Losing weight with a minimum of willpower

If you are happy with your weight you can skip this post. Normal programming will be resumed soon.

We all know how to lose weight: eat less and move more. So why do so few people succeed? You only have to spend a few minutes walking around any wealthy western country to see that obesity is a huge problem. The human body is truly an incredible thing, evolved over millions of years. It is so much more than just a mere transport and fuelling system for the brain. We only get one body, it is a tragedy to neglect it.

The past is always with us

Our evolutionary past is working against us. Agriculture is less than 10,000 years old. That is only about 400 generations. A blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. While our technology and culture may have changed beyond all recognition in that time, our bodies and brains are still very similar to those of our palaeolithic ancestors. Their innate drives to eat salty, fatty and carbohydrate rich food and minimize their energy consumption helped to keep them alive on the hostile African savannah. But these ancient drives do little to help urban humans with almost unlimited access to food and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Hence the burgeoning waist lines we see all around us today.

Tightening trousers

Over the last few years I had put on a few kgs. I have been spending a lot of time in front of the computer; working on my software product, doing consulting and writing this blog. Having a young child also reduced the time available for exercise. The 32 inch waist trousers I have been wearing for the last 20+ years (not the same pair, I would like to point out) were starting to feel uncomfortably tight. I either had to lose weight or go clothes shopping. Surely anything is better than clothes shopping.

But how to lose the weight? Previous attempts to lose weight have never lasted:

  • I went trekking in the Himalayas, spending 16 days walking up to the top of Mera Peak (6,476 metres). Weight loss wasn’t the goal, but the extreme exertion at high altitude meant I had the beginning of a ‘six pack’ when I got back. It didn’t last though.
  • I wrote down everything I ate on a spreadsheet and worked out the calories by weighing the food and using the calorie information on the packet or the CalorieKing website. I tried to eat less than 1800 calories a day[1]. It worked for a while, but the bookkeeping was tedious and I got bored and hungry. I gave up after a few weeks.
  • I tried the Zone Diet. Again it worked for a while, but I found the constraints (maintaining certain proportions of protein, fat and carbohydrates) tedious. I was also less than convinced by the science. I gave up after a month or two.


I decided to try a different approach. It is based on the same approach I take to my business – learn the concepts and measure the results. 8 months later I have dropped from 17.5% body fat to 13.0% body fat and lost over  6 kg (13 lb) in weight. I will spare you the before and after photos, but suffice to say that I can now easily fit into 30 inch waist trousers (damn – I still had to go clothes shopping!). And I never went hungry. I wasn’t even particularly disciplined, taking a week off here and there when I went on holiday. I won’t be appearing on the cover of a men’s fitness magazine or slimmer of the year. But I think it’s not bad for a 45 year old with a sedentary job, a distinct lack of ‘thin genes’ and a weakness for most fattening things.

I don’t claim to be an expert nutritionist or physiologist. Even if I was, the knowledge in this field seems to be constantly changing. But here is the approach that worked for me. It might work for you.

The slow carb diet

The cornerstone of my new approach was inspired by (but didn’t follow the letter of) Tim Ferriss’ slow carb diet. You should go and read his article, but the key elements are:

  • diet 6 days per week – eat lots of lean protein, beans, pulses and veggies, no high energy carbs (e.g. sugar, bread, rice, pasta, potato, fruit, beer and sugary drinks)
  • binge 1 day per week – pig out and eat whatever you like, all-you-can-eat buffet here I come!

There is more detail in his Four Hour Body book [2].

This approach makes sense in terms of our evolutionary heritage. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors wouldn’t have had access to refined carbohydrates, such as bread, and fruit would only have been available in season. They would also have regularly alternated between feast and famine.

A typical diet day’s intake for me is:

  • 2 eggs for breakfast with chilli sauce (fried with a tiny amount of oil sprayed into a non-stick pan)
  • a big salad for lunch
  • cajun style fried white fish with lots of veggies for dinner
  • several teas, coffees and glasses of water plus a glass of red wine

The binge day helps both physiologically (it presumably stops your metabolism slowing down in response to the reduced calories) and psychologically (you are never more than 6 days from eating what you want).

Pick an exercise regime you can stick with

I also increased the amount of exercise I do. The key to this was doing things I found enjoyable and a combination of routine (doing some exercises the same day every week) and variety (varying what I did on other days). I have found that a routine of capoeira, running and kickboxing pad work plus some swimming, weights and cycling for variety suits me. I average 3-4 30-60 minute exercise sessions per week.

I really enjoy capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian fusion of martial art, dance and music. It is very strenuous, but the fact that I am learning a skill (and trying to avoid getting kicked in the head) stops me thinking too much about the exertion. I also find running and weight training quite bearable when I am listening to an interesting podcast. I am lucky enough to live near a beautiful park with a lake. Running around the lake is even quite enjoyable on a sunny day. The fitter I get, the more enjoyable it becomes. Different things work for different people. People have even lost weight combining World of Warcraft with a treadmill or exercise bike. Don’t try to force yourself to do stuff you hate, you won’t stick with it.

Your body burns mostly glycogen stored in the muscles for the first 30 minutes of exercise. So you need to exercise for more than 30 minutes to start burning fat.

It takes a lot of exercise to burn off a small amount of food. About 15 minutes of running is required to burn the calories from a single slice of bread. I knew someone who was significantly overweight despite cycling 10 miles a day. It was only when he changed his diet as well that he started to lose weight.

Any form of exercise that builds muscle mass (e.g. weight training) is good, because extra muscle will increase your metabolic rate which will burn more calories.

Weigh yourself every day

If you weigh yourself every day, you will soon see a direct correlation between weight loss and how well you stick to your diet/exercise regime. I found this daily feedback very helpful for motivation. If you only weigh yourself once a week your progress may get lost in the noise, e.g. due to the varying content of your digestive tract. I weigh myself every morning, as soon as I get out of bed. Here is a graph of my daily weight over the last 8 months:

You can see the sawtooth pattern of the weekly binge day. It is easier to see overall progress using a 7 day moving average:

Each peak was a suspension of the diet and exercise regime for holidays, birthdays and conferences.

A bit of science

Different foodstuffs vary hugely by the amount of calories per gram. You could eat 10kgs (22lbs) of green vegetables per day and not exceed your daily calorie intake (you might get a divorce though). Look at the side of the packet when you buy food, you’ll be surprised. For example, 1 gram of:

  • spinach = 0.2 cal
  • onion = 0.4 cal
  • kidney beans = 1 cal
  • bread = 3 cal
  • french fries = 3 cal
  • sugar = 4 cal

Try to avoid food where you don’t know what goes into it. For example, a lot of home delivery pizza contains vast amount of hidden salt, fat and carbs.

All calories are not equal. One would think that eating fat makes you fat. But there is increasing evidence that carbohydrates, not fat, is enemy number one when it comes to losing weight. Particularly carbohydrates with a high GI (ones that are quickly absorbed into the blood stream). Carbohydrate intake affects insulin levels, which in turn affects fat deposition. I was moderately active before and I didn’t eat excessively, but I ate a fair amount of bread, rice and potatoes. Reducing the amount of carbs has been the biggest change for me and I believe the main cause of my weight loss. Note that many ‘low fat’ foods (e.g. low fat yoghurts) contain large amounts of added sugar.

Protein makes you feel full. Studies show that x calories of protein will make you feel less hungry than x calories of carbohydrates or x calories of fat. High GI carbohydrates can even make you feel hungry (as you will know if you have ever felt starving after drinking lots of carbohydrate rich beer).

Low carb doesn’t have to be boring. Pickles, chilli sauce and balsamic vinegar liven things up without adding calories. The amusingly named Ring of Fire (‘so hot it will burn you twice’) is my favourite chilli sauce. It’s not actually that hot.

It is easy to underestimate how much you are eating. Studies show that overweight people tend to be worse at estimating their calorie consumption. I watched a TV documentary in which they asked an overweight women to work out her daily calorie intake. She calculated 1000 calories per day. Precise measurements showed it was, in fact, 3000 calories per day. The large bowl of fruit she ate every morning was 1000 calories on its own.

Smaller plates=smaller portions. Studies have shown that simply reducing the size of your plate can reduce overall calorie intake.

Starving yourself doesn’t work. Not only does it require willpower that few of us possess, but also the body simply adapts to the lower calorie intake by reducing metabolic rate. This can then cause you to put on weight if you return to your old eating habits.

Studies show that most overweight people do not have low metabolic rates. In fact, they typically have higher than average metabolic rates due to their increased mass requiring more work to maintain. If you are fat, the chances are that you are eating too much and not doing enough exercise, rather than it being due to a slow metabolism.

Watch what you drink

Watch what you drink, as well as what you eat. Drinks can contain surprisingly high amounts of calories. A single small can of cola contains around 5% of your daily energy intake. Alcoholic drinks and milkshakes can also contain a lot of calories.

Drink more water. A lot of rubbish is talked about hydration. But water does make you feel more full. So it is a good idea to have a big glass of water between and/or during meals. I find it easier to drink water if it is chilled in the fridge with a squeeze of lemon. No need to waste money on bottled water. It works even better if the water is in the food. Soup is a good way to make yourself feel full without consuming too many calories.

Food supplements

Tim Ferriss also recommends PAGG (Policosanol, Alpha lipoic acid, Garlic extract and Green tea) food supplements for weight loss. But these are about £70/$100 per month and I haven’t been able to find any peer-reviewed, double-blind trials that shows that it actually works. I won’t be spending that sort of money without some proper scientific evidence. I am not aware of any other food supplements that are proven and without side effects.

Social factors

Get your partner or house mate to diet with you. It is much harder to stick to your diet if the fridge is full of things you can’t eat. Declaring your intention to lose weight publicly can also provide extra motivation. Feel free to post your current weight and target weight in the comments. ;0)

Be realistic

Have realistic expectations about how fast you will lose weight. I came nowhere near losing the ’20 lbs. of Fat in 30 Days’ that Tim Ferriss claims. I averaged around 0.3 kgs (0.7 lbs) lost per week over the initial 4 months, and less after that. If it has taken you years to put on the weight, you are unlikely to lose it in a month or two. Despite claims to the contrary by people with books to sell.

The long term

Losing weight and keeping it off requires a long term change of lifestyle. Only time will tell if I can improve on, or even maintain, my current weight loss. I expect I will put a bit of weight back on over the winter. But I think I have found a regime that works and that I can live with. Putting this article in the public domain gives me a bit of extra incentive!

A call to action

If you need to lose some weight, then today is as good a day to start as any. If you do, it would be interesting to get some additional data for a follow-up post in a few months. Email me (andy at oryxdigital dot com) if you are interested in taking part.  You can remain anonymous, if you wish.

[1] Note that I am following the (ridiculous) convention of referring to kilo calories (kcal) of food energy as ‘calories’.

[2] It is an interesting and entertaining book. But beware that:

  • a lot of it is controversial, as you will see from the comments in Amazon
  • I find many of his claims of results of weight loss and weight gain hard to believe, and I think they certainly aren’t representative of what most people will achieve
  • experimentation is good, but self-experimentation is not as reliable as formally conducted, peer-reviewed, double-blind experimentation, especially when the author has a book to sell

Capoeira photo by HoveringDog.

16 thoughts on “Losing weight with a minimum of willpower

  1. Rich Buggy

    Hey Andy

    Congrats on the weight loss. I’ve also been on a weight loss kick but I’ve got a lot more to lose than you. In fact I’ll be happy to get to your start weight :O


  2. Software Candy (@softwarecandy)

    Congrats and good luck.

    Wise folks once said: “The key to a successful weight loss program is **documenting** each and every piece of food (and beverage) you take, along with the calories you spend that day. This must be done immediately after you eat, not at the end of the day!”

  3. Tom Reader

    Great post, thanks. If anyone wants more background especially on the ‘moving average’ bit, or more geek-oriented motivation in general, can I recommend googling “Hacker’s Diet” (“How to lose weight and hair through stress and poor nutrition”) – despite the silly name, it’s a very good book you can read online – it also happens to be written by the guy who wrote AutoCAD, which is nothing to do with it but makes a nice tie-in for some of us programmers reading it…

    Similarly to yourself by the sounds of it, he decided to approach his diet like he approaches everything else – as an engineer, with a problem that needs solving.

    My own weight loss – and ongoing management – is based on an extension of his idea. I have a spreadsheet that implements a PID controller (if it’s good enough for an autopilot in an aircraft, it’s good enough to control my waistline), to tell me how many calories I’m allowed depending on how far over/under weight I am. Geeky, but it works, and I find I also draw motivation from it which is probably the main thing.

  4. saurabh

    I loved the engineer’s approach to weight loss! I am exactly in the same boat as you, to the extent of our waists (my belly sticks over my size 32 pants and 13 lb is exactly what I want to lose). I cant do the the slow carb diet because rice is a staple for me and I’ll go apeshit without it, but you’ve spurred me on with the rest of your stuff.

    1. Andy Brice Post author

      I find vegetable curry without rice or bread is fine. Just bulk it out with lots of pulses and/or vegetables.

      Commit to send me your graph in 3 months – that will help with the motivation. ;0)

  5. Bruno

    I have followed approximately the same road this year. I started running and then read the great book: “Racing weight” by Matt Fitzgerald. I went from 34 to 30.

    The main idea of the book is to avoid being hungry by eating maybe more often, but filling yourself with high quality stuffs: carrots, spinach, beans, lentils and so on… so the same slow carb approach without the binge idea =)

    There is still a place for low quality carbs; potatoes, rice, bread and pasta, but exactly as for meat, not in very high quantity and not everyday. One time every 2-3 days is working fine for me. My typical eating habits incorporated these things twice a day before and that was it that kept me slightly overweight even if I trained frequently.

    That’s one important aspect of running a mISV. Maybe you never get really rich,but at least you’re free to focus on yourself a little bit more.

  6. Pingback: Honest about my Weight Problem | The λ♥[love] Blog

  7. Tarek Demiati

    I’m not fat but bad cholesterol has started to slowly killing me,
    courtesy of 10 years of junk/crap food as when was a bachelor …

    I need to exercice on a regular basis before my wife finds me one day dead behind my desk …

  8. Paul Roberts

    Thanks Andy

    Another great article. I’m in exactly the same position where my weight has been creeping up over the last 15 years very slowly. My doctor wanted to weigh me on my last visit, where I got the shock of my life, the scales went far higher than I could ever imagine.

    Though I’m not a junk food junkie, it was mainly the snacks between meals which were a real problem, particularly as a stress release when the programming code goes to custard.

    I’ve stopped having snacks between meals, cut out the quantity of fatty foods and even though I’ve only been at it for 2 weeks, I pleasantly surprised I have lost 6kg in that time (I also found out the doctor’s scales also weighed everyone 3kg heavier). Admittedly I didn’t do very well on Christmas, but its work in progress, and I’m determined to change my eating habits as well as my weight.

    Thanks again, and good luck to all those trying to lose weight.

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