Joshua Keel

How I Lost 130 Pounds and Counting: Nutrition

July 31, 2014

In September of 2012 I weighed over 330 pounds. I even have the evidence to prove it. September was when I bought my Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi scale, which logs my weight each time I step onto it. See?

Graph of my weight change

What this graph doesn’t show you is that days before that first measurement was taken, I had stepped on my old scale with a 330 lb. maximum capacity and watched it error out between my toes. That was a defining moment. When you’re so heavy you break the scale, you know there’s a problem. So I ordered the Aria to find out my actual weight, and to help me track my progress as I made an effort to get myself out of a real pickle.

Obesity was about the worst thing that ever happened to me. And yes, at this weight, I was clinically, even morbidly, obese, with a BMI over 40. I was depressed, had social anxiety, felt fatigued all the time, withdrew from friends and activities, and was just generally miserable. When I started this journey, there were a lot of things wrong in my life, a lot of gaps between the reality I wanted and the reality I had. But I knew that more than anything, the biggest problem was that I was flushing my health down the drain with every brownie bite, pizza and cheeseburger.

So I became strategic. I focused all my resources on this one problem. And I got help. I had been seeing a psychotherapist to help me sort through the depressed fog state I had been in for years, and I found a Registered Dietician to help me figure out how to eat. I had spent so many hours reading about all kinds of strict diets, but what ended up working for me were a few simple modifications to the way I’ve always eaten. I consider this a key lesson. Extreme changes are simply too difficult to stick with, and moreover, they’re inefficient when a small change can have a dramatic impact. The thing is, our minds don’t seem to like small changes. We think they’ll be ineffective. They aren’t as inspiring as massive overhauls. But when we have the courage to actually do something small, we can reap rewards that are a lot bigger than we thought.

So what did I actually change in my life? Well, I had a major binging problem. I was completely out of touch with what it meant to be hungry. I would come home from work and stuff myself with chocolate pie and Chick-fil-A sandwiches until I could barely move, but I knew from previous experience, science and common sense that losing weight is really about energy balance: how much you take in vs. how much you use. I knew I had to find a way to reduce my intake.

Somewhere along the way I settled on the idea that 2,000 calories a day was a good round number I should shoot for to lose weight. There are various online calculators for this sort of thing, using different equations and activity factors to determine your maintenance calorie level. Those are great tools to use, and I have had need of them many times to recalibrate things as I lost pounds.

I knew if I was going to get serious about losing weight I’d have to know how much I was taking in, so I learned to count calories. This is an essential skill, to my mind. I have been counting calories almost every day (I didn’t on my two-week vacation to Europe) since May of 2013 (yes, it took me from September of 2012 until May of 2013 to get any real traction on all this). Coincidentally (heh) May was when I first started seeing a nutritionist and it was also around the time I first discovered Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the idea of willingness.

My nutritionist seemed to be OK with the 2,000 calories per day plan, since I had been following it a couple of weeks and it seemed to be working for me. We calculated I should be losing two or so lbs. a week on this program, and since I had so much to lose, that kinda made sense. But I had been following the program eating the same kinds of foods I had always eaten, including quarter pounders and popcorn shrimp. I was just tracking the calories from those foods and making sure I didn’t go over. The problem with this was that it becomes very difficult to stick to long-term, not to mention the fact that it’s not very nutritious. When you’re eating in a calorie deficit, you want to stick to whole, minimally processed, nutrient dense foods as much as possible. That way you’ll feel fuller and meet your vitamin and mineral needs.

So once my nutritionist got me on a program containing more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, I was on the way to success. I would also allow myself a small treat each day. I chose 100-calorie packs of frozen dark chocolate covered banana bites. When I let them thaw out a little, they were delicious and a satisfyingly sweet ending to my day. I think it’s important to work this stuff in, otherwise things just get too restrictive and you will run off the rails.

It’s not easy eating in such a huge calorie deficit. I was hungry a good bit of the time. What I think allowed me to make it through that hunger and not go off the program was reminding myself of why I was doing this in the first place (to be healthy, to not die at 30, to live free again, to thrive) and willingly accepting that in any moment I might feel physical or emotional discomfort as I went through this process. Whenever I had thoughts like “I’m hungry” I would say to myself “Look, there’s one way out of this mess, and that’s through this uncomfortable place. I’m OK with that. It’s only hunger. Hunger can’t hurt me. What can hurt me is a lifetime where I only do the comfortable thing. That is a living hell.”

So I had an open mindset towards the discomfort. I accepted it as part of the journey. I also tried to do anything I could to make things easier on myself. As I said, eating nutrient-dense foods made a big difference in my ability to stick to the program. Another thing that helped was strategically spreading my calories throughout the day. This may be an individual thing, but I found that eating a small breakfast, a medium size lunch, and a large dinner was the best way to ensure that I could handle any hunger and that I didn’t go to bed feeling deprived. I still use this strategy today as I work on leaning down even more. I almost make it a game to see how late in the day I can go without eating much. If I can hold off on breakfast, I do. If I can eat a smaller lunch, I will. Forego the afternoon snack? Sure. But all that waiting is in service of feasting on a massive supper, with some kind of sweet treat at the end.

This approach is actually inspired by Intermittent Fasting (IF), particularly the LeanGains style. There are many different approaches to IF, but all of them involve some period of fasting followed by a period of eating. Sometimes it’s 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours during which you eat, sometimes a full 24 hours of fasting, etc. I haven’t used these approaches myself (although I am considering trying), but from what other people say about them, they can be very helpful when in a calorie deficit.

One last thing about nutrition, calorie counting and eating in a deficit. This stuff is hard to do unless you’re preparing your own food. To count calories, I weigh and measure everything. I have a digital food scale and use it multiple times per day. You definitely can go out to eat and still keep to your program, it’s just not as easy. And that’s why for the 10 months when I was dieting hardcore (and by dieting I simply mean being in a calorie deficit), I ate out very little. Mostly I cooked my own food at home, and when I did go out, it was usually to Chipotle or Panera or some restaurant that has their nutrition information available online. When you don’t have nutrition info, you just do your best to estimate, and add in a little padding, assuming your estimate is low.

This weight loss project started in September of 2012 and is still ongoing. These days I’m around 200 lbs., feel fantastic, am so much more confident socially and have the mental and emotional strength that comes from overcoming an enormous obstacle like obesity. This fight is totally winnable. It just takes dedication, focus, being practical and solving the small problems that come up, and most of all, willingness to accept that there will be uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that arise. Whenever we do something important in life, our mind is there trying to be helpful, trying to scare us into homeostasis. The solution is to let it chatter on while we go about the business of being awesome.

I hope maybe some of this has been helpful for anyone out there struggling with their health and fitness. In my next post, I will talk about the exercise side of the game: what’s effective, what’s too much, and how not to run yourself into the ground. Stay tuned.