As middle age appeared on the horizon, I was still lean and fit and had no fear of fat. But soon after thinking I might be one of the lucky ones, the first signs of a belly appeared. It was about 2006.
Fat on a short skeleton is bad news. At only 5’3”, it doesn’t take much pudge to throw off my proportions. I ignored the problem for at least a year because it was just too awful to face the possibility of adding fatness to shortness. Surely my active lifestyle would prevail? But I had to admit that fat was happening when I saw pictures of myself doing sporty things in tight T-shirts, looking alarmingly pudgy … even as I climbed mountains.
And so the era of loose shirts and “portion control” began.
You can hide a lot with a loose shirt. This is the kind of “fat” that makes truly overweight people roll their eyes. But my fitness had been the foundation of my dignity for a long time, and what I saw under the shirt was terrifying. As a particularly short man, my fit shape was all that stood between me and sex-appeal oblivion.
My early diets were as pathetic as my baggy shirts. I kept assuming that “a little more portion control” or killing off another treat would do the trick. Meagre as my efforts were, they seemed cruel at the time, and many cherished eating habits were painfully sacrificed in this period. I love sweet baking, but I haven’t had a cinammon bun since 2007. Pancakes and pasta plates were beaten out of my life before I was 37. By the time I was 38, I was flabbergasted that I had ever regularly poured syrup on my breakfast cereal.
Syrup! On breakfast cereal! Can you imagine?
I was undergoing an aging-powered metabolic shift that was vastly more potent than my anemic dieting. My ability to incinerate calories was changing far faster than my food habits. It was such an unfair fight that my emotional response to all those early failures was outraged self-pity; I was obsessed with the idea that my sacrifices and intense regular exercise “should” have been enough. I just stubbornly ignored the rather glaring physical evidence to the contrary, assuming that the lipid tide would surely turn soon.
It was indeed unjust, like most of life, but it was happening anyway, and stopping it was going to require greater deprivation still. When I finally gave in and started counted calories, the numbers were shocking, and I knew I had to “really get serious.”
And so the era of seriously botched diets began.
I didn’t know what was more amazing: how much I had gotten away with in the past, or how much I was still eating. I had a lot of are-you-fucking-kidding-me calorie revelations in 08 and 09. A lot of foods were almost comically more energy dense than I had ever imagined. Pop quiz:
Q. How many tablespoons of peanut butter can blow your entire calorie quota for the day?
A. Not as many as you goddamn think, I promise you that: that stuff is almost pure energy. I’m surprised it’s not a fire hazard.
I added up what I might have eaten on a “typical day” back when syrupy cereal was standard and baked potatoes with sour cream caused me no worries, and I came up with the freakish number of about … 5000 calories?! Presumably the only reason I wasn’t already a grossly fatter person was pure bioloical luck. I must still have been blessed with the remains of (rapidly fading) metabolic immunity to food. My rough estimation is that I had probably cut my average daily calorie intake down to about 3000 in that period … a huge cut, but not enough.
Shit got real and I graduated beyond another level of denial when I finally lost clothing — not just from fear of tighter shirts, but due to an actual physical inability to connect fasteners. A pair of dressier pants with an inelastic waist band, which I hadn’t dared to try in some while, was the first thing that really proved to me that my sacrifices were not sufficient, no matter unfair it was. The button would not come within two inches of the hole.
Finally the first true diets began — my first flirtations with being in energy deficit. And I got my ass kicked. I had never really been hungry before, pampered middle-class Canadian that I am. I was completely unprepared for the many devious ways that hunger can modify your behaviour and turn you into a cunning diet saboteur. I churned through all the stereotypes of the casual dieter: midnight binges, conveniently “forgetting” that beer contains calories, “How can I not help my friend celebrate her 37th birthday by eating an extra piece of cake?” … we all know how it goes, yada yada yada.
That is, of course, as close to dieting success as a lot of people ever get. But I’m not a good loser. After a string of failures, I went from being “serious” to “mad.”
And so began the era of … winning. With beer.
I have lost 25 lbs or 11.3 kilograms in about six months, using a strategy that I believe anyone can understand and appreciate: I ate little, suffered a lot, and drank as an emotional coping mechanism.
I consumed substantially fewer calories than was strictly necessary, to be certain of being extreme enough, and to relieve myself of the burden of careful cooking and diligent counting — which is, I have learned, much too easy to neglect and screw up. To handle the emotional intensity of substantial long term hunger, I replaced some of my food intake with pure beer (and occasionally whiskey). Yes, occasionally entire meals were replaced with alcohol.
Q. Will this diet win any nutrition awards?
Steve Moyer, an impressive California trainer who deserves a lot of credit for getting me started on the right track, will not be impressed with my tactics. Probably amused. But not really impressed.
I will not repent my wicked ways. This has been the epitome of doing “whatever works for you.” It was in a sense a ruthless tactic. I had learned that I was my own worst enemy, and to beat me I would in some way have to join me — to let part of myself have what it wanted, while still being hungry over all.
Is it sustainable? It’s too soon to say, but I planned for that as well. I will now count calories more diligently than I did when I was deprived. My guess is that it will be a lot easier to count calories when I’m allowed to have more of them. An aggressive exercise plan is underway too — also easier when eating more.
And there will be beer, of course. But the beer calories will get counted.