Weight loss is an obsession these days. It is an obsession because people believe that being overweight is a social no no. Also, it is unhealthy and uncomfortable (though I suspect that folks would suffer these inconveniences if they thought that being fat was a strong social positive). So there are incentives to be slim. But in our modern times, gaining weight is easier than losing it. Some say that we have an “epidemic” of obesity. So we are, in general terms, stuck in an unhappy situation.
I was stuck there for some years. Over the last six months, however, I have lost around 50 pounds, and feel now that I have a more normal weight. Clothes that hung in the closet unworn for years fit me again. So far, I have had no trouble keeping that weight off, though time will tell if that remains true. I did this without any fancy diets, pills, or expensive memberships in clubs or gyms. I did it on my own by adjusting the way I get through the day. So I feel I have something to offer here about what works and what does not.
The key question is what works. Is there some sort of universal truth about weight? I think the answer is “yes”, but that is just my belief. I only know what worked for me. Here it is.
I started with the idea that my weight was governed by my lifestyle. I was not going to lose weight without changing my lifestyle on a daily basis. In short, I needed to become a different person for this to work. And that is, by definition, hard to do. Simple to understand, but hard to execute each day. As an aside, you DON’T do that with just discipline. No matter how strong your will is, it will break down over time by over-exercising it. You do it by finding good things about the “new you”.
The main change for me was to reduce the neural link between comfort and eating. Between feeling good and putting food and drink down my gullet. I had to start feeling good other ways. I still felt good about eating, but I felt even better about other stuff. Like believing I could be in control of this process. Like feeling good physically – having more energy. Like looking better. Like enjoying being outdoors (away from the computer):
So mechanically, what do to? I thought I could lose weight by focusing on calorie in versus calorie out balance. An eternal truth – burn more than you take in and you lose weight. Thinking about my routines, I decided that I needed to cut back on my evening eating and drinking, and on a daily basis burn calories by walking for about one hour every day. As part of that, I needed to stop drinking wine (which I was fond of doing in the evening). So I did not just stop eating and drinking so much, I started feeling good about walking and feeling physically more healthy. Each day, I had a nice breakfast (no refined flour), walked during the day, and had a light dinner in the early evening. That worked. I kept track of my weight each morning, and saw regular small results. I kept at it, and got to where I am now today – success!
End of story? Not really. Just because this worked for me does not mean that I really understand what happened. It is equally possible that it worked because of factors that I really don’t understand. And I think now that is the case.
You see, the body is more complex than we think. This article brings out that simply reducing calories in and burning more calories as a weight loss strategy is doomed to failure. Strange! That is what I thought I did and I know that it — or something — worked. So what actually happened?
My upgraded understanding is as follows. The amount of calories we burn through exercise is relatively small compared to the amount of calories the body burns just to get through the day. And if we reduce calorie intake, the body cuts back on its core burning routines. We feel crappy, and even with intense exercise a few times a week, we don’t lose weight.
This is consistent with something I noticed during my weight loss regime that I could not explain. I tended to lose weight when I slept (up to half a pound). That happened every day. I wasn’t doing anything, but I was losing weight. That is part of the core energy burn that the body does all the time.
Back to our “good calories” versus “bad calories” train of thought. Sugars cause the body to create insulin. Here is the key epiphany. The amount of insulin you have in your system inversely correlates with your ability to burn body fat. More insulin – less body fat burning. And less body fat burning means less weight loss. Hence, consuming more sugars means more insulin in your system, less body fat burning and less weight loss. Not only that, you feel crappier when you cut back on your other types of calorie intake because your body cuts down on its core calorie burning. I experienced that.
The food we eat is broken down by enzymes in our gut and eventually ends up as molecules in our bloodstream. Carbohydrates, particularly sugars and refined grains (think white flours and rice), are quickly broken down into sugar, which our cells use for energy. If our cells don’t use it all, we store it in our fat cells as, well, fat. But sugar can only enter our cells with insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas. Insulin brings sugar into the fat cells and keeps it there.”
So how do we get rid of insulin?
Between meals, as long as we don’t snack, our insulin levels will go down and our fat cells can then release their stored sugar, to be used as energy. We lose weight if we let our insulin levels go down. The entire idea of (intermittent fasting) is to allow the insulin levels to go down far enough and for long enough that we burn off our fat.
Here is the thing. Perhaps by cutting back on wine, I reduced my sugar intake. And as I kept my sugar intake down along with walking one hour a day, I was reducing the amount of insulin in my system. It may have been my imagination, but I felt that walking was “burning off sugar”. In fact, it was burning off insulin so that my body could use the fat it had stored. And that may have been the real secret to my success — sustained reduction of insulin levels in my system.
And there is one more point. As I mentioned, my routine was to have a nice breakfast (with no starches or refined grains — that means no bagels, toast, etc), and then I would not eat until around 5 in the evening. In other words, a form of intermittent fast. After dinner, I did not eat again until morning. Again, an intermittent fast. According to the above studies, this delay between meals also was helping me get rid of insulin. In fact, it may have been more important than my exercise! I might have done even better if I had moved my evening meal time a bit forward to around 3 or 4 in the afternoon and had a longer intermittent fast until morning. I may give that a try
The key points here: (1) if your insulin levels are high, overall calorie reduction may be less important than reduction in sugar intake and MODERATE daily intermittent fasting (2) you also can reduce insulin levels and burn some calories by walking every day for at least one hour. Waking is enough You don’t need to freak out in a gym or buy expensive equipment or whatever. I did none of those things. I just walked. (3) building up routines where you feel good from moving around instead of sitting helps you maintain this, and you get there over time. Tracking your daily success helps you stick to the routines.
One last point. While trying to implement a new regime like this, you will inevitably screw up. You will gorge on something or drink a lot of wine or something that you know is not great for your diet. Don’t freak out. This happens to everyone. It happened to me numerous times. Accept that it will happen, and get back into your regime as soon as you can. In other words, when you fall off your horse — and you will — don’t get upset. Just get up, dust yourself off, jump back on again, and ride on!
Quick follow – This article gets into the insulin issue in some detail and I found it to be persuasive. The points he makes are consistent with my experience (1) I gained weight over a period of years – slowly (as insulin levels gradually went up) (2) I lost weight when I cut out a major sugar sources – booze. (3) my moderate exercise burned off some insulin on a regular basis, which helped me reset my body thermostat.