Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Nexus of Misc Feature: How I Lost 60 Lbs In 18 Months

This post is the first of a weekly series of feature posts that will only appear on the Nexus of Misc.  And I figured one of the best ways to kick off the series would be to address a topic that I'm sure those who know me - and have seen me in person in the last year or so - have been wondering about.  For those who haven't, I can sum it up in eleven words:

I lost roughly 60 lbs between November 2009 and May 2011.

I've been on the heavy side of things for most of my life, but I reached maximum mass around the first half of 2009, where a combination of bar exam stress and cortisone side effects had me at a weight of 180+ lbs.  (I can only estimate, because at the peak of things I didn't have the heart to weigh myself.)  For someone who's 5'4", that's on - if not beyond - the borderline of obesity.  In the timeframe described above, I lowered that weight down to the low 120s, and have maintained my weight in the mid 120s since then.

A number of people have commented on it, and a few asked me what I'd done to bring about the change.  I did my best to explain on the fly, but the complete answer is complicated, and doesn't lend itself to pithy explanation.  Like a long, relaxing stroll, it involves a winding and languorous path.  One that, like most worthwhile journeys, begins in an unexpected (and, on reflection, somewhat unbelievable) place.

My journey began when I read Naoki Urasawa's eight-volume series Pluto in one night.

A Break in the Rhythm of Things

Some history is in order to put it all in context.  Naoki Urasawa is the talented mangaka behind the critically acclaimed (and much longer) manga series Monster.  Monster tells a sweeping tale of mystery, suspense, horror, and loss, in a world populated by a profoundly human cast of characters.  It is the cathartic equivalent of a gut punch to the solar plexus, and it is one of those stories that resonates within you long after you've finished reading it.  It is a quintessential story that matters (and will be memorialized as such in an upcoming Stories That Matter post on Fictional Matters).

I've encountered novels so compelling that I was unable to put them down until I'd read them through completely; Monster was the first manga to do the same to me, and its story spans (I believe) eighteen 150+ page volumes.  As a result, I read it all, from volume one to volume eighteen, in a single 12-hour span.

Pluto is equally captivating as a story, but it contains an added draw for an otaku like me: it is a reinterpretation of one of the seminal story arcs of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy series.  Astro Boy will always have a special place in my heart as it was my first anime series (and, in most respects, the first full-length anime series produced in Japan), but it also overlaps with one of my foremost science fiction obsessions: human-like robots and the philosophical exploration of artificial intelligence.  This grand triumvirate of elements - a compelling plot, a connection to a childhood mythos, and an exploration of issues very near and dear to me - made Pluto one of the most poignant stories of my adult life.  When I'd finished reading it, I was compelled to simply sit alone and reflect on what I'd experienced, to process it all on both a conscious and subconscious level.  So consumed was I in processing it all that I ended up skipping meals for that day, which broke up my usual food routine.

Strangely, despite not eating, I wasn't hungry.  I suppose I was too caught up to notice any hunger pangs.  Eventually I needed an outlet for all the things I'd thought about, and ended up writing my first short story in several years over the course of the next couple of days.

The break in my usual meal cycle made me realize that the cravings that usually accompanied my eating habits could come second to more urgent needs.  It just so happened that the month of November was not only NaNoWriMo, but a month in which a last-minute book project at work consumed a great portion of my time and attention.  Between the two, I was kept busy enough that I could eat less, and be too preoccupied with work to attend to lingering feelings of hunger or cravings.  In time, I found that the cravings disappeared, and my appetite at mealtimes seemed to have grown smaller as well.

Life Imitating Art: Painting My Avatar

The results of my changing habits became apparent to me, as I ended up losing around 10-15 lbs by December 2009.  It was enough to motivate me to take active steps toward continuing the weight loss.  I purposefully cut out snacking, and kept my portions at meals sensible.  My entry into Facebook around this time mean that I needed to draw myself a new avatar, and that need coupled with my weight loss efforts gave me the opportunity to literally draw a picture of the me I wanted to become.  Though drawn in an anime style, I daresay it still resembles me, albeit an idealized version that is far thinner than I was at the time I drew it.  In that way, the picture became a kind of target for my weight loss progress, a visual representation of my end goal.  It was an avatar I forced myself to grow into; instead of modifying the image to match what I looked like, I would modify what I looked like to more close resemble that image.

That same avatar is the one I currently use throughout the Nexus of Misc Blog Collective, and I'm happy to say that its resemblance to me (or is it my resemblance to it?) grows more striking with each passing day.

The Final 20 Lbs: Tim Ferriss's The Four-Hour Body

By the end of 2010, I had shaved off around 40 lbs but began to plateau as far as my own makeshift weight loss efforts went.  A sample post on Gizmodo lead me to read Tim Ferriss's The Four-Hour Body, in which he  introduces the tenets of what he called the "Slow-Carb" diet.  The introductory chapter to the diet can be found on Gizmodo.  Essentially, it advises the dieter to avoid eating "fast-carbs": heavily processed foods, or anything that can be white in color (with a few exceptions, eggs, cottage cheese, and cauliflower among them).  Ferriss's subsequent chapters explain how to take the diet to more extreme levels, but I only applied the basic tenets to my eating habits.  In a matter of months, I'd succeeded in dropping another 20 lbs, and ended up right about where my avatar image had placed me over a year earlier.

Since then I've relaxed my eating habits to include the occasional off-limits item, but I still maintain the 7th-day binge meal cycle espoused in The Four-Hour Body to keep my metabolism from downshifting.  I've also taken a few pages from his exercise chapters and now include some swinging repetitions with a 40-lb kettlebell along with an ever-increasing set of push ups (I'm at 45 reps now, an absolutely unheard of number when I was heavier.  As a high schooler, my max was around 10.)  The interesting thing is that even though I've relaxed my eating habits and my weight (and waist/hip size) appears to have stabilized, I've noticed that the vestiges of my abdomen's paunch (the last element of my appearance I'm hoping to winnow away) is slowly disappearing.  Once it's gone, it'll be a matter of homeostasis as opposed to an active change, which, with my revised eating tendencies, should be less of a challenge.

Take-Away Lessons

So now that I've told the full story of my shedding 60 lbs in a year and a half, what can we learn from it?  I'm no doctor or health professional, and things will inevitably vary from person to person, but these are the personal lessons that I've taken from my experience:

The first thing I discovered is that the hunger and cravings can be overridden by more pressing matters.  If you're too busy to eat odds are you'll be too busy to feel hungry, too.  You can use that to help you surmount the initial - and in my mind, most monumental - obstacle of weight loss: changing your ingrained eating habits.  Once those ingrained tendencies have been loosened up a bit, things flow much more easily.

Another lesson is that setting a tangible goal - whether its a particular weight or waist size, or a image that you work toward, as in the case of my avatar - can give you both direction and motivation to see your efforts through.  It's also extremely rewarding and self-affirming to set a goal and then achieve it through discipline and force of will.  Through this experience, I'm convinced that willpower - and, underlying it, the fundamental choice to make a change in one's life - is the essential element in undergoing any lifestyle change.  I suspect many of those who "try" and "fail" in making those changes actually do neither: they don't fail at weight loss because a part of them never really committed to trying to make the change, the part that is too ingrained in the status quo or averse to the uncomfortable aspects of the change to want to see it through.  True commitment, in the form of a complete conscious decision to effect a change, is the essential cornerstone of any lifestyle improvement.

Finally, the last lesson is to not be afraid to look for help when you need it.  When I'd reached the 140s and found myself plateauing with my own methods, I knew that I still wanted to lose another 10-20 lbs and that I would need to find some other methods to effect that change.  The Four-Hour Body's publication was most timely in that regard, and if it hadn't been available I'm not sure I would have been able to attain my goal.  Whether help comes in the form of a guidebook or the advice of a friend, acquaintance, or health professional, it's important to acknowledge when its available, and when accepting it may be a necessary step in achieving your personal goals.

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