Saturday, January 28, 2012

Passionately Moderate Marathon Weight Loss: Eating, Right?

In honor of running six miles yesterday (!!) up and back City Creek, finishing strong, and finding my mojo again, I celebrate with this. As sort of an appendix to my Marathon Story that starts here, I thought it might be of benefit to document the significant weight loss that resulted and how. So climb into the Way-Back Machine with me and set the dial to 2001: 

Checking myself out with the doctor, I got all the middle-aged male tests. Then the results came back. The cholesterol problem had been ignored for a few years, but the blood tests showed my cholesterol at 295 and my triglycerides at 400. That’s not good. Normal range for cholesterol is supposed to be under 200. Some people are down below 100. 200 to 240 is considered moderate risk. 240 plus is high risk. My scores were so high on the bad cholesterol that the lab wouldn't do the ratio calculation between bad and good cholesterol.

While perhaps cursed with genetically high cholesterol, I was also blessed with a pretty good metabolism--at least when I am active. My weight in recent years had been 180 to 185. Not bad for a 5’10” male, but on the BMI charts I was overweight and encroaching into the risk area. BMI stands for Body Mass Index (I think) most of the fitness/health/exercise books talk about it as well as numerous sites on the web. There are a lot of them because I kept trying different sites and hoping I could get different results plugging in the same numbers for my height and weight. It didn’t work. 

Nobody hates dieting as much as I do. And it’s not really the deprivation of food that’s the problem but all the silly little rules you have to follow and the measuring and weighing and counting calories and just the basic loss of control and freedom factor. Maybe it’s just the math, but life is complex enough without making eating a regulatory nightmare. So I determined that common sense would rule. I would put my faith in the old maxim “Eat Less – Exercise More.” It worked. 

Eternal gratitude also goes to my wife. She claims that one of the differences between women and men is food consciousness. It’s not only that women are traditional kitchen worker-bees feeding their loving families surrounded by the constant temptations of a well-stocked pantry, but the fact that women’s bodies and minds are more than is obviously different. The child-bearing and physical appurtenances to that activity tend to reshape women over time. Women also tend to worry more than men do about body appearance and shape. Part of that is societal pressures for which we all share guilty responsibility. But my wife has been most helpful with her vast food knowledge. She also believes that denial of certain foods is not only not fun, but also dangerous to the success of a long-term weight-loss program. 

Common sense is vastly underrated. Instead of eating as much as I usually did, I simply ate less. Smaller portions, better choices, less of the potentially harmful substances. I did start paying more attention to food labels and avoided cholesterol to the extent possible. I tried sources of good cholesterol, olive oil, fish, almonds, and avocados principally. And I never denied myself at least a taste of anything. I ate candy, especially chocolate, just not too much. Sucking on individual M&M’s makes them last longer and you consume much less than by the handful. 

Another great secret of the universe is that instant oatmeal is actually the staff of life. Nearly every morning during my weight loss period and beyond I heated water on the stove at home or microwave at work, ripped open a package of Instant Quaker Oats and poured the horse feed mixed with dehydrated peaches, cinnamon flavor or brown sugar into a mug. After stirring, I let it rise and thicken briefly and had a fulfilling meal. The strawberry and cream flavor is the best but there’s only two in the package to four of the peach. The strawberries taste kind of like those little crunch berries in Captain Crunch Cereal (also by Quaker Oats). During the early days of weight loss I actually picked out the brown sugar clumps in that flavor and mixed relatively sugar-free oats in with raisins I had heated with water in the microwave. The plumped up raisins and juice were a wonderful complement to the plain, instant oatmeal. 

I made a conscious effort to force more fruit down my system. I have always loved oranges and bananas. They became my snacks and breakfast supplement to top off the oatmeal. A sliced banana mixed with hot instant oatmeal is great. Apples, for some reason, are harder for me to fall in love with in spite of growing up in Washington State. I have to force myself to choose one on occasion and am happier when I am done than at initial crunch. 

And the weight went. At first rather rapidly and then steadily it continued to come off. It was about two pounds a week for the first while. The diet and health books say that’s a lot of water weight loss from eating fewer carbohydrates. I am no scientist or nutritionist. I only know the weight went somewhere. I was amazed and so grateful after the Thanksgiving race to actually hit 162 on the scale, which I hadn't seen for I don’t know how many years. Closing in on Christmas I was down to 158 and stayed there in a holding pattern until a week after New Years. That was just fine too. No one should be expected to lose weight during the holidays. Then it kept going and going. I was running and exercising more and better and finally by the end of February I was closing in on 150 pounds. I was more than happy to let it stay there but then I was leveling out at 148 and dipping to 146 on some days. I changed my pattern to eat a little more as I couldn't afford to go much further. 

It becomes important in maintaining a target weight not to slip into old bad habits. I worked on ways to eat more nutritious food rather than the tempting and dangerous varieties. But once again, let me stress that I did not denied myself anything. I only limited the danger foods to a rare treat instead of a regular occurrence. And my habits and tastes changed. One day, after having a lot of low-fat lunches at Subway, just like that Jared guy, I took my five-year-old son to Subway for lunch. As I was munching on my baked rather than fried potato chips I sneaked one of his regular Lays out of the little yellow bag and popped it in my mouth. It was the greasiest, slimiest thing I ever ate. The same thing has happened with diet soda. Now I know there is not any soda that is really good for you and the chemicals may be rotting my brain, but there is a big difference in sugar and caloric content between regular and diet. Before my little life crisis, I would always order regular soda. Whenever the waitress got my wife’s diet and my regular order mixed up I would know instantly with that first sip of diet with its bitter aftertaste. Now it’s the other way around. If I ever have a sip of regular soda, all I can taste is the syrupy sickening sweetness. Drinking diet soda has cut out a lot of unnecessary calories. 

Bottom line--after six months of my exercise and weight loss program, Dr. Caesar officially documented a loss of 37 pounds and an amazing cholesterol drop of 75 points! My cholesterol was still in the moderate risk range but my good cholesterol balanced it out so well he said I should have no worries at all. At the outset he told me that change of diet could drop cholesterol 10 – 15 points and exercise could subtract another 10 – 15. I was very pleased to have surpassed the good Doctor’s expectations. 

One year later the weight was still off off. I still weighed in at 146 to 148 pounds. It was a great thrill on my 45th birthday to get my driver’s license renewed with a new weight of 150 giving me a few pounds leeway – much better than the five-pound less honest hedge when it said 180. I weighed about what I did in high school and was in so much better shape 30 years later! Since exercising and running regularly, my muscle mass was still improving and while my weight hadn't changed in a year, I bet my body-fat ratio was way down.

Current Update:

I kept the weight off for about six years. It was the serious exercise through that period that did it. As I was exercising fairly strenuously, I was burning so many calories that I didn't have to worry too much about what I ate. Good exercise also suppresses appetite and good habits are, well, habits. But as my exercise program diminished in intensity over the past four years, I failed to adjust the food intake and my weight is now back up to about 185 or so--still only borderline overweight but something to work on. So, here we go--ten years later (with all that entails) and not quite as obsessive about it. We'll see how things go.

Also, Dr. Caesar and I learned that the initial shock to my system resulting in the huge drop in cholesterol was only temporary. As I have genetically high bad cholesterol, my body adjusted through my Marathon period until after a couple of years it came back up to the high levels. Not quite as high as before exercise and cholesterol-reducing medication, but both are required to maintain lower levels.


  1. I have a really hard time eating right, too. But I like to think that it's because I'm a poor college student and ramen noodles are cheaper than that healthy stuff. I'll usually throw in some frozen peas for a little veggie fix. Running always makes me feel good, but unlike most people I don't do it for the weight loss. Our family doctor says I'm at a healthy weight so I'm not too worried about it now. I just like to have big goals like Ragnar and a half marathon and when I'm working towards something like that I'm much more likely to keep up with my program. A goal for lower cholesterol would certainly keep me running as well.

  2. My Facebook Friend HF posted this comment there and I got his permission to re-post here:

    Congrats on mastering the nuances of your body's food storage! I have just a few points and nits.

    BMI is a formula whose only inputs are height and weight. It's a lousy first approximation that doesn't take into account your bone structure, muscularity (or lack thereof), etc.

    Better to spend $15 on a set of plastic body fat calipers. Still not perfect, but so much more accurate than BMI.

    "As I was exercising fairly strenuously, I was burning so many calories that I didn't have to worry too much about what I ate."—I know it's a subtle point but actually this is likely untrue. If you figure out how many calories you were burning while exercising, you will probably find that you could wipe them all out with a candy bar a day. Exercise does help, primarily because it adds muscle which burns a lot more calories for the same weight of fat, ALL the time. But aerobic exercise alone (like running) doesn't build much muscle mass and in fact can waste away muscle. It is for missing precisely this subtle point that so many people spending hour after hour on treadmills and ellipticals to no avail.

    In short, if you want to lose and keep weight off, just eat smaller portions and build some muscle. Diet is the more leveraged, but exercise makes you feel a lot better and that helps your willpower.

  3. Thanks, HF! I did do some very modest weight training, mainly to strengthen my legs in targeted zones to help provide stability and support to my knees. It helped resolve knee pain. And my leg muscles certainly developed. That muscle base is actually still there.

    Much of this whole process was psychological helping to reduce food intake and make better choices which is a difficult science to measure. But I did eat an occasional candy bar and visit an occasional "all-you-can-eat" buffet (including a couple of cruise adventures) and still kept the weight off for 6 years. Every "body" is a little different, too.


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