My Hacker’s Diet

11 11 2009

Tweet Me from truthorcake

So, having lost a good bit of weight lately, I am frequently answering the question “How did you do it?”  I try so hard not to sound snarky  when the best I can muster is “eating better and exercising more.”

What I’ve learned is that these folks are actually asking two very different questions: What techniques have I employed to drop the pounds, and, perhaps more importantly, how have I actually made these techniques work?

Question 1

The answer to the first is easy, and yet, so many respond as though my assertion that fewer calories in + more calories out = weight loss, is some sort of cheat.  I’ve been there.  I spent the better part of my life looking for a gimmick, for some holy grail of a lifestyle change that would unlock a path to a happier, healthier self without the whole mess of tracking and working hard.

I’m not saying that all of the so-called quick fixes are easy.  Few things frighten me more than the thought of a pasta-free existence, or, scarier yet, having permanent, dramatic surgery that would change my physiology forever.

And these methods work, too!  I’ve met many a happy post-bypass patient and Atkins devotee who look and feel great, and whose quality of life has undeniably improved.

But, for me—and I stress the me here—in order for a tactic to be approachable and sustainable, it has to be gentle, fun and rife with wiggle-room.  An Amanda without ice cream is something no one wants to endure.

I took my strategy, unintentionally, from the Hacker’s Diet, a plan that addresses weight loss from a technical perspective.  The basics are:

-Set nutritional goals, and stick to them.

There are precisely 40 kazillion resources to help with this.  I use MyPlate tracking at  Not all of its settings turned out to be right for me, so I’ve set independent targets for protein, fat and calories based on some quick Internet research.  I imagine a doctor or nutritionist would be a better resource, but I’m lazy, so there you go.

Each day I enter everything I eat—everything.  At first, this took a while, but once my list of frequently-eaten items had grown to include most of my staple meals and snacks, it became a totally manageable task.

I don’t hit all of my targets each day, but keeping track helps me make better decisions about what to incorporate into each meal, and sometimes I get really ambitious and plan out (or even pack up) everything I will eat throughout the day, which makes my in-the-moment choices wicked easy.

-Increase your activity level.

I didn’t get fat by doing crunches and running laps, so opportunities to add calorie-burn to my sedentary TV-aholic existence were limitless.  At first I joined Curves, a women’s circuit-based gym.  The workouts were easy, but they got me into enough of a routine that when they closed their doors, I wasn’t so averse to the idea of doing a cardio video a couple of times a week, jogging a mile or two each morning, and generally looking for extracurriculars that involve physical exertion.

I haven’t made the leap to tracking calories-out the way I have calories-in.  This is a tactic I have mentally reserved for the point at which I reach a plateau.  If you’re hardcore about controlling your results, getting a BodyBugg or reliable calories-burned-per-activity book seems like a good way to go.

-Track and adjust.

No plan will work without accountability.  Nor will a plan work indefinitely without the ability to change.

I track my weight every two weeks, and make my new nutritional targets match my findings.  I also increase the length and intensity of my workouts as I get stronger.  I’ve been advised to set a long-term fitness goal to keep me motivated, like completing a triathlon, so that may be a viable next step.

Question 2

That’s all well and good, you say, but how?

How do you put all of these lovely ideas into action when faced with the temptations, surprises and stresses we encounter?

Here’s where things get completely subjective.  We will all need to delve into different coping strategies as we strive to change our lives.  Here are some of the things that have worked best for me:

Find your motivations—your real motivations—and integrate them into your daily landscape.

I would love to tell you that I wanted to lose weight to be healthier, live longer and feel stronger.  The ugly truth:  I just wanted to be cute.

So instead of gazing longingly at pictures of super-fit people flexing their biceps, or rationalizing that my lifespan would increase once my cholesterol levels were in a healthy range, I bought a dress.

I marched into Anthropologie—a store where I had always felt slight shame as I picked out some tea towels whilst “they” flitted around me picking up skinny jean after skinny jean—and plunked down a not-insignificant chunk of cash on the stinkin’ cutest green and cream striped summer dress, in my goal size.  And instead of shoving it into the depths of my closet, only to be retrieved once the magic number has been reached, I pinned it to a dress-form and placed it prominently in my bedroom.  Once I’m in it, you will not be able to pry the thing off me.

Your motivation might actually be health, or your family, or the prospect of hooking a long-time crush.  So do some soul searching, and once you’ve uncovered your real drivers, give them a big bear hug and plaster them all over your walls.  It could change everything.

-Plan to fail, dust yourself off, and move on.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had an awful binge night followed by a guilt-hangover.  “This indulgence has ruined every effort I’ve made to do better and now I have to start all over again,” I’d tell myself.

This is a load of crap.

Being “bad” is easy.  Failing is easy.  Dealing with your choices as just a part of your journey and regrouping is hard.

The best part for me was that the secret to moving on wasn’t finding ways to keep myself from overeating, but rather giving in and letting go.  Forgiving myself. When I accepted that there would be times when I would max out my daily calories and still go back for a second helping of my mom’s irresistible potato pancakes—I mean c’mon, Mom made them—I actually did it far less.

-Identify your favorites, and let yourself have them.

In “The Best Things _I_ Ever Ate: Sweets,” I talk about how defining the perfect examples of my most tempting foods has helped me.  In the past, when someone offered me a rock-hard grocery store chocolate chip cookie I was tempted.  I love chocolate in all forms, so even though I knew it would be fundamentally unappetizing and unfulfilling, I’d cave, and absorb 200 calories and 10 grams of completely joyless fat.

Now, faced with the same offer, I think in vivid detail about the sublime moment when the shell of a Lindt milk chocolate truffle gives way and its cloying, dreamy center melts onto my tongue.  Too much information?  Sorry, but it works.  No thanks. No crappy cookie for me.

And I’m not just teasing myself.  I keep my pantry well-stocked with the things, and eat them when I really want them as a part of my allotted calories.  I’ve done the same thing with all sorts of familiar culprits: macaroni and cheese, pizza, cheeseburgers, doughnuts.  The list goes on and on.  Some of these favorites cost me quite a large percentage of my food allowance, but they’re totally worth it, and letting myself have them, pretty much whenever I want, make it so much easier to resist partaking in unhealthy foods that do not stir my soul.

-Accept, and revel in, positive reinforcement.

When you’ve been heavy for the majority of your life, you’re likely no good at taking a compliment.  You learn all sorts of ways to deflect positivity outright or through negative self talk.  “That’s a really pretty sweater” turns into “It’s a shame you can’t shop at regular stores, but as fat-girl sweaters go, that one’s not so bad.”  A glance from a stranger simply must be them gawking at your girth.  Every hug contains a reluctance, an apology.

You have to turn off this sabotage stream.

When I realized that I may always have a bit of residual body dysmorphia from the dark times, I knew that I would have to rewire, synapse by synapse, my brain’s interpretation of comments and actions that I “should” feel happy about.

This has involved a purely “fake it till you make it” strategy.  After months of biting my cheek every time I fear what someone else is thinking about me when I catch them staring, and of forcing myself to rephrase snide quips lobbed at the wonderful people around me telling me how beautiful I am, I’m happy to report, it’s sort of working.

Someone told me I was hot today, and for the first time in my life, I actually believed him!  And instead of getting all awkward and changing the subject I smiled and said “thank you.”  Practice saying this with me: “thank you.”  These words can have infinite power if you’ll just let yourself say them.


All of this means nothing without serious personalization.  But I hope those of you seeking to lose weight, or otherwise make a positive change, can find some kernels here that prove true in your experience.  I wish you patience, resilience, and the power to be gleefully, shamelessly hot.




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