Sunday, March 15, 2009

The "Lazy Man's Diet"

I’ve used this line quite a bit, but I’ll go ahead and repeat it anyway: It wouldn’t be true to say I’ve battled obesity since I was fourteen. Rather, it’s been a long, slow surrender punctuated by occasional fits of dieting.

The least I’ve weighed since graduating high school, at a slightly short 5’8”, was 175 pounds, just before I was released from the Marine Corps. For most of my adulthood afterward, it varied between 200 and 220, with a peak of 240 and a valley at 187.


In the last ten years, however, my weight has steadily increased. It’s tempting to blame it on the failure of my thyroid gland; but it’s just as easily attributable to lack of exercise and spending an increasing take-home pay on fast food. With the increased weight came increased blood pressure, increased LDL cholesterol, replacement clothes, sleep apnea and the fear that soon I would be able to travel by airplane only by buying two seats.

In the last three years, I’d given some thought to the laparoscopic band to reverse the process. Just before my most recent office visit to my doctor (a follow-up on blood work), I discussed the matter with a co-worker who was once an EMT. He told me that insurance providers won’t even consider coverage unless you can demonstrate that you can lose weight on your own.[*] “It doesn’t have to be much,” Paul insisted, “just a pound or two a week over six months.”

A pound a week for six months? Heck, I could do that! Twenty-six weeks in six months … let’s call it thirty pounds just to round it off. Two pounds a week … round it off … fifty pounds in six months. Call it a stretch goal.

That night, I hit the Web to do some research. My initial plan was to start eating right at my ideal weight. To maintain an assumed weight of 330 pounds with relative inactivity, I learned, a man my height and of medium build needs a smidge over 3,500 calories daily; at my “ideal” weight—145-147—I would require only 2,200.

This calculation requires a little defense. When I was a young man and calorie counting was much more prevalent, the accepted diet maximum for everybody was 1,200 calories, whether you were a six-foot man who played softball two days a week or a five-two woman whose most strenuous activity was crocheting. Now, unless the woman were incredibly fat, she might be able to maintain a 1,200-calorie diet and lose weight at a relatively sane pace, although it would start to take longer the closer she got to her goal. But unless the man were possessed of hidden reserves of willpower, 1,200 calories would be sheer agony as well as detrimental to his overall health. Sure, he’d get fantastic results in the short run … but the hunger would eventually drive him back to his prior eating habits.

I was not planning to go hungry if I could help it.

In doing my calculations, it turned out that going to a 2,200-calorie daily intake right away would be considered dangerous. Ideally, there should be less than 1,000 calories between your goal intake and the intake needed for your present weight; this difference is called the calorie deficit. If the deficit is any greater, your body will start to burn muscle as well as fat.

If I extrapolated my goals to include a future target of 145 lbs., I could do it in two years as long as I maintained a calorie deficit of 900. This meant setting my initial benchmark at 2,600 and planning 200-calorie adjustments every 30 lbs. Then I broke that initial benchmark down into a meal budget: 500 for breakfast, 500 for lunch, 1,400 for dinner and 200 for a late-night snack.
The next step was setting myself some rules based on my past bad behavior:
  1. No second helpings, even at a buffet.
  2. To get more green vegetables in, I would use the “quartering” method—divide the plate into quarters, put my meat in one quarter, my starch in another quarter, and use the other two for my greens.
  3. Cutting fast food completely out of my life didn’t seem practical, so I would simply restrict it. I had already cut my French fry intake to almost zero; now I would cut Whoppers, Big Bacon Classics and Big Macs out. No more midnight runs to Taco Bell. No more chicken sandwich stops at Wendy’s on the way home from work.
  4. No more skipping either breakfast or lunch; spread the calories throughout the day.
  5. About a year or so before, I’d begun to drink regular Coke, as well as my usual two cups of well-sugared coffee, at work. Realizing I had no way of knowing how many calories I was drinking during the day, and finding it impractical to bring Equal to work (I despise Sweet ‘n Low), I cut coffee out except for weekends and went back to Diet Pepsi.
  6. While exercise helps work off calories, I decided not to introduce an exercise regimen until the weight loss was well underway. Why? Because successful dieting means making a major change in the way you live; taking on more than one such change at a time, unless it’s forced on you by circumstance, decreases the chances of either change becoming permanent.
  7. When I do start to exercise, it’s going to be a separate thing from the diet. No rationalizing splurges: “Oh, I burned off three hundred calories doing pilates, so I can have a slice of tiramisu.” No guilt trips: “Oh God, I shouldn’t have had that slice of tiramisu; I’ll have to do an extra session on the treadmill tomorrow.”
  8. Speaking of splurges: My family has a tendency to do a big family dinner at least once a month … sometimes twice. Sometimes this means going out to eat at someplace where the entrées take up the whole plate, or where the healthiest thing on the menu is the fried chicken. Whenever possible, I’d stick to the rules; whenever it wasn’t, then I’d either budget the meal in by cutting out either breakfast or lunch, or I’d just eat and get back on the diet the next day.
  9. Step on the scale only once a week. When your goal is to lose only one or two pounds a week, it makes no sense to track daily fluctuations, and it’s easier to become discouraged.
I started on the diet February 25th. That first day was made more difficult by being Ash Wednesday (fasting and abstinence). Nevertheless, I’ve since found that maintaining a 2,600-calorie diet is fairly easy for me, even when I can’t track the calories I’ve eaten. (I have no idea how many were in the helping of shepherd’s pie I had at the Knights of Columbus council meeting the other night.)
The budget currently allows me one Croissan’wich—yeah, I know—in the morning and a six-inch Subway club or roast beef sandwich with cheese and light mayo for lunch, with room for a light snack I don’t normally need. For after-dinner noshes, we keep the pantry stocked with Nutri-Grain fruit bars, Sweet ‘n Salty almond bars and 100-calorie snack packs. I also enjoy the occasional cup of yogurt.

Many days, I count my calories and find that I’ve just barely made the 2,000 mark even after a snack. If I’m feeling peckish at that point, I splurge a little … say, a slice of wheat bread with peanut butter, or a bowl of ramen noodles. The whole point of the 2,600 goal is to not feel like I’m starving while still eating less than I was.
Last week was a particularly bad week, where I couldn’t seem to track the calories I was consuming. One night was a night out at Red Pepper’s (which I must qualify by saying I hadn’t eaten the whole day); the other was an early St. Patrick’s celebration with the Knights—corned beef, shepherd’s pie and an illegal can of Coke. By Friday, I’d already decided to write the week off as “lost”.
Then I stepped on the scale yesterday morning, bleary-eyed and groggy. I looked at the numbers, then went back to my bedroom, put on my pants and shoes, and went back to the scale. In the last two and a half weeks, I still lost almost ten pounds.
Size 34 waist, here I come … back.
[*] My doctor contradicted this assertion the next day; however, in discussions with people on the Calorie Counter group (http://caloriecounter.about.com/), I know some people have been turned down, though they didn’t say why. Suffice it to say that being morbidly obese is no guarantee of insurance coverage for such surgery.