I'm an American. I grew up in a society largely defined by excess food: fast food, buffets, and events like Thanksgiving were how I experienced a lot of life. The fallout is obvious: Americans are fat. When I traveled abroad, I knew I was in for a world of "lol fat American" jokes, even though I was a pretty skinny person until quite recently. When I watched TV, I knew there would be advertisements for the latest and greatest exercise equipment the world had to offer. There has been a "health food" surge in the last few decades in response to this change, and those products are now advertised everywhere. 10 grams of protein. No carbs. No fat. GMO free. Organic. And, my favorite, "all natural."
And yet, Americans keep getting larger.
Why trust me, an American who's slowly grown larger over time? Because I lost quite a bit of weight recently and kept it off, and physically I'm feeling better than I have in a long time. I want you to feel better, too.
There is no magic fix
Everyone wants to believe they have the answer. We all want to feel smart and all want to know that it isn't our fault. The issue here is that the science of losing weight is stupid easy: eat fewer calories than you burn off. There are some exceptions, but your doctor can tell you if you have to worry about that.
So if you want to lose weight, you either need to eat fewer calories, or burn more calories. You could also do both. Mad TV summed it up pretty well:
Why is this so hard? When you take in too few calories, your body tries to slow down. You're starving and it'll be the one to make sure you last long enough to find the next meal. You'll feel sleepy. Angry. Hormones that are normally well regulated may start leaking out of control. Your muscles will stop producing as much force as they could have. Your libido will disappear. Non-vital systems get deprioritized in the name of keeping you alive.
You'll never enact change if it's not sustainable. That isn't to say a juice cleanse is useless, but you need to have a follow up planned for the end of that extreme. If you just go back to normal, your weight will go back to normal.
People generally say you can lose up to 1% of your body weight per week without too much risk of hurting your body, but that's very aggressive. I've seen people lose 0.5% per week for a whole year with no issues, but I've never seen 1% last for longer than 2 months. Still, 0.5% is a quarter of your body weight in a year. Think of how different you'll look and feel with that kind of weight change.
Be reasonable. Weigh yourself often and realize there are other things affecting your bodyweight than just the food you put down: stress hormones will affect how you hold water, exercise will often add pounds when you first start, and your hydration levels can have a huge impact on the scale. You're looking to be healthier, not just lighter.
This one is surprising to a lot of people, but getting enough sleep is potentially the most important thing to help you lose weight. Some people lose weight just by going to sleep earlier.
The easiest explanation is that you can't eat or drink while you're sleeping. Personally, I'm at my most snack-hungry when I'm tired and at the end of the day. All my willpower is gone and the chocolate or cookies or ice cream is just impossible to say no to. If I had gone to sleep, I may not have had that pantry raid.
But there's also something biological at work. As I mentioned above, when you're losing weight, your body will be extremely unhappy with you. It'll make you hungry and tired. We can't fix the hunger issue here, but we can fix tired by sleeping more. There's also good evidence that not sleeping enough reduces your brain's ability to manage impulses (not unlike being drunk), so you're more likely to snack when you're tired.
You'll be surprised at how much you need to sleep. I've found that when I'm losing weight, I'll sleep at least 9 hours a night. That may sound ridiculous, and it does sometimes feel that way, but you shouldn't believe the Gary Vee's of the world when they tell you not to sleep. The people tasked with pushing their bodies to their limits (professional athletes) often sleep 10 hours a night to keep themselves operating at peak efficiency. You may not be a professional athlete, but you can sleep like one.
Eating less food by volume is often easy. Eating fewer calories is not.
The problem is that tasty foods are generally calorie dense. Fatty foods are tasty, but fat is the most calorie-dense of the 3 macro nutrients. This is why meats that aren't chicken or turkey breast are so calorific. Sugary foods are also tasty, but it's easy to dissolve a ton of sugar into a small object. You may make progress by eating fewer cookies or squares of chocolate, or by swapping your weekly milkshake for an orange juice, but you probably won't make real progress by swapping sugar for slightly less sugar.
I don't have a great solution for you here. You need to find foods that:
- You find tasty
- Take very little effort to make
- Have a low caloric density
- You find satiating (you don't need more food afterwards)
My breakthrough was vegetable soup. I love vegetable soup, and with some lentils in it I find it extremely satiating. Over the winter I would make about a gallon of soup over the course of my Monday and then eat it over the course of the week. Anytime I got hungry, I'd ladle some soup into a bowl and heat it in the microwave. Of course there would be other food, but my primary food was soup.
I don't have a recipe for soup, but I can point you at an excellent video describing the principals of stupidly easy vegetable soup.
You'll need to find something that works for you. Some people can do salad. Some people do intermittent fasting. Some people go keto. In the end, the goal is the same: eat less, without feeling like you're eating less.
Diet alone will get you far, and sleeping enough will help you keep the snacking demons at bay. You may find that this is enough. But some people want to accelerate the process and exercise.
Similar to the food section, there isn't anything specific I can really recommend here. Some people love lifting weights, others like biking, and others like climbing. There is no "best" form of exercise, but I can tell you than any exercise is better than no exercise.
Or is it? When I lift heavy weights, I often can't control my eating the next day. My body is flooded with recovery hormones and wants food constantly. The first time I went on a 5 mile run, I was eating everything I could for nearly a week. The lesson here is similar to what I've been saying above: you need to find something sustainable. 5 mile runs are now sustainable for me because I've been working on them. When I first started, they caused me to gain weight. Now I can use them to lose it.
That's it. As Mad TV pointed out, losing weight is conceptually trivial. Implementing a system that lets you lose weight without going insane is actually extremely hard.