(not the band. sorry, not sorry.)
Flash back to 8 years ago. It was March. Breaking Bad aired its first episode 2 months prior. Rhianna’s song, Umbrella, was on the radio every other song. The first Iron Man movie was coming out in about 2 months. I spent my evenings playing World of Warcraft with my online friends. I was my guild’s main tank. This meant that it was my job to piss off the boss monsters so that they only attacked me and not the characters of my friends. It wasn’t easy. It required figuring out the best equipment to do the job and that changed depending on which boss monsters you happened to be fighting.
For my job, I spent my days writing scripts that automated stuff for other office workers. But between projects, when most people were browsing the internet for cat pictures, I was figuring out which pieces of equipment would help me fight those bosses and tracking the data using Microsoft Excel, and I wrote complex formulas to analyze which piece of equipment was optimal for each situation.
Oh, and I was over 400lbs. I was in constant back pain. I gorged myself on pizza smothered in ranch dressing because it was easy to make (simply dial the number for delivery, cover with ranch, boom). I hardly ever moved except to move between chairs. At most it was office chair, to car seat, to home computer chair. In fact, even getting up to walk to the restroom often made me out of breath.
The World Was About To Change. At Least Mine Was.
I found out that my wife was pregnant, and had my epiphany moment.
I felt a lightning bolt strike me, filling me with the absolutely certainty that I had to lose weight, and I had to start right now…
I visited my favorite website, SomethingAwful, and for the first time entered the “Watch & Weight” forum which was dedicated to fitness for it’s members. I started reading about a guy who went by the name of Kardinal, and I immediately was engrossed in how he lost weight.
To my horror, I realized part of the reason why I was morbidly obese. Literally everything that my doctor, as well as the mainstream diet industry had been telling me was not only wrong, but also contributing to the PROBLEM! I had thought that I would always be extremely hungry while dieting, doing hours of cardio a week, and doomed to always try the next fad diet. I thought the problem was ALL ME, all along!
Reading about Kardinal’s weight loss was a revelation. There was science that I could follow. It became clear that calories mattered most, and that I had two paths to choose from. I could restrict food choices, aim for high volume foods, and up my protein and fiber, the idea being that I would naturally/automatically restrict my calories as a result of actually being full for once resulting in weight loss. Or, I could weigh out my food, and track what I ate and create a calorie deficit that way, again resulting in weight loss.
I could see the merit of both methods. I loved the allure of feeling full by eating high volume foods, but I also loved the idea of tracking numbers, data that I could analyze, by tracking what I ate. I knew that I HAD to lose weight now, so I decided to use both techniques.
FITNESS IS A SPREADSHEET RPG?
So, upon the advice of the SomethingAwful “Watch and Weight” forum, I immediately bought a food scale, used the website CalorieKing, and started tracking what I ate in Excel. I fell in love with this process immediately, because this was exactly like what I was doing with my World of Warcraft spreadsheets. I was optimizing for maximum weight loss and maximum satiety. I had discovered that, for me, fitness was a spreadsheet roleplaying game. But in the end it wasn’t. More on that in a bit.
I was immediately angry because this was easy. Eat protein in X amount, eat fiber in Y amount, eat calories in Z amount. Lose weight. I was a roleplaying game character. The weight started to fly off.
March 11th: 407lbs
March 1t5th, 400lbs
March 22nd, 395lbs
April 19th 389lbs.
I was doing it. I had tremendous momentum. I was actually losing weight without needing to do cardio which I hated, and I was doing it without doing a fad diet. I thought nothing could stop me. Except the thing that did: the vampire weekend. And I don’t mean the band.
THE VAMPIRE WEEKEND
Everything was humming along, as long as I had access to my spreadsheets. I would plan meals in advance, and I would make the numbers in my spreadsheet work for me. But we all know that life happens, and there are spur of the moment events, invitations, or just rough days that make a meal out necessary. It was then that I ran into the issue of dealing with being away from my computer….and having no idea what to do. Remember, this was 2008. Smart phones, while they existed, weren’t as common as they are now and were much more expensive. I didn’t even have a cell phone in 2008. The human body was more complicated than a spreadsheet, or roleplaying game, and I wasn’t ready for that realization.
This particular issue of eating meals out, meals that I hadn’t planned in advance, would cause me to suffer from enormous amounts of stress. What was the best option for my macro goals? What was the best option if I wanted to splurge some? How bad would it be if I just ate one meal without tracking? How many calories really could be in that gourmet bacon cheeseburger or those 3-4 craft beers? I would question and question and more often than not, I would reach a point where an all or nothing mentality would take over. When I was home and able to plan my meals, I was on point. But when I wasn’t home, I had given myself permission to go “off plan,” and it was then that binge eating started to rear it’s ugly head.
I wouldn’t liken this to the type of binge eating that is common of a binge eating disorder. I wasn’t eating until I was uncomfortably full, I wasn’t eating when not hungry, I wasn’t embarrassed about the quantity of food being eaten, and I wasn’t disgusted by it. Hell, at that point, half of my identity was still wrapped up in being a “big guy” and a “big eater.” There was a reason my nickname in college was Chug. I wore that name like a badge of courage, something to be proud of.
I felt that I deserved to eat whatever I wanted on the weekend because I’d earned it from a week of making healthful choices. Being a Greek Mythology nerd, I jokingly liken this mindset to the Madness of Dionysus, the god of fertility, wine and ecstasy:
“The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state.”
On weekends, I would remove my inhibitions and eating constraints and return to my natural state. Except the problem is that apparently my natural state is morbid obesity above 400lbs.
Even with my excessive eating and not tracking on the weekends, I still steadily lost weight at first because I had so much weight to lose, and with the weekend overeating, I was still in a weekly calorie deficit. There were ups and downs, but the trend line of my weight continuously was moving downward. I got used to the approach of being stricter on weekdays and being much more relaxed on weekends. But as I moved away from morbid obesity toward actually being fit, this stopped working.
Eventually, the trend line of my weight loss was flat lined over larger periods of time. Sure, I would drop weight and keep it off for a little while, but it seemed that the weight would just slowly creep back up. It took me a little over two years to lose 200lbs, but over the course of the next 6 years, I bounced back and forth between 230 and 200lbs multiple times. I decided that I needed to break out of this pattern. To do that, I need to get a greater handle on my weekend eating and beer drinking. I needed a way to stay accountable during the weekend.
LET’S GO MOBILE
Tracking consistently for every meal even on weekends required me to give up my Excel spreadsheet and step into the mobile universe. MyFitnessPal, had vastly improved their database and had a smartphone application which now included a barcode scanner. I made the switch on January 2nd, 2014. Due to the convenience of now having a smart phone, and thus access to my meal planning anywhere I went, I started to track everything that I ate. I tracked every, single day, weekends and holidays included, no matter if I was reaching my calorie and macro goals or going over (intentionally or unintentionally). There may be a few days where I skipped tracking a particular meal on purpose (having made that decision ahead of time), but the days where I ate horribly and ate more like my former 400lb self are all there for anyone to see. Case in point, Easter 2015 was a 5,000 calorie plus day, and I could have easily kept going:
SO WHAT DID I LEARN FROM THESE PAST 859+ DAYS?
Throughout the past 2+ years, I have taken the time to analyze the data, comparing my calorie intake vs. my weigh-ins/weekly measurements. I’m always looking for ways to better optimize my weight loss and satiety.
The one thing that really stuck out to me was how bad my vampire weekend days were. When I have an entire day where I’m not really tracking, I can easily eat upwards of 4-5,000 calories, just from following my hunger levels. And that’s even while prioritizing protein and fiber. My maintenance calories are somewhere near 2700 calories as I’m a sedentary office worker. I was eating a smaller deficit of 300-400 calories, which means that my single day of not being aware of my intake was entirely erasing my hard work of adherence during the week. Things were even worse when drinking was added in, as I found that I was eating way more when drinking. Additionally, not all weekends were single days of not tracking, some were 2-3 days.
Seeing this data highlighted the fact that deep down inside, I still had remnants of the habits that lead me to be morbidly obese and over 400lbs to begin with. I thought that I had vanquished those habits and replaced them with better ones, but instead, I chained them inside a box most of the time, and occasionally let them out to wreak havoc. For me, this means that an entire day (or weekend) of doing “whatever” is simply not going to help me with my goals. Instead, these dietary splurges should be limited to a smaller time window.
I, like many others, also felt regret after these weekend splurges. This guilt is “literally the opposite of how we virtually always feel good about having worked out, even if we really didn’t want to work out beforehand” (Zugzuwang, 2015 via SomethingAwful forums post).
This regret lead me to putting the data that I had collected to use. Since my maintenance calories are roughly 2700, I know I can expect approximately 1 lb of fat loss a week by eating a -500 calorie deficit per day, which is a weekly deficit of a weekly deficit of 3500. If I stick to the mentality that weekends don’t matter, and say have 4,500 calories on Saturday and on Sunday (1800 calories over — think one burger and milkshake), I’ve entirely erased my weekly deficit, and have actually created a calorie surplus that will lead to weight gain over time! This is the danger inherent in being formerly fat, as our former appetites don’t always shrink as our bodies do.
The math itself is not important. The math only serves to reveal the habits that are the problem.
I found that I still had habits that I needed to modify because they were resulting in overconsumption to a degree that was enough to erase the calorie deficit that I was creating during the week. In hindsight, it should have been obvious to me what was happening, but it wasn’t. I had to see the numbers to make that connection, to finally admit to myself that I hadn’t fully overcome some of the issues that lead to my morbid obesity.
SO WHAT HAVE I DONE TO FIX THIS?
I’ve similarly put the math to use again, and it’s still a work in progress. I’ve tried to reduce my calories a little more during the week (especially when I know that I will have an event filled weekend) to allow for more freedom on the weekends. I’ve started to use intermittent fasting (essentially skipping breakfast, or in the case of a breakfast meal out, skipping lunch) on the weekends to create a calorie buffer and allow for more room for food later in the day, and I’ve also started to become more lax regarding hitting protein, fat, and carb targets on the weekend and mostly being concerned with the calorie intake. I’ve accepted the fact that sometimes I’m just going to be over my calories, but I now look at this in a positive light as long as I’m still maintaining a weekly deficit. Slow progress is still progress, and much better than regressing!
When I’m eating out at restaurants, I’m letting what I actually want to eat dictate my choices rather than allowing food to be the reward for a week of calorie tracking. I do my best to make what I want to order fit into my daily goals, and this means that I make adjustments elsewhere in my day or even in my week so that I can still maintain my weekly deficit. In this way, I’ve made tracking work FOR me instead of it being a chore.
By tracking every single day, I have placed myself in control over what I place in my mouth and what results I will achieve as a result. Being consistent has given me the confidence to understand how I interact with food. I am no longer ruled by food, instead, I understand portion size, how much I am capable of overeating, what works positively to fill me up and satisfy me, and what things are worth the extra calories (Mom’s lasagne).
By never breaking the chain, as Seinfeld, put it, I have strengthened my ability to track consistently and efficiently. What would take me 20 minutes to configure in my spreadsheet tracking system, now takes me seconds using MFP. But the best part of not breaking the chain is that my mastery over food has grown stronger and stronger and stronger. It is a muscle, and a skill. I am confident that I can plan for anything, and also course correct when unexpected events come up. There is no guilt, only awareness. It took a while to get to that point, I had to suck at tracking first by leaving too much to chance on the weekends, but now I know that consistency has made me sorta good at tracking.
Don’t break the chain: track consistently even on weekends, at least temporarily. Honesty in your recording of what you eat and when you eat can help you determine the negative habits that you have not entirely vanquished. These habits tend to come out when we don’t have a strong and structured routine like we do on weekdays. Don’t let it consume you, though, and remember that the goal of tracking is to guide your habits and behavior, NOT THE MATH!
Know that the vampire weekend CAN destroy your entire week’s worth of effort. Rather than fall victim to the idea that you deserve a food item because of your hard work regardless of whether or not it fits your goals, plan to have the food that you want first, and make changes to your other meals to make it work.
Using strategies like intermittent fasting can allow you a greater number of calories for meals later in the day. Be aware that unless you are already accustomed to eating higher protein meals, intermittent fasting can make it harder to reach your protein goals, and thus can make you hungrier.
Try to introduce some structure to your weekends and plan some meals in advance where possible.
If you need some help with slaying your vampire weekends, consider working with me 1 on 1 as your coach. We will work on the habit of tracking, identifying binge eating triggers, and finding ways to make tracking work for you (along with a lot of other cool habit-based work as well).
THANKS. AND FURTHER READING.
Special thanks and shout out to Wamsutta and Zugzwang on the SomethingAwful forums. Our discussion on this matter inspired me to finally write this article.