(Hi! You might want to read part 1 about regaining weight first.)
Where were we? I’d lost two hundred pounds in my twenties, spent most of my thirties gaining it back, and felt stuck, unsure how to move forward–or more importantly–downward.
What made you start losing weight again?
Fear of imminent death.
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, I realized obesity wasn’t going to kill me 20 years from now, it was going to kill me 20 days from now. What had once been a distant threat became an immediate danger that was closer than my next period.
As a severely obese woman, I had often wondered how I would handle disaster scenarios. If I’d been in the World Trade Center on September 11, would I have made it down the stairs in time? If I’d been stranded in Hurricane Katrina, could a helicopter airlift me out of there? If there was a mass shooting, would I be able to flee the grocery store before getting shot? (This is a mostly American hypothetical.) During all my worrying, I never once considered a scenario in which a virus killed fat people at a higher rate than thin people, and I’m kind of annoyed no one floated that possibility. I’d heard all about heart disease and diabetes and high blood pressure–yada, yada, yada–but why was there no mention of the dangers of foreign wet markets? (Or coronavirus labs, if you want to get conspiratorial about it?) It reminds me of the story of an alcoholic who got killed when he was crossing the street to get to the liquor store. Alcoholism did kill him, just not in the way everyone thought it would. That’s how I felt about my obesity at that moment.
A homework assignment had come due and despite ample time to finish the project, I hadn’t, and now I was going to get my poor grade: a D for “Dead.” But only if I got caught (if I caught COVID)! When I broke my arm several years ago, my orthopedic surgeon told me a strong heart and lungs were the most important things for surviving surgery. (Dying during emergency surgery was another one of my fat-lady disaster scenarios.) I figured that advice probably applied to COVID too, so I immediately started walking every day to improve my lung capacity and strengthen my heart.
I wanted to lose weight, but ¡DO NOT DIE! was the primary goal. I figured it was the comorbidities of obesity that were killing people anyway, like diabetes and high blood pressure, which I don’t have. Alas, I was totally wrong about this. Several months later, I Googled some studies that showed it was obesity itself that increased the mortality rate of COVID, not just the comorbidities. Fat cells don’t just sit there doing nothing. They’re metabolically active and affect other processes in your body in ways that aren’t great for surviving COVID. Large amounts of adipose tissue cause low-level inflammation via cytokines that keep your immune system on constant minor alert; fat cells contain the ACE2 receptor COVID uses to invade your cells, so your fat could become a big old virus factory; fat people tend to shed viruses more slowly than other people anyway; and obesity makes it physically harder to breathe even when you’re standing up, which isn’t great for a disease that attacks your lungs. So, yeah, it’s the fat itself. According to this study, someone with my BMI was 4.18 times more likely to die from COVID than if I had a “normal” BMI.
How did you lose the weight this time?
I stopped eating like a maniac. That’s about it, honestly.
If you were hoping for the revelation that I did keto or started intermittent fasting or something and the secrets of the universe were revealed to me, I’m sorry. One of the few nice things about being severely obese is that you can eat 2000 calories a day and still lose 1-2 pounds a week. As I long as I ate a somewhat reasonable diet, the weight came off.
I guess the real question is, how did I stop eating like a maniac?
Anxiety killed my appetite
Previous to the pandemic, the worst stretch of intermittent background terror I’d dealt with was in 2017 when Republicans kept trying to take my healthcare away over and over again. (Seriously, they did it four times!) Pandemic anxiety was so much worse. I had heart palpitations for two months, which cranked up my anxiety, which gave me more heart palpitations, all part of a horrible feedback loop. One afternoon, I felt a pain in my chest and was trying to determine if it was heartburn, a heart attack, anxiety, or COVID. Then my stomach grumbled and I was like, “Oh, right, I haven’t eaten in seven hours.” That’s how I learned anxiety kills my appetite! I would attribute at least 10 pounds of my weight loss to being too freaked out to eat in March 2020. Thankfully and somewhat tragically, anything becomes normal after you’ve lived with it for a while, so the anxiety mostly subsided by May after I’d bought a bunch of PPE and a pulse oximeter.
I only went to the grocery once every two weeks
Making the grocery store a dangerous place to visit was one of the best things to happen to me. It forced me into food rehab. I might say I’m dying for some ice cream, but I’m not literally going to die for ice cream. I only ventured outside my bubble to get food once every two weeks, and I did it at 8am when I had zero sugar cravings. If I didn’t buy junk food during this one-hour interval twice a month, it wasn’t in the house. This worked so well that I’m surprised no one ever recommended it before. If I wanted a dessert, I had to cook it myself, which was enough of an obstacle that I only did it once a month or so. (Moving to the opposite side of town from Trader Joe’s two years earlier didn’t hurt either.)
Once I got vaccinated, I was worried I might start eating cake for dinner every night, but thankfully that hasn’t happened. I’ve bought some holiday candy and other high-calorie items here and there, but it hasn’t descended into a never-ending food orgy. I’ve also come to enjoy walking to the grocery store every few days and only buying enough to carry in two canvas bags, which is weird because this was something I distinctly hated when I was housesitting in New York city a decade ago. Yay, for personal growth!
I started eating a reasonably healthy diet
I kept a food diary
It’s bizarre that I have a notebook that contains a list of everything I ate from March 2020 to September 2021 (when I ran out of pages and had to start a new one). If someone stumbles upon it in the future, it might be the food version of Samuel Pepys diaries, revealing the weird stuff people ate in the twenty-first century such as “Chobani” and leaving them to guess what “LC BBQ Chick” meant. (Spoiler: Lean Cuisine Barbeque Chicken meal. 230 calories!)
At first I just wrote down what I’d eaten, which helped me judge if I’d had too much or too little that day. In October 2020, I started guess-timating calories too, rounding up to the next 50 calorie increment since the math was easier and I figure we tend to underestimate calories anyway. In November of 2021, my weight loss had slowed down enough that I started using the Lose It app to track calories more precisely, but I don’t know if this is actually helping or not.
I love that I can enter the data by scanning the food’s bar code with my phone, which was not a thing back 2005. However, the math behind calorie counting never works out precisely the way it’s supposed to, leading me to gain weight when I shouldn’t and lose weight when I wasn’t expecting to. It reminds me of high school chemistry class when I’d have to fudge the numbers in my experiments so they’d be closer to what the book said they should be.
If I gain when the numbers say I should have lost, it’s easy to get demoralized and eat all four Cadbury Creme Eggs in the package at once because, why not, when math is broken anyway? When calorie counting, I also immediately start scheming ways to eat things I shouldn’t. Like, if I have a bag of M&Ms for dinner, that’s 1200 calories, so as long as I don’t each much for the rest of the day, it’s totally fine, right? In March, Panera decided to give me a free bagel every day for some reason, which would have been less troublesome if the store weren’t an eight minute walk from my front door. Instead of figuring out how to fit a cinnamon crunch bagel into my day, I probably shouldn’t be eating a 430 calorie bagel that won’t keep me full, right? But calorie counting makes it seem possible! Oh, the madness!
So, yeah. I might ditch the calorie counting and go back to writing things down without any numbers. I don’t know.
I exercised…for a while
I started walking regularly and by October 2020 I was quite proud to complete a two-mile loop around my apartment complex. Then my knee started to ache so badly that I took leftover meds from my root canal and stopped exercising because I was terrified of making things worse. I didn’t want to be forced to go to the emergency room during the first winter surge and catch COVID, indirectly dying from a sore leg. I waited until I was vaccinated in May 2021 to see a doctor who revealed I had osteoarthritis in my knees.
The most depressing thing about this (besides getting osteoarthritis at age 39) is that between October 2020 and May 2021 I still managed to lose 40 pounds. This feels like cheating, but it’s true. You don’t actually have to exercise to lose weight, just eat less. Isn’t that terrible? Fat shamers love to tell you they’re concerned about your health, but they probably would have complimented me on my forty-pound loss even though not exercising for seven months is not a healthy thing to do.
I do want to be healthy though, so I’ve been getting back into a regular walking routine now that the weather is getting nicer in Indiana. I’m still not exercising as much as I did during my first big weight loss in my 20’s though. I’ll probably have to step things up soon if I want to continue to lose weight since my calorie requirements keep dropping as I get smaller and I don’t get to eat as much.
I started working less
I started working fewer hours before the pandemic, so it didn’t cause my weight loss on its own, but being firm about work/life boundaries has helped my mental health, decreased my chronic pain levels, and led to fewer situations where I wanted to eat the world. I also try to get off the computer by 7pm at the latest, preferably closer to 5:30pm or 6:00pm, which has cured the insomnia I suffered from when I’d work at my laptop until 10pm. When my weight has been out of control in the past, it’s usually because something else in my life is out of control and needs to be fixed. Treat the problem, not the symptom, right?
I already had a pandemic-friendly lifestyle
2020 was the year when my lifestyle as a self-employed, childless, hermit really paid off. My pandemic life was about 85% similar to my pre-pandemic life, so it was easier for me to pay attention to my weight loss than it was for other people because I didn’t have to deal with as much change. There were no kids to take care of. There was no office to abandon. I was used to working 10 feet away from my kitchen without devouring its entire contents. I was also fortunate that my workload didn’t slow down, otherwise I would’ve been boredom eating like the rest of the quarantined world. I’ve always been a homebody, so I actually started leaving my apartment MORE because I was walking regularly. The world began adapting to my way of life instead expecting me to adapt to it.
I’ve mostly stopped emotional eating and binge eating…for now
I don’t think I’ve conquered the binge eating problem, but my environment has made it more difficult to exist for the past two years. It has resurfaced a few times when I needed a fix this year because my headache was acting up or Seasonal Affective Disorder got me down or a mattress purchase went horribly awry. Shockingly, these lapses didn’t make me instantly regain 115 pounds. A part of me feared that eating one bag of candy hearts would immediately turn me back into a severely obese woman like Cinderella’s carriage morphing into a pumpkin at midnight. It did not.
I did gain a couple pounds after the holidays, and feared that was a turning point from which I’d inevitably get larger and larger, but that hasn’t happened either. I was able to knock off the pounds again, which gives me hope that I am not doomed to regain everything I’ve lost as long as I keep weighing myself and don’t ignore what’s happening.
The binge eating problem will probably flare up again in the future when I’m under a lot of stress. I should probably confront this and see a therapist or something. I don’t know. I am a work in progress.
So, that’s how I did it, but what I found most interesting were the differences between losing a lot of weight the second time around compared to the first, which you can read about in part 3…once I finish writing it!