The More Bearable Lightness of Being
A year ago, I made a decision to start tracking my food calories in an effort to lose the extra 30 pounds I’d gained in the past decade. This decision not only resulted in better health, but also a fundamental change in my awareness of food — and an improvement in my happiness, my personal relationships, and my overall quality of life.
Asleep at the Meal
For most of my life, I ate anything I wanted. I paid only a little attention to what I thought was healthy, but I was playing a lot of sports and no matter how much I ate, I never gained weight. For years I hovered effortlessly between 175 and 180 pounds.
Then at age 34 I suffered a serious injury: I tore my ACL and needed reconstructive surgery. My exercise regimen went from eight to ten hours per week of basketball and/or soccer to … nothing.
Even after surgery and physical therapy, I had enough swelling and pain from my knee that I didn’t exercise regularly for years. Every once in a while, I’d try to get re-involved in sports, but I kept reinjuring myself. After my first ultimate frisbee match, my knee swelled up like a cantaloupe … which made it also my last ultimate frisbee match.
I started to entertain the depressing possibility that I might never play sports again.
Meanwhile, I slowly gained both weight and girth. I have a sweet tooth and love to eat cookies and cakes and donuts. I have a huge weakness for cheesecake and crème brulée. By the time I turned 46, I was squeezing 215 pounds into size 38 jeans.
Carrying extra weight made many normal things harder. Extended sitting in office chairs caused me more back pain; it was additional effort to climb stairs or go hiking with the kids. Even standing became uncomfortable after a short period of time. I was more depressed, grumpier, and had a lot less energy. Plus I was self-conscious about my increasingly pear-shaped silhouette.
I had already tried dieting once. Atkins worked at first: I lost 20 pounds in three weeks or so, but it all returned when I shifted into the “maintenance” part of the diet. And as the pounds came back so did the depression. I gave up dieting and resigned myself to being overweight.
First Alarm: Hitting Snooze
Then in 2010, during a routine annual physical, my doctor informed me that my blood sugar levels indicated that I was “pre-diabetic”: I had not yet developed full-blown adult onset diabetes, but I was well above the normal healthy range. He told me I needed to lose some weight, exercise, and avoid foods with a high glycemic index.
Type II Diabetes is a serious condition, one that needs constant attention. I learned that complications can include heart disease, nerve damage, eye degeneration, kidney damage, osteoporosis, and more. I began to get a little … concerned.
I’ve always found solo exercise excruciatingly boring. Still, I knew I needed to do something, so I bought a used stationary bicycle off Craigslist. That way, I could bike indoors even when it’s raining, which in Seattle is most of the year, and at least I could watch movies or television to relieve the tedium somewhat.
I worked my way up to a regimen of about 40 minutes of biking four to five days a week. Even with the video to distract me, this was far less fun than playing team sports, but if I could lose weight I thought it would be worth it.
In addition, I tried to eat healthier. Karawynn makes this easy — not only is she a great cook, but the meals she makes are generally heavy on vegetables and whole grains. But I remained stuck at 215 pounds, and my blood sugar, while not worsening, remained in a dangerous range.
Why wasn’t I losing weight? I had no idea.
Second Alarm: Getting Up
Then, in February 2011, my Mom died. And even though her deterioration was reasonably long, her death brought me face to face with mortality. It’s one thing to abstract death into a theoretical and distant future and it’s another to be right next to it. To really understand that people die, that I WILL DIE.
But I’d rather live a while longer — as long as possible, really. So I was forced to ask myself: why am I not dealing with my health issues? Losing weight and getting my blood sugar scores down became much more urgent.
Mom’s death had another, much less emotional, but equally important consequence to this particular course: I inherited her iPhone.
Karawynn had been urging me to track my food calories for years, but I had resisted. It seemed like far too much hassle. What if I was at a restaurant or at work? Would I carry around a notebook? Then enter that into a computer? I had better things to do.
With a smartphone those excuses evaporated — there are apps for tracking your food on the go. Suddenly counting calories sounded both easy and fun.
I started using Lose It! to track my calories in March of 2011. The software estimates how many calories you can eat per day so that you drop weight (up to two pounds a week). As you enter foods your bar of available calories fills up. If you exercise, it subtracts calories based on type and duration.
In practice, calorie-counting was neither easy nor fun, and the Lose It! mobile app was a lot less user-friendly than the web site, which meant that ironically, I almost never used the very thing that had put me on this path in the first place. But once I had made the decision to track my caloric intake, I resolved to stick with it for at least a month.
Karawynn was super supportive. She doesn’t need to lose weight, but for the first two months she counted calories in solidarity with me. She also made a special effort to track all the ingredients in the food she prepared. Without her support, the initial months would have been a lot harder.
Awake, not ‘a Wake’
During the first three or four weeks, I was hungry fairly often. But I taught myself to respond to hunger differently.
Formerly my reaction had been to simply eat until the hunger subsided. Now, instead, I learned to mentally connect hunger with the knowledge that I was losing weight. I came to see hunger, in small doses, as a positive thing. And I also learned that I could abate the hunger — prevent it from growing into a large and controlling beast — by eating a few bites of something and waiting fifteen minutes.
My relationship with food had always been about sensory satisfaction. I ate when I was hungry. Or if I really wanted something sweet. Or sometimes even if I was just bored. Now, I became hyper-conscious of everything I put in my mouth.
The more I tracked my food, the more data I learned about the foods I liked to eat. For example, nuts are good for you, but they have a lot of calories. So don’t eat handfuls. Fats, of course, are very dense in calories, and so are baked sweets like muffins and cookies and donuts. Some store-bought muffins have more calories than three eggs and buttered toast! A typical bacon double cheeseburger contains more than half of my entire daily allotment. And who knew that two beers have as many calories as a quarter of a large pizza?
I started considering each and every morsel of food I ate. If there were donuts in the kitchen at work, instead of just grabbing one, I had to think about whether it was worth the 250-300 calories. My new-found knowledge led to more conscious food decisions not only after the fact, but also when I was choosing what to eat. Often I cut a donut in half to get the sweet-tooth satisfaction without the calorie cost of the whole pastry.
I had started to lose weight after about a week and a half. By four weeks or so, my stomach had shrunk, and I wasn’t hungry nearly as often. Encouraged, I kept going. For three months straight, I lost weight every week. My first target was 190 pounds, which I reached after ten weeks. I set a new target and went sailing past 185 pounds in another four weeks.
I hit a plateau around 183 pounds, but I didn’t let that stop me. I just kept logging my food.
I also started playing soccer again, twice a week. I think losing weight eased the stress on my knee enough to make running possible. Being able to play sports helped my mood enormously.
One year later, I’m down to 175 pounds — the same as in my twenties, and probably near the natural set point for my six-foot, two-inch frame. The size 38 jeans are long gone, and even the size 34s are feeling a little loose. I feel more energetic than I have in years. My recent blood sugar tests indicate that I’m no longer pre-diabetic.
Karawynn also reports that I snore a lot less, which means that we both get better sleep. I have a lot more self-confidence too. I feel attractive again.
Yes, it was difficult and uncomfortable for the first few weeks. Yes, there are still times when I’d rather not bother to log my food, but I force myself to do so anyway — at least to ballpark it. I’ve got it down to a habit that takes about as much time each day as brushing my teeth.
I still have trouble in certain environments, like parties where there are tables of brownies and chips and chicken wings. When we go out to my favorite restaurants I want to eat more than I should; I have to remind myself to stop and take a doggie bag home. I still love to eat rich and high-calorie food. And sometimes I exceed my allowance. But I log it anyway so I can compensate over the following days.
And even though I am no longer overweight, even though I am healthier now, I will continue to track calories. Being aware, being conscious and healthy and alive, is better than being unconscious, unhealthy, and un… alive. I not only owe that to myself, but to those who love me.
I have close friends and family who are overweight. I’m sure you do too. It’s not polite to tell people they’re fat, but sometimes I want to take them by the shoulders and shake them. I want to tell them:
Please wake up and do something about your weight. If not for your own sake, then do it for me and your loved ones.
Consider this an alarm. Please don’t hit snooze, because losing you would hurt like hell.