Creating a Pre-historic Lifestyle

My friend Andrew, who is a personal trainer, made an offhand comment at a wedding a couple of weeks ago that got me thinking. He said, “Everything we do, it’s all about re-creating a pre-historical lifestyle that our bodies recognize.”

He was talking about his work in the gym getting people fit and muscular, but it really rung true for me, and for weight management.

I regularly say things here that I base on evolutionary principles – how our bodies were designed to work over thousands of years of evolution. Millions even. What we live in now is so completely different from what our bodies are built for that we have an obesity epidemic. What our bodies expect is constant work and scarce food.

Think about cave men – if they wanted to eat they had to work. Hunting, gathering, farming – these are not sedentary activities! And sometimes, even all that work didn’t result in much food at all. We’re all running around in machines designed to walk for days and live off of leaves and berries with occasional protein, but we’re now able to fuel them with unlimited processed sugar and fat, and sit while we travel! It’s a wonder there are people who aren’t overweight in this environment.

Unfortunately, recreating a pre-historic lifestyle isn’t straightforward in modern society. I work a desk job, you may as well. The most “work” I do for 8 hours a day is walking down the hall to the coffee machine. So what I need to make a priority is finding ways to work hard in the limited time I have for it, and limiting what I eat to what my body recognizes as food – plant-based matter and clean eating.

It’s interesting to note that the goal of all our human endeavors is to allow us to NOT work. Industrialization and automation are on-going human efforts to make machines do work that we would otherwise have to. And now, upon attaining maximum leisure time, we have to make up ways to force our bodies to do the work they expect and require.

Work your body hard, under-fuel it on occasion. That’s what it’s designed for.

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A Habit-Forming Experience

Maintaining enthusiasm for a program is relatively easy when you have a goal that is important and transformative. I’m talking about weight loss – getting motivated to stick to a program when the goal is tantalizing is straightforward. I can motivate myself by thinking about the clothes I’ll buy when I reach my goal weight that I can’t wear now. I can motivate myself by thinking about how much more comfortable I’ll be in an airplane when I’ve lost the weight that currently makes the airplane seat uncomfortable.

But when we’re talking about motivating myself to stay exactly the same, well, that’s a harder sell. It’s hard to get very motivated about the clothes I’ll buy next month when I’ll be exactly the same weight I am today. And then to do that year after year after year for a payoff that seems like nothing special once I’ve been there a while already? That gets really repetitive, sometimes even onerous, over the course of years, and I think the main reason that people start gaining back weight after an initial period of maintenance is because they just can’t talk themselves into the right choices any longer because there’s no motivating factor. So, in the absence of a motivating factor, what do I fall back on?

Habits. The cornerstone of maintaining a weight loss forever is to form the habits that require and, in some cases, cause a compulsion in me, to make those right choices. So let’s talk about forming habits. First things first: 21 days is not long enough to form a habit. I know that’s the common internet wisdom, but it’s false. According to researchers published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 66 days to form a habit.

All right, I hear you thinking – I can do something for 66 days! There’s a catch. There’s always a catch. That research pertains to ONE habit. Just one thing – in this case, drinking a glass of water every day. Weight management is a conglomeration of dozens of habits working together to create a net of actions and skills. And that’s my bad news for you today – it’s not going to be 66 days, it’s going to be 66 days TIMES the number of habits that need to be formed, which varies depending on what you already do, and how resistant you are to habit-forming. It’s going to be a really long time.

Here is my experience: The first 4 years of maintaining I was militant, even religiously zealous about my recordkeeping, food consumption, monitoring my weight on the scale every day, and exercising. The next 2 years I was highly compliant with the program I had established for myself, but there were times when one or two of my parameters would fail and my weight would creep up, then I would tighten up my control again and get things back down. And for the last two years I’ve found that I can keep my weight fairly stable without writing down everything because my eating and exercising habits are now just that – habits. If I don’t exercise my body feels bad, like there’s an itch I can’t scratch. If I eat unsupportive foods my stomach gets upset and/or I feel sluggish. That’s what I’ve come to understand is meant by a habit – something that I just do automatically because doing anything else feels wrong.

However, the last thing I would want to do is make you feel like forming all of the habits necessary for weight management is impossible – I’m living proof that it’s not. What I’m really trying to convey is that if you don’t have it down in 66 days, or even a year, it’s not because you’re a failure, it’s because that advice is not really applicable to the size of the task you are undertaking. It takes years of trial and effort, you’re not unusual if it takes you several runs at solving this problem. You are undertaking a radical course of Behavior Modification. Most people enlist behaviorists, coaches, psychologists, and other specialists to help them in this journey. If you have access to these types of specialists, use them for all they are worth. If you don’t, be kind to yourself, but also firm. This is a challenge you are up to meeting.

Weight Management Is About Trends

Weight management is about trends, not specific events. It’s about what I do most days, not every day. And by most days I don’t mean 4 out of 7, I mean 6 or 7 out of 7. So if I have 6 great weight management days and the 7th is a bit out of control, I’m still probably ok. Of course, I can’t just go crazy and eat whatever I want one day a week, because over the course of a month I can do significant damage that way.  Days to weeks, weeks to months, months to years. It’s all about trends.

Similarly, starving myself by eating 300 calories on one day then spending the rest of the week eating whatever I want won’t produce the results I would like to see. It will, however, slightly limit the damage I would do if my other option was to eat whatever I wanted 7 days a week. Over the course of a month, 4 days at low calories will slightly offset the damage I’d be otherwise doing. Some weeks, just limiting the damage is a win. Some weeks, even a single day off the plan is a loss.

It’s all about trends, and those trends arc across any time period I can track. Sometimes my mind is unkind to me and I start to berate myself for my failure after a particularly rich meal, where I know I have significantly overshot my daily BMR calorie limit. Then I remind myself that one rich meal in a week of good planning and weight management is not a failure, my trends are still good.

Book Recommendation – Thin For Life

Most of the strategies that I talk about here aren’t anything new. Let me tell you about one of the most valuable books I’ve read regarding long-term weight management.

There is a conception that losing a lot of weight is almost always followed shortly thereafter by gaining it back. This has happened to everybody who has lost weight. But some people lose it for good So, when trying to learn to keep weight off for good, doesn’t it seem somewhat obvious to go find the people who’ve lost it and kept it off, and ask them how? All of the “Masters” interviewed for Thin for Life by Anne M. Fletcherhave succeeded in losing at least 20 pounds and keeping it off for at least 3 years. Most people lost more and kept it off for longer – the average was 63 pounds and over 10 years. These people know what they’re doing.

Highly Recommended!

The book is organized into 10 “keys for success” from the Masters. It’s not a weight loss book by any stretch. It’s a collection of stories and tips from people who’ve mastered their weight. There is no “Thin for Life” diet – the author stresses over and over that everybody must find their own way, a method that works for them, and it’s different for everyone. Some people need the structure of a group, some people need to go it alone. I have done both. The first 100 pounds I lost I did alone, the rest was done in a very structured environment. I will point out that the first go-round I didn’t know what I was doing and ended up needing major surgery to remove my gallbladder due to my drastic caloric restriction, lack of research into the matter, and extremely poor health care at the time. The basic truth, however, is that no matter how much support a person uses to lose weight initially, maintenance eventually and inevitably comes down to flying solo.

Most people have to try several times to lose weight and keep it off. The losing part is relatively straightforward – it’s a limited period of time, and most people can stand a little discomfort or inconvenience when there’s a foreseeable end. But, most will inevitably go back to the old habits. But, as I’ve mentioned myself, just because you’ve lost and then regained several times does not mean you shouldn’t try again. All of the Masters interviewed for the book stressed that they had tried many different times and many different ways before finally getting it right. God knows I’d lost and regained countless times before I found “my way.” But the really important point is, how can anybody be expected to get it right the first time around on something so complicated and emotionally charged? Especially with next to no education on the underlying concepts? I personally believe that weight management should be taught in school – not just in some health class you go to in 5th grade to learn about your period and eating from the food pyramid. The basic weight maintenance math needs to be taught, and the basics of how to eat lots of tasty food without getting lots of calories – preferably in high school. I had no idea what a calorie was or how it worked until I’d put on over 100 pounds in the 4 years after college and became desperate to change my ways. All I knew was I should try to reduce my calories. I didn’t know how to figure out how many I needed, or how to balance what I was doing. This is becoming increasingly and vitally important in our sedentary culture.

One of the insights I appreciated was that the Masters in the book had readjusted their goal weight over time, as I have myself. Some of them decided after achieving a too-low goal that it was entirely too hard to maintain such a weight, and gained 5, 10, 15 or even 20 back just to be at a weight they could maintain without killing themselves with exercise and hunger. Some had decided, like me, that if getting to that elusive super-low weight was so difficult, imagine how hard it would be to maintain it forever? Because maintaining it forever means basically eating like you’re on a diet forever. I really liked the discussion of finding a good goal weight and what factors to take into account.

I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in what it takes to lose and keep weight off. Nine of the ten “Keys to Success” in Thin to Life ring very true for me. Maybe they will for you too.

Rules of thumb for drinking my calories

One of my rules of weight management is to not drink calories. Everything I eat needs to perform a job, and that job is to keep me from feeling hungry. Beverages do not aid satiety, so they don’t get on the plan very often. Not soda, not cocoa, not a triple vanilla half-caf mocha frappuccino with whipped cream, not fruit juice, not egg nog for sure! There are just two exceptions for me, but I’ll cover those last. First I want to talk a little more about two of the drinks I just listed which often cause people to want to debate, so let me tell you my take on them.

“No fruit juice!” is something I’m militant about. To my mind drinking fruit juice is exactly the same as drinking regular soda – a giant calorie bomb of sugar with no feeling of fullness. The process of making juice from fruit is the process of removing the beneficial part of the fruit – the fiber – and leaving the part that’s only there, evolutionarily speaking, to make humans want to consume it – the sugar. There’s nothing magical or special about fructose (aka the sugar that sweetens fruit) which makes it healthier than the sugar used in soda. Sugar is sugar, it exists to carry fuel, in the form of calories, into a body. Often people think choosing fruit juice is a healthy option, but for weight management that would be shooting myself in the foot. Ounce for ounce, soda has fewer calories, and neither one provides any significant health benefits. I might as well have a Coke and a smile, because according to experts, “The upside of juice consumption is so infinitesimal compared to the downside that we shouldn’t even be having this discussion.” Whole foods are a much better source of vitamins and minerals if that’s a concern. If I want something that tastes like fruit, I eat a piece of fruit. I get the feeling of fullness I should be getting for the calories I’m consuming plus all the vitamins and minerals. And honestly, eating 7-10 cups of fruits and veggies a day I’m getting the nutrients I need from my food already.

Diet soda has been getting a bad rap lately. But if my choices are regular soda or diet soda, I will always pick the diet soda. I know that some people are happy to eschew all soda, diet or regular, and that’s great. But not everybody is ready to do that. I’m one of those people. I occasionally drink diet soda because so far, none of the claims made about artificial sweeteners have been conclusively proven. However, the risks to my health of morbid obesity are widely understood. Where my health is concerned, I’m much more concerned with the immediate and obvious risks of obesity upon my life versus the unproven, potential, scientifically-nebulous

The occasional treat is good for the soul.

risks posed by diet soda. So I do occasionally enjoy diet soda. In moderation – I don’t drink more than one a day, and some days none at all, because where food and diet is concerned, all things should be enjoyed in moderation. When I don’t feel like having a soda but having something bubbly to drink sounds good, I will happily have club soda or seltzer water with some lemon or lime squeezed into it. Iced tea is another calorie-free option I enjoy. But, as far as I’m concerned, diet soda is a useful tool for me to employ in moderation. I lost 200 pounds while drinking it, so I’m not concerned that it causes weight gain, as some claim.

So what are the two exceptions to the “don’t drink calories” rule I mentioned above? Alcohol, and a latte. First – if I have the calories in my budget, a small non-fat latte is 90 calories gladly spent for me. I have one about once or twice a month – it’s a treat, not a habit.  And secondly – as of today, as far as I know, there is no calorie-free alcohol anywhere in the world. So if I’m going to enjoy alcohol, I am careful to write down the calories, limit myself to only one or two, and make the best choices I can. A bloody mary is a decent choice for weight management – I can get away with a small one for about 150 calories. A glass of wine comes in about the same, a moderate-sized glass of cider or beer on vacation won’t derail me either. It’s a treat, something to be enjoyed only once in a while, but on days when I do, it’s good to have a couple of moderate-calorie options available to me.

Breakfast: The most important meal of the day. Except when it’s not.

Everywhere you go in the diet industry, you are exhorted to eat a hearty breakfast, because breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

I’m not so sure.

Everybody’s body is different. You know your body better than I do, better than an anonymous diet industry does. So you tell me – for YOU, is breakfast the most important meal of the day?  It very well may not be. Have you experimented? If you’re not the kind of person who is hungry first thing in the morning, but you’ve been hearing the diet industry advice for years to FOR THE LOVE OF GOD EAT BREAKFAST OR WE’LL KILL SOME PUPPIES, have you tried cramming some breakfast down your throat just to appease the diet experts?

What happened? Did you eat fewer calories the rest of the day, or did you still feel hungry at the regular times you feel hungry, and end up just increasing your overall daily calorie total by eating when you’re not hungry?

How 'bout some fruit?

The theory behind the advice to eat breakfast whether you want to or not is that having a full stomach early on will prevent you from snacking as the morning wears on, and also by lunchtime you won’t be ravenous and prone to over-eating because your body will have already received fuel to run on.

Here’s my experience: If I’m hungry when I wake up, I eat breakfast. If I’m NOT hungry when I wake up, because I’ve woken up earlier than usual, for example, and I eat breakfast anyway, I will still get hungry at my usual times, and the breakfast calories end up increasing my daily total. If I’m not hungry when I wake up and I DON’T eat breakfast, but instead wait until I AM hungry, guess what? Sometimes I can eliminate that meal entirely from my daily total and end up with a deficit day.

My general stance is to question the pop-Rx from the diet industry, and try to get behind the advice to find out what they are actually trying to accomplish with the advice. In this case, I think that eating breakfast every day is advice that should be questioned, and really should only be followed by people who want to eat breakfast every day already. At the most basic level: If it works for you, enjoy your breakfast. If it doesn’t work for you, enjoy not eating breakfast. BUT – experiment with it and see what works best for achieving your goals before you come down hard on one side or another. As the owner of your body you get to experiment with it, in fact you have a responsibility to do so until you find the things that keep it running optimally. Until then, be flexible and stay attuned to what your body needs.

And if you’re interested, here’s what I do: Mostly, I eat breakfast every day. I love breakfast foods. In particular, I love, love, love hot cereal. Oatmeal, grits, malt-o-meal, cream of wheat, I love it all. I eat it with a sprinkle of brown sugar, sometimes with some fruit cooked in as well. It doesn’t take very long at all to cook up some breakfast on the stove, but also, if I just don’t have the time in the morning the cafeteria at my office usually has a pot of oatmeal on the boil all morning long and I can pick some up there for a couple of bucks. A dry half-cup of oatmeal with some brown sugar on it comes in at about 200 calories for me. I once backpacked all over Scotland for a month, carrying my ziplock of locally-purchased oats and making my hot cereal every morning in the hostel kitchen. Not because I had to but because this breakfast is my comfort food and I don’t like starting my day without it.

Other types of breakfasts that I’ve enjoyed when I didn’t have time for cooking anything include: a banana (very portable and nicely filling, ~150 cal), an apple or other piece of fruit and a yogurt cup (also portable, but need to pack a spoon – apple ~75 cal, yogurt ~100 cal), if I’ve planned ahead a hard-boiled egg or two is great (90 cal each), or if nothing else an energy bar like Luna or similar.

As a quick side note: Energy bars are lowest on my hierarchy of quick foods because I try to avoid highly-processed foods, but they are very portable and decently nutritious in a pinch. I need to be careful though – I’ve seen some outrageous calorie totals on some of them, and they are not particularly filling, so I’ll probably be hungry again soon if I eat them. I consider them emergency, “I’ve planned poorly” food.

So there it is. Breakfast: the most important meal of the day. For some people.

The “Target Weight” Illusion

For most of my life I had no idea what I should weigh. I had no concept of what a woman of my height, at my age and with my bone structure should be. I knew that I was horribly overweight, so just being “less than now” was all I ever really thought about. When I signed up for the medically monitored program on which I lost the last 100 pounds, they asked me to put a “goal weight.” I’d tried and failed at so many different diets at that point that I didn’t really think it was possible to be less than 230 pounds – the lowest I’d ever been that I could remember (after being put on a crash diet by my mother in junior high). So I put that as my goal. At the time of that final push I weighed 270 pounds.

I quickly dropped below 230 and the program leaders asked me if I was going to transition to maintenance now. I said no, I’d like to see if I could get to 200. When I closed in on 200 they asked if I was transitioning. I said that since I had a hard deadline to be off in a few more weeks, I’d wait until then (I was getting married – the first time- and going overseas for my honeymoon. They had a rule that if you couldn’t be medically monitored, you had to move off the hardcore weight loss phase and into maintenance). I made it to 192. But I thought, still, that 192 was still very heavy and that what seemed like a good weight for a woman was 150. Still a little high, I thought, but it seemed like a good round number that wasn’t outrageous for a woman to weigh.

Now, keep in mind that most women are significantly shorter than me, so hearing about, for example, a 5 foot tall actress weighing 130 and being considered overweight may have skewed my understanding. There really aren’t many women as tall as me, so getting reliable data about how much women my height weighed was pretty much impossible.

So I went on the honeymoon, then I spent 6 months working hard in the maintenance program, and after that period I was eligible to go back into the weight loss phase. I weighed around 185, so I’d lost some in maintenance. I put 150 as my goal when I started hardcore weight loss again. I did not make it to 150. I made it to around 168, and my body absolutely refused to go any lower. Period. No matter what. I was a size 10/12, but I looked emaciated – my face looked drawn and the lines deep. All I saw was the number on the scale and the number in the clothes. For the first time in my entire life I could shop in “normal people” shops. I’d been shopping in large-size clothing shops since I was in elementary school. I still wasn’t happy, and I thought, “If I could just lose 20 more pounds, I would be happy at that weight.”

After 2 years of keeping my weight in the 170-180 range, I had the excess skin surgically removed. I spent a month convalescing from that surgery, it was a massive, 10-hour procedure. I went home with 4 drains and a catheter bag and spent a whole weekend not moving. Over the course of the month I was recovering, I lost a bit of weight and reached the lowest weight I’ve ever reached in my entire life – 159. I thought, “Nine more pounds!”

I steadily gained back to be in the 170s. I worked hard, but I could NOT stay at what I wanted to be at, and I couldn’t reach 150. I thought, well, I can at least stay under 170. Nope. Despite all my efforts – running 4-5 times a week for 5-7 miles a shot, monitoring my food intake heavily, avoiding social food situations. There was nothing I could do to get to or stay at those low numbers.

I would occasionally call up my mentors at the program and do another round of the weight loss program. But no matter what, if I wanted to live my life in a semi-normal fashion, my weight was going to be higher than I thought it should be. I mostly sat at 185 – a weight at which the online BMI calculator told me I was overweight and, “People falling in this BMI range are considered overweight and would benefit from finding healthy ways to lower their weight, such as diet and exercise.” I laughed bitterly at that advice – I needed to try diet and exercise, this stupid site is telling me? But I thought I looked healthy, and so did everybody I knew.

Note: I will not provide a link to the online BMI calculator. If you want it, go find it yourself.

I spent years fighting to find the right “target weight” for me. The guidance I got from the BMI metric was absolutely useless. Here’s a picture of me when I was approximately 185 pounds. Overweight, according to BMI. So whenever I weighed 185, I thought I should try to lose.

Overweight, according to BMI. Fabulous, here in the real world

I would duly place myself on severe restrictions and diet back down. I yo-yo’ed up and down pretty heavily for the first 5 years of maintaining. Then, with the passing of years of this a lightbulb finally went off. Nobody maintains their lowest weight ever. It’s almost impossible, because you attain that weight while you are dieting hardcore. But unless I intend to maintain the diet and exercise regimen of a full-blown weight loss routine, I am not ever, ever, ever going to weigh my lowest weight. It doesn’t even make sense that I should.

So I came up with my own theory about what I should weigh. I should weigh whatever weight it is at which I am exercising regularly (6-7 days a week), eating “clean” (definition: the vast majority of my food comes from fruits and vegetables) and only indulging in restaurant or social eating once or twice a week. I seek to strike a balance – I maintain that weight at which I am eating the absolute fewest amount of calories I can reasonably eat while still enjoying myself and not obsessing unduly over my intake. I still obsess unduly about getting my exercise done.

I keep my weight under 200, I’m a happy girl. Here’s me today, a little under 200.

200 pounds of feeling healthy

People don’t really have any idea what a woman should weigh or look like at different weights. I have this thought in my head that people are horrified at the thought that a woman would weigh 200 pounds, because people expect women to all conform to unreasonable fashion-industry standards. I read an article recently that said fashion models of my height should weigh 115 pounds. I don’t know anything about that, my husband thinks I look gorgeous at 200. And so do I. And I still have to work hard to maintain it, I’m just not killing myself anymore, and making my partner miserable while I’m at it.

The only wisdom I guess I have to impart is, don’t buy clothes at your lowest weight, though the temptation may be strong. It’s a lot easier to maintain a weight that you didn’t get to through full-blown diet mode.