Losing Weight: Yes We Can
Before the current child-obesity epidemic got started, Americans under 25 years old were, to a great degree, almost effortlessly fit. Mind you, we were more likely to down a six-pack than to sport one on our torsos. But that was a benefit of youth; we could consume what we wanted, eschew exercise, stay up late, and as long as we stayed out of trouble, chances were that we’d still be in decent shape.
Then we turned 30, and everything started to change. The difference was subtle at first, but it accelerated. Weight gain, rising blood pressure, weaker muscles, brittle bones, all were inevitable if we did nothing about it. I went from being thin to, as my mother kindly put it, “stocky.”
Losing weight is a daunting prospect for the typical deskbound adult. As we get older, even the healthiest among us have to go out of their way to eat right (but not too much) and exercise if they want to maintain a decent level of health and fitness. The trick, in my view, is to integrate the right behavior into one’s lifestyle, so it doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice.
My progress in this area has been slow but steady, and I‘ve been showing real improvement over the last 8 months. In that time, my weight has gone down to what it was 20 years ago, and it feels good. My belt is two notches tighter. Surprisingly, it hasn’t required great sacrifice. I could probably keep this up indefinitely, because I found a way to achieve reasonable fitness with activities that I enjoy.
Here are the most important areas I changed: nutrition, calories, and activity.
Nutrition (Food Quality)
A nutritious diet isn’t by itself the key to controlling your weight, but it’s definitely part of your overall fitness and health, and it makes a good first step in the weight loss process. You’re not going to be successful keeping your weight down and feeling good if you eat unhealthy food.
Over the last decade or so, I incrementally improved the quality of my diet. Food writer Michael Pollan provides a helpful mantra:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Pollan defines food as stuff with ingredients you can pronounce, which our great-grandparents would have recognized as food. Read his books to understand exactly what he means by the saying. You don’t have to take it as gospel, but just as a source of inspiration.
I didn’t try to change my diet all at once; that’s no fun. I made changes in small, relatively painless increments.
I reduced my red meat consumption in favor of seafood, slowly adding fish that I could cook in a tasty manner to my menu. I ate more poultry, especially turkey. Beans and nuts also took up some of the slack.
I increased the amount of fresh fruits and (non-starchy) vegetables in my diet as much as possible. They enable me to feel full with fewer calories, and their nutritional value can’t be beat. I simplified, by trying to limit the sauces and toppings on my food, or finding healthier alternatives to, say, cheese. Most vegetables are delicious with just salt and pepper, or a light vinaigrette, or common spices like thyme and rosemary.
I established a core set of healthy ingredients (that I like) in all food categories, which I can mix and match in many different ways to easily produce a variety of meals.
I use the nutrition labels that adorn most packaged foods to slowly but surely shift my consumption to ever healthier food. My guidelines are fairly simple:
- Eliminate trans fat completely;
- reduce sodium and saturated fat;
- try to avoid cholesterol;
- look for more protein;
- and maximize fiber.
I choose the lower sodium soup, the higher fiber cereal, the lower fat cut of meat, but only if I can prepare it in a way that doesn’t taste awful.
Notice that I didn’t make a fuss about vitamins, whole grains, overall fat or calories. Yes, these are important, and it’s worth paying attention to them, but they’re easier to deal with than you might think:
- In a balanced diet, the vitamin and mineral requirement almost takes care of itself (you can take a daily multivitamin for insurance).
- When you choose high fiber foods, chances are that you’ll end up with plenty of whole grains.
- Saturated and trans fats are the real enemies. Otherwise, fat is actually an important nutrient, in moderation.
- The place to deal with calories is when you’re eating – your calorie requirements shouldn’t so much determine what you eat, as how much.
Calories (Food Quantity)
This was a tougher nut for me to crack, so to speak.
The nutrition in my diet is now the least of my concerns, because I buy mostly healthy ingredients, and I’ve learned simple ways to use them to make reasonably tasty meals. Good nutrition is one of the keys to good health. I have no chronic ailments, and I almost never come down with a viral or bacterial infection; my immune system is in great shape. But weight loss is affected less by nutrition than by calories.
You’ve probably heard this truism: losing weight is about burning more calories than you consume. Theoretically, you can exercise enough to completely counteract the excess calories you eat, or you can diet enough to completely counteract your sedentary lifestyle. Good luck with that. Both approaches strike me as thoroughly unpleasant. I can’t build a lifestyle on not eating the food I like, or on constant physical exertion.
It makes more sense to strike a balance; find a way to eat a bit less than usual, so your exercise can be more effective. I won’t try to prescribe an approach, as there are many ways to accomplish this, depending on your existing lifestyle:
- If you eat out a lot, do so less often. Or stop altogether.
- If you’ve always had full-fat ice cream or milk, try a lower-fat version.
- At the coffee shop, stop drinking so much candy in a cup (e.g. lattes).
- Starting with your highest-calorie food items, try to find a lower-calorie version you’re willing to eat instead.
- Switch your favorite snacks to mostly fresh fruit or vegetables.
- Pre-portion everything, including snacks. When the plate is empty, you’re done.
- Use smaller dinnerware; your meal looks larger on a smaller plate.
- Nutrition labels specify a serving size; use a kitchen scale to make sure your portions are reasonable.
- At lunch and dinner, make vegetables half the meal.
- Potatoes are fine; baked potatoes with butter, bacon, cheese or sour cream are not.
- Don’t regularly eat second helpings.
- Consider skipping dessert occasionally.
I tried a combination of some of these ideas and several others, and my calorie intake has shifted downward, but not in a way that seems like a sacrifice. Now my exercise makes a bigger difference.
I hate the word “exercise.” It even sounds like a chore. How about calling it, say, “active recreation” instead?
Regardless of what we call it, we all have to get moving if we truly want to be fit, healthy, and of course, an appropriate weight. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes, activities they love and those they can’t stand. Factors such as boredom, shin splints, bad knees, seasonality, cost, inconvenience and insufficient calorie-burning can make it difficult to hone in on the one or two exercises that you can do enthusiastically day after day.
I’ve come to understand that two types of activity are necessary:
- Strength training for building muscle
- Weight-bearing aerobic exercise for strengthening bones and building endurance
I’ve finally come across a combination that works. For me, these activities are easy and convenient.
To implement the strength training, I alternate each morning between 30 pushups and 30 “assisted” chinups. (These are really more like lat pulldowns without a machine. I perform the chinups with my feet on the floor, supporting half my body weight.) Alternating between these two activities allows the set of muscles used for each activity to rest for two days.
Walking is weight-bearing; bicycling is not. I would love to be able to run; it would be a fun and easy way to get to know the neighborhood to which I recently moved. Sadly, I have two bad knees, and I get shin splints just from walking too fast. If you’re like me, you need to find an exercise that’s weight bearing but low impact. For the weight-bearing aerobic exercise, I play…ping pong. Table tennis. Really.
Obviously one needs a ping-pong table for this, and a place to put it. Inexpensive folding tables are available; space can be more of a problem. A single-car garage provides room to play on a full size table. You can also fold up one end of the table as a backboard, and play solo in only half the space.
Played at a novice level, at a comfortable pace, ping pong isn’t very demanding. However, several months of daily practice have enabled me to speed up my play to an aerobic pace, around 80-150 accurate strokes per minute, which requires me to stay literally on my toes. This might not seem like much of an exercise, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It made the difference in my bid to lose weight. Ping pong, plus the strength exercise and the small reduction in calorie intake, has produced a slow but consistent rate of weight loss. I was originally just trying to stay healthy, and it was several weeks before I realized I was losing weight. What a bonus!
The Bottom Line
If you find an aerobic activity that keeps you on your feet, that you can do on short notice, and enjoy doing for 30 minutes every day, you’ll have a winner. Just add, say, some daily pushups or weights, decent nutrition, and slightly reduced calories, and you’ll be on your way. If I can do it, most anyone can.