Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Non-beauty - How and why I'm losing weight

This is a picture of my bathroom scales. No, the weight here isn't my weight, although it is deemed a healthy weight for my height. (I'm not sharing my actual weight on this blog, since it's my personal business - or "p-biz", as an Adventure Time-loving friend calls it.)

Why I am losing weight
I started losing weight in the summer of 2012. Like many people, the thing that galvanised me into action was a photo, or set of photos. Ironically, pictures of me and my work team at the 2012 Olympics - bastion of health and physical fitness. The shots, though sympathetic, showed me at my largest and most uncomfortable. I was beyond overweight, and well into the territory of morbid obesity. I was the biggest person in the group shots. I saw myself looking out from inside a prison of adipose tissue. I no longer looked like me at all.

I guess that last line is the most important - I no longer saw myself. As well as preying on my mind, counteracting my confidence and limiting my lifestyle for months beforehand, weight had finally reached a point where it swamped my identity

There is a substantial backlash against body idealisation, both offline and online. This is good. There's also a thriving culture of fat-acceptance, which is also fair enough. Some people are happy being big and draw some of their confidence and identity from it. I guess their experience is the reverse of mine - they would lose their sense of self if they became too thin. What I'm about to write isn't intended to undermine those people, but it is an honest reflection on a few of the things, large and small, that led up to the Olympic photos and finally made me shake of my mantle of helplessness and get the fuck on with dropping the pounds.

Here are some things that happen when you're a fat woman (and un-happen when you're not)
  • You fail to fit comfortably into chairs and seats on public transport
  • Crossing your legs at the knee becomes a distant memory
  • Likewise sitting cross-legged on the floor
  • Likewise hugging your knees, bending down to tie your shoes, pick up dropped change, etc.
  • Your lap stops functioning as a lap and becomes a shallow sloping area, off which trays, computers, dogs and small children will slide unless you're practically recumbent
  • You dent your mattress, your sofa and if you drive, the front seat of your car
  • Oh yeah, you also may or may not continue to fit your knees comfortably under the steering wheel
  • You get heartburn, fatigue and you overheat in the summer due to your extra insulation
  • Your knees and hips ache. Your feet hurt because of the pressure on them.
And there's more
  • You become more or less invisible to the opposite sex (not necessarily a bad thing)
  • You become interesting to the type of girls who like having unattractive friends (definitely a bad thing)
  • You lose your jawline, cheekbones, hipbones, collarbones and wrist bones under a snowdrift of fatty tissue
  • Your legs rub together. Your arms don't hang comfortably at your sides. 
  • Mainstream clothes shops like H&M, Topshop and Zara become places you used to go
  • People look at you in the street with contempt
Some of these points can be rightly dismissed as societal anti-fat fuckery that's best ignored.

Some are a matter of taste and personal comfort and don't apply to everyone.

All of them are reasons why I decided to claim back my body and unload the cargo of fat I'd been slowly amassing over the preceding few years of poor food choices, sedentary lifestyle and weight-gain-inducing medication.

Here is how I am losing weight. 
Firstly and most importantly, I let go of the belief that I could diet and then go back to normal afterwards. My "normal" made me unhealthy and uncomfortable. It has been permanently replaced with a new way. This is not a small thing, psychologically. I believe that previous attempts to lose weight had been based on the idea that I could "blitz off" the offending bulk and then resume eating too much and not moving enough. That never worked and it never will work.

So far, I've lost over 2 stone since summer 2012 using the method I'll outline below. Progress has not been as fast as it might have been because of some complicating life factors, (again with the p-biz,) but slow and steady is good, because it means it's sustainable.

I count calories. I've learned the calorie value of most of the foods I enjoy, and I use my smartphone to look up those I don't yet know. I used online calculators to work out how many calories a 5'1" woman of my weight and lifestyle uses, and how much I could cut back without dipping into starvation territory. 

Every day I set a calorie budget between 1250 and 1500, which varies with my motivation levels, tiredness, social plans or PMT-crisis Def Con ranking. I keep a running total of how much of my calorie budget I've used, usually on a notepad or Post-it on my desk. (Side quest: improve mental arithmetic: completed.) If I go over my calorie budget, I don't call the day a write-off and start throwing food down my neck. I just focus on keeping my "calorie overdraft" small so I can minimise the impact on my overall weight-loss project.

I don't restrict or demonise any foods or food groups. Over time I've learned that complex carbohydrates and vegetables keep you full longer for less expenditure, and that eating lots of refined sugars or going long periods without food both set off cravings which are difficult to resist. So as a result I have changed the nature of what I eat as well as the quantity. I have 4-ish small meals a day, usually involving porridge, salad, seafood, eggs, popcorn, fruit and small quantities of sanity-preserving chocolate. I drink water, tea or diet drinks. I refuse to arbitrarily cut out carbohydrates, deny myself food after 9pm or construct entire lasagnes out of kale. By my reckoning, this is not sustainable (unless you do really love kale).

I do cardio exercise. I go to the gym and do an hour's cardio on various machines three times a week (OK, less in winter.) This strengthens ye old heart and lungs and ups my mood and motivation. I don't rely on this method for burning calories, although it does deplete 300-400 per session according to the counters on the gym machines. Instead, I use it as a way to positively reinforce the changes I'm making to my body. As well as being lighter, I get to be stronger and have more stamina. Cardio exercise is also a powerful mood-lifter, which is reason enough to do it at any weight. As well as going to the gym, I try to build in situational cardio stuff like climbing stairs, walking places instead of driving or taking public transport, walking on my lunch hour and so on.

I also do stretches and resistance exercises, mostly at home. These build strength in different parts of my body like arms, legs, core muscles (stomach, sides and lower back) chest and so on.

Keeping it going
At this point, I can't see myself going back to the days of overeating and underexercising that led me to the crisis point I reached at the 2012 4x4 Men's Relay Race. When my weight-loss projected is completed, and my weight looks something like that picture of my scales, I will up my calorie budget to a number that reflects the amount I will burn in a day. I'll break even, calorie-wise, give or take the odd up and down.

The work I've done since 2012 has changed my body, and it's also changed my mind. I now have knowledge about my personal nutrition and exercise needs that I never knew - or never believed - back then. I know it not through book-learning but through experience, and it's put me in touch with my own health in a way I've never been before. 

No going back. 


LNT89 said...

Have you tried/are you on myfitnesspal? I'm attempting the same with similar methods, with variable success. Would be nice to have someone I (vaguely!) know on there :-)

Sarah said...

Hey LNT, nice to hear from you :) I don't use any websites I'm afraid, although I've heard that one is good.

Anonymous said...

I must say that I saw quite a bit of myself in your "things that happen section." I'm still trying to really make the changes you have. Your story touched me. It took quite a bit of bravery to share it. Thank you.