Paul Ford on losing weight … and gaining it back

I like Paul Ford’s writing because it is simple and straightforward and quite honest. I don’t follow him in my feeds but I probably should, since I always enjoy his pieces when I stumble across them. He wrote one about the fundamental question of the internet (“Why wasn’t I consulted?”) which I cite often. I haven’t read his 38,000 word opus on code because I already know what code is, but I may at some point.

Ford has just published a short piece on how he lost 100 pounds (down from 400 to 300), kept it off for awhile, then gained it all back. He was deliberate about losing it, carefully counting calories in and calories out, and says he even enjoyed the process. But somehow he lost interest, and the weight returned—and he can’t find a way back to that state of mind which enabled him to lose it.

I sympathize strongly with Ford’s predicament. I have lost large amounts of weight multiple times in my life, only to gain it back again. And each time the weight loss was in a way technically engineered, usually by a diet program (NutriSystem). It worked every time, and once I honestly decided to start I didn’t have a problem sticking with it. But the weight always came back.

Being in the final stages of one more long stretch of weight loss, I’m the last to start crowing that this time will be the charm. But I have noticed some differences this time around, differences which give me hope that I can achieve a healthy weight and maintain it indefinitely.

The most important one is that I seem to have lost interest in food as a source of intense gratification. I still enjoy the food I eat—quite a bit, in fact—but I don’t crave anything, in particular things I’ve excluded from my current menu. My memory isn’t the greatest, but I’m pretty sure that in the past I looked forward to being done with my dieting, so that I could go back to normal eating, or treat myself on occasion, or take a break from denying myself, and so on.

That’s not how I look at things right now. There is no particular treat I am looking forward to. I haven’t looked for excuses to vary my routine. And neither has my routine been rigid—when the summer tomatoes came in, I put bread back on the menu so that I could eat sandwiches heavily laden with them, maybe with cheese or tuna, other things I hadn’t been eating. But even then I figured out how much of that would be reasonable to eat—and that’s what I ate, with much pleasure. The tomatoes are done, so bread will probably fall further into the background, trotted out on those occasional days when I’m too indifferent to the usual fare.

When contemplating my favorite foods, my mantra has been, “It’s good—but it’s not that great.” And not as some form of hypnotic thinking. I summon up memories of the taste—for some reason my taste memory has become vivid—and realize that, as much as I would enjoy one of my Aunt’s tacos, or a steak, or a rich dessert, or a piece of fresh bread thickly spread with butter, I don’t crave it anymore—good, but not that great. Perhaps this is how normal people relate to food, I don’t know.

The other helpful difference is that I am rarely hungry, and when I am I don’t find it unpleasant. I seem to have sorted through the behaviors that I would “mistake” for hunger—a desire to be distracted, usually—and dealt with them for what they are. Which leaves actual hunger itself, and here I was helped by something Leo Babauta wrote, namely that mild hunger is not so bad and definitely won’t kill you. So when I started on my diet I decided to leave out breakfast, not just to save the calories (although that has been quite a help) but so that every day I would be mildly hungry until lunchtime. Which gave me a regular opportunity to contemplate hunger, and how I had dealt with it over the years. What I realized was that I would often eat at the slightest indication of hunger—or even sooner, in order to prevent even the mildest hunger pangs from occurring. Once I realized that, and that mild hunger was barely a distraction, it was easy to give up snacking and settle into a fairly rigid menu. Which, for the record, is almost always a large salad for lunch (lettuce, cucumber, mushrooms, tomatoes, with olive oil and vinegar), an apple and a banana in the afternoon, and something roughly on the order of a baked chicken thigh and rice for dinner, adding up roughly to 1500 calories.

And one thing I learned which was helpful in sticking to the diet was to identify the things I truly did crave and then arrange the menu to accommodate them. For example, the chicken thigh is always skin-on and bone-in. A strict calorie-counter might object to the extra calories, but to me the fat and extra flavor are satisfying in a way that far outweighs them. I seem to have a fat/umami tooth—the apple and banana are more than enough to cover my need for sweetness, but I nearly swoon over the olive oil in the salad dressing, the fat in the chicken skin, the meatiness of the mushrooms and soy sauce I use liberally. As a result I don’t feel deprived at all—those elements make my menu luxurious to me.

As I mentioned, my past experience is more than enough to keep me from proclaiming victory. But I do have new hope, because my current diet is not a temporary program but the way I eat now. As I get closer to the end the weight loss has slowed. Although I originally set a rough target in pounds, I recently switched over to thinking about getting rid of excess fat, so the number on the scale no longer quantifies my goal but just tells me I’m still headed in the right direction. So I have stopped (or tried to stop, anyway) worrying about the rate of change in pounds, instead simply exercising patience, knowing that taking in less calories than I burn will eventually get me to where I want to be.

And finally, though even a year on this routine is too early to tell, I think that if someone informed me that I would have to stay at my current level of intake for the rest of my life, I’d be OK with that. Whatever novelty, stimulation, entertainment, or gratification I used to get from food I seem to be getting elsewhere. The role of food in my life hasn’t been reduced to simple fuel—I really do enjoy what food I do eat, and make an effort to insure that what is on my plate is good and wholesome and enjoyable. But it is no longer the jumble of cravings it used to be.

Books to be read

Over the years I’ve fine-tuned my intuition about whether a book will be worth my time. My main source of books-to-be-read is whatever I happen to be reading at the moment (not always a book). If the book’s line of thought intrigues me, primary sources that are mentioned will often be added to my list. That “list” used to be an actual list, which I would use to guide me through different libraries. In these days of cheap ebooks and dying print and cheap shipping and online bookseller databases, the list is a stack of actual books, on my Kindle or purchased used for next to nothing (e.g. $4 with shipping included) from AbeBooks or Better World Books.

The books come in faster than I can get to them, so the stack grows. But I’ve learned not to despair over this, since the stack represents a carefully curated collection of reading, one I know will benefit me greatly whenever I’m inspired to dip into it, and on whatever topic I’m inspired to explore. Back on July 1, 2002 I ordered Joel Salatin’s first four books, based on a referral I can’t even remember now. I didn’t even crack those books until January 2005, and six months later we had moved to our Kentucky farm. And in December 2009 I thought I might write in more depth about simple living, so in preparation I gathered a bunch of books on the topic. That project never happened, but somehow those books survived the Great Purge of my shelves when we left the farm. Just a couple of months ago I idly picked up one of them, Caught in the Act by Toinette Lippe, which not only taught me some important things but sent me off exploring the idea of God’s economy as reflected in writings about the Tao. So you never know.

Lately I’ve been reading heavily, which means plenty of new additions to the stack. I thought it would be a good reminder for me to make a list of what I fully intend to get to over the next few months—there are other unread books sitting around, but they aren’t currently on my radar. And then I thought it might be something worth sharing with the rest of you.

  • Tracy Kidder, Old Friends, Strength in What Remains, Mountains Beyond Mountains. (I had read Kidder’s first three books many years ago, but I recently read his jointly written book Good Prose on Cindy Rollins’s recommendation and now want to read the ones I missed.)

  • Thomas Merton, A Thomas Merton Reader, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, The Way of Chuang Tzu, Mystics and Zen Masters.

  • Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise. A reflection, based on Connolly’s personal experience, on how becoming known as “promising” can actually become an obstacle to fulfilling that promise.

  • P.G. Wodehouse, Wodehouse on Wodehouse, four books of memoir. (I have yet to read any of his fiction!)

  • Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation. A family therapist’s explanation of how relationships work in the family, in the workplace, and in the church. This was recommended by a friend, who also recommended Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. There seem to be no cheap copies of that one, but I discovered this excellent six-part summary of the book which I think may be sufficient for my needs.

  • Ben Yagoda, Memoir: A History. Recently I read Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page: Voice and Style in Writing and admired it thoroughly—it’s the only decent book on the topic I know of.

  • Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, Medical Nemesis, Gender, The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. Interest in Charles Taylor let me to Illich’s book The Rivers North of the Future, a series of transcribed interviews where Illich sums up his thinking. That book astonished me, and now I want to know how his thinking developed.

  • Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections. No cheap copies of Tayor’s magnum opus A Secular Age are available, and in any case it may be too much for me to tackle out of the gate. So I’m reading James K.A. Smith’s summary of that book, How (Not) to be Secular. And I’ve also dipped into this collection of Taylor essays (and noticed that I find Taylor to be clearer as a writer than Smith!).

  • Adam Ford, The Art of Mindful Walking. Maggie bought this for me on her trip to Great Britain, and at the right moment (perhaps the next plane ride) I will get to it.

  • Jack Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. I’m still trying to figure out how the church involved itself in marriage, and whether there’s any hope it might one day uninvolve itself again.

  • Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. These were recommended by Andrew Perriman, and the first is turning out to be a very good overview of exactly how Christendom developed and why it is falling apart—an excellent accompaniment to Charles Taylor and Ivan Illich. And I’ll read the second because I think the Anabaptists hold a generous portion of wisdom on how to live a Christian life.

  • Dmitry Orlov, Absolutely Positive, Hold Your Applause, Communities that Abide, The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivor’s Toolkit. Back in the day of collapse (i.e. 2008 or so) I discovered Orlov’s blog, thoroughly enjoyed his perspective on America’s slow collapse as compared to the Soviet Union’s quick one, and bought and enjoyed (and kept) his first book, Reinventing Collapse. After dropping off my radar he popped up again, and I found he had put together several inexpensive Kindle books I knew I would enjoy and probably learn some things from.

  • Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel. Mitchell’s collected pieces from the New Yorker.

  • Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Golden Age of Zen.

  • Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Wow, I can’t believe I haven’t read this yet! I loved his previous book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, and was excited enough about this one to pre-order it. But though showed up on my Kindle in March I have yet to get to it.

  • David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules, Revolutions in Reverse (essays), Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. I love Graeber’s stuff, and he helped make anarchism respectable for me (as did Jacques Ellul and Vernard Eller).

  • Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. I’ve read Rosenbaum’s articles for years and think the world of his writing and thinking. So I thought I’d try one of his books.

  • Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. I’m partway through this and it’s very readable, an examination of the process of Christianity becoming respectable, and what it meant money-wise for both rich people and the church.

  • David Brooks, The Road to Character. Another book which surprises me for still being on the stack. I am deeply interested in matters of character right now, and saw a teaser article by Brooks which I thought was right on the money. The introduction to this book is an expanded version of that article, and even better. But so far I have only read a few pages further.

  • Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics. I’ve read maybe half of this. There are important ideas lurking inside, and it’s well written, but the approach and the academic style of presentation make it difficult reading for me.