A few weeks ago, rileen asked whether I had any tips on losing weight, and I've finally got round to addressing his question. So, read on if you're interested, and comments are welcome - I'll put this up on my main website once it's in a suitably coherent form.
First up, I'm happy to endorse WeightWatchers, since their method is working well for me. I'll come back to this later to make some more specific points.
I should also add the disclaimer that I'm not an expert on any of this, and these are all my subjective opinions rather than facts that are carved in stone.
I think the first key question to ask yourself is whether you really want to lose weight. Many things in life come down to a question of priorities, and I think this is one of them. A few years ago I got some good advice from a friend, who said (paraphrased from memory): "You come across as being uncomfortable with your body, so you need to either accept it the way it is or get it into a shape that you are comfortable with." My own weight has fluctuated a few times since then, but the basic principle is valid. Personally, I'm a lot happier when I'm slim, but that may not be the case for everyone.
Taking a couple of examples from fiction, there was the discussion in "School of Rock" between teacher and student:
Girl - "Why don't you lose weight?"
Teacher - "I like to eat!"
Similarly, there was the character in the first issue of "Rising Stars" whose superpower was invulnerability, but who wound up being morbidly obese because his skin was basically numb, so eating was the only pleasure he could really experience.
There are health issues associated with this too, e.g. you may wind up keeling over dead with a heart attack at 40 if you're too fat, but I personally feel that quality of life is more important than quantity, as people may recall from the Prostitute Story (TM), so this comes back to a question of priorities again.
Coming back to fiction, there was a scene in the first episode of Red Dwarf that went something like this:
Captain: "Do you want to give me the cat?"
Captain: "Do you want to go into stasis?"
I apply a similar approach to my eating habits. I would like to drink 2L of Coke a day and eat a 15" pizza every evening, but I'd also like to fit back into 32" jeans, and it's not practical for me to do both.
If you do want to lose weight, I think that you also need to be doing it for yourself, not for anyone else. In particular, if you go into it thinking "I need to do this to get a girlfriend/boyfriend" then it's probably not going to end well. You should also evaluate what else is going on in your life, e.g. other sources of stress. Personally, I gained weight last year when I was pretty much trying to do two full-time jobs at the same time while also sorting out my flat purchase and building work. In a situation like that, I don't think it's realistic to add extra worries. To give a more recent example, I abandoned my own diet plan for an evening after I got the news that I'd been made redundant, and I think that was a reasonable trade-off.
A related issue to this is that there is a cumulative effect. Basically, if you're slim, and you pig out on a pizza one night, that's not going to suddenly make you fat. On the flipside, if you're fat, and you spend one day eating carrot sticks, that's not going to suddenly make you slim. This can make it hard to motivate yourself, since any given choice isn't going to have much of a long-term impact, so you really need to look at this as a lifestyle change.
You also need to bear in mind that it may take a long time to achieve the desired results, so this can actually turn out to be quite a commitment. In my case, it's been almost 3 months since I signed up with WeightWatchers, and I'm only about half-way to my target weight. The length of time will vary from person to person, but you need to think ahead. For instance, in 6 months time it will be Christmas - are you intending to have a busy couple of weeks, with various office parties, social events, and family gatherings? How difficult would it be for you to cut back on those, or attend but only eat/drink in moderation? Or how about birthdays (your own and friends')?
If you are sure that you want to do this, then there are various diet plans available. A lot of people say "You don't need any fancy books, you just need to make sure that you're eating fewer calories than you burn up". This is basically true. However, you then need to quantify what you're doing. So, I strongly recommend that you invest in some decent scales, which are as accurate as possible (i.e. digital). You want to get one set that you can stand on, and another set to weigh your food. You'll also need a measuring jug, if you don't already have one, but that doesn't need to be fancy. Personally, my bathroom scales are the Tanita BF-664 (bought from Argos at less than the RRP), which measures body fat as well as weight (it does this through a painless electrical charge) and also lets you program in up to four sets of personalised settings (e.g. gender/age/height) which could be useful in a shared household. My kitchen scales are the Salter 4003 (I didn't buy from that company, but it's the best link I could find on short notice); aside from being accurate (to the nearest gram, rather than a hand waving somewhere near a 5g marker), this also means that I can put a bowl on the scales before I turn them on (making that the "zero weight"), and it will just measure the weight of the food that goes in.
This leads onto my next point - track everything that you eat/drink, as accurately as possible. Even if you're not actively calorie counting, just the exercise of doing this will make you a bit more aware of what's going on. I sometimes wonder where my money's going when I just spend a couple of quid here and there for lunch, and it can be a shock to see how it all adds up (when I track it in MS Money), and a similar principle applies here. It's also good to get a basic awareness of portion size. For instance, when you see the nutritional information on a box of cereal, they normally base that on a 30g portion size, which is the equivalent of one of those tiny boxes that you get in multi-packs of 8. I find that a reasonable bowlful is about 60g of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, or 70g of Fruit'n'Fibre (since the latter is denser). As a corrolary to this, I've seen cereal boxes that say "Eat two bowls of cereal a day, plus one normal meal, and then you can drop a jeans size in a fortnight". If you're going to attempt that, then you need to know whether your breakfast has already counted as two full meals!
You sometimes need to use some lateral thinking to make your measurements. For instance, suppose that you're spreading butter on your bread - it's a bit tricky to measure that directly. So, I keep a post-it note on my working surface, weigh my margerine/cheese after each time I've used them, and write down the new figures. That makes it easy to do the subtractions, and also avoids the problem of "Oops, I forgot to weigh before I started". In some cases, you can relax after a while, and just judge it by eye (if you always use the same amount every day). But be careful about cheating yourself that way, by rounding downwards. I only really do that for liquids, e.g. I use the same size of glass for my orange juice each morning, and I know how much it holds (by filling the glass with water, then pouring that water into an empty measuring jug).
As well as measuring your food, it's a good idea to weigh yourself on a regular basis. I recommend doing this first thing in the morning, before you've eaten/drunk anything, and after you've been to the toilet, without any clothes on. (This is an obvious advantage of doing the weigh-in at home, rather than at a public meeting!) That gives you a decent baseline to work from, and reduces other variables (e.g. big clumpy hiking boots vs sandals). I do this once a week (on a Monday morning), although other people have recommended doing it every day and taking an average. Either way, the most important point is that you need to do it, even if you're not looking forward to the results. Hiding from the scales is the equivalent of not opening your credit card bill because you don't want to know how much you owe, which isn't going to make the problem go away. If you've gained weight, fair enough, it happens - deal with it, and move on. But you need to have accurate information to work from.
Coming back to WeightWatchers, I'm only using the online service, which has a useful web tool to let me track what I've eaten and my weight history. I don't attend meetings, and I don't frequent the online forums - from what I've seen of them, they're a completely self-indulgent waste of space. A typical post would be "Oh dear, I've been bad this week", where the person who posted it wants everyone else to tell him/her that it's ok. My own opinion is that it's pointless at best - you need to take responsibility for your decisions, and deal with the consequences, otherwise nothing will change. And at worst it may even trap you in that behaviour, if you (subconsciously) start to think that the only way to get people to say nice things to/about you is to screw up.
That may sound rather harsh, so I'll try to clarify it a bit. Basically, if you've eaten more than you should have done (e.g. at a barbeque), and you're ok with that, then you don't need my permission or my forgiveness. If you're not ok with it, then I don't want to trivialise your concerns by saying "Well, no skin off my nose, so it doesn't bother me"; clearly it matters to you. At a more fundamental level, this comes back to what I was saying before about doing this for yourself, rather than to please other people. I should also say that I'm not trying to criticise support groups in general, and I can see that they may be useful in other situations. And even for dieting, they may be helpful for specific questions (e.g. "anyone got a good recipe that doesn't involve mushrooms?"). And, as I say, I haven't attended any meetings, so I don't have any direct experience of what goes on there. So, choose your own path.
The related issue here is dealing with temptation. I'm basically with Yoda on this one: "Do or do not - there is no try." I can understand why people may not get around to doing stuff, since you have to overcome inertia. But if you're eating/drinking stuff that you shouldn't, then you are actively choosing to do so, and you are quite capable of choosing not to. As I mentioned above, it may be that downing 10 pints is the right choice for you - all I'm saying here is that you need to take responsibility for that choice. Willpower and self-discipline are key here. Basically, I think that anyone who really wants to lose weight can do. And if you don't really want to, then you might as well just give up, rather than making yourself miserable with failed attempts.
That said, if you have trouble with temptation then there are things you can do to make it easier on yourself. For instance, I've found in the past that I can be reading a book/watching TV with a packet of biscuits next to me, and I don't really register how many I'm eating until I realise that the packet is empty. So, if you don't buy any biscuits at the supermarket then you're not going to snack on them at home. Similarly, if you take sandwiches into work with you, rather than buying lunch at a local shop, then you don't have to walk past all the chocolate bars on the shelves. (And you save some money too.) So, planning ahead is a good thing.
Mind you, there is a flipside to this. (Many things come down to a case of trade-offs.) If I buy a bar of chocolate (particularly something like a chunky Kit Kat that's all in one piece), then realistically I'm not going to eat half of it and then save the other half until tomorrow. (This is where King Size bars can cause problems, especially if the shop doesn't sell regular sizes.) What I've done is to buy a 1 kg bar of Dairy Milk, which I keep at home. I can then break off 2-3 squares if I'd like a quick snack; I'm not seriously going to eat the entire thing in one go, so that makes it easier to limit myself to a reasonable portion. And it seems to be working, since I'm only about half-way through that bar after a few months. This may or may not work for you, depending on whether you'd be tempted to binge on it.
Regarding portion control, I sometimes buy a box of WeightWatchers cookies. One box contains 6 pairs of cookies, where each pair is in a separate wrapping. It's probably not wonderful from an environmental point of view (excess packaging), but it means that I can spread a box over a couple of weeks without the last ones going soft, and it also provides discrete portions.
This then ties in to a wider issue of branded foods. I've seen adverts for the Slimfast plan in the past, which say something like "Eat a delicious shake for breakfast, then another one for lunch, and have a real dinner in the evening". That's never impressed me much, partly because I'm not much of a fan of milkshakes, and partly because it really seems to just be saying "Eat less food" (reminding me a lot of Dogbert selling carpet squares as exercise aids). By contrast, WeightWatchers doesn't work like that - the plan I'm on says that I can eat whatever I like, and then each item has a score, based on a combination of calories and saturated fat. So, for instance, an apple is bigger than a Ferrero Rocher, but its score is lower. And just to make this explicit, I can eat whatever I like, but not as much as I like - I could theoretically live off chocolate and stay under my quota, but I'd be feeling pretty hungry all day.
Anyway, while there are branded foods available, there is absolutely no pressure to eat them. From what I understand, WeightWatchers have sold Heinz (and a couple of other companies) the licence to use their logo, and the main condition is that every item with the logo has to include the number of points on the box. So, to use an analogy, it's like going to watch a Spider-Man film at the cinema, without buying the T-shirt/lunchbox/duvet cover/whatever. The company that made the film might get some indirect benefit from this, but they're certainly not going to insist on it before they let you into the cinema. It's similar here - if you want to buy the tie-ins then you can, but it's entirely up to you. If you're just after the points values, Tesco put them on all of their low-fat items (with the nutritional information), and the website has a big database, and if all else fails then you can use their calculator to work it out for yourself. So, the only issue is convenience.
Giving a specific example of portion control, my cinema habit used to be that I'd get a pot of chocolate (e.g. M&Ms) and a large-ish Coke, then justify it by saying "this is instead of dinner". I'm not sure of the exact points quota for that, but it now looks like it would need to replace all my meals for that day, which isn't really worth it.
I've been talking about losing weight, but what I really mean is losing fat. As you may know, muscle weighs more than fat, so you may find that you're actually getting slimmer and heavier at the same time; this is where body fat measurements come in handy.
More generally, it's a good idea to do a bit of exercise as well as cutting back on your food consumption. Aside from the direct benefit of burning calories, there's also an issue of metabolism. The basic idea here is that if two people are doing the exact same activitity (e.g. sitting in a chair for 3 hours), then the one with the faster metabolism (the higher metabolic rate) will burn up more calories in the process. You speed up your metabolism by doing exercise, which sends a message to your body that you need to have energy available "on tap". Looking at nature, a fast metabolism is good if you're a gazelle, and you need to sprint off from a standing start at a second's notice. A slow metabolism is good if you're a bear that's hibernating for the winter, and you want to stretch your food supply as far as possible.
Calculating the precise number of calories that you're burned off can be a bit tricky, which makes the simplistic "eat less than you use" equation a bit complicated in practice. With the WeightWatchers tool, I earn bonus points for doing exercise, but they lump it into vague categories. E.g. I can say "30 minutes of walking briskly", but that doesn't say whether I was going uphill or downhill, or whether I was carrying a heavy box. I have noticed that the number of points I've earned for the same amount of walking has decreased recently. I'm not sure whether that's just because they've recalibrated their database, or whether it's an individual setting (on the basis that I'm not lugging around the extra few kilos of blubber, so I don't have to work so hard).
It can be hard to find time for exercise in your daily routine. I'm certainly not as fit as I used to be in my undergrad days, when I did a lot of running/swimming/cycling. There are things you can do, some of which work better than others. For instance, walking up/down an escalator (rather than standing still) is a good thing, because it gives you exercise and it gets you to your destination more quickly. Whereas getting off the bus one stop early and walking the extra way is more of a tradeoff - you get extra exercise, but it's also slower, and you may get caught in the rain. Similarly, cycling to work may not work if you need to wear a suit, and there are no shower facilities at the office. Personally, I joined a gym when I moved to Croydon (initially to get access to their showers), and I try to go swimming fairly often, but I haven't been for a couple of months. Anyway, just do what you can - every little helps.
Coming back to food, I'd recommend trying to do the "5 a day" plan, i.e. eat five portions of fruit/vegetables every day. To some extent, once you've done that, it will fill you up quite a bit so that you won't feel so hungry anymore. More generally, if you try to get into the habit of snacking on an apple rather than a chocolate bar then it will help. I've found that the information available can be a bit vague on the precise portion sizes available (e.g. "a handful of grapes"), but one significant thing to know about is orange juice (and possibly other fruit juices); basically, once you've drunk enough for 1 portion, it won't count as a second portion however much more you drink. By contrast, you can eat two apples to count as two portions, although it's better to get a bit of variety if you can.
Speaking of portions, some of the guidelines on packaging can be difficult to use in practice. It's not so much the "feeds 4 if 3 aren't very hungry" problem, but rather the issue of eating alone. For instance, half a can of baked beans is a reasonable portion for one person, but I've normally found that all the tomato sauce is in the top half of the can. So, if I cook half the can one day, then the second half has very little liquid with it, which makes it harder to cook. Similarly, when I buy soup in the plastic containers (where you microwave it inside that container), one pot normally fills two bowls. One bowlful would be fine for me, but it's not easy to split that across two days. I'm sure there are ways around this (e.g. decanting into tupperware), but they involve extra hassle. So, if you're sharing meals with someone else then that will probably make your life a lot easier. My solution is just to eat a double portion in these situations, which can lead to slightly odd meal balances (e.g. just soup and no main course), but it works out ok.
Nutritionally, I think it's a good idea to get a balance between sugars and carbohydrates. Again, I'll re-iterate that I'm not an expert, but here's my basic understanding. If you're feeling a bit faint (because you haven't eaten recently), and your blood sugar level is low, then sugars are good (e.g. Coke/chocolate) because they give you energy right away. The rest of the time, carbohydrates are good, because they release the energy slowly over the course of a few hours. In particular, the idea is that you can eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and it will last you through until lunch.
How does this relate to Atkins? I've never read the official book on that, so I'm working off second-hand knowledge here. As I understand it, you're only supposed to cut out carbohydrates for the first two weeks, then resume eating them, but I think there are a lot of people who have just heard "carbs are bad, mm'kay?", which doesn't seem like a good policy to me. Anyway, my fundamental approach is to go for a lifestyle change (as I mentioned above), i.e. to do something that I can sustain indefinitely rather than messing around with a fad.
Here's an example of a typical day's meals for me. I've indicated my "5 a day" progress in brackets where appropriate.
175ml Tropicana [1/5]
60g Bran Flakes (after the slightly surreal William Shatner advert)
250ml skimmed milk
4 slices granary bread
12g Flora ProActiv
40g cheddar cheese
Much more variable, but common examples are:
* 1 "be good to yourself" Sainsbury's garlic baguette (lower than average points)
* 3 Linda McCartney sausage rolls, 1 can of baked beans [5/5] (midrange points)
* 1 vegetable pie (Linda McCartney/supermarket own brand), carrots, potato, parsnips [7/5] (above average points)
I often have a glass of white wine too.
So, my "5 a day" will fluctuate a bit, sometimes under and sometimes over, but it works out ok, and is certainly better than it used to be.
Anyway, I'll end on a positive note, by saying that it is possible to lose weight if you want to, and it's not that hard, you just need to be patient.
In other news, I enjoyed "Dr Who", and also "Fly Away Home" (a genuinely heartwarming film about a girl who uses a microlight to help geese migrate).
I'm on SJA duty tomorrow at the London->Brighton bike ride, so I need to leave the flat at 04:30, which does strike me as being a rather uncivilised hour. I should be in bed already, but hopefully I can get a few hours of sleep now.