Growing up, I was always a skinny kid. In my twenties, that changed. I injured my knee playing basketball, which caused me to cut back on my activities. After I graduated from college, I started my first job behind a desk. My weight started to creep up. And up. And up. At my heaviest I weighed over 260 pounds.
*I bought a scale after I started losing weight, so I don't know where, exactly, the top was. The first time I was brave enough to get on the scale, I weighed 255 pounds. Yikes.
In the summer of 2001, after Ben was born, Diane signed up for Weight Watchers to help lose her pregnancy weight. At the same time, I read Walter Willet's Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. This book explains current medical research on eating and health. These events pushed me to get serious about losing some weight. In my imagination, I was thin, like I was as a teenager. I wanted to look like that again, not like the fat guy in the mirror.
*In my imagination, I'm also much younger - about 23 years old.
I started counting calories, limiting myself to 2000 a day. Following Willet's book, I ate less processed starches and animal fat, and ate more whole grains, unsaturated fats, and vegetables.
*That is, less white flour, pasta, potatoes, white rice, animal fat, and whole milk; eat more fish, oils, nuts, fruit and vegetables, brown rice and whole wheat bread and pasta.
The weight started to drop off immediately. My enthusiasm for home cooking really helped. Without doing my own cooking, I don't think I could have lost weight. Cooking changed losing weight from drudgery and denial into a challenge. Could I adapt my cooking to weight loss, while still enjoying the results? Where could I cut calories in a recipe without losing flavor? What worked, and what didn't? What recipes were inherently low calorie, what recipes could be adapted to be low calorie, and what recipes should just be avoided? I enjoyed this whole process, and learned a lot about cooking in the process.
*Much of what I knew about basic technique came from Pam Anderson's How to Cook without a Book. I would have had less trial and error if she published Perfect Recipe for Losing Weight back in 2001. I think it's the best "diet" cookbook out there, because it teaches you techniques more than recipes.
I trained myself to be a mindful eater. To keep below 2000 calories a day, I had to constantly ask myself: are these calories worth it? Am I going to enjoy them enough? As an example, I would always keep enough calories in reserve for a glass of wine with dinner, as a treat for myself. It helped to be a bit of a food snob. For example, when confronted with a dish of candy in a co-worker's cube, I would say to myself: "I don't want that hershey's miniature, I want to wait and have a piece of good, dark chocolate."
Portion control was another key to losing weight. At first, It came as part of calorie counting. Unless I knew my portion size, I I didn't know how many calories I ate. Soon I put two and two together - larger portions meant more calories. But the flip side was I could get away with eating smaller portions of higher calorie foods, and not bust my calorie budget for the day.
It wasn't all about denial. I would have a celebration meal once a week, either Sunday dinner, or a party with family and friends. For this meal I would relax all the rules. I would eat a large serving of vegetables with dinner, and otherwise just enjoy myself.
*And did I mention the glass of wine or two that would go along with it?
By the summer of 2002, I dropped from 260 pounds to 180. I was rail thin. People were amazed, and some were a little taken aback. Occasionally I was asked questions that implied, "are you having a medical issue?"
*I think I was able to lose so much weight so quickly because I have a high metabolism. That's why I was always skinny when I was a kid. My metabolism slowed down as I got older, but not that much - it was still pretty high. I just had to slow down my eating to match it.
I settled into a virtuous groove. My eating habits were stable. I could tell how many calories were in a dish from the portion size and the ingredients. I knew when to say I was done. Eventually, I stopped tracking calories every day. I let myself eat some of the foods I was supposed to avoid.
We had Natalie in late 2002, then Tim in 2004. Pretty soon, we were cooking for the kids, not just us. At that point, what I ate became less important to me, and I started to worry about what the kids were eating. Or if they were eating at all. Ben was an extraordinarily picky eater as a toddler, and would only eat‚ you guessed it, processed starches, and whole milk.*
*Well, not exclusively, but to someone who enjoys a range of food as much as I do, it sure seemed like it. He's starting to grow out of it now, but it's still a struggle to get him to try new stuff. And Tim is turning out to be even more stubborn about what he eats.
**I have NO IDEA where this stubborn streak comes from. Wait…why are you all looking at me like that?
We started using the approach recommended by Ellyn Satter for dealing with picky eaters - divide the responsibility at the dinner table. Our job as parents was to give them a variety of healthy food options with the meal; their job was to decide whether or not they want to eat. Don't make the dinner table a power struggle. If they won't eat, another meal will be coming. They won't going to starve if they skip a meal. That said, I tried to be kid friendly with our menu. I wouldn't make an entire meal that was challenging to them. I would make at least one part of every meal familiar or kid friendly.
*Her best piece advice, other than the division of responsibility: try to make sure there's some bread on the table. If nothing else, they'll eat the bread.
**Her second best piece of advice: No short order cooking! The whole family eats the same meal. That's how you get kids used to different foods. If they see their parents eating and enjoying a range of foods, the will eventually try it. Even if they won't touch anything but the bread right now.
I started to chafe against the restrictive Willet approach. I get a lot of enjoyment out of eating food, and it felt wrong to label certain foods as good or bad. I didn't want my kids to pick up food phobias from me; they were doing a good enough job themselves. I don't want them to think some foods are bad, just that some food should be eaten in moderation. I wanted them to focus more on variety than on avoiding certain foods.
*I loved the switch to whole wheat bread, but I was never able to make the "no white flour or white rice" part work for me. Whole wheat pasta and brown rice are pale substitutes for the real thing. I would cook them, and then try to eat as much of everything else in the meal as I could. When the kids refused to touch them, they drifted out of my cooking routine. If I'm not supposed to short order cook for the kids, I'm not supposed to do it for me either.
Then came the one-two punch that finalized the change in my eating habits.
First was the Atkins diet. I had a strong, almost visceral reaction to it: this is wrong! Any diet that said fruit was bad for you is not helping. I started to question the sanity of restricting entire ranges of foods from my diet.
The second change was my interest in the "eat local" movement. I wanted to eat more locally and seasonally, and that's tough to do if you're restricting your diet.
In the end, I relaxed quite a bit on my eating. As a result, my weight crept back up. By 2006, I was at 225 pounds, and have been there (plus or minus five pounds) for the last three years. And, while I would like to lose 25 pounds and be back down to 200, I also have maintained 35 pounds of weight loss for eight years. From what I've read, that's a great result.
*With that said, I've decided that it's time to start paying attention again, and get my weight down a bit. I had a hard time writing this piece; I kept picking it up and putting it down. Eventually I figured out that my current weight does bother me a bit, and that's why I was blocking on it so much. I'm going to try to get my weight closer to 200 pounds. That would give me a BMI of 25 for my 6 foot 3 inch frame. I've already lost 5 of those pounds; I regularly weigh in at 218 now. Only 18 to go!
Tomorrow, in part 2, I'll lay out my rules for losing weight.
What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
*Special thanks to Dan at Casual Kitchen for inspiring this post with his review of The End of Overeating.
Pam Anderson: Perfect Recipe for Losing Weight
Mark Bittman: Food Matters
Michael Pollan: In Defense of Food
Marion Nestle: What to Eat
Rick Bayless: Mexican Everyday
Ellyn Satter: Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family
Walter Willet: Eat, Drink and Be Healthy
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MikeV @ DadCooksDinner says
Thank you for the story! Grandad sure was disciplined. 5 pounds, and he cut himself off?
If I had that kind of self control, I wouldn't have needed the big weight loss in the first place.
Hi Mike, I read your article with interest. I guess one thing that all with Leiden blood share is loving to eat. Your Leiden grandfather gave himself a 5# allowance. He figured his ideal weight was 165 (he was a lot shorter than you) and when he got up to 170, he got out all in-between-meal eating & desserts until he reached 165 again.
MikeV @ DadCooksDinner says
Pam - Thank you! That means a lot to me, coming from you.
AYOTG - Good work, keep it up! Dropping a pound a month is a great result. As you say, it's much better to be heading slowly in the right direction then quickly in the wrong one...
A Year on the Grill says
great story... i have struggled those 25 pounds for 3 years now... i am down 10 pounds from when i started blogging, so i do agree that fresh foods make a difference.
i start each day with a fruit smoothie, and try to limit portions. I made the decision to not limit myself to diet food, so it is a very slow process... But dropping a pound a month is better than gaining 5 a year
Pam Anderson says
Love your story, Mike. When it comes to weight loss, most people just want to be told what to do. Since we're all different, however, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all plan. As soon as we we fall off the wagon (and we all eventually do) we don't know what to do, so we revert back to our old ways.
In order for weight loss to be lasting, we've gotta do the up front work and figure out what we need to eat to be happy and come up with our own plan. You've done that and clearly it's paid off.
Congrats on your eight-year weight loss. That's a real accomplishment.