I was always pretty scrawny as a kid, and even when I hit my
adult height of 5 feet 7½ inches, I weighed around 120
pounds. I paid no attention to what I ate, but in retrospect,
it wasn't much: the food at home never really encouraged having
seconds, and the fare at the college dining commons wasn't much
better. It's true that there was a world of pizza and burritos
out there on Telegraph, but my limited funds (I drew interest
payments of $205/month) kept me from indulging too frequently.
In 1992 I became a vegetarian, which I have to think kept my
weight down. Then I went off to grad school in Evanston IL
where the food was just abysmal. And in all these places I had no
car, so I walked everywhere.
That changed when I moved to Durham NC to start my PhD work. The
food was better than in Evanston (how could it not be?); the city
was also much less walkable, and I had just purchased the Ratmobile
(then known as the Eco-Pod), so I drove around all over the town.
By the time I left a year and a half later I was up over 130 and was
worried that I might be getting a little paunchy. I got an exercise
machine, thinking that if I could work out at three in the morning
without leaving my air conditioned apartment, I might actually do so
more often. This turned out not to be the case. The main reason I
didn't exercise wasn't that it was inconvenient; the main reason was
that I fricking hate to exercise.
I know that there are people in this world who exercise because
they enjoy it — running marathons, entering triathlons. I
also know that there are people who like to impale themselves on
meathooks. To me these are about equally understandable. There
have been times that I have tried to go for a jog around the block,
and after a couple of minutes my body is in full DO NOT WANT mode
and I have to stop. It was around this time that I randomly looked
up someone I knew in elementary school and discovered that he was an
active poster in the Usenet weightlifting groups. There I found a
meme that was very appealing to me: Build up enough muscle and your
base metabolic weight will rise! No cardiovascular exercise needed:
you'll burn off fat just sitting around and breathing!
So I started lifting weights. The immediate and impressive results
kept me motivated, and pretty quickly I gained thirty pounds of
muscle, going from 130 pounds to 160. (This would turn out to have
drawbacks later.) I didn't think I looked much different, but when
I visited people who hadn't seen me in a while, they all remarked
that, holy crow, I didn't look gaunt anymore. But I still hated to
exercise! Dragging out the weights three times a week was a chore.
Then I decided to move in with Jennifer in New York, and since I had
to leave most of my stuff behind anyway, I elected to toss the weights.
In New York I didn't have a scale. I also didn't have a car. We lived
fifteen blocks from the nearest subway station, so every day I walked
and walked and walked. (Unlike a pioneer child, I didn't sing.) After
a year of this I happened to spy a scale at the office and, out of
curiosity, stood on it. 135. I was pretty much back to where I'd
In Massachusetts that rose to 145, probably a result of going back
to driving. Age probably also played a role: I entered my 30s and
my metabolism slowed down accordingly. But the height/weight charts
told me that 145 was pretty much dead center for my height, so I
didn't worry about it too much. Then Jennifer gave me the heave-ho
(in part because she liked to do exercisey things and I didn't, so
there was this huge chunk of her life that I had nothing to do with)
and I moved to California. Result: problems. Less than a year
after I moved to California I was back up over 160 pounds. This is
where those drawbacks I mentioned came into play — since I'd hit
160 before, no alarm bells went off until I passed it and started
heading for 165. Never mind that the previous time I'd been this
heavy it was due to muscle mass and not fat. I was a little sheepish
when I had to go buy bigger pants, but that too didn't seem like that
big a deal — my waist size had gone from 30 to 32, both of which
were always up on the top shelf in order to leave the prime real estate
for the 34-, 36-, and most popular of all, 38-inch pants. I
chalked up the increase to the fact that I had to spend hours every
day in the Aluminum Lung driving to far-off places like Davis and
Salinas. I'd walk it off by crashing classes at Berkeley, I told
myself. And yet no matter how much I walked, I stayed at 160.
Then three things happened.
The first was that I saw a doctor to get a checkup. There I was given
an official weight of 162 pounds. I received a clean bill of health,
with one exception: my cholesterol was way high. The doctor said, "I
am truly impressed at how much fat you've been able to pack into a
vegetarian diet!" and gave me a bunch of fliers about what to eat. The
short version, as I mentioned in a minutiae article at the time, was
that I'd have to cut out dairy. I didn't become a strict vegan, but I
did stop eating pizza, started getting burritos without the cheese and
sour cream, stopped keeping eggs in my fridge, and so forth. Oddly,
in retrospect, he never said anything about losing weight. He just
said "diet and exercise." I guess the idea is that losing weight would
be a side effect of improved diet and exercise and so mentioning it
would be like focusing on the symptom rather than the cause, but still,
kind of weird. Anyway.
The second was that Elizabeth bought me a digital scale. This may have
been a "hint hint" move on her part, or maybe she'd just seen me looking
at scales on Amazon. In any case, I started using the scale right away.
Initially, this was discouraging. The vegan diet and commitment to
walking — I tried to walk at least a couple of miles a day on
average — knocked my weight down to 155 for a couple of days, but
then it went right back to 162 again.
The third was that I watched a
webcast of a physics lecture in which the professor was talking about
the energy stored in different substances. In between TNT and coal he
listed chocolate chip cookies. There is a massive amount energy in food,
he explained, which is why we eat it. If you want to wreck a car, you
can try to blow it up with a pound of TNT, but you're better off feeding
a pound of chocolate chip cookies to some teenagers and handing them
sledgehammers. That's why it's so hard to lose weight through exercise.
Unless you exercise like an elite athlete — four to six hours of
rigorous activity every day — the effect is negligible. Go running
for half an hour and you might burn off a hundred calories. That's half
a glass of lemonade. Exercise is good for you, he said, in that it keeps
you healthy... but it's next to useless for burning off fat. If you want
to lose weight, he said, eat less.
Music to my ears! And for the first time it occurred to me — hey,
maybe the fact that my cholesterol was high had less to do with the
grams of fat in any given meal than with the roll of fat around my
midsection. Maybe the fact that my driver's license says 140 on it
means I shouldn't weigh 160 pounds. Maybe, for the first time in my
life, I should count calories. I didn't even know what a calorie meant,
really — that hundred calories the professor talked about, was that
1% of your recommended intake, or 10%, or 100%, or what? I did some poking
around on the Internet and discovered that I needed around 2000 for
maintenance. I decided that 1500 calories would be my daily maximum
for a while, and that I'd go for less if possible. Of course, this would
mean feeling hungry a lot of the time, but the professor's diet plan
accounted for that. If you eat less, he acknowledged, you're hungry in
the afternoon. What do you do? "The answer is: nothing." Humans have
been hungry for 500,000 years, he said. All hunger means is that you
have room for food. In the past, you never knew when your next meal
was coming from so you had to eat whenever you could. That's no longer
the case. So acknowledge the information your body is sending you and
then ignore it.
So that's what I did. I ignored hunger and used a different method to
decide when to eat: when I started to feel stupid from lack of nutrition,
I ate until I felt sharp again. The pounds dropped right off —
nearly ten in less than a week. But then I stalled out around the
154-pound mark. I did some research and the culprit seemed to be
metabolic shutdown due to starvation. I was going to have to find a
sweet spot, I discovered — enough calories to keep the fat-burning
mechanism going, but few enough that I didn't make up for the fat I lost.
And this would mean rethinking the way I ate.
Why had I gained fifteen pounds after moving to California? My lifestyle
didn't seem that much different from what it had been in Massachusetts.
But of course it was! Massachusetts was where I learned to cook. Making
a meal was kind of a big production, so I usually only had one meal a day.
Most of the recipes in my cookbooks said "serves 6," so I'd cut the recipe
in half — and then Jennifer and I would split it. I was usually so
famished by this point that I would wolf down more than my share, but
still, Jennifer's presence kept my intake in check. In California, I
usually made the same amount but then ate the whole thing. I figured that
if most people had one serving three times a day, then to even things out
I should eat three servings at my one meal a day.
But of course I wasn't just eating that one meal! All throughout the
day up to that point I would have been drinking lots of juice (at 100
calories a swig) and munching on snacks. By the time
I was ready to make dinner I might have eaten half a bag of pistachios
and another half bag of pita chips with hummus; throw in the juice and
that's like 1500 calories right there! I shouldn't have been eating
dinner at all! In Massachusetts, if I wanted a snack, I at least had
to go downstairs to get it; in California, even that small barrier was
gone. So, after thinking this over, I added a few new planks to my
diet. One, no snacks in the house. Two, no juice — if I got
thirsty, I'd drink water. Three, at mealtimes I would cook and eat one
(1) serving, no matter that it wasn't very labor-efficient. And to my
maximum of 1500 calories I added a minimum of 1000. The pounds started
to drop off again and soon I was at 147. And though I stalled out there,
hey, fifteen pounds lost in under three weeks!
Then I went to New Mexico with Elizabeth and gorged on chiles. When
I got back I was at 152 — up five pounds in under three days. Eep.
I hoped this would get me off the plateau, at least, and it did; after
another three days I was back at 147, and then down to 144. 144 was a
very tough one to break: I was still stuck there at the end of May.
In June I lost about a pound a week, which, I have read, is what I was
supposed to be doing in the first place. I still hope to get back down
around 135, but I imagine that will be a very slow process. For now,
considering that two months ago I weighed 162 pounds, stepping on the
scale and seeing it say 141.8 makes me pretty happy. I've read that
the body fat percentage measurements on these things are not so hot,
but I have to think it means something that I've gone from a consistent
24% down to 17.5%–19.5% means something too. And even if it turns
out that this did nothing for my cholesterol, looking in the mirror
and seeing a flat stomach where there used to be a big bag of suet is
its own reward.
The downside is that, once again, I can no longer
find clothes that fit. On those rare occasions that I can find a
pair of pants with a small enough waist, the cuffs barely make it past
my calves. Being fat sure made it easier to shop.
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