By Michael W. Harris
I hit two major milestones recently that have finally forced me to change my mentality with my weight loss. 1) I have logged into the phone app I have used to track my food and exercise for 700 consecutive days. Which is just kind of unreal when I step back and think about it. And 2) I finally hit the mid-180s, which, while still not my quote ideal weight unquote, seems like it should be where I stop and seriously work on maintaining instead of losing. And while losing over 200 pounds was a challenge, I firmly believe that maintaining where I am and looking ahead to the next 700 days will be even harder. But let’s back up a bit first and talk about how I got here because that seems to be the question I get. And for that, we will have to go back further than 700 days. Let’s go back to 2013-2014 and when I made the first major change to finally get my health under control.
Warning: this post gets a bit “real” at times.
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I finished my PhD in 2013 and that fall I started teaching as an adjunct professor at both the University of Colorado Boulder and Metropolitan State University of Denver. Commuting between two campuses and having almost no time to eat meant that I would bring my lunch in and eat during my one free hour or so—this had the added benefit of saving me money, always a plus when you are being paid pitiful salaries and driving your car into the ground commuting across a major metro area and eating up gas. But I single out this moment for another reason because, after years of fitful starting and stopping attempts to lose weight, I made the single most important change that I still maintain to this day: I quit drinking soda.
Seriously, breaking myself of the soda habit was impactful because it proved to myself that I could make and sustain a change. It also had the almost immediate impact of dropping a pant size. It was the first mental breakthrough that I had had. And I emphasize the mental aspect because so much of sustained weight loss is not about food or exercise (which are hugely important), but rather the battle against your own mind. Changing your lifestyle, which is what sustained and permanent weight loss really is, is about mental control; recognizing your urges and triggers and fighting to keep them in check. Weaning myself off sugary drinks was a long process, stepping through various fake-sugar waters and what not until I finally landed on the miracle wonder fizziness that is LaCroix. My personal choice is the Curate Cerise Limon, but find your own because I have a tendency to buy them in bulk. They are…precious to me.
Winning this mental battle over soda was so important because it was my first victory in a lifelong battle. Look at any picture of me from before 2015, and you can get a good idea. I had been big my entire life, and about the only thing that had kept me where I had been for years was that I knew the few little things I could do to stop myself from overeating—such as not keeping snacking foods around the house, much to the consternation of guests. But I was not balancing it with any sort of exercise, and I was certainly overeating when and where I could. I would seriously kill an entire frozen pizza by myself. Still can if I wanted to probably, in all honesty. However, if I did, it would now be somewhat counteracted by exercise. But portion control and more activity was just the first step. The more important tools of greater self-control and regimentation would come much later and be the final stage in my process.
Prior to my breakthrough 700 days ago, though, my first serious attempt at losing weight and controlling my meals came in 2015 or so. After jumping off the adjunct train and switching my career to libraries, my new health insurance had a “Diabetes Prevention Program” that included an app and a personal coach sort of thing. While I eventually “fell off the wagon” with it, the time I did spend diligently building balanced meals with controlled portions, watching videos, and pushing myself to be more physically active, laid the groundwork for what was to come. While on this plan I also registered a weight under 400 pounds for the first time in who knows how long (though, by the time I started my 700 days in May 2016, I had crept back over that personal Rubicon).
I cannot accurately answer the second most asked question I get: how much weight have you lost? I will never know what my starting weight was, indeed for most of my adult life I was unable to register my weight on most, easily purchased bathroom scales because they top out at either 350 or 400 pounds. The subconscious message that this sends to heavier people is not an incentive to lose weight, it is a deterrent. It is another micro-aggression that society sends saying that they do not approve of you. Another mental blow.
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There are two major battles to fight when you are trying to lose weight. One is against your body and the fact that it likes to stay where it is and not change. The second is against your own mind, which is also resistant to change. What is almost never talked about is that, by far (at least in my uneducated option), the more important battle is the second. Winning that battle starts by first adjusting your thinking: you are not trying to lose weight, you are trying to change your lifestyle and habits. You are breaking old patterns that were bad and establishing good new ones. You are trying to become a different person because, if you are trying to lose weight or otherwise change your lifestyle, you are admitting that you are, fundamentally, unhappy with your life or the status quo. Admitting and deciding you want to change is the first step.
People do talk about this, though usually in a joking manner. As with so many discussions surrounding mental health, it is laughed off or brushed aside because we are uncomfortable talking about it. I was no different, but I am becoming more comfortable with admitting that I was deeply unhappy with who I was. Sure, there were great parts of my life, good friends and family, but at my core was a deep sadness and desire to not be the “fat guy” or whatever. Yet, that mental image was a part of identity that I had ingrained in me from years of bullying growing up. It was a constant part of my interior daily life that effected vast swaths of my exterior life, mentally giving myself enough “space” to merely exist: seats I would choose on the bus, booking air travel, and knowing that the people around me were having to physically make space for me to simply move about the world. Just knowing and observing these behaviors and observe the effect that my physical space had on those around me ingrained a desire to not intrude, to somehow make up for my largeness by receding into the background in other ways. I would mentally sideline myself from the beginning almost as an apology for taking up more space than I should.
It is painful to think about this, and harder to write about it, but it is the truth, and THAT is the battle I still fight. These behaviors have been slow to change, and my mental image still has the mindset of the past me. And this battle to reorient my interior image and mindset is, by far, the most dangerous battle that I stand to lose. Right now I am probably teetering on the edge of slipping into what could be considered underweight. While 185 is on the higher end of whatever “ideal” weight chart you look up on the internet, I have to mentally factor in that there is a lot of excess and loose skin hanging around that, if I were to have the money for plastic surgery (anyone want to loan me $12,000 for the first 2 or 3 surgeries?), would probably drop my weight by at least 10 if not more like 15 or 20 pounds. This would dramatically change where I land on those charts. But when you have been losing weight for 700 straight days, you do get addicted to the rush of satisfaction of success when you step on the scale and it shows a decrease. On the flipside, when the scale shows an increase you begin to second guess every food choice you have made for the past week or so. These are dangerous thought patterns to have when you need to simply maintain a healthy weight.
It is one thing to know that for “normal people” weight fluctuates daily between 1-3 pounds, and that can be because of sleep or water intake or whatever. But when you started losing weight at somewhere north of 420 pounds, and have gone from shirts as large as 5 or 6XL all the way down to an M, you live in constant fear of backsliding, of slipping up and somehow, magically, not stopping until you have gained back every pound lost. The knowledge that, as most studies seem to indicate, I am a statistical anomaly not only in how much I have lost, but also in sustaining it for so long, just reinforces my fear of somehow jumping back to over 400 pounds without even trying.
For most people, this is simply irrational. And I know it is. I know that I can easily correct. Hell, I have even done it. Multiple times. But that is rational thought. My PhD knows all of this, but my primal brain does not. In many ways, it is like PTSD. I have lived with the stress of my relationship to food and my weight for almost my entire life. It was hardwired into my brain from such an early age, and changing those neural patterns is the hardest thing I have had to do.
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Let’s talk about patterns, because it is probably the thing that has helped me most. When all of my friends on Facebook, or people I know at conferences, or those few new colleagues in Virginia who I have told about what I looked like two years ago ask me how I’ve done it, it say that it all comes back to a simple fact: I am a man of routine. Not OCD level to be sure, but I find it very easy to stick with a routine and even thrive in it.
Where so many get bored eating the same thing day after day after day, I look forward to it. I have eaten the same exact breakfast for almost every one of those 700 days. The exception is on weekends when I actually cook, but even then I tend to cook from a very small handful of recipes. And it is the same thing with lunch. While that has changed multiple times over those 700 days, I usually find a lunch and stick to it for a long time. I have only changed it up when I wanted to reduce overall caloric intake, add more vegetables, or something else forces me to change (such as deciding to switch to a bento-style lunch).
It is the same with my daily exercise routines. I knew when I started my concerted effort to lose weight that activity was the single biggest thing I needed to change (with meal portion control being the second). But I also knew with working full-time, and being exhausted at the end of the day, that building that activity into my daily routines was the quickest way to make a change. And god knows I didn’t want to go to the gym.
So, I started walking to work and building afternoon walks into my lunch breaks. Luckily, this change coincided with moving from Longmont to Boulder where I would be living just over two miles from work.
My activity started out slowly, first aiming for 10,000 steps a day. I would walk part of the way to work and then pick up a bus. I then slowly began walking farther and farther until I was doing the entire 2.25 miles and most days even walking it back. I am now at the point where I average walking at least 7 miles a day. AVERAGE. My friend Chase says that I am probably at the point where I am in better health and shape than he was when he started hiking the Appalachian Trail. Not sure if that is true, but I will take the compliment. (Editor’s Note: According to Chase is it, “Abso-fuckin’-lutely it’s true. Not even a question.”)
To this pattern I eventually added some other exercises when a back spasm forced me to seek out a physical therapist. I also added some basic kettle bell exercises to try and work on my gut/abs, because…well…okay, there are some things I am doing just for the mental lift when I can actually feel a tight stomach through the layers of loose skin hanging around my abdomen. I think I have earned a little vanity. Just a smidge.
But again, this all comes back to routine, the mental fight, and what has helped make me an outlier among outliers. I thrive on routine, for good and for ill. As I detailed previously, I can sometimes work myself into unhealthy habits (like having one drink a night), but that same tendency (let’s call it a form of addiction for the sake of argument, an addiction to routine, finding a comfort in it) is also what has helped me where so many have failed. It is my aid in fighting the mental battle because the routine can help drive sticking to my good habits.
However, I am also at the point where the comfort in my daily eating and exercise routines have the danger of helping me continue to lose weight when I really should not. I am now actively forcing myself to try and consume just a little bit more to stabilize my weight while also not allowing myself to go overboard and get back into bad habits. Trying to find that happy medium, the middle path, what most might just consider “normal” is hard to do when you have spent your life as one thing and have only been what the world might consider “normal” for less than a year.
But what is actually normal? That is a whole other question entirely.
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If you have made it this far hoping for advice, or whatever secret recipe that has led to my success, well here it is.
Breakfast: Granola bars and chai latte. Total calories under 400.
Lunch: Steamed rice and vegetables in peanut sauce, grapes, and a red bean mochi. Total calories under 400.
Dinner: Varies from day to day, but I try and keep it between 800-1,000 total calories.
Snacks: It is okay once in a while, but try and keep it to less than 200 per day, and not every day.
My goal now is to have a total caloric intake of 2000-2200 per day, but I am having to increase the snacks to do that (or add something else to lunch or breakfast). And by snacks I mean maybe an extra granola bar, some bread, or something else. Do all that you can to avoid the sugars.
Though a small piece of chocolate from the grocery store checkout (ONE PIECE, not a whole bar or whatever, like a Lindor truffle or something else that is 100 calories or less) is a nice treat once in a while.
I know that many say that “counting calories” is not the way to lose weight, and there is truth in that. It does more to mentally shame people rather than encourage. However, what it does do is force you to think about portion sizes. You can eat more by weight if the food is overall lower in calorie content. Balancing between portion size and caloric content is the way to do it. Eating foods that are of larger portion size but are of small relative caloric value can trick your body and mind into thinking it is full sooner. Again, this game is more than half mental. And if you can balance that with a decent amount of physical activity then you are probably good.
And to reiterate, I am not talking about intense gym workouts with weights or yoga or whatever. Simply walking more from place to place. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Taking a nice stroll at lunch. Going to the bathroom at the one further from your desk. Parking further away from the entrance at the mall or grocery store parking lot.
Little changes accumulate when spread out over a day. And days turns to months which turn to years. Break the old habits, establish new ones. Fight your mind and the body will follow.
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So, what happened? What was the trigger 700 days ago that was the final break to begin this massive change?
Well, as clichéd as it is, it was a girl. Not like that, not someone who I was pining over and decided to change my life for. Rather, a new, but old, friend who made a tiny suggestion. She mentioned an app on her phone that she had used in the past that had helped her when she wanted to lose weight, and I made a spur of the moment decision to give it a try. I honestly don’t even remember how the topic came up, but knowing her and me, it was probably over drinks at No Name Bar in Boulder.
And that might be the important thing about my weight loss and these changes. If both of us were still in Boulder, I would still enjoy evenings at No Name, drinking a gin and tonic—made stronger by Matty the bartender because he always treated us well—and a slice of Cosmos Classic Pizza. And I would enjoy it and eat and drink without guilt because I have allowed myself mentally to have a day now and then where I might slip a little. But I would still have some limits. Maybe just two GnTs and a single slice of pizza (with the Spicy Ranch™ side, of course).
Moderation, routine, control. It really does all come back to fighting the mental battles, but as in all things, you are your own worst enemy. I am also probably fighting my own genetics and metabolism. There are very real genetic and physical issues that make it easier or harder for people to lose, control, and maintain their weight. I have never been tested for these, but I have seemed to find, through some trial and error, what works for me. And I want to stress that this is simply what works for me. It should not be taken as a diet plan or whatever. Consult a doctor or nutritionist for help. It is the one thing I have never done which I really should do in order to help me find a good maintenance strategy. Like so many diets…I’ll do that tomorrow.
However, the big takeaway I want everyone who has read this far hoping for advice, or a guide, is this: the biggest challenge is mental. You are fighting your own mind and its thought patterns, and the most important victory is the first one. Convincing yourself that you CAN change and that you WANT to change. Again, I might have had an advantage here because I have always been very hyperaware of myself and my thought patterns. I have always recognized negative thought spirals and been frank with myself about them. However, in the past I had done very little to change them…
And then I did…and, well, the before and after photos do sort of speak for themselves.
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In putting this post together, I was forced to revisit a lot of old photos on Facebook, and I’m not sure if it was cathartic or traumatizing. I always avoided having my photo taken for the reason that I clearly did not like looking at myself or seeing pictures of myself. For many years, at least three if not more, my profile photo on Facebook was not me, but rather a picture of Fumio Hayasaka, who I was writing my dissertation on. I always said that I would change it once I defended, which I did…to a photo of me taken at my defense. However, before then my profile rarely featured photos of myself if they were not uploaded by friends. This was denial, plain and simple. I was trying to cover up my deep-seated insecurities about my appearance. And while the weight loss has helped in strengthening my self-esteem, the lingering fear, the depression, the insecurity, it is still there. Lurking just beneath the surface, driving my obsessive routines that I am trying to get in check.
Any life change is a process. An ongoing battle against your own mind and body. And it is never “mission accomplished.” There is no end. Just victories and defeats, and hopefully more of the former than the latter. And you CAN win the battles. You really can. But there is always a next battle, and one defeat is never the end. There is always a next battle that you can win. There is hope, even when you had long ago given up.