Strength, functional strength, and hypertrophy

I’ve been lifting weights regularly for at least 25 years–shortly after we got married I convinced Jackie to start lifting with me, and we lifted together all those years until we moved and let our membership in the fitness center in our old neighborhood lapse.

Any time during that period, if you’d asked me what my goals were, I’m sure I’d have told you that functional strength was what I was going for. I’d have just called it strength, but functional strength is what I’d have meant: The ability to do things that took muscle power—to pick up heavy things, carry heavy things, climb stairs with heavy things, etc.

The actual exercises I did, mostly with machines, were poorly selected for developing that strength, but that’s just because I didn’t know better, not because I was secretly going for something else.

As a secondary goal I’d have told you I was interested in the general health benefits of being strong—stronger bones, more metabolic activity, etc. Once I learned about lower insulin resistance I’d have included that.

One thing I was never interested in was hypertrophy. That is, I was only interested in bigger muscles to the extent that they’d be stronger and provide the associated metabolic advantages. If I could have gotten that with small muscles, I’d have been totally fine with that. In the privacy of my own brain, I was even a little disdainful of people who lifted for the aesthetics of having bigger muscles.

I did know that stronger muscles and bigger muscles pretty much go together. Competitors in sports that involved moving your own body—and especially sports that involve your body up a hill or mountain—have always sought ways to make their muscles stronger without making them (much) bigger. It’s possible—just barely, at the margins, to a limited extent—but by and larger getting stronger means getting bigger.

I mention all this because I’ve taken an interest in hypertrophy, for a very specific reason: At my last physical, my doctor suggested that I should quit losing weight.

I’m not quite sure why—I’m just about at the mid-range for “healthy weight” (based on BMI, which has its flaws, but which probably provides pretty good guidance in my case) and well above underweight. Maybe he was just concerned in case I wasn’t in control of my weight loss. Maybe he was worried that I might be losing muscle as well as fat. I’ll ask him at my next physical.

At any rate, that left me with a minor dilemma. My weight, at the midpoint of the healthy range, is just where I want it. (Even before my doctor mentioned it, I had already decided to quit losing weight, when I realized that if I lost much more weight I’d no longer be size “medium” and would start being size “small,” and I didn’t want to be small.)

However, I still have more subcutaneous fat than I’d like. To lose that fat without losing weight, really my only option is to build more muscle.

So, for about a year now I’ve been working on that, with pretty limited success. Hypertrophy is hard. It’s also harder to measure than weight, which makes it hard to know if I’m having any success or not. In fact, I haven’t even tried to measure my muscle hypertrophy. (Measuring my chest and biceps and such puts me a little to squarely in the group that I mentioned being privately disdainful of, although I probably ought to get over it.)

In any case, so far I’m sticking with just measuring strength and figuring that hypertrophy will follow.

And let me reiterate just how weird it feels to have even this much of a focus on hypertrophy.

Theory and Practice of Neurogenesis

Even though I’m finding my self-care regimen for seasonal depression pretty adequate these days, I’m always interested in more tools. One thing that caught my attention recently was an interview with Brant Cortright in which he talked about his book The Neurogenesis Diet and Lifestyle.

Cortright has a bunch of interesting things to say, one of which I already knew: that depression is not a disorder of serotonin deficiency. According to him—and this I did not know—the way SSRIs work is by promoting neurogenesis. In the interview he said that depression turns out to be caused by a lack of neurogenesis, as are several other disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s).

I checked the local libraries for copies of his book without success, but in my searches I happened upon this article: Successful brain aging: plasticity, environmental enrichment, and lifestyle by Francisco Mora, which seems to cover pretty much the same ground.

People are looking very hard at drugs besides SSRIs to promote brain plasticity, but the whole idea sounds problematic to me, so I’m interested in the various non-drug interventions suggested by Cortright and Mora. Fortunately, it seems that neurogenesis is easy to increase, by doing the obvious things we already know about:

  • Environmental enrichment
  • Calorie restriction
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Adequate levels of certain nutrients (omega-3s, vitamin E).

I think of my artist dates in particular as environmental enrichment, but of course time spent in nature counts as well. The parkour I do probably counts double, because there’s learning how to execute the moves, but there’s also learning to see the environment as a place where those moves are useful.

My weight loss practices have been substantially motivated by the science around calorie restriction as a way to improve health generally, with additional neurogenesis just one factor.

My experience over the previous 30 years convinced me that approaching calorie restriction in a numerical, analytical fashion—tracking what I ate, estimating the calorie content, aiming for some target X% below maintenance—would be unsuccessful. Instead, I came at it from the other direction: If I’m losing weight, I must be restricting my calories.

The caloric deficit implied by my weight loss over the past five years is just about 100 calories per day. Maintenance for me is probably around 1800 calories per day, so I’ve averaged about 5.5% below. It would probably be more accurate to say that I’ve averaged about 10% below maintenance for about half that time, as I’ve generally lost weight during the summers while maintaining a stable weight through the winters. Either number is well shy of the “20% to 40%” reduction that’s been shown to decrease the rate of aging of the brain, but I rather suspect that the benefit exists even at these lower levels—with the added bonus of being sustainable over a much longer period of time. (I mean, how long can you maintain a 40% deficit below maintenance before you simply waste away?)

According to Mora, aerobic exercise seems to increase neurogenesis by the same chemical pathways as calorie restriction. According to Cortright, it has to be aerobic activity of substantial duration—some twenty minutes or more. In particular, the sort of HIIT workouts so beloved of the paleo/primal folks don’t seem to produce the same effect. That’s fine with me: Humans are much too well-adapted for endurance running for me to buy into the idea that primitive humans didn’t do marathon-distance runs when they needed to. Besides, I enjoy long runs.

Of course, neurogenesis is reduced by the obvious things:

  • Neurotoxins (mercury, lead, pesticides, etc.)
  • Traumatic brain injuries (concussions, etc.)
  • High blood glucose levels
  • Stress.

My parents made a considerable effort to keep me and my brother free of neurotoxins, and I have managed to avoid concussions so far. I’m sure I subjected myself to excessive blood glucose levels for years, but I think I’ve got that under control now. I also subjected myself to excessive levels of stress for years, due to the vicious circle of my seasonal depression making me unproductive, my lack of productivity making me stress about losing my job, and the stress no doubt worsening my depression. I’ve got that under control now as well.

Really then, this whole neurogenesis thing doesn’t so much give me new strategies for staving off depression, as provide a conceptual framework for organizing the strategies I’m already using.

Even just that seems worthwhile.

(The image at the top is of these great doors at the Environmental Education Center at Kennekuk County Park. The branching trees reminded me of neurons, a little.)

Clothes that fit

One of the great luxuries of losing weight is that you can buy clothes that fit.

If you’re fat, you don’t get to buy clothes that fit. All you can do is buy “the right size,” defined as “the smallest size that goes all the way around you.” This will not (except by pure happenstance) be a size that fits correctly. The same size XXL t-shirt will be considered “the right size” for the bodybuilder, the basketball player, the linebacker, and the powerlifter, as well as the fat guy. At most it will fit one of those people well. Very likely, it will fit none of them well.

Still, things are better than they were.

Back in the early 1980s there were companies that simply didn’t make pants in waist sizes above 34, because they thought the sight of fat men wearing their clothes would taint their brand. Even brands that didn’t refuse to sell clothes in ordinary large sizes had very little for people fatter than that. I remember a comedy routine from about the same time with a fat comedian complaining that they quit making normal pants a couple of inches before they got to his size. Gesturing toward the plaid pants he was wearing, he said, “It’s not bad enough that I’m fat? I also have to dress like a clown?”

Twenty years ago, waist sizes in men’s pants went up in one-inch increments until you hit 34, then they went to two-inch increments. So, if the right size for you was 35, you either wore a 36 and cinched your belt to keep them up, or else you wore a 34 and got it to go around you by wearing it under your waist and letting your belly sag over the front of your pants. About fifteen years ago companies started selling pants with a 35-inch waist. Not long after they started selling pants with a 37-inch waist. The companies figured out there was a big market for big people.

During the five years or so that I’ve been losing weight, I’ve been making the smallest possible investments in my wardrobe, figuring that I’d wait until I was at a stable weight before buying more new clothes than the minimum needed to keep myself dressed until laundry day. I bought about two new t-shirts when I hit size L, and then three more when size M started fitting.

Finally, just in the last few weeks, I’ve started buying a significant amount of new clothes that actually fit.

Which brings me back to my starting point: The luxury of being able to buy clothes that fit.

Last week I went to the nearby Goodwill store and spent half an hour going through the men’s shirts. Short-sleeve men’s shirts in size M pretty routinely just fit. (The exception was a very nice Brooks Brothers shirt that was way too big. It was so nice I was sorely tempted to go through the size S men’s shirts to see if I could find something from Brooks Brothers.) Long sleeve shirts are trickier because I have short arms, but even so I found two shirts that fit—one in the exact right size, another in a size that should have had sleeves a little too long, but that must have been altered by the previous owner.

Here’s my Goodwill haul:

Five shirts from Goodwill at half the cost of one dress shirt from Lands End.
Five shirts from Goodwill at half the cost of one dress shirt from Lands End. The blue short sleeve shirt on top is mostly linen. The green one behind it is 100% silk. The two long-sleeve shirts and the black t-shirt are all 100% cotton.

It would not have been so easy if I still wore XL or XXL. Except by pure luck (like the white shirt whose sleeves had been shortened to my size), nothing would have fit well. The neck would be too tight, unless the shoulders were way too big, and the sleeves would all be too long.

Clothes that fit: One more convenience for thin people.

On finishing the two-week test, and gently adding carbs back in

The two-week test of eating very low carb went pretty well. Except for a day and a half at the beginning, I felt fine right on through, and I did a pretty good job of actually following the diet. I also saw pretty good improvement in the things I’d hoped a low-carb diet might improve.

So now (starting yesterday), I’m trying to add carbs back in—slowly, just one thing at a time, with an eye toward learning how much and which kinds of carbs I can eat without finding myself right back where I was.

I do know a couple of things already. The biggest is that I’m pretty much over sugar.

I always ate huge amounts of sugar as a child, and continued to consume sugar in vast quantities as an adult. It was only in 2003 when I finally cut most soda pop out of my diet, and I still got plenty of sugar—children’s breakfast cereals, sweet pastries and deserts, sugar in my coffee, high fructose corn syrup in my tomato soup, and even small quantities of soda pop as a mixer for my cocktails.

That’s done. I feel a lot better with almost no sugar in things, and things with sugar in them taste too sweet now. I don’t want to give up chocolate, but the chocolates I’ve been eating have only 7 g of sugar per square, and there are darker chocolates with even less that I’ll probably want to switch to. (And I have no problem making one square a serving.)

We’re making plans to donate the remaining unopened packages of children’s breakfast cereals, peanut butter with sugar in it, and so on to the food bank. (I feel a little bad about giving food I consider unhealthy to poor people. On the other hand, I think poor people should be able to eat what they want, rather than what affluent people think would be better for them. In the end, I come down on the side of figuring it’s better to donate this stuff than to trash it.)

Other carbs are more complex. (Genuinely no pun intended.) I really miss breakfast cereal in the morning, and there are plenty that are low in sugar. I miss toast. I miss sandwiches. I miss rice, and chapatis, and potatoes with my meat dishes.

Jackie and I bake our own sourdough bread, and can make it full of whole grains with no added sugar. That’ll be the last thing I delete from my diet, if it turns out I can’t handle even a little milled grain in my diet.

Oh, and I miss beer. But I miss good beer, and have little interest in “low-carb” beer.

In fact, I have little interest in “low-carb” anything. I’ve become a whole-foods kinda guy these past 10 years. I quit eating anything with artificial sweeteners a long time ago, and don’t expect to eat any going forward. So-called “natural” sweeteners are either just another way to eat sugar (various syrups or fruit juices) or else they’re unnatural as far as I’m concerned, even if extracted from a natural source.

The only exceptions I expect to make are for special cases: non-food items like toothpaste, cough drops, etc.

I’ve been very pleased with my success in giving up my cocktails with sugary mixers—I’ve switched to drinking my whiskey neat or on the rocks. That’s had the side effect of tempting me to the more expensive whiskeys in our liquor cabinet, but that’s not been a problem so far. In fact, just the small amounts of soda pop I drank as mixers probably added a few dollars a month to our grocery bill. Saving that money will not completely offset the cost the more expensive whiskeys, but will subsidize it some.

To touch on the things I was specifically hoping a low-carb diet would help:

  • Allergy symptoms: Seemed to help a lot, but hard to be sure because the allergen load is so variable and idiosyncratic. Adding carbs back in seemed like it might be bringing my congestion right back, but hard to be sure for the same reasons. I’ll continue to monitor, but I’m prepared to go back to very low carb, if that’s what it takes to stay off the allergy meds.
  • Blood pressure: It was not immediate, but around the middle of the second week my blood pressure had gotten a good bit lower. I have cut my lisinopril dose in half (informally, by cutting the tablets in half), and will continue monitoring to see if it stays down while I’m adjusting my carbs. If it settles in this range, I’ll talk to my doctor about changing my prescription.
  • Blood sugar: The Savoy Rec Center, where I teach tai chi, has a free health screening once a month where they’ll check your blood pressure, but also your blood sugar! It’s not a fasting number, so not really comparable with the number from my physical, but it came up 111 which I gather is perfectly fine for someone who has eaten and is not yet just about to eat again.
  • Weight: Over the two weeks, I lost 6.8 pounds, taking my weight from 160.2 to 153.4. I’m assuming that about 5 of those pounds were glycogen and associated water, and will not be surprised to see a large fraction of them come back on as I allow myself to consume more carbs. Still, taking those numbers at face value, I’ve reduced my BMI from 24.7 (near the top of the healthy range) down to 23.7 (much closer to the midpoint of the healthy range). Purely for aesthetic reasons I would be pleased to have less of a spare tire, but frankly I’m looking pretty good already.

I have to call this a tentative success. If I can add in just those few carbs I mentioned—occasional instances of cereal and bread at breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, a starch course with dinner, a piece of dark chocolate now and then—I’ll upgrade it to an unqualified success.

Oh, and beer. For complete success, I’ll have to be able to drink a beer now and then.

Low-carb, one week on

I’m halfway through my two-week test, and thought I’d provide a quick progress report.

It has been both easy and hard to eat this way. Easy, in that I’ve certainly never been hungry. Hard, in that I’ve already gotten very bored with the things I can eat. (This is only because I’m a picky eater; there’s not much that I like. Especially, there are very few vegetables that I like. Eating a lot of eggs and meat, together with a lot of the exact same vegetables every day, has gotten quite tedious.)

I felt subpar on day two and the first half of day three: logy and tired. Several people suggested that the problem was probably not eating enough calories, so I tried boosting the size of my meals. Whether it was that, or just making it through the transition, I got over it easily enough.

I’ve done pretty well at sticking to the diet, with one exception: Easter brunch. I did fine for the salad course and the main course, but when they brought carrot cake for dessert, I was unable to resist. (Surely the carrots counteract the sugar, right?)

It tasted good, but very quickly I felt terrible. As I described in email to a friend, I assume what happened is this:

The sugar hit my blood stream, and all my carb-depleted muscle and liver cells said, “Oooh! Sugar! We gots to get ourselves some of this!”

But at the same time, my pancreas said, “Hmm. There’s sugar in the blood. I’ll release some insulin.”

But, because there was only one small serving of cake’s worth of sugar, in no time it was all gone. But the insulin was still there.

So my blood sugar plummeted.

And then my liver said, “But, but, I just got this teeny little bit of glucose! I haven’t even turned it into glycogen yet!” and then said, “Oh, all right. Here’s enough sugar to get your blood levels back to normal.”

I probably exacerbated the whole thing by going for a run—I thought of it as penance for failing in my commitment to be low-carb for two weeks. The run no doubt put additional pressure on my blood sugar levels.

Anyway, for a couple of hours there after lunch, I felt sick to my stomach, shaky, jittery, and had an inappropriately high heart rate. Some of that might have been psychosomatic, but it was all very unpleasant.

After my run I had a V8 juice, which may have helped. A tiny bit of sugar.

Except for that piece of carrot cake, my only deviations have been:

  • Occasional small servings of cured meat (bacon, ham, sausage), which are generally low carb, but which are off the list for the two-week test because so many are cured with sugar or otherwise include carbs. I’m trying to pick ones that don’t have sugar, but am generally trusting that my servings are small enough that it doesn’t matter much.
  • Some small servings of peanut butter, which is also off the list for reasons I don’t understand. It’s natural peanut butter with no added sugar, but of course peanuts do have some amount of carbs. Again, I’m keeping my servings small.

In my post saying I was trying the low-carb thing I had a list of specific issues I was hoping low-carb eating might improve: allergy symptoms, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and weight. Taking those in reverse order . . . .

Weight

I can certainly see why low-carb diets are popular for weight loss: I lost several pounds almost immediately.

From what I’ve read, I gather this is largely water weight. Supposedly there are several grams of water bound up in the storage of each gram of glycogen. As the glycogen goes, the water is freed up, producing near-instant weight loss.

That all happened in the first two days. In the next five my weight has continued to trend down, but only very slightly. I assume this is mostly fat. If the second week is like the first, I’ll probably have lost about two-thirds of a pound of fat during the course of the test.

The dramatic weight loss is kind of interesting. Because I was already near my lowest adult weight, this big drop punched me down to a series of new all-time lows. I don’t have good data, but as best I can recall I am now at my lowest weight since I was a freshman in college and lost a bunch of weight when I had mononucleosis.

I assume those water pounds will pop right back on the instant I eat enough carbs to replenish my glycogen stores. That’ll be okay.

Blood sugar

I don’t have (and am not inclined to buy) equipment to check my blood sugar, so I don’t know if my fasting glucose levels are down or not. Empirically, I can report that my energy levels are now very stable, which suggests to me that my glucose levels (whatever they are) are pretty flat.

I do see the appeal to this. It’s convenient to never feel like I have to eat right now. It’s convenient to not feel tired and sleepy after every large meal.

The originator of the two-week test that I’m following, Phil Maffatone, is all about burning fat to power endurance exercise—ultra-marathons and the like.

A body well-adapted to using glycogen for endurance exercise can store maybe 500 grams of glycogen in the muscles and liver combined, providing around 2000 calories. By itself, that’s not even enough to run a marathon, let alone a longer endurance event.

Even a very lean person, on the other hand, probably has at least 10% body fat. That would imply that a 70 kilogram athlete would have around 7 kilos of fat, providing a staggering 63,000 calories. Even allowing for the significant fraction of irreducible fat (cushioning for your eyeballs, etc.) that’s still enough to power literally hundreds of miles of walking or running.

The idea that I’ll be able to do my long runs and very long walks without needing to make special provisions for food is especially appealing.

My glucose levels during the test are in any case only of academic interest. After the test I’ll reintroduce carbs and see how much and what kinds I can eat while preserving the stable energy levels. What I care about is what my glucose levels will be then.

Blood pressure

My blood pressure hasn’t shown much of a trend. So far it’s a little erratic, but has not been down enough to suggest that a different dose of lisinopril is in order. I’ll continue to monitor it.

Allergy symptoms

My allergy symptoms are the thing I’m most interested in improving, and here the results have been at least mildly interesting. I quit taking the Claritin just two days into the test, and then quit taking the Nasacort two days after that. I’m a little sniffly, but I’m not sneezing much, nor am I suffering from the nasal congestion that I needed to take the Nasacort for.

Of course this is not necessarily due to the diet. My allergy symptoms have always been seasonal (even as the “seasons” have grown to cover most of the year); maybe this is just one of the seasons when I’d have been okay anyway. Still, I’d be surprised if that were true. Tree-pollen season has always been a problem for me, and looking out my window, I can see several different kinds of trees with the discreet flowers characteristic of wind-pollination.

Only time will tell, but I’m glad to have at least a few days off the drugs in any case.

I’ll post another update in a week or two, unless the results seem boring.

Experimenting with low-carb

I’ve resisted low-carb eating for a long time, even as the evidence has increased that high-carb diets are terrible for us.

Via Christopher McDougal’s book Natural Born Heroes, I discovered Phil Maffetone and his two-week test, which caught my eye.

I’m generally very healthy and feel great, but I do have a few health issues—and there seems to be at least some evidence that a low-carb diet might help all of them. The point of the two-week test is to test exactly that: If you go very low-carb, does it make things better? If not, then you’re done—excess carbs are probably not your problem. If it does make things better, then you follow up the two-week test by gradually experimenting with adding carbs from various sources in various amounts, and figure out how much (and which kinds) of carbs you can consume without problem.

The things I’m hoping a low-carb diet might help are these:

  1. Allergies. Over the last twenty years I’ve gone from claiming that I don’t have allergies, to admitting that I get sniffles for a couple of weeks in the spring and the fall, to needing to take both Claritin and Nasacort daily. There’s some reason to believe that a low-carb diet might reduce inflammation. If true, that might ease my allergy symptoms (besides improving my general health), and might mean that I could eliminate those drugs, or perhaps just reduce them from constant to occasional.
  2. High blood pressure. My blood pressure is well-controlled with lisinopril, and I’ve been able to cut the dose since I’ve lost some weight these past 5 years, but it’s another drug that I take daily. It seems very likely that a low-carb diet will reduce my blood pressure, very possibly eliminating the need for this drug as well.
  3. High blood sugar. Back in 2003, I got a high blood glucose reading, and a stern talking-to about pre-diabetes. I responded by sharply reducing my consumption of soft drinks. That brought my blood glucose down to 91 in just six months. The past two years, though, my glucose has been ever-so-slightly high again. It’s not at a scary level, but I don’t like it even a little bit high. Undoubtedly, a low-carb diet will improve this.
  4. Weight loss. My weight is in the normal range, and has been since 2014. Further weight loss probably has no health benefit. Still, purely for aesthetic reasons, I’d be pleased to lose another few pounds. A low-carb diet will probably produce this result as well.

The main purpose of this post has simply been to get my thinking in order regarding what I’m hoping to accomplish. I have little doubt that a low-carb diet will produce the latter two improvements, but those issues could be dealt with easily enough through less drastic means. I have much less confidence about the former two, but improving those things would be a big deal for me—big enough to undertake the two-week test (at least), and maybe to change the way I eat going forward.

Learning to trust my appetite

For most of my life, my appetite was a terrible guide as to how much I should eat: If I ate until I felt full, I gained weight; if I ate few enough calories that I would lose weight, I’d feel hungry all the time.

Late last summer, this changed. It happened like this.

I had managed to lose quite a bit of weight over a period of about three years, and was nearly down to what the National Institutes of Health consider “normal” weight. But just at that point—only three or four pounds above that threshold—my weight loss suddenly slowed.

This was kind of discouraging—especially so, because it seemed there would be no easy way to push on through those last few pounds. I was already eating a good, healthy diet. It was summer, so I had already ramped up my physical activity. I had already cut way back on things like snacks and deserts.

I thought pretty hard about my options, and came to the disheartening conclusion that I would have to resort to “portion control.”

Although the only thing I could think of, this seemed like a terrible idea. I had spent most of my adult life trying to “eat less,” with roughly the same degree of success that one might have trying to breathe less—I could do it for a while, but only through total focus. It never worked for longer than I could maintain that focus.

The next step would have been to ask Jackie to provide smaller servings. But before I got to the point of actually doing so, something very strange happened: All of a sudden, I didn’t want to finish my meals.

This was a very different feeling from what I used to think of as feeling full. I had always been able to tell when I was about to eat too much—the point where, if I had any more, I’d be doomed to hours of feeling overstuffed. Learning to pay attention to that signal had been a key step in the weight loss I’d managed to this point, but this was something different. Long before I’d eaten that much, I was suddenly feeling like I’d had . . . enough.

After a couple of days of this—of leaving a third or more of my meal uneaten because I really didn’t want any more—I did ask Jackie to provide smaller servings. But instead of a desperate and unlikely measure to lose those last few pounds, it was just a recognition of how much I wanted to eat.

I paid attention to this new feeling of how much I wanted—how much was enough. Sometime in the next few months—as I lost those last few pounds, and then continued losing weight at a slow pace—something occurred to me: This was what it’s like to be normal.

Although there’s a lot of obesity these days, even now most people are normal weight. This is—I had always assumed, and now was experiencing first-hand—because most people have a good sense of how much food was enough.

It was easy to start trusting this feeling when it came to eating less. Now that my experience with it stretches back most of a year, I’m starting also to trust it when it tells me I’m still hungry even after eating a normal amount of food.

This used to happen all the time—unless I was eating too much, I’d always be hungry. To lose weight, I’d had to come to terms with this, come up with strategies for not eating as much as my body thought I ought to have.

That was a hard habit to break, but I’m starting to trust my appetite.

Part of what’s letting me do this is that I’ve been tracking my weight for years. Over the past nine months or so, I began to see a pattern: My weight was declining very gradually—on track to fall to the mid-point of the “normal” range in a year or two.

When I’d eat what I thought was an appropriate amount of food and still feel hungry—when I’d stick to what I thought was appropriate and not eat more just because I wanted more—my rate of weight loss would spike up toward the rates that I saw during the previous three years.

Upon reflection, I decided that the basic trend was probably where I wanted to be. I probably ought to lose some more weight—I suspect that the mid-point of the normal range would be an excellent weight for me—but there’s certainly no rush to get there. In fact, a very gradually declining weight is probably extremely healthy, in terms of blood sugar and lipid chemistry.

I’ve about come to trust my appetite—to have some confidence that it will guide me to an appropriate weight and keep me there, if I just eat right, get plenty of exercise, and pay attention—but I’m in no hurry to put it to the test. I’m actually quite happy staying on a slow downward track toward that point, and feel little inclination to sprint for the finish.

What a luxury it is, to have my body tell me when I need to eat more, and then tell me when I’ve eaten enough.

Normal weight

I’ve been losing weight for the past few years, and wanted to share a small milestone: With a body mass index of 24.9, I am now in the range the National Institutes of Health consider “normal weight.”

I’ve been losing weight for the past few years, and wanted to share a small milestone: With a body mass index of 24.9, I am now in the range the National Institutes of Health consider “normal weight.”

It’s been a strange process. Subcutaneous fat departs on its own schedule—probably mostly genetic, but probably other things as well—so I’ve had the experience of bodyparts changing shape at unexpected times. A few months ago I noticed something hard in my side, a couple of inches down from my ribs. It took some seconds of poking with my finger, tracing out the contours, for me to realize it was my pelvis. (For someone who assembled a Visible Man in elementary school, I had a surprisingly poor conception of where the pelvis is. I thought of it as being down by my hips, but the top of the iliac crest comes up to the height of the navel, I guess.) I had similar, if less startling, experiences with other bits of my skeleton, including my ribs and my cheekbones.

I wish I had a better understanding of what changed. I’d been overweight essentially all my adult life. I’d been trying, largely without success, to lose weight for 40 years. Then, a few years ago, something changed, and the weight started gradually coming off.

I did make an effort to eat less, and to exercise more, but I’d done those things a hundred times before.

I know some of the things that changed. I quit working a regular job, so I had more time for exercise, and more flexibility in my schedule to schedule the exercise. I started studying taiji, which is not an especially vigorous exercise, but which I now do almost every day—and consistency has a vigor all its own. Jackie’s willingness (and creativity) in producing healthy meals that conform to my odd preferences has been a big help.

One other thing that was different from all the other times was that this time I didn’t have a goal weight.

All the other times I had an idea in my head that I wanted to lose 15 or 45 pounds, and I’d calculate how many weeks that would take if I had a calorie deficit of this or that amount. Then I’d track my weight, and be pleased or disappointed as it progressed along or deviated from that track.

This time I didn’t do that. Instead, I decided that my goal was simply having a downward trend to my weight. Being in calorie deficit would (I figured) improve my blood chemistry, and probably right away get me most of the health benefits of losing weight.

Since I don’t have a goal, I’m not at an inflection point here, now that I’m at “normal weight.” I can just carry on doing what I’ve been doing. I’m in no danger of becoming underweight any time soon. (The National Institutes of Health suggest I’d be “underweight” if I lost another 40 pounds.) So, I’ll go on gradually losing weight for a while. I expect it will become more and more gradual over the next year or two, before I eventually stabilize, probably not too far from the midpoint between “underweight” and “overweight.”

There’s no evidence for a health benefit to weighing less than I do now, but probably some health benefits to being in calorie deficit—so it makes sense to prolong that phase.

There are, of course, the other benefits to losing weight. There’s an aesthetic benefit. (At least, I think I look better now than I did 40 pounds ago, and expect I’ll look better still if I lose another few pounds.) There’s a convenience benefit. (Society has upsized almost everything as Americans have gotten larger—the main exception being coach seats on airliners—but being slimmer still makes almost everything easier and more comfortable.)

If I lose another 15 pounds or so, I’ll be at the same body mass index as Jackie. She’s most fetchingly slim, and there’s a certain symmetry to us matching that way, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a goal. Just a whimsy, really.

I promised a while back that this wouldn’t becoming a weight-loss blog, and I think I’ve kept that promise, but this was a milestone that I wanted to share. I’m not sure there’ll be any more, though. Since I don’t have a goal, there’ll really be nothing to announce.

My doctor’s interesting take on losing weight

I had my physical this week. (Pending anything surprising from the blood work, I seem to be in good health.)

The doctor noted that I’d continued to lose weight, and I observed that he’d lost weight as well.

Over the course of seeing him once or twice a year for several years now, I’d noticed that my doctor struggled just a bit with his own weight. He was a runner, and kept his weight under control when he was able to run. When something (injury, weather, schedule pressures) kept him from running, he tended to gain weight. As this has been my own experience as well, I figured we understood one another a bit better than we otherwise might.

When I mentioned his own weight loss, he said that he’d thought a lot about weight problems, and had decided that the right perspective to address excess weight was that of addiction.

This makes sense to me. At least, I have no doubt that the dopamine pathways involved in other sorts of addictions are involved in people’s poor eating choices.

Continuing, my doctor went on to point out that it’s pretty well accepted that addicts can’t just choose to use whatever substance they’re addicted to moderately. Someone who’s not a smoking addict might be able to choose to smoke tobacco a few times a year, but a smoker cannot. Someone who’s not addicted to alcohol can choose to have a drink or two without going on to drink way too much, but an alcoholic cannot.

I agreed with his analysis, but pointed out that it’s very tough to address overeating with the same strategy. “You can’t go cold turkey on food—you’ll just die.”

“Ah,” my doctor said. “But you can go cold turkey on the foods that you’re addicted to.”

He went on to provide a short list of foods that, if he ate them, he’d overeat—chips, cake, burgers, etc. Instead, he said, you could choose to eat only foods that didn’t trigger those addictive behaviors, and he provided a short list. It started with vegetables and fruits. I forget the next few items—but I immediately recognized the main differentiator. The foods that were safe to eat were foods. The items that were dangerous to eat were industrially manufactured food-like edible substances.

So I told him about Michael Pollan and his book In Defense of Food, and suggested a quick rule of thumb: Things you eat shouldn’t have ingredients; they should be ingredients. Certainly, they shouldn’t have any ingredients that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

Without saying that I buy into my doctor’s take completely, I think there’s a lot there that’s of interest. The principles of addiction management had always seemed valid—but not applicable to overeating, because you have to eat. The idea that you’re only addicted to those foods that kick those dopamine reward pathways into overdrive . . . . Maybe that is an insight into how to take the things we’ve learned about managing addiction and apply it to overeating.

(Let me add a disclaimer here, that I’ve grabbed a few sentences that my doctor said and run with them—quite possibly farther and in a different direction than my doctor would have. This post is my response to things he said, not a report of what he said.)

Losing weight

I’ve lost a good bit of weight over the past 18 months. I haven’t talked about it much here. It’s bad enough when this starts seeming like an exercise blog; it will not become a weight-loss blog.

I’ve lost a good bit of weight over the past 18 months. I haven’t talked about it much here. It’s bad enough when this starts seeming like an exercise blog; it will not become a weight-loss blog.

That’s partly because the topic is so loaded with cultural baggage. I think there’s pretty good evidence that eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise are both associated with better health. There’s a lot less evidence that being thin is associated with better health—and none at all, as far as I’m aware, that trying to lose weight improves your health, or that exhorting someone else to lose weight improves their health.

Having said all that, my weight is something I’ve been paying attention to, so it seems like something I should talk about here.

What prompts this post at this time is that I’ve reached my lowest adult weight. That is, at 179 pounds this morning, I’ve matched the lowest weight for which I have any record.

I have pretty good data on my weight since 1999. For Christmas that year my brother gave me a Palm III and I installed a weight-tracking app called Eat Watch, which I used fairly regularly from early 2000 until mid 2007. At that point there’s a break in the data, because I lost access to the good doctor’s scale at the Motorola office when the site closed. My bathroom scale wasn’t up to the task. In May of last year I finally bought a good digital scale, and since then I have almost daily data.

Although I’ve been heavier than I’d like pretty much my whole adult life, and have often paid attention to my weight, I’ve largely avoided the curse of yo-yo dieting. Really, there are only two other periods when I’ve lost weight.

The previous one began in 2003. Early that year blood work showed modestly elevated blood sugar levels. The idea that I might break my pancreas was upsetting enough that I took steps: I quit drinking soda and I started running again. From February 2003 through September 2004 I lost 40 pounds, getting my weight down to 188. I kept the weight off for a while; at the end of 2005 it was still around 195, but it was already inexorably rising. By the time the Motorola site closed, it was back up over 200 pounds.

I don’t have much data on my weight from before 2000, but the one exception includes the other period I was losing weight. Back in 1991 I started running, and my running log from that period tracked my weight. I don’t have a value for every week, but I weighed 201 in March that year, and got my weight down to 179 by the end of running season.

In my experience, losing weight is either easy, or else impossible. The easy times are generally summer, when I’m getting plenty of exercise. I’ve tended to blame difficulty in getting exercise for the fact that I gain weight in the winter, but I don’t really have data to show that. It could be other things. Maybe in the dark months I burn fewer calories on incidental movement, such as by fidgeting less. Maybe in the dark months I eat more.

It would only have to be slightly more. One thing the data does make clear is just how few calories it takes to make a large difference. Since May of last year I’ve lost 26 pounds. That corresponds to a daily deficit of just 134 calories. Any little thing—an extra soda, an extra cocktail, an extra beer, an extra snack, an extra serving—would have more than wiped out the deficit. An almost imperceptible change in my amount of fidgeting could easily add or subtract more than 134 calories per day.

It’s pretty much impossible to impose that difference by effort, which is, I think, why diets don’t work. There are extremely complex mechanisms in your body for controlling your weight, which bring to bear powerful forces like appetite and satiety. Making a point of eating less is no more likely to be successful than making a point of breathing less. Losing weight requires changing how you live.

Changes like eating a healthier diet and being less sedentary are likely to lead to weight loss. I used to despair of making such changes. Eating more healthily is tough because (unlike Jackie), I don’t really like vegetables. Being less sedentary was tough because so many hours per day had to be allocated to sedentary activities—sleeping and working.

I’ve improved my diet some. Over the past 20-some years I’ve steadily cut back on the amount of fat and sugar I eat. I’ve also learned to pay more attention to how much food I really want, which lets me get those complex mechanisms for controlling my weight working for me, rather than against me.

Not working at a regular job has helped with being less sedentary—more of my hours are my own. I’ve also made a bit of an attitude adjustment: Before I thought that an hour a day was probably more time than I could afford to devote to exercise; now I figure that 23 hours a day is too much time to spend being sedentary.

Last winter I described a fitness regimen that allowed me to maintain a stable weight. Briefly: Three times a week we lift weights and then do an hour of taiji; the other four days a week I try to walk for an hour. It worked. My weight was stable. (Specifically, from the beginning of September last year though the end of March this year I lost weight at the rate of 0.03 pounds a week, implying a calorie deficit of 17 calories a day. And that right there is a crystal-clear instance of those powerful mechanisms working. Imagine trying to match your calorie intake and activity level within 17 calories by counting calories. It’d be hopeless.)

Maintaining a stable weight over the winter was key. It was perfectly ordinary that I lost weight last summer and this summer. What was different was that I put two summers of weight loss back-to-back.

That’s pretty much the extent of my plan for the rest of this winter as well—a stable weight, so that I’ll be starting from here next summer.

I don’t have much data on which to base a longer-term plan. The National Institutes of Health suggest that the highest healthy weight for a person my height is 164 pounds. That seems like a good medium-term goal.

Looking slightly beyond that, I observe that Jackie is looking very trim these days. To match her body mass index my weight would want to be around 144-151.

That target is supported by my only reasonably specific recollection of my weight from longer ago: When I was a freshman in college, I got mononucleosis. The combination of nausea and a very sore throat resulted in eating a lot less for several weeks, producing considerable weight loss. I don’t have any records, but I’m pretty sure I remember my weight dropping under 150 (which is to say, probably down to 149¾). Despite having gotten there by being sick, I was by no means wasted away at that weight. In fact, I remember looking pretty good.

So, that’s my weight loss story. I don’t expect to talk about it much beyond this. “Let me tell you how I lost so much weight” is just not a useful or interesting story. I only mention it at all because I’ve been paying close attention to it. It would seem to make my own story incomplete to leave it out.