Our contributing editor loses 30 pounds, and he’s still fat

Before (front)

Before (front)

Photo courtesy of D. Brian Burghart

I’ll tell you the moment I realized beyond a doubt that I’d gotten too fat: I was at my sister’s house in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Christmas day last year. Her bathroom had a convenient scale. As I was preparing to shower, I stepped on it.

250 pounds.

I don’t know why that number struck me as too heavy for a human, but it did. Perhaps it was because, as I stood there naked, I could see things in the mirror that I could no longer see over my gut. Something made me aware that I’d joined 97 million Americans who had left “pleasantly plump” behind at the fast food drive-thru.

Of course, I’d had prior moments of revelation. There was the time I was working on something under the dashboard of my car, and I couldn’t breathe, because my gut was pushing on my lungs. Another good one was the time six years ago when I stepped on the “How much do you weigh on other planets?” scale at the Fleischmann Planetarium. It said 231, but I spent a moment trying to figure out which planet I was supposed to be on before I realized that I was already there.

I should point out that back then, I liked what the scale said. I liked the idea of being big. I liked the idea of being bigger than my dad is. I liked the idea of being heavier than many of those guys whose vital statistics get flashed on the television during football games. Somehow, in that perverse American attitude, I equated bigger with better, heavier with stronger.

Am I making myself clear? Somehow, the fatter I was, the healthier I felt. You’d think I would have figured it out when the doctor put me on high blood pressure medicine.

Still, I decided last October that it was time to take off a little weight. I’d ballooned up another 10 pounds when I quit smoking again. Somewhere in my subconscious mind, I knew that too much was too much. Since I’d never been on a diet before, I began to ask around to find the “best” diet.

My friend R.V. Scheide, a former editor of this newspaper, recommended the Body for Life diet, which had been on The New York Times bestseller list for some time. On his recommendation, I bought the book.

As a free-lance writer, I decided that I was only going to diet if I could find somebody to pay me to do so. I sent off a couple query letters but got no positive response. My resolve went on the back burner, right up until that moment three months later, when I saw the two-five-oh on my sister’s scale. I decided—come hell or high water—I was going to shed some pounds. And I ended up getting the News & Review to pay me for it after all.

Food for thought
I am not endorsing Bill Phillips’ 12-week Body for Life diet, although there’s no denying that it helped me lose weight. My intention is not to promote one diet over another, or even to promote dieting. Quantitative data, like the Body Mass Index, suggests to me that some people perceive a need to lose weight when nothing but their own self-consciousness demands it.

Have you seen this BMI thing? It is derived by multiplying a person’s weight in pounds by 703 and then dividing it by his or her height in inches, squared. For example, I weighed 250 pounds and am 74 inches tall, so I had a BMI of 32.1. New federal guidelines define someone overweight with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 and someone obese with a BMI of 30 or greater.

Before (side)

Photo courtesy of D. Brian Burghart

Here’s the Body for Life regimen in a nutshell: Eat six small meals a day of roughly equal parts proteins and carbohydrates. Eat a tiny amount of fat. Drink a river of water. Lift weights three days a week, and do 20-minute cardiopulmonary exercises three days a week. On the seventh day, eat and drink whatever you want. Do this for three months.

The Body for Life diet is primarily designed for people who want big muscles. I’ve read denial after denial of this, but if you look at the pictures the authors use as motivators, this diet is for people who can imagine themselves getting buffed up and shaving their body hair. Not for me, thanks. Still, it wasn’t very long before I caught myself making muscles in the mirror and pointing out the growth to my girlfriend, who would sigh, roll her eyes and agree.

Fat Lesson No. 1: The whole diet thing is a head game.

I had my first food crisis on the second day of the diet. I was light-headed, angry and ready to tear some poor motorist from a car and stick his or her head up the tailpipe. Somehow, my brain had convinced me that I was famished. It was real hunger—even though I’d already eaten three meals that day. I called my friend R.V. to complain, and he did the math for me.

“Dude, you’re never going to lose weight eating that much,” he said. “Are you sure you’re doing this right?”

This little bit of information lifted me over the hurdle. My hunger was all in my head. The hunger pangs went away.

Fat Lesson No. 2: Diets are a giant pain in the butt.

As soon as you start to think about what or when you are going to eat, you become hungry. This should be pretty obvious, since hunger is the act of thinking about food. I found that having a ready supply of prepared food available helped me to not skip meals, and to not think about food any more than I had to.

For the 12 weeks, I practically survived on cooked chicken breasts, which I would bake. (Albertson’s sells skinless, boneless chicken breasts behind the butcher counter for about $2-2.49 a pound most weeks. That’s cheaper than Costco. I was buying 10 pounds every two weeks.)

It’s a good idea to keep bushels of fruit around. I also found that having large amounts of pinto beans at hand (five cups of uncooked pinto beans mixed with three pints of hot salsa) made it easy to have the carbo half of the meals ready at all times. Throw a diced chicken breast and a cup of beans in a bowl in the microwave, and three minutes later, you’ve got a meal. Preparing a family-sized portion of mashed potatoes ahead of time allowed for variations on the theme.

Another good meal is yogurt and cottage cheese. Phillips mentions it in the book, and I found myself habitually having it as the last meal before bed.

Finally, I had a problem remembering to eat vegetables twice a day. I finally adjusted by keeping a big bottle of V-8 in the refrigerator.


Photo courtesy of D. Brian Burghart

Weighty Matters
I am nothing if not obsessive. This drives my girlfriend nuts. When I wanted a yard with grass, I couldn’t rest until every square inch of horizontal property had little green plants growing on it.

The weight-loss thing is no different, which is probably why the Body for Life diet worked for me. You have to be a bit obsessive. Until I had a little accident, I was increasing my weights by 10 pounds every two weeks. The diet calls for lifting weights three days a week, alternating uppers and lowers (legs and abdominals). I was into it.

Fat Lesson No. 3: Track your progress.

I found myself wandering the YMCA gym with a clipboard. You can always tell the Body for Life people, because they carry around the little red book, which describes the exercises and how to do them. One morning in the free-weights room, nine of the 11 people were on the Body for Life diet. Keeping track of my progression allowed me to see that I was making gains, and that forced me to work out hard on days when I didn’t feel like it.

Phillips’ workout is more complicated than what I’m going to describe; for space reasons, I won’t go into the whole thing. It’s basically five sets per exercise with ascending weight and descending reps. For example, on arm curls, you could start at 12 repetitions of 50 pounds. Next set, it would be 10 reps at 60 pounds. Next set, it would be 8 reps at 70 pounds, next 6 reps at 80. The last set, you’d drop the weight to 70 pounds and do 12 repetitions. The entire workout takes 45 minutes.

Phillips uses an “intensity” scale to measure success, but that was a little too cerebral for me.

Fat Lesson No. 4: A fat man shouldn’t be afraid to cry.

One day during the last week of my 12-week program, I was doing leg presses. Basically, with a leg press, you are on a machine with your butt about floor level. You push weight up with your legs at a 45-degree angle. You go from full extension, with your legs straight, to your thighs more or less resting on your chest.

I still don’t know exactly how it happened. I was on my fourth set of leg presses, 490 pounds, when my legs gave out. They just quit, with no more rigidity than a cooked spaghetti noodle. The weight and my bony knees slammed into my chest, about four inches on either side of my sternum. Fortunately, there were three women around me who heard my croaked plea for help. The doctor said I didn’t break anything, and, to be perfectly honest, I was a little disappointed.

Fat Lesson No. 5: Run like your life depended on it.

Phillips recommends three days a week of 20-minute cardiovascular exercise. Again, he has a fairly complicated method to describe exactly how to do it, but I found a variation that worked for me. Cardio exercise really bores me, so I decided to go around the block, because then, at least the scenery changes.

My version of the 20-minute cardio solution went like this: Walk for a quarter of a block. Walk fast for a quarter of a block. Jog for a quarter of a block. Run like hell for a quarter of a block. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. I’ll guarantee you that by the time you finish 10 minutes of the 20-minute workout, you’ll doubt your ability to control your bladder. And no, I don’t have any embarrassing stories to tell here.

In the final analysis
All this blood, sweat and tears helped me drop 30 pounds, to 220. My 12-week program ended on March 25, and due to my injury, I haven’t been back to the gym since then. (I did go back twice after I smashed my chest to finish out the 12-week program, although I substituted a different thigh exercise.) I’ve started jogging again, and I expect to get back to the ‘Y’ in a few days. My BMI has dropped to 28.2, which is still in the fat range, but not the obese range. I’ve lost at least four inches from around my waist.

If I want to get a BMI of less than 25, I’ve got to get down to 194 pounds. But I wouldn’t count on it.

I kind of like being big.