Another year, another weight-loss update. Or should I say, weight update. Two years ago a doctor advised me to lose weight after a health check up, citing issues of a fatty liver and high uric acid and cholesterol levels. A year later, I had lost 30kg and wrote about how that happened in this column.
Since then, have I managed to keep the weight off? And if so, did I benefit? And at what cost?
The short answer is that I have, and at possibly the cost of my hobby of eating.
Let’s get things straight first. I love to eat. I love to cook. I love to eat what I cook (sometimes). So when I have to watch what I eat (instead of eating it), then things get understandably tense.
But I had to lose weight because a doctor told me it would be good for me. In the end, what I committed to was “calorie counting”. I try to make sure that I consume fewer calories than I burn. So the fitness tracking watch I wear gives a rough estimate of how active I’ve been, while I keep track of what I’ve eaten through a food diary.
And it kind of worked. At my last health check up the enzymes that indicate a fatty liver had gone back to normal, and my uric acid levels were also firmly in the acceptable range. The only concern was my LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) which was “borderline high”, although even that was lower than before.
But losing weight is only a fraction of the work I need to do. A 2001 meta-analysis of weight loss studies found that more than half of the lost weight was regained within two years. For obese individuals, they eventually maintained weight losses of only about 3kg on average. A 2013 review of 21 randomised controlled trials was even more sobering, concluding that the average amount of weight loss maintained was a measly 0.94kg.
So I have this ongoing concern at the back of my mind that if I am not careful, I’ll regain my weight and lose out on all the hard work.
Strangely enough, the “burning calories” side of it has been relatively straightforward. If I can find time to walk for at least half an hour a day, I find that I gain all sorts of benefits. The walk itself burns relatively few calories (about a tenth of my daily average), and if that walk is to the local nasi lemak makcik, then it’s arguably a net loss. But a slightly active 30 minutes in the morning means the rest of the day is also a little more active. And I enjoy walking around my neighbourhood, so my overall mood is slightly better as well.
That enjoyment of a morning walk somewhat assuages the burden of counting calories later. To make the numbers work, the nasi lemak I might buy during the morning walk actually represents two meals for me, because the calorie counting app says so. The joy of eating is replaced by the diligence of calculating. Also, a lot of the time I am slightly hungry rather than slightly full.
There is a sound scientific reason why this might be the case. Eating fewer calories results in your body adopting a more efficient metabolism. While that means you can do more with fewer calories, it also means that if you want to continue to lose (or maintain) weight, you have to eat less than you did before.
In fact, your body wants you to eat more. Your levels of a chemical called ghrelin increases, making you feel more hungry, while the level of something else called leptin decreases, which makes you feel less “full”.
How does your brain react to this? It tries to follow the lead of your body’s signals. A study in 1950 of conscientious objectors who volunteered to go on a hunger strike found that they were also more likely to spend much of their time talking about food, planning about food and reading about food (pretty much like me when I’m in Penang).
That’s what it’s like for me, except that I’m also mentally calculating calories. It’s obvious I need to get back to that place where food is a source of joy rather than concern. One solution is, of course, to learn how to enjoy eating healthier fruits and vegetables. Or learn to enjoy exercise as much as eating. But, dude, I live in Malaysia.
In fact, there are a lot of strategies to lose weight apart from calorie counting. Oxford University compiled a list of 53 of them that they used in a study to see if people would be more likely to lose weight if they could basically choose strategies to try and see if they had any effect.
Unsurprisingly, the participants in the study were, indeed, successful, but what fascinated me was the breadth of what is possible. Calorie counting was there, but so was “skipping a meal” and “eat no calories after 8pm”. Other possible interventions are “chew 20 times per bite”, “walk up and down the stairs until you are out of breath”, and “stand up while watching TV”.
So right now, my journey continues. I have temporarily stopped formally recording my food diary but am consciously trying other interventions.
I am more confident now that I will still be able to maintain my weight for another year. The question is, how happy will I be while doing it.
In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.