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This post covers the weight loss journey of my client and friend Lawrence. We began training together in the spring of 2018. He initially lost 15 pounds by simply changing up his diet and eating healthier, while performing two weekly training sessions. In July of 2018 he approached me about getting a little bit more guidance and accountability for his eating. The goal was to build upon the 15lb weight loss and have a plan to follow.
Given the fact that Lawrence is a financial planner by trade, one of the options that I suggested to him really appealed. The option was to use an app to track his daily food intake. We set up some initial guidelines and he began to track his daily caloric intake including his daily consumption of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. While this might seem like an arduous task, technology can be a wonderful thing, and the app that he used for tracking (MyFitness Pal) made this a smooth and fairly pain-free process; from a logistical standpoint at least.
My suggestion was that he track his intake for a period of about 12 weeks. Each week he would send me his weekly nutrition chart, which included his daily morning bodyweight. We would discuss how the week went, and whether or not he needed to make any changes. We’d also discuss external factors that could have affected his weight gain or loss in specific weeks. Lawrence is quite a self-motivated individual, so I was mostly just a sounding board :)
After blazing through the first 12 weeks of food tracking, he got into such a good rhythm that he ended up tracking for an entire year. The end result was an additional 49 lbs lost in 51 weeks!
While I would never suggest that anybody track their food intake for an entire year, I'm very glad that Lawrence did. By combing through his years’ worth of data and checking-in with him on his progress each and every week, we were able to gain some massive insight into his weight loss process.
I thought it would be useful to share his journey with you as he has provided some invaluable data and experience that lend truth to some "universal laws of weight loss".
While I will mention a few data points, a large part of what this post covers are social and emotional strategies that can help you with long-term weight loss.
Below you will see a list of 10 lessons of sustainable weight loss and how Lawrence's journey upheld these lessons. My hope is that you might have some “aha” moments that make you think back to a time(s) when you tried to lose weight. While these lessons learned are in reference to Lawrence’s journey, I believe them to be true for anyone looking to lose weight. If you have tried to lose weight, perhaps even several times over, and haven’t managed to pull it off just yet, then I think that you could gain some valuable insight through reading the lessons that follow. You might even approach your next weight loss journey with a fresh perspective; that's my goal, at least!
Enough "jibber-jabber", here are the 10 lessons:
1) Tracking food intake can be very useful for weight loss (both in the short, and, long-term) :
Having an awareness of how much food you're consuming in terms of total daily calories and amount of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats can help to you determine whether or not you are eating the right amount of food for weight loss. This isn't to suggest that that you need to track a specific number of calories or specific grams of macronutrients (proteins, carbs, fats). As the saying goes , “there are many different ways to skin an orange”. You could simply count portions throughout the day, or alternatively, you could communicate a food log to a nutritionist and they could do the counting for you! From there they could tell you how to adjust your respective portions to promote weight loss.
Being able to quantify your food intake ensures that you're being honest with yourself and also provides you with a personalized baseline of what it takes for you to lose weight. In fact, several studies have shown that even registered dietitians underestimate the amount of calories that they are having by 10 to 20%. In obese populations the level of underestimating can be as high as 50 percent; in some cases, even more. (For further reading on this, check out this article: Self Reported Daily Caloric Intake Discrepancies ).
This misreporting is analogous to the person who has no money left in their bank account at the end of each month and can't account for where their money is going. They sit down and seriously track their spending, for say a month, only to find that they’re spending $25 a day on coffee, cigarettes, and avocado-toast .
2) No foods need to be off limits; everything within reason.
When a person loses 64 pounds many would assume that they went on some special diet where they only consumed specific foods while others were labelled as being "off limits". In today’s carbophobic world, one of the first guesses one would make is that in order to lose his 64lbs, Lawrence went "Keto", or "low-carb". The truth is that he didn’t actually prescribe to any popular diet archetype.
By simply quantifying his food intake, Lawrence was able to have all of the foods and drinks that he normally would have had. The main difference being that the portion sizes were quantified and totaled at the end of each day. When it comes to weight loss, HOW MUCH food you eat is more important than WHAT TYPE of food you eat.
3) Alcohol Calories Count, and not just “carby” alcohol calories.
Being the social fellow that Lawrence is, he still wanted to have alcoholic drinks from time to time. There were a few events during the year, such as a California “boys trip”, as well as a Stampede work function, where alcohol was consumed; quite a bit, actually :).
When I have a client track alcohol calories, we try to view all of the calories within a specific alcoholic beverage as either being fat or carbohydrate-based calories. Most food tracking apps don’t have a column for alcohol, and ideally, it’s not being consumed in such quantities and with such frequency that it needs it’s own column. As a frame of reference, the the major macronutrients that a person would track are protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
Lawrence decided to treat his alcohol calories as fat calories. If he had a 200 calorie pint of beer, for example, he charted that as being 200 calories worth of fat. He treated all of his alcohol calories as if they were food-based calories.
**Side note: it's important to remember that when you look at the label on a bottle of beer, for example, and it lists 15 grams of carbs and 150 calories, the 15 grams of carbs would only account for 60 of the calories in said bottle of beer (there are 4 calories in every gram of carbohydrates... 4x15 = 60). This leaves 90 additional calories that we haven't factored in. When we only count the carbs in an alcoholic beverage, we often miss out on the calories that come from the alcohol itself. Moral of the story: While many alcoholic beverages may be low-carb, they might not necessarily be low calorie.**
4) When tracking food intake we often just have to take our best guess or estimation; this can take the stress out of the process.
While there are some fantastic food tracking apps, such as the aforementioned MyFitnessPal, their database doesn’t contain every possible food item that you might consume. When you eat at a "hole-in-the-wall" restaurant, or at a friend's house for dinner, you likely won’t know how many calories there are in the meal being served. Unless, of course, your friends are going high-class and serving you Pepperoni Pizza Pops for dinner, in which case, you would know that there are 260 calories per pop! Everyone knows that, right? ;)
All jokes aside, there are ways to ballpark the contents of your foods, and, this process gets much easier with time and practice. Unless you’re training for a bodybuilding competition or a similar endeavor, giving your best guess of calories won’t change your weight loss outcome in the long run. Being “ok” with taking these guesses allows one to avoid getting into a state of food tracking or calorie counting anxiety.
Lawrence often had to take his best guess of what was in his food, and then charted his guess. We both agreed that sometimes he underestimated and sometimes he overestimated. It didn’t matter. As long as he tried to reasonably account for what he consumed in a given day he stayed consistent and true to the process.
5) Weight loss is never linear – water retention can sometimes trick you into thinking you aren’t losing body-fat.
Even when it seems like you’re doing absolutely everything right in terms of your eating, sometimes the scale just won’t budge. Some weeks you will get a really big “reward” for staying consistent with your eating and other weeks you won’t get that same reward, even if you were just as, if not more, consistent than the week before.
There are a host of factors that can affect our daily and weekly bodyweight and most of them revolve around water balance. The following factors (among others) can all have a big impact on water balance, and ultimately cause temporary weight gain due to water retention. These factors are: sleep, stress, extra sodium intake, and, extra carbohydrate intake. Another factor which has a significant impact on our daily bodyweight is the frequency and size of our bowel movements. Bowel movements can be affected by hydration levels, fiber intake, and even changes in food types in our diet (eg. eating things that we’re not accustomed to, and/or that we don’t digest well).
In spite of all of these factors that influence our daily bodyweight, staying consistent with our eating is key; meaning that finding a good macronutrient balance and maintaining a caloric deficit will trump any transient fluctuations in water balance and will allow us to lose weight.
Lawrence had some weeks when he wasn’t as regular as normal, and the scaled showed it. He also had some stretches along the way where an anti-inflammatory medication caused him to retain an extra 1lb per day for as many as 5 days in a row. Gaining 5lbs in 5 days, might lead one to think that they need to cut back on calories. Based on the way that Lawrence was eating, we knew that he did not need to drop his calories or do anything drastic. As challenging as it was, he simply had to wait things out until the plumbing issues got fixed. When it comes to long term weight loss, patience is a virtue.
**More to follow on this point in lesson 10 below**
6) It's OK to designate certain weeks for weight maintenance and even for weight gain.
Lawrence lost 49lbs over the course of 51 weeks, yet in 14 of those weeks he actually gained weight when compared to the previous week's weekly average.
In almost all of these weeks in which he gained weight, the weight gain was mostly expected.
In some cases the weight gain was actually planned for.
Planned weight gain? Say what!? Say yes!
Lawrence had some fun family trips planned with his wife and kids, and also a few golf trips and sports watching excursions with his buddies. The goal on these trips was to be mindful of eating and drinking in a way that still allowed him to have fun while “mitigating the damage”, so to speak. On his guys' trip, for example, he would sometimes have days where he ate "very clean" at breakfast, and (sometimes) lunch. That way he could go out for burgers and beers in the evening and know that he had already ate better than he would have normally done on a guys' trip.
He came back from a few trips having put on several pounds, but, we recognized that the majority of the weight gain was from excess water storage due to increased carbohydrate and sodium consumption. Within a couple of days, and without resorting to any drastic measures, his weight would stabilize very close to the point that it was at before his trip.
I really love setting the objective of “mitigating the damage”, as opposed to losing weight ,on these fun trips. Setting such an objective squashes a lot of the anxiety of having to stay “on” while travelling. It also sets one up for a feeling of success as opposed to failure. I remember Lawrence coming back from a trip saying, “I gained a few pounds, but I actually didn’t eat that bad.”. My response would have been something like, “Awesome, let’s chalk it up in the win column.”
If you have a significant amount of weight to lose, please remember that gaining weight in a specific week(s) in no way, shape, or form, inhibits your ability to losing a significant amount of weight over the course of months, or let's say, a year.
7) When you indulge more than normal, be prepared for a TEMPORARY weight spike…
but know that if you get back into a normal eating rhythm, much of the weight will come off quite quickly. In fact, depending on how “indulgent” your meal(s) were, the temporary weight gain will often come back down within 2 days or so.
As previously mentioned, some indulgent weekends or trips will result in a lot of temporary weight gain. For every extra gram of carbohydrates that your body stores as muscle and liver glycogen, it also stores 3 to 4 grams of water. For every extra 400mg of sodium that your body retains it also retains 1 liter of water. If you consumed foods and/or drinks that contained a higher than normal amount of sodium and carbohydrates, coupled with not having much fiber to promote healthy bowel movements, it would be quite easy for the scale to go up several pounds overnight.
After a couple of his trips, Lawrence came back 5-6 lbs heavier than when he left. Again, we knew that this wasn’t major cause for concern, so Lawrence simply got back into his eating rhythm, kept the water levels high (to help further restore normal water balance and bowel movements), and he was back in the losing column in no time.
8) Despite what some might say, calories do still matter; quite a lot, actually.
While there seems to be a debate over whether or not weight loss is all about calories or all about hormones, the truth is that hormones and calories are both really important. Hormonal balance often dictates our satiety and hunger levels. Our hunger levels are a good predictor of how many calories we consume, and how many calories we consume dictates how much weight we lose or gain.
Weight loss and weight gain can fluctuate on a daily basis, but ultimately, maintaining a caloric deficit is what guides steady weight loss, over time.
Some of the best ways to help stabilize our hunger and satiety hormones are to try our best to get quality sleep, manage our stress, and consume an adequate intake of lean protein. While Lawrence's small kids didn’t always allow him to tick off the ‘ol sleep box, he consumed an adequate amount of protein, and, is also a master at managing stress and keeping calm while carrying on :)
As his weight loss progressed we had to make a down-shift in the number of calories that he consumed. As one’s bodyweight decreases, the number of calories that we burn in a day also decreases. Generally speaking, for every 10lbs that we lose, we will burn 100 calories less per day. This is a general number as it doesn’t take into account the amount of fat loss versus muscle loss. Regardless, as one loses weight, one must make marginal adjustments to decrease their daily calories/portion sizes in order to maintain a caloric deficit and to continue to lose weight.
9) Accountability can be VERY helpful when trying to lose a significant amount of weight.
Lawrence quite easily lost 15lbs on his own prior to beginning the weekly tracking and communication with me. He had great foresight in that he knew that having a plan and having someone to “report to” would make him more accountable to that plan.
Lawrence’s process was, in many ways, self-guided. He simply bounced his thoughts off of me and sometimes asked for my take on a few things. At the end of each week, he knew that he would be checking in with me. He said it helped to keep him honest.
Sometimes the very act of knowing that we have to communicate our food intake with another person instantly causes us to make better food choices. For some of my clients that don’t track at all, they send me images of their food, and, many of them have said that by simply taking a photo of their food, they “think twice” about what they’re eating.
There’s no shame in being accountable to someone. Heck, I’ve had 3 nutrition coaches myself, and I am a nutrition coach. I’ve also had 4 MD’s who I’ve coached with their nutrition. Hats off to them for swallowing their respective pride and realizing that long term weight loss can be much more attainable when you’re being held accountable.
Lawrence is 53 weeks into tracking now. He knows what to do, but, he’s still sending me his weekly reports, and we’re still discussing what his end-of-year goals are, and how his travels and family events fit into/around those goals.
Very few people have achieved successful long term weight loss without having had to be accountable to another person, even if that person is simply a short British- Canadian sounding board who refuses to remove his black baseball cap.
10) The weigh scale will try and mess with your mind (all the time!).
I saved this lesson for last as I think that the " Mind F-ery” that the scale has on us can often convince us to throw in the towel and give up on our meal plan or our healthy eating quest.
This is particularly true on a day-to-day basis. We’ve already delved into the non-linear nature of weight loss along with the temporary weight spikes that will occur along the way. With this in mind, it’s absolutely crucial to pay more attention to weekly, and even bi-weekly, weight loss trends.
For Lawrence, we averaged out his weekly bodyweight, and also picked out his weekly “lowest” weigh-in. This is how we gauged his progress. While there were some weeks that didn’t always make sense (from a calories in, calories out, standpoint), the bi-weekly trends usually always adequately reflected the consistency in his eating.
This is why it can be detrimental to only weigh yourself one in a while (eg. once every two weeks). It’s a total crap-shoot as to whether or not the scale decides to "mind-F" you on that particular day.
To use an extreme example from Lawrence’s tracking sheets, there was a particular seven week stretch in which he lost 6 lbs (based on his average weigh-ins each week). Yet, if you looked at his highest bodyweight in the first week, and his highest bodyweight in week 7, the numbers were literally the exact same. Since he had been regularly weighing himself, we knew that the number was an anomaly. We simply looked at that number and said, “Oh stop it you silly scale, you’re just trying to mess with us. Let's check back tomorrow.” Had he not been regularly weighing himself, and happened to hop on the scale that day, he likely would have been extremely disappointed, perhaps to the point where he wanted to give up, and/or attack his personal trainer with groin strikes.
**Side Note: If the prospect of weighing yourself everyday scares you, then don’t feel pressure to do so. For some people the process can be anxiety provoking, even if the goal is to ultimately create less scale anxiety.**
Conclusion / Finding Your “Why”
I can honestly say that this was the most excited I’ve ever been to write a weight loss post. If you’ve read my blog, then you may be thinking, "dude you only have like six blog entries, so that’s not that significant. Quit trying to over-hype this you little 4-eyed Brit!" This is true, but I’ve also done hundreds of Facebook posts about weights loss, exercise, and client success stories.
This post takes the cake, mostly due to the fact that I got a front row seat into Lawrence’s year long weight loss journey (which is now continuing into year 2).
His year entailed all of the ebbs and flows that a weight loss journey has to offer. It was not easy. The year included tending to his two young children who made for some long days and nights, spending time with golf buddies who like to drink beer, and his lovely wife who allowed her horse to steal his apples and carrots (which compromised his daily fiber intake).
In spite of all of this, he made it look easy. I think largely due, but not limited to, these factors: he stayed consistent, he made plenty of time for fun, he didn’t rule out any specific food or drinks, he stayed calm even when the weigh scale wasn’t cooperating, and most importantly, he had a really big “why”.
When I see Lawrence’s face light up when he talks about coaching his son’s soccer team, or tossing his kids around in the pool, it’s pretty easy to see what his “why” is. A couple of months ago he started coming to the gym on Mondays complaining about his arms being sore. As his trainer, I was ready to pat myself on the back and take credit for this soreness. However, his arms weren't sore from our workouts, they sore because he had turned himself into a human crocodile at the pool, walking on only his arms, while his three year old son rode on his back.
I’m not so sure that he would have been able to do this a year ago, but a year later; of course he can. When your “why” is something as important as spending Sunday afternoons giving your son crocodile rides at the pool, perhaps changing the way you eat won’t seem like such a big deal after all.
Thanks for reading,