One of my good friends from high school, Jesse, started losing weight when we were teenagers. Between freshman and senior year, he achieved a total transformation (and I think it might embarrass him, but he was Prom Prince our junior year).
Now, an assistant film editor in LA, Jesse has maintained his weight loss for an impressive 10 years. In light of all the news we've been hearing about weight loss, I thought having a Nutrition Wonk who has experienced long term weight loss is something we all want to hear about.
A lot has been made of the idea that because long term weight loss is so unlikely, it makes more sense to focus on maintaining weight, not considering weight loss at all. While this might be the best route for some who's health are not affected by their weight (normal BP, normal blood lipids, etc.), many people do develop chronic health problems related to overweight.
And while sustainable weight loss is never effortless and requires a lifetime of self-monitoring, it is possible!
I don't want to spoil anything, but Jesse achieved his weight loss through portion control.
Jesse's epic wedding dance skills (2015)
Here is Jesse's story:
Can you talk about your "weight loss journey," for lack of a better term? When did you feel you were struggling with your weight and when did you decide to lose weight?
I started noticing, but not really accepting, that I had a weight problem in middle school. Looking back I can see a pattern. In the years leading up to middle school I stopped being active in my free time, generally choosing TV and video games over physical activity. As I became more independent (in my early teens) my eating habits also started to change.
After a few years of this my weight was out of control, I was being made fun of at school, and my parents began to see that this wasn’t just a phase. They began trying to take charge of my diet/ exercise but, being an angsty teenager, I resisted. Early on in high school I was diagnosed with high cholesterol, and this was the breaking point for my parents. They bought a treadmill for the house and made a deal with me: if I walked for 20 minutes on the treadmill every day and started eating better I would get some money at the end of the month. As we all know high school is the peak of most people’s self consciousness, so this fact, coupled with my parents' deal pushed me to finally make some changes.
What was your weight loss strategy like at first - what were the steps you took at the beginning? How did it change over time?
My weight loss strategy shifted, paused, stopped, restarted, and morphed a lot over time. It started out with the aforementioned strategy my parents came up with: walk for 20 minutes a day, eat better (this was more portion control than a strict diet). Very simple, but it worked. After losing an initial 20 pounds or so I was motivated by the results and started building more physical activity into my day to day life, albeit a bit random. I did things like join the high school musical (lots of dancing and other physical activity), go to the gym (which I hated), and walk wherever I could. When I went to college I bought a bike and used that for the majority of my commuting for the 4 years I was there, and my bike has been the main tool for my exercise ever since.
When you say portion control, what do you mean? What type of portion control did you parents suggest?
In middle school my eating habits got a bit out of control, I would snack a lot, and eat peoples' leftovers in addition to my normal servings. I got this under control, and a piece of advice my Dad gave which was a big help was to “take what you want, and eat half.” I applied this rule to snacks more often than meals, but even that makes a big difference.
Throughout the weight loss, what was your experience? Was it smooth sailing? Did you have times you gave up and had to start over? Any anecdotes you could provide?
I hate to say it, but the weight loss process was pretty smooth sailing. I fell in and out of exercise routines (and still do), sometimes for long periods of time, but my diet never went back to the unhealthy level it was before I started to lose weight. Generally in the down times I wasn’t losing weight, but I also wasn’t gaining any. I don’t know that I have a good anecdote to share with people, because I feel that my 'weight loss journey’ was very specific to how my body responded to the change in diet and physical activity. I know plenty of people who struggle with their weight but get more exercise than I do.
How much weight did you lose and how long have you kept it off?
I've lost 60-70 lbs over about 10 years. In the first 2 years or so I dropped the majority of that weight, about 40-50 lbs. In maintaining a healthier diet and being more active in my day to day life the additional weight dropped off gradually when I wasn’t even trying to lose it. My weight more or less hit a plateau about 3 years ago, and I’ve been maintaining a healthy weight for approximately 10 years. (I think this math makes sense, I hit a relatively healthy weight around senior year of high school, but continued to lose more afterwards).
Were you setting goals for your weight or did you just continue with healthy habits?
When I started to actively try to lose weight I planned to lose about 30 pounds, which would have gotten me into a weight range that my doctor felt was acceptable for my height and age. I made that goal, but afterwards continued to lose weight without any sort of goal in mind.
Did you ever experience significant regains at any time?
I have never experienced any significant regains. I keep a scale in my house, and if I see my weight going up even a few pounds I make sure to get it back down.
Maintaining a lower weight is known to be the hardest aspect of weight loss, as we have seen everywhere in the news lately. What do you do to maintain your weight loss?
It’s hard to pin-point a specific strategy for keeping the weight off because I hate maintaining a planned exercise/diet routine. Two hours at the gym feels like wasted time because I don’t enjoy it. For me it was more about finding a way to build activity into something I’m already doing. I actively commute whenever I can, I take stairs instead of elevators, I stand as much as possible (the standing desk is a brilliant invention), and living in LA has provided me with a lot of great opportunities for enjoyable physical activity that I wouldn’t have elsewhere (hiking, swimming, etc.). As far as food is concerned it’s more about portion control than restricting what sort of food I’m eating.
What kind of portion control are you using these days? What is your usual daily routine and how do you deal with eating at restaurants, going out, or vacations?
These days I’m usually careful about over snacking, and when I do snack I pick healthier options like nuts, fruit, or low fat chips. Instead of taking a bowl of whatever snack I want I’ll take a handful. I don’t keep a lot of . I don’t have a strict diet plan that I stick to, but I’ll stop eating before I feel full, and try to have a large serving of veggies as a main part of most meals.
If I’m going out I usually cheat and tend to go a little overboard, but will try to balance it out by being a little more mindful of how I eat over the next day or two. Same for vacations, I’ll overdo it, but then fall back into healthier habits when I’m back to real life.
At a wedding in 2016. You might recognize Catherine - she went on a "Taco Cleanse"
If you read that article in the NYT - did you have any thoughts on it?
I read the article, which provides a lot of strong scientific arguments that are far more well researched than any advice I could give for maintaining weight loss. I do think that there’s something to say for the speed at which Biggest Loser contestants lose their weight, they aren’t forming habits for a healthy lifestyle by dropping hundred of pounds in such a short period of time, they’re losing the weight and moving on. In one of my few attempts at maintaining a gym routine, a trainer told me that fitness wasn’t a sprint, it was a marathon. The people on The Biggest Loser are most definitely sprinting.
A lot of folks, including the recent NYT article, are concluding that long term weight loss isn't realistic and people ought to maximize their health at their current weight. Do you have any thoughts about that messaging based on your experience?
I’ll start by saying that I know very little about human biology, and don’t know that I can give a very scientifically informed opinion on this matter. I’m sure that my experience largely has to do with how my individual biology responded to my lifestyle, and my strategy may not work for others. If there’s one thing I could speculate on being a helpful factor in my weight loss it’s that I started while I was young. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to keep the weight off if I had waited until adulthood to lose it.