Why Most People Who Want to Lose Weight Won't

man weightloss
Noel Dickover/Thrillist

In late 2013, I was pushing close to 300lb, and was suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea. I had to use a CPAP machine at night to prevent myself from waking up in a panic, gasping for breath. Worse, my feet were going numb due to back problems, muscle issues, or blood sugar problems  --  the doctors weren't able to identify the cause, so they simply prescribed medication to take away my nerve sensation. I began to question whether I would get to see my own children graduate from college, get married, and have children of their own.

I knew I had to do something, but I felt that yet another diet would lead me right back to where it always did : failure. Instead, I decided to try a different route ; I began to think about a gradual approach of changing my movement and eating habits toward more healthier alternatives that I still enjoyed.

Since my high of 297lb, I've lost more than 100lb, and my belt size has gone from 48 to 36. I no longer have diabetes, and am proud to be one of less than 2% of those who have been able to quit taking metformin after starting it. My blood pressure at one point was 139 over 97  --  my last reading was 112 over 74. My sleep apnea is long gone, and I've gone from stress eating to using creative movement routines to alleviate stress.

I never counted calories, fat grams, or water intake. The only external measures I use to measure progress are a scale and my belt size. Here's how I did it.

counting calories
Dragon Images/Shutterstock

I realized diets are psychological prisons

Like almost all morbidly obese folks, I've experimented with my fair share of weight-loss schemes, from nutty food regimens like Atkins and South Beach, to deranged seven-day cleanse diets, to cocktails of chemically based metabolism boosters and appetite suppressants that caused jitters and bizarre mood swings. Like most dieters, I never had confidence that diets would amount to anything other than short-term gains.

Unfortunately, I'm not alone. According to a study looking at more than 150,000 obese people, if you're overweight, you'll probably stay that way regardless of the actions you take to get healthy. Of the morbidly obese patients in the study,  just one of every 1,290 men, and one of every 677 women, returned to normal weight. The solutions offered for weight loss, regardless of the cost, simply don't work.

Bottom line, if you're looking for the best way to remain morbidly obese for the rest of your life, go on a diet! Set weight-loss goals! Count your calories, fat, and sugar, and keep daily records of your food intake. Then, a few months later, after you've failed, wallow in self-loathing, binge a bit, and go on another.

How I decided to break out of the diet prison

When I began thinking seriously about how to change my life, I didn't know where to start, but I knew I wasn't going back to diet prison. I had a bevy of health issues, so it wasn't hard to find small places to start experimenting. This resulted in attempts to stretch my feet out each evening, and make healthier eating decisions late at night. I was evaluating my food choices, but had no real compass guiding my behavior. Frankly I was still flailing  --  some days doing well, and others poorly, with a feeling of crushing failure each time I faltered.

After a lot of soul-searching, I realized that since I spent 30 years developing my failing health profile, it made sense to give myself significant time  -- many years perhaps  -- to get healthy.

Changing the time horizon to a multi-year path fundamentally altered my approach to getting healthy. I decided to dedicate three years; I didn't imagine I'd be healthy or even normal weight by then, but thought it was long enough that I wouldn't stress about meeting short-term weight-loss targets.

What my plan looked like

A journey toward gradual health means:

  • Clear direction, but no clear, measurable end point: You know the direction you need to take, but short-term weight-loss goals are fool's gold.
  • Heal at your body's pace: If you pay attention to it, you'll become aware of what's possible.
  • Experiment before deciding: Integrating a seemingly small change is monumental if you make it stick, so it may require multiple attempts before you can do it consistently.
  • Changes must be enjoyable: If it's something you dread, you'll eventually stop.
  • No restrictions, just better decisions: If I force food restrictions on myself, I will dream, then fantasize, then fixate on the restrictions.

Here's the first concrete step I took: If I make one small change, like going from "inhaling my food," to thoroughly chewing it, then if I keep that change for the rest of my life, I will have taken a huge step toward getting healthy.

Everyone arrives at their weight due to a variety of causes and habits, so this may not be the first step you make. Experiment with it -- find a way to integrate this change into your life. If what you're trying doesn't work, try something else until you find a change you can happily lock in.

This is a deliberate process, one without stress or grades. Look to integrate new changes carefully, with no more than one, perhaps two at a time, if you include both movement and eating options. Each attempt leads either to a small but permanent change, or more learning on what doesn't work for you. The path you choose will be uniquely your own, and will be based on your timeline, your life circumstances, and your health profile.

man standing on scale in bathroom
Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

Positive change builds on itself

When you're overweight and exhibit negative health habits, they tend to compound. My weight gain led to lower-back pain and crippling ankle and foot problems. My weight gain also led to diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea.

Here's the good news: small, positive behaviors for improving your health compound as well or better than negative behaviors!

When I started my journey I didn't even fantasize I would be anywhere near 50lb lighter a year later, but in reality I flew by 250lb. Stretching regularly will lead to more flexibility, which leads to more movement, and better food choices. Over time, each of these behaviors leads to weight loss at a rate far faster than I could have dreamed!

You won't be successful if you attempt to change everything at once, nor do you need to. That's a recipe for failure and guilt. Instead, focus on integrating one new change at a time. Do so slowly and deliberately. You may not be able to give up eating primarily pizza, beer, hamburgers, fries, and soda all in one week. Dietary changes should be gradual and deliberate, as should exercise routines, and overall behavior changes.

Take the anti-Fitbit approach

Experts say you should drink X cups of water per day, Y calories per day, that you should limit your carb and fat intake to Z grams ... you know the routine. With no data other than my own experience in losing over 100lb, I've decided that's all bullshit  --  the whole approach is flawed. Worse, the reliance on external measures solidifies the view of the human body as a near-undecipherable black box , one that causes us to quickly lose confidence in our own perceptions. In doing so, we stop paying attention to clear signals and rich feedback our bodies are constantly providing.

Not surprisingly, the new innovations in personal tracking devices line up perfectly with new-and-improved, data-enabled five-step diet plans, that if you only follow to perfection will allow you to... well, it's all bullshit.

Your body is an organic, living system. This means it doesn't operate in "per day" increments. Whether or not you're paying attention, your body continually regulates itself in real time. Diets, on the other hand, are designed as if your body were an engineered machine that's missing a gasket or two.

Your body's function in the present and next few hours is critical, but daily totals are near meaningless. If you're trying to lose weight, it's important to develop a deeper awareness of how your body functions, knowing it will vary from person to person. That will inform your decisions on food and movement choices far more effectively than any professional health plan.

measuring tape waist weight loss

The measures that really matter

If you're not counting calories or fat, or poking yourself daily for sugar levels, how can you gauge progress? My approach, at its core, was to develop a deep awareness of how my body functions. For measures directly affecting weight loss and diabetes recovery, I pay attention to three key things:

Energy level: Everyone can feel if they're energetic or not. Pay regular and explicit attention to your energy level, not unlike your awareness of the room temperature. This takes practice ; for me it took well over a month to really lock this in.

Once you do, you'll begin to notice a clear relationship between the food you eat, both type and quantity, and its impact on your energy level. When I looked at a lunch menu and fixated on something large and heavy, once I knew intimately and repeatedly what happens to my energy, the immediate enjoyment factor dropped. This mental shift takes weeks, if not longer, to ingrain in your head.

Once you're comfortably keeping track of energy levels and regularly notice the impact of your food choices, you are ready to gain better awareness of your body's motor : your metabolism.

Metabolism: If you've ever lost weight, at times you can "feel" almost a tingly sensation when you perceive that you're losing weight , usually accompanied by higher energy levels. Similarly, you can "feel" when you are gaining weight. This isn't magic ; it's a knowable thing that lots of skinny people take for granted. If you understand what your metabolism is doing, you have the knowledge necessary to guide your eating and movement choices.

The key for sustained attention to your metabolism is your stomach. If you're like I was, you have no idea what's happening in your stomach. I rarely paid attention to how my eating habits directly led to mood swings or energy spikes. As a consequence, I used to ingest two or three Pepcid ACs a day -- now I take less than that in a month! If acid reflux is a regular part of your day, chances are good that your stomach seldom processes your food properly.

Also, try learning to chew your food very thoroughly. I used to decide I was full when my taste buds were satiated. By this point, if the food was tasty, my stomach was usually stuffed to the point of breaking. To stop the cycle, the stomach eventually initiates its "nuclear option" -- stomach acid starts shooting up into the mouth to ruin taste. Like all nuclear options, the side effects aren't good. If you chew your food thoroughly, you're pre-digesting it for the stomach in a way that it can take the next step in the digestion process. More importantly, it allows you to pay attention to your body's engine.

Over time, I went from chowing down on three large meals a day to consuming somewhere between 10 and 20 small meals all day long. As soon as I feel hunger pangs, I eat a small snack. I have lots of healthy, but still delicious, foods to eat. As a consequence, my stomach has shrunk so much that even if I wanted to binge, I could only eat a small amount before feeling bloated.

Sugar level: After a few months of paying close attention to my metabolism, I began to regularly sense my sugar level. At first, it was most easily felt when I had something overly sweet. Most people can feel a sugar rush if they eat large quantities of candy. This is no different, except that I became hyper-aware of it, even when I wasn't eating candy. My goal was to stop the spikes in sugar (which often correspond to spikes in energy levels), and to slowly lower the overall sugar levels over time. I applied this approach without regularly poking my finger, so I can't give you any statistics of my rate of decline, but over a period of six months, my doctor slowly lowered, then eliminated, my drug regimen.

Sure, you could poke your finger 20 minutes after eating each meal , but it's not necessary. Large numbers of skinny people manage themselves naturally by paying attention to their bodies. This is a learned skill , one you can develop and improve on over time. If you learn to pay deep awareness to your internal measures, you'll find they are transformative in their ability to change your future in ways that external devices simply can't touch.

What's next for me?

I'm more than 20 months into my three-year journey to get healthy. The fact that I've lost more than 100lb doesn't mean I’ve finished. Currently I'm sitting between 197lb and 192lb in a steady state. I still intend to lose more, but realistically, my focus has shifted toward other health goals, like continuing to heal my lower back, feet, and ankles. I'm learning ways to use my body's energy for self-healing, but that's another story.

Each personal health journey is unique. I hope you start yours!

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Noel Dickover is a writer and who really lost all this weight. A version of this article first appeared on Medium. Follow him: @NoelDickover.