When I was about 8 years old, I was at a family picnic, running around in my Toughskins — "husky" fit — and a T-shirt that defied tucking, when I overheard a great aunt tell my mom that when I hit my teens, I would "shoot up like a beanpole."
She was wrong. So wrong.
To say that I've struggled with my weight all my life is a blatant misuse of the term "struggle." I've rarely cared much; I've mostly accepted it as part of who I am and learned to live with it. But early in 2016, something changed. I wasn't feeling great. I knew my weight was up, but I hadn't checked in a while. Mostly because I didn't want to know. And I was staring down the barrel of my 50th birthday.
I decided I needed to do something. But it would be complicated. I write about food as part of my profession. I have friends and colleagues who are food journalists and others who are chefs. Working and playing with them means that eating new and interesting things is more than just sport; it's my job.
And I love my job.
This isn't a story that has a tidy ending about how I figured out just the right balance to achieve fitness and happiness and assure my ultimate immortality. It's a story about a roller-coaster ride with big drops, ominous ascents, curves taken hard and developments that I never saw coming.
The thing about being way overweight is — and I'm speaking for myself because I know this isn't going to be popular — it makes losing weight pretty easy, especially at first. I've done it before. When I've decided I needed to, I've been able to drop 20 or 30 pounds without trying too hard. A couple of times, I've lost around 100 pounds. That took a lot of work, but there was a sense of accomplishment, and I felt and looked better.
The problem is that keeping the weight off is even more work than taking it off. I can stay focused long enough to lose it, only to learn that reprieve isn't part of the reward.
When I decided to get on the scale in April 2016, I suspected what it would say, and I was correct: I had exceeded the capacity of the scale. (That's happened to me before, and at least once I decided a reasonable solution was to buy a scale with a higher limit.)
When I went to a gym that had a bigger scale, I was up roughly 50 pounds from about four years earlier.
It was disappointing. Not surprising, but disappointing. Still, by that point, I had already established a plan.
For exercise, I would walk. I was already a slave to my step tracker. I had a daily goal of 10,000 steps — about five miles — so I decided I wanted to end the year with at least 3.66 million steps: my daily goal times 366. (It was a leap year!) Because it was late April and I hadn't been strict, I would have to average more than 10,000 the rest of the way. That made it a challenge.
Now I needed a food plan.
A doctor once told me he had a simple rule for weight loss: If it tastes good, spit it out.
I never went back to that doctor.
Maybe he said it to sound funny, but it made me angry. Food is a pleasure and an adventure. I love the sense of discovery that comes with new flavor combinations. I love the social aspect. And while I understand what people mean when they say they "eat their feelings," I cook to express my feelings. If I cook for you, it's probably because I care about you. It's literally my language, and I have no interest in learning a new one.
I remembered a friend once had some success with a diet in which he didn't let himself eat after 8 p.m. That time didn't work for my lifestyle, so I modified it: Whenever I ate for the last time in the evening, I wouldn't eat again for 12 hours. (I later learned that a version of this was an actual plan called the Buddha's Diet, but at the time I just thought I was a genius.)
It worked almost immediately. Soon I had lost enough to register on my home scale again, and I was losing one or two pounds a week. And it wasn't hard to figure out why. I felt compelled to start the 12-hour timer as early as possible, because the earlier I was done eating one day, the earlier I could have breakfast the next. This created two consequences that worked in my favor. First, I stopped snacking at night. No mindless chips in front of the television, no half a pint of ice cream. Second, to keep my mind off the snacks I wasn't eating, I walked.
For the most part, I ate what I wanted, just less of it. And I was spending a lot of time writing, which left me little time to cook. Dinner was often a simple salad at the keyboard. If I couldn't be bothered to assemble vegetables, I had a bowl of cereal. I pretty much cut pasta and rice — the building blocks of my preferred diet — out of the picture. That hurt. I do love my carbohydrates.
But I felt better. Soon, my clothes started hanging off me to the point that I had to replace them. The first person to say anything to me about it was the clerk at my butcher shop.
"You're in here all the time, right? You're looking good," she said. "You losing weight?"
I was down almost 60 pounds at that point. And just before Christmas, I passed 3.66 million steps.
Since I hit my step goal in 2016, I decided to aim for 4 million in 2017, which meant roughly an extra 1,000 steps a day. No big deal.
A bigger deal was that my responsibility for the cookbook I was working on shifted. We were mostly done writing, and I needed to test recipes. That meant a lot of cooking. And more food — delicious, delicious food — around the house.
It also meant I was eating later. I work on books in addition to my editing job at the paper, so I wouldn't start cooking until 7 p.m. and often finished after 10. That became dinnertime. I put my 12-hour rule on hiatus, convinced that this was short-term and that I'd be fine in a month or two.
The problem is, good habits die easily. Once the testing was done, I didn't fall back into those fasts. I hadn't gained any weight, but I hadn't lost any. I gave myself a break.
Then I got another gig.
I needed to test 60 desserts for an Italian cookbook in less than 30 days. It was fantastic. There were tortas. There were crostatas. There were gelati and sorbetti. There were cookies. Oh, there were so, so many cookies.
My policy was to taste everything as soon as possible — part of the job — and find someone else to eat what was left. I took cakes to the office. I sent budini to my wife's office. I heard a friend didn't have time to cook for a potluck, so I made her a plate of assorted treats. If friends had a get-together, I brought a dessert. Or three. The guards at my building came to expect me to show up at midnight with something sweet for them. Anyone I knew with a birthday got a box of cookies in the mail.
I was nervous and increased my weigh-ins from once a week to three or four times. I was creeping up, but not fast. At the end of the month, I was up six pounds, and I considered that a victory, under the circumstances.
After finishing that job, I didn't get on the scale for about a week, just to give myself a bit of a mental vacation. When I weighed in after that, I was up another six pounds.
All of a sudden it was October, I was up 12 pounds, and I wasn't happy about it — except when I was eating a big bowl of pasta.
I didn't gain any more the rest of the year, though, and I did hit my goal of 4 million steps. (Admittedly, it was more than a little annoying that I gained weight while increasing my walking.) The cookbook work I had done over the year was undeniably a factor in derailing my weight loss.
Was it worth it?
I don't have to be happy about the side effect, but I can still say that I think so. I did work I'm proud of.
I've never been thin, and I'm never going to be. As it stands now, I would like to drop 60 pounds. Or so. I have more projects on the radar, but I know losing weight doesn't have to be complicated. Eat thoughtfully, avoid eating mindlessly, get the cookies out of the house as soon as possible — and take a break once in a while and walk.
That was my recipe for success before, so I go into 2018 with a sense of optimism.