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Incompetent Fitness Blog Item #4
November 28, 2009 — 10:43 pm

I’ve lost a substantial amount of weight a couple of times in the past. The first time happened after heading back for my second year of college following two years as a missionary in Florida. It involved a lot of walking to and from my off-campus apartment and a purposeful rejection of any and all junk food. I lived pretty much entirely off of beans and rice, oranges, and granola, got lots of practical exercise, and lost about 70 pounds in five months. Later, I moved closer to campus, got a bike, began relying on spaghetti as a staple, and the pounds started to pile back on.

The second time, an experimental stab at Atkins, is partly chronicled in three blog entries from 2004, a series continued in both concept and number by this very post. I didn’t have the tools to measure my progress accurately at the time, but I think I lost about 60 pounds in four months, then took a break while visiting home on vacation, used the short-term break as an excuse to take a longer break and cram in some of my favorite foods as long as I was temporarily off the wagon, and didn’t start back up again.

The third time is currently ongoing. I’d been contemplating another diet for a while until last fall, when I stayed with my pals James and Rachel during a work-related trip to D.C. I discovered that James had been adhering to the paleo diet, which is low-carb and similar in some ways to Atkins. I’d read about it before, and it always made evolutionary sense to me. But truth is often counterintuitive, so I checked out the research. I’d read pretty much every criticism of low-carb diets I could find before I started Atkins back in the day, although I was ultimately swayed in favor of at least trying out the approach by Jim Henley’s blog.

James sent me links to a lecture and book by Gary Taubes, who I’d read back in 2004 but had kept collating research in the interim. His 2008 book is an amazing survey of how nutritional data has been systematically massaged for decades in ways that are entirely incompatible with the scientific method. From Overcoming Bias:

For several decades, it has been the conventional wisdom that dietary fat (and especially saturated fat) contributes to obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Judging from Taubes’ exhaustive research — indeed, I’d be surprised if any other book examined bias within a particular scientific field in such detail — the conventional wisdom was based on unreliable and slender evidence that, once established and institutionalized in government funding, set a pattern of confirmation bias by which further research was judged (or ignored).

It’s a great read, and I find it convincing. Of course, the theory also fits perfectly with my own anecdotal experience — so that helps. When I started Atkins for the second time in February 2009, I realized that I’d forgotten how great it felt the first time. No more low-blood-sugar crashes or moments of panicky hunger. Increased energy, deeper sleep. My occasional acid reflux vanished. And as the weight dropped, everything became easier — less mass that needs to be serviced by oxygenated blood flow, less effort required to move the mass that remains.

I think the primary reason I ultimately failed to stick to the diet in 2004 was that I never fully committed. I viewed it as more or less a neat metabolic trick to lose weight without much physical effort, and I always planned to go back to eating all my favorite foods once I’d lost weight — but keep it off with exercise rather than with what I still regarded as a fad diet. Now that I’m convinced by the science, though, it’s no longer even really a diet to me. This is not a temporary change of behavior; there’s no going back. It’s just a healthier way to eat, and that won’t change if I manage to once again reach my long-lost skinny days. The term “lifestyle change” gets thrown around a lot in nutritional literature, and in my case it’s true — that’s what it takes. No breaks for vacation, no falling off the wagon to succumb to a momentary indulgence. It’s a complete shift in outlook.

I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to give something up once I’ve psychologically committed to the decision. Giving up starchy/sugary food for my diet entailed a shift in the way I view food. I see a heaping bowl of mashed potatoes or a plate of cookies, for instance, and no longer regard them as edible. They hold so little power of temptation anymore that they may as well be made out of plastic. Similarly, ruling out the possibility of dating more than a decade ago also turned out to be surprisingly easy. I mean, self-acceptance is one thing, but I labor under no illusions that women are dying to have bald fat dudes crushing on them — in either sense of the term. Not that you can really help developing a crush on somebody, but you can resign yourself to the fact that it’s hopeless and leave it at that; the idea is off the table.

I’m reminded of when the sitcom “King of Queens” came up as the subject of a trivia question not too long ago. A friend pointed out that she thought the show’s basic premise was not believable. Ain’t that the truth. It’s simply a fact of life that I’ve long been resigned to. Way back before the turn of the 21st century, my mind raced through a bajillion losing scenarios like a 1980s Department of Defense supercomputer before concluding that “the only winning move is not to play.” And, after such a point of psychological commitment, other doors open; other opportunity sets arise (although, granted, not necessarily better ones). A “Seinfeld” plot framed this in a cruder but much funnier way — although I’m not sure I’ve been more productive than I otherwise might have been, a la George Costanza, because my OCD tendencies can make even largely unproductive activities seem to carry a veneer of accomplishment when I fall into a rhythm of doing them exhaustively.

Path dependence is an ongoing marginal process. It’s easy to maintain the status quo for another day, week, month, etc., while telling yourself that substantial change is just around the corner. But making that change takes effort, an investment in a new set of sunk costs that require time in order to develop into a new, more rewarding future path. The small immediate payoffs that come from minimal effort can be an attractive alternative to a larger distant payoff that comes only after the difficult initial steps of change. Even though an expanded time preference is one of the hallmarks of success throughout life, it took me this long to consistently forgo the marshmallow of immediate gustatory gratification.

But, again, once actual psychological commitment takes hold, the new path becomes easy to sustain in much the same way as the old one: inertia works in either case. I never intended my absence from the world of relationships to last so long, but I kept telling myself that I’d change next month, next year . . . and that sort of extended procrastination adds up. At times, now that I’ve ventured this far down a new path away from the darkness of self-imposed exile, I catch a glipse of a light at the end of the tunnel — but it’s still distant. So, I remind myself that it’s still hopeless. But maybe it won’t be in another year or so: There’ll be no more marshmallows for me.

There’s no fixed end game that I hope to reach via substantial weight loss, but already, even with 150ish pounds left to go, I can do far more things more easily and readily than I could last year. Losing weight means becoming a dramatically more functional human being, in any number of ways. Whatever comes after that is uncertain, but — ceteris paribus (I know, I know, ceteris is never paribus) — the range of possibilities will expand in positive ways.

Even though I more or less know what I’m doing this time around, this blog entry still lives up to the “incompetent” designation I began back in 2004, because I haven’t been keeping a systematic record of my progress. When I finally got around to writing all of this down, I realized that the only written record I have of my 2009 weight loss milestones comes from Facebook status updates. I’ve compiled the data I posted there for the past several months into the following table that’s interesting (to me) but still incompetent in its inconsistency of measurement:

Facebook Milestone Date Total Diet Duration Days Since Last Milestone Cumulative Weight Loss Weight Loss Since Last Milestone Rate Since Last Milestone
March 8 35 days 35 days 30 pounds 30 pounds 0.857 pounds/day
April 8 65 days 30 days 40 pounds 10 pounds 0.333 pounds/day
April 26 84 days 19 days 50 pounds 10 pounds 0.526 pounds/day
June 13 132 days 48 days 67 pounds 17 pounds 0.354 pounds/day
July 8 157 days 25 days 77 pounds 10 pounds 0.4 pounds/day
August 26 207 days 50 days 90 pounds 13 pounds 0.26 pounds/day
October 24 265 days 58 days 100 pounds 10 pounds 0.172 pounds/day
November 12 284 days 19 days 110 pounds 10 pounds 0.526 pounds/day
— Eric D. DixonComments (2)

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  1. Congratulations, man! I have fallen off the wagon myself. Since I’ve been here, I’ve probably put on about 10 pounds. Though, I’m fully committed to getting back on the wagon when I get back home. It’s easier to eat well when Chipotle is right around the corner.

    Comment by Justin M. Stoddard — November 29, 2009 @ 4:53 am

  2. Eric, this is so interesting. Congratulations on losing a bunch of weight! I realized a few years ago that I needed a permanent lifestyle change in order to lose weight, but I didn’t start making any actual progress until this last year (more like 3/4 of a year), and it’s been very slow progress. I’m fairly happy with that, though. Even when I have a bad week or month, I know I can’t give up. Anyway, thanks for writing about your experiences.

    Comment by Erin J. — December 28, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

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Eric D. Dixon

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