Thursday, May 05, 2011

How I Lost 50 Pounds in 18 Months

And Am Keeping It Off by Eating My Vegetables and Counting Calories

Before (July 2009, China) and After (February 2011, Barbados)
(This version was updated on 16 June 2011; additional comments were added in June 2013)

This story starts in July 2009. At the start of that month, I weighed about 208 pounds, and at 5'8" I was into the "obese" BMI range. It was not the first time that I weighed that much, though I have usually been closer to the upper 190s and low 200s, right on the border between "overweight" and "obese".

I went to China in early July and traveled with a Chinese friend from Singapore who is fluent in Mandarin (my Mandarin is very basic). Because I was with him, we were able to join the cheaper domestic tour groups, which meant eating with them, family style, as well. Much to my surprise, when I returned from that trip, I had actually lost a couple of pounds, which was a shock because I usually gain a few pounds when traveling! 

So the first part of my weight loss journey was to replicate the way I was eating in China. This involved eating a lot of Chinese vegetables, with only small amounts of meat thrown in.  My rule was that I could eat as much as necessary until I was full, just so long as it was vegetables -- especially leafy green vegetables, though squash and eggplant were also acceptable.  Fortunately, my wife was fully able and interested in cooking Chinese food this way, though she also loves her steaks!  

I think this would have been a lot harder with just the vegetables available in our local supermarkets, because the range there is so limited.  Instead, we would go to Phoenix once or twice a month with a large ice chest to stock up on a variety of Asian vegetables and I would have totally vegetarian lunches and dinners a couple times a week.  

Chinese broccoli (gai lan) has long been my favorite Asian vegetable for its taste, texture and ability to make me feel full.  I found eggplant to be even more filling when stir fried with chili peppers like they do at one of the Chinese restaurants here in town.  Bok choi-like vegetable are good, but I need to eat a lot of them before I start feeling full.

I also weighed myself every day, using Wii Fit, and I took Taekwondo classes twice a week, though I had been doing that since before this all started. I continue to weigh myself every morning, though just on a regular scale, and I continue to attend Taekwondo today.

Following that diet I lost about 25 pounds, getting down to around 180 by the start of summer 2010. (I fluctuated from the upper 170s and lower 180s.) Quite a few people noticed the weight loss and complimented me on it, though I was still clearly in the BMI "overweight" range.

But then summer arrived and in summer 2010, I made three international trip (more than I usually do). By the time my last summer trip ended, in mid-August, my weight was over 185 pounds. I got back on my Asian vegetables diet, but it did not seem to have as much of an impact, though I admit that I was not eating as many purely vegetable meals as I had before.

Then, in mid-September, I got the idea to try a calorie counting app on my Motorola Droid phone. I tried a couple of them and settled on "Calorie Counter by". I found that I was able to enter my foods faster with this app than any of the others, even though some of the others have a fancier user interface.

The app also links with an account that I set up on the website. That web site shows my first weigh in as 185.5 pounds on September 19, 2010. Here is my weight chart as of April 7, 2011:

As you can see, the impact of the FatSecret Calorie Counter on me was dramatic from the very start, with a huge drop on the third day that I started using it. Over the first two months, or so, I lost an average of 1/2 pound (occasionally more) a day. Thanksgiving and trip to Taiwan in November resulted in a rise in my weight, but once I got back on the Calorie Counter, I continued to drop at about 1/2 pounds a day. The steep dip in December was the result of a bout with diarrhea.  Through most of December and January I was focusing on stabilizing my weight (by eating more calories) in the low 160s range.

I also kept eating those Asian vegetables and going to Taekwondo. The Calorie Counter app allows you to enter how many calories you burn through the day in various activities, which I entered religiously for the period from September to January. (I stopped doing that in February.)  In addition, you can easily enter you foods and activities through their website, as well, instead of on your phone.  

I was very surprised at my ability to maintain my weight through the winter holidays, and I was happy to be in the low 160s. When I was steadily losing weight, my daily goal was about 1700 calories, though I would occasionally go over that.

You can see another overseas trip at the end of January that resulted in another bump up in weight. For both overseas trips I was not able to use the Calorie Counter app on my phone, though it may not have made a difference since I love eating local food wherever I go and am often too distracted to even write down what I am eating.  In addition, the gap in January came from my trying a different calorie counter app for awhile, which I did not care for because it was more limited in what it could do.

By the end of February I felt that I could easily drop to less than 160 pounds, which I did. I am now trying to stabilize my weight in the upper 150s, with my daily food goal set to 2000 calories. In fact, if I only eat 2000 calories, I will usually lose 1/2 pounds the next day. And on most days I eat between 2200 to 2500 calories. If I eat more than that, I will almost certainly see it the next day on the scale.  Overall, I have happily stayed in my new weight goal range.

I use a scale to weigh all my food in grams to enter in Calorie Counter. I bought a digital travel scale, but seldom use it. When I am not at home I just estimate the amount in cups, teaspoons and tablespoons, or in generic sizes (such as one small cookie or one medium orange).  I have heard that the most important thing is to write it down what you eat, whether or not you count calories using an app or website.

Interestingly, I find that at the end of each day, the amount of calories that I have consumed comes very close to the total number of grams that I have consumed. So I sometimes use that as a quick estimate of my calorie intake. If you eat a lot of high calorie foods (white flour and sugar), you will probably not get that same kind of result.

These days, when I look back at photos of myself from the past 25 years, I find it hard to believe that the person in those picture is actually me. I weigh less now than I did when I got married in 1987. I do not know for sure, but I think my weight has not been this low since I was a young exchange student in Hong Kong in the 1970s! (Again, that Chinese diet!)

One added benefit is that I convinced my doctor that because of my loss of weight and regular exercise I should be able to stop taking cholesterol medicine. My cholesterol had been under very good control for a long time with the medicine. So we gave it a try and so far, so good...

Finally, people often comment on my weight loss and ask me how I did it. In my November overseas trip, several students in Taiwan commented on how much thinner I was now compared to how I looked in some of the photos of me in my presentations to them.  And they wanted to know how I lost the weight -- which I told them, and which I am telling you here in more detail.

So now that I am an expert as losing and controlling my own weight, here are some tips for others who might be like the "before" me in the photo above ...

  1. Write it down. Write down everything you eat - do not skip anything. Just writing it down will slow your rate of consumption and you will eat less. But I think it has some other (magical and psychological) influences, as well. It simply forces you to pay attention to what you are eating.

    This is the minimum that you need to do.  It is easy to do and takes almost no time. If you really want to loose weight, just do this -- no excuses!  If you cannot simply write down everything that you eat, then give me a break -- you really do not want to loose weight!

    [UPDATE: June 2013 - I am not sure if I really believe this one. After a recent 3-week trip to Asia, I tried this -- writing things down but not recording them in  I found that my weight did not go down doing this.  It may depend on how  overweight one is, but for me, I need to see the calories building up to get myself to slow down on the food consumption.]

  2. Try to estimate the amount of each item that you eat. That will slow you down a little more. If you also weigh what you eat, for a more accurate calorie count, that will really slow you down a lot!

    This is the second step, which takes a little longer. The easiest is to estimate based on cups, teaspoons, tablespoons (1 tbs = 3 tsp), or even one hamburger patty, one medium apple, one small cookie, etc.  Again, it can be easy, though it is a step beyond just writing it down.  

    When you are at home, and you have more time and privacy, get a food scale and weight your foods. That will take more effort, but will probably give you better weight loss results.
  3. Add up your calories. You will need an app for that -- though you could do it on a website, as well.  Some scales come with this feature built in (you need to enter the food code on the scale).  As I said, the combination of the Calorie Counter on my smart phone, which syncs with the website works the best for me.

    This is the third step. You do not have to do this, and you will have results. But you will get the best results if you count up your calories a couple of times, or more, through the day. 
    You will almost certainly eat fewer snacks, for example, if you find that you are already at 1600 calories after lunch and before dinner.
  4. Weigh yourself daily, preferably in the morning before eating (when you are the lightest). Weighing yourself daily gives you the best feedback as to how well you are keeping on track. By doing 1, 2 and 3 above, you will actually become fairly good at predicting your daily weight based on your previous day's calorie intake. (Though see my Weight Anomalies comments below.)

    Doing the four tips above alone gives me a sense that I am in complete control over my weight. 

    The following tips will help you speed up your weight loss, but are less powerful agents of change without the tips above.
  5. Eat your vegetables. Try to eat more low calorie vegetables than meat and white flour products. Fruit is a good snack food, though still higher in calories than straight vegetables. 
  6. Eat eat candies, nuts and white flour products in moderation (smaller amounts or less frequency). You do not need to cut them out entirely, but be sure to write them down and count the calories -- you will be amazed at how high they can be.
  7. Eat at home as much as possible. Restaurant food, especially fast food, has a lot more calories than home cooked food. And a lot of those calories are "bad calories" (processed grains and sugars, and salt).  I believe that those bad calories have an impact on my overall health, if not necessarily on my weight gain or loss.
  8. Get some exercise. I know that I can always eat more on Taekwondo days. But even on other days, I know that if I go for a 20 to 40 minute walk, it will noticeably burn more calories than if I do not.

    [UPDATE: June 2013 - I am still convinced that exercise helps me to drop the pounds faster. However, nowadays most of my exercise is simply walking and tai chi -- I am not getting any aerobic exercises like I used to when I was doing taekwando. Calorie counting and eating right are, I find, far more important than exercise to lose weight.]
That's it. I would guess that this would not work for everyone, as not everyone would have the personality to closely monitor everything they eat.  But for those who can, and short of any other biological challenges, I am totally confident that this approach works.  

Good luck!  

[UPDATE June 2013: While I am sure that this approach will work for some people, I am also sure it will not work for everyone because of different body types, lifestyles and personalities. One friend who tried it insisted that he could not lose weight even when only taking in 1300 calories a day, which may be a body type issue.  Many people have no choice but to eat out all the time due to their work schedules, which make calorie counting very difficult.  And I am sure that there are a lot of people who would not be able to keep track of their calories as closely as I do, though I could not do it either without the support of all my gadgets!]

ADDENDUMS - A few additional thoughts after I posted the blog above:

Low Calorie Foods: There are a lot of websites that list low calorie foods.  I printed a couple of them out and early on I spent some time using them as a guide on what to eat. Here is my list of the best things that I like to eat to feel satisfied with minimal calories:
  1. Celery with sour cream - Celery is very low in calories and of all the popular things you can put on its, sour cream is probably the lowest in calories.
  2. Zapple - This is zucchini squash made to taste like apple pie filling!  Find a zapple recipe online (most any recipe will do) and make it during zucchini season in the Fall. Cut the sugar recommended in the recipe in half (or less - that is where all the calories are in the filling.) The pie is really good, but the crust makes for high calories. Make a lot of the filling and freeze it for use later in the year. It goes good with plain yogurt or just by itself as a snack.  Depending on how much sugar you use, zapple is much lower in calories than real apples.
  3. Chicken broth - I am always amazed at how few calories there are in chicken broth.  You only need to add a few other things (a little meat, some vegetables) to make for a filling little soup with low calories.
  4. Congee - This is Chinese style rice porridge ("jook" in Cantonese).  You can find recipes online. Plain jook is just rice and water, which is filling, but not very tasty.  But you can also make it with chicken broth along with some pieces of fish or chicken or a few cocktail nuts, and spiced up with diced pickles (any kind), green onions, white pepper, and if you like a lot of salt, some soy sauce.
  5. Wasa Light Rye Crisp Bread - Three pieces are only 80 calories! Other styles of crisp bread are thicker and only have two pieces per serving.
  6. Fiber One Cereal - This is the king of cereals for low calorie eaters.  I usually have half a serving (15 g) with my nonfat plain yogurt and fruit in the morning.
  7. Eggplant - I find eggplant to be one of the most filling vegetable, at least the way my wife cooks it, while also be low in calories (though higher than green leafy vegetables).
  8. Asian Pears - These are a lot juicier and crunchier than other pears, and that may be why their calorie count is much lower per gram (42 calories per 100 grams). They are mostly found in Asian markets. The Japanese ones are expensive. The Chinese ones are called "Ya Lay" - or something like that - and are cheaper.
  9. Water - Craving at late night, or mid-afternoon, snack -- try a glass of water, instead.  Sometimes I find that is all that I need to get me through to the next meal, though at other times, I need more.
  10. Strawberries - Strawberries are even lower in calories than Asian pears (32 calories per 100 grams, or about 4 to 5 medium strawberries). Buy a bunch of them when they are season and use them to snack on.
Weight Anomalies
  • Two day momentum.  Sometimes I find that I either ate a lot or ate very little in one day, but I do not find a change in my weight the next day, as I would have expected. It seems like I sometimes experience a weight momentum, so a high (or low) calorie day is still having an impact on my weight two days later. So, while I mostly assume that my "calories in" and "calories out" work on a 24 hour basis, this is not always the case. However, this momentum effect never seems to last more than two days -- at least not for me.
  • Salt!  A sudden increase in salt will almost always increase my weight the next day. This happens when I eat out at restaurants, which use a LOT more salt than we ever use at home.  Restaurant food tastes good, but be prepared for the weight gain caused by extra water that your body takes on when you eat a lot of salt. For me, the salt impact takes two days to work its way through my system before I am back to normal.
  • Sleep. I do not quite understand this, but I have heard that the less sleep you get, the more you gain weight. I usually try to get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep a night. Sometimes I just have too much to do, and do I only get 6 hours. Occasionally, I can take it easy (like on the weekend) and get a fully 8 hours. I often find that I my weight is down more on the 8 hour nights than the 7 hour nights.  I do not know how this works.

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