When food is your life (and work), losing weight is tricky business

|     Jim Webster     |

WHEN I was about eight years old, I was at a family picnic, running around in my Toughskins – “husky” fit – and a T-shirt that defied tucking, when I overheard a great aunt tell my mum that when I hit my teens, I would “shoot up like a beanpole”.

She was wrong. So wrong.

To say that I’ve struggled with my weight all my life is a blatant misuse of the term “struggle”. I’ve rarely cared much; I’ve mostly accepted it as part of who I am and learnt to live with it. But early in 2016, something changed. I wasn’t feeling great. I knew my weight was up, but I hadn’t checked in a while. Mostly because I didn’t want to know. And I was staring down the barrel of my 50th birthday.

I decided I needed to do something. But it would be complicated. I write about food as part of my profession. I have friends and colleagues who are food journalists and others who are chefs. Working and playing with them means that eating new and interesting things is more than just sport; it’s my job.

And I love my job.

The thing about being way overweight is – and I’m speaking for myself because I know this isn’t going to be popular – it makes losing weight pretty easy, especially at first. I’ve done it before. When I’ve decided I needed to, I’ve been able to drop 20 or 30 pounds without trying too hard.

The problem is that keeping the weight off is even more work than taking it off. I can stay focussed long enough to lose it, only to learn that reprieve isn’t part of the reward.

When I decided to get on the scale in April 2016, I suspected what it would say, and I was correct: I had exceeded the capacity of the scale.

When I went to a gym that had a bigger scale, I was up roughly 50 pounds from about four years earlier.

It was disappointing. Not surprising, but disappointing. Still, by that point, I had already established a plan.

For exercise, I would walk. I was already a slave to my step tracker. I had a daily goal of 10,000 steps about five miles – so I decided I wanted to end the year with at least 3.66 million steps: my daily goal times 366. (It was a leap year!) Because it was late April and I hadn’t been strict, I would have to average more than 10,000 the rest of the way. That made it a challenge.

The author, testing a recipe
The author as a child, with watermelon

Now I needed a food plan. A doctor once told me he had a simple rule for weight loss: If it tastes good, spit it out.

I never went back to that doctor.

Maybe he said it to sound funny, but it made me angry. Food is a pleasure and an adventure. I love the sense of discovery that comes with new flavour combinations. I love the social aspect. And while I understand what people mean when they say they “eat their feelings”, I cook to express my feelings. If I cook for you, it’s probably because I care about you.

I remembered a friend once had some success with a diet in which he didn’t let himself eat after 8pm. That time didn’t work for my lifestyle, so I modified it: Whenever I ate for the last time in the evening, I wouldn’t eat again for 12 hours. I later learnt that a version of this was an actual plan called the Buddha’s Diet, but at the time I just thought I was a genius.

It worked almost immediately. Soon I had lost enough to register on my home scale again, and I was losing one or two pounds a week. And it wasn’t hard to figure out why. I felt compelled to start the 12-hour timer as early as possible, because the earlier I was done eating one day, the earlier I could have breakfast the next. This created two consequences that worked in my favour. First, I stopped snacking at night. Second, to keep my mind off the snacks I wasn’t eating, I walked.

For the most part, I ate what I wanted, just less of it. And I was spending a lot of time writing, which left me little time to cook. Dinner was often a simple salad at the keyboard.

But I felt better. Soon, my clothes started hanging off me to the point that I had to replace them.

As 2017 was starting, I had no reason for anything but unmitigated optimism. I knew I wanted to drop at least 50 pounds more, and 75 seemed possible.

Since I hit my step goal in 2016, I decided to aim for four million in 2017, which meant roughly an extra 1,000 steps a day. No big deal.

A bigger deal was that my responsibi-lity for the cookbook I was working on shifted. We were mostly done writing, and I needed to test recipes. That meant a lot of cooking. And more food – delicious, delicious food – around the house.

It also meant I was eating later. I work on books in addition to my editing job at the paper, so I wouldn’t start cooking until 7pm and often finished after 10. That became dinnertime. I put my 12-hour rule on hiatus, convinced that this was short-term and that I’d be fine in a month or two.

The problem is, good habits die easily. Once the testing was done, I didn’t fall back into those fasts. I hadn’t gained any weight, but I hadn’t lost any. I gave myself a break.

Then I got another gig.

I needed to test 60 desserts for an Italian cookbook in less than 30 days. It was fantastic. There were tortas. There were crostatas. There were gelati and sorbetti. There were cookies. Oh, there were so, so many cookies.

My policy was to taste everything as soon as possible – part of the job – and find someone else to eat what was left. I took cakes to the office. I sent budini to my wife’s office. The guards at my building came to expect me to show up at midnight with something sweet for them.

I was nervous and increased my weigh-ins from once a week to three or four times. I was creeping up, but not fast. At the end of the month, I was up six pounds, and I considered that a victory, under the circumstances.

After finishing that job, I didn’t get on the scale for about a week, just to give myself a bit of a mental vacation. When I weighed in after that, I was up another six pounds.

All of a sudden it was October, I was up 12 pounds, and I wasn’t happy about it – except when I was eating a big bowl of pasta.

I didn’t gain any more the rest of the year, though, and I did hit my goal of four million steps. The cookbook work I had done over the year was undeniably a factor in derailing my weight loss.

Was it worth it?

I don’t have to be happy about the side effect, but I can still say that I think so. I did work I’m proud of. – Text and Photos by The Washington Post