Over the course of the past decade the combination of a sedentary lifestyle and a not-so-insignificant sweet tooth have worked in tandem to help create my current XXL size.
It’s my fault
It would be easy to blame a slow metabolism, a sugar addiction, or an osteomyelitis at birth which left me unable to take part in sports without serious pain. While all these things are true, as is the osteoarthritis I have in both legs, I consider these things to be excuses. The person to blame is the one in the mirror. Always. Because in life, it’s all about how you play those cards you are dealt.
Had I made different choices, I would be your average sized (or even extra fit) guy, osteomyelitis and metabolism be damned. Instead, I ignored this side of my life in favor of other aspects. My mind has been relentlessly focused on other things. I focused on leaving my country, learning English, becoming a knowledgeable and successful professional and a published author, making money, and providing for my family. All noble pursuits, but they’re ones that still could have been achieved if I was paying a bit more attention to my health and fitness.
However, much like many other programmers, I didn’t. Instead I used food (particularly sweet foods) as comfort while working hard and when going through times of stress. My willpower — a limited resource according to the latest research — was spent elsewhere, not on monitoring what I ate very closely. The end result, as you can imagine, is not particularly pretty.
Time to do something about it
At my current age of 31, the extra weight I’m carrying is beginning to scare me. My arthritis is the worst side effect so far, but I can see the potential for other serious medical conditions lurking in the shadows. Diabetes, high pressure, and heart disease are all common conditions for people, like me, who have a hundred or more pounds to lose. I’d like to prevent that train wreck now, before the inevitable crash happens down the line. Everything I’ve done (including my attempt to succeed and provide for my family) will all have been for nothing if I die young or I end up disabled.
And there are less drastic considerations, too. Obesity truly affects your lifestyle. Going out for two hours at the mall becomes a freaking workout, because you are the equivalent of a regular (out of shape) Joe, carrying a 100+ lbs backpack on his shoulders. Finding a comfortable position when sleeping becomes a challenge. Sightseeing in a beautiful city like Toronto turns into an intensive project that’s completed in short bursts of two hours at most.
As the new year arrived, I decided to do something about this situation.
My previous failures with dieting
Like many other big people, over the years I’ve tried to lose weight before. My first serious attempt was back in college when I had a huge crush for a girl. I went on an extremely low calorie diet for a few months, foolishly thinking that my weight was the issue that was keeping us from being together (I had a lot of growing up still to do at that point in my life). At the time I had much less weight to lose than I do now, and I was able to get to within 30 pounds of my ideal weight. Sadly, that (starvation) diet was not sustainable and I ended up gaining those pounds back quickly, with plenty more added to the mix as time went on.
My second serious attempt was at the end of 2003, shortly after I left Italy for Ireland. There was a Weight Watchers meeting at the place I used to work (Xerox). I quickly lost weight on their Points program. I ate smaller portions and consumed fewer sugary products, and as a result ended up losing a staggering 5.8 lbs on the first week. I found the points to be very restrictive at the time (the Weight Watchers diet I could configure with my allocated points was much less caloric than my usual one). I managed to lose over 15 lbs on the program in a matter of weeks, but then I figured that I could just calculate the points myself and save the money involved with attending the meetings. I was single at the time and was doing this more to help me score ladies than for myself or my health. Shortly after I stopped going to meetings I gave up on Weight Watchers and rapidly reverted back to my usual diet.
My third serious attempt was three or so years ago, and took place here in Canada. After reading Good Calories, Bad Calories I learned about the pros and cons of low carb diets and gave that plan a shot by eating very few carbs. Doing so lead to digestive problems and I was always craving something sweet. Truth be told, my main issue has always been my craving for sweet things, not the overall volume of food that I consume (many people who know me are surprised by how little I eat during a normal meal). Such a drastic diet allowed me to lose weight temporarily, but I simply couldn’t live without anything sweet or bread/pasta/pizza (hey, I’m Italian after all). I still believe that the author, Gary Taubes, is fundamentally right when arguing that sugar and carbs have significantly contributed to North America’s obesity levels. I also believe that fat is not the devil, for that matter.
My fourth serious attempt was a year and a half ago. It all started after reading Eat to Live. This book was sort of the radical opposite of Taubes’ book. It criminalized animal fat, in favor of fruits and vegetables, promoting a vegan-like diet (without forcing it on anyone). I loved this book and tried to follow what it said for a couple of months. I lost 21.5 lbs in six weeks by eating the way it outlined, and what’s even better, my digestive issues pretty much disappeared. My blood pressure was that of an athlete. My heart rate went down 20 points. My cholesterol and blood sugar levels were awesome. The health benefits of this diet were absolutely undeniable and even surprised my family doctor.
To top it off, this diet introduced me to many vegetables I was not used to eating. Today, I absolutely love broccoli, cauliflower, huge salads, et cetera as a result of my experience with Eat to Live. Unfortunately, it was still a drastic diet that really limited a number of foods I was accustomed to consuming on a regular basic. Plus, the meals on this diet took forever to prepare and eat. Vegetables were the basis of the diet, and most of them are not very caloric. So to reach your daily 1800-2000 calories, you’d have to spend hours preparing these huge amounts of vegetables that would then require hours to be eaten. This point made it hard for the eater (me), as well as the cook (my very understanding wife).
Other than the fact that this was an high-maintenance diet and too restrictive with foods I loved, I learned a lot from that experiment. To this day, I find vegetables and fruits to be very enjoyable and I don’t mind trying new things as a result of this period of vegetarianism. (They’re processed food, I’m the first to admit, but I pretty much love meatless chicken nuggets more than the real deal.)
And this leads us to a few days ago, January 1, 2012.
What I learned from my past failures
Reflecting upon all these failed attempts, I realized that I needed a lifestyle/diet adjustment that took into consideration my nature, willpower, and past experiences.
From the first failure back in college, I learned that I cannot go on a diet that I can’t sustain for the rest of my life. Therefore ultra-restrictive, low calorie diets will not do. I also learned that I can’t approach weight loss unless I’m doing it for myself and my health (and not for someone else).
From my 2003 Weight Watchers experience I learned that the game-like point system motivates me, and I found the ability to eat any type of food (in moderation) works well for me. As well, I learned that you can’t give up on following a system just because of early success, you need to stick with it until you reach your end goal.
From my third failure, I learned that I need to make a conscious effort to keep the carbohydrate level I consume relatively low (in particular, I need to go easy on sugar). I also learned that I can’t go on a diet that deprives me of small quantities of chocolates and other little pleasures. I simply won’t be able to stick with it if I do.
From my fourth failure, as mentioned, I learned that it’s important to have plenty of vegetables in one’s diet. But I can’t live off of veggies alone; I need a balanced diet that includes meats, grains, and other foods I enjoy as well.
My first week on the Weight Watchers PointsPlus diet plan
At the start of this year, I opted to join Weight Watchers online. The Points system has changed and now is called PointsPlus. It rewards fruits and vegetables (which are generally a very good thing) and punishes very sugary and processed foods by assigning very high points to them (also a good thing).
On this new system I’m currently assigned a staggering 59 points. This number worried me for most of the week because it allowed me to eat a large amount of food each day. I didn’t really feel like I was on much of a diet at all, and in some ways I ate more than I usually do. What it imposed on me was to drastically cut the portions of pizza, side dishs, and some processed favorites of mine. Oh, and it also limited the amount of chocolate and ice cream I could have. Other than that though, it didn’t really feel like a diet.
I did the math and determined that on average I’m eating between 2,500 and 2,800 calories per day. Could I possibly lose weight on such a system? This morning I weighed myself and discovered that I had lost 1 lb. I’ll take any healthy weight loss I can get, and losing one pound each week will certainly be incredible three months from now. Today however, it is a bit underwhelming. A guy my size who goes on a diet will typically lose several pounds in the first two or three weeks (in excess water weight if nothing else). The old Weight Watchers plan did exactly that for me, and I was 50 lbs lighter at the time than my current weight.
Much like I suspected during the course of this past week, I have probably been allocated too many points. I would be fine with 2.000-2,200 calories a day, but 2,800 seems excessive and I highly doubt I will keep losing weight at that level (even when the points get accordingly reduced as I lose weight).
The main flaw in this system appears to be assigning 0 points to most fruits. I could have 2 bananas for breakfast, 2 per lunch, 2 per dinner and accumulate 0 points for all six of those bananas. However in reality I’d be eating 700+ calories and almost 200g of carbs. Ignoring this in the hopes that it all evens out is a bit naive when you are dealing with hungry chubsters. 0 point fruits also create a paradox in the system. I can have 6 bananas for 0 points, but if I were to make a smoothie out of them I’d have to account for 18 points, plus the points for sugar and milk. The official justification for this paradox is that eating several bananas is far harder if you are not drinking them, but I don’t think a big dieter has any trouble eating a couple of fruits per meal and inadvertently adding a tons of calories and carbs to their diet. I don’t fully buy that we should accept this paradox. (I understand that WW is trying to make us eating healthier, but I’d prefer an unhackable system that would lead to significant weight loss if I stick to my points.)
My own version of PointsPlus which accounts for fruits
I’m happy to be on WW again because I think it will work for the type of eater that I am, and I will try to stick to it this time around. I also think that PointsPlus has its merits, yet it’s obvious to me that it doesn’t work for everyone. Googling shows plenty of people who used to lose weight on the old Points system but are now struggling with this new system. Some even gained back several pounds on PointsPlus. If my nutritional research over the years has taught me anything, it’s that calories — particularly those coming from insulin inducing carbs — do affect your weight loss, so you can’t go nuts with them and expect to lose significant weight in the long run.
What I decided to do from this second week onward is to stick to the 59 points, but calculate points for fruits into the mix. For example, at launch I had some cantaloupe, whole wheat bread, and cheese. WW suggests I should add the cantaloupe as 0 points, yet this time around I didn’t do that. I inserted it as a custom food (Tony’s Cantaloupe) and calculated the sugar, fiber, fat, and protein numbers. It turns out that the amount of cantaloupe I ate added 6 points to my meal. If I was blindly following the PointPlus system that would have been 0 points (despite adding 50g of sugar to my daily total).
I’m confident that following the PointsPlus (in addition to counting points for fruit) will help me succeed in the long term. I didn’t gain all this weight over night and I’m not going to loose it overnight either, but I have to take the steps required to ensure that I’m able to do so in the long run. Wish me luck.