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How Quantifying My Life Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds in the Last Year

By Will Smith

It's a common story. You leave college, get a job, and suddenly you look up and you've gained 50 pounds.

It happened so slowly, it was easy to miss. Over the last thirteen years, I'd gained between two and five pounds a year. My pants kept getting tighter and I went from slim cut jeans to a balloon seat. At one point last year, I looked up, and I weighed 253 pounds. I'm a tall dude, with a pretty big frame, but I weighed much more than I should and I realized something had to change.

When I bought this jacket in 2001, it was baggy. By 2010, not so much.

It was my own fault. I stopped exercising, got a job that involved sitting on my ass for between 8 and 16 hours a day, and ate a ton of fast food. This isn't rocket science--I was consistently eating more calories than I was burning, and most of it was in the form of really damaging junk food.

The good news is that in the last 12 months, I've lost 40 pounds. Yes, that's probably a week's work on reality TV weight loss shows, but it's attainable and easy to do, if you just pay attention to what you eat.

Figuring Out My Mistakes

Before I started trying to lose weight, I wanted to learn more about what I was actually eating. I started tracking all the food I consumed on a daily basis. At this point I wasn't really interested in cutting calories, I wanted to know what my baseline was--what I was eating to consistently gain 2-5 pounds a year.

I tracked my calories for about three months, which was such a great learning experience that I recommend it for everyone. I used the food tracking tool attached to the Fitbit app, which let me quickly add meals from local restaurants, fast-food places, and chains as well as estimate the calories of dishes I cooked myself, by adding up individual ingredients. I learned that I was eating between 2000-2500 calories most days, with occasional spikes up around 3000 calories. Sure, I'd occasionally down some Ben & Jerry's, but most of what I ate wasn't actually that bad--my portions were just off.

To help reset those portions, I started using our digital kitchen scale to weigh each dish. When I made a peanut butter sandwich, I measured the peanut butter. Eating out was tougher, but after a few months of controlled eating, I was better in tune with my body, and knew when I was full. The upshot is that after a few months of tracking my food, I knew what I could safely eat in massive quantities and what I needed to pay attention to.

At the same time, I was tracking my activity with a Fitbit. My normal activity--sitting at work and writing, walking to and from the train, and walking the dog--burned an average of 2200 calories a day. My average intake was 2000-2500 calories, my average burn was 2200 calories, and suddenly I had clarity and it was time to take action.

I'm not much for fad diets, and I was afraid of the extra salt that's part of a low-carb, high-fat diet. That left me facing the old-fashioned way, by burning more calories than I ate. I'm not interested in doing a ton of exercise, so I needed to bring my average caloric intake down. After talking to my doctor, we decided that based on my usual level of activity, a good goal for consistent weight loss would be to reduce my average intake to between 1500 and 2000 calories a day. On days that I am more active, I eat more. On days that I'm less active, I eat less.

Making Better Decisions

I don't do well with an ascetic lifestyle. In order for weight loss to work for me, I needed to find a way to eat food I love. but learn to eat those foods in appropriate quantities. Three months of religious calorie tracking gave me much better instincts about what foods were high and low calorie, and what the correct portion sizes were. This was the first step.

Next, I started evaluating potential meal options on two axes--how much I liked the food and the relative healthfulness of the meal. Whether I was preparing food for myself or ordering in a restaurant or just snacking, I placed each meal in one of four quadrants--healthy & enjoyable, healthy & not enjoyable, unhealthy & enjoyable, and unhealthy & not enjoyable.

When I started thinking about meals this way, I realized a couple of things. I was already eating a fair amount of food that fit in the healthy & enjoyable quadrant, and I didn't eat too much from the healthy & not enjoyable sector. What stood out was that most of my lunches fit squarely in the unhealthy & not enjoyable quadrant. My highest-calorie meals were at lunch, and I wasn't particularly fond of any of them. For example, the burrito place by my office is pretty good, but it isn't the best burrito I've ever eaten, and it certainly wasn't worth blowing two-thirds of my daily caloric allotment on.

With this information in mind, my goal was to replace the unhealthy options I didn't particularly enjoy with healthier food that also happened to be tasty. I replaced the carbohydrate-rich snack food I typically kept around the house with Greek yogurt, nuts, and protein bars--and kept some popcorn to serve as a not-too-bad snack. I found a few default options for breakfast and lunch that I like enough to eat frequently, but that fit in a calorie budget that allows me to eat whatever I want for dinner.

This approach lets me keep eating the unhealthy foods I love in moderation, while still keeping on a general weight loss trend. If I eat 750 calories for breakfast and lunch, I still have another 1000 calories for dinner, a drink or two, or dessert. This means I never stopped eating pizza, enjoying a burger and fries, eating dessert, enjoying a bite of chocolate, drinking beers, and all the other things that make you gain weight. I just don't eat something bad unless I make a conscious decision to enjoy it.

Slow Down

The last bit of advice I'll give is to slow down when you're eating. There's been a ton of research that indicates if you eat too fast, your stomach can't register that it's full until you've already gorged yourself. I find it's good to have a conversation during dinner, but if you don't want to do that, just eat half your plate, do something else for a bit, and only eat that other half if you are still hungry ten or fifteen minutes later.

Slowing down helped me quit gorging myself, which was the most difficult part of the process. Instead of eating half a pint of ice cream, I'll have a scoop or two. Instead of eating a 300 calorie candy bar, I'll eat a 60 calorie square of a much tastier chocolate.

Finally, I had to realize that this was going to be a slow process. It took me twelve years to gain the weight--if it took a year or two to peel it off, I’m OK with that. I weigh myself more or less every week, and my goal is just to drop a pound or two each time I weigh in—if I gained a pound or two each year, taking that off in a couple of weeks is an accomplishment. I don't stress out about it either way. During the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years holiday season, it's tough to lose weight. There's great food everywhere, there's always too much of it, and I enjoy that stuff too much to skip it.

That’s pretty much it. I’m down 40 pounds and have about 30 pounds left to go. What do you do to maintain a healthy weight?