Stephan Guyenet is an obesity researcher. I'd been following his blog for a couple years: but it wasn't till I read his new book that I realized -- seeing it all there in one place -- how much I've learned from him. I have no idea whether he would think my current enterprise a sensible one! But his information has been critical to how I think about this stuff.
I had thought -- after the collapse of my low-carb hopes -- that I was done with diets. I'm a little surprised to find myself doing one again, and I can't actually reconstruct exactly how I came to be doing it. The document where I track everything begins after the resolution was taken, and gives no clues about its origin. But anyway, here I am, eight weeks in, determined to lose a pound a week until I'm down either to 180 lbs or to a 40 inch waist. At which point I'll sit down and have a good think about what comes next.
I am not, actually, much of a fan of diets. My former plan of action was to just keep adding in wholesome foods until they crowded out the high-reward stuff, and let my weight do whatever it was going to do. But I was getting fat enough that it was making me really unhappy. And I was also getting dubious about whether I would ever really arrive at a habit of cooking every day and eating the stuff I thought I should eat, on any timetable that was useful to me. I might finally achieve my food goals, and begin losing weight, at age 95 or so: but that was a bit longer than I was willing to wait.
So I backed up and started over. Suppose I just started where I was -- took a baseline right here and now, with the absurdly huge high-reward* breakfast and the high-reward fast-food dinner, and my lunch and/or snack budget at a bowl of soup, a veggie, and a couple pieces of fruit? I could track what happened to my weight over the course of a week, and then just start hacking pieces of the high-reward meals out, until I'd reached a pound-a-week deficit. When the weight loss leveled out (as I knew perfectly well, from experience, it would) I'd hack out another piece. I would lose the weight and I would gradually be lowering the proportion of high-reward foods in my diet.
There was lots to hack: the hash browns and toast, to begin with -- foods I didn't think I should be eating at all -- and then the sour cream and the cream in my coffee, and the half milkshake from the Burgerville dinner, foods that really should be treats rather than staples... there was lots to cut. And by eating exactly the same high-reward meals every day, I would actually know, for certain sure, that (for instance) the hash browns I was forgoing were the equivalent of a pound a week. There was a pleasing concreteness to the enterprise. I need never count a calorie.
All the other diets I had undertaken -- with the single exception of the most successful one, the Atkins-y low carb one -- had begun by carefully removing all the the high-reward foods from my diet. They generally went a week or two and then crashed spectacularly, with binges and self-reproach: the combination of serious hunger -- and when you lose a lot of weight the body has hormonal responses that are very serious indeed: your endocrine system does not take starvation lightly -- the combination of serious hunger and the enticements of readily available high-reward foods was one that I was not, in a life with any ordinary ups and downs in it, going to resist. I understand that people like to believe they can control themselves, and I like to believe that too. It's a useful illusion in many endeavors. But in this one, it won't do. If I am seriously hungry, and high-reward foods are within reach -- as they are, 24 hours a day, in any supermarket in the land -- it's only a matter of time before I eat them. Pretending this is not true will not help me.
So what I'm trying to do, here, is maintain a weight loss quick enough to keep my interest and my motivation high, without kicking off starvation responses and without eliminating the high-reward ecstasies my environment has taught me to equate with "having enough to eat." So far -- and eight pounds is not very far, in a forty-two pound enterprise -- I've been surprised to find that there is in fact a navigable channel in front of me. Whether it's open all the way to the 180-lbs-or-40-inches-re-evaluation remains to be seen.
*food reward is a technical term. See Guyenet.