Counting Calories

Losing 72 lbs in 52 weeks for Macmillan Cancer Support

Please consider donating to my campaign. I'm trying to lose 52 lbs in weight in 52 weeks for Macmillan Cancer Support.

I always think it’s worth breaking a big goal into smaller goals. I may have picked that up from Getting Things Done by David Allen, one of only four self-help books I’ve ever read (the other three are Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, Managing your Mind by Gillian Butler et al. and Thirteen Steps to Mentalism by Tony Corinda).

Case in point, you decide you want to be a train driver, but you are only 14 years old. You obviously can’t just turn up at your local train station on Monday and start operating the 14:05 from Edinburgh to Plymouth. You need to grow up a bit first, then:

  • Do some research into how to apply
  • Pass your GCSEs, a minimum of five grades A to C
  • Make sure you are physically fit
  • Be mentally resilient and able to deal with crises
  • Learn how to drive other vehicles safely
  • Try to get an entry-level job on the trains as a conductor or customer care assistant
  • Apply for an apprenticeship when one comes up
  • Train as a driver
  • Get a job as a train driver

Then each of these tasks has it’s own sub-tasks. To pass GCSEs, for example, you have to:

  • Go to school
  • Attend lessons
  • Do the work that’s set over a period of two years
  • Read and study around each subject
  • Revise the key points of each subject
  • Sit and pass the exams

Every time you reach a goal, you have to set yourself a new one. It's almost as though there is an infinite number of regressing and progressing possibilities in either direction. Which there are.

When losing weight there are other activities that contribute towards each goal. To count calories you have to control portion sizes, avoid high-calorie options, parcel out food sensibly throughout the day, think ahead to the next meal and so on. You have to plan when to exercise and what that exercise will be. There are some task elements that you don’t even think about at first.

Exercise isn’t just about burning calories and improving aerobic health, for example, you have to tone up and build muscle (so you don’t burn it). I noticed early on that I was losing weight but getting flabbier – because I wasn't doing enough resistance exercise.

The biggest challenge is to just to keep going. I do that by gamifying my goals. Losing four stones is a big goal and a year is a long time to maintain sight of it. Breaking it down into sub-goals has helped me to stay on track. Some of the sub-goals that kept me going are:

  • A commitment to losing at least 1 lb in weight every week
  • A larger goal to lose at least 4 lbs every four weeks
  • Treating each stone lost as a clear milestone (I’ve lost one full stone so far)
  • Keeping up this journal
  • Going down successive waist sizes in trousers
  • Fitting into an old jacket or shirt
  • Matching my weight at different times in my life

That last goal is an interesting one – and here’s where I reveal how much I weighed at the beginning of this.

When I started losing weight I was the heaviest I had ever been; 17 stones and 12 lbs. I remember going over 16 stones a couple of years ago and a nagging thought crept into the back of my mind. It said, “this is too much – you’re too heavy now”.

Then at the beginning of that summer, I hyperextended my knee. For about four months, from May to August 2017 I was walking with the assistance of a stick. For someone who normally averages five miles a day it impacted my health and weight significantly. Injured and unable to exercise, bored and eating more calories than I needed, I returned to work that September a stunning 15 lbs heavier. With new and bad habits ingrained, I continued to put on weight even after I’d fully recovered.

As I began to lose weight with this diet, my first significant milestone goal was to lose a stone. I accomplished that goal last week. My next goal is already within sight – and that’s to get to 16 stones, the weight I was when I injured my knee.

I started this diet in a hot moment; a conflagration of circumstances and realisations catalysed into action by an unthoughtful advertising campaign from an organisation that should have known better.

I have been losing weight a little faster than I expected – but it has not been easy. I’m eight weeks in and I’m still “obese”. Even when I reach my target weight of 13 stones and 12 lbs – I’ll still be “overweight”.

Of course, when I get there, that’s when I’ll just set myself a new goal.

Please consider donating to my campaign. I'm trying to lose 52 lbs in weight in 52 weeks for Macmillan Cancer Support.

I still get a kick out of calling my partner “my wife”. I know it’s old fashioned and probably patriarchal but... a little over two years ago we stood in front of each other and, in front of our immediate family, we both pinky swore that we were going to make this god damn work for as long as possible. Until one of us dies, in fact.

It will probably be me, to be honest.

My wife (giggle) has always been very careful about the fuel she puts into her body. In fact, when we met she was a long-distance runner, regularly pounding out five miles a day.

I was yoyo-ing at the time. Going back and forth across the “healthy/overweight” boundary after a bad break-up, my fortieth birthday and six months recovering from an accident. I wasn’t really dieting, I was just not eating much. But I was rowing. I was rowing a lot.

The indoor rower was the only piece of gym equipment I was ever attracted to. The treadmill frightened me and the cross trainer made me feel like a badly made robot. Stationary bikes take you nowhere and do nothing of interest. The indoor rowing machine and I, we bonded for a while. I could strap my feet in, plug-in my iPod and row away for half an hour at a time, easily.

I chose well because rowing is one of the best workouts you can get. It’s aerobic and muscle building. It targets the upper and lower body, and is relatively low impact. When you do it correctly, it even burns belly fat. I was daft to stop – but I made the mistake of thinking that I only needed to exercise to lose weight, not maintain health.

This time, I’m taking a more clinical and less cynical approach to it.

I know that I have to exercise as well as not eat too much. I have a layman’s understanding that if I put fewer calories in than I burn, I’ll lose weight – but that if I don’t exercise and eat enough protein, the weight will come from muscle rather than fat.

The same way I count calories, I now document exercise. During a working day, it’s easy. I can walk five miles without thinking about it. On days at home, working or not, I don’t even leave the house sometimes. So, discipline and documentation are key.

The rule is, if I’m not at work I have to do an hour’s exercise. So, I bought a rowing machine for home. I do half an hour of that and half an hour of something more gentle. I know it’s doing me some good because it makes me feel good. I had to Google the science bit (even though I knew it intuitively).

Ahem:

  • Exercise lowers metabolism, so you can process calories more effectively
  • Resistance exercise helps to build muscle and burn fat.
  • It also lowers blood pressure and improves heart health (because the heart’s a muscle).
  • That addictive, feel-good sensation is your brain on dopamine, endorphins and increased serotonin. Free, mind-altering substances made by your body.

So, how do I feel right now? After a stressful couple of weeks at work – not bad at all. As well as losing weight I am beginning to notice changes in my body and my general mood.

My wife (he he he) says I’ve been much less grumpy since I started counting calories. That’s, in part, because I’m controlling my hypoglycaemia more effectively, but it’s also because I’m making exercise a priority.

All I have to do now is keep it up for the rest of my life.

What no one tells you about losing weight is how much repetition and admin is involved.

I do enough of that at work, so I'm resistant to doing too much at home. So I hack it instead.

How much thought did you give to breakfast this morning? Probably not a great deal. We know it's supposed to be the “most important meal of the day” but we're all so busy, aren't we? We eat the same cereal until the packet is empty or grab the same sandwich from the same cafe.

A friend of mine briefly ran a Tumblr documenting his breakfast routine, posting a photo every day. Every day two slices of Marmite on granary toast, a glass of vitamin drink and a cup of coffee. For months. It was a good joke, because that's the reality for most of us. There are better things to be thinking about first thing in the morning.

When I look at manufactured diets – the diets in books and clubs – there's always a bewildering amount of variety though. One morning you're supposed to kick off your day with some wild blueberry porridge you prepared yourself the night before, the next a smoked kipper with a cup of spinach, the next an egg white omelette, garnished with birdseed. Who has the time? Never mind the storage space in the average kitchen. If I was really going to flip my lid about it I'd say this just goes to show that the dieting industry makes losing weight a privilege. All those expensive, exotic grains, all that endless, vacuous variety. Try finding red quinoa in the corner shop on your council estate.

My broad approach, at least where breakfast and lunch are concerned, is reasonable repetition.

I am currently rotating through the same handful of breakfasts that I know clock in around 300 calories. Overnight muesli is one (I throw a sliced banana, chopped apricots and flaked almonds into a bowl of oats, cover with soy milk and pop it in the fridge until morning). Another one is (thinly spread) peanut butter on wholemeal toast. The ingredients are dried or keep well in the cupboard. I don't faff with fish or punnets of fresh fruit. The latter because they go off, the former because I don't eat it anyway...

Again, lunch is chosen from a narrow range of options. The benefit is that I don't need to calculate how many calories are in the lentil hotpot I ate last week (and the week before) or the curry I'll eat three days in a row. Leftovers figure large. It's easy to make an extra portion of something at dinner for lunch the next day.

I did learn one great trick from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (not in person, off the telly) and have adapted it to quickly make non-boring lunches I can take to work.

I have a sturdy lunchbox and in that I put:

  • 1 part carbohydrate (cooked pasta, rice, new potatoes with the skins on or a hunk of good bread)
  • 2 parts protein (cooked chickpeas, bean salad and/or boiled egg)
  • 3 parts raw veg (grated carrot, sweetcorn, chopped tomatoes, red pepper)
  • As much lettuce and leaves as I like
  • A sprinkle of chopped leafy herbs (parsley, coriander, basil or mint)
  • A simple dressing (a few chili flakes and a squeeze of lime, a tablespoon of soy sauce with grated ginger – or an off the shelf diet dressing)
  • Some crunchy bits to sprinkle on (a few croutons or bacon-flavour sprinkles, fried onions, crisp celery or dry-fried pumpkin seeds)

You can spend half an hour adding up all the calories there but it will probably come out at between 300 and 350. The dressing and herbs enable you to change up the flavours. As for the carbs, they could easily be leftovers from dinner (which grates on me every time I type it because I'm from Huddersfield, where “dinner” is “tea”).

So, what about tea? That's the tricky one. Of course, it's best to have a proper plan. A seven-day dinner plan, costed, with ingredients in the fridge and cupboards. I've gone one better than that. In my Google Drive is a spreadsheet with 28 days worth of dinner in it.

To be honest, we rarely stick to it.

One thing I do know that is dangerous for dieting, and that's getting home a couple of hours before bedtime and having bare cupboards. So, we make sure we always have brown rice and pasta to minimise the temptation to go for chips. Tins of beans, lentils and chickpeas, because no one has time to pre-soak pulses. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, a basic range of spices and, at the very least, some dried herbs. Pick up some fresh veg on the way home, it doesn't really matter what. From those ingredients, I can make a range of things – from chilli, to vegetarian bolognese to dhal. So, if I don't have a plan I won't be too tempted to call for pizza.

I do have a few other hacks that I'll talk about in future updates. Quite a lot, to be honest. Next time, though, I'll say a few things about exercise – because losing weight isn't all about what you stop doing.

I'm sorry, but part of documenting your weight loss online is taking photos of progress. I'm going to have my photo taken at the end of every month of dieting. No filters, no smoothing and no holding my belly in. In future, I hope we'll refer to this as the “before” image...

Please consider donating to my campaign. I'm trying to lose 52 lbs in weight in 52 weeks for Macmillan Cancer Support.

One month in...

I have a condition called reactive hypoglycaemia. When I eat certain foods, my body makes too much insulin, and my blood sugar levels rapidly drop.

If you've come here from social media, please consider donating to my campaign. I'm trying to lose 52 lbs in weight in 52 weeks for Macmillan Cancer Support.

The symptoms of a full sugar crash are scary – shivering, blurred vision, nausea, extreme weakness, impaired cognition, difficulty speaking, sweating and, sometimes, fainting. On a day-to-day basis, I will experience some effects of low blood sugar, including poor short-term recall, diminished focus, headache, fatigue and aphasia (the inability to recall words). I remember experiencing that last symptom on the first day of a creative writing class and being called “thick” by a Booker listed novelist, in front of 20 other students.

At least she didn't call me fat.

Though I didn't get a formal diagnosis until I was 30, the symptoms were there in my mid to late 20s. I used the early Internet to search for advice and discovered a full “FAQ” on the topic. I wish I could find that document now because it was one of the most succinct and accessible descriptions of the condition and how to manage it that I've ever read, but I do remember some of the advice it gave:

  • Eliminate processed sugars from your diet entirely. They are poison.
  • Eat fewer simple carbs (fruit, jam, syrup)
  • Go for unrefined carbs when possible (brown rice, wholemeal bread and pasta)
  • Eat foods with a lower “glycaemic index” (foods that don't raise your blood sugar level as much) in general
  • Have a portion of protein with every meal
  • Eat smaller meals
  • Eat at more frequent intervals – having six or seven “meals” a day
  • Eat before bedtime to prevent blood sugar from dropping overnight
  • Reduce or eliminate stimulants like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine
  • Avoid sweeteners (because they make it more difficult for you to wean yourself off sugar in the long term)

Even then, this seemed like a lot of “rules” to follow – and when you dig into the substance of them, they sometimes spawn sub-rules, like baby spiders breaking out of an egg sac. My success at following this regime has ebbed and flowed over the years and, inevitably, when I am managing the condition well, I start to slip. One piece of cake. A couple of biscuits. Before you know it you're having pizza and chips for lunch and spending the rest of the afternoon trying to remember where your phone is (you're holding it).

Rules like this are not very sociable either. Eating out becomes difficult because two courses in a restaurant are three meals all at once. When you're vegetarian, as I have tried to be since the age of 13, getting enough protein is almost impossible. The canteen in my workplace has vegetarian options, but they don't even try to include protein in them. There's nary a chickpea or a lentil to be seen.

So, what I (and I assume many reactive hypoglycaemics) end up doing is taking some of the advice above, but not all of it. I know that I never have a problem eating frequently – but most of the time that means eating carbs regularly. Pasties, flapjack, chips and cereal bars.

If you want to a) control the condition and – as I am currently trying – b) lose weight at the same time, you can't do that.

So – my approach to losing weight has two components I've told you about so far.

  • Counting calories – eating 1800 calories a day.
  • Sticking strictly to the rules above.

One of the best ways to do both is to meal plan. I'll talk a bit more about that in my next post.

Technically, my diet began on 18th of August 2019. I may tell you later what my starting weight was... right now, when I look at the number, I'm still a little dismayed that it took a ridiculous and annoying ad campaign to really prod me into action.

There are, of course, lots of diets – keto, intermittent fasting, Weight Watchers. There are fad diets where you only eat one kind of food over a period of time, like grapefruit or cabbage soup. But there’s only one diet that’s ever really worked for me – and that’s calorie control. I’m limiting myself to 1800 calories a day. I know that I burn around 2600 if I’m sitting around the house – closer to 4200 on a working day. As long as I eat fewer calories than I burn, I’ll lose weight.

So, everything I eat during the day is entered into an app that adds up how many calories I'm having. It's a bit more complex than that – but I'll fill in the details later.

While Weight Watchers and Slimming World are calorie-controlled diets too, there are several things I prefer about counting my own:

  • When you have a limited number of calories to eat you tend to choose the stuff that’s good for you over fatty, carb-heavy choices naturally.

  • You begin to realise that some of your healthy snacks were not as healthy as you thought. For example, I’ve often fallen back on cereal as an evening snack – but some cereals are full of sugar and empty calories.

  • You think about portion control more and that resets your perception of what a “portion” is. I haven’t felt uncomfortably full since I started counting calories.

  • You appreciate and relish treats – like a couple of squares of chocolate.

  • You can still pretty much eat what you want – as long as it fits in your plan.

It’s also vital to measure and record what you eat.

My first update wasn’t very optimistic – I didn’t lose any weight in the first two weeks. In fact, I put a couple of pounds on. The truth is, my slow start was down to estimating my calorific intake instead of directly documenting and calculating it. I switched to that method and I’ve now lost 3lbs. I’m back on track.

As for the campaign – that has yet to start in earnest. I tweeted my story two weeks ago, copying in Cancer Research UK and Anomaly. There was no response. I think it’s a case where they might believe that if they stay quiet, I’ll go away.

I’m not going anywhere.

In my next update I’ll talk a bit about what I’m doing to manage my hypoglycaemia as I diet.