I wrote this article on LinkedIn in January, 2020. I’ve updated it here in March, 2021.
In 2019, I lost 50 pounds. By 2021, the total loss was 60. Many have asked me the secret, and I’ve told them all the same thing:
“It’s a complicated regime: I ate less and exercised more.”
Usually people kind of nod and smile at this. Of course, it’s oversimplifying things, and enough people have asked me how I did it that I figured I would make a short post about it.
Your mileage absolutely will vary, I’m not a nutritionist, or physical therapist, or doctor, so you’re on your own.
Pain and Fat
A few years ago, I suffered a serious injury to my back that led to surgery.
The extra weight was a direct result of the injury — docs loaded me up with opioids, which slowed my metabolism, removed my will to move, and ironically didn’t do much to help the pain. I weaned myself from opioids (cutting the dose in half every five days) and finally was drug free in February, 2017.
I still have chronic pain from permanent nerve damage. During 2019, on several days each week, it was bad enough that it was hard to walk from the car to the front door, let alone up stairs.
During these acute pain days, I still need a cane — I have a folding one I carry with me and try not to use.
I still have pain nearly every day, but it has lessened. In 2020, with the exercise regime I describe below, stretching, yoga, and some physical therapy, I reduced these acute-pain days further to about two or three per month.
I tell you all this because it means that I can’t easily do things that I used to do to stay trim (before I became a big, fat fellow): running, martial arts, surfing, and hundreds of sit-ups.
I thought that I would not be able to work out because of the pain. I was wrong. What I needed to do was be determined not to let pain dominate my life and my choices. It was not easy. In fact, it was excruciatingly difficult. Ultimately my determination won.
To try and give back, and to save others the misery of opioid dependency, I have served since 2018 on the advisory board of a clinical study to explore alternatives to narcotic pain medications.
I swear to God: if I can do it, you can do it.
The pandemic led to massive shortages of home gym equipment, especially weight benches and the like, but I try to do strength training that leverages my body to help my body — marine pull-ups, pushups, dips, planks, and the like.
I do some weight training and some machine training, but mainly I try to lift, in various forms and methods, my own body weight.
Use what you have and what you can afford. I did not invest in gear until 2020, when lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to stop all gym visits. My work in New York City subsidized a membership at the swanky and usuriously expensive Equinox gym, but I began with a $10 a month membership at Planet Fitness, which worked just fine, thank you very much (though they are right bastards about cancelling — truly abusive — so read the fine print).
After lockdown closed both, I stayed home. As I could, I selected the gear I would use every day, and bought it.
I did physical therapy and got strength training exercises, and hired a trainer who was familiar with mobility issues. I came up with a regime that gave me enough cardio to get my heart rate up to the target area every day, without stressing unnecessarily (at all if possible) my back or legs. I spend about an hour to an hour and a half in the gym most days, doing cardio and some strength training.
In 2021 I bought a Muscle board for pushups. I use it. I have dumbbells. I use them.
The killer app for me? Cycling. In 2020, bought a full suspension mountain bike so that the road wouldn’t jar my back, and the muscle groups used during even intense biking don’t strain my back. The pounds melted away, my overall health improved, and I regained control of my body, my weight, and even my pain.
In the cold season I use a Wahoo Kickr BIKE I bought in late 2020. Unlike a Peloton, a Kickr BIKE is a training simulator that precisely simulates hills and matches my real bike’s gears and feel. I’m lucky to live in a rural area with lots of rolling hills, so my daily rides have lots of climbs and descents. The Kickr BIKE simulates those hills with spooky accuracy.
At first, I used an app called FullGaz for nice video immersion; the Kickr BIKE is controlled by the app, so when the video shows uphill, the BIKE matches the grade — really fun. It’s great to head out to Scotland, or New Zealand, for a ride.
It’s not, he told me, about how long you ride or how fast, or how far you go, but the quality of the training. After a few months, I am beginning to understand it, and I’m so insufferable on the topic that I get on my own nerves.
So he taught me about power levels and training principles to teach my body and muscles how to improve strength and stamina.
“Your training is better this way,” he said, “because what you were doing before was confusing your body — it didn’t know what you wanted from it.”
I love Xert because it really tells me about the progress I’m making in highly specific metrics. You can lose yourself in just how geeky you can get with this stuff.
Food and Drink
The “eat less” part is not really true: I think I probably eat the same volume of food as ever, I just eat much better. I almost never go to restaurants. During the pandemic I have had take-out food maybe five times. When I travel, I bring my own food in a small RTIC cooler, which I find work as well or better than Yeti coolers, at much less money.
I also wasn’t going to feel deprived, or count calories. I am aware of them, but I don’t live by them. The only thing I do is consider carefully any use of oil or fat — and try not to use it at all. Weirdly, for me, fat (not carbs) is what makes my face look like a beachball — weight I gain always goes first to my face, then my gut. It’s amazing how little oil or fat one needs if you start from “no” and add only what’s really necessary. I’ve cut out most fat.
I bought an Instant Pot and have a daily diet anchored in a variety of pressure-cooked or steamed vegetables (mainly root vegetables like beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, celeriac, and the like, plus squash and other water-dense veggies). Every morning I chop and slice, add lots of spices, and pressure cook for one minute.
I eat bushels of fresh fruit — lots of pineapple, orange, berries, apple, pear, grapes, and other fruit in season. Often, I chop these all into a fruit salad. Some gasp at the number of carbs this provides. I couldn’t possibly care less.
I eat lots of non-fat Greek yogurt, and I’ve cut out as much sugar as I can stand to cut out — but, again, I never deprive myself. For example, I put sugar and whole milk in my coffee, and I still eat bagels a couple times a week, and pastry my wife makes as often as I can.
And I really enjoy the occasional cigar.
I am a meat lover, and I make sure I have meat every day. To do this and still cut down on fat, I mainly eat chicken breast, turkey breast, and low-fat cuts of pork, but red meat is what I absolutely crave.
To sate this need, I have relied on bison steak, mainly the sirloin cut but also filet Mignon. Cooked rare to medium-rare, pan-roasted in a good non-stick pan, with just spices and no oil, or pressure-cooked in stews, bison satisfies in the same way that steak does.
I’ve found a wonderful source of it — organically raised, grass fed, locally slaughtered and butchered — but I won’t tell you where it is because I am greedy.
You can often find bison in supermarkets or farmer’s markets, and if you’ve the money to spend you can find it online, from specialty farms throughout the US that will ship it to you frozen.
Ostrich is another wonderful beef substitute. As is venison. I cook all these meats without oil, with lots of spices — which means I do a lot of modified (no oil) Mexican and Asian cooking — I do a low-fat, high protein street taco, with homemade corn tortillas, sliced meat in a homemade Chipotle and tomato sauce, a Sichuan bison-with-broccoli dish, and stews and soups that would knock your socks off.
I drink barrels of water, and carafes of coffee.
I don’t ever drink soft drinks. I never drink any alcohol. You can call the latter the penalty for an, ah, exuberant youth.
The only processed stuff I use is electrolyte replacement — when I work out I sweat. A lot. So do you. OK, I probably sweat more, but, still.
My coach recommended hydration drink mix products from Skratch Labs, which I use where others would use Gatorade or the like. There’s less sugar and no artificial flavors or colors. If I am doing a big group ride or race, I’ll have a biscotti beforehand to carb-up (my wife is a pastry chef) — another trick I got from my coach.
I also drink some hateful, vile, but magical stuff from Natural Calm that provides magnesium in a formula that can be absorbed by my body more readily than with other forms. This prevents and ameliorates cramping from heavy workouts. I say it is vile because it contains a fair amount of, “that stevia crap” in it that Walt used as a delivery mechanism for the Ricin he used to kill Lydia in Breaking Bad. I think of that scene every time I drink it, but I drink it every day.
For snacks, I mix into this diet things like Kefir; homemade applesauce and pear sauce; walnuts, pecans, cashews, almonds, and a small amount of dried fruit every day — these all serve to satisfy my sweet-and-crunchy tooth without resorting to Snickers bars (which taste fantastic because each bar contains more than an ounce of sugar, and gets 44% of its 280 calories from fat).
All these foods give me variety, they’re highly satisfying, highly filling, low fat and even low calorie — so pangs for Shake Shack are held in check.
By eating after workouts, working out regularly with a cardio-heavy regime that includes strength training, drinking lots of water, playing with intermittent fasting (fasting for 12–14 hours each day), eating almost exclusively whole, raw foods prepared at home, and being careful not to further injure myself, I managed to lose 50 pounds from December 2018 to June 2019, and additional ten during 2020.
Since then I have maintained within 5 pounds of the same weight.
I’ve gained muscle and shaped my body. And while I still have pain every day, it’s lessened.
Even the occasional blowout (like Indian food from a superb local restaurant; holiday meals of turkey with all the trimmings; and even the occasional night out at a steakhouse) doesn’t take me off track.
My diet and regime is not for everyone. It works for me.
I hope it inspires you.