Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Successful Dieting: Report from a Sample Size of One

I have been somewhat overweight for a long time. In recent months, for the first time I can remember, I have succeeded in losing quite a lot of weight—something over twenty pounds—by dieting. The methods that turned out to work for me may work for some other people, although surely not all, so I thought it was worth describing them.

The diet started when my wife was out of town for over a month taking care of her mother, who had broken her arm and needed assistance. The reason that made it easier was not the difference between her cooking and mine—I am an adequate cook. It was the fact that eating is in part a social activity. Her absence made it much easier for me to skip meals. 

I have the good fortune to possess a metabolism that is not bothered by skipping meals; I can fast until dinner time without serious discomfort or other negative consequences. So one part of my diet, then and thereafter, was to limit myself to one meal a day, with only a little nibbling at other times. Usually the meal was dinner. Occasionally there was a lunchtime talk on campus with lunch provided, in which case I would make that my one meal and only have a light snack in the evening.

Another part of the diet was finding low calorie food I liked. That largely consisted of fruit salads, using fat-free cottage cheese, yogurt, or mayonnaise, all three of which taste pretty good and are quite low in calories. For snacks, the best solution was kimchee, the highly spiced Korean pickled cabbage which, I concluded, has the highest ratio of taste to calories of any food known to man. I also indulged in an occasional pummelo, the ancestor of the grapefruit, a fruit I had recently discovered and found to be quite tasty.

The final factor was feedback. I got a digital scale, put it in the bathroom, and weighed myself several times a day. Partly that was curiosity, seeing how my weight varied over the course of a day. The range was surprisingly large, typically including a drop of three pounds or so between immediately after dinner and the next morning. But the continual feedback also encouraged me to push my weight lower and warned me when a temporary deviation was letting it come back up.

The most discouraging part of the process occurred after I had reached my initial target, tried to return to something closer to my usual eating pattern of a light lunch plus a substantial dinner, and found that my weight was going back up. So I went back on the diet. I have yet to determine what pattern I need to follow in order to maintain a roughly constant weight, or whether the answer will change once my body has adjusted to its new level.

Recently I was invited to a black tie event, the first such I can  remember attending. In my closet was a very good suit that my parents bought me decades ago for such purposes, and that I had not worn—could not wear—for a very long time. The pants still did not fit, but they were a lot closer to fitting than they had been a few months earlier; I wore a less fancy suit to the event instead. 

I figure that when I can get into those pants, my diet will be done.


aSalviaDiviner said...

Ever wonder why the more "they" push low fat and high grain diets the more we get obese and unhealthy?

Reading this literally saved my life and, I'll admit, made me feel a bit dumb for not seeing the obvious.


Anonymous said...

Your diet is similar to Marilyn vos Savant's diet, which involves eating only one significant meal a day. Her diet may be a bit more stringent, though: no snacking. On the other hand, by budgeting her calories, she leaves room for one dessert a day, whereas I didn't notice you mention dessert at all.

bile said...

I've had the 1 meal a day diet + snacking for 15ish years. In part because when I was younger I became sick with salmonella and have had a rather suppressed appetite ever since. While many feel I'm too thin... and it's a bit odd... I find the diet works well for me... and a good way to save on groceries :)

Anonymous said...

I've been on a high fat-high protein Atkins-style diet for 7 months and have lost 27 kgm or about 60 pounds. The difficulty I find is that I still feel the pressure to over-eat - its an ongoing struggle. The body seems to continue to rebel!

I think many diets work short to medium term but I am interested in longer-term issues. Will-power is a depletable resource according to psychologists like Burmeister and the ongoing effort is difficult. HC

Anyway good luck David.

AMW said...

I figure that when I can get into those pants, my diet will be done.

And shortly thereafter you'll find that you can't fit into them anymore. Any diet you can't follow for life is one you probably shouldn't start.

AMW said...

By the way, keeping track of your weight is an interesting exercise. For about the last 8 years I've been weighing myself on a weekly basis (missing about 1 week in 5) and recording it in a spreadsheet.

Looking back at the data I can see major life events - the birth of a child, moving out of state, etc. - reflected in significant weight gain. These are followed by periods of significant weight loss.

The pattern seems to be that some exogenous shock will disrupt my healthier eating/exercise habits, and I find myself in an equilibrium of sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy foods. Then I start noticing what I look like in pictures, my vanity finally takes hold of me, and I push myself into a new equilibrium of healthy foods and exercise.

I've gone through 4 or 5 cycles like this (involving 15 - 20 lbs each) since 2004.

Anonymous said...

N = 1, but if you are anything like me, you are highly likely to fail shortly after you reach your goal.

I didn't get sustainable weight loss until I went low carb and discovered sugar alcohols (e.g. Truvia)

You are assuming that your system treats all calories as equal when it probably does not. See Gary Taubes, Atkins or Paleo diet for some background.

Best wishes in your challenge!!

dWj said...

My wife had a lot of success drinking lots of water and eating small meals (say 2 oz of lean meat and veggies, with half a cup of brown rice on alternate meals) throughout the day with no sugar and no salt. She also did a lot of exercise on an elliptical, where she could read at the same time. She got this from a book by Michael Thurmond, and lost about 15 pounds in four weeks and a few more pounds over the next month or two; it didn't come back until she got pregnant three years later.

Anonymous said...

It's awesome that you were able to find a system that you were comfortable with and one that had positive results.

Counting calories using a free online service has worked well for me. I use myfitnesspal.com because it has a significant food database. It doesn't always have the exact food I've eaten but it always has a suitable substitute, or at the very least, the individual ingredients. It also has a decent phone app that has an integrated bar code reader for packaged foods.

That all being said, as valuable counting calories every day can be, I've found it highly rewarding to blow my daily calorie allotment out of the water about once or twice a week. We only live once, and going too easy on the good food just doesn't seem like living.

Anonymous said...

If you revert to your former eating habits, your body will revert to its former weight and slow weight gain trajectory. I add my voice to the low carb, Paleo, LCHF, whateverwe call it today. In my N=1, proteins and fats are satiating and tend not to build body fat, whereas carbs are not so satiating, and do tend to build body fat. Seven years and minus forty pounds I have never counted a calorie, never gone hungry, still wearing the slim clothes.

eccdogg said...

To me many many types of diets can be effective, but the discipline of weighing yourself every day and understanding that it ultimately is a simple equation of calories in vs calories used seems to be the key.

I have lost about 30 pounds over the last 2 years or so and have been in maintenance mode for a while. I have generally changed my lifestyle, but do hot adhere to a strict diet every day. If after a few days of eating bad I notice the weight tick up on the scale I cut back for a few days till I am at my target.

I find this method to be very flexible because I can take a break from dieting some and then correct later.

daryl jensen said...

You should seriously consider checking out http://www.marksdailyapple.com.

Paul said...

Have you done anything to avoid losing muscle mass while dieting? If not, then part of your weight loss will be muscle loss. The proportion of muscle loss may be substantial if you did not attempt to preserve muscle.

Until you put the muscle back on, this will reduce your basal metabolic rate, meaning that you will not be able to maintain your current weight unless you keep your calorie reduction below your old equilibrium.

Losing weight is much more sustainable if you maintain or better yet increase your muscle mass concurrently.

Anonymous said...

Paul nailed it. To have equilibrium at a lower weight level you need one of three things. A) permanently reduce calorie intake B) get a higher muscle to fat ratio C) increase your activity level. A temporary diet only makes sense as part of a strategy in category B, and usually also involves workkng out to increase your muscle mass.

Anonymous said...

The other way to reduce your equilibrium weight is through Seth Robert's Shangri-La Diet. I'm sure you've heard of him (Marginalrevolution had a blurb about him). It's about as simple as diets get. His web site explains all this, and he's also into n=1 self-experimentation that you allude to.

Russell said...

there are a few certainties in life; death, taxes, and if you post something online about your diet, lots of people telling you another (better?) way to do it.

Anonymous said...

I have had opposite experience. Being a little underweight, trying to go to something more bulky, and succeeding. This is surprisingly difficult if you are in the unlucky position (some might say lucky - they are wrong) of needing to do it.

Feedback is good. But the most important thing is to set a calorie limit and stick to it. It isn't totally irrelevant what foods you eat, but it's much much less important than to stick to a calorie count.

And yes, your diet is never 'done'. You will have to permanently live at the lower calorie intake.

You are a physicist, so I'm sure you see it's basically an energy in vs energy out problem. If you have a surplus, your body will store some for later. If a deficit, your body will consume some to make up the difference. At any given intake your body's size (and hence energy requirement) will change until it reaches a steady state.

Allan Walstad said...

My diet started when I ripped out a button trying to get into a pair of khakis. Now I can wear those and all the jeans that were too small. Saving a lot of money.

Anonymous said...

I second daryl jensen recommendation for marksdailyapple.com.

But more importantly, you need to view weight loss not as a temporary diet change, but as a permanent lifestyle change.

I don't necessarily agree with the theory behind the paleo diet, but I am without a doubt sold on it's results.

Jayson Virissimo said...

I recently did my own n=1 experiment which has changed my mind about the calories-in calories-out hypothesis (I now think it very improbable, whereas before I thought it was basic physics). You can find my results here: http://jayquantified.blogspot.com/2012/02/does-paleo-diet-work-part-1.html?m=1 . I originally planned to test out 4 or 5 different diets, but my health showed such an improvement that I decided to just stick with it.

Anonymous said...

Simply cutting out processed carbs (switching mostly to whole grains) did the trick for me. Lost 15 lbs. in 6 weeks.

EconTiger said...

I third the recommendation for marksdailyapple.com which has worked for me personally in body fat loss, muscle gain, and general health.

Additionally, I found even better results using the Leptin Reset from jackkruse.com. It uses marksdailyapple.com's Primal Lifestyle as a base but has some additional cutting edge research-based techniques that have been very successful for many people on the boards who tried it. My hunger more or less went away after two days on it and I rapidly lost body fat.

The approach you have described has some great features such as fasting , but long term it is unlikely to work for you. This is because cutting calories while maintaining a high percentage of carbs will nearly always result in problems with metabolism over time. In the short run (first 1-3 months), you see rapid weight loss, as the caloric deficit outweighs the speed your metabolism slows down, but over a year you will most likely regain the weight and more as the equation shifts against you.

Anonymous said...

I hope you are still doing the one meal a day lifestyle (intermittent fasting). I am sure by now you have done some research and have discovered it is a healthy lifestyle unless fasting on junk.

One meal a day takes off the weight and keeps you slim forever. Once you have trained the body to eat once a day at X time, there is no hunger until it is time to eat.

I will never diet with all the calorie counting, carb counting, and other diet slavery.