My eating habits and weight loss experiment
Update 2022-09: I’ve updated this article with some lessons along the way and a few new rules. The quick summary is that I haven’t been doing great. My cat died and totally derailed me. I’ve suffered a few injuries and got COVID. And just generally was overambitious and tried all the rules at the same time, when just perfecting one rule would have been enough.
As promised, I’m beginning my life experiments series and using myself as the guinea pig. My first experiment will be about a topic that seems commonplace: how to lose weight. Losing weight doesn’t seem like rocket science. Isn’t it a simple matter of eating less and exercising more? Since most people struggle with losing weight, I’m going to say, “No, it’s not as simple as calories in versus calories out.”
In this experiment, I will explore how to lose weight by actually doing nothing. I won’t tell myself what to eat or how much to eat. I won’t add in hours of exercise every day to offset my calories. I’ll still have treats. Perhaps the only thing I will actively be doing is being mindful of what I eat. I could call this the Mindfulness Diet, but that doesn’t sound nearly as much fun as the Do-Nothing Diet. Besides, I actually want to turn this all into a habit, so I don’t even have to think about it. I literally want to do nothing.
First off, a caveat: Even though I have read a pile of nutrition books, I’m not an expert, and I’m not giving advice; however, I will be sharing the advice that I am giving myself and putting to the test. This article is also the beginning of a larger idea about how to optimize life. There is a hidden thread in this article — Can you find it? — that I will reveal later.
The basic idea: A mindfulness diet put on automatic.
If I were to write a diet book, I would call it “The Do-Nothing Diet” with the tagline “Lose weight by doing absolutely nothing!” Who wouldn’t want to read that book?
This idea may sound ludicrous, but one of my biggest life goals, whether work, exercise, diet or education, is to make it part of a lifelong enjoyable lifestyle. There is no way I am giving up beer or cheese forever. So, I need to find a way to make drinking beer and eating cheese part of a sustainable lifestyle.
Too often, I have set unrealistic goals that eventually lead to a backlash. You’ve probably heard of yo-yo diets backfiring. Did you ever see that show The Biggest Loser? Most of them are worse off than when they started. See the chart in this famous New York Times article. Yo-yo exercising can be even worse. Like when I started jogging. Instead of starting at a leisurely, enjoyable pace, I decided to jog until I was exhausted. To me, being exhausted was a sign of a good workout. But I injured my ankle. So, instead of getting fit and losing weight, I couldn’t walk and gained weight. Even years later, my ankle still bothers me.
So, those become the basic tenets of the Do-Nothing Diet: do NOT diet and do NOT overexercise. In this case, diet means restricting calories. (Nutrition is a separate matter.) It especially means don’t starve myself. I have discovered skipping meals always backfires. My experience of cycling around the world has taught me that I can lose weight by actually eating more. In that case, of course, I was exercising like a madman. In this case, I think it is possible to lose weight and still eat the same food but eat it differently. For example, eat slower and enjoy my food. Another rule that I love is: Eat bad food with your left hand. It really makes eating a bag of chips frustrating.
I’ve been testing these ideas and more, and they are working! Now, it’s time to go big.
My weight-loss struggle
For the record, I was, as my doctor described, beyond an ultra-endurance athlete. I could ride a fully-loaded bicycle 100 miles in a day, sometimes day after day. But it all depended on the terrain and weather. My goal usually was only 50 miles, and my most challenging day ever was only a couple of miles. What I’m trying to say is a couple of things:
- My body seems to be very efficient. That includes gaining weight, too. I needed to consume, digest and store huge amounts of energy to power that bike
- I got tired and bored of grinding out the miles. So, my physical activity has declined.
- I wore out my body, and since then, I have been paying the price with nagging injuries. And, perhaps my metabolism has changed.
If I would have spread out all that exercise over my whole life, I would be quite fit. I don’t think I got lazy, but I don’t want to torture myself anymore. And, honestly, I’m scared of riding my bicycle in Cincinnati. Also, I’m just exhausted at the end of my workday. It is said that thinking burns more calories than jogging! So, it seems I am still doing marathon days just sitting here writing stories. Worse yet, I have had one injury after another. Talk about demotivating. So, I need to begin another journey back to fitness. I haven’t admitted it yet, because frankly, it’s embarrassing to have been at peak performance level, like an Olympic athlete, and now be below average. However, I have noticed that a lot of athletes age poorly. It’s hard on the body! If I ever meet Nietzsche in the afterlife, I’ll tell him he was wrong about this one: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
For now, I’m going to skip the current fat Scott picture and leave you with this old fat Scott picture. I vowed I’d never get fat again. But here I am. Life. Ugh! :(
Taking the die out of diet
Developing good eating habits
I’ve been collecting these ideas since at least 2007. In fact, in 2009, I shared them with my dad. Back then, I called it “Taking the die out of diet.” My dad went on to lose over 100 pounds and keep it off! He didn’t follow my guidelines, but I like to think it was a good inspiration. He actually followed a diet and exercise plan that he created after reading dozens of books and watching hundreds of hours of videos. (See the picture at the top.) He came to the conclusion that no one understands nutrition. How could they? Every book was different. And every body is different.
So, if nutrition is at best an individual matter, is there a way to lose weight — Should I say, get in shape? — without focusing on what you eat or overexercising? My answer is yes. Rather than focus on what I eat, I am just going to focus on how I eat. Recently, this concept seems to have entered the mainstream consciousness. Some call it eating habits, intuitive eating or mindful eating. It’s one of the better ideas to go viral.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not planning on eating garbage. I understand the basics of nutrition. And, I like to grow my own food. Sometimes I trade it with my neighbors for their homegrown chicken eggs or honey. But I do love my treats. And I tend to overeat. My body seems to think I am still riding a bicycle. Or at least, it wants me to ride a bicycle.
I think the hard part will be making all this stuff a habit. In part, that is why I am running the experiment. And I am stating my intentions out loud so that I can be held accountable. Embarrassment is a terrible punishment. It also gives me a reason to refine my list and improve my ideas. Please, leave a comment below with comments or criticisms.
The Do-Nothing Diet rules
This post could be a book long if I were to explain everything in scientificky language. (Besides, after my posts on oxygen, I’m exhausted explaining things.) For now, I’ll give my top rules and a brief explanation. If you find any of them interesting, a quick search online will reveal a lot more information. If I’m successful at following these rules, I will add more to the list and explain more. None of this stuff is rocket science, but how often do I do it? Not enough, obviously.
You may be asking yourself, “How many rules do I need to follow?” The answer is just one rule. Yep! Following any one of these rules will change your life. Maybe not in a huge way, but it will change. So, just try to perfect one. If you can, come back and try another. If you try to do all these at the same time, you will break rule number one: Do NOT stress.
Update: I’ve moved a few rules. And, I put this one at the top because, in the last year, I let stress get the better of me and used food as a type of fattening anti-depressant. Realizing my challenge is fundamentally mental, I need to start with what happens before the food even gets in my mouth. Thus the first four rules.
The Do-Nothing Diet rules
- Do NOT stress.
- Do NOT starve!
- Drink a lot of water.
- Say grace.
- “Taste” with your nose first.
- Forks before knives.
- Chew! Chew! Chew!
- Enjoy your food guilt-free.
- Eat bad food with your left hand.
- Put the spoon down between bites.
- Put the glass down between sips.
- Pause and ask, “Am I hungry?”
- Use a small plate.
1) Do NOT stress.
The concept of dieting is stressful all by itself, like thinking, “Oh no, I can never drink a beer again.” And, that thought can actually cause you to gain weight. Yes, a cruel irony of life is that the harder you try, the worse you do. Stress floods the body with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and they wreak havoc on your metabolism. When you are feeling stressed, you are basically in fight-or-flight mode. So, once again, the body will go into emergency survival mode. Another cruel irony of life is that the body will often use muscle rather than fat as its fuel, especially if you are under stress. It’s easier and faster to metabolize protein.
I know that telling myself “Don’t stress” is easier said than done, but on the Do-Nothing Diet, one of my goals is to do nothing by relaxing. I also plan to have some treats. I don’t want to binge. But having some comfort food every once in a while tells my body. “Hey, don’t worry.”
2) Do NOT starve!
In other words, do NOT diet. As I mentioned in the introduction, when I say “diet,” I mean restricting calories. Again, my goal is to lose weight by establishing enjoyable lifelong eating habits. Restricting calories has never worked for me. Besides, it takes the joy out of life.
More importantly, I believe my body is smarter than I am, and eventually, it will rebel. My body will think it is dying — stuck in a famine without end — and go into emergency survival mode. And one of the things a body does to survive is gain weight. Think of the fat around your belly like your emergency food supply. Besides, just because I reach my target weight doesn’t mean I’ll be healthy. You can still be skinny and fat!
Another risk is malnourishment. I think a lot of hunger is caused not by missing calories but by a missing vitamin or mineral. So, by listening to my body and playing by its rules, I will be preempting any bad cravings. Also helpful to preempt cravings is to eat a wide variety of colorful foods.
3) Drink a lot of water, especially ice water.
Water contains a lot of dissolved minerals. If your body is missing any of those, it gets hungry. Water is also essential to keep your metabolism running, like oil in a car. Now, throw some ice cubes in it and — voila — I’ll get a free workout as my body warms the water.
Drinking water throughout the day is a great way to stop those cravings.
4) Say grace.
This is the first step before putting any food in your mouth. Saying grace or being grateful for my food makes me feel connected to my body, the food and where it comes from in the world. It slows me down and makes me question what I am putting in my mouth.
By the way, did you notice the first 3 rules are all before the food even gets in my mouth?
5) “Taste” with your nose first.
In other words, smell my food. This is something I don’t do intentionally, yet flavor is inspired by smell. Maybe smelling my food will make my meals seem more satisfying. When I was in art school, we actually said that we taste with our eyes first. It’s the art of plating your food.
6) Forks before knives. (Eat your veggies first.)
How many times have I been to a restaurant, and before the main course arrives, I’ve already ate and drank an entire day’s worth of calories in appetizers? (In fact, I just did this yesterday.) Wouldn’t it make more sense to fill up on veggies before dessert? And, wouldn’t the veggies be more satisfying and curb my appetite? Most nutritionists seem to agree we all need more vegetables. Eat all the veggies you want.
7) Chew! Chew! Chew!
In other words, eat slow and give my body time to digest. Twenty minutes is how long it takes for the brain to recognize it is full. So, if I can take 20 minutes to eat my meal, rather than the 10 minutes it usually takes, maybe I will feel satisfied with only half the amount. A health nut once told me, “Chew your water. Drink your food.”
And isn’t part of the fun of eating the chewing and the crunch? Have you ever gone wine tasting and spit your wine out? Same flavor but no fun!
8) Enjoy your food guilt-free.
I can’t tell you how many times I drank a beer and didn’t even notice, or ate an extra helping without thinking, or demolished a bowl of potato chips while talking to a friend. So, if I want a beer or dessert, I’ll get the best one I can afford and go all-in on the enjoyment. The guilt-free part of the rule is to remind myself not to stress.
This idea has a lot to do with making conscious choices. It’s a great way to chip away at your bad habits, too. I recommend saying to yourself, “I choose this bad thing because…” Add as many consequences and benefits to your statement as you can think of.
9) Eat bad food with your left hand.
As mentioned, this is my favorite rule. One of my biggest challenges is not paying attention to what I’m eating. I have been experimenting with eating bad food with my non-dominate hand for a long time. It can be very frustrating to get those chips in my mouth. Not only does this slow me down, but following this simple rule has turned every mouthful into a conscious act.
As if it wasn’t hard enough to follow these seven rules, I’m going to add some more. Maybe one of them will stick. So far, my favorite is still “Eat bad food with my left hand.”
10) Put the spoon down between bites.
This is a simple rule to help slow me down and be mindful of what I am doing. It also helps my body digest food. Different foods require your body to produce different types of digestive enzymes, which takes time.
11) Put the glass down between sips.
This is essentially the same as the previous rule, but it still beers mentioning. (Haha. A little pun.) For that matter, put down anything in your hands between bites.
12) Pause and ask, “Am I hungry?”
A lot of the previous rules are all meant to slow myself down. This rule is a way to try and separate the pleasure of eating from the function of eating. Do I really need this? Or, do I just want this?
13) Use a small plate.
Don’t supersize your meals and, as a consequence, yourself. Do the opposite. Try portion control. You can think of a portion of food as one handful. That makes sense, right? If you were a hunter-gatherer, before dishes were invented, that’s all the food you could take.
One simple thing you can do is buy smaller dishes that only hold three portions maximum. One for carbs. One for veggies. And one for protein. I love this rule because once those dishes are in the cabinet, I no longer have to think about portion control — my dishes do the work for me. And, I’m not really sacrificing anything because I know I can always have seconds.
This is simple. Pick one rule and perfect it. That is all you need to change your life for the better. Don’t do what I did and try them all at once. If you succeed at one rule, come back and try another.
So far, this is all obvious stuff, but I’ve selected things that are about how to eat, not what to eat. In a way, I am doing nothing. I am not telling myself what I can and can’t eat. I am not restricting my calories or any type of food. I am not adding an hour of exercise to my day. And I am not preventing myself from having any fun. I still get to do all the things I usually do. The only thing I am doing, perhaps, is being mindful of the act of eating.
Sounds simple so far, right? I have a lot more rules. More importantly, can I make these a habit? I’ll start with these and see how it goes. The first step: transfer all my rules to a sticky note to read before every meal. In about a month, I’ll check back in and let you know if that scale moved.
Update: If you got this far, you got the gist of the Do-Nothing Diet. If you would like to read more about my own journey, you can read about my first stumbling block when my cat died: Sacrificing physical health for mental health.