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, aesthetically speaking. 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. And, I thought, 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 pillowy … 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. My kind of “fat” was the kind that makes truly overweight people roll their eyes. But my fitness and skinny little bod had been the foundation of my dignity for a long time, and what I saw under the shirt was freaking me out. As a particularly short man, my fit shape was all that stood between me and sex-appeal oblivion. Shortness has been burden enough in my life! Combining it with fatness … *shudder*
My early dieting attempts 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 half-hearted portion control. 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 deprivations. 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 biological luck. I must still have been blessed with the remains of (rapidly fading) metabolic immunity to food. I had cut my average daily calorie intake down to roughly 3000 in that period … a huge cut, but not enough.
Shit got real and I graduated beyond another level of denial when I finally started to lose good 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 proved to me that my sacrifices were not sufficient, no matter how 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 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, the birthday rationalizations, the rationalizations at friends birthdays: “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?
But I will not repent my wicked ways. This has been the epitome of doing “whatever works for you.” 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? Yes! I planned for that as well. I will now count calories more diligently than I did when I was depriving myself more harshly. 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.
My strategy more or less succeeded, and I’ve been fairly consistent with it for years now. Although I’ve never fully recovered my lithe, youthful bod, I also halted the downward slide into full-on pudge, got all my clothes back, and even dropped down a couple waist sizes that still work today.
And I never gave up drinking. It has been necessary to strictly limit it at times, but I’ve never given it up entirely, and to this day it continue to feel like an important pressure valve, the regulated indulgence that I need to give me to emotional strength for a life lived mostly without cinammon buns.