Overcoming a Lifetime of Weight: How I Lost 50 Pounds
At my heaviest in high school years ago—over 15 years ago—I weighed between 200 and 210 pounds.
I don't remember the exact figure—it was not a time in my life where I tracked that sort of thing. Growing up in a small-to-medium size Southern city, it wasn't abnormal to be overweight. While I wasn't happy with my appearance, I wasn't alarmed either. And there was no one in my life to tell me: "Hey, kid, you really need to lose some weight so that you'll look good and feel good and not get metabolic syndrome." To this day, I do not think my mother was ever aware that I was fat, despite being at the border between overweight and obese.1
I struggled with my weight, gaining and losing and gaining again, for years. I managed to lose weight mostly by accident of circumstance in late high school and college, but it crept back during my early career due to bad eating habits and too much time at a desk. In early 2019, I was done letting my health be a non-priority. I'd read enough by then to know what I needed to do, and I set about making permanent changes to my lifestyle that persist to this day. Where I was once over 200 pounds, I now average 155.
Disclaimer: This article shares everything I did—right and wrong—to get my weight where I want it and replace flab with muscle. I'm not a dietician, a personal trainer, nor a medical professional of any kind. What works for me may not work for you. This is only a personal account, which I hope will inspire people who are in a situation similar to my own.I don't want to read all this. Skip to the summary!
Accidental Weight Loss During Youthful Ignorance
My first major weight loss, from 210 to 180, happened in late high school. It wasn't something I planned. I was such a nerd—with no confidence in my physical ability—that I don't think I believed weight loss was possible. I can remember having a gut in kindergarten, and my weight problem had only gotten worse from then. So the first time I lost weight, it wasn't something I did on purpose; it happened because of the popularity of Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) in my school. I've always been a gamer, and for the first time I'd found a form of exercise that—by way of being a video game—I neither hated nor found myself bad at.2
I bought a cheap padded dance mat for the PlayStation 2 (and later a USB adapter to hook it up to my PC and the software Stepmania), and started playing for half an hour daily. DDR is essentially a form of high-intensity interval training, and playing it was my first introduction to the concept. Each song was roughly 3 minutes, with alternative periods of easier and more intense footwork. A few songs in, and I was sweaty and breathless. But because the game aspect occupied my mind in a way that PE class never did, I was able to keep going song after song—until my brain was telling my feet where to go but they just couldn't get there in time. That's when I'd call it a day. After months of playing, I had lost a lot of weight and played DDR very well.3
DDR was a high-quality introduction to exercise. I'm still tempted to buy a nice metal dance pad—except that I would probably drive my wife mad using it. But DDR alone does not make for a healthy lifestyle—I still ate like crap and didn't really understand anything about fitness. I'd fallen into a good workout routine by accident, and I fell right back out of it when I left for college.
Lots of people complain about the freshmen fifteen, but I mercifully experienced the opposite. By the end of freshman year, I weighed close to 165 pounds. Again, this was an accident. I did not realize at the time what I was doing. What happened? Simply, I was too lazy to eat.
I had no kitchen and only a mini-fridge in my dorm room, so I couldn't keep much food there. And I was usually too engrossed in video games or other computer use to actually go out and pick up something to eat. Freed from my mother's cooking—three large meals a day whether I was hungry or not—I started eating less, and less often. In hindsight, I had begun time-restricted feeding.4 More on that later.
I didn't have a college workout routine. I did pick up the habit of walking, everywhere and often. And that's certainly healthy for body and mind, but the calorie burn from that would have been minimal. My HIIT routine from DDR was gone, and I failed at every other attempt to build a new routine.
Looking back, I really had no idea what I was doing regarding exercise. I would start by going to a campus gym (which I never felt comfortable entering due to self-consciousness about my appearance and my lack of knowledge), and usually getting on a treadmill. I have always hated doing steady-state cardio—so of course I had little motivation to show up the first time, much less the second, third, etc. I don't think I ever touched any weights, which I now know I really enjoy.
Early Career and the Return of Weight
After college, both my diet and physical activity took a hit. Employment is not so leisurely as college, so a lot of the time I had spent walking to the local co-op to get something healthy-ish from the salad bar was replaced with a quick trip to the corner sandwich place, which was aptly named Potbelly.
I didn't weigh myself for many of these years. When I started weighing in regularly in 2017, I was still hovering around 165 pounds. But by late 2018 I was back to 180 pounds and trending upward. I was very unhappy with my appearance, and I was in a variety of pain from sitting at a desk all day. It was beginning to dawn on me that I was getting older, and that now was the time to make physical fitness a central part of my life if I didn't want to succumb to more pain and illness down the road.
I heard it said that no one knows more about fitness than the out-of-shape—all that time spent reading and learning about fitness rather than just doing it. There's some truth to that. I had been reading about diet and exercise for years, starting with The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. I'd tried that book's slow-carb diet and even got a kettlebell, but I didn't stick with it long-term.5
But the reading got me thinking about nutrition seriously for the first time in my life, and my mind was finally open to the possibility that I had no idea what I was doing. Whatever I unconsciously thought "nutrition" and "exercise" were, the truth might be completely different. Nothing I'd learned growing up could seriously be considered good diet advice. The cultural baggage I'd inherited from my poor and ignorant Southern upbringing was weighing me down—literally—and it was time I dropped it.
The Worst Diet Advice
If there's one bit of diet advice that drives me nuts, it's "calories in, calories out" (CICO). The idea is to reduce the calories you eat below what your body burns, and then you lose weight. This isn't entirely wrong, but it's an oversimplification the leads to a lot of misery and failed diets.
A major obstacle to weight loss is high insulin. One of insulin's functions is to act as a storage hormone, telling cells to take energy out of the blood and save it for later. Eating triggers insulin release, though in different amounts depending on what and how much you ate. While insulin is high, you can't really use what's in storage in your fat cells.
This is one of the reasons a lot of dieters end up tired, hungry, and cold all the time: they are consuming fewer calories, but not lowering insulin. With the body still stuck in storage mode, they can't use stored fat. To compensate, the body lowers metabolic rate.6
This is why I hate it when people talk about CICO: the advice doesn't work if you reduce calories but not insulin. Dieters following this advice are "doing everything right" but can't lose weight and physically feel terrible. It's demoralizing. You need fewer calories and lower insulin to get positive, sustainable results.
So how do you get around the insulin problem? There are two good ways that can be used independently or in combination: a ketogenic diet and fasting.
The ketogenic diet helps to address the problem of high insulin. Carbohydrates stimulate insulin release much more than other macronutrients. Fat barely triggers an insulin release at all. So eating a ketogenic diet, which restricts carbohydrate intake, can help you avoid chronically high insulin levels that prevent your body from using stored fat.
The ketogenic diet is often described as a "high fat" diet, which is a misleading oversimplification. I prefer how it's described in r/ketogains: protein is a goal, carbs are a limit, fat is a lever. That is to say, you need to hit a protein target to build (or at least not lose) muscle; you need to limit your net carbohydrate intake; and you can hit your calorie targets beyond what you get from protein and carbs with fat. For my ketogenic diet, I calculated target macronutrient intake of ≤ 20g of carbohydrate, ≥ 100g of protein, and about 110g of fat per day.
The body will preferentially use consumed carbohydrates as an energy source. Without a lot of exogenous carbohydrates in your diet, the body starts to switch over to using fat as fuel. This fat is broken down into chemicals called ketones, hence the diet's name. Once your body is running off of ketones, you're in a state of ketosis. You can measure ketones roughly with urine tests or accurately with blood tests; I did neither because my only goal was fat loss, which the scale measured well enough.
Carbohydrates are easy to consume in large quantities on a standard American diet, especially in the form of sugar; cutting them down to the levels necessary to enter ketosis can be difficult. Thankfully I disliked soda, and I didn't have particularly strong bread and pasta cravings. It wasn't too hard to cut out carbs by just paying more attention to what I was eating. Simple actions, like: don't buy that box of Trader Joe's ice cream sandwiches that you finish in one sitting; choose salads instead of sandwiches for lunch; pass up leftover cookies in the office kitchen; and track what I eat to keep myself within bounds. My diet has become one of meat and non-starchy vegetables, which is both flavorful and satiating. Now when I splurge on carbs, I end up tired, hungry, feeling bad, and regretting my decision.
Another approach to reducing insulin is fasting. If you just don't eat, you're not going to release insulin. Eventually the body's hormonal balance changes and you switch over to ketosis. Once you're burning fat, the body still has access to energy and doesn't down-regulate your metabolism. This can be as simple as restricting the times you eat during the day and avoiding snacks, or as intense not eating food for several days.7
The popular label for my time-restricted feeding plan was 18:6, or 18 hours fasted each day with a 6-hour eating window. It's honestly very easy (e.g., eat between 12pm and 6pm, skipping breakfast) and was the shortest fasting period I could use while still seeing positive results. 16:8 is another popular window, but I noticed my weight loss stalled if I used it. Sometimes I did extended fasts for an entire day or two, which were helpful for breaking through weight loss plateaus. I find it socially difficult to do a 3-day or longer fast.
By eating very few carbs and only eating during a narrow time window, I could keep insulin lower and make it easier for my body to access stored fat for energy. My metabolic rate, as measured by by a resting energy expenditure test in early 2020, is a perfectly normal 1,714 calories per day—exactly where it should be for a person my size and age. I lost weight, and never went through extreme hunger, weakness, tiredness, or cold that accompanies a downregulated metabolism.
(Another benefit: I used to have GERD symptoms, and after going on keto they vanished.)
Tracking the Data
I wouldn't have done well at either keto or fasting without tracking my data. Knowing what I'm eating, when, and how my weight responded was critical.
I began regular weight tracking in February of 2017 with a cheap smart scale, which I'm still using today. I could probably upgrade to something nicer, but this works fine. I weigh myself every morning after using the bathroom. Consistency of circumstance is important—it would be hard to see trends if some days I weigh myself at 7am, naked and hungry, while other days I weigh in at 8pm, dressed and overfed.
The day-to-day weight isn't so important. It can fluctuate for any number of reasons. What matters is seeing the trend, so that I know if I'm going in the desired direction and can correct my behavior if not.
More important than tracking my weight, however, was tracking my diet. I used to use MyFitnessPal, but I felt it was oversimplified and lacked good data on what I ate. The only way to do this fitness journey was by staying true to my nerdy self, and that meant I needed the best data I could get—not just for macronutrients like total carbs, protein, and fat, but for net carbs and all my vitamins and minerals too. I found the perfect diet tracker in Cronometer, which shows much more data, is easily configured to work with a keto diet, and is actually cheaper than MyFitnessPal.
MyFitnessPal focused on having precisely what you ate in the database, but with low data amount and quality. Cronometer's food database may not have a different entry for every conceivable permutation of a fast food hamburger, but it's got several very close entries from government databases which will include 77 nutrients. It took a while to get past my perfectionism over logging exactly the thing I ate by name and being OK with logging generic versions, but the data I have is on the whole better for it.
For those times when I am eating some specific food all the time, I try to recreate my own version in Cronometer as a custom recipe. With branded and packaged food, I use the available nutrition facts and ingredients list to create a close-enough copy. The benefit of doing this is that, while I might lose a few calories of accuracy, I gain data on dozens of micronutrients that never makes it onto packaging. For foods I make myself, I can just weigh the ingredients as I make it and create a custom recipe that greatly increases data accuracy and decreases data entry time.
Where Cronometer often fails me is with logging Chinese food. I don't mean that sugary Americanized crap like General Tso's; I mean real Chinese food, which I often eat with my Chinese wife. These delicious meals don't have an English name, much less an entry in a nutrition database from the US or Europe. This is a case where I usually find the nearest Western equivalent and log that. (E.g., 叉燒, or char siu, gets logged as generic pork shoulder.) Or if it's something I eat often and there's no close equivalent, I'll get my wife to help me research the ingredients and create a custom recipe.
When I log my food in Cronometer, I usually weigh it first to accurately record how much I'm eating. Just logging a "serving" of a dish often undercounts what you're eating. Whenever I'm eating something not pre-packaged (and thus pre-weighed) I use an OXO Good Grips Food Scale8 to weigh it in grams9.
Before logging my food, I had a poor idea of what I ate. But after doing it for years, I acquired good intuition about my food. How much is on the plate, what's the macronutrient breakdown, and how many calories will it be? The answers were once mysteries; but now I make an accurate guess at a glance. Having this knowledge in the back of my mind lets me make good diet choices in the moment, even without Cronometer and my food scale.
Secondary to food logging is activity tracking. I used to wear a Fitbit, and I'm currently wearing an Oura Ring. The data is cool and a bit useful, but not nearly as important to weight loss as food logging. It's more of a useful notifier if you're not active enough or doing something to disrupt your sleep. Interestingly, these activity trackers showed me that burning extra calories did not give me extra room for eating more in a day. If I burned an extra 500 calories and then ate an extra 500 calories, the effect of the food was greater than the effect of the calorie burn. This may just be my own body's response, but it was useful data to reinforce my plan to lose weight before focusing on workouts.
When weighing myself and logging it, I can see long term trends and adjust behavior. But by weighing food and logging it, I can adjust within the space of a day if I'm going in a bad direction.
For approximately the first year of my fitness journey, I explicitly avoided exercise. Body recomposition (losing fat while simultaneously gaining muscle) is difficult. And I knew from previous failed attempts at fitness that heavy workouts would make me hungry, increasing the difficulty of my diet. I decided to focus initially just on weight loss until I got rid of most of my unwanted fat, and then add it exercise.10
I started working out on a regular basis in 2019, and got more serious about it in 2020. I used to work out in my apartment gym until COVID. Then I used resistance bands in the park. In June 2020, I bought a house; now I've got a simple workout bench and some dumbbells that are fine for most of what I do.
While I used to enjoy HIIT with DDR, it's hard to fit into a busy schedule. HIIT is exhausting, and leaves me a sweaty mess. And outside of DDR, I just don't enjoy cardio. I always finish feeling like I got my butt kicked.
Not so with weights, which—no matter how sore I get—leave me with the sensation that I did the butt-kicking. Weights are also easier to do at random intervals throughout the day. I don't need to change into gym clothes to do a quick set of bicep curls. I frequently do a couple sets while waiting for water to boil for my morning coffee. It just fits into my life better.
Weight loss with keto and fasting was relatively easy and fast. Hypertrophy (muscle growth) is not. Muscles are metabolically expensive, and the body doesn't want to build them bigger if it can avoid it. It's taken a long time to start to see positive changes in my musculature. But it's very satisfying. I feel fitter than I have in years, maybe ever. For the first time in my life, I can look in the mirror and be proud.
When lifting weights, it's important to have proper form. Doing things sloppily will get you injured, leaving you in a worse state than when you started. I actually recommend looking on YouTube, not for gym exercises, but for physical therapy exercises.11 These are movements that are going to be safe and are focused on building strength that you're probably missing. It will also help you learn enough anatomy that you can better evaluate other exercises for incorporation into or exclusion from your workout routine.
Cardio is, of course, also good for you. I'm trying to work more of it into my routine. But resistance training is still my preference.
If I don't sleep well, I'm useless the next day. Some people burn the midnight oil again and again without problems (or so they think), but I'm not one of them. For this reason, I've always prioritized sleep. It's key to staying fit.
But for those of you who aren't making sleep a priority, definitely do that. Failing to sleep well will make you hungrier and less able to resist foods that are bad for you. You're more likely to make poor health decisions overall while sleep deprived. And, it should go without saying, missing sleep is just plain bad for you. Over the long term, not getting enough sleep is linked to neurological decline.
Why We Sleep is a good starting point for learning more about sleep, it's function, and how to improve it. Getting adequate amounts of quality sleep is foundational. If you're not addressing it, I urge you to do so.
Understanding the process of weight loss was obviously necessary to achieve my results. But most important was correcting my thinking about fitness. Without realizing it, I had internalized that I was just an unfit nerdy guy and that I would never have a good body. That sort of thing just wasn't for guys like me, and I shouldn't waste time contemplating it. This hidden belief was toxic and held me back for so many years. I'm still working to eradicate it from my mind and undo the damage it did to me.
Aside from finding and untangling your limiting beliefs, you'll also need to find ways to deal with the mental stress of dieting, fasting, and exercising. For diet, I find that I've got almost no ability to resist free carbs when put in front of me. But I have a very good ability to resist purchasing carbs, so I simply don't buy them.12 Also, your self talk is important. Don't say, "I'm trying to eat less carbs." Instead, tell yourself, "I don't eat carbs." It's a subtle difference, but one that can give you a greater emotional edge to resist temptation.
Fasting is, in my experience, primarily a mental challenge. I rarely experience hunger while fasting, but the thought of eating is constant. Look for ways to keep busy and distract yourself from these thoughts.
Exercise is even harder mentally than diet and fasting. Weight loss with the latter involves removal of something. You're actually doing less when you don't eat something! But exercise means the addition of a behavior, which is more challenging. You should do everything you can to make it easy. You don't need to buy great exercise gear, get a gym membership, wake up early to go before work, and so on. Look up good form for some quick and simple body weight exercises, like pushups or squats. You can do those anywhere in near any condition. Start small, make it easy to win, and you can build slowly from there.
Too Long; Didn't Read
So that was a lot of text, and I don't blame you for wanting to skip it and go straight to a bulleted list of what I did to get fit. Ok, here you go:
- Identify limiting beliefs you have around fitness and confront them. I was a "nerdy guy", so of course I wasn't fit. But that's nonsense, and I shouldn't let that stereotype hold me back from being the best version of myself.
- Identify your mistaken diet beliefs, which you probably picked up in childhood and haven't thought about critically since. Did you know "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is literally a marketing slogan?
- Find ways to make it easy to stick with the plan. If you have a weakness for potato chips, don't buy potato chips. If you're averse to the gym, keep weights at home. (See Atomic Habits and/or Tiny Habits for help with this.)
- Track your food intake with Cronometer and a food scale. Weigh yourself with a smart scale to track trends. What gets measured, gets managed.
- Focus on losing fat before building muscle. It's less to do, less to think about, and easier to track one thing at a time.
- Eat a ketogenic diet. Keep net carbs (total carbs minus fiber) below 20g per day.
- Use time restricted feeding. Only eat within a 6 hour window or less.
- Use extended fasting (1-2 days or more) for breaking through weight loss plateaus.
- Look up simple exercises—preferably from physical therapists so you know it's safe—that you can do to start working out.
- Move on to lifting heavier and heavier weights. Proper form is key to avoid injury.
- Sleep enough (7-8 hours sleeping, time in bed awake doesn't count) every night, and make sure it's high quality. Use a sleep tracker to see what might be impacting your sleep if this is difficult for you.
I don't think much of this is revelatory. But that doesn't mean it was easy to internalize these ideas and habits well enough to get fit. It's still a day-to-day struggle, and probably always will be. But I want you to know that it's 100% worthwhile.
A few years ago, when my maternal grandmother died, I attended her funeral and saw much of my extended family for the first time in a long time. I was 164 pounds (little of it muscle) at the time, and so comparably thin next to my cousins that people thought I was sick or had cancer. Note that I was in no way skinny—I still had a gut sticking out—I was just so much skinnier than the others there. ↩︎
Unlike Bobby Hill, by the time I first set foot in Japan, DDR was retro and nowhere to be found. I remain very disappointed that I never got to hustle any Japanese people at DDR, pretending to be a big clumsy gaijin before busting a move. ↩︎
I've tried virtual reality, and it doesn't compare to DDR in terms of intensity. Thrill of the Fight is the only VR game I've played that gets my heart rate high, but it's mostly an arm workout and a bit dangerous if you accidentally punch a wall. Pistol Whip is an alright squat workout, but does almost nothing to my heart rate. I'm hopefully more and better fitness games come along with time, but it will be hard to replicate the effects of DDR. ↩︎
Most people call this intermittent fasting, but I agree with Dr. Peter Attia that only eating in a narrow range of hours each day isn't much of a fast. No eating for 24 hours or more? That's a fast. Skipping breakfast every day? Mere time-restriction. ↩︎
While he acknowledge the benefits of ketogenic diets (he credits it with helping him recover from long-term symptoms of Lyme disease), Tim Ferriss says he prefers his slow-carb diet to keto because he gets bored of what he's able to eat on keto. Personally, I find keto easier than slow-carb because I can't think of any foods more boring than lentils and beans. ↩︎
Some of the worst dieting advice is "eat many small meals throughout the day." It's bad advice because it keeps your insulin elevated at all times, making it very difficult for your body to access stored fat. ↩︎
The world record is 382 days without food. ↩︎
The nice thing about the OXO scales is that the display can pull out, so you can still read it when weighing something that's very wide like an oversized plate. ↩︎
I prefer grams for the precision, and because it makes me feel both scientific and international. ↩︎
If you're very heavy, starting exercise too soon can also be bad for your joints. Want to destroy your knees? Try becoming a runner while obese. Better to address the fat first and take it easy on your body. ↩︎
My physical therapist deserves a lot of credit for helping me become a fitter person. I landed at her clinic after years of desk work had left many of my muscles either too weak or too tight. I was in near-constant pain. She helped me to see that this wasn't my fate. There were known and effective things I could do to fix my body, and she helped me to see that. I'm not sure I'd be exercising at all if not for her help and inspiration. ↩︎
How many times do I have to ask my wife to please stop buying carby snacks at the grocery store?! How many times?!?! ↩︎