How I Lost 20 Pounds: Ninth-Year Update

By Fran Mason
March 2009

I lost almost 20 pounds in 2000, at age 36, by counting calories as accurately as I could and eating healthier foods. Now that I've learned more about how the body stores or burns fat, I believe the new foods I chose were more important than the calorie counting. I reduced starch, sugar, and junk food (while focusing on reducing calories) and I think that's what really did the trick. I've updated this article, originally written in 2001, to reflect recent experience.

By age 36 I had slowly gained 20 extra pounds. For two years I had been working out at the YMCA, commuting by bike or on foot, and wishing to lose weight. I had recently stopped gaining, which is a good start-up goal: when you want to lose, first learn how to stop gaining. But I hadn't lost any weight in those two years because my food choices had changed very little, and I wasn't yet doing high-intensity workouts.

I finally took action to change my diet because of a specific health alarm: my favorite aunt, 30 years older, trim and active, was diagnosed with osteoporosis. The fact that I too would get old became real to me. It was up to me to make sure I would be healthy when I got there. Eating healthfully to save my bones, as well as to look better, became a now- or-never task.

I wouldn't stumble onto high-intensity workouts for a while yet, so the next step in early 2000 was to change my eating habits. Very hard to do! My seemingly impossible requirements for a new eating plan:

  • It had to be a permanent change, not a "diet."
  • Everything I ate had to have nutritional value and not be loaded with sugar, etc.
  • I'd have to enjoy the foods and not be distracted by hunger throughout the day.
  • I did not cook then. Meals had to be ultra-convenient. (Today I cook basic things like plain pieces of meat or fish, and I steam or stir-fry vegetables.)
  • Combined with my workouts, it had to cause weight loss.

Replacing old habits with new ones

With trial and error, I was able to lose weight by making small changes to my diet. I made one change per week. It required patience, but it became natural and easy to build on each change by going on to another.

Here's what I changed to lose weight at last. Each item has two parts: what I changed in 2000 and how I manage my weight today.

  • Gave up Coke for sparkling water. Today, I never drink sodas.
  • Ate fruit at work twice a day. I enjoyed it, and it spoiled my appetite for junk snacks. Today, breakfast consists of lean meat, fruit and nuts, and I don't need as many snacks. If I do snack, it includes lean meat. (A convenient example of lean meat is good-quality deli roast beef sliced thin.)
  • I started having healthier frozen meals for lunch or dinner most days; other early staples were low-fat tuna salad, cheeseless turkey sandwiches, and fresh or smoked salmon with just a few crackers and steamed spinach. Today, I'm off the crackers and sandwiches completely, in favor of plain lean meats and nuts.
  • Quit my favorite junk foods one at a time. Today, it's hard to remember what they were.
  • Cut down on peanut-butter sandwiches, which I'd been eating daily all my life. Today, I still desire peanut butter and honey on toast, but hey, there's all that deli meat in the fridge, so I eat that instead.
  • Counted calories meticulously with a customizable software program. Today, no calorie counting. I just write down everything I eat for a few weeks whenever I'm trying to lose a few pounds that creep on if I go back on starches.
  • Went to bed slightly hungry every night. Today I find this unnecessary.

Giving up Coke for sparkling water wasn't too hard. Next I started taking a calcium supplement and eating more spinach and fish. Fish and vegetables are easy to make, it turned out. It felt good to eat healthy foods, once the new habits started to replace the old ones. If habits are like behavior on autopilot, then replacing bad ones with good ones may take a while to program into the autopilot. But once in place, they're just as solid as the old habits were. And a good eating record during the week made it easier to avoid pizza and other junk on the weekends.

Today, in 2009, having learned more about how the body saves and uses energy*, I think the most important changes I made were to eat dramatically less sugars and breads. Why did I count calories then, and why don't I now that I'm on maintenance?

Why count calories, and why not?

Counting calories can be helpful if it causes you to keep a detailed food diary, which is the really critical tool in my opinion. It lets you look at your patterns and spot easy first changes to make, and it keeps you accountable. If you do that, you can skip calorie counting (in my experience).

Why is calorie counting not necessary? Reliable sources* tell us that insulin, when we have chronically too much of it, makes us store fat. Eating fat doesn't make us fat; sugar or starchy carbs, which cause high insulin (as do dairy foods), make us fat. We can eat lots and lots and lots of meat, nonstarchy vegetables, nuts, and even some fruit without spiking the insulin too high too often, so we can eat those foods without getting fat. And the best part is that on the other hand, if we need to lose a few pounds, cutting starch and sugar can make it happen. Today I try to eat only whole foods. To the extent that I stay off the sugar and starch, my weight is stable within two pounds for years at a time. When I go back on sandwiches, pizza, etc. for any length of time, my weight creeps up.

Zoom back to 2000. Having started eating healthier and counting calories, I decided not to weigh myself for two weeks while I focused on my new foods and workouts.

Results

In February 2000 when I stepped onto the gym's scale again, I immediately looked at the staff guy behind the front desk. "Does this need to be calibrated?" I asked. "No, it's accurate," he answered. I had lost four pounds. I had never felt so gratified! By July I had lost ten, and by January 2001 I was back down to 125, my 25-year-old weight, from a high of 144.

I now see why it took two frustrating years of effort to start losing weight. My early efforts were uninformed and unfocused. Although frustrating, those efforts let me learn. Losing weight eventually revealed itself to be a three-part project: (1) I learned what I should be eating (and not) and why. (2) I spent several diet-revision attempts learning to accept the facts and stop negotiating. (3) And I stuck to my plan even if it meant a special trip to the store at an inconvenient time. I was proud of myself. I knew I could keep the weight off because the new way of eating and the exercise felt good and worked together in a way that made sense.

Today in 2009, I believe that eating right requires answering the question "what" and not "how much." Unless I eat starch and sugar; then, "how much" definitely matters.

*Sources:

The Zone - Barry Sears, Bill Lawren. Collins Living, 1995.
The Paleo Diet - Loren Cordain. Wiley, 2002.
Good Calories, Bad Calories - Gary Taubes. Knopf, 2007.