This post isn't really product or development related, but I think it applies to lots of us desk-job types. Hopefully it'll help someone else who's struggling just as much as I was.
First my results and progress so far
I started getting serious about my diet at the end of September 2020. I weighed about 80kg/176lbs.
Today, on 1 Nov 2020, I weighed about 74kg/163lbs.
That's a loss of 6kg/13lbs in a bit over a month! Insane! I would never have dreamt it possible for a middle-aged guy like me, who doesn't exercise too much and sits behind a computer all day to pull something like that off.
My journey is far from complete, but the progress I've had up to now is exciting enough to share. This would likely(hopefully) be the first in a series of posts detailing my weight-loss journey.
I've never had a flat stomach in my entire life. Not when I was a kid, not when I was a young adult, and certainly not now, in my almost middle-age.
And I'm not even talking about having that shredded, six-pack look like the guys on the MensHealth covers, I'm just talking about a regular, flat tummy that doesn't bulge out in vague convex shape. I've always hovered between almost obese to dad-bod at best.
I've been self-conscious about my weight since forever. Being the fat kid in the 80s, when most kids weren't overweight yet left it's mark on my psyche and self-esteem. I got noticed and bullied for it, often. It also didn't help that my skin was pale enough to trip the sun when I took my shirt off on the beach.
All jokes aside, being able to swim in public without a shirt on has just never been in the realms of conceivability for me. The shame is too great.
Society, my community and my peers have made it very clear, since a young age, that nobody wants to see that shit. In fact, I don't think I've been in any form of public water without a shirt on since the age of 10. Maybe even earlier.
When the dough starts to rise
I've learned to live with it, of course. The pale skin, the belly - it's not that bad. I mean, I've still managed to convince a poor, unsuspecting soul to be my wife. I still had fun outdoors. And getting older means nobody really cares about my appearance anymore, at least not to my face. Being doughy is not ideal but it's not that big a deal either.
I always assumed it's just the genetic cards I've been dealt, my unique biology or some sort of weird hormonal thing. This made sense to me because most of my extended family are overweight, and dangerously so. Maybe we're just built to look like this.
This idea might have a sliver of truth to it - I personally know people who look fit and fabulous without any seeming effort and who can eat whatever they like.
I, however, seem to gain weight by just looking at delicious food. But if I'm honest, declaring it impossible to slim down due to my genes might have just been a convenient excuse.
On my 38th birthday this year, I reflected on this, and the fact that my 40s were rapidly coming into view. I can see it emerging just over the horizon, arms and legs pumping as it's sprinting towards me. Soon.
I wasn't concerned with becoming unattractive with age(I've never been considered attractive anyway) but using my family history as a rough model for extrapolation suggested that the physical shape I was in then was past the point of good-as-it-would-ever-be. Other thoughts circled around, about getting older, about my losing my health, mobility and vitality.
And the signs were certainly there. My weight and pant size had already started creeping up over the last couple of years.
I wasn't obviously overweight, don't get me wrong. Most people would have considered my weight quite normal, perhaps even slim when compared to most of society.
But the trend in measurements suggested that my future would involve an ever-increasing waistline, with the eventual addition of tent-like shirts, feebly trying to conceal the obvious.
Yep, the coming years would see me getting rounder, wrinklier and unhealthier. Not paler though, that wouldn't be possible. This bun could never be baked, my genes won't allow for it.
Middle-age is looming - let's set a crazy goal!
To my credit though, I did realise that being middle-aged didn't mean it's game over yet. Perhaps I could still steer this ship around, if I just put my mind to it.
I won't ever become that tasty, handsome dish that turns heads, but perhaps I could aim for a relatively healthy, strong, utilitarian body? Like Sean Connery(RIP) in those first James Bond films. Old-school fit.
And with that musing, on the eve of my biological new year, I made the resolution to give it one last, genuine shot.
I would do my best to attempt a solid, last-ditch effort in getting my stomach flat. My goal is cultivating an appearance that I won't necessarily want to show off, but that I'd at least not feel the need to cover up and hide.
The idea is too sport, by the end of this year or early the next, a completely flat stomach without having to suck it in. And I would endeavour to keep it that way, perpetually, for the foreseeable future.
This will be hard, and I know it. I've been down this road before. Though I was comfortable plump my whole life, I am no stranger to diets and exercise. I know them well.
The revolving door of fad diets
In fact, I've tried almost every diet you can think of - keto, vegetarian, calorie counting, Fit-For-Life, caveman, paleo diet, slow carb... you name it, I probably tried it. And I've had various levels of success, but none left me with consistent, long-lasting results. Never mind washboard abs.
At best I'd maybe lose a couple of kilos, hit the inevitable plateau, and then give up out of frustration and resentment. Or I'd start feeling feeble and sick, suffer from weak concentration, or just feel generally miserable.
There was also the issue of inevitable birthdays and celebrations interfering, where I didn't want to be a party-pooper, or deny myself life's simple pleasures either, but which then would usually result in me falling off the bus.
And the cheat days too. Not often, maybe once or twice on weekends. Those, I told myself, would be needed to keep myself sane and motivated, to keep the cravings at bay. But they were a trap. Cheat day's may not add more weight, but they certainly stop any progress dead in its tracks.
Then there's exercise. Although my foray into the myriad of options available were not as extensive as with diets(due to some personal health limitations), my results - or lack thereof - were similar.
I tried to do some form of exercise at least 3 times a week. These included rollerblading with the wife, bodyweight routines, weight lifting, martial arts, walks and even the infernal torture that is running.
Exercise seemed to have some effect on sharpening my curves, but had no measurable effect on the scale.
Safe to say, it was pretty daunting to decide to commit to yet another version of this whole rigmarole again. When you feel you've tried everything before, you're skeptical this time would be different. Which diet would I be following this time, which training schedule?
I could feel that "it's just genetics" excuse looming just behind my shoulder, smugly waiting to tell me, "I told you so. It's pointless."
But this is what I wanted to do, so I decided to break it down and approach it from first principles, or at the very least keep it dead simple.
Best way of losing weight? Science, simplicity, patience and discipline
First principles suggested I stop faffing around with diets that operate on clever narratives, assumptions and "magic" rules, and just look at what the science said. And the science was pretty consistent - calories matter above all else.
The majority of studies suggested that for most people, the amount of calories consumed determines your weight. Hormonal factors exist, but they're either negligible or applicable to a very, very, VERY small part of the population. You're likely not it.
Exercise does help, but in the modern world with its convenient packaged foods one can easily consume way more calories in a single day than you could realistically burn off in a week of exercising. And if you're not cognisant of the calories in your meals and snacks, you won't even know it when you're over-consuming.
Now, of course I've tried calorie counting before, and it worked alright, but still lead to the inevitable plateau and quit cycle. This was something I'd need to be mindful of. I'd need to be strict to the max.
I decided that this time I was going to be extremely disciplined and committed. The only bending of rules would be cheat meals(not days) on birthdays or other rare and special occasions. Not weekly, like I weaselled about with before. No other cheating would be tolerated at all.
And for exercise it would be just as simple. I would do weight training 3x a week, ala Starting Strength, because it's the only form of exercise I actually enjoy doing. That's it. Beyond that would just be whatever recreational activities we did with friends over weekends.
Calories - energy in, energy out
I'm not going to give you a lecture on calories and the intricacies behind their workings in this post, you can look it up yourself.
The only thing you need to know to successfully lose weight is that you need to consume less calories than your body requires to maintain its current weight. That's it. And, of course, you need to muster the discipline or come up with hacks to stick to it.
"Not all calories are equal!", I hear some of you seethe, and yes, I've considered that too. I took it into account for this experiment as well. It will be addressed below.
5 Steps - calculate, adjust, simplify, measure, patience
Calculate - Google and find a free calorie calculator online, enter your particular details, and calculate the amount of daily calories you need to maintain your current weight.
Adjust - To lose weight you need to reduce the amount of daily calories you consume. Take the amount you've calculated above and just consume less calories than that every day.
How much less? That depends on how much you have to lose. If you're very overweight or obese, you could probably start cutting by 1000 calories per day. If you're just a little pudgy, you can cut by 500 per day.
DO NOT CUT TOO MORE THAN THAT HOWEVER, IT WILL BE TOO HARD AND YOU WILL GIVE UP. Be reasonable and go easy on yourself, otherwise you'll be miserable and it won't be sustainable.
Simplify - Now here's where "Not all calories are equal!" come in. I'm no dietician and have no idea how cells metabolise the different macronutrients in the body, so I decided to just keep it simple. Only eat stuff in the form nature supplied it to you.
Fancy, combination foods, like baked goods, could have different amounts of different ingredients depending on how they were made. It makes it very hard to know exactly how much calories you are consuming.
I only eat foods that don't require complicated processes to cook, and that would have well-known and consistent calorie counts. Thus only vegetables, fruit, lean meats and eggs, all seasoned with herbs and salt only - not sauces and very little oils.
Diet drinks and fat free yogurt are fine for those sweet-tooth cravings. And some casein protein powder here and there is OK too, because the ingredients should be constant and reliable.
Measure - Everything I consumed would be added to the calorie counting app MyFitnessPal to make sure I stick to my calorie budget. EVERYTHING.
No sneaking things in because they are "small", "healthy" or "natural". If it went in my mouth and it wasn't water, had zero calories, or was black coffee, in the app it goes. You need to constantly measure to keep yourself honest. It's so easy to underestimate how much you consume.
Also, weigh yourself(and record the results) on regular intervals. Do it in the morning, right after getting up and using the bathroom, but before consuming anything else, including water. This will ensure consistency and show you if something in your process is off.
Patience - This part is very important and where most fail. You need to be patient.
Your body is not a machine, it's a biological entity that will deliver seemingly weird, unpredictable results. Your weight-loss will NOT be consistent every day. Some days will see a large drop in weight, some days nothing. Overall it will be slow going. Realise and accept this.
For instance, a cut of 500 Cals a day will result in roughly 500g/1lbs lost each week, maybe more if you're genetically lucky.
Your weight might vary a lot on a daily basis, or stay frustratingly constant for days on end. This is normal too. To get past the mental anguish that this can induce, just weigh yourself weekly. Or weight daily but then calculate an average weekly amount for consideration.
If you plateau for more than 2-3 weeks, check your diet again, something might be wrong. If you're sure your diet is 100% right, try cutting with a further 80 - 100 cals per day(no more!) and see what happens a week later. That should sort it.
That's it. That's what's been working for me!
I'm not ready to go shirtless just yet, but the progress I've made so far was way past my wildest dreams. And soon, hopefully in a month or two, I think I'll feel comfortable enough to share a shirtless photo with the world. For the first time since I was a kid.
This would be a big move for me so please wish me luck.
Got a question of comment, follow and DM me on Twitter, @RikNieu!