On January 20, 2013, I was morbidly obese. In the 11 months that followed, I lost over 70 kg (154 lbs) without bariatric surgery or a prescribed diet. Now I run ultramarathons.
How did I do it? I wrote a book, ‘Let Go‘, to answer that question in full, but to get you started: here are five lessons I learned during my weight loss journey.
1. Don’t diet
Although studies show that diets can be successful, many people aren’t able to stick with them for a prolonged period of time. So why then do we keep trying?
I think it’s because the idea you can control weight by simply following a list of rules is irresistible. Being on a diet gives you the illusion of control. Unfortunately, that list of rules is also a “recipe” for failure. That’s because any rule you have to follow will eventually make you want to rebel against it, even (or perhaps especially) if you’re the enforcer.
There’s another element to this. Eating is essential to survival, much like breathing or drinking. But there’s something odd about wanting to control our eating. After all, we don’t regulate our drinking habits or our breathing with a schedule. Unless we’re ill or running a marathon, our body will tell us when it is time to drink: when we’re thirsty.
That’s why I now eat when I’m hungry. Most of the time it turns out to be around the time you would normally have breakfast, lunch or dinner, just like how most days I get up and go to bed at roughly the same time.
But not always. Sometimes, I’ll be hungry at different times, just like sometimes I’ll be tired earlier or later than usual. This is when I listen to my body, and grab a bite. Taking the neuroticism out of eating has done more for me than nearly two decades of yo-yo dieting.
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Speaking of which:
2. Willpower is overrated
I tried the “kicking my ass” routine for two decades. I went from 80 kg (176 lbs) to 100 (220 lbs), and back, and up to 110 (242 lbs), and back, and so forth. This became an addictive cycle in its own right, because there was a reward in failing to keep to my target weight: I could feel proud by getting rid of my excess pounds once more.
But in the end my weight increased to a whopping 154 kg (339 lbs). Now that I’ve lost 160 lbs and kept it off since December 2013, do I think I suddenly tapped into some sort of mysterious reservoir of willpower I had kept hidden from myself for 20 years?
Of course not. My willpower didn’t change. If anything, I redirected it. Eating whenever your body tells you to is much scarier than marching to the beat of a diet. It requires a different kind of mental discipline: the courage to surrender to something you don’t control, namely what your body tells you. If you want to sound tough, talk about discipline. If you want to get results, move on to the next point.
Found this pic from 2013 when I was about halfway done losing 160 lbs. That polo shirt is 5XL btw. pic.twitter.com/gMRwx3TMPt— Andrew Dasselaar (@AndrewDasselaar) 6. September 2016
3. You need to figure out why you like eating so much
I didn’t become overweight because I was always hungry. I became overweight because I convinced myself I was always hungry, in much the same way smokers convince themselves they “need” a cigarette and alcoholics tell themselves they “need” a drink to take the edge off.
I confused having unpleasant emotions with hunger. I would never have figured that out if it hadn’t been for the panic attacks that struck me from December 2012 onwards. Those increased in intensity the more I tried to fight them, and abated only when I surrendered.
It was through acceptance of anxiety that I discovered my near constant “hunger” was, in fact, nothing more than fear in disguise. No longer in denial about what needed fixing, I then set about dealing with a huge backlog of repressed emotions. And this is how:
4. Eat, meditate, run
Acceptance of emotions is easier said than done. It needs to become a daily practice, not just an inspirational quote to liven up a pastel-tinted Pinterest picture of a misty sunset.
My practice consists of three elements.
One: eating when I am genuinely hungry, stopping the second I no longer am. This requires constant self-monitoring. Scientific literature refers to this approach as “intuitive eating”, but in the beginning learning to trust my instincts cost me so much time it felt anything but spontaneous. Still, it worked.
Two: mental practice. First, I went to see a therapist who taught me how to examine the veracity of my emotions using cognitive behavioural therapy. When that was done, I took a meditation course. I picked the scientifically validated MBSR approach, but there are plenty of alternatives to choose from.
I still meditate daily. Meditation helps you to train your mind to accept the present moment. That means: learning just to feel an emotion, to walk the middle way in-between obeying its every command, or the opposite: pretending a feeling isn’t there. Sounds abstract? That’s why it’s called a practice. You need to actually do the work. To paraphrase meditation master Jon Kabat-Zinn: reading a restaurant menu won’t feed you, but eating the food you ordered will.
Three: physical exercise. Not because you’ll burn additional calories, although that is a bonus. Did you ever want to give up after only a few minutes of running? Exercise will teach you to distinguish between physical pain – your body’s signal to stop – and emotional pain – your mind’s fear that it isn’t strong enough. Don’t worry, you are. Because, to quote ultrarunner Scott Jurek, pain can only hurt. It has no power other than that. Stop telling yourself you are weak. On that note:
5. Be your own best friend, and let go
Stop counting calories. Stop equating yourself with the number on your bathroom scale. Stop chastising yourself if you forgot to meditate for a day. In short, stop being so hard on yourself. The only purpose this endless self-flagellation serves is to distract you from facing other issues which in all likelihood are beyond your control.
Facebook just reminded me of how I looked exactly 4 years ago. I'm glad it did. I don't ever want to forget. <3 pic.twitter.com/ELYR7M8pfd— Andrew Dasselaar (@AndrewDasselaar) 29. August 2016
Instead, deal with those issues once and for all. Fix what little you can, and let go of the rest. Stop trying to save people or salvage situations that are beyond your control. Start treating yourself as your own best friend. That way you won’t need food as an analgesic anymore.
Think that’s too soft? Let me assure you: beating yourself up is easy. It gives you yet another false sense of control, because as long as you’re berating yourself, you are also telling yourself that if you just tried a little harder, you could still fix that unfixable thing.
Chastising yourself isn’t brave, it’s refusing to face reality. Granting yourself the kind of dignity and love you would happily give your best friend, that’s the hard part. And if you think I’m wrong here, I dare you to try. Give it eight weeks, as long as you would give a fad diet. I won’t guarantee you’ll lose any weight, but I’m willing to bet this approach will at least make you feel better.
Also, you won’t even need to buy my book to do it.