Do a bit of poking around online, and you can find out that the weight loss industry is anywhere from a $35 billion to $70 billion dollar a year industry, depending on whom you believe. The late-night infomercials, the Jenny Craig pre-made dinners, the diet supplement stores. Weight loss is an unmistakable national obsession.
Ironically, on the whole, we’re only getting bigger and fatter.
But I’ve got a pretty inspirational story about weight loss. And here’s the beauty of my story: I don’t want you to subscribe to my program, join my gym or buy anything with a money-back guarantee that you’ll lose 20 pounds. Honestly, I don’t really care all that much whether you lose weight. I just think it’s worth telling the story of my father’s weight loss, because I know there are lots of folks out there who aspire to lose a lot of weight.
A bit of history on my father
First some background on my dad. He’s now 71 (started losing the weight when he was 70). When I was a young ‘en, he was a big guy but not overly big. When I was a school kid, he probably weighed around 250 pounds. He could have afforded to drop 50 pounds. But he carried his weight well and did not appear to be a terribly overweight guy.
After my folks divorced and my siblings and I all left for college, my father ended up living in a number of places without significant others or a lot of friends around. Over time (and perhaps without much oversight or input from loved ones nearby), he gradually gained weight.
Throughout these years, my father was an on-again, off-again habitual dieter – like so many millions of people. He knew he should lose weight, and he’d go on diets that he’d stick with for a few months. He’d lose weight – 10, 15, 25 pounds. One time, he lost more than 50 pounds. But invariably, the weight would find its way back. No diet ever really stuck.
Over the years, my dad got big. Very big. At his heaviest, he weighed north of 360 pounds. And there were attendant health problems. He was diagnosed with a heart disease called atrial fibrillation. He was pre-diabetic. He had high blood pressure, and he had pain in his legs and feet. And the most problematic health issue was that his hip began causing him so much pain that he had to have hip replacement surgery in June of 2009. At the time of the surgery, he weighed 355 pounds.
As I write this just after Thanksgiving in 2010, my father weighs 220 pounds. In other words, he has lost 135 pounds since that surgery 17 months ago – 120 pounds since the beginning of this year. The last time he weighed that much was when he was about 44 years old.
He’s still not a triathlete. He can’t walk for great distances or go on jogs, and his hip still bothers him a bit. He’s still less than certain walking down stairs, and he keeps a cane with him. But the difference between my father of today and my father of 11 months ago is absolutely remarkable and inspiring.
The secret is there is no secret
So you’ve got the high-level details now. But perhaps you’re wondering how he did it. Well, I’ve got some bad news and some good news.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way: If you’re looking for an “a-ha” moment, you’re out of luck. There is no magic trick. No silver bullets. In fact, his story about how he lost weight is a bit dull.
Now for the good news: What my father did is within reach of anyone who totally resolves to do it. Not only that, it doesn’t cost a lot of money.
Here are the details of how things unfolded.
In January, when we weighed a bit north of 340 pounds, he had back-to-back meetings with his primary care physician and his orthopedic surgeon. They restated the somewhat obvious – that he had multiple health issues and all of them were made worse by his weight. There was one simple thing the surgeon said that stuck with my dad vividly: “We’re only trying to make the rest of your life as good as it can be.”
My father became ultra-motivated to lose a lot of weight. A nutritionist he saw recommended a low-carb diet that eliminated all high-glycemic foods. More specifically, he was to eliminate all “white foods” -- refined sugar, white flour, rice, potatoes. She asked him to keep his food intake under 165 carbs a day.
My father decided he was going to be a bit more radical than that. He aimed to keep his carb intake under 80 a day.
So what did he eat? For breakfast, he ate lox and berries. One thing I should add is that my father is extraordinarily frugal. So when blueberries were cheap, he’d have blueberries for breakfast – for weeks on end. When strawberries were on sale, it would be strawberries for weeks.
Another constant staple was salads. These salads consisted of lettuce, cucumbers, red peppers and tomatoes. He did not limit his salad intake. He made his own dressing to make sure it included olive oil, a “good” fat.
At dinner, it would be broiled or grilled chicken, turkey or fish (or at least it was at first; things changed a bit later on, which we’ll get to) with a salad or steamed vegetable dish and sometimes fruit for desert.
What did he eliminate from his diet? No cereal, no bread, no pita, no chips, no pasta or noodles -- all high glycemic food. No sugar-laden desserts like cake, pie or cookies.
He also joined a gym and started going to the gym 4-5 times a week at first. The primary exercise for him was swimming laps in the pool – the only form of aerobic exercise his recovering hip could handle.
Quick out of the gates but then a slow-down
The weight loss came rapidly at first. He had lost around 45 pounds by April of 2010. But an interesting pattern started to emerge. He would hit these plateaus where despite the fact that he was adhering to his strict diet, he would level off and stop losing weight for 2 or 3 weeks. But then, after pushing through those stretches, the weight would start to come off again. He’d lost 90 pounds by mid-summer.
Losing more weight became more difficult after he reached 250 lbs. And when he got to 235 lbs., he hit a stretch where he stayed at the same weight for 6 weeks. So he dialed up the rigor of his diet. He essentially cut back to two meals a day, and he cut the chicken, fish and turkey out of his diet, replacing those foods with tempeh, tofu or soy milk plus small servings of lox or pickled herring for protein. He also upped his work-out schedule to every single day, and he started an aqua aerobics class (Interestingly, by his account, the working out only accounted for a small percentage of the weight loss).
Some fatherly advice
There’s no doubt that this has been a Spartan routine for my father. But the results are truly amazing. He has some pretty interesting perspectives on maintaining a regimen of this sort.
The downsides are pretty straight-forward. There was the hungriness and the temptations. But there is also perspective. “The pain in my hip is more difficult than being hungry,” my father says. And the challenge of eating less obviously correlates to less pain in his hip.
Also, his dieting experiences of yesteryear helped him on some levels. “Because I’d been on many diets, I knew I could cut out any food I wanted. In this case, I just had to stop eating a whole bunch of stuff.”
And here’s some somewhat sobering advice he has: “Eat foods that don’t taste that great. That way you’re less tempted to over-eat.”
An interesting technique he employed involved imposing rules and routines on himself: “Eat only at home and stay away from home as much as you can.” (this is probably easier for some than others). And on a related note, my father thinks “it is important to have other activities to take your mind off food, but these activities should not be stressful or cause you to just cram food down your gullet because of limited time or to comfort yourself as a countermeasure to that stress.”
Then there was the common advice to make dinner your last food intake for the day. In other words, no night-time snacks.
Did he ever want to quit?, I asked him. “Not really. I was committed.” The ferocity and frequency of food cravings subsided after a few months. And there were all kinds of other benefits aside from the psychic rewards of shedding pounds. His energy level was higher. He could walk longer distances. He stopped getting winded going up a flight of stairs.
Over the past few days (Thanksgiving and the 3 days after), he’s been off the wagon for the first time in 11 months – indulging in the gluttony of this particular holiday. But he’s totally confident he can get right back into the mode he’s been in since January. His goal is to get down to the 175-180 lb. range, at which point he says he’ll add a few indulgences into his diet – like whole grain breads and a bit of peanut butter. But he’s quick to add that he’ll only add in foods if it doesn’t result in weight gain.
This commitment and confidence is wonderful for me to hear personally.
My father literally looks like a different person. It struck me every time I laid eyes on him for the 5 days he was staying with me. Besides looking trim, he seems more animated and more in control of what he’s doing. He doesn’t slouch as much as he used to, and he doesn’t limp the way he used to. He also seems just plain happier.
Is this kind of weight loss a terrifically challenging undertaking? No doubt. Does it seem worthwhile? No doubt.