Just because you start running does not mean you will lose weight. There are many articles on this, often saying that runners are hungrier and eat more, sometimes much more, than the calories they burned. Clearly that is the first obstacle to avoid if one of your goals from running is to lose weight. But there is a lot more to it.
An article from Time Magazine, The Weight Loss Trap, Why Your Diet Isn’t Working, in spite of its pessimistic title, points out that one consistent attribute of people who lose weight and keep it off is that “94% increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being walking”. And you will burn more fat with running that walking. (See the National Weight Loss Registry research findings page for more common attributes of those that lose and keep weight off.)
But I think the most important thing to glean from the Time article is that different diets work for different people. No one diet works for everyone. Not even close.
I have lost over 20 pounds in the last 5 months, an average of 4 pounds per month. And I have about 10 to go before all the belly fat is gone, which is my goal. Recently, someone I hadn’t seen in a long time who is cycling for long periods of time several times a week asked how I had done it. She is burning close to 1200 calories in some of her cycling sessions and yet is not losing weight.
So in spite of knowing that not one thing works for everyone, I thought it might be helpful to say how I have lost the weight. It is definitely not one thing and most definitely not some magic diet that I follow – no Weight Watchers or paleo or South Beach. I do believe that all of the components of what I am doing would be helpful to most people. You just need to figure out how to start in a way that will get you going and how to keep going once you’ve started. I started with some of these components and strengthened them and added other components over time. None of it was cold turkey, all-in from the outset. Setting that kind of goal, super-high discipline from the outset, will, I think, get you nowhere. The more I lose, the more disciplined I get. Success – and looking and feeling way better – is a great motivator.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor nor a nutritionist. I have no idea whether what has worked for me is healthy for you or not nor whether it will work for you or not. See a doctor and/or a nutritionist if you want expert, reliable advice. The following is my experience only, not a recommendation.
I think one of the things that has kept me going and kept me successful is that I realized the loss was not going to be fast. And I expected little of myself in the beginning. For each of the things I cover below, where I started with respect to each one is a long way from where I am now. I knew that if I ate salad at every meal and cut out every treat and indulgence that I would not follow through. So I started with baby steps. But when you have a fair amount of weight to lose, baby steps make a significant difference.
At the outset I cut out sugar almost entirely. This, like almost every aspect of what I have done, was not done overnight. First, I was not eating a lot of sugar to begin with. I haven’t had a soda in decades and would likely gag on the level of sugar in one. But before I decided to go off sugar, I did usually have some sort of dessert after dinner, a couple of cookies or some ice cream, etc. And I had to wean myself off gradually, reducing the amount of dried apricots, bananas, and chocolate – my weaning foods – over time.
Even before I got a diagnosis of high blood sugar (but not enough to reach diabetic levels), I read a book called “That Sugar Book” by Damon Gameau. Damon made “That Sugar Film”, which is described in this 2015 article from the New York Times Well section:
In “That Sugar Film,” which first had its debut in Australia this year, Mr. Gameau gives up his normal diet of fresh foods for two months to see what happens when he shifts to eating a diet containing 40 teaspoons of sugar daily, the amount consumed by the average Australian (and an amount not far from the 28 teaspoons consumed daily by the average American teenager). The twist is that Mr. Gameau avoids soda, ice cream, candy and other obvious sources of sugar. Instead, he consumes foods commonly perceived as “healthy” that are frequently loaded with added sugars, like low-fat yogurt, fruit juice, health bars and cereal.
I haven’t seen the film, but the book is not only highly entertaining, but also really disturbing when you read about what happens to Damon in just 30 days of indulging in a high sugar, but not abnormal in the world today, diet.
I already knew that sugar was bad, but I didn’t know just how bad until I read the book. And I didn’t know that different sugars are processed by the body very differently. Second disclaimer: The following is what I remember from the book. I am not versed in the science and I could have gotten some of it wrong. But these are the parts that lodged in my brain and affected what I eat. Fructose, when removed from its fibrous container, i.e., a piece of fruit, as juice, agave syrup, or honey, for example, is converted straight to fat by the liver. Glucose – granulated sugar is half glucose, half fructose – is evaluated by the liver. If energy is needed, it goes to providing that energy. If energy is not needed, it is converted to fat. Fructose in fruit is not immediately converted to fat because the fact that it is combined with the fiber in the fruit causes it to be processed differently. So fruit is fine – juice and honey and any other kind of sugar will make and keep you fat.
So I now never, ever have juice. I drink wine or boring cocktails – gin and seltzer (not tonic – it has sugar added), none of the wonderful new cocktails that rely on simple syrup or any other sugar. And I never have honey or anything with honey in it. I avoid all sugars and sugar substitutes (because they keep your craving high).
I wasn’t able to cut sugar out right away, cold turkey. What I did was get dried apricots and some 85% cocoa dark chocolate, 12 grams of sugar in a whole bar. At first I needed a large proportion of apricot to chocolate. (The chocolate is almost inedible with so little sugar in it.)
As you wean yourself off sugar it becomes less and less palatable. I still find myself craving it, but if I give in to the craving I always find the sweet something disgusting or close to it. It is odd having an intellectual craving for beautiful sweets – it is how we often reward ourselves, after all – and then finding them repulsive if I give in. I give in less and less over time – I’m learning! I don’t even eat anywhere near the quantity of dried apricots that I did when I first went off sugar.
After the first month or two I started eating almost no starch. I cut out the toast at breakfast, replaced oatmeal with an egg and sausage or bacon and spinach and other veggies. Mainly I eat a piece of meat or fish and a vegetable or two for lunch and/or dinner.
The second part of my “diet” is portion size. I just made them smaller. And when I hit a plateau, I make them smaller still. My target weight is what I weighed when I was just out of college. And I ate very small portions then. I also ate whatever I wanted in terms of the actual food. And aside from sugar and starch, I am doing that still. I eat bacon and butter and cheese. Fat is not the culprit. In fact, it is what makes me feel full.
As I reduce my portions I find that I am actually feeling full, a feeling that had pretty much gone away when I was consistently eating too much. It still comes on slowly, though, so I still have to govern how much I eat visually, eat slowly, which is always recommended, and not rely on the I’m-full feeling to get me to stop eating. Especially in restaurants, where the portions are huge, I have to separate on my plate what I think is an appropriate portion so that I don’t just keep eating and eating. I recently got a restaurant meal which I would eat at least half of a few months ago, and it became six very satisfying meals. I find asking for a take-out container early in the meal is helpful because often everyone else is still eating long after I have finished my portion. If it’s in the box, I’m not so tempted to keep going.
Eat Breakfast Like a Queen….
OK, the actual thing is “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.” This can be hard given that our society is very focused on dinner being the main meal, the meal at which you socialize, the meal when you actually have time to prepare something. I deal with this problem without too much trouble because I don’t have children to feed and I’ve told my husband that if he wants dinner during the months I’m working on losing weight, he’ll have to get it for himself. (He’s been very accommodating.) I often eat what he has prepared for himself the next day for lunch, in a princely, not kingly, portion. Or, if he doesn’t make things I’ll sometimes cook on the weekend around lunch time so that I can eat what I’ve cooked then and eat leftovers during the week.
Two Meals a Day Is Ideal
The days I lose the most weight are the days where I can manage to eat a late brunch and and only one more meal. This is hard to do, so I certainly don’t do it every day, but it is golden when I can manage it.
I do get hungry as I reduce my portion size. When I am ravenous between meals and sometimes when I am still hungry when I’ve eaten a no-starch meal, I have some almonds. Sometimes fewer than 10 will do the trick. I try not to eat more than half a handful. I imagine any nut besides perhaps peanuts would work as a high-protein healthy snack, but I almost always eat almonds. From the co-op, so not coated with salt and oil. Putting any kind of nut in the toaster brings out the flavor if you’re finding them too bland.
An apple also really gets the hungries to go away. I’m not usually a fan of apples, but lately, as my portion size has gotten fairly small and my tolerance for the taste of sugar low, they have become a treat. Find a type you like. My favorite is Macintosh, very tasty.
It is a rule of thumb that I have known about for decades that in order to have your exercise be helpful, so your body doesn’t keep building the same muscle every time you work out, you need to exercise for at least 30 minutes three times a week. And along with that is the rule of thumb that 45 minutes three times a week is needed to lose weight. Another disclaimer: this is what I’ve heard over the years. I have no idea if there is scientific evidence behind it or if it is even true, but I have been acting as if it is.
So when I started running I ran for at least 45 minutes each time. And when I got serious about weight loss, I continued that 45 minutes and went out almost every day; and for a while have been going for 55-60 minutes. However, 55-60 minutes is pretty punishing and can lead to mental fatigue with the whole running thing and has not sped up my weight loss over the 45-minute training. It has increased my fitness, but I’m going back to 45 minutes to reduce the mental fatigue and time and ease up on my body a bit.
Keep in mind that intensity really is a factor. In place of plodding for an hour, if you do some intervals, even sort of lame intervals, or just go faster than your normal plodding pace, you will, in theory, increase your metabolism more in the long run and burn as many calories in a shorter period. Your running app will tell you what you’ve burned. I notice an increase in speed and energy when I can get myself to do intervals, and mine are usually a little lame. I run faster for 30 second spurts, but I don’t go completely all out, just mostly. I have to keep myself liking running, so doing lame intervals works for me better than doing hard-core intervals.
I would recommend not even considering what you have burned in calories and follow the program of smaller portions, no sugar, very little starch, etc., and the calories burned while running will be a bonus. What you’re really getting from running is, I think (insert “I don’t really know anything about this” disclaimer here), continually telling your body that you need calories and preventing it from going into that fat-preservation, slow-metabolism mode that we have inherited from our caveman ancestors. And it is the running that I believe is what will make it so that I can keep the weight off once I hit my target. And I’m hoping that will be the case at 30-35 minutes 4-6 times a week, although I think I’ll want to go out almost every day because I want to feel good and keep my blood pressure and blood sugar low, not just lose weight.
Fasting, Nighttime Snacks, and Sleep Quality
For most of the 4-5 months I’ve been taking weight off I assumed that the longer I fasted between meals the more fat I would burn. I don’t think that’s entirely untrue, but I recently adjusted my thinking about it.
I spent most of the past 5 months not eating between 7:30 PM and 11:00 or so AM. Having breakfast after running means that any glucose stores are depleted when I go out and my body has no choice but to burn fat for the energy I use while running. While this is not founded on any scientific training on my part, I think the prevailing thinking will bear this out.
But a couple of weeks ago, I had an A1C and a fasting glucose test. My A1C – a test of how much glucose is attached to your hemoglobin and is supposed to show results from the prior three months – was good. My fasting glucose was 121 after 15 hours with no food – not good. My doctor thought that I might be someone who has high fasting blood sugar but is whose levels are ok when not fasting. Apparently this can happen when your body thinks your blood sugar is too low when you haven’t eaten in a while and releases too much sugar to compensate. He suggested that I have a small snack before bed.
I started having about 1/2 to one cup of sheep yogurt (why sheep, because it is soooo good – and it’s plain, of course, no sugar or fruit) just before I turn out the light. I don’t know what it has done to my blood sugar levels, but it has vastly improved my sleep, which was not that great during the past few months. Now, when I wake up five hours after I went to sleep, I have about 1/4 cup of yogurt and I think that is helping me go back to sleep faster. And it has not affected my weight loss. In fact, so far, I’ve lost more on the days following nights when I have had yogurt.
I run because it makes me feel 40 years younger – no that’s not a typo. I think it has also raised my metabolism and helped me lose 30 pounds since I started, 24 in the last 4.5 months. But there are many facets to my losing weight, probably the most important being smaller and smaller portions and the almost total elimination of sugar. If you’ve read this far, you are probably interested in losing weight yourself. Good luck. It’s not easy – you have to make friends with hunger sometimes – but it is so worth it.