Steve Grunwell

Open-source contributor, speaker, and coffee snob

A man's feet on a scale where a sticky-note reads "Lose Weight Now"

On Weight Loss

This is a departure from my usual blog content, but it’s something that I’ve been working on for a little over a month that a lot of people struggle with. Please recognize that I’m not a medical professional, nutritionist, nor dietary expert, so everything here is purely anecdotal.

I’ve never been much of an athlete; as a child I liked playing football or riding bikes with the other kids in the neighborhood, but I loved playing video games and watching TV. Both of my parents worked, so rather than cooking we’d often go out to eat. Senior year of high school we had “Senior Lunch”, where seniors could leave campus, driving in hoards to the nearest Chipotle or fast-food restaurant.

Amazingly, I was able to avoid the “Freshman Fifteen” when I went away to college, but this was due largely in part to the amount of walking I did around campus and town (Bowling Green, OH is actually very walkable when it’s not blistering cold). Once I turned 21 my eyes were opened to craft beers, not just the classically-college cheap beers; unfortunately, with more flavor and higher alcohol content comes more calories, and my waistline started to show it.

A man's feet on a scale where a sticky-note reads "Lose Weight Now"

Photo credit: Alan Clever

There are millions of reasons to lose weight, but there are a million and one excuses why you’re not. I’ve never felt a “runner’s high” (unless said “high” is hearing your own heartbeat pounding in your ears and wanting to vomit), nor do I get much enjoyment out of playing sports. The two traditional exercises I do enjoy are hiking and swimming, but my suburban setting and lack of pool make both of those destination activities, not something I can simply do on my lunch break.

Finally, there came a reason for me to care about my health: my unborn daughter. She’s due on September 8, and my life will undoubtedly change because of it (at least if Jonathan Coulton is to be believed). I have a family history of diabetes, and moderate weight loss through dietary changes can sharply reduce the risk of becoming diabetic. Compound this with the cost of eating out regularly on an already baby-strained budget and it was easy to see that cutting down on restaurants will help with weight loss, thereby reducing my risk of developing diabetes, while saving money at the same time.

Simple, right?

Getting started

The royal “They” always say “The secret to weight loss is diet and exercise,” then usually try to sell you a gym membership or talk to you about CrossFit. They’re not wrong, but it’s certainly a case of “easier said than done.” I’ve already mentioned that I don’t care much for exercise, so I decided to start on the diet part.

Several years ago some of my friends started using a calorie tracker app called MyFitnessPal, which they were using to log their daily caloric intake. I downloaded the app and played with it for a week or two, then promptly forgot about it. When I decided to start taking action, I started by revisiting MyFitnessPal and have been quite satisfied with it.

On a very basic level, MyFitnessPal tracks the calories you consume. You can set weight loss goals through the app (e.g. “I want to lose two pounds a week”) and it adjusts your daily calorie budget to match. Throughout your day, you add the foods you eat (their database is pretty extensive, but sometimes you’ll have to approximate based on similar foods in the database or enter meals manually) as well as any exercise you do and the app tracks how many calories you have left to stay on track for your goal.

If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: weight loss is all about budgeting; consume fewer or burn more calories than your body needs for daily operation and you will lose weight.

MyFitnessPal can integrate the iOS Health app, which I had already allowed to access my daily steps (sure, it’s not the most accurate pedometer on the market, but it’s something I already have with me everywhere I go). By letting MyFitnessPal connect to the Health app it could start calculating calories burned for the steps I’ve taken, giving me extra room in my daily budget (it’s not much, but you can finally non-ironically say “I’ve hit my 10,000 steps…I deserve that slice of cake!”).

Indeed, one of the biggest “A HA!” moments I’ve had over the last month has been that there are plenty of activities that I don’t think of as “exercise” and still enjoy (or need to be) doing:

  • Playing Drums (30min) – 225 calories
  • Waxing a car (30min) – 218 calories
  • Mowing the lawn (50min) – 516 calories

None of these are things I’d normally consider “exercise”, but the fact that mowing the lawn means I could basically have another meal makes it seem less like work and more like “Oh, hello Chipotle. Why yes, I would like extra rice, because I can (metabolically) afford it.”

As with any undertaking, people will have factors working for or against them. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, so your mileage may vary, but here are mine:

Working for me:

Working against me:

  • I have a wicked sweet tooth, especially for things like cake, brownies, and ice cream. Plus, as I’ve already mentioned, beer
  • Generally speaking, I don’t have a very high rate of metabolism
  • My days are spent sitting in front a computer, which is a pretty sedentary lifestyle

My results

Despite my aforementioned weaknesses, I’ve been making some progress. When I started using MyFitnessPal again at the beginning of June, I was weighing in at an even 260lbs, about 60lbs above a “healthy” weight for my height and build. Now, as of this morning (about five weeks later), I’m down to 248lbs, averaging just over 2lb/week since starting.

Those five weeks include a vacation in Cape Cod and several friends’ birthdays; I’m still drinking beer and I haven’t touched our elliptical machine, but for the first time I feel like I’m making progress. Even if I were able to continue at this rate it would still take me another six months or so to reach my goal, but at least I’m taking steps (pun intended) to get there.

Things I’ve learned that might help you

There are a few things I’ve picked up over the last month or so that maybe should be obvious, but it took me longer than it should have for me to pick up on them:

You will hit plateaus

Anyone who’s gone through weight loss, exercising, or any other type of fitness will warn you that it’s not a linear decline; you can’t expect to eat the same foods day after day and continue to drop the same number of calories, no matter how easy the first bit was. I’m fortunate enough to not have hit a plateau yet, but I know that it’s coming. When it arrives, I may have to shake up my routine a bit in order to keep losing, but at least I’ll be starting an exercise route healthier than I would have been if I had started it a month or two ago.

The obvious next step would be to incorporate regular exercise into my routine, but that sounds awful. I’ve heard great things about the Fitbit, but haven’t had an opportunity to try one out (though my father-in-law, who was skeptical when he first got his last Christmas, swears by it). If anyone has Fitbit experiences to share, I’d love to read them in the comments!

Scales can be temperamental

My first scale was a leftover from my college days, an $8 mechanical scale I picked up at Meijer. Once I started tracking my progress I picked up this digital scale, which has a nice big screen, looks great, and is far more consistent than my old one.

I also try to be consistent in the time of day that I weigh myself; it sort of feels like cheating, but I always weigh myself first thing in the morning, right before hoping in the shower. Since you’re not eating yet continue to burn calories while you sleep, that should be my lowest weight of the day.

Some people may dissuade you from weighing yourself every day, as it’s devastating to step on the scale after a day of being really good about your calories, only to see that you’ve gained weight. Depending on how much water you’ve been drinking, how recently you’ve eaten, and a whole set of other factors your weight will fluctuate from day to day. Fear not, however, because…

…It’s all about the trend

Just like the stock market, you’ll have ups and downs throughout your weight loss journey. Don’t get discouraged, as what’s important is the trend; if you lose ten pounds then gain two, you’re not up two pounds, you’re down eight from where you started. It’s depressing the first time you step on a scale after a day or two of eating well only to find that your weight hasn’t dropped – or worse, has gone up – but your goal shouldn’t be to hit a number once, it should be to hover around that number so consistently that you wouldn’t by lying to list it on your driver’s license.

Not all beers (or food, for that matter) are made equal

I’m something of a “hop head,” and really love a good IPA, but I was bummed out to find that many of my beloved IPAs tend to be right around 180-240 calories for a 12oz bottle. Without getting into the science of it (though I’d highly recommend Beer of Tomorrow’s An Easy Way to Estimate How Many Calories are in Craft Beer article), the higher the alcohol content the higher the number of calories in a drink. Bummer, right?

I don’t really have a good suggestion on this one other than “moderation is key”. Many diet plans advocate for a “cheat” day, wherein you have one day per week where you’re “allowed” to splurge. Maybe treat Saturday as your cheat day, then stick to just a few beers throughout the week; remember, it’s all about the trend.

What will be your reason?

For me, this journey of weight loss has been around being a better role model (and living longer) for my daughter. That sounds cheesy as hell, I’ll grant you, but apparently that was just the nudge that I needed to start paying attention to my health. What will be your reason?

Please feel free to share your personal stories with weight loss in the comments, and connect with me on MyFitnessPal, if you’re so inclined.

Update: I’ve written more on the topic of weight loss in my follow-up post.

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2 Comments

  1. Shauna

    The best way I’ve found to deal with the sweet tooth is to do a month or so of no sugar and go easy on the starches. It seems to have a more profound effect on the factors driving that sweet craving than sheer willpower or the moderation thing, and in the long run can make moderating intake easier.

    I also can’t agree enough on the “you will stall” part, too. This goes doubly so for women, who are more susceptible to hormone based fluctuations than men. I’ll actually not have any changes on the scale for about three weeks of the month, then all at once, it drops the month’s worth of weight during week four, and the cycle starts again.

    The Fitbit is awesome. Definitely worth the money. I’ve got a Charge HR, that I’ve had since March or so. It’s great for tracking activity and syncs with MFP to track intake. With the two combined, they also adjust for less active days, so you keep your desired deficit. If you get the Charge HR or Surge, you also get heart rate tracking, which gives you another health data point. Automatic sleep tracking is nice, too, since sleep quality can affect weight loss progress (lack of or poor quality sleep increases cortisol production, which hinders weight loss).

    • A month with no sugar? Just reading that put me into a panic!

      I may have to seriously consider the investment into a Fitbit… I’ve heard some people complain that once the novelty wears off it’s really just something nagging you about your steps, but I think it might be the logical next step. For tracking sleep I also have a Sense (Kim’s cousin is an Industrial Designer at Hello, so I convinced her that we had to support their Kickstarter), which is working out well.

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