Firmly into the 95th percentile, I was the heaviest newborn in the hospital by a comfortable margin. In fact, that trend continued until quite recently. With the help of an assortment of new food brands and technologies though, I lost 45 pounds this year, prompting countless questions about about how someone so clearly addicted to food suddenly turned the tables.
On the surface, I followed a tried and true method: eat healthy, eat less, and workout. Behind the scenes, I waged an all-out war to lose weight in the digital age. It was expensive, exhausting, and controversial. I can’t say if the approach I took is for everyone, but perhaps it’s helpful to someone.
Welcome to the battlefield.
Every meaningful journey needs a villain – adversity yields heroics. That’s true for dieting, but not in an obvious way. Being overweight in and of itself isn’t an adequate catalyst since it’s difficult to perceive yourself as the enemy to overcome. All the new health and fitness technologies made possible by the digital age are frustratingly inaccessible without an initial spark of motivation.
Motivation for me unexpectedly struck as I sat through what I thought would be the least interesting of the seminars at an economics forum last year. The speaker, a researcher named Gary Taubes, had just published his latest work, The Case Against Sugar. Instead of lecturing about health or biology, he zeroed in on the industrial complex that perpetuates misinformation about the supposed benefits of carbohydrates and the harms of fats.
…if you create a new market with a brand-new manufactured food, give it a brand-new fancy name, put a big advertising budget behind it, you can have a market all to yourself and force your competitors to catch up. You can’t do that with fruits and vegetables. It’s harder to differentiate an apple from an apple.
Taubes explored a decades-old collusion between private and public sectors that marginalizes anyone who dares question the food pyramid orthodoxy. Despite repeatedly gaining favorable placement in government-produced nutrition guides, processed carbohydrates are likely the primary cause of obesity. The ramifications have infiltrated every aspect of American culture, inside and outside supermarkets. It turns out that while no one else can lose weight for you, almost everyone is trying to make you fat. Knowing that was just the impetus I needed. I had found my villain.
Zoomed out, my weight loss chart today looks like a steep slope downward, perhaps the result of some sudden shift in lifestyle. But zoom in and you’ll observe that weight loss is a series of ups and downs — the latter consisting of battles that I lost for any number of reasons.
The very notion that weight loss can be summarized with a ‘before-and-after’ picture is just one of many misconceptions. In fact, I discovered that much of the ‘expert advice’ and ‘conventional wisdom’ about dieting was unhelpful at best or counterproductive at worst.
For example, deliberately planned ‘cheat days’ tend to be unnecessary within an urban lifestyle. Vacations, social events, and an assortment of other activities essentially guarantee that they happen with or without planning. My road to svelte frequently involved losing the same pounds over and over.
Each plateau left me legitimately wondering if that was the end of the road, the most I could lose within reason. The ‘body positivity’ movement, frequently present in conversations along the journey, repeatedly proclaimed ‘you did it — great job!’ But I wasn’t happy when I looked in the mirror, so I kept pushing.
The key for me at first was to continually refocus on the Goliathan nemesis – that nameless, complex system of harmful incentives designed to make us eat unhealthfully. But as anyone who has failed at dieting before knows, motivation alone only gets you so far. Without permanently changing my underlying lifestyle and perspective, I was betting on no more than fleeting willpower and a string of lucky days to continue. At any given moment, I was a misstep away from going back to my old ways.
I needed air support. By ruthlessly experimenting with different technologies and foods, I assembled a personalized counter-system of routines and habits which helped me gain a sustainable advantage.
Dieting for me was like building a sand castle, with processed carbohydrates being the nearby rising tide. Before I could achieve any meaningful results, I was forced to internalize how mind-numbingly impossible it was to lose weight whilst mentally and physically dependent on sugar.
‘Everything in moderation’ proved to be yet another dieting fallacy. Any amount of processed carbs threatened to disrupt weeks of progress. Sugar has a special place in dieting Hell: the slightest taste of it triggers a flywheel of eating, craving, and obesity. It seems obvious to say now but if you aren’t capable of feeling full, you aren’t capable of dieting.
I remember feeling angry, especially about all the people who seemed to be able to eat processed carbs without negative ramifications. I imagine that every dieter has at some point wished obesity upon people with whatever genetic predisposition lets them blissfully eat pizza while maintaining their waist size.
But I was tired of excuses. Eventually I picked a month and removed all human contact outside of work and home from my calendar. I used Kettlebell Kitchen to do the Whole30 challenge and eliminated processed carbs and gluten from my diet. It was one of the most difficult aspects of my journey.
I added a recurring event to my calendar at 3pm that said “I am going to have a migraine and I am going to survive.” Anticipating the pain was cathartic — a piercing reminder that my biology had been exploited.
One afternoon, the migraine didn’t come. Food began tasting different and keeping me full longer. I had a lot more physical and mental energy. I realized that ‘normalcy’ had in actuality been a state of constant bloat. Bread suddenly looked and smelled like plastic. I may be the only New Yorker who didn’t have a bagel in 2018.
By the time I reached my target weight, my diet looked like this:
Breakfast (~200 calories)
Late-morning (~160 calories)
Lunch salad (~400 calories)
Late-afternoon (~200 calories)
Dinner salad (~350 calories)
Snack (~270 calories)
Meticulous tracking and optimization enabled me to rotate in and out alternate foods, testing and learning like a mad scientist while maintaining sanity on a daily budget of 1,600 calories.
Even within the constraints of a Paleo diet, there is a lot of optionality. Eliminating the guesswork of what contributed to weight loss was a critical next step.
For $39.99, I bought a premium annual membership to LoseIt for calorie counting. Why the premium version, when the free option was more than adequate? Because, despite how behavioral economists mischaracterize it, sunk cost fallacy is a strong motivator to continue behaviors you’re mentally committed to before being physically committed to. Tricking myself into utilizing past purchases became one of my favorite dieting techniques and was a recurring theme throughout my journey.
I then purchased and connected an Apple Watch and Withings Body Scale. I weighed myself at the same time every morning and evening to pinpoint causes of short-term and long-term fluctuations. I didn’t start out as obsessive regarding weigh-ins, but there were few aspects of dieting more discouraging than feeling like you had a good day but still gained weight the next day. It made me want to throw the scale out the window because the whole process felt like an exercise in futility. The sooner I understood my body’s reactions to foods, the sooner I could avoid those experiences.
By carefully cross-referencing LoseIt with the data from my scale, I categorized the impact that a comprehensive list of foods and brands had on my weight. Aside from those listed in my average daily diet, some of the best contributors to my weight loss included: PB2, Trader Joe’s cauliflower gnocchi, From the Ground Up cauliflower crackers, kelp noodles, seaweed salad, and coconut aminos.
Then there are the traditionally-considered ‘healthy’ foods that I primarily avoided because they either weren’t filling or routinely led to weight gain: nuts, seeds, avocado, açaí bowls, peanut butter, yogurt, and hummus. I’m still on the fence about popcorn.
Without working out, here were roughly the total amount of calories I could eat per day to still lose weight:
As you might expect, losing weight got progressively more difficult. It is far more difficult to construct a flywheel to lose weight than it is to fall back on our biological flywheels fine-tuned to help us gain weight. Attaining aggressively lower calorie ceilings increasingly involved appetite suppressants like caffeine along with a variety of ‘hacks.’
Over time, I discovered that travel and vacation were the biggest obstacles to weight loss. I couldn’t depend on my go-to routine outside of my usual environment. In fact, I gave up on trying altogether and instead went into ‘maintenance mode.’ I relied on a few techniques specifically designed for travel:
Insatiable hunger hacks
Every now and then, endless bouts of hunger struck. As the late Mitch Hedberg explained about the phenomenon:
Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something.
Unfortunately, given its calorie count, rice wasn’t an option when I wanted to eat two thousand of something. But three foods were, in a way:
As I mentioned earlier, utilizing the sunk cost fallacy was a critical and reusable psychological strategy for weight loss. Beyond that, I found the following two approaches to be thoroughly effective:
Once I had a reliable system in place for ruthlessly cutting caloric intake, I began working out. I think doing so earlier would have added too many variables simultaneously, thereby complicating optimization. Not only that, but I have always hated working out, and making it a part of the process too quickly may have created an adverse effect.
About 15 pounds into my journey though, I yet again tapped the magical powers of sunk costs. At “noon on Monday,” I joined thousands of people who raced to reserve their Soul Cycle bike for the week’s quickly-filling available classes. Class at 8am on Saturday? Sure, I’d be up to to spin then. Going on vacation? Spin classes booked for every morning. So long as I paid ahead of time, I showed up.
Eventually, I graduated to Peloton, a sunk-cost-as-a-service with a superbly defensible breakeven analysis (especially when you reach 100 rides in 120 days as I did). Then came boxing, rowing, lifting, and who knows what’s next.
All I know is that something always has to come next. Because something both fantastic and awful happens now if I miss a day of working out, hunger hacking, or counting calories: I go through signs of withdrawal.
That brings us to today, and perhaps the rest of my life.
There’s a prevailing assumption that weight loss is purely about motivation, as though I didn’t really want to be thin until now. Over the years, I broke countless promises to myself about eating right and still can’t be trusted anywhere near a plate of cookies. At any moment, a switch could go off and I’ll again be impulsively eating.
Motivation was the ignition, but I have only been able to lose weight thanks to an emerging field of health and fitness technologies that enabled me to redirect my addiction from ‘food’ to ‘something other than food.’ Becoming neurotic about a literally insane web of techniques is by no means what I expected to happen or something I advocate for, but it’s the reality.
In one sense, technology made me less of a man and more of a machine. In another, it made me realize just how human I am, albeit 45 lbs and thousands of dollars less than the one I was before.
If you’ve always been overweight but truly want to diet, I can’t offer a silver bullet. It’s not about throwing money at the problem — many others have spent countless more than myself on surgeries, personal trainers, meal replacements, and weight loss communities, all without sustainable success. You can bookmark every technology and brand I mentioned, but they won’t lose weight for you. Neither can I and neither can anyone but yourself. If there’s one thing I hope you take from my story, it’s this: so long as it works, you do you.
I owe so much gratitude to my girlfriend who recognized my pseudo-anarchist skepticism of authority and leveraged Taubes’ talk into full-blown action. She continues to push me every day.