How I lost 20 lbs in 3 months

Hint: it’s all about metabolic pathways

Left: June 2015, Greece; Right: Dec 2015, Hawaii

In July 2015, my girlfriend poked my protruding belly.

“You’re getting a bit pudgy. How much do you weigh now?”

“180. But I’m pretty sure it’s muscle.”

It wasn’t muscle. She was right. What happened to me?

When I first moved from New York to California in 2013, I was doing some kind of exercise every day: running, rock climbing, volleyball, cycling. The weather was perfect every day. My friends were athletic. At work with free all-you-can eat, delicious food, I was eating as much as my stomach would allow. I snacked constantly between meals —five chocolates a day was standard—partly because it was tasty, and partly as an excuse to get up from my desk and stretch. I was hoping to put on some muscle mass in a way I never had before.

But as the months went by and the rainy season came, I started missing days. I exercised yesterday, I said to myself, so taking all three deserts today is fine. Or I’ll exercise tomorrow. I started traveling more, further breaking my good habits. My friend network grew, and so did the frequency of meeting for drinks.

When my pants stopped fitting, I told myself it was muscle. I bought new pants with stretchy waistbands and stopped thinking about it.

Reset

When she snapped me out of it, I suddenly saw what had happened and was horrified. I think of myself as pretty self-aware and health-conscious, so I was all the more upset that I had let myself drop this important part of my identity. Fitness also correlates with a host of benefits such as more stable moods, higher cognitive performance, and better sleep, and it was clear that I had been declining in all these areas. I decided then and there that I would fix my habits, and become my best self once again.

One of the standard ways of losing weight is to reduce calorie consumption and count intake. This doesn’t work well because a calorie is not a calorie. For example, if you drink a soda, most of the calories come from the fructose in HFCS. Fructose does not trigger the hormones that tell us we’re not hungry anymore. So although we already consumed some calories, we end up wanting even more. Glucose, on the other hand, does trigger these hormones. Glucose is the primary carbohydrate in bread, pasta, and other such starches. You can look at a food’s glycemic index to find out how much your blood glucose will rise after eating something, but it won’t tell you how much your triglycerides spike, or how much fructose is still in your liver being turned into new lipids. The story gets more complicated when you consider other nutrients like fat, protein, and fiber, which mediate the absorption of sugars. Ethanol, the primary source of calories in alcoholic beverages, is processed similarly to fructose. So the upshot was to stop consuming bad calories as much as possible.

If you’re interested in an in-depth, technical look at how different kinds of sugar are metabolized, check out Sugar: the Bitter Truth (Youtube, 2009).

The second standard way to lose weight is to exercise more. I love exercise, especially aerobic kinds, so theoretically that shouldn’t be a problem. But I was also starting to take on more and more manager duties and still trying to contribute individually. I often commuted an hour a day to my girlfriend’s place. That meant squeezing exercise into the day could be tough. I looked for ways to boost my metabolism with minimal time and soon found The New York TimesScientific 7-Minute Workout. I downloaded the first Android app I could find. You can do it in a hotel room, at a friend’s place, or in a park. And on days when I did have time, I started running more, getting my distance and pace back up.

Resolutions:

  1. No snacks or dessert except fruit
  2. No alcohol
  3. Exercise every day, even if it’s only seven minutes

Progress

Even after the first two weeks, I could tell it was working. My appetite stabilized thanks to my more stable blood sugar and better leptin/ghrelin signaling. My metabolism increased significantly from the exercise. From both of those, my sleep and mood also improved. These formed a virtuous cycle that reinforced the good habits. I didn’t feel like I was missing out because I was still eating delicious things like curry katsu over rice, and I was eating until I was full. The most challenging part was social situations that would cause me to break my resolutions.

Happy hours, parties, and otherwise meeting with friends are frequently accompanied by drinking. When everyone around you is drinking, how do you politely decline? These worked pretty well for me:

  • Drink water — if you’ve got a glass in your hand already, people feel less uncomfortable. They can pretend it’s a gin and tonic if they want
  • Driving or biking home — though this doesn’t protect you from “just have one!”
  • Straight hard liquor only — if you like the taste of ethanol this might not help you
  • Spend more time with friends who don’t drink — lots of people with alcohol intolerance
  • Flat rejection
  • Consume marijuana instead, and offer to share

Since the habits formed, it’s been pretty easy to keep the weight off. Now,over a year later, I’m down to 155 and am satisfied. Still don’t have a six pack, but the desire for one seems rooted in vanity rather than health. I hope my journey can help others understand more about their diets and set achievable goals for improving. Let me know what you think or if you have any questions!

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist

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