Life Hacking: Mass Reduction

This is a bit of an unusual post. I don’t even have a proper category for it. It does not really fit with most of the other content you read here, but I figured I might as well say write a bit about the biggest project I have underwent in years. And it just so happened this project had nothing to do with technology, video games or other geeky interests. It was a massive, long term life hack.

For the last few years… No scratch that. For the last decade I have been living a rather unhealthy lifestyle – eating poorly, not getting much in terms of exercise and etc. Most of my waking hours of the day have been spent sitting – in a chair at my desk, in my car, at my computer desk at home, etc. In other words, I have been living the kind of life style that my body was never designed for.

Homo Sapiens have evolved as hunter gatherers, and endurance runners accustomed to trekking across the Pleistocene savannahs in search of edible things that can be scooped up, or whacked with a stick. Most of our existence on this planet as a species has been spent either chasing after food, or running away not to become food. Our bodies are perfectly adapted for just that. While most animals use fur for thermo-regulation, we use an all-over subcutaneous layer of fat which not only helps to control heat exchange but also lets us package any surplus calories we ingest for later use. Our sweating mechanism is one of the most efficient heat dissipation methods in the animal kingdom making us perfect long distance runners. While we are not the fastest beasts out there, our energy/heat management, and our low friction/low energy bipedal gait let us us to out-walk just about any animal. Early Pleistocene humans used these natural adaptations to tail prey until it dropped out of exhaustion, then whacked it upside the head with a stick, and still had enough energy to drag it back to their cave.

We actually haven’t invented laziness and “being fat” until a few centuries ago when the agricultural revolution gave us a reliable source of food that did not need to be chased. Our civilization has been growing at an astonishing exponential rate of progress, and the slow process of natural selection / evolution has simply been unable to catch up. We still have bodies of Pleistocene endurance runners, but many of us lead lives that do not require much in terms of physical exertion. What’s worse, we have easy access to high caloric diets our ancestors could only dream off. All the surplus energy we consume but don’t spend, gets packed away for a rainy day in our fat tissue. Thanks to our civilization being stable, and comfortable institution such a rainy day never comes and so we become fatter, heavier and less healthy.

This is what happened to me. A sedentary life style combined with careless dietary habits resulted in me putting on quite a few pounds. Let’s face it – being an introverted geek working in tech industry carries enough of a social stigma. Throw in being fat into the equation and your are getting dangerously close to becoming a walking stereotype and/or punchline. One day I got fed up, and decided that this weight gain thing can be hacked and made to go away. And it can’t be all that difficult either. After all, have you ever talked to the meat-heads at the gym? They are not what you would call the brightest crayons in the box, but they manage to maintain a fairly competent grasp on their weight just by using some dietary restrictions and exercise.

So since about June I have been working on tactical weight reduction and I think I did pretty well so far:

Before and After

Before and After - this is still work in progress

In about 5 months I have dropped a bit over 50 pounds, and went down from pant size 42 to 34. Most of that was done by simple calorie intake reduction, because my lazy ass did not feel like going to gym very often. I only threw regular cardio exercise into the mix at the beginning of December.

Weight loss is a big business – it’s an industry in and of it’s own. My weight problem was not unique – a lot of people find themselves in a very similar situation. There are tons of resources out there that claim they have mastered a perfect system that will work for you. Some of them work, others don’t. The point is that you don’t really need any of them. You don’t need weight watchers, you don’t need Tae Bo, Zoomba or whatever else bullshit is trending these days. I did it without any of them.

Here is all you need to know: if you want to lose weight, don’t eat so fucking much.

It sounds simplistic, but it’s true. If your weight is related to metabolic problems rather than poor diet and lack of exercise, then you are playing a completely different ball game. But for an average fat slob like me, the problem is ingesting more calories than can be burned in a day. When you do that, surplus is squirreled away into the fat tissue. If you eat less calories than you can burn, the deficit is taken out of said energy storage. Your body is more or less a deterministic machine in that aspect.

And yes, there are other nutritional factors that play the role here: saturated fats, carbs, sugars, etc.. There have been books written on the proper balance of all the different food groups and their effect on weight. But calorie intake is by far the biggest, and most important factor. When you start counting calories you will usually get reduction in your consumption of fats, carbs and sugars as a freebie bonus. Most low calorie foods contain lower amounts of those things almost by default. They are tailored to more health/weight conscious consumers – a market where you want your nutrition label have the most zeros, and the smallest numbers in every column. Think of calories as the CPU clock speed of your food, and the other nutritional detail as secondary details cache, bus speed and etc.

How many calories you need to eat is a tricky question because it depends. There are about a million calculator tools online where you can plug in your weight, height, age and sex and it will give you a ballpark number you need to maintain a stable weight. You go under that, and you are in mass reduction territory.

Here is what worked for me: I have almost completely cut out sugar, and sugar substitutes out of my diet. I drink my coffee with a splash of milk these days, and it actually tastes better that way than the cream and sugar soup I used to devour. Plus I get to pretend to be a coffee snob now so it’s cool. I also severely limited my carb intake by kicking out white breads, pastas and similar items from my daily diet.

I also gave up diet sodas and artificial sweeteners. There is a lot of contradictory research out there about these things and I’m not sure how much of it is factual. I honestly did not dig deep enough. The fact is that according to some claims things like aspartame may potentially fuck with some of your neurotransmitters that are responsible for appetite control. I used to drink a lot of diet coke in the past, and I can attest that since I have quit it, I had much less of an urge to “graze” on snacks between meals. Granted, this is anecdotal, and not scientific evidence – still, swearing off soft drinks of the “diet” variety and artificial sweeteners is probably a good idea when you are trying to shed pounds.

Other than that, I just counted calories and used common sense (ie. get a salad instead of a burger or for lunch). I did not give up these things though – I will still eat all kinds of garbage, but I just cut it out of my daily life. Once in a blue moon I will treat myself to a disgustingly fattening decadent meal, but then I go straight back to calorie counting, healthier choices and exercise.

This is sort of the the lynchpin: commitment. You can’t view it as a “diet”. Diets don’t work, because by definition they are temporary. The only way to get any results is to view it as a lifestyle change. You have to accept that you will be eating healthier food, and watching your calorie intake for the rest of your life. In fact, you will have to be more rigorous about your regimen as you age, as your metabolism is going to keep slowing down. I have tried losing weight in the past, but I have never treated it seriously. This time around I decided I must make a permanent change, and accepted the fact that I will have to curtail my eating habits. Once I did that, it sort of became effortless. All it required was a little bit of willpower to prevent myself from grazing and snacking. That and exercising some common sense when shopping for food.

Anyways, I just wanted to share my little accomplishment. I know it has absolutely nothing to do with the usual topics on this blog. I probably won’t be mentioning it ever again, but this weight loss project has been a big part of my life lately, and I figured I might as well share it. Especially since it might actually help some of my fellow geeks with similar sedentary lifestyles.

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29 Responses to Life Hacking: Mass Reduction

  1. JMoney$ UNITED STATES Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    DAAAAAAAMN BOY.

    Lookin grood!

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    LOL! Thank you Ms. Money$. :)

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  3. Rob UNITED STATES Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Congrats man! That’s great. I too need to drop a bunch of weight, but have been unable to do it thus far. Keep up the good work!

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  4. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m never quite sure whether I have a freaky metabolism or just a naturally low appetite, because I don’t keep any kind of watch on what I eat, go through a lot of high-sugar snacks, and remain eternally skinny.

    Like I said, could be an unusual metabolism that somehow keeps burning away calories despite my sedentary nature (I am always quite warm, maybe I’m pumping it into body heat), or that I tend not to eat all that much in objective terms, just quite a lot of sugar in what I do eat.

    I ought to exercise more for fitness, but weight loss isn’t (currently) an issue for me, if anything then the opposite, but just inserting more calories into an already sugar-heavy diet would feel like a poor plan.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Rob:

    Thank you sir!

    @ Matt`:

    Sorry to break it to you man, but there is only one logical explanation to your ability not to gain weight:

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  6. rev UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    i’ve been doing the same thing. the thing that helps keep me honest is an ios/android app – there are dozens of them – i use myfitnesspal. massIn – energyBurned = deltaWeight. you have two knobs to turn; even if you don’t exercise, you can take in less calories and lose weight. either way it’s a matter of will power.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ rev:

    I’ve been using livestrong.com iOS app which has pretty big nutrition library. But yeah, just about any tool is good. You can do it with a regular spreadsheet.

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  8. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Well, there’s an obvious improvement in those photos so your regime must be working. Congrats!

    Myself, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be fat. Growing up with the figure of a cheerleader (I’m a guy) is fraught with its own difficulties. However, with regular exercise, I’m still thin, but no longer mistakable for a Auschwitz survivor.

    @ Matt`:
    Not all calories are equal. Lipids are much better for you than processed sugars for example. The one piece of dietary advice that has consistently worked for me is that if you eat more good things, like fruits, vegetables and lean meats, you’ll eat fewer unhealthy things.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    How is it to be fat? Well, for one it’s harder to tie your shoes. Also less luck with the ladies. Granted, being on either extreme end of the spectrum might cause problems in that department. :P

    You are right about the good foods vs bad foods though. Some fruits can be high in sugar and calories, but they are still much better for you than say candy bars. Nuts have high fat content, but they still beat potato chips as a snack. Etc..

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  10. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Aliens? Oh my cod!
    I eat whatever I want, whenever I want and I’m always underweight. Now that I know aliens are involved, what should I do about it?

    Seriously though, it would be awesome to get some exercise, it’d be shame to die of heart attack at the age of 50, but I just can’t bring myself to be humiliated while trying to perform feats my puny organic body was never meant to perform.

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  11. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    P.S. Being a coffee snob is awesome. Milk is so much better for sweetening it, not to mention you could use honey for your tea and be tea snob too.

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  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    I just put a slice of lemon in my tea. Did I just out tea-snob you?

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  13. Congratulations, Luke! I went through a very similar process just last year. At the beginning of April 2010 my wife and I, both in our mid-twenties, decided to make a lifestyle change. We changed what we were eating and how much. She decided to limit soda to one a month, and I, like you, completely gave it up, diet soda and all. It’s basically just milk and water for me now.

    We still enjoy a nice meal out at a restaurant once a week. Besides only ordering water and getting no appetizers or desert, we don’t worry about the calories.

    We also started light, regular exercise. In my case, I would do a brisk, 1-mile walk after work every day. Over a couple months I gradually increased it to 2-miles, then gradually turned it into a run, so that I’m currently running 2-miles either before (warm seasons) or after (cold seasons) work. It’s given me some beefy leg muscles.

    After a year (April 2011), she lost 45 pounds and I lost 50 pounds. We’ve both kept it there ever since. Here’s a before-and-after:

    December 2009 – November 2011

    You’re right on about diets not working, being temporary. That’s exactly what I’ve told other people — almost verbatim as you said it.

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  14. Victoria Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    Congrats, Luke! Looking really good and much younger now :)

    I don’t have a weight problem despite my 16h at the computer day, what I do have is back problems. I had some wrist problems too but I switched my mouse hand which reduced the pain greatly, and now I’m using Powerball as preventive means.

    But my back problems persist and I just cannot drag myself to gym. I hate that so much :) I would stop eating chocolate if it made my back pain go away :) but nooo, no such luck.

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  15. JMoney$ Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    I love commenting on friends’ sites and having my browser autofill the last asshole nickname I used for myself during a previous comment session.

    Anyways, this post made me think of how long it’s been since we actually saw each other in person. You keep teaching them 8:15pm classes! Maybe sometime soon we’ll cross paths. I’ve been staying late a few days a week to get freelance and masters stuff done in my quiet office.

    I wonder if Victoria was commenting via Reeder. She has the Apple + Netscape icons like I usually do!

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  16. Victoria Safari Mac OS says:

    @ JMoney$:

    Huh, I actually did comment via Reeder on iPad :)

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  17. Mitlik UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Gentoo Linux says:

    Congratulations!

    I have toyed with this idea myself a few times, and it usually ends in not getting enough sleep and using caffeine to get through my day. Every time I try/fail I notice something in the process. When I am doing well, the healthy eating almost seems to promote healthy eating. Think like drinking water instead of soda actually tends to make me want to drink more water.

    Now we need congress to realize the current farming subsidies for corn and cheese/milk help promote obesity, diabetes, cancer, and possibly deadly e-coli outbreaks.

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  18. karthik INDIA Google Chrome Windows says:

    Given a choice between reducing calorie intake and exercising more, I’d always choose the latter. It’s a false dichotomy, of course, but I’m just saying. Exercise made me feel great, eating less made me feel like I was depriving myself.

    (I dropped 50lb+ in twenty months of running without altering my diet. Clocked over 1600 miles by the end.)

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  19. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    No way, lemon in a tea is the oldest trick in the book.

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  20. Morghan Safari Linux says:

    I’ve been chunking up since I started back to uni a few months ago. Going from active to sedentary has left me always feeling hungry but not burning off what I eat even after dropping from a 4k calorie diet to a more usual intake level. The most exercise I get is walking a mile there, another home, and fidgeting a whole lot in lectures and labs.

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  21. Mart SINGAPORE Safari Mac OS Terminalist says:

    Wow!! Awesome improvement. I’m a size 40 right now, so i guess its time for some life-hacking as well..

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  22. Congrats on affecting less fluid when personally doing the Archimedes displacement experiment. :)

    Reply  |  Quote
  23. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Chris Wellons:

    Holy shit man! That’s an awesome change. Good job! :)

    @ Victoria:

    Thank you! Chronic back pains and hand problems are also effects of our biological inability to adopt to sedentary civilized life style. Our bodies were never designed to sit for a prolonged amount of time, and our hand and finger musculature is simply not designed for typing all day.

    Hopefully we can fix these things in the near future. When we finally take our genetic future into our own hands we can make changes that will allow us to better adopt out physiques to urban, civilized, sedentary lifestyles we lead. :)

    @ Mitlik:

    Btw – I did all of this while perpetually sleep deprived, and chugging coffee like a fiend. Of course everyone’s metabolism is different, but the main idea is: calorie restriction, exercise and commitment.

    @ JMoney$:

    I know, I haven’t seen you in ages. We should like hang out or something. :)

    @ karthik:

    See, I’m the opposite way. Exercising means a lot of effort – it is hard to stay motivated. Calorie restriction means I can just stop doing something and reap benefits. Like not going to the kitchen to get a snack – or not standing up from the table to get seconds. I can leverage my laziness to lose weight. :P

    @ Mart:

    Thanks!

    @ Tormod Haugen:

    Also, I think I can accelerate closer to the speed of light now. :)

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  24. road UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    It’s not that complicated: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

    PS — congrats!!!

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  25. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Well done mate. I am working on same myself and it is not easy. So kudos!

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  26. I think the major thing my body couldn’t beat was beer drinking. As soon as I started drinking every weekend I began to develop a gut.
    That and if you drink creamer in your coffee it takes forever to get that out…

    I only put milk in my coffee now, and I try not to drink soo much beer all the time,
    but yea I really think it’s the beer tbh.

    This is a bad beer example:
    http://www.calorieking.com/foods/calories-in-ales-beers-pale-lager-5-a lc_f-ZmlkPTY3NDIy.html But you get the idea.
    Only three beers and your body is chugging almost 500 calories.
    I don’t even know what to say to that….

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  27. Oh and another thing is,
    I Live In Alaska! So the winters are just FOOD TEIMZ.

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  28. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ road:

    Thank you!

    @ Andrew Zimmerman:

    Beer is a killer. Fortunately, I don’t actually drink that much. I’m what they call a “social drinker” – I drink only when I go out with friends and there is drinking to be done. We don’t go out that often and when we do, we don’t always drink – and not always heavy stuff like beer so it works out pretty well for my weight loss regimen. :P

    But yeah, I like Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and according to livestrong that’s close to 300 calories per bottle.

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