I’ve been tracking my calories for 700 days now, and, as my title says, the most important thing I’ve learned over the past 100 days is that my weight loss is not an optimization problem.
You might remember optimization problems from your high school math classes. There’s a classic one involving how to create a soda can, using the least amount of aluminum possible (to save manufacturing costs). Since the amount of soda used is a constant (12 oz, or 355ml), you have to find the dimensions of the container that will use the least amount of aluminum (and therefore be the cheapest) to produce. The ‘answer’ to this problem (just minimizing surface area while keeping the fluid constant) leaves you with a right circular cylinder — which is not, in fact, what soda cans look like. Why?
Well, because even though the math works out, there is more to consider when making a soda can: is it strong enough to be stacked to display in a grocery store? It is nice to hold in your hand? Is it strong and stable enough to withstand the shipping process? And so on. The same is true for weight loss: there’s more to consider.
It’s tempting to want to tell everyone who pops in here looking for advice to optimize themselves for success: set calories to the minimum (1500 for a man, and 1200 for a woman), and just keep going until it’s finished. But, just like in the soda can problem, everyone has their own unique considerations. I know I do.
I’m 5’6″ (167-8cm), and in the first year of my weight loss, I absolutely played with all the calculators out there. How much will I weigh in 9 weeks, if I keep losing 2 pounds a week? What will I weigh by Christmas? My next birthday? How long until it’s finished? How can I minimize time while maximizing my results? How can I switch my calories around so that I get there faster? I had a lot of weight to lose, and “being done” seemed really important. That was a part of my weight loss I needed to go through, and learn from, but things have changed since then, and I’m still learning.
In looking back over some of my previous 100-day-update posts, I see that last summer I was still losing a kilo almost every ten days. That has slowed down now, and is closer to a kilo around every 20 days. My weight loss graph has big red spikes when I visited my family for vacations and holidays. I took those vacations and celebrated those holidays around the same time period in the first year of my graph, and also over-indulged. But, I don’t have the corresponding red spikes a year earlier, because I was heavier, my TDEE was higher, and I could absorb an extra thousand or two calories within my weekly deficit and still lose weight. My response to this year’s results could have been to “optimize myself,” cut my calories down to 1200 (the minimum a woman should eat), and up my exercise. Because weight loss is just math, right?
Well, yes. But, it’s also my real life. I’m not a math problem. I have come to realize, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 days per kilo or 20 days. As early as the fall of last year, I started letting go of treating myself as an optimization problem, and realized that I had to adjust my calories, even though it would “slow things down.” I had just broken into the Overweight BMI category, after spending the majority of my life in the Obese category. I was delivering the mail during day, while working through the Couch to 5k program at night, trying to stay around 1400 calories. I was doing it.
But, eventually, I started waking up feeling terrible. No matter how much water I was drinking, I woke up feeling dehydrated. A few days, I woke up with symptoms of extremely low blood sugar. I was pushing myself through that discomfort, doggedly trying to hit my goals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those goals were not worth hitting.
One Saturday, I woke up and got ready to go do the mail, and I just felt terrible. I had eaten my standard 400 calorie breakfast (scrambled eggs and cheese), and was drinking water, trying to gear up for the route. I looked terrible, and wife commented on it. She asked me if I had had enough to eat. I told her I had eaten my normal breakfast, but she gently suggested that I eat a little more. I got a slice of ontbijtkoek (it’s a Dutch breakfast food kind of like pumpkin bread, which I really like). I ate the slice, and started to instantly feel better. The quick-acting carbs/sugars from the bread were just what I needed to perk myself up. The first slice had made me feel so much better, I ate a second, to see if I could actually be back to feeling “good.” Within a few minutes, I was.
I felt completely different. I did the mail that day on 600 calories instead of 400, and was genuinely surprised how much better I felt during my whole route. For the first time in possibly my whole life, I had eaten more food not because I was bored, or just because I liked the taste of it, or because I was just mindlessly eating — but rather, because I was checking in with myself to see what I needed. It was an amazing feeling, and one that really ‘clicked’ with me: this is how I want to lose the rest of my weight. Not by running a spreadsheet to optimize myself, but rather to check in with myself, and give my body what it needs.
I read a book a long time ago by an author named Thich Nhat Hahn who wrote one of the lines that has helped me keep doing what I have been doing for 700 days, and will continue to do for as many days as it takes to reach (and eventually stay within) a healthy BMI. Hint: it wasn’t: “run the numbers, and cut everything down to the minimum so you maximize your success in the shortest time period possible.” It was, rather, you get good at what you practice. So, if you practice doing the right things, you will eventually be good at them. 1200 calories is not the amount of calories my body needs. I don’t want to practice eating 1200 calories. I don’t want to be good at it. I need more than 1200 calories.
I’m eating closer to 1600 calories these days, which is what the TDEE calculator says my daily caloric needs will be at the weight I would like to be (if I am sedentary). I want to practice that. I want to be good at that. I want to know how to feel satisfied and fine with that. Most of the time, I do. My TDEE is around 2000 right now, and I have no plans to stop exercising. I want to keep practicing (and getting good at) eating the right amount for my body. I don’t want to wake up feeling terrible. So, I don’t. If I’m hungry, I eat. I try to stay between somewhere between 1500-1600 calories. If I go over, I just try again the next day.
This has gotten longer than I intended, but the last important thing that has become clear to me within these past 100 days, alongside of letting go of my own impulse towards optimization, is that intentionally practicing what I want to be good at, is what will keep me successful in the long term– when I’m not trying to lose weight anymore. Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield wrote an amazing book about his life experiences, and what I have learned from him is that how no matter what your goal is (whether or be an astronaut or to lose weight), you have to set yourself on a path that you enjoy. If you want to be an astronaut to go to space, well, in your whole career you might never go. If you do go, the average space flight is maybe a month, after a whole lifetime of training. So, you better make sure you are interested and passionate about everything leading up to a space flight, because that’s what you will spend the majority of your time doing.
I think that lesson is equally as applicable to weight loss. There might be one day when I step on the scale, and see the goal weight I’m working towards for the first time. That will be a great day, for sure. But just as being an astronaut is more than about the month you (might) spend in space, losing weight is more than the day you stand on the scale and finally see the number you want. It is all of your habits, your attitude towards yourself, and your attitude towards food. For me, continually practicing those habits and attitudes, and letting go of my desire to race myself there, has been almost as life changing as losing over 50 kilos (around 113 pounds).
I know now that I’ll get to my goal weight when I get there. I’m not trying to make a spreadsheet spit out favorable numbers. I’m practicing what I want to be good at, and get a little better every day.