me grumpy, so I spent a lot of time worrying about my mood - I didn’t want my diet to have a negative effect on the people around me. I settled on a routine where I ate normal lunches but small dinners.
  • Your weight fluctuates day to day. If you’re dieting and only weighing yourself once a week, you’re going to get thrown off by this. I routinely saw daily fluctuations on the order of 2 lbs with no obvious explanation. This could be because of the scale or whatever though.
  • It’s really hard to make gains at the gym when dieting. Your body just doesn’t want to do it.

The thing I’m most struck by, though, is how important routine and habit became to me. Dieting got a lot easier once it became a habit. So did exercising, weighing myself and cooking. When recording my weight each morning, I sometimes wrote small notes about how I had done the previous day like “slightly above target” or “went out drinking”. Now that I look at the data, it’s obvious that my most significant setbacks happened when something disrupted my daily routine. Things like:

  • Nights out with friends. Most drinks are around 200 calories each, and you’ll tend to eat with them. You can easily wreck a week of dieting in 4 hours of bar trivia.
  • Short trips, usually for a conference, work, or weekend getaway. Changing location and routine makes it harder to get a sense of “how you’re doing” on a particular day, which makes it easy to fall off the wagon.
  • Getting sick. Obviously you shouldn’t diet or count calories when sick.

By far the most damaging thing to my diet was drinking with friends. The graph below is has red circles around weigh ins where I noted having lots of drinks the night before.

Weight loss over the last 8 months, with red circles on weigh ins after drinking

While not every peak lines up with drinking and not every night out lines up with a peak; nonetheless, there does appear to be a pattern. Sticking to a diet is difficult but manageable when it’s just you versus your stomach. For me, at least, it became really hard when it became dieting versus going to a party. Sure, I could have gone out and not had anything, but that doesn’t sound particularly fun. I don’t think I have any sort of problem with alcohol, but looking at my behavior from this angle was definitely eye opening.

I’m going to keep going with this diet stuff. I’ll be pretty happy once I’m under 200 lbs, and I’d be thrilled if I can get under 190. And, I think I’m learning something. Weight loss is hard in the most annoying way. Unlike so many other things in life, you can’t outsmart it and you can’t really take shortcuts. There’s no way to skip the homework and wing it on the final. Yet it is achievable. You just have to put in the work.

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