A few weeks ago I promised to share more details on how I’ve recently lost a fair amount of weight. I’ve had this article in the can for quite awhile but didn’t want to push the button. Then this past weekend a very “energetic” woman at my gym with a self-admitted high blood pressure issue started preaching to me about Dr. Oz and Dr. Perlmutter and the wisdom of their respective weight loss programs. In particular she warned me if I didn’t try Dr. Perlmutter’s program for lowering blood glucose levels I’d probably get cancer. My wife heard this – I am not kidding.
I now figure I can offer you my own brand of crazy without charging you anything. This is based on what worked for me during this most recent go around. So here goes!
So why the HELL am I writing this VERY VERY LONG article about dieting just in time to buzz kill your holiday season, when I mostly focus on mindset, personal and career development? It’s because our physical health determines our energy level, and the energy we consistently generate determines our “success” in all realms of life, including our careers. Let’s delve into the topic of energy a bit further. We here in Silicon Valley don’t see too many successful middle managers, VPs or executives who consistently behave sluggishly, fall asleep in meetings, lumber slowly down hallways, or speak in monotone a la Ben Stein.
Arguably of more importance, being overweight often determines the number of health risks one faces. We all hear the stories of people who are 100 pounds overweight and have perfect blood pressure. I am not one of those people. Nor are you, in all likelihood, given that according to the CDC approximately 112,000 people in the U.S. die each year from obesity-related causes. I salute you if you are a highly successful serial entrepreneur. But your health is among the most basic foundations of a (air quote) “SUCCESSFUL” life.
And I’ll give you one more reason: winning in this game is the ultimate form of self control and mastery. I define “winning” as consistently maintaining a healthy weight. How am I doing at this game? Despite what you’re about to read if you stay with me, I give myself a C-. That’s because I’ve been a perennial yo yo man when it comes to weight maintenance. But I finally think I have found something that works for me. As Bill Murray learned to love his daily grind in “Groundhog Day,” I am appreciating this repetitive ritual and focus.
Without going any further, let’s emphasize I have no qualifications as a nutritionist, nor am I a medical doctor. Therefore, I’m only sharing what has worked for me. And with that disclaimer, let’s dig in.
My “Before” Story
During the last 20 years I’ve gone through the cycle of gaining and losing 10-30 pounds many times. My past diet schemes have included food combining, going low carb (a cafeteria at Hyperion, now part of Oracle, named a no bun burger, lettuce and cottage cheese entrée “The Diamond Plate”), joining Weight Watchers, going vegan and later vegetarian, and most recently going Paleo.
I don’t know about you, but I gain mounds of pounds when I experience stress. While I loved my last job and left on great terms or so I think, my go-to stress management skills while at Salesforce included toxic habits such as eating heavy hors d’oueuvres during late afternoon get-togethers at Americano while drinking copious amounts of red wine, and arranging for the executive assistant of the head of engineering to roll by my cubicle with trays of left-over Italian food in the early afternoon hours for a “second lunch.” On my first day at Salesforce on April 30, 2012 I weighed in at 177 pounds. Two years later I was up to 205 pounds. My 34 inch waist Lucky Jeans looked sprayed on. #notsexy!
Fast forward to early February of this year, a few months after having moved on from Salesforce, and I had dropped more than 10 pounds – a great start but not nearly enough, as you will soon learn.
As I look back, Weight Watchers was the most successful for long term weight management but not much fun at all. But in retrospect it was pretty telling that what worked best for me was a fairly regimented portion control plan. On the other hand, Paleo was by far the easiest and most fun for me. The bacon, the meats, the bacon and the bacon…what’s not to love? I’m glad Paleo works for so many people. I enjoy reading Mark Sisson’s blog and adhere to much of his exercise routine. But except for when I did the Whole30 program, and only then for just a few weeks afterward, Paleo did not help me. My weight stayed the same. And I didn’t feel any better.
However, it’s not Paleo that didn’t work. It’s the combination of Paleo and me that was a ‘fail.’ This brings up an important distinction. Despite the meme that 95% of all diets fail, I believe it’s more accurate to state that 95% of all people fail on the diets they select and likely don’t adhere to over the long term or can’t meaningfully grok in the short term. But hey, that’ s just me. Moving on…
Come to Jesus Time
Last February I went for my first physical exam in many years. My doctor asked me to complete a form in which among other things, I had to write out my health goals. That was easy. “I want to live to be at least 95,” I etched out in a Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencil with a never-used eraser. Given that my wife and I have a five year old daughter, I was not kidding. Oh, and I didn’t write onto the form that I had been experiencing minor chest pains. After all, that’s a bit personal.
When I came into her office and before getting poked and prodded with a rubber glove in ways you don’t want to read about, she laughingly asked if I was serious. When I told her I was, she pulled up a few charts on her big old LED monitor and said, “Look at your weight gain over the last 10 years, and the correlation with your rising blood pressure and cholesterol. Everything is going way up. You need to lose weight now. I tell all my patients to get below a 25 BMI level. And you should consider yourself lucky because I tell my Asian patients to get below a 23 BMI level. Like me they tend to be smaller boned.” And she continued, “If you come back here in a year and have the same blood pressure and lipid profile, I’m going to have to put you on blood pressure and statin medications. And you may not want that.”
Ummmm…. I didn’t and don’t! That alone was enough motivation for me. It is my WHY that woke me up, got me to drop Paleo like a hot potato, got me to think about what had worked best for me in my past, and keeps me focused on my goal every day.
How did I define my attainable goal? That was easy. Let’s see, I’m 5’11” inches tall, and I need a BMI of 24.9 or below — doctor’s orders. By entering in some numbers here, I determined my maximum weight should be 178.9. I set my desired time frame for about five months, equating to a pound of weight loss per week. But before I revised my eating I needed to change my thinking.
Six Mindset Principles for Eating I Adopted Before Pulling the Trigger
As you know if you regularly read my articles, I strongly believe mindset is everything. And the beauty is these ways of thinking are useful in all areas of one’s life. There are many more than these six mindset concepts I mention below, but I’m keeping it simple. And to repeat, I think the whole game in keeping the pounds off and everything else in life comes down to mindset. Here are the big six:
- Goal Orientation: We just covered this. If it’s not measurable, it’s not meaningful. You need to keep this goal in writing, plastered in front of your face all the time.
- Having a Strong Reason Why: We just covered this as well. It’s critical to have meaningful PULL that moves you toward goal attainment. Hint: “I want to look good for my trip to Vegas this weekend” is not enduring enough.
- Time Value of Food: This is a concept I believe I heard Internet Marketer Eben Pagan mention in one of his audio programs. Eben lives a very deliberate life, and recommends thinking about foods in the following three time frames: instantly, four hours from now, and 10 years from now. I love this paradigm because it reminds me of an empowering way to think: that food is fuel. Just as I would I put nothing but pure gasoline in my automobile engine, I have an opportunity to adhere more closely to this principle for my physical body. Here are two examples:
- French Fries: Taste amazingly good in real time, will probably leave you feeling lethargic in four hours,is probably a causal factor for your first heart attack within the next 10 years.
- Raw Broccoli: Taste pretty nasty in real time, will probably leave you feeling energized and clean in four hours, is probably a causal factor for a very long life.
- Detachment: Separate your reptilian brain from the addictive loveliness of those foods you think you love: bacon, pepperoni pizza, bacon, bacon, cheese, foie gras and bacon. Nothing tastes as good as living energetically feels. At the same time, detach yourself from your goal attainment and instead focus on doing your best each day. And when you screw up…
- One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus: Yes, you will fall down as I frequently do. Simply get back up without throwing too much in the way of acidic negative emotions in your face. If you fall down for six days or even seven months, get back up on the seventh.
- Inner Direction: This means you guide yourself 100% fully and are not influenced by any critical remarks from family or friends. You are purely goal and motivation directed and you are focused. You don’t listen to the critics who say you “look too thin” and/or are suffering from a lack of protein. Instead, you live by your numbers and seek out supportive people or those who simply let you do your own thing without interjecting their perspectives.
Now Let’s Talk About Exercise for Weight Loss
Most people believe exercise is among the most important elements in losing weight. While I know it’s a top priority for general health and vitality, I don’t think it’s a ‘must’ strictly for weight loss — but again I know it’s essential for healthy living. Here is the distinction: not to sound judgy, but during the past 14+ years I have been a member of the same high end gym, I’ve seen a lot of seven day per week workout disciples carrying 20 to 40 extra pounds forever. They work out vigorously. The pounds on their body do not budge. I am talking about dozens of people. For me, working out has never been a difference maker in maintaining a healthy weight. My every day routine of running or body weight exercises is consistent whether I weigh 180 or 205 pounds. Therefore bumping up physical activity is an inefficient way for me to lose additional weight. In fact, I tend to do worse on those days I’m most active.Time Magazine wrote an excellent article delving into this topic several years ago. Unfortunately they keep it behind a paywall.
OK, that’s enough preamble. Here is my eating plan in five steps.
1) Read This Book — It’s FREE
“Wait just a minute! Your plan is to tell me to read ANOTHER book? What the HELL?” Yes, that’s right, because this is the first step in the plan I personally took, which set everything in motion. And trust me, I’ve probably read 50 diet books in the last 30 years. This subject area is a passion of mine.
It doesn’t matter if you have to delay starting your new eating plan by a few days because if you take this book seriously and are open to the operating methods it prescribes, it will change your life. It’s called “The Hacker’s Diet.” Written many years ago by John Walker, one of the founders of Autodesk, this book does a great job of conveying to non-engineers the systems approach to thinking about our bodies, food measurement, and caloric intake and expenditure. The chapter on system feedback with the predictable thermostat analogy alone is well worth the read.
Perhaps most importantly, while John Walker strongly recommends weighing yourself every day, he also suggests not paying too much attention to your daily weight gyrations due to human phenomena like menstrual cycles, poop cycles…need I say more? Instead, you should track your daily results in a spreadsheet and look at a longer term — i.e., 10 day exponential moving average (EMA). This smooths out your daily tracking and helps you establish your own high and low bar for setting an acceptable weight range, e.g., 175 to 180 pounds.
Note: Read this article and you’ll see a link for a great Google Docs template for evaluating your 10 day weight EMA. Because it is worth reading the article, I am not simply directing you to the template.
2) Determine Your Basal Metabolic Rate
Your basal metabolic rate is an estimate of how many calories you burn while resting. While most experts suggest you add on several hundred calories depending on your level of activity, I tend to be fairly conservative in doing this, as I believe most online gauges over estimate. For me, a pretty active dude, I add on a few hundred calories from the results of a high quality calculator like this one, and arrive at a suggested daily intake of approximately 1900 calories. This level helps me s-l-o-w-l-y lose weight. You can find plenty of online articles suggesting that to lose a healthy amount of weight each week, you’ll want to burn 500 more calories than you consume. Looking at your BMR guides you where to begin from.
3) Measure and Track Everything That Goes In Your Mouth
It’s much easier than you think. After a bunch of searching, I selected LoseIt, seemingly a favorite of the Quantified Self movement. You can scan in barcodes, easily select repeat items, etc. LoseIt will calculate your suggested calorie intake based on BMR. Again, I suggest a minimal to no compensation for activity level. The suggested daily caloric intake LoseIt provides will get lower as you come closer to achieving your goal weight. It will then spike up when you reach your goal. If after a few weeks you’re losing more than two pounds per week, add in some calories. Vice versa if you are gaining a couple of pounds in a week. The beauty of daily weight check-ins combined with the 10 day exponential moving average spreadsheet that you will fill out each day is that you receive meaningful feedback that helps you modify your plan on the fly.
Overall, LoseIt can inform you in so many ways, including:
—What’s the caloric balance through the day that works best for you? My preference is 300 to 400 calories each for breakfast and lunch, a couple of hundred calories for snacks, and then a 600 to 800 calorie dinner.
—What’s your macronutrient balance — i.e., percentage of calories from protein, carbs and fat? That said, I pay much less attention to this nowadays. I have never seen anyone drop dead from a protein deficiency. And some of the healthiest people I know gorge on complex carbs, including white potatoes.
—What 600 calorie meals do you eat that leave you starving? What 300 calorie meals do you eat that are incredibly satiating and keep you going for hours?
—What healthy and nutritious foods are you willing to give up if you’re willing to consume 25% or more of your daily calories in the form of alcohol? (hint: you don’t want to do that).
And for me, a guy who likes quantity, I have naturally cut down on adding fat to almost any vegetables except for my salads. But lest you think my regimen is “low fat,” I get plenty of fat from my evening meals, and am averaging about 30% of calories from fat each week.
Did I mention you will want to purchase a digital food scale? You will.
Bottom line: You want to eat at or below your maximum recommended daily calorie level. Gary Taubes disciples need not apply. My plan is old school calories in – calories out.
4) Reduce the Variety of Meals You Eat
Do you live to eat or eat to live? If you fit in the former category, I wish you the best of luck. For my approach to really work, you need to fall out of love with specific foods and get over any notion of craving. You need to fall out of love with cooking magazines, newspaper recipes, etc. You need to fall out of love with the notion that more variety is better. You need to fall out of love with a different exotic ethnic restaurant meal each week. For me, boring is good for the waistline.
In a recent article I mentioned Chris Voigt, the guy who runs the Washington State Potato Commission, who lived on nothing but potatoes for 60 days and ended up healthier. You can read about ancestral tribes that lived vibrantly on diets of mostly corn. On my plan, you get to eat a little bit more than that. However, I recommend no more than a few “go to” recipes for each meal that you and your spouse can recite while sleeping. And if your spouse doesn’t divorce you, then you know you have one HELL of a strong marriage! And isn’t that more important than a plate of freakin’ salumi?
“If most of the world ate more local fruits and vegetables, a little meat, fish, and some whole grains (as in the highly touted Mediterranean diet), and exercised an hour a day, that would be good news for our health—and for the planet.” – National Geographic Magazine
Speaking of salumi, you need to fall out of love with food you know is crap, like pizza, bacon and fatty meats in general. A little bit once in awhile is fine. When you track your intake and results consistently, you will find your way. Oh, and of course developing an addiction to several glasses of pure and clean water per day is a good thing.
5) Eat Like Steve
BREAKFAST: For me, it’s 1/2 cup of dried McCann’s Oatmeal prepared as per the can instructions. Now I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never liked oatmeal despite having tried to force myself to love it many times. It’s just that many of the thinnest and healthiest people I’ve ever known — yeah, that’s you Jake…and that’s you PK…have religiously eaten oatmeal for breakfast.
And then it hit me. It’t not the oatmeal I don’t like. It’s eating oatmeal with nothing on it, or even worse, the traditional toppings like dairy, raisins, or brown sugar. I conducted some intensive research and decided to go savory. Now I salt up my oatmeal, and add a pile of garlic powder and mexican hot sauce. 300 calories never tasted so awesome. Don’t worry, I won’t breathe on you. Lately I’ve taken to folding two cups of raw spinach, kale or broccoli into the bubbling oatmeal mixture about five minutes before it’s done. Or I will make a smoothie for breakfast (see below).
Pressed for time in the morning? Make your breakfast the evening before, and in the case of the oatmeal, leave plenty of liquid in the porridge and quickly re-heat it in the morning, adding a bit more water if needed.
SUBSTITUTE: Healthy packaged organic oatmeal PLUS an organic apple. Total calories ~ 300.
As a last resort and not a daily routine, eat a high quality protein bar.
LUNCH: Typically a large salad with three cups of spinach, a chopped up tomato, and a can of sardines in olive oil. I dump the whole can of sardines plus oil in a bowl, chop up the sardines, add the tomato, then the spinach, and then add balsamic vinegar and spices.
Do you think you can’t make this at work? Of course you can.
Or if I’m in a rush and am feeling like eating some hot soup, Amy’s “Light In Sodium” Organic Lentil Vegetable Soup packs 320 calories, 14 grams of protein, and — hold your nose — 16 grams of fiber.
Or I will make a smoothie in a Vitamix blender with a couple of handfuls of ice, about 20 ounces of water, 1/2 cup of frozen blueberries, four cups of kale leaves, a scoop of Vega One for some protein, and a scoop of Green Vibrance for, as the title suggests, a green booster. These two powders provide an amazingly clean and nutritious blend of macro- and micro-nutrients. Yeah it may be harder to spin up this concoction in your corporate break room, but you can always bring in a pre-made batch from home. This usually comes in at around 300-350 calories. I mean come on, look at this picture! Doesn’t it make your mouth water?
SUBSTITUTE: Healthy bottled smoothie (watch the sugar) of about 200 calories plus an apple or a few carrots.
DINNER: By this time I’ve stoked up a pretty good appetite and treat myself to 4-6 ounces of boneless and skinless chicken thigh or fish or a pork chop, 1/2 to a full cup of starchy stuff — rice or potatoes, and plenty of greens.
As you can see I try and get a minimum of three to four cups of raw greens into my system every day, and I also try to limit any snacking to fruits and vegetables, mostly carrots and celery. Notice that I didn’t write up a separate section on snacking? Get over your addiction to snacking and appetizers. Again, a few bites of vegetables are fine: greens, zucchini, mushrooms, radishes, etc.
I might eat a few slices of bread during the week, as well as a few potatoes. Sunday mornings include a couple of eggs with a dry english muffin. I also will work in a burger and a portion of steak or lamb on the weekends, or maybe some salmon if it’s wild and fresh.
Other than the cream in my coffee and cheese on the occasional pizza, I don’t eat much dairy. Drinking alcohol has gone from a daily affair to a few nights per week, except for holidays and vacations. Pasta is more of an “every couple of weeks” activity and even then it’s typically brown rice-based. My only significant failing: I still junk out on chocolate way too much. And did I mention alcohol, and portion control?
I fall off altogether once every week — fish tacos, pizza, pasta carbonara, too much alcohol…you know, the usual. But because I’m consistently tracking and looking at my 10 day weight average, I don’t behave any more neurotically than usual if I put on a few pounds.
And The Results…
After the first two weeks of expected self pity, the last several months have been fairly easy for me, and yes, the weight has come off very slowly, but who cares? From my peak weight of 200 pounds at the beginning of this year, I am down about 20 pounds as I write this. While I have back tracked and put on a few pounds in the last few months, I am still in a relatively good place. And the closer I adhere to this regimen, the better I do.
I see no reason to change this plan as I love routine. In fact if we ever dine together you just may fall asleep. That’s OK. I’m eating less, spending less, have more energy, and can do a lot more pull ups. More importantly, I feel good. And just one more thing…
Between last February 18th and last May22nd, my total cholesterol went from 236 to 196 — or a nearly 17% reduction, my LDL cholesterol decreased by 26%, and my blood pressure went from 140 over 86 down to 110 over 65. On February 18th I weighed in at 198.6 pounds, and on May 22nd I weighed 179.7 pounds, which is right about where I am today.
Brag Alert!: My doctor told me that of all the people she tells to lose weight, only about 5% actually do it. It is awesome to be a 5 percenter.
Yay for me! And Happy Thanksgiving.
NOTE: Since writing this article, I have covered another great technique for maintaining a healthy weight or losing some pounds. You can learn about it here.