I was sat in the examination room for my annual check up. Lift up that arm. Stand on here. Let’s test that. All well.
Then she put me on the scales. I was 272 pounds. That’s not a typo. I’ve just proof read it. It’s real.
That was just over 8 years ago. It was a wakeup call. I didn’t realise I was that overweight. I’m 6 foot tall so I thought I carried it well. I did I suppose. But when I look back at old photos of me, I view myself as looking a bit like a house wearing spectacles.
That was the jump start for me to start changing my weight. In the years that followed I lost 80 pounds.
Over the last 12 to 18 months I’ve put 20 pounds back on again. My goal is to get rid of that sneaky 20 pounds, and then lose another 10.
I’ll then weight 182 pounds, which is happily inside my BMI recommended weight.
So this is my 30 pound challenge.
I started it 4 weeks ago after a failed weight loss experiment.
Here are some of the key principles that I’ve implemented this time around:
1. Aim for a target that’s not a stretch
It’s common for people to pick a tough target for weight loss. Two pounds a week is tough to maintain. Even a pound a week weight loss is difficult when it’s pursued over a long period of time.
I like to plan my year in four chunks of 12 weeks each. So I thought 7 pounds would be a kinder, and less arduous target. Yet within just 12 months, I’d still have lost 28 pounds.
2. Respect willpower
Willpower is unsustainable. It’s something we run out of. Few people can maintain an iron will forever. Instead, we start with resolve. Then we use up our willpower. This is why so many diets fail. It depends on relentless willpower which most of us don’t have.
So I wanted to avoid the self sabotage of relying on willpower. Instead, I devised a system that means I ask more of myself early on when willpower is strong. I go progressively easier on myself as time goes on.
In my 12 week cycle, I aim to lose 4 pounds in the first 4 weeks. Then just 2 pounds in the next 4 weeks. Then just a pound in the final 4 weeks. The end result is 7 pounds lost as planned. But the load is carried early in the cycle when willpower is at its height. As time moves on, the diet becomes less difficult and I am allowed to eat more calories.
3. Running a diet is like being a medieval lord
Here’s the analogy I use for myself. I am a medieval lord. I am imposing cuts on the local peasantry. If I cut too hard and for too long, they will get out the pitchforks and rebel. A full scale rebellion means I am overthrown. The peasants then raid the larder and stuff their faces full of chocolate and cake.
My goal then is to manage those stirrings of rebellion. So I notice when I’m feeling rebellious about my diet. When I think “I’m bloody sick of this.”
The 4/2/1 method gives me some options when managing my own internal rebellion.
If I’m ahead of schedule, I can up the calories a little earlier than planned. If the rebellion comes earlier than expected, I can up the calories. I can always go back to something lower once the disquiet has settled.
Keep an eye when your own internal peasants are revolting. Manage the situation like a medieval lord who is desperate not to lose power!
4. Understand your food trigger habits
Bob and Mary Goulding were groundbreaking psychotherapists. They saw our emotional and behavioural responses as “chronic reactive processes.” By that,they mean a deep rooted habit.
It’s a process because it’s an established pattern. It’s reactive because the pattern happens in response to a trigger. It’s chronic because it’s there throughout life, in the way that chronic pain is.
When faced with stress in life, some people choose to feel sad. Others choose to feel angry. Others choose to see the positives. Others choose to put on a fake smile and bury the bad feelings. These are all “chronic reactive processes”. They are ways that we have learned to best respond to difficult times.
How we use food is a deep rooted habit too. For instance, when I feel down, I want to binge on chocolate. When I have done well, I want to celebrate with chocolate. When I am exhausted, I want to indulge myself with chocolate.
Yet there are smaller habits too. After dinner, I would eat a Freddo (it’s a chocolate bar in the shape of a frog.) Before long, the moment I finished my main meal, my brain would say: “Freddo. Freddo. Freddo.” So I’d go to the fridge and get a Freddo.
A bit like when one song from an album finishes and your mind’s ear plays the opening bars to the next one.
I decided to look at where my food habits where so I could start to unhook them.
5. Unhook your food trigger habits
I listened to the writer Charles Duhigg discuss an American General who was an expert on habits. There were a lot of riots in the area he was in charge of. So he analysed the footage of each riot. He wanted to build up a sequence of events.
Here’s what he noted about each riot.
First, people gathered in the town square. Then they demonstrated. Then night would draw in. Then the food sellers appeared on the square with their food kiosks, knowing there was a ready market. Then people ate. Then someone threw something. Then there was a riot.
The General then decided to prevent food sellers coming onto the square. The result was no more riots.
He looked at each part of the sequence, then found the easiest thing to unhook. Preventing people entering the square is difficult. Preventing demonstrations is difficult. Preventing people from staying late involves evacuating the square, which is difficult. Preventing the first guy from throwing something is difficult. But preventing the food sellers would be straightforward.
Let’s apply that to food.
One of my habits relates to when I visit my Mum and Dad. I get several cups of tea there. Each time we have a cup of tea they bring out lovely biscuits to have with it. Indeed, once the tea comes out, my trigger kicks in and I WANT biscuits. Willpower isn’t going to help me here.
So let’s do what the general did and look at the sequence. First, I visit my Mum and Dad at their house. Second I have a cup of tea. Third, I eat biscuits.
I don’t want to stop visiting Mum and Dad at their house. I find it too difficult to not eat the biscuits when I have a cup of tea. But not having a cup of tea is fine by me. So now when I visit, I have a cold drink. The cold drink doesn’t trigger me into needing biscuits. So I no longer eat biscuits at Mum and Dad’s.
I’ve even retrained my Freddo trigger so that I have mandarin oranges instead. Now when I finish my main food, my mind says “oranges, oranges, oranges” instead of “Freddo, Freddo, Freddo”.
6. Not All Calories Are Equal
Counting calories makes sense. But it’s only a tiny part of the story. Some calories are more valuable than others.
I can eat a load of pulses or beans (I’m veggie) for the same amount of calories as a couple of packets of crisps. I guarantee you that the pulses will keep me fuller for longer.
The point of food is to nourish, and to keep you from being hungry. This is especially so on a diet that limits calorie intake.
It’s like having some money in your pocket for entertainment purposes. You could spend it all on something that lasts two minutes, or spend it on something that will last all night. The latter is better spent. Your other choice means you’ll be bored again in a minute.
So it is with food. Spend wisely and you’ll be free from hunger for hours. Spend it on junk and you’ll be craving food again in no time at all.
7. Cravings for junk is a symptom – not a weakness in you
I remember when I used to beat myself up for craving sweets and other junk. Especially when the cravings were so strong that I relented and ate them.
I’ve since realised that these cravings are not about me being weak or inadequate. They are a symptom of a diet that needs tweaking.
Those cravings are your body saying that you are not being fed enough. Typically, your body is saying “give me more protein.”
When I began designing the dishes I would eat for losing weight, I remember these cravings. I dealt with them by adding beans to my favourite soup. It solved the problem.
Now whenever I am overtaken with cravings, I view it as a dietary problem to tweak and solve. It’s not about me. I just need to look again at what I’m eating, and make some adjustments until the cravings stop.
8. The Four Chunk System
I take my daily calorie allowance and divide it into four chunks.
So at the moment I’m allowed 1800 calories for a one pound a week weight loss (4 pounds in 4 weeks).
Note: I’m actually allowed 1850 but this makes the maths easier.
I divide that into 4 chunks of 450 calories each.
Chunk 1 is for breakfast.
Chunk 2 is for lunch.
Chunk 3 is for dinner.
The fourth chunk is for snacks throughout the day.
I still need to spend these calories wisely. But the fourth chunk means I am not being Puritanical and still have leeway for nibbles too.
9. Eat dinner later
I used to eat at 5pm. I now eat at 7pm or sometimes even later. Why? I found that the night times were difficult for me. To have run out of calories by around six felt tough for me. Especially as I’m not someone who goes to bed early.
I decided that it felt psychologically easier to be hungry and hold off for a later dinner. The alternative is to know that the next food isn’t until next morning.
Holding off for two hours is a lot easier than that!
10. Don’t Focus On Scales From Week To Week
You are not a tin of peas. A tin of peas always weighs the same, no matter when you weigh it. Human bodies aren’t like that. We fluctuate.
Whenever you get on a scale, it’s a mere moment in time so take it with a pinch of salt.
From one week to the next isn’t reliable. Take your starting weight at the beginning, and measure with that in mind. And don’t take too much notice until your third or fourth week.
I got on the scale last week and had supposedly put on TWO POUNDS in 7 days. Nonsense. I knew that this must just be a fluctuation. In the past, I’d have become disheartened. But I could see that I was still on target when compared to my starting weight. So I let it go.
I finished my first 4 week cycle on Sunday. My target is to have lost 4 pounds. I am on 5.6 pounds. That leaves only 1.4 pounds in the next 8 weeks.