I’ve never been a smaller dude. I had a pretty average build throughout grade school and never paid much attention to developing healthy habits. I started putting on the pounds in college as I had less and less structure to keep me away from bad habits. Starting a full-time desk job continued the increase, both from the lack of activity and the increased stress and pressure to eat out and snack. I was a motivated person back then, but food was a comfort through bad days and bad times.
By the end of 2013 I’d grown as a person, been put in charge of a team at work and bought a house, but I was still turning a blind eye to the weight (then around 245). Christmas photos started to get under my skin and clothes shopping was a nightmare but I was pretty comfortable with my life overall and didn’t have a lot of motivation to change. Besides, I knew the only way to lose weight was to develop a love for salads and exercise all day and that was a nonstarter. I maintained a weight of just under 250 (my peak) through March 2015.
I‘d always joked that some medical issue would be the motivation I’d need to lose weight, but I wasn’t expecting it to actually happen. One stressful Sunday about halfway through March, I started experiencing pain in my left big toe. I remember walking around my neighborhood unable to put pressure on the right side of my foot. That night the pain was so bad I couldn’t fall asleep; I’d jolt awake every time my toe would move or even brush against the covers. I rode out this swelling for four more days, working from home the best I could with my feet in a tub of cold water for hours at a time.
I had experienced my first gout flare-up, a type of arthritis caused by the body’s inability to metabolize uric acid fast enough to prevent it from crystallizing as microscopic needles around a major joint and swelling it out of control. What triggers these flare-ups is different from person to person (though it is traditionally alcohol), but obesity is listed as a high motivator as your body generates most of the uric acid it metabolizes (and a bigger body equals more uric acid).
After two more less-severe flare-ups that year I was ready to do something drastic—I’d gotten the motivation I asked for. One random day in September I seized the opportunity of clarity to swap sugar soda with diet soda and I’ve never looked back. Throughout 2016 I cut out most the traditional gout triggers including most red meat, seafood, and alcohol. I also kept an eye on avoiding the obvious bad stuff I’d been indulging in for far too long like fried cheese sticks and the occasional half-pizza.
By December 2015 I was down to 242. In mid 2016 I sent back a scale for telling me I was in the mid 230s because I legitimately thought it was busted. I was flabbergasted when I weighed in at a doctor appointment later in the year in the low 230s—it felt like I hadn’t been focusing on it at all outside of those small changes. By the end of 2016 I was down to 225, or 25 pounds in a year and change. Not bad!
Something else happened in late 2016. The trajectory of the world wasn’t as hopeful as I’d believed, and it convinced me that if I wanted anything to go right in my life, it was up to me.
We started off 2017 with lots and lots of planning: goals, habits, and vacations to name a few. A lot of these aspirations were active choices: biking, hiking, and general adventuring. In his quest to find his own way to tackle these, Rob decided to give calorie counting a try. I laughed it off at first; it felt very cliché and too manual to be effective. But his quiet and steady persistence got me to take a second look around the end of April.
It started as a frustrating ordeal. Either restaurants didn’t display their calories, online information was hard to locate, or worst of all my tracking app’s database would have clearly wrong or mismatched counts, making me feel like the whole thing wasn’t worth the trouble. In addition, most tracker apps had horrible interfaces and over-complicated feature sets that made it difficult to start simple.
But I stuck with it, mostly thanks to Rob. Despite the effort required to be accurate and the frustration that accompanied it, I started to pick up on how this approach works. Over the summer, I started to develop a vocabulary for meal and food types that fit within my calorie goals and I noticed myself looking forward to those choices as I made them more automatically. I got a fair bit of satisfaction watching the calorie counts fall into place, showing me every day that I was doing okay and still having what I wanted. I quickly discovered the vast majority of these high-calorie outlier meals weren’t even that satisfying to begin with (I’m looking at you Chili’s) and the extra incentive of staying within my goal was more than enough motivation to ditch them. Over the rest of the year, I started dropping sides from most meals, not desiring them after internalizing their calorie cost. I ate small, filling breakfasts, swapped lunches with lower-calorie smoothies, and indulged in most any entrée for dinner. And I tried not to think about it much beyond that.
I began to notice tiny losses at the scales in Publix which continued to keep me focused on the goal. To avoid getting too hyper-focused, I limited the weigh-ins to twice a month during formal weigh-ins every other Sunday morning before breakfast. I continued to look in the margins for ways to improve, like replacing ranch with BBQ sauce, larger chicken wings with smaller ones, bagels and croissants with English muffins, and indulgent snacks with protein bars. I looked for opportunities to walk more (to meetings, parking farther away from the office, etc.), tried to bike a bit more than I had in previous years, and prioritized outdoor activities and adventures over parties and gaming on the weekends.
The first physical changes I noticed were in year-old photos; suddenly the face staring back at me was visibly different from the one I was used to. I begin to feel motivated enough to care more about my appearance and shopped for new button-downs and slacks for work instead of the same old polos and cargo pants I’d been wearing for years. Shopping was uplifting—not only was I having fun redoing my look, but I also felt a small dose of reassurance every time I tried on something and felt the great fit. Even that little bit of progress started to build on itself pretty quickly.
(Before and after calorie counting.)
I started getting random compliments at work and at first I didn’t know what to say because it was so foreign to me (now I say, “Thank you!” and smile). My grandparents noticed when I went to interview them over the summer, and friends at parties I hadn’t seen in a while were shocked. At Christmas, my brother gestured around my waist like, wait, where did this go? As awkwardly as I dealt with the attention each time, it continued to snowball into more motivation to stick with it and push onward. Thank you to everyone that said something nice to me!
Our annual Blue Ridge trip was a great example of how everything and nothing had changed. I was able to have the same meals and treats as years past but with more reasonable portions offset by longer and more intensive exercise with no real loss of satisfaction or enjoyment. In fact, I’d say it was even more enjoyable, both in having a fitter frame for outdoor exploring and a quieter mind about my food intake and general health. I worried less, I exercised more, and I felt better, all while still having almost everything I wanted. Simply being more aware of what I was doing seemed to make all the difference.
(Blue Ridge Parkway, October 2015 vs. October 2017)
How did I do it? It was a healthy combination of small changes that built on each other, of willpower that was bolstered by the success of others, of my own increased sense of purpose, of patience, and of luck. While your mileage may vary, here are a few of the larger principles I tried to stick to along the way to lower my calorie intake and meet my daily target.
- No Temporary Changes: Everything I tried, I did from the perspective of it being a permanent change in lifestyle rather than a small tweak while I was losing weight. I’d picked up on that technique from lots of literature and anecdotal evidence in years past, but it feels absolutely crucial to the successful mindset. Even now I have no plans to adjust anything below if I can help it.
- Say No to Dessert: I’m cheating here a little because I’ve never really had a craving for desserts (I’ll thank my parents for that), but avoiding them when asked, as snacks, after-meal treats, or craving-busters, was another all-or-nothing decision that I’ve been able to keep to pretty well.
- Skip Sides: Most meals come with fries or chips, and almost none of them need to. Intentionally avoiding heavy sides altogether cut hundreds of calories from most of my meals and allowed me to enjoy a full, sometimes-heavy main course without breaking the calorie bank.
- Alcohol Ban: All right fine, this is a big one for most people. I was a late bloomer when it came to imbibing in my 20s and I’ve never really gelled with parties, especially when the only attraction was the drink. Avoiding it altogether (even on vacation or at parties) significantly lessened my risk of developing a gout flare-up and saved me hundreds of calories per drink. Sometimes it feels pretty lame to feel like I have to avoid it in all instances, but I think I’m satisfied with the over/under.
- In Fact, No Calories from Drinks: Piggy-backing on the alcohol ban, one Haku put a bug in my head years ago that felt impossible at the time: avoid calories from drinks. This becomes easier with artificial sweeteners (Coke Zero, coffee with Splenda, etc.), but it also means largely avoiding glasses of fruit/orange juice, milk, and even sports drinks with calories (the low/no calorie variants are just as good if harder to find). If you’re not a fan of the sweeteners, black coffee, various teas, and water can suppress cravings rather well.
- Always Eat Breakfast: And one with plenty of protein if you can manage, as it’ll keep you full for much longer into the day. I can’t stomach eggs (a bummer), but breaking my nightly fast has become an unskippable routine of the morning that starts my metabolism as early as possible.
- Walk Farther: I park as far away from my office as I can stand. I play a lot of Pokémon Go. I don’t even bother trying to get spaces close to any stores. I walk around the neighborhood often while listening to music, making notes/outlines, or just clearing my head. Since you probably burn about 100 calories a mile walking, 5-10 minutes here and there can add up to a healthy calorie cushion each day. I will say, tracking it all with my Apple Watch has kept it much more mindless and therefore easy, and even better that it integrates with my calorie tracker. Trackers can’t solve all your problems, but they are a fun piece of the puzzle if you can afford it
- Chicken is Great: Eat more chicken, specifically grilled and blackened chicken. It’s served everywhere, it’s hard to mess up, and it’s pretty low in calories and high in protein. It’s also a great alternative to higher-calorie red meat in almost every scenario. Swapping to grilled chicken tenders even let me add back rich sauces and fries without overloading the calorie budget.
- Split Meals: I saved this one for later because I know not everyone can do this, but searching every regular place for a meal I could split with friends and family let me eat everything I wanted, spend less money, and leave satisfied. If you don’t have someone to split with and can stand leftovers, just ask for a to-go box as soon as your food arrives and box up half of it for later. In most places we’ve implemented this, I can’t imagine eating more than half at this point.
- Replace Meals with Low-Calorie Smoothies: While it started as a quick lunch between meetings, my standard lunch at work slowly started to default to a small, no-added-sugar fruit-and-yogurt smoothie and a KIND bar. Both together clocked in around 450 calories (sometimes more depending on the fruit), but the protein from the yogurt and the whey I added kept me going easily until dinner.
- Eat at Home (More): On average, meals prepped at home are lower calorie than what you usually order out (unless you’ve got the low-calorie game down to a science). Does this mean you have to cook / conscript your roommate(s) into kitchen duty? Yes. But it also means your meals are entirely predictable calorie-wise, and the combination of a good meal being already in your calorie tracker and it being lower overall usually wins me over (and saves money!).
- Stay Engaged: The more bored I am, the more I notice my hunger cravings. While I’d suggest some small, 100-calorie snack in these cases, being wrapped up in work, some goal (like writing more!), or anything else that engages my mind helps me stay calorie-free between meals.
I didn’t do all of this at once; rather, I started with diet soda and no-sugar-added coffee and realized after some early gains that adding in a new technique or two gradually over many weeks or even years would have the cumulative effect I was looking for. The keys to success really are being patient and keeping changes conquerable.
Most people need to burn 3500 more calories than they eat/drink to lose a pound, which sounds insurmountable at first blush. But over a week, that’s only 500 calories a day. And considering we burn a good chunk just existing (2200-2400 depending on your weight), limiting our intake to 1700-1900 calories a day is actually really doable!
Phone apps go a long way in helping keep you on track and engaged in counting calories but they can be pretty annoying. I would start with MyFitnessPal and try your best to ignore the confusing parts. Many people swear by it and it’s got a fantastic database of food, both generic portions and restaurant meals. But because I’m picky, I switched to MyPlate, mostly because I have no problem entering my own custom foods in exchange for a nice UI, a simple fee to remove ads, and a mostly-painless Apple Watch integration. I’ve had friends swear by LoseIt as well. My advice: start with anything and push through the inevitable annoyances until you get a sense of what you personally need out of an app. Once you’ve got that, shop around a little more.
My Recurring (Yummy) Meals
I’m not a dietitian or nutritionist, but I did want to share some basic meals that recurred for me many times during my weight loss journey. Pair any of these with a diet soda or no-sugar coffee/tea. They aren’t your typical hyper-healthy suggestions, but it all boils down to calories—adjust wherever you prefer and give some a shot.
- Greek yogurt and granola/nuts (140)
- English muffin and peanut butter (230)
- English muffin, bacon, and cheese (250)
- McDonald’s: Egg McMuffin w/ cheese (300)
- Dunkin’: English muffin, bacon, and cheese (350)
- McDonald’s: Sausage McMuffin (400)
- Wendy’s: Double Stack (390)
- Smoothie King: Skinny Yogurt D-Lite and KIND bar (450-500)
- McDonald’s: Bacon McDouble (450)
- Chick-fil-A: Spicy Chicken Sandwich (450)
- Wawa: Small turkey bacon sub w/light mayo and cheese (570)
- Grilled chicken tenders (4) and fries (600-700)
- Arby’s: Chicken Bacon Swiss (660)
- Grilled/Blackened chicken and a baked potato side (600)
- Baked mac and cheese (whole wheat rotini, cheddar cheese, grilled chicken, green beans) (600)
- Boston Market: Chicken bowl w/mashed and mac & cheese (660)
- Personal pizza at Blaze / Maddio’s (750-850)
- Toasted: Smokehouse grilled cheese (750)
- Publix: 10 hot ‘n’ spicy wings (800)
As of writing I’m hovering just under 180, making the total loss about 70 pounds in 2.5 years and 40 pounds in the last year. I’m pretty happy with how I look and feel now, but as I’ve internalized all of these changes as my new normal I’m excited to see how far down the scale they’ll take me! Health-wise, my next steps will be to make sense of the lower-level nutrient tracking (the ratio of carbs, fats, and Protein in a meal/day), drink more water, and adopt a core workout routine. There’s always more to do and improve on. Never settle for good enough!
And if you’re reading this and feeling like you see yourself at the beginning of all of this: don’t fret! I wrote this for you! The first step is simply being more aware of your habits and intake. Don’t push harsh limits or large changes on yourself—just grab an app, start counting, and see how your own motivations change as you learn more. Adopt one small change until it becomes second-nature and then adopt another. Before you know it, the beginnings of your own journey will provide all the motivation you need for success. And if it doesn’t work? Swap a change with another. Keep it small and simple and you’ll never feel overwhelmed. The biggest hurdle to me starting any of this was a belief that I couldn’t handle the lifestyle, and all it took was a few tiny changes to prove me wrong.
I graduated from UCF in 2008 with a degree in Digital Media. Shortly
thereafter my mom bought me a blazer to wear to interviews (thanks
Mom!). I’ve hung onto it for a decade, not wanting to admit I was too
big for it. Just recently I donated it to Goodwill for being way too big
for me. Small changes, patience, evaluate, more small changes. You can do it too.
- Haku: For putting the bug in my head about avoiding calories in drinks (and for being generally helpful always).
- Chance: For only stocking up on diet soda and showing me I could survive on it for more than a week (and for letting me sleep on the couch).
- Mak and Kelby: For showing us how a couple of guys can get fit together and not kill each other!
- Ty: For helping Rob start his journey who in turn helped me, and for showing a genuine interest in our well-being.
- Rob: For convincing me to start calorie counting, not letting me give up, helping me get started, constantly looking up calorie counts for me, learning how to ride a bike, and cooking like all the time (and waffles).
- Erik: For living with us while we drastically reduced our calorie intake and were generally picky about it. And oops sorry for accidentally helping you lose a ton of weight too.
- Vic: For checking up on me and offering encouragement often.
- Friends: Thank you for your encouragement, advice, and kind words! It’s all meant a lot to me over this journey.