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.

3 thoughts on “Paul Ford on losing weight … and gaining it back

  1. I agree that the key to weight loss must be not craving food (being able to take it or leave it). I also have found that stress reduction helps a lot.

  2. I also have found that stress reduction helps a lot.


    I think this is absolutely right, and the only reason I don’t mention it is I’m one of the more serene people you’re likely to encounter. But that came about for many different reasons, none of them related to wanting to weigh less. This is one reason I think that, when doing character work, one should not only dive as deep as possible but do the work for its own sake.

    An anxious person probably wouldn’t experience much success at lowering their anxiety level if the only reason was to lose weight. But dive deep and wrestle anxiety to the ground for its own sake, and the benefits will be felt in many areas of your life.

  3. I can’t say it was character work on my part, in that I only discovered it by accident — in that I only discovered that I was a stress junkie by accident. But then when the stress was lessening, I was amazed by how many other aspects of my life changed along with that. Suddenly so much of what Marcus Aurelius was saying made sense :)

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