May 2015 Update: My weight loss has totaled 35 pounds. I now weigh 165 lbs. Thank you everyone for your comments, well wishes and best of luck to you with your own health. Thanks also to Slashdot for sharing this post with their community; it’s received nearly 40,000 page views. Since I wrote this, I received a brain tumor diagnosis (unrelated to the weight loss) and will be focusing on my treatment path for a while. The health improvements from my weight loss will serve me well as I move forward.

My Weight Loss Story

Over the past nine months, I’ve lost 30 pounds and counting. It’s taken discipline and commitment but I’ve never felt uncomfortable or experienced significant periods of hunger. I feel tremendously better in my body. My blood pressure’s dropped from 135s/90s (pre-hypertension) to 110-125/70-80. My total cholesterol has dropped from 186 to 144 (and LDL from 134 to 85). I’ve learned so much through this process that I’d like to share this with others.

Obesity is epidemic, most Americans struggle with it. The CDC reports that 69% of adult Americans are overweight or obese. The average weight for men rose ‘dramatically’ from 166.3 pounds in 1960 to 191 pounds in 2002; women went from 140.2 pounds to 164.3 pounds. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in our country. If you’re in the tech industry like me, you’re likely at greater risk due to the sedentary nature of our job. But, Nielsen reports that even average Americans spend 11 hours per day in front of a screen.

In 2011, I injured my knee and spent a year trying to rehabilitate. Finally, I chose to have surgery at the end of 2012. I couldn’t run for nearly two years and I gradually put on weight.

Here’s what I looked like before in July 2014 at 200 pounds and after in March 2015 at 170 pounds:

My weight loss before after and final

I thought I was 15 pounds overweight for my build. The most surprising part of this experience was slowly discovering that I’d been 30 possibly 40 pounds heavier than an optimal weight. I mirrored that CDC study.

I’ve literally turned back the clock in pounds between fifteen and twenty years. And, I did so without any running. Here’s a fun chart of my weight through adulthood based on drivers licenses and older workout sheets I managed to find:

Weight Loss By Year

Weight By Year

I briefly hit 169 back in 2011 during a difficult breakup. But, I haven’t remained at that weight since somewhere between 1995 and 2000.

How I Lost The Weight

In 2014, I purchased a Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Scale and began recording my weight each morning. That’s how I know I’d reached 200.1 pounds in July 2014.

In September 2014, I met with a nutritionist and began actively trying to lose weight. I was 197.3 pounds. For about a year, my blood pressure had reached borderline hypertension regularly testing above 135 / 90. I was taking naturopathic supplements to reduce it.

Weight Loss Since July 2014

Weight Loss Since July 2014

I began tracking my calorie intake using MyFitnessPal (the iOS app is very efficient at this, the website is not). In addition to knowing the calorie counts and protein levels of most common foods, it allows you to scan barcodes as well. It works incredibly well and is easy to make a habit of.

I’ve largely been a healthy eater and completely vegetarian for many years, but I’d been eating more than I need. I began by instituting a daily calorie limit of 1,850. It felt like a lot less than I’d been eating and at first, it was a bit of an adjustment but I was never uncomfortable.

Gradually, I rediscovered the occasional, normal sensation of hunger that I’d lost to the rule of snacking before you get hungry.

It’s important to eat sufficient protein to encourage your body to focus on burning fat and not muscle. My daily protein goal was 100 grams. It also helps to workout on a slightly empty stomach to target fat burning.

My workouts for most of this entire period consisted of some muscle strengthening (PT rehab, mostly) and low impact mellow cardio (elliptical, spin, real stairs, et al.) workouts between 25 and 45 minutes, generally 30-35 minutes. I was typically at the gym four to six days a week with some breaks when I traveled. I only practiced yoga intermittently in order to focus on my cardio at the gym.

After about a month, I weighed 191.6 pounds. I wanted to progress a bit faster, so working with my nutritionist, I cut my calorie count to 1,700 calories. I’ll describe how I did this in a healthy manner below.

By January 1st, 2014, I weighed 180.4 pounds. I’d made tremendous progress but I was still carrying significant body fat, approximately 18%; and I could see it in the mirror.

I began to flexibly aim for 1,600 calories per day. During January, I averaged between 1,650 and 1,700 calories daily with some lower days. It was definitely a bit of a challenge to carefully monitor my food limits during the day but again I was never uncomfortable or experiencing even moderate hunger. Typically, I’d eat 450 calories for breakfast, 500 for lunch and 650 in the evening.

Daily Calorie Count on Weight Loss Path

Daily Calorie Count

As your body fat comes down, it takes less food to maintain your weight. As you approach your goals, your weight loss will slow down and become more difficult. I began adding gradually more intensive speed intervals to my cardio routines e.g. 2 minute slow, 1 minute fast, et al.

By mid-February, I weighed about 175.8 pounds. I was feeling tremendously empowered and skillful. At this point, I made a personal choice to keep going and to accelerate my efforts. I don’t recommend this for others but I felt comfortable lowering my calorie threshold to 1,500 calories. That’s about 450 calories for breakfast and lunch and 600 in the evening. Doing this took great focus and discipline. I continued to aim for 100 grams of protein daily.

Daily Protein Consumption on Weight Loss Path

Daily Protein Consumption

Again, the only reason I was able to succeed doing this is because I had gradually been reducing my food intake over eight months. Each step down was a small incremental step which my body felt ready for. There’s no way I would have succeeded beginning with a 1,600 calorie daily goal.

In early March, I also increased my cardio time to between 45 minutes or an hour on most days.  It took longer than I expected but I finally reached 169 pounds in mid-March. Even at 1,500 calories, I’ve never felt an increased struggle or added hunger — mostly, I’ve felt great.

Over time, my body fat went from a high of 21% down to a low of 12.5%:

Body Fat Towards Weight Loss

Body Fat Reduction

How I Reduced My Calorie Count for Optimal Weight Loss

It helps greatly if you are willing to eat similar foods day to day that are easy to track, at least for breakfast. My go-to breakfast was the highest protein (10g) Kind Bar (Almond Walnut Macadamia)aria weight scale (200 cal), a Fage 2% yoghurt (150 cal), an apple (70-85 calories)  and a tall nonfat latte (100 cal). The repetitive routine helps you stick to your daily calorie counts and it allows your body to “acclimate” to a certain amount of food per meal.

daily-food example thumbIt doesn’t matter as much if your calorie counts are exact as much as it matters that you count what you eat consistently. Check out a food log from my typical day.

In order to reduce the amount of calories, I began gradually substituting lower calorie replacements:

  • My tall nonfat latte (100 cal), became a short nonfat latte (70 cal) which became a tall Americano (15 cals) and eventually an espresso (6 calories). It turns out that I prefer the intense taste of short lattes and espresso.
  • My Fage 2% (150 cal) transitioned to a Fage 0% (100 cal)

I also greatly reduced the frequency of high calorie beverages I’d grown used to drinking. For me, that meant giving up Kombucha (150 calories in some cases), Coconut Water (100 calories) and even Greens Juice (50 cals). Instead, I’d have water, sparkling water and Diet Coke. I haven’t had much beer during this time. My favorite, stout, can have up to 200 calories. Instead, I have red wine a few days a week (120 cals). In the future I’ll drink more schooners and less pints.

Surprisingly, I stopped making smoothies – in general, these packed too many calories for my daily budget. To ensure I kept up my protein intake, I supplemented many days with Whey Protein and Skim Almond Milk using a shaker cup. This was quick and easy to prepare and about 120 cals combined.

Instead of eating a whole bar of dark chocolate (420 cals), I’d literally have 2-3 squares each night (50-75 cals). It became surprisingly soothing to have a bit of chocolate.

I began drinking tea nightly, hearty tea. My favorite is Traditional Medicinals Licorice Root tea (0 cals) or tea to help me sleep like Bedtime Yogi Tea. Tea is a great substitute for late night snacking.

Carrots and celery are your friend. You can eat a lot of them without piling on the calories, though celery is better in this regard.

Instead of eating a whole medium pizza, I learned to eat 1-2 slices (depending on the meal). I learned that tortilla chips and rice are the enemy. I ate very small amounts of them generally and only a few french fries here and there.

Occasionally, I had a few bites of other people’s desserts but for the most part, I’ve had no muffins or baked goods since last summer.

While I initially ate a lot of prepared deli food at my coop, I gradually realized that the amount of oils they use in preparation created artificially high calorie counts that I needed to avoid.

I actually eat out a lot so would often have a pita plate with humous or a black bean burger with a salad – often with a glass of wine. This would mostly fit into my 600 calorie dinner limit. As I lowered my calorie count to 1,600 and then 1,500, I began to occasionally repeat my breakfast at lunch – or have a small vegetarian burrito or a single slice of pizza with yoghurt and carrots or celery.

I probably have leaned a bit more on caffeine throughout this period. I’ve frequently had an afternoon coffee, which isn’t typical for me. I expect to wean myself off of this gradually. Stimulants suppress your appetite and an afternoon latte or espresso felt like a personal treat in an otherwise regimented diet.

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What Else I Learned

People initially began to notice my weight loss after about eight to ten pounds but much more frequently after 25 pounds. Over time, the folks at the gym (both staff and members) began to root me on which provided a great boost (thanks Zum!) After 15 pounds, my pants began to fall down without a belt.

As my weight’s come down, my blood pressure returned to near normal ranges of 110 – 125 / 70 – 80 and my pulse dropped from 80s to 60s. I reduced my body fat from 21% to 12.5%. My total cholesterol has dropped from 186 to 144 (and LDL from 134 to 85).

Counting calories and reducing the calorie thresholds gradually over time was key to my success. I never tracked workout calories in MyFitnessPal because I think that makes it too easy to cheat yourself and eat more. I didn’t use a FitBit to track my workouts either.

My workouts were never hard core but as my weight loss increased it became easier and easier to increase their intensity. Climbing steps became easier as well. Taking 30 pounds off my knee for the rest of my life will be incredibly helpful long term.

Because I’ve lost the weight gradually over time (about one to one and a half pounds weekly), I’ve acclimated my metabolism to my exercise and diet routine. However, I plan to continue counting calories for some time. When I’m ready to normalize my eating, I’ll increase my calorie threshold, first to 1,650 and stay there for some time to ensure I’m not gaining back weight. Then, if that works well, I’ll return to 1,700 and 1,750. I don’t expect to be able to go higher than that and stay below 170 pounds.

My nutritionist recommends setting an ideal weight range e.g. 168-172 rather than having an exact weight. If I notice my weight creep upwards, it’s time to return to more careful calorie counting and exercise.

The Most Important Lesson

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One of my yoga teachers, Sarahjoy Marsh, recently authored Hunger, Hope, and Healing: A Yoga Approach to Reclaiming Your Relationship to Your Body and Food. I’ve trained with Marsh for yoga the past several years. She’s was an inspiration to me, helped me heal and grow personally and influenced my path and my writing.

Hunger, Hope and Healing is oriented to help people heal their relationship with food.

Over the past few years, I’ve completed more than 600 hours of yoga teacher training. This, counseling and my yoga training with Marsh has really helped me become a more resilient, positive person. Many people have a hyperactive inner-critic. Certainly, I’m not immune to negative feelings such as shame but I no longer beat myself up psychologically. I’m kind, gentle and supportive with myself. I’m quick to remind myself that I’m human and it’s always okay to have faults, imperfections and vulnerabilities — and to make mistakes.

This foundation of psychological health made it easy for me to approach weight loss with an entirely positive frame of mind. I never felt there was anything wrong with me. On days where I ate a bit much or gained back a few pounds, it was nothing more than a step in the process — it had no emotional meaning packed into it. I never felt that cutting calories was an act of self-denial or punishment. I never blamed myself for missteps or taking a day or two off from the gym.

Upon reflection, this was an essential part of my sustained focus for the past eight months. If you venture down this path, I’d encourage you to integrate counseling (and perhaps yoga) into your plan.

If you’re facing the challenge of being overweight or obese — or disordered eating, I hope you find something in this post that is inspiring or helpful. I know how difficult a struggle it is. It’s taken me much longer than I ever expected. Take a long term view e.g. six months or twelve months. The rewards are worth it. I truly wish you the best.

Please feel free to share your experience.

If you enjoyed my essay, please consider joining Patreon as one of my supporters to support future essays. Or, share this essay with your friends on social media. Thank you.

Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. Try scheduling a meeting with his new startup Meeting Planner (https://meetingplanner.io), simpler, faster scheduling for work or play and read his series about building it). Follow @reifman on Twitter.