I Pulled Into Nazareth

Take a load off, Fanny.

March 10th, 2016: my doctor called the very afternoon of my check-up to tell me my cholesterol levels were very high, higher than the last time I was in.  He asked what I wanted to do about that.  "Diet and exercise, I guess?"  Was there a history of heart attack in the family?  "No."  So you want to…?  "Change how I'm eating, get active.  I don't want to take a pill.  Pills have side effects."  And we check in another six months, the doctor told me, making no attempt to mask his doubt.

So skip ahead to now.  I have lost 76 pounds as of this writing
Brian's lunch — photograph by T. Douche
, for an average of about 2.5 pounds a week. A lot of this was an initial drop, and some say men lose weight more quickly/easily/temporarily than women, but it has also taken dedication and willpower and concerted change.  Though maybe less of that stuff than you'd think, and more the regulation of good choices in order to avoid bad choices, and over time the replacement of poor habits with better ones.

This is not the first time I've worked at losing weight, though I think this is the longest I've sustained the effort.  It's also been a lot easier this time around.

Because a few people have asked what I'm doing, I thought this might be a good place for confession and proselytization.   What follows are some basic tenets I applied from the outset and some rules I established for myself early on.  (And as you'll see, I trust journalists more than nutritional scientists, but I suppose I'm genealogically so disposed. Unlike quacks, journalists are fact-checked.)


  1. If I was going to lose weight, it had to be permanent this time.  Losing weight makes regaining weight easier, and in fact leads often to gaining even more weight than you originally had to lose.  So I needed to think of this effort as a permanent change in lifestyle.
      According to the dismal science of weight loss, only 1% of dieters achieve permanent weight loss, and 41% of dieters gain back more than they lost.  This suggests vigilance and permanence, and a willingness to do what 99% of dieters can't do.  (Sciences suggests that your body reacts to a change in calorie intake as if its starvation, dropping your metabolic rate and increasing chemicals related to hunger. Fat cells don't fall off with the pounds — they just empty out, waiting to be refilled.)

  2. I would not go to the gym.  Maybe this seems in opposition to the prior tenet, but my experience is that you can start going to the gym at any time, and you can stop going to the gym at any time.  If this was going to be a permanent change, I also had to admit to myself that there is that within me which is indolent, shiftless, and lazy.  I can find ways to justify not going to the gym today — too busy, too tired, will go tomorrow — and that can lead into justifying other bad choices.
      And as a corollary to the note on Tenet 1 above, it seems to me from what little we understand about what once-fat bodies do, elevating the amount of physical activity that my body does only to stop that activity was a bad idea.  Again, the idea would be to make permanent and sustainable changes to how I lived.  Crushing reps at the gym was not a realistic expectation I could have of myself.  (The above is not to say that I don't aim to be more active than before, but I have always been the indoors type.  The Lemonheads: "I can't go away with you on a rock-climbing weekend / What if something's on TV and it's never shown again?")  I would increase activity, walk when I can, but most of the change in my daily caloric totals would need to come from what I was eating.
  3. There were going to be things I would need to give up for good, and there were going to be things I knew I could not live without, and so I was going to need to change my relationship with food.  The first narrative thought I can recall after speaking with my doctor and pledging to better health was, "Can I go the rest of my life without french fries?"  And I decided that I could.  I could not go the rest of my life without ice cream, though, and it was unlikely that I could avoid pizza forever.  So I would need strategies for those things.
    Logically slim
      In fancier words: I had cause to develop a higher-order volition. A first order volition might be a desire to eat the whole pint of Ben and Jerry's Coconut for Caramel Core ice cream*. A second order volition would be to want to eat that pint, but also a want to NOT eat it.  Free will (at least according to Harry Frankfurt) is the exertion of self-control.  Each moment is a choice, no matter whose birthday it is and how good the cake may be.  The cake is a lie.  Cheat days = hyperbolic discounting.  I would change my life (and waistline) through logic.  (I mean, have you ever seen a fat Vulcan?)


  1. Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.  Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food lays this out as a cardinal rule, along with warnings about "nutritionism." Pollen suggests you resist the idea that the healthfulness of food can be isolated into a particular nutrient ("fiber" or "Omega 3 fatty acids" or "essential vitamins") and instituted into processed food that could be somehow good for you.  Communities all over the world sustained themselves on vastly different diets — the Mediterranean folks ate one way, Eskimos another — and that the only unhealthful diet is the Western one (the Standard American Diet, or SAD):  processed food, high sugars, and government nutrition pyramids.  According to Pollan, if it grows from a seed and people eat it, it's probably good for you. If it's a thing that ate stuff that grew from seeds and people also eat THAT thing, it's also good for you (and also probably an animal, in which case see others of Pollan's books.)
  2. If you can eat it quickly, it's probably not a good choice. David A. Kessler explains in his book The End of Overeating that most processed foods are chemically designed to be appealing to us through salt, sugar, fat, but that most have also been designed to eat very quickly so that you consume more than you might intend.  Kessler points out that even things like a chain-restaurant chicken dish probably uses engineered, processed and reconstituted chicken, free of anything like bones or connective tissue — all in order to reduce the work necessary to eat it, and to increase its potential for pleasure.  In a sense, processed food has been partially pre-digested — that Snickers bar has been designed to get its caramel/chocolate/nougat/peanuts into your gullet without sticking to your teeth all while being marketed as if it were energizing trail mix.  Pizza is gooey/salty/melty and really easy to pick up right out of the box and shove into your face hole.  From Kessler, I take it that if you're not making it yourself, it's pretty much coming from Pre-Chewed Charlie's.
  3. Plan meals, shop accordingly. If you know what you're going to have for dinner, and if you know you're going to cook it yourself, it becomes a lot harder to go off track or to make bad/lazy decisions.  I've been cooking dinner 5-6 nights out of 7 for the last 6 months, and I've only few occasions to think of other things I might rather be eating.  You eliminate the option of takeout or frozen pizzas or whatever else, because you need to make the thing you said you were going to make.
    And if it's a good really plan, you need to make the thing because part of the thing you need for tomorrow's meal, so staying on track today helps you stay on track tomorrow.  My wife found a subscription plan that's worked really well for us — thefresh20.com — that gives you a weekly shopping list of 20 items and 5 dinner recipes that use (and re-use) those items.  Use of things like flour and sugar and dairy are kept to a minimum, and there are entirely gluten-free or paleo options available.  Even better, ingredients cooked or prepped for one-meal are used in meals later in the week, so skipping a night of cooking means you're handicapping yourself for later meals in the week.  (See again the notion of hyperbolic discounting!)
  4. Track what you eat. Like the previous 3 rules, this is a mindfulness trick.  Logging what you're eat (or even better, what you're going to eat) means you're paying attention to what and how much you're eating, which makes it more likely that you stick to serving sizes, healthier decisions, and your other rules.  I use a free IOS app-slash-website called Lose It!. (Truth be told, I've skipped tracking for the last few months once I felt I had good habits in place, though its probably not entirely coincidental that my rate of loss has slowed since I got out of a tracking routine.)
  5. Drink water.  Humans aren't really all that great at reading signals in our bodies.  Often, we feel hunger as a symptom of dehydration, so drinking more water will make eating less a bit easier. For me, this meant detoxing from diet soda.  (There are studies that suggest that imitation sugars in diet sodas can make your body crave carbs, and others suggest that our bodies don't process imitation sugar any differently from actual sugar.)  Prior to starting this effort, diet soda was a twice daily thing for me, and I quickly limited myself to no more than 12 ounces of it per day.  Even that has fallen away — I drink hella sparkling water or tap water now, and haven't had anything artificially sweetened in months.  (And learn to take coffee black, too.)
  6. Raw fruits and vegetables only between breakfast and dinner.  Thaler and Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness introduced me to t
    he notion of choice architecture — using behavioral economics to lead people into better choices. If I allowed myself only to eat whole fruits (or now and then, a salad) at lunch time, I wouldn't have to decide whether or not to eat healthily at the moment I was hungry.  Our campus student union, which is the nearest place where I can find lunch, is relatively light (and samey) on its healthy options.  As to prior habits: the bags of chips sold in the Union are chosen by its buyers to maximize their profits from student and staff wallets rather than to encourage good health — a nudge but in the wrong direction.  Sure, one could read the bag and reason out that the serving size for Cheddar and Sour Cream Flavored Ruffles is 28 grams or 11 chips, with the bag containing four times its 160 calories, and one could respond with moderation and restraint.  But most times, you (or leastways I) will eat until the bag is empty. So just don't buy the f*cking thing, and let the student union make a couple of bucks less each day than it might if it sold green apples and nectarines.
  7. Avoid seconds. Pollen's book points out that the so-called French Paradox — where the French eat rich foods and drink wine and still manage to look good in culottes — may be partly due to their cultural taboo on getting seconds.  Probably, if you are serving yourself, you are instinctively/unconsciously putting on your plate the amount of food you need to satisfy you.  (Not true, usually, in restaurants.)  Going back to the buffet isn't necessary.  If you give your body 10 minutes for your brain to assess what your body actually needs, you'll probably find you don't actually need any more than you've already eaten.
  8. Follow serving sizes and exercise restraint.  As I mentioned above, there was no way I was going to live without ice cream, particularly when there are flavors of Ben and Jerry's out there to be tried and tested.  I allowed myself ice cream once a week — on Sundays, for Walking Dead or Game of Thrones — but I stick to a half-cup serving, measured out to the gram.  Once a week, if I feel like it, or not at all, if I don't.  See the bit on second-order reasoning, above, and consider that losing one pound means taking in about 3,500 calories less than your body needs to maintain its current weight.  Add a half-cup of ice cream to that, and you're now about 3,750 calories from losing that pound.
  9. Remove yourself from temptations. Family gatherings almost always seem to involve dessert — cake for a birthday, ice cream because ice cream.  This is always a particularly hard time for me, as watching people really enjoy food (and talk about how much they're really enjoying the food) is kind of a drag when you know that if your enjoyment of that same food would come at a heavy cost (because you're in a bodily state where your metabolism is under-functioning and your hunger-sensing brain chemicals are over-functioning). One starts thinking of the injustice of it all, and feeling like cake is something one deserves, and maybe you even deserve it more than these people who are right now actively having their cake and also eating it, and so now you're annoyed and slighted and suddenly having the kind of relationship with food that you said you weren't going to have anymore, and… better to just go in the other room or take a walk or start doing the dishes if they'll let you.
  10. Get a little obsessed (but keep it to yourself).  A little obsession is good
    nourishment for the brain, I think.  Getting a little obsessed with being healthier can't be too bad, as you read stuff and break habits and walk a little further and figure out to make kale into something palatable for humans.  The danger is talking too much about it with people who you'll almost certainly bore — they aren't in the same place as you, since they don't need to make these changes or at least aren't making them.  And talking about better health means you're going to end up talking about food which, as in the point above, isn't particularly helpful when you're trying not to think about food.  It still frames the issue, as George Lakoff would tell you. So shut up about it.  Or get a blog and write it down there, and then don't worry that there's now way anyone's going to read all this stuff.  Because it's your issue, dummy.


* I sent my wife a message saying that I was, immediately, making some changes to how I ate.  Her initial response was a link to an article about new ice cream flavors and a link to where to buy them locally.

Since then, I can tell you that she's been incredibly supportive and involved, and has suggested some stuff that is adapted into the above.  But its a good reminder that sometimes the train has to leave the station whether everyone's on it or not — some folks may jump on board down the tracks a ways, as K. did a couple weeks later.

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