Saturday, October 17, 2015

Confessions of a former fatty

When I see people I haven't seen in a while, the conversation usually seems to follow a fairly scripted pattern from their side of the conversation, aside from exchanging a few pleasantries: "It's great to see you"; "You're looking good - have you lost some weight?"; "How did you do it?"; "Why did you start?"; and "Wow! Good for you!" Yes, it's true that I have lost weight - since this time last year I am carrying about fifty fewer pounds on my admittedly short and stocky fame - and I thought, given that this upcoming Tuesday marks my first anniversary on this journey, that I would recount some of my journey and my reflections therein to answer those questions, as well as a few more that may arise along the way. In fact, I want to dedicate this post to everyone who has been so supportive and positive with me over the past year on this journey; I know it's cliché to say this, but I legitimately feel as though I could not have done this without you. Now that the sappiness is out of the way, here's my story.

For my entire adult life, I had weighed in well above 200 pounds, usually around 230 or 235. But that has changed over the past twelve months, and the last time I weighed as little as I do now was when I was in my first year of university - almost fifteen years ago. I weighed 180 pounds when I graduated from high school at seventeen years old; I lost some weight and was down to 165 pounds by that Thanksgiving (likely because I was learning how to cook for myself), but I then ballooned to 215 pounds by the end of that year (likely because I was cooking mostly quick and fatty foods). Over the next decade and a bit, I kept that weight on and added pounds every so often to end up in that 225-230 range fairly consistently; I think I hit 240 once, but I have never been really invested in monitoring my weight, as evidenced by the fact that I cannot remember ever owning a scale. I never thought too much about the food that I was eating, either in amount, quality, or quantity, and aside from a couple of short-lived attempts, I rarely engaged in any kind of habitual physical activity; my body was like my car insofar as I did minimal maintenance and mostly ignored its internal workings as long as there weren't any audible or visible issues demanding my immediate attention.

In addition to my natural disinclination to spend any time or effort on thinking about or working on my physical self, in that time span, I have had fairly constant transition and stress; as you might imagine, watching my weight and physical activity usually ranked low on the list of priorities. I also just got used to living as a fat guy, so it wasn't really an issue for me; in fact, in some ways, I liked being bigger, as it gave a little more heft to my presence, since I am short (5'8") and otherwise not physically imposing. I was not unhappy with myself, other than observing occasionally that I should probably do something about my weight at some point, and I had no health concerns arising from my weight, aside from being less fit than I wanted to be. And it's not like anyone I knew really considered me "fat" - probably more in the "plump and jolly" category - so there was not any external pressure, either. Plus, I could unironically pull off wearing Hawaiian shirts in public. At any rate, it wasn't something I had really considered as that important - more like one of those "I'll get to it someday" kind of things.

So what changed? Perhaps subconsciously, I started thinking about being in my early thirties, or started thinking that it was finally time to do something about my physique, or even about the fact that I was planning on having kids at some point in the not-too-distant future. But my impetus for beginning this journey was much more direct and simple: I saw a good friend who had lost eighty pounds in the previous ten months using the MyFitnessPal app. Seeing him, along with observing the success that two other friends were having by using the app, gave me enough of a push to start. I didn't really have a rhyme or reason for starting or a purpose in mind other than the fact that it just seemed like a good thing to start doing, and I figured that it was as good to start at that point as it would be at any other time; I had, after all, just moved to a new city and was starting a new job and making new friends, so it seemed like as good a time as any to start using this app and to see where the journey might take me.

MyFitnessPal features a simple interface that allows you to track the calories you eat, including as the various amounts of fat/sugar/carbohydrates/etc. that are part of those calories, as well as the calories you burn during exercise. You can use the recipe calculator to put in information and see what your recipes come out to for each serving, and you can scan barcodes and (hopefully) have an instantaneous response outlining just what it is that you're eating. There is a social aspect to the app, as you can allow friends to share information and view their diaries, as well as many more self-measurement aspects incorporated into the framework of the app. It's not a lot different from many of the other apps available; it just happens that this is the one that had begun to get traction among various people in my life, and so I naturally gravitated toward it. The main feature that I appreciated was how user-friendly this app was and that the learning curve was almost non-existent, which helped eliminate one of the barriers that I had always perceived as blocking any attempts to start losing weight: how do you actually measure caloric intake and set appropriate goals?

I was deliberately very gentle with myself as I started on this journey; after all, one of the biggest mistakes that people make is stressing out about their end goal and torpedoing themselves before they really even start. With that in mind, I reasoned that if all I did for the first month was to learn how to track my food intake that I would consider it a success. I had to set some kind of goal in order to set my daily limit, but I set it very lightly at only one pound per week. But then something happened on my first day of tracking that surprised me: I ate smaller portions, and I stopped eating when I hit my limit of 2200 calories for the day. I was genuinely surprised at how I instantly became aware of my eating habits and how I made a lifestyle transition seemingly overnight. Within the first week of tracking, I was already monitoring portion sizes and making decisions based on my caloric limits, which is far more than I thought I would do, particularly that quickly.

I started to notice a physical change soon thereafter - within a couple of weeks, actually - but I didn't really think much of it until I traveled in February to visit friends in the city in which I had lived for the previous six years. Over Christmas, friends and family had observed some weight loss and told me that I was looking good, but their reactions were overwhelmed by the reactions I had from friends I had not seen since August, and that trip was when I started to feel really good about what I was accomplishing. I weighed myself for the first time in months, and I realized that I had lost around twenty pounds - an average of about five pounds a week. I began to notice that some of my clothes were starting to feel a little billowy, and I had to start replacing my pants. I saw myself in some of the pictures we took and realized for the first time just how lean I was starting to look - and I felt really really good. I began to really appreciate that I was accomplishing something significant, and my early success gave me the push to keep on going and to be much more intentional about the next step of the journey.

For the first time, I considered that I might be able to get to a certain point in this journey, so I set a goal weight and some targets for getting to that point. By the six month mark - around Easter time - I had lost fifty pounds (or somewhere close to that mark - I had not actually weighed myself before I started, so I'm guessing what my initial weight was) and six inches from my waist. I continued my wardrobe renewal by replacing the professional shirts that were now too large around the shoulders, and by the end of the school year, I had replaced almost every piece of clothing I had owned six months previously. But perhaps the moment that my transformation really crystalized for me was when I had to go to a high school graduation in June and I realized with a sudden shock that I did not have a suit to wear, since my suits fit a person who was a third larger than I was. I began to realize that this was now my new normal, and that I was no longer that same fat guy I had been at the beginning of the school year. (Also, oddly enough, no one at the school at which I was working - staff, parents, or students - commented on my weight loss until one parent did in June. I know it's a little different when you see someone every day, but I still think it was strange that no one commented on me losing fifty pounds from the start of the year.)

Over the summer, I managed to keep my weight constant between 183 and 185 pounds, which is around what I currently weigh. It seemed discouraging at first to have no further weight loss despite continuing to observe limits on calories that should lead to more pounds being shed, but when I thought about it further, I realized that it was not discouraging at all for several reasons. First of all, I have made it through several months that have included two weeks of holidays eating rich food and drinking various calorie-laden beverages, a week of working at camp, and six weeks of unemployment that could have been a catalyst for undoing all of the progress I had made. Second, I have slightly decreased my level of physical activity in not working (aside from that week of camp, of course), so it's entirely possible that my possible weight loss is just being offset by burning fewer calories. Third, I have not done anything to intentionally increase my physical activity, so I have not been attempting to burn any other calories. And fourth, I just might have reached a (the?) point at which my body reached a kind of equilibrium in this process.

I'm really not sure where things will go from here, particularly if I have reached a kind of balance point in my weight. I still have weight that I know I could lose - particularly around my midsection - but it seems that, at least for now, that I may have hit the point at which merely monitoring my intake will not be enough to keep losing. I am likely going to have to take the next step and start finding ways to be more physically active, something that has always been challenging for me. I have never been very physically active or confident - even as a child - so it's going to take some emotional and mental fortitude to change that in myself. I'm considering several different options, but I need to remember to be as gentle with myself in starting my journey toward fitness as I was in my journey toward losing weight. The process is the goal, not the end result, and the main goal is that I feel positive about myself along the way, which I mostly do, although I do have difficulty at times looking at pictures of myself pre-loss; I just need to remind myself that those pictures are still me and that there is nothing of which to be ashamed in being a bigger guy. It's not always easy, but I'm getting better at it.

I'm still not focused on a goal weight; I have a weight I would like to be in mind, but it's not a deal breaker for me. If, in the process of learning how to be more active and fit, I end up losing some weight, I'll be happy; if I happen just to lose some of my belly fat and add muscle instead, I'll be happy; and if it turns out that I'm just genetically predisposed to carrying some love handles with me, then I'll be happy. I know that pursuing fitness will be easier now, partially because I have already done a lot of the hard work, partly because I am already feeling more positive about even being in a gym and not nearly as self-conscious about my body, and partly because, hey, I'm carrying around fifty pounds less when I'm exercising. I know I'm not going to have washboard abs or rippling biceps, but I don't want them either; my goal is to be more healthy and fit, and any weight loss or muscle tone that comes along with that is okay by me.

I do know that whatever happens in the future that I am much happier now with my physical self and my habits than I was a year ago, and that I have made some really healthy changes. I don't eat a lot of candy, pop, or chips anymore since I think about them in calories, I am eating much more healthfully, and I snack very little in the evening. I eat smaller portions, and my wife and I often share a meal when we go out, meaning that we actually get to eat out a little more often since we are saving money as well as calories. I'm still enjoying the food that I eat within my daily limits, although I often exceed my limit slightly on the weekends, in addition to the one or maybe two days a month on which I far exceed my allotment because of special events like holidays. I find that I am purchasing and wasting far less food, and my recent foray into the domestic arts has likely been at least in part inspired by my desire to keep making good choices.

I'm still tracking my intake on MyFitnessPal, of course. I know I could probably stop, since I think I have a firm grasp on portion sizes and estimating calories, but I'm choosing to continue logging in the food I eat each day, as I think it will continue to help me be mindful about my journey. And that's the most important thing for me to remember: this has been and continues to be a journey. I have been fortunate to not have felt overwhelmed by this undertaking over the past year; in fact, there have been only a handful of times that I have found it really hard not to continue eating. It has mostly been very manageable because I focused on the next step of the journey and not on all of the ramifications and possibilities things that could go right or wrong or sideways. So I'm just going to take the next step and see what will happen as I explore and experiment with being physically active, just as I have over the past year with watching what I have been eating. My hope is that in a year's time that I can say something as positive as this post about my journey therein, and that I can encourage others on whatever their journey might look like along the way.

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