(Note: the following is *not* health or fitness advice. It is simply my personal account of how I lost extra weight. You should consult your physician before starting any weight loss or exercise program.)
Earlier this year, I got a kick out of the fitness boost I got from interval training and decided to incorporate it into multiple runs each week. This was a terrible idea because after months of running too intensely, I injured my right hamstring and was forced to stop running for months.
I was fitter than ever at the time of injury. I burned so many calories—or, so I thought—in the months leading up to the injury that I felt justified increasing my calorie intake to “maintain” my weight. (In reality, like many of us, I just liked to eat, so I came up with excuses to do so. I’m reminded of a severely obese college roommate who enrolled in a jogging class and rewarded himself after each run with a large shake–containing more than a day’s worth of calories–from Smoothie King.) I became used to a higher-calorie diet.
After the injury, I switched to cycling but didn’t change my diet. (It’s more difficult to burn as many calories cycling as running.) A few months later, at my yearly physical, I saw that I weighed much more than I had ever weighed in my life! (I’m convinced it was mostly fat weight because I paradoxically felt weaker over the prior few months despite strength training at least 3 days weekly. My pants fit more tightly and my belt reached its final eyelet.)
By the standard body mass index (BMI) calculation, my weight was still within the “normal” range. My family, friends, and coworkers also thought I was of normal weight. They didn’t understand why I thought I had a problem. Did I have body dysmorphic disorder, perhaps?
However, Asians and Middle-Easterners have higher levels of body fat, a propensity for central obesity, and are at significantly higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other serious chronic illnesses related to weight gain, so a different BMI calculation, called the “South Asian BMI,” should be used for them. According to my South Asian BMI, I was overweight. What’s more, despite being fitter than ever, my hemoglobin A1c (a long-term measure of serum glucose levels), while still within the normal range, was higher than it was the previous year!
So, like many other Americans, I was both fit and fat, and I had just discovered that I can’t outrun a bad diet. (Calorie restriction is much more effective than exercise for weight loss.) In America, we have an abundance of highly-processed, low-quality, easily-absorbed calories. Sugar is the new tobacco. We also don’t get enough sleep, which makes us crave fat and sugar.
I immediately cut out all stress-related and other surplus calorie intake. This was difficult for the first two weeks; my thoughts repeatedly returned to food during this time. After I became used to it, though, I was surprised by how infrequently I became hungry and by my enhanced focus on more important matters. I refused high-glycemic treats brought over by drug reps at work. I cut out eggs, decreased meat intake, started eating steel-cut oats* for breakfast, then switched to whole oat groats with mixed nuts and frozen blueberries. I massively improved sleep quality by using blackout curtains at home and an eye mask during travel. (I also benefit greatly from wearing soft foam earplugs during sleep.) Also, and this is of critical importance, I bought a reliable scale and got back into the habit of weighing myself several times a week.
Two months later, despite working out less intensely than before the injury, I was thirteen pounds lighter (fifteen by now!), well within the normal South Asian BMI range, and had returned to my pre-fellowship weight.
I feel much better.
Update 1/3/16: I continued to lose weight until I dropped a total of 20-22 lbs. Any more weight loss would threaten to make me underweight. I’ve remained at this optimal weight by avoiding large amounts of refined or high-glycemic carbohydrates, by limiting total daily calorie intake to a normal amount for my size, by weighing myself several times a week, and by continuing to exercise regularly.
Update 7/4/16: Probably because of calorie creep, my weight slowly increases if I don’t practice intermittent fasting. By skipping just one or two meals a week, my weight stays at goal.
Update 1/2/17: With the above strategy + intermittent fasting (see follow-up blog post here), I’ve remained > 20 lbs lighter–steady at ~23 lbs over the past few months–without any swings in weight at all.
*I was first introduced to steel-cut oats in the early 2000s upon reading Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Walter Willett. That book changed the entire way I thought about food and health. However, I didn’t make a regular habit of eating unrefined oatmeal for breakfast until this year!