Or: How I lost 30 lbs, got in shape, and still get to drink beer when I want.
This is a long and personal post, coming on a one year anniversary of something (see below) … but it’s important to me, so please forgive the wordiness.
I’ve struggled with my weight since adolescence, and I weighed around 240 lbs and had a size 40 waist when I graduated from high school. After that, I periodically went on diets and hit the gym, but it was the same old story — lose ten pounds, get tired of the routine, slack off, put fifteen pounds on. By 2001, I was living in California and weighed 296 lbs with a size 46 waist. I could no longer shop anywhere except Big & Tall stores. I was 24 years old. I looked like this:
Let me be clear, here: this had a crippling effect on my life long before any health issues reared their heads. I didn’t like going out in public. I couldn’t look members of the opposite sex in the eye unless I’d known them for months. Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-seven, I did not go on what could properly be called a date with a woman a single time. That’s eight years of self-enforced but also highly undesired celibacy. When I wasn’t working, I was at home with my computers. Mostly I was working.
I’d like to say that I took control of things at that point, and to some extent I did. I started walking, lifting weights, and eating better, and I got myself down to 250. Losing 46 lbs is no joke, and I’m proud I did it, but it still left me with about 75 lbs to go to reach what I now think is an ideal weight for my frame. Also, around that point, I started to slip. I started to skip walking, skip lifting weights … started having that extra brownie along with my salad.
I was still around 250, but probably headed back toward 296 when I got sick. I mean brutally, violently sick. The most awful night of my entire life so far. I remember at one point, around 6 AM, staring into the mirror with bloodshot eyes after another round of dry heaving and shouting, “There’s nothing left! There’s nothing left in my entire fucking body!” … I felt like I’d puked up not only every last bit of food, but every last bit of bile, blood, and bone marrow within me.
Whatever it was that made me sick, it screwed up my body good. In the ensuing weeks, every time I ate, I began to feel ill. Sometimes I would eat something simple — we’re talking two pieces of bread with some sliced turkey breast on them — and still wrestle with nausea for hours. I was diagnosed with H. Pylori, the bacteria which causes peptic ulcers. I went on a course of massive antibiotics and cleared that up … but I was still getting sick every time I ate.
I began having panic attacks when I thought about eating. I tried everything. I went gluten-free. I went vegetarian for four months. I had more doctor’s visits and blood tests than I could count. Nothing helped. Slowly but surely I just … stopped eating. I was down to a single meal per day, and that meal was typically something like half a cup of trail mix and a packet of cheese and crackers. I was subsisting on around 300-400 calories a day, tops. Some days I ate nothing. Once I went four full days with only chicken broth. Feeling hungry had come to be less scary and awful than feeling full.
This wasn’t like a five or ten-day fast; this went on for months and months. When you are starving, literally starving, you obsess over food. You watch people eat, you watch people cook, and you buy food for other people like a crazy person. I bought pizza and cookies and candy for my office. I sent my family gift packs of food. I watched NOTHING but the Food Network for months. I watched people eat the way horny guys watch people fuck.
I dropped down to 136 pounds. That’s 160 lbs below my max — an entire adult male human being. Gone. My clothes, which I hadn’t changed, fluttered around me like sails. I grew weaker and weaker, less able to do even basic day-to-day tasks like getting up and going to the office. I had to rest often, because simple tasks like carrying a box from my car to my apartment exhausted me. I spent a lot of time shaking.
I finally gave up in August 2003, left California, and moved home to be with my family for support. When I got off the plane my mother took one look at me, gasped, and started crying.
I literally thought I was dying. I think everyone did, even the doctors. In addition to how sick I felt, my bloodwork was all messed up; I had to have a bone marrow biopsy — a painful procedure where they drill into your hip bone and collect samples — because they thought I had leukemia. Turned out I didn’t, which was great, except it still meant no one quite knew what was wrong with me.
I ended up going on anti-anxiety meds, and they helped. I still felt lousy when I ate, but at least I wasn’t panicking about it. Slowly I began to put weight back on, and as I did, my bloodwork evened out.
We never did figure out what was wrong with me … I still feel shitty most of the time when I eat, and it’s been ten years. I feel sick right now, typing this, from the dinner I ate more than three hours ago. I am still at my least-anxious when I’m hungry, and I detest feeling stuffed. This is just “the way it is” from now on. That’s fine. I know how to deal with it now. I don’t even take the meds anymore, because I can manage the panic on my own.
None of that, however, kept me from eating, and eating, once I stopped having those panic attacks.
Eventually I took a job in Philly and moved there. When they took my employee picture, I looked at it in horror. I was fat again. How had I gone from being a skin-wrapped skeleton to being fat again? I went home and weighed myself. 245 pounds. How was that even possible?
The answer was: I didn’t know how to eat. Sure, I’d gotten thin, but I had never learned how to actually eat, or what to eat, or when to eat. So when I was able to eat again, I went right back to eating more or less the same way I always had.
For a long time, I still didn’t really know. I would just cut a meal out of my day, either lunch or dinner (mostly dinner), in order to keep the weight down. When I did eat, I was ravenous. I ate too much and too much of it was crap, but I was able to hold at least some kind of grip on my weight. I was helped a bit by the fact that in 2003, after reading Fast Food Nation, I gave up fast food in all but emergency, “I’m on a road trip and at a highway rest stop” type cases (and even then I won’t patronize McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, or similar big chains — I’d rather go hungry than support those assholes).
For the next several years I typically fluctuated between 210 and 200, depending on how actively I was paying attention. I got down to 192 for my wedding. By our honeymoon, four months later, I was back up in the 200’s. You can see my belly and budding man-boobs in the honeymoon pics. It sucks. I want to look at those pictures and only think about the amazing two weeks I spent in Hawaii with my beautiful wife. And I mostly do … but I move quickly past the pics I’m in.
So that’s how it’s been, up until last year.
On March 26 of 2012, one year ago today, I stepped on the scale and weighed 207 lbs. I have a big frame and am somewhere between 5’11 and 6’, so I wasn’t “fat” exactly, but I wasn’t looking too great either. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done an activity more exerting than walking up a flight of stairs, and my daily food intake consisted mainly of coffee, diet coke, carbs, fat, and a healthy dinner prepared by my loving wife … which I then supplemented with a lot of Reese’s peanut butter cups. This is not a recipe for long-term dietary success. I decided it was time to try again.
You know how people say that you’ll never have success with diets and the only real way to achieve lasting fitness and weight loss is to change your life? They’re right.
Diets suck. You deprive yourself of things you love, and you make yourself miserable, and then you break the diet. That’s the way of it. I have done this a thousand times. I have started a diet at 7:00 on a Monday, and broken it at 9:30 when someone shows up at the office with a box of donuts.
You have to be ready to embrace a real life change. You have to be ready for it to take a long time, for it to be a gradual process of growth rather than a miracle quick-cure. You have to accept that you’re probably going to make mistakes, have bad days, and miss workouts. You have to keep looking forward.
Here’s how I changed my life:
I started with push-ups.
This is amusing, because I FUCKING HATE PUSH-UPS. I still do them three times a week, and I hate them every single time. I hate every. individual. push-up.
But they happen to be one of the absolute best exercises you can do. They work almost every part of your body. When I started, I did the following sequences, with two-minute breaks in between. 2-3-2-2-3. That’s 12 good-form push-ups total. With TWO MINUTE breaks! I also did ten sit-ups. That’s all I could manage. That was my first day. My arms ached for days after.
I began to track my meals using The Daily Plate — at first I just used it to learn what I was taking in, and then I used it to begin adjusting, staying mostly under the calorie threshold needed to lose 1.5 lbs / wk. I found that as my body adjusted, I really wasn’t any more hungry than I had been. The weight slowly began to drop.
After a few weeks of doing push-ups and sit-ups every other day, I began walking. My first walk was on May 5th, 2012, and I walked 3.2 miles. A long, slow walk. It felt good. I started doing it daily. Then I started running little bits of the walk. Eventually I worked up to running more than 50% of the time — doing 3.9 miles five days a week, at an average pace of about 5.5 mph. Then I developed plantar fasciitis and had to switch to an elliptical. I do 400 calories on the elliptical, plus cooldown (usually about 440 total). That seems a reasonable amount. I’ve actually been off the elliptical for a few months now because we moved, but the amount of housework and snow shoveling I’ve been doing has sustained me in terms of cardio. I’m buying an elliptical now that we’ve finished our work on our basement and thus have a place to put it.
I didn’t want to diet. Dieting sucks, remember? I still wanted to drink beer and eat the occasional slice or two (or three) of pizza. So what I did instead was change my overall approach to food. I think about portion size, now, all the time. I eat what I want, and what I like, but I try not to gorge on it. If I want those three slices of pizza, I cut down a bit during the day. At mealtimes, I eat a bit, and then I wait, and if I’m still hungry I eat a bit more. This is healthy eating 101, and I’d heard it a million times, but I didn’t get it. Not until this time. Something clicked. I don’t need the Daily Plate anymore, and haven’t used it in months, because I get it now.
I don’t waste my time with fad diets. Calories in, calories out, combined with a reasonable balance, is the important part. If your carbs are super high, that’s a problem. If your protein is super high, that’s a problem. If your fiber is super high … eh, you’re probably avoiding colon cancer, but add some carbs and protein.
I stick with a fairly specific schedule during weekdays, with slight deviations on weekends (I have what could charitably be called a weakness for the cheddar biscuits at a local coffee shop - sometimes I want to leap the counter and just start shoveling them into my mouth). I could easily construct several dozen meals that fit the same calorie counts, using commonly-available calorie information on the web, but I’m lazy so I mainly stick with the same stuff.
Here’s what I normally do:
9:30 AM - one relatively low-cal breakfast bar (I like Kashi’s chewy granola bars) and a big cup of coffee.
12:00 PM - 1 cup of low fat yogurt mixed with about a TBSP each of dried cranberries and dried cherries, 3/4 a cup of “honey flakes and oat clusters” cereal, and 1/4 cup of granola to punch up the flavor.
3:00 PM - One 19-piece serving of cheddar soy crisps, one apple, 1.25 oz of cheddar cheese (yes, I weigh it, every time), a handful of roasted almonds, and sometimes a few baby carrots depending on how hungry I feel.
8:00 PM-ish - Dinner. Sometimes I cook. Often my wife cooks. Often we go out. I don’t really worry about WHAT I’m eating, here, just how much … though I do try to get plenty of veggies in. I always eat the veggies FIRST, and then eat anything else. That way if I get full, I got all the veggies in. I try to eat a reasonable portion (this is harder at restaurants, but I’ve become pretty good about it).
10:30 PM - Most nights I have a cocktail, glass of wine, or a beer. Or two. It’s all good. I never, ever have to worry about these calories.
Yes, my meals during the day don’t vary much, but again: that’s mainly because I’m lazy. I don’t actually mind … I like that stuff, and I know I’ll get to have something fun for dinner. In the past year, I’ve changed various parts of the diet when I got tired of something. For a while it was popcorn and not soy crisps. I often change up my breakfast bars. In the summer, I switch my apple for a big nectarine. Etc. The important thing is to find stuff you like. I have literally never gone “oh, god, not yogurt again” because if I felt that way, I would switch.
Generally speaking, I do not snack (then again I’m usually full and don’t want snacks), and I only occasionally eat desserts. Once in a while I still allow myself a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Hey, I’m only human! If I get hungry in the evening, I’ll have some more cheddar and/or almonds.
I used to drink four diet cokes a day. Now I drink zero, except for very rare occasions — this isn’t a necessary step but it’s probably healthy. I don’t miss them and don’t remember why I used to drink so many. Once in a while I have a small bottle of tonic (I love Fever Tree’s Naturally Light tonic water). I don’t drink juice. I don’t drink milk since I’m lactose intolerant, though I use a little almond or soy milk in my coffee, along with some aspartame. Sometimes after working out, I drink half a bottle of zero-calorie Vitamin Water.
Mostly I drink water. Lots of it, every day. I pee a lot. Supposedly that’s good for you anyway.
If we throw a party and have a big cheese plate and lots of bread and wine, or if we go out to a fancy restaurant … I splurge. I eat what I want. Drink what I want. And the next morning, I get up, and I do my push-ups, and I’m fine. The body is built to be able to handle splurges. The problem is that if you’re not ready to change your life, then the splurges become routine.
Yesterday I did 110 good-form push-ups in the following sequence, with 90 second breaks: 30-30-25-25. My goal is to be able to do two sets of 50, with just a single 90 second break, someday soon. I don’t think I’m far off.
I also did 85 sit-ups (30-30-25, 90 second breaks). Today I will do two rounds of various lifting exercises, squats, and stretches with my 16 lb dumbbells. I’m almost ready to move up to 20 lbs. I work out six days a week. On Sundays, I relax and let my body rest up. On vacations, or when I’m sick with a cold or whatever, I do the same (sometimes if the vacation is really long, I’ll throw in a couple rounds of push-ups).
I weigh myself every morning and record the results on a whiteboard in the bathroom, and in a spreadsheet. I’m at 176 lbs, and have been within two pounds of that, in one direction or the other, since August 2012. That’s almost eight months. This isn’t a temporary drop anymore — this is a lifestyle change. It doesn’t require vigilance and sacrifice and being miserable. I actually love it. I’m not tired of eating like this, or exercising like this. I enjoy that stuff. Except the push-ups.
I am 35 years old now. I look like this:
For the first time in my life, at least since the era when my parents controlled my food intake, I feel like I know how to eat. I can deviate from my schedule when necessary and still have a pretty good idea of the kind of calories I’m putting into my body. I can go on two week vacations to France, enjoy the hell out of the food there, and come back without having gained any pounds.
I can stay at a comfortable weight, I can look good in the mirror, and I can do it without being miserable. I still get to make delicious cocktails and drink the beer I brew. I still get to share the occasional fancy dessert with my wife. All it took were a few changes to my life that, in retrospect, seem really minor.
There are two morals to this story, really. The first is that if you’re overweight, keep trying. Eventually it’ll click. It really will. You’ll understand a bit more every single time you try, and at some point you’ll find yourself making long-term changes to your lifestyle instead of short-term changes based solely on dropping pounds. This is the most important thing.
The other moral is simple.
It’s terribly unfortunate.
But I must offer it nonetheless. Here it is:
Do your push-ups.
In March of 1999, at the age of twenty-one, I moved from Syracuse, New York to Costa Mesa, California to take a job with GameSpy Industries. I wore a ton of hats over my five years there, but I was first assigned the role of managing PlanetQuake, which was at the time the company’s flagship website and the one which had put them on the gaming map.
During this period, I began running a “shoutcast” with some of my fellow employees — a predecessor to podcasts which was interesting because it was done live, with a chat room full of people “talking” to us. We called it the Friday Frag, and the idea was that every Friday we’d talk about games for an hour or so and then all hop on a server with the listeners and blow each other up for a while.
During one such broadcast, we had a visitor to the chat channel who called herself “Hellchick” and I ended up inviting her to call into the office so I could put her on the show to “prove she was a woman.”
Yes, this actually happened.
I won’t defend myself for succumbing to what was, even in 1999, already becoming an amazingly stupid stereotype: that women didn’t use the internet and it was exclusively the domain of sweaty dudes in their mom’s basement (we were a startup of only fifteen people and we already had four women in the office, for Christ’s sake). It was a dumb moment of casual … sexism? Misogyny? I’m not sure what it was, exactly.
To Hellchick’s credit, she not only put up with it, but she actually called in. In retrospect, I’m both amazed and very happy that she did. Hellchick — who I’ve called Caryn for the last thirteen years — became a very good friend. We hired her. She eventually ran PanetQuake and 3DActionPlanet. After a while, she moved on to Activision to work as a liaison with companies like id Software and Raven, with whom she had become close due to her work at GameSpy.
Then Caryn moved on to Raven itself. Her journey had taken her from astrophysicist who gamed, to game journalist, to gaming company liaison, to game developer. She is currently a User Experience Designer with Z2Live in Washington. She loves her job, loves her industry, and loves video games in general.
My stupid, unthinking sexism was not the first she’d ever had to put up with (nor was that “innocent” kind the most common), and it certainly wasn’t the last. As a woman who games, Caryn has been the target of both nebulous and highly-targeted sexism for her entire life.
Moving from “woman gamer” to “woman in gaming” changed things, though. Now it was not only sexist attacks from other players, but day-to-day institutional sexism as well. Women are still a significant minority in game development, and as a result they are badly underrepresented and misrepresented in the final product. The classic stereotype of “the male warrior is covered in armor while the female warrior goes to battle in a chain-link bikini” exists for a reason. Many women developers have complaints that have nothing to do with how they are treated by gamers, and everything to do with the rampant and often unconscious sexism at work in the very offices they go to every day.
When the #1ReasonWhy phenomenon — women in game development tweeting one reason why there aren’t more women in game development — started up a few days ago, Caryn took to twitter with her own reasons. She has a lot of them.
The backlash that followed was predictable and disappointing. The same old tired bullshit. “Games with women in them don’t sell” (false), “Women don’t play games” (amazingly false), “Men are just as objectified as women in gaming” (specious), “I’m not like that so whatever” (not good enough), “The Female Shepard in Mass Effect is awesome so everything’s fine” (ridiculous — and yes, that’s a real argument that many people make). There were many more. They’re boring and stupid and not what I want to talk about here, because every single argument of that type has been utterly destroyed by fifty years of feminist thinking by people — most of them women — who are much smarter than I am.
What was not predictable or disappointing was the absolute tidal wave of supportive tweets, blog entries, and press coverage that came along. Gamers, game developers, and journalists — female and male — embraced the hashtag. They wrote articles about it, had discussions about it, posted to forums about it. They engaged in lengthy debates on Twitter and Facebook. New friends were made. Some eyes were opened. Most importantly: the discussion was shoved into the spotlight. That’s a good thing, no matter how much backlash it brought. Like the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, marriage equality … nothing gets done if no one will talk about it. Progress is only made by shining a big, bright light on the ugly warts that no one wants to look at.
Men who go to bat for women in these instances are often accused of “white knighting” — basically trying to come in as the savior for the weak little woman who can’t defend herself (the suspicion often being: in the hopes of getting sex, or other favors). There are probably men for whom this is the case, but there are a lot of us who understand that people like Caryn and the many other female game developers out there don’t NEED any help. They’re already out there doing what needs to be done to change the game. They’re tolerating the vile comments on message boards, the “accidental” gropes at conventions, the managers who ignore their ideas but then embrace the same ideas when parroted by a male developer. They’re dealing with all that shit because they love games that much, and the industry is changing because of that.
In time, gaming will be a gender-neutral industry, and we’ll look back on the early days the way we look at the era when women weren’t allowed to vote. “Wait … seriously?”
In the interim, women in gaming still have to deal with everything — EVERYTHING — being couched in their gender. One of Caryn’s most frequent complaints is that she’s never asked about her work. She’s asked about being a woman. As I tweeted: Q for male dev: “how’d you come up with that monster design?” Q for female dev: “what’s it like working in games and also having boobs?”
This is where the work really needs to be done. You can’t change the minds of rampant sexists, and it’s not worth the time and effort. If you change the minds (or just open the minds) of everyone else, the lost causes can be marginalized klu klux klan-style. You do this by addressing the real problem, the very same problem that I suffered from back in 1999: the innocent, unthinking sexism that comes with just accepting the status quo and not considering or, more importantly, talking about this stuff.
That’s what has to change, and that’s why this movement is so important and awesome: it’s got people talking, and talking is what counts. We need to shine that light on those ugly warts so they can be excised. We also need to stop asking women in games about the “women” part and start asking them about the “in games” part. Yes, we need to acknowledge the very real problems that exist right now, but it needs to be done with an end-goal of it just not mattering anymore because it’s no longer relevant.
In 1999, I asked a woman to call into my internet radio show to prove she had boobs. In 2012, I read her blog to learn about UX design and frankly don’t give a shit whether she has boobs or not. It doesn’t matter to me anymore, and I don’t remember why it ever did. More and more gamers, game journalists, and game developers feel like that. That’s progress. Let’s keep it up.
Caryn’s Twitter: http://twitter.com/hellchick
Caryn’s Blog: http://carynvainio.com/