It's getting better: Long-term health improvements from modest weight loss

Please consider donating the price of a coffee to my campaign. If you're outside the EU, you can donate via PayPal instead. I'm trying to lose 52 lbs in weight in 52 weeks for Macmillan Cancer Support. I've shed 26 lbs so far, but there's more to go and I would like to raise £5200 overall.

I have been living a quantified life, probably rather pointlessly, for several years. I wear a tracker that counts the number of steps I do every day. It estimates how many calories I burn, measures my heart rate and tells me how well I'm sleeping. In turns out that spending several years aimlessly collecting data comes in handy when you start looking at all the numbers and use them to change your lifestyle. Who knew?

It's only been three months, but I already see improvements to my health and how I feel.

Fall in heart rate

For example, I can tell you that my average resting heart rate has dropped by 14 or 15 beats per minute since I began the diet. That’s probably down to a combination of two things; the increase in aerobic exercise, improving heart-health, and a slowdown in metabolism. My health tracker tells me that this is an improvement from “fair to average” to “good” for someone of my age. A slower metabolism is a double-edged sword, though. Yes, I don’t feel the need to eat as much and my heart is no longer fluttering like a hummingbird in my chest, but it’s also getting harder to burn calories and every pound lost is now a harder win.

Sleep apnoea

When I first met my wife a little over 11 years ago, I didn’t snore much at all. Not really. Over the years, as I put on weight, that changed. The bigger I got, the more snorty I became. We joked about it; about how phenomenally loud it was, like a plane taking off or a washing machine on spin. She would put earbuds in to block out the sound, turning the volume up full. My snoring was louder. I woke myself up sometimes, mid-snore, wondering what the noise was.

Then a little later, I began to stop breathing in my sleep. Sometimes for tens of seconds at a time, many times a night. My partner shook me awake when it first started, afraid that I’d died. I recorded a few nights snoring using an app on my phone and could hear myself choking, or stop breathing, over and over.

Earlier this year, I began waking from sleep gasping for air. It was the strangest feeling, like washing up on shore with head pounding and lungs deflated. It’s called obstructive sleep apnoea – a condition where the throat relaxes and collapses while you sleep, preventing you from breathing correctly. Your sleep is interrupted all night long by dozens and dozens of “micro-awakenings” that you’re unaware of. Sometimes you’re so deep in it that you begin to suffocate.

That has mostly stopped. The snoring became lighter as I lost weight until my wife tells me, it’s now at “normal” levels. I recorded myself snoring this week and, although it still sounded quite loud to me at points, there were no longer any long pauses or horrifying choking sounds. Progress, I guess.

Acid reflux

I’m sorry about this bit. Acid reflux isn’t a pleasant thing to think about. It’s worse having it. Acid reflux is indigestion that’s been to the gym and returned bulging with veins and muscles. I don't know where the gym is in that metaphor. Perhaps it's in your colon.

I’ve been taking medication to reduce acid reflux on and off for about six years. I started taking that very seriously, again, because of sleep disturbance. Sometimes I would wake up with painful heartburn or, worse, choking on acid at the back of my throat. Combined with the sleep apnoea, it wasn’t pleasant, and I did see my GP about it, who prescribed proton pump inhibitors and sent me on my way (two or three times).

I haven’t needed any antacid medication now for ten weeks and have had very few problems at all. No night-time indigestion, no waking with symptoms. The fact that it cleared up so quickly can’t be wholly attributed to weight-loss – but a side-effect of counting calories is that I don’t snack in the evenings. No crisps or biscuits or chocolate while I’m binging on Netflix for the snatched hours before bed. My meals are healthier and lighter, and I rarely feel too full. Partly, I was causing the acid reflux with my bad diet. Losing weight has helped also.

Fewer hypoglycaemic episodes

One of the main things I was apprehensive about going into this diet was managing my blood sugar levels. It turns out that worry was mostly unfounded. It’s not the amount you eat that triggers a hypoglycaemic response (I am reactive hypoglycaemic, which means I over-produce insulin), it’s what and when you eat.

My diet is far away from keto or Atkins, but my intake of simple carbs has dropped while I’ve been counting calories. I also eat much more protein. This happened fairly naturally. When you realise that a white roll “costs” 150 calories – the same as a portion of brown basmati rice (which is much more filling), you choose the complex carb instead. I realised I could make a griddled breakfast with very little oil, tomatoes, mushrooms, eggs and fake bacon (I don’t eat meat) that came in at 400 calories if I cut out the toast and hash browns. This type of substitution has taken me a long way. Complex carbs and protein have a lower GI (Glycaemic Index) and don’t trigger the sugar crash.

The other secret weapon is to eat six meals a day with calories portioned out. A typical day might look like this:

Breakfast: c300 Morning snack: (up to) 200 Lunch: c450 Afternoon snack: (up to) 200 Dinner: c450 Evening snack: (up to) 200

Each “meal” has protein and complex carbs – and that approach has been enough to control my blood sugar levels. I haven’t been dizzy, faint or fallen asleep in the afternoon since I started the diet.

Stamina and clarity

I don’t know whether this is just a general effect of managing my blood sugar levels more efficiently or whether it’s because I’m sleeping better, but I do feel more... awake. In one of my first posts, I recounted how low blood sugar made me dopey, made my thinking foggy and slow. I’m still forgetful and aphasic, but not as much. I think that’s probably just how I am.

I haven’t felt sleepy on the train home for a while, either. This week I had a particularly long day, getting up before 05:00, working until 17:00, arriving home after 19:30 tired but still mentally alert.

That brings its own problems. The quicker my thinking, the more likely I am to say the first thing that’s on my mind. But this is a blog about weight-loss, not my ongoing personal battle with catastrophic candour.

Overall, that’s a lot of positive physical change in just three months. There are odd things I’m noticing too, like my body’s asymmetry. Did you know that you lose weight in different places at different rates? You can. It’s weird.

I am working on other things too; increasing resistance training, trying to walk for pleasure rather than to get places. Making myself row five kilometres nowhere, three days a week.

I hate it when people talk about progress as a “journey” – but it kind of is. You go off in a direction you haven’t been before, and you keep finding new things. That’s what a journey is, right? Except, this is one measured in time rather than space.