For some of us who let our weight get out of control in middle age, it takes a doctor's warning or, worse, a health setback or injury to get us to diet. For others, an imminent job search or college reunion is motivation to get rid of extra pounds.
For me, a more subtle set of concerns created a tipping point about two years ago. First, I noticed I was begging out of playing outside with my kids more than I used to. They were disappointed, but soccer and races somehow just seemed like too much trouble. Also, as a longtime tracker of my waistline, I found I needed to try on a stack of pants to locate a size 38 that fit comfortably. In other words, I was probably a 40. And my wife, while no less loving and supportive than she'd always been, had started telling friends that she couldn't wait for me to reach a midlife crisis and start training for a marathon.
(MORE: The Fiftysomething Diet)
Clearly, it was time. Fortunately, a now-defunct parenting website that I worked for was seeking a few parents to write a weekly blog for a full school year about getting themselves fit and motivating their kids to start healthy habits. I signed on — maybe the best decision I ever made.
A Lifetime of Watching Weight
Growing up, I was a fat kid with fat-kid problems. Middle-school gym was a nightmare. High school dances were awkward. Finally, having topped 200 pounds by the end of junior year, I went on a crash diet and lost 40 pounds by the start of senior year, basically by spending a monastic summer eating little and working three physically demanding jobs. But two years ago, past age 40, with a wife, three children and a job in an office full of candy bowls, I clearly needed a more realistic approach. Fortunately, I found one. Here's what I learned about midlife weight loss and some strategies that may help you as well:
1. Make Lifestyle Changes Instead of a Diet Plan.
The website I wrote for arranged a couple of sessions for me with a nutritionist here in New York City. The first thing I told her is that while I wanted to lose weight, I did not want to count calories, keep a food diary or order low-cal meals on wheels from some expensive service. I know those plans work for many people, but it seemed to me they just set you up for a lot of pressure and, potentially, disappointment. The nutritionist told me she didn't believe in diet plans either, and that I should try something both simpler and more demanding: lifestyle change.
To lose weight and keep it off, she said, I didn't need to count calories, I needed to change my choices at every meal. Two eggs on a bagel could no longer be a valid everyday breakfast. As a daily lunch, a pile of rice with some chicken on top would never deliver weight loss. And a pasta-based dinner with no vegetables wouldn't help either, any more than snacks of candy or chips.
But those foods didn't have to leave my life for good. I adopted a low-carb, not no-carb, menu. I converted my breakfast to a bowl of bran flakes and dried cranberries. My lunches and dinners were plates half covered with vegetables and filled out with healthy portions of protein. My snacks: rice cakes with hummus, peanut butter or low-fat cottage cheese, or handfuls of nuts or raisins. The nutritionist wisely pointed out that these filling snacks would ensure I'd be less hungry at dinnertime and less likely to want seconds.
Admittedly, it takes time and commitment to get used to these changes. But once they become your new normal, it's not only easier to lose weight, it's harder to put it back on.
2. Get Some Momentum. Then Keep Going.
As soon as you start seeing positive results, you'd be surprised how momentum takes over. The truth is, as much as your spouse, co-workers or kids encourage you, your voice is always the most important one, and when you start using it to congratulate instead of kick yourself, you're on your way. I weighed myself once or twice a week — always under ideal conditions: first thing in the morning, before eating but after "evacuating" — and I can tell you that there is no greater motivation that seeing that number drop. Once it starts, you won't want to look back.
3. Don't Think About 'Willpower.' Think About Strategy.
Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University has written extensively on what he calls "mindless eating," the ways that nearly all of us end up consuming more than we think we do without realizing it. His experiments have shown that people eat less when given smaller dishes, when their office candy jars are moved six feet farther away from them or when they are served dinner instead of serving themselves. I focused on Wansink's lessons and tried to create an environment in which it was easier to eat less. For example, he's found that we're more likely to eat the first thing we see in our cupboard rather than the fifth, so I put my healthy snacks front and center to make the candy less convenient.
In general, the strategies worked because, crucially, I actually thought of them as strategies and not tests of "willpower." Growing up, I heard my mother, who struggled mightily with her weight, frequently bemoan her willpower and kick herself when she slipped from one diet plan or another. Wansink's argument is that most of us will eat too much if there's food in front of us, so it's more reasonable just to adapt our environment. If it doesn't work, the strategy needs tweaking, not ourselves.
Successful dieting can also be counterintuitive: A Carnegie Mellon University study has found that just imagining eating a food you crave can actually help you feel satisfied, even if you don't dig in. I adopted this strategy as well, so when a plate of cookies materialized in the office, I'd stop, look at them and think about them for a bit then move on. It works because it's mindful, not mindless.
Moving Forward, in Better Health
At the end of nine months, I had lost 48 pounds and seven inches of waistline. A few pounds have come back, but not many. I keep the nutritionist's advice about lifestyle, choices, healthy snacks and portions in mind, as well as her insight that hunger is part of life, so it's not a bad thing to feel hungry at mealtimes as long as we satisfy that hunger with the right choices.
I work out regularly now — my exercise routine also underwent lifestyle change — and even run sometimes with my older son, a member of his school's cross-country team. I appreciate the little things that came with weight loss: Those small towels the gym provides in the locker room finally fit around my waist; I'm more comfortable squeezing into the back of a cab with the kids; and I wear my shirts tucked in a lot more often.
I used to scoff at touchy-feely notions like "lifestyle change." But eventually such mantras became my own. And as you might expect, lifestyle change has led to some personal discoveries.
A new area of psychological research known as "self-compassion" makes the case that people who are as accepting of their own flaws as they are of other people's tend to be happier, healthier and more successful at dieting. If you care about yourself, the theory goes, you're more likely to take actions that are healthy for you. After years of living with, and resenting, my overweight self, why did I embrace change when I did? Maybe because I finally saw it as something good to do for myself, rather than a way to fix what was bad about myself.
Once I looked at it that way, I was ready to go.