In 1963 I emigrated from England to the USA. At that time I weighed about 142 lb. Since my height was 5’6″, my body mass index (BMI) was 22.9, a healthy number.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but after I arrived in the USA my diet changed. Portion sizes were bigger and the fat content was greater than I was used to, and I worked at a desk all day. After I had been in the USA for a few months, I weighed myself. I was horrified to find that I had ballooned up to 154 lb.
I went on a stringent diet and lost the excess weight. This was merely the first time that I was to repeat this cycle. I would gain weight then go on a diet to trim down, only to have the weight gradually come back in the subsequent months.
Why did I keep putting the weight back on? The culprit was my diet. I ate a traditional American high fat diet with generous portions.
Another factor was alcohol. I have always enjoyed beer and wine. When I was in England I was young with a young man’s metabolism, so my alcohol intake didn’t cause me to gain weight. In America the calories in the alcohol added to those in my diet, and I gained weight.
Given my caloric intake the question is not “why did I regain the weight?” but rather, “why was I not obese?” The answer to this is that I have always been active. In 1978, when I turned 40, I took up jogging. A few years later I added weight training. I have always enjoyed hiking. Even when I am not exercising I tend to move a lot.
The 1990 Weight Crisis
In July 1990, I tipped the scales at 168.75 lb. This was the heaviest I had ever been. At this weight my BMI was 27.3—solidly in the overweight category.
Why had I gained so much weight this time? There were several factors.
I was getting older. In 1990 I was 52 and my metabolism was not as active as it had been when I was younger. My need for calories was less, but I didn’t eat less. So the excess calories were packed away as fat.
Another factor was that I was not jogging as much. I had slacked off to one three-mile run each week. Jogging had been an important calorie burning activity for me. Now, the calories that used to fuel jogging were stored as fat.
My attitude toward my weight was also a factor. I was aware that I had a huge belly but what I focused on was my chest measurement. It was 38″. It made me feel big and strong. I also thought that some of my weight was muscle, since I had taken up weight training a few years before. Now I know that I was fooling myself. My increased chest measurement was due to fat, with maybe a small contribution from somewhat bigger muscles.
My wife, Mary Ann, was appalled at the idea of me weighing over 170 lb. and she conveyed her feeling to me emphatically. So I went on yet another diet. Mary Ann had gained weight along with me, so she joined me on the diet.
I counted calories. I also increased my jogging. The result was that I lost 23 lb. over six months. But in the next two and a half years, most of the weight came back.
The diet I went on in 1990 was different to previous diets. In the past I just ate less until the weight came off. In 1990 my weight was (in my mind) at crisis proportions. I decided to count calories.
Counting calories required an initial effort to analyze all the foods I ate. For each dish, I wrote down each ingredient and its amount. I looked up the calories then added them to get the total for the dish. Finally, I divided by the number of servings (typically two) and there was often an adjustment since I eat more than Mary Ann.
Recording the calories when I ate out was less precise. The best I could do was to estimate based on the type of meal and portion size. For example, I estimated the pizza in our local pizzeria at 300 calories per slice.
Since I tend to eat the same meals from week to week, the on-going effort was trivial. I just had to look up the data on the meal from the analysis that I had recorded previously.
I kept excellent records during this time. I recorded the facts about each meal, including what the meal was and how many calories it contained. Every time I went jogging I recorded the miles I ran and how many calories I burned. At that time I already knew that calorie burn continues after the run, and I included an estimate in the calorie count.
I did not track my weight workouts, but I typically did a full body workout with heavy weights once a week and a workout for my shoulders, consisting of light weights and high repetitions
I did not record other exercise activities. These included hiking and one weekend canoe trip.
My diet involved calorie restriction for six days a week. On some Fridays we celebrated another successful week of dieting by going to the local pizzeria. I splurged with a Greek salad, a pizza, and beer. On pizza days my calorie intake was about 2,600.
The table above summarizes my 1990 diet. The first column shows the average total calories I ingested each day. The second column shows how many of those calories came from beer and wine. The final column is the number of miles I ran each day on average.
The calorie numbers underestimate the reality. When I went away on vacation or on a business trip I didn’t count calories.
The table also shows the miles that I ran. These numbers are accurate, since I recorded my runs regardless of whether I was at home or away.
During the diet I ran 171.9 miles, or an average of .96 miles a day. I estimate that I burned 125 calories per mile. This takes into account my weight, the fact that my runs involved hills or were on sand, and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Over the course of the diet, the contribution from running averaged 120 calories per day.
On Thursday, July 12, 1990, at the start of the diet, I weighed 167 lb. By Tuesday, January 8, 1991, at the end of the diet, I weighed 143.75 lb. I lost 23.25 lb. in 180 days. This translates to 0.9 lb. per week.