paulmck (paulmck) wrote,
paulmck
paulmck

Other weighty matters

I used to be one of those disgusting people who could eat whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and as much as he wanted—and not gain weight.

In fact, towards the end of my teen years, I often grew very tired of eating. You see, what with all my running and growing, in order to maintain weight I had to eat until I felt nauseous. I would feel overstuffed for about 30 minutes and then I would feel fine for about two hours. Then I would be hungry again. In retrospect, perhaps I should have adopted hobbit-like eating habits, but then again, six meals a day does not mesh well with school and workplace schedules, to say nothing of with family traditions.

Once I stopped growing in my early 20s, I was able to eat more normally. Nevertheless, I rarely felt full. In fact, on one of those rare occasions when I did profess a feeling of fullness, my friends not only demanded that I give it to them in writing, but also that I sign and date the resulting document. This document was rendered somewhat less than fully official due to its being written on a whiteboard.

And even by age 40, eating what most would consider to be a normal diet caused my weight to drop dramatically and abruptly.

However, my metabolism continued to slow down, and my body's ability to tolerate vigorous exercise waned as well. But these change took place slowly, and so the number on the scale crept up almost imperceptibly.

But so what if I am carrying a little extra weight? Why should I worry?

Because I have a goal: Should I reach age 80, I would very much like to walk under my own power. And it doesn't take great powers of observation to conclude that carrying extra weight is not consistent with that goal. Therefore, I must pay close attention to the scale.

But life flowed quickly, so I continued failing to pay attention to the scale, at least not until a visit to airport in Florida. After passing through one of the full-body scanners, I was called out for a full-body search. A young man patted me down quite thoroughly, but wasn't able to find whatever it was that he was looking for. He called in a more experienced colleague, who quickly determined that what had apparently appeared to be a explosive device under my shirt was instead an embarrassingly thick layer of body fat. And yes, I did take entirely too much satisfaction from the fact that he chose to dress down his less-experienced colleague, but I could no longer deny that I was a good 25-30 pounds overweight. And in the poor guy's defense, the energy content of that portion of my body fat really did rival that of a small bomb. And, more to the point, the sheer mass of that fat was in no way consistent with my goal to be able to walk under my own power at age 80.

So let that be a lesson to you. If you refuse take the hint from your bathroom scale, you might well find yourself instead taking it from the United States of America's Transportation Security Administration.

Accepting the fact that I was overweight was one thing. Actually doing something about it was quite another. You see, my body had become a card-carrying member of House Stark, complete with their slogan: “Winter is coming.” And my body is wise in the ways of winter. It knows not only that winter is coming, but also that food will be hard to come by, especially given my slowing reflexes and decreasing agility. Now, my body has never actually seen such a winter, but countless generations of of natural selection have hammered a deep and abiding anticipation of such winters into my very DNA. Furthermore, my body knows exactly one way to deal with such a winter, and that is to eat well while the eating is good.

However, I have thus far had the privilege of living in a time and place where the eating is always good and where winter never comes, at least not the fearsome winters that my body is fanatically motivated to prepare for.

This line of thought reminded me of a piece written long ago by the late Isaac Asimov, in which he suggested that we should stop eating before we feel full. (Shortly after writing this, an acquaintance is said to have pointed out that Asimov could stand to lose some weight, and Asimov is said to have reacted by re-reading his own writing and then successfully implementing its recommendation.) The fact that I now weighed in at more than 210 pounds provided additional motivation.

With much effort, I was able to lose more than ten pounds, but then my weight crept back up again. I was able to keep my weight to about 205, and there it remained for some time.

At least, there it remained until I lost more than ten pounds due to illness. I figured that since I had paid the price of the illness, I owed it to myself to take full advantage of the resulting weight loss. Over a period of some months, I managed to get down to 190 pounds, which was a great improvement over 210, but significantly heavier than my 180-pound target weight.

But my weight remained stubbornly fixed at about 190 for some months.

Then I remembered the control systems class I took decades ago and realized that my body and I comprised a control system designed to maintain my weight at 190. You see, my body wanted a good fifty pounds of fat to give me a good chance of surviving the food-free winter that it knew was coming. So, yes, I wanted my weight to be 180. But only when the scale read 190 or more would I panic and take drastic action, such as fasting for a day, inspired by several colleagues' lifestyle fasts. Below 190, I would eat normally, that is, I would completely give in to my body's insistence that I gain weight.

As usual, the solution was simple but difficult to implement. I “simply” slowly decreased my panic point from 190 downwards, one pound at a time.

One of the ways that my body convinces me to overeat is through feelings of anxiety. “If I miss this meal, bad things will happen!!!” However, it is more difficult for my body to convince me that missing a meal would be a disaster if I have recently fasted. Therefore, fasting turned out to be an important component of my weight-loss regimen. A fast might mean just skipping breakfast, it might mean skipping both breakfast and lunch, or it might be a 24-hour fast. But note that a 24-hour fast skips first dinner, then breakfast, and finally lunch. Skipping breakfast, lunch, and then dinner results in more than 30 hours of fasting, which seems a bit excessive.

Of course, my body is also skilled at exploiting any opportunity for impulse eating, and I must confess that I do not yet consistently beat it at this game.

Exercise continues to be important, but it also introduces some complications. You see, exercise is inherently damaging to muscles. The strengthening effects of exercise are not due to the exercise itself, but rather to the body's efforts to repair the damage and then some. Therefore, in the 24 hours or so after exercise, my muscles suffer significant inflammation due to this damage, which results in a pound or two of added water weight (but note that everyone's body is different, so your mileage may vary). My body is not stupid, and so it quickly figured out that one of the consequences of a heavy workout was reduced rations the next day. It therefore produced all sorts of reasons why a heavy workout would be a bad idea, and with a significant rate of success.

So I allow myself an extra pound the day after a heavy workout. This way my body enjoys the exercise and gets to indulge the following day. Win-win! ;–)

There are also some foods that result in added water weight, with corned beef, ham, and bacon being prominent among them. The amount of water weight seems to vary based on I know not what, but sometimes ranges up to three pounds. I have not yet worked out exactly what to do about this, but one strategy might be to eat these types of food only on the day of a heavy workout. Another strategy would be to avoid them completely, but that is crazy talk, especially in the case of bacon.

So after two years, I have gotten down to 180, and stayed there for several months. What does the future hold?

Sadly, it is hard to say. In my case it appears that something like 90% of the effort required to lose weight is required to keep that weight off. So if you really do want to know what the future holds, all I can say is “Ask me in the future.”

But the difficulty of keeping weight off should come as no surprise.

After all, my body is still acutely aware that winter is coming!
Tags: advice, aging hacker, confessions
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