How I lost 40 lbs doing everything wrong

I’ve been on a quest to lose weight over the last 6 months. It had been a long time coming, and I’d put it off for too many years. But while I have been achieving my goals, it’s got to be a statistical fluke, because I’ve done just about everything wrong!

1) I ate wheat!

Apparently, I didn’t get the message that my “addiction to wheat” is making me “fat and unhealthy”, because I kept right on eating it. Wheat breads, pita, even the dreaded enriched-flour pasta — all of these remained part of my diet. What a dolt I was! If only I’d bought a copy of William Davis’ best-selling book Wheat Belly, I’d have known that 100 million Americans (and presumably ~10M Canadians) experience some form of adverse health effect from eating wheat — from minor rashes to high blood sugar to unattractive stomach bulges. Or I could have listened to any of the countless nutritionists and alt-health gurus recommending gluten-free diets for non-celiac sufferers like me.

But I guess I was living under a rock. Really dodged a bullet there.

2) I ate other carbs too!

“You’ve lost weight,” friends would say. “What have you been doing — cutting out carbs?” It was a question I kept hearing over and over again, yet somehow I never clued in that I should have been on a low-carb diet. After all, everyone knows carbs are what make us fat. Yet I kept on eating them — starchy tubers, rice of all colours and hues, gluten-laden rye breads and barley. In fact, carbs made up over half of my calories — and two-thirds of my food by weight!

Had I never heard of Robert Atkins or The Zone? This cat has far more than nine lives, let me tell you.

3) I used artificial sweeteners!

Boy should I have listened to Dr. Oz — he says that artificial sweeteners are the #1 habit making me fat! He recommends “natural alternatives” like honey, agave and coconut sap syrup. Yet stupid me, I figured that because those alternatives were largely comprised of glucose and fructose, they were just as bad as sugar — I completely forgot they were natural!

4) I didn’t cleanse!

Stayed downright dirty. Little did I know that Vitalife Clinic in Toronto says it can help me shed pounds through the magic of hydrotherapy, as does Toronto Colonics, D’avignon Digestive Health Cente, and dozens of other “wellness” clinics throughout the city.

Or that Total Cleanse — also right here in Toronto! — sells pre-made juice cleanse products with healthy-sounding names like “Green Energy”. And they all come with a promise to help me lose weight!

Such amazing resources within arm’s reach — and all so reasonably priced — yet I did not avail myself of any of them. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

5) I skipped the superfoods and supplements

I could have taken 13 acai berries, 2 tbsp of mango seed fiber, a jigger of extra virgin coconut oil, 4g of bitter orange, half a sheet of dried seaweed, a pinch of cayenne, and a cup of green tea, blended it all into a delicious smoothie, and used it to wash down my Glucomannan, which Dr. Oz assures me is the best diet pill on the market.

Or I could have tried any of the other really sciency sounding OTC weight loss pills like Lipocal, Lipoclen, Lipovox, Slimvox, Slimquick, Ambislim, Anoretix, Stimuretix, Colonetix or Colonoxy, which would have melted my pounds away by reducing hunger, speeding my metabolism, improving my digestive function, stopping carb absorption, adjusting my hormonal balance, purifying and revitalizing my body, helping me sleep better, and/or hijacking my hypothalamus, allowing me to see results twice as fast! three times as fast! seven times as fast! all without diet or exercise!

But not me. I always do things the hard way.

How did I get so turned around?

I guess my mistake was listening to the science.

Take diet composition for example. The best studies continue to say that all diets work equally well at taking off weight to the extent they reduce calories, and that macro-nutrient composition (carbs vs. protein vs. fat) doesn’t matter for weight loss. So I just got a calorie tracker app for my phone, focused on achieving a steady targeted reduction every day, and ate what I wanted until I hit the mark. Well, that’s not totally true — I did spend some time trying to understand which foods made me feel fuller for the fewest calories, and as a result focused on foods that:

  • had more fibre, which I found more filling. So while I still ate some refined flour and sweets, most of my carbs came from whole grain foods.
  • were less nutritionally dense, i.e. lower calories by volume, which again I found more filling. In practice, this meant a lot more fruits and vegetables.
  • included protein, because many obesity researchers and clinicians believe that regular hits of protein throughout the day aid satiety.

I figured that since all of this was consistent with what every public health agency and lifestyle-disease organization recommends anyway, it was a pretty safe bet. I didn’t know I might end up being the thinnest wheat belly sufferer on record!

Or take artificial sweeteners. I listened to the solid science showing that sweetened beverages don’t affect satiety, and thus add calories without making us feel fuller — so much so that juice and pop became the only things I cut out of my diet entirely. But would I listen to the weakly-controlled, low-powered studies that found artificial sweeteners confuse the body’s regulatory system and make us eat more? Dr. Oz certainly did, but I was far too arrogant to listen! Instead, I took the advice of less-famous-and-therefore-certainly-less-trustworthy obesity clinicians like Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, who states that:

For many, liquid calories, are the low hanging fruit of weight management – easy to reduce and consequently, I think it’s certainly worth your own personal exploration of liquid calories, and if indeed you’re drinking huge amounts of them, especially sugar sweetened ones, as a step-down strategy if you think you can use artificially sweetened beverages as you reduce the sweet drinks overall, I say go for it.

Even so, I should have been scared off by the commonly-heard refrain that artificial sweeteners are dangerous. But I figured that after decades of widespread use, the failure to show they caused any particular health problem was enough to give them a qualified pass. I mean, sure, I agree that water is probably a healthier choice than Coke Zero, but the enjoyment I got from it made it easier to stick to my calorie goals, so I kept drinking. So shortsighted!

Now as for cleanses, I blame skepticism for my myopia here. One of the first skeptical articles I ever read was the Skeptoid episode on cleanses, and it’s biased me against them ever since. I also figured that any weight that came off that easily was likely to go back on just as easily. Not sure how a jewish atheist like me developed such a firmly protestant outlook, but I do indeed value a work ethic.

I guess that was my problem with superfoods and supplements too — just too easy. After all, I couldn’t prove that none of them work — it’s impossible to keep up with all the new products on the market each year. I just knew that (barring ephedra, which has a terrible safety profile) I’d never seen any that had been shown to work. Some pretty clearly didn’t — even the NCCAM, hardly a skeptic organization, said that there was no reason to believe that acai berries or green tea could help me lose weight. Bitter orange might, but it contains a similar active ingredient to ephedra, and is likely just as risky. And I’ve looked into coconut oil before and found no evidence it’s useful for much of anything other than deep frying spring rolls.

I was also persuaded, so foolishly, by a 2004 systematic review of weight loss supplements conducted by Edzard Ernst and Max Pittler. It concluded that “the evidence for most dietary supplements as aids in reducing body weight is not convincing. None of the reviewed dietary supplements can be recommended for over-the-counter use.” Another review in the same year at Harvard Medical School came to similar conclusions.

What about Dr. Oz’s favorite supplement Glucomannan? To be honest, it’s not the craziest thing he’s recommended — glucomannan is a fibre supplement, and fibre does seem to aid satiety as I mentioned. But researchers consistently find that beneficial nutrients in food don’t often convey the same benefits in supplement form. And since Glucomannan was evaluated in the reviews linked above that recommended no supplementation, I let the science be my guide. Reckless, I know.

In the end, I was lucky — none of these mistakes stopped me from achieving my weight loss goals. But it’s not a path I’d recommend — after all, can you really expect science to look after your interests? It doesn’t even have anything to sell you!

45 Responses to “How I lost 40 lbs doing everything wrong”

  1. Mike says:

    Great article and congrats on the weight loss.

    I am not at my current weight loss goal yet, but earlier this year I managed to lose 10 lbs just from cutting out pop and Tostitos. Tostitos are my kryptonite so I need to keep them out of the house.

    It is truly amazing how easy it is to lose weight if you just cut out the extra calories, even without following any of the fad diets. And I am sure you are probably happier than you would be if you stopped eating wheat.

  2. Ken MacKenzie says:

    I loved this. It brought back an incident from about twenty years ago when I attended a company sponsored, “Prep for retirement” seminar. One of the presenters, a dietician, kept ranting on about “empty calories” such as from sugared drinks etc. and the pitfalls of sugar substitutes. I objected, stating that while I was no scientist, I understood that calories are calories and the term “empty calories” was meaningless. “Zero calories” means exactly that. It went on but you get the drift.

    In the end, I was asked to leave because I would not let it go. This dietician was spouting popular beliefs that are held to this day by her profession and have always been of great doubt to me.

    I fight with my weight every day and as your article states, there is only one final solution, barring surgery, lower caloric intake than outgo. Works every time.

    Thank you for this. Made my day.

  3. Lorna says:

    Talk about reckless! I lost 85lbs the same way and have kept it off for almost 4 years. Didn’t pay a penny to try a fad diet – how os this even possibe?

    Congrats!

  4. Blair says:

    I have lost 45 lbs with my radical new two step approach:

    Step One: 3 meals per day
    Step Two: 1 meal per meal

    The second step was the hardest one, but as others have pointed out, it all comes down to simple mathematics.

    If calories in > calories burned, fatness increases.
    If calories in < calories burned, fatness decreases.

    Now I need to sex this up and find 200 pages of padding and I could have my own best selling diet book.

    • Silverblaze says:

      Ahahaha, brilliant!! Thanks for the reminder!! Good luck with the book!! :-D

    • xm says:

      That sounds a lot like the NoS diet. He does sell a book, but you can read all about it for free on the website too.

      • Erik Davis says:

        OMG I love the No S Diet…why haven’t I heard of it before? May adopt it when I’m in maintenance mode, but for losing the rest I’ll stick with calorie tracking…with smartphone apps it’s not nearly as burdensome as he suggests.

  5. John says:

    So… you basically ate more fruits and vegetables, yet you managed to get your pot-shots off at the gluten intolerant as the number one bullet point? Good job: so Skeptical, so brave.

  6. Fiona Gilsenan says:

    Mike, “Tostitos are my kryptonite” is the best line I’ve heard in a while.

    Erik, I tweeted this great article to our healthy living for youth site, hi5living.org. We’ll be sharing it often I’m sure.

  7. Matthew Baker says:

    If I may ask how long did it take to lose the weight? My friend who is recovering from pregnancy with celiac disease is interested to hear about the time spent using these methods.

    • Erik Davis says:

      About 6 months. I set my daily calorie target at 500 below my maintenance level, which should result in about a pound a week loss. I also try to exercise a few times a week, which is why I’ve lost more rapidly than that. The calorie counting ensures I don’t eat back what I expend, which is the key thing with exercise.

      There are several tracking apps out there — the one I use is this: http://www.mynetdiary.com/ — the Pro version is fully functional, and only $4. I think smart phones are a weight loss tool people are only starting to appreciate — having a network connected database of nutrition info on thousands of foods in your pocket is pretty powerful.

    • Catherine N. says:

      The one problem with eating healthy with celiac is the pre-prepared baked goods, which have very little fiber and a lot of sugar. That has been the thing I’ve noticed most about my weight-loss journey. Before celiac I used to have a sandwich for lunch on whole-wheat bread. Now, if I did that, the sandwich would have at least twice the calories. (I’ve done side-by-side comparisons in the grocery store). Most gluten-free options are made with white rice flour or tapioca as the main starch. I just laugh when people say they are going gluten-free to lose weight.

      It is doable, though.

      • Erik Davis says:

        Yes can certainly make it harder. The reason I didn’t do any specific diet plan was because I wanted to be able to eat everything, but if you don’t have that luxury, it’s worth noting that many people do quite well on low carb and paleo diets, which I think should be consistent w Celiac. Though I’ve never tried them, I expect the increased meat & fat compensate for the lower fibre content in aiding satiety and creating a caloric deficit. I only jab at them in the article because of the widely held belief that there’s something magical about carb cutting that can’t be explained by calories.

  8. shawmutt says:

    I found a great podcast called Fat2Fit Radio, and loved their philosophy. Essentially, figure out your goal weight, and then eat the calories for your goal weight. This way, when you get to your goal weight, nothing changes. I lost about 40 lbs using this method. Unfortunately I joined the diet fail statistics, lost site of my goals, and started eating like a pig again and all the weight came back on.

    I’m starting over, on the last week of a couch to 5K running program again (my preferred method of exercise) and using the MyFitnessPal app to track my calories. It’s been a bumpy road these last few months, but I’m settling down into the routine again.

    I think the most frustrating and depressing thing is being were I was when I first started getting serious about weight loss. It took me over a year to lose that 40 lbs, and having to do it over again sucks. I keep a diary of my progress, so hopefully when I get to my goal weight and feel the urge to binge I can remind myself of the struggle.

    Good job taking the weight off, btw!

    • Erik Davis says:

      What I like about tracking, aside from the cognitive reinforcement, is it gives me control. I can always choose to overeat, and sometimes do (social / family events, etc) but what I can’t do is pretend it didn’t happen or that I’m unable to compensate for it over the following days. I’m an adult: I make choices, they have consequences, I’m responsible for them, and I have the tools to deal with them.

    • Silverblaze says:

      Don’t be so hard on yourself Shawmutt!! Life happens. It’s only a fail if you give up, and clearly you haven’t. All the best on your weight loss journey!! :-)

    • Aidan says:

      The eating to your goal weight calories isn’t going to be precise if you’ve already lost a lot of weight and gained it back – your body changes in response to weight loss. You need to eat less than predicted to maintain the new weight loss. Adaptive thermogenesis, unfortunately.

  9. ngwenya says:

    How many diets have you been on in the past?

    • Erik Davis says:

      None. I’ve had periods where I’ve lost some weight due to increased activity and/or generally attentive eating, but never more than 10-15 lbs and always gradually gained back. This was the first time I actually set out to permanently end the obesity that was 20 years in the making. So before I did, I looked at the research with a skeptical eye and tried to figure out what the science said. It was surprisingly consistent given all the nonsense out there: calorie deficits are the only driver, macronutrient composition doesn’t matter, satiety management does, supplements are useless, and cognitive reinforcement strategies are really important for long term success. No magic and not really that hard most of the time, if not a ton of fun.

      • Jill says:

        I was pointed to your article through Yoni Freedhoff’s blog. Can you say more about the cognitive reinforcement strategies you employed?

      • Erik Davis says:

        Calorie tracking is the biggest one – hard not to eat attentively when you have to write it all down and do the math. I do daily weigh ins as well, but I’m of a disposition not to stress or moralize about them – they’re just data inputs for me. I know some people have a harder time with that. I also try to be aware, as often as possible, of my reasons for wanting to lose.

        If you want to go deeper than that, Judith Beck has a diet book out that applies Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approaches to weight loss. CBT is undoubtedly the most useful psychotherapy approach out there, and has a solid evidence base across a wide array of conditions and common life issues. Judith’s father (along with Albert Ellis) founded the discipline, and Judith is an accomplished CBT practitioner and trainer in her own right. I’ve only skimmed it, but it does look interesting.

  10. Richard says:

    I liked this, but it’s not really overturning the pervasive mindset of the western world that Obviously Everyone (who’s ‘overweight’) Should Lose Weight. That it’s healthier/better/etc.

    I’m a scrawny man myself, but if you read into the statistics on successful weight loss in the long term (ie, 5 years), it’s essentially zero.

    Semi-humorous: http://www.cracked.com/quick-fixes/fat-officially-incurable-according-to-science/

    Not so humorous: http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/do-diets-fail-or-do-dieters-fail/

    I strongly urge anyone reading this to educate themselves so that skeptics can help lead society to being more sensible about people’s weight.

    One last link, for those unconvinced that fat does *not* = bad,

    http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/10-reasons-to-practice-health-at-every-size/

  11. Nath says:

    A few years ago, when I was on a verge of becoming obese, a friend convinced me to register to Weight Watchers. I did it for 3 months (they had a special ;) and it really changed my life. It took time, but I’m now 33 pounds down, “slightly overweight” maybe, but surely no longer obese. So what did I learn at Weight Watchers?

    - Count the calories. Always. (I’m not able to do it all the time, but when I do, I lose weight)
    - Don’t starve yourself. Ever. Fill the daily quota, don’t skip meals.
    - Eat whatever you want, but think about the choices. Look for foods that are filling and nutritious but leave room for the foods that you really like, whatever they are. Just make sure to do everything in moderation and make sure that when you eat junk, it’s the junk that you really enjoy.

    That’s about it. I just finished eating very filling latkes :)

  12. Hereni says:

    Thanks this is excellent. At first I thought oh no not another article on how someone lost weight with a fad diet, then I was pleasantly surprised to read such a balanced article. The best part is that you should find that you sustain the weight loss over time and that should be the real ‘endpoint’ for people on a weight loss journey. :-)

  13. Nicole RD says:

    Re: Paleo diet for Celiac disease
    The Paleo diet has more than one formulation, but the basics is to eat vegetables, meat, fruit, and fat – approximately in that order. Therefore, the diet is appropriate for someone with celiac disease, and at least the way I’ve tried following the diet, is actually high in fiber compared to the typical diet due to all the vegetables and fruit. And I’ve absolutely found that eating a higher level of protein and fat is more satisfying.
    When I’ve tracked my intake on Paleo, I get my calories 45% from Carbs, 35% Fat, 20% Protein. Which happens to fit general recommendations.

    There’s no need to eat grains of any kind to get carbs. Vegetables, fruit, legumes (beans, soy, peanuts), and grains are all sources.

  14. Lucy says:

    “I did spend some time trying to understand which foods made me feel fuller for the fewest calories”

    ^^THIS^^

    For me this means more protein, almost no wheat (the more I eat the more I want to eat, when I eat almost none I can happily live without it and nutritionally, there are better options) and limited dairy. It also means more fibrous veggies and fewer fruits because the former makes me feel full, the latter not so much. Not everyone is going to respond well to the same approach. Taking some time to figure out what works for you and how to get the most bang for your caloric buck is the key to success, IMO. I lost 110lbs in 40 weeks and it was pretty effortless with this approach.

  15. julie says:

    Awesome! I didn’t get the memo, either. I lost my 60 eating wheat, grains, sugar, Splenda, a little meat, a lot of veg, a ton of fruit. Now I gotta go visit the parents, and hear my mom spew about what Dr. Oz says.

    I’m very glad to not be sensitive to gluten, sugar, or anything else, so I don’t have to be scared of these foods. That’s no way to live.

    It’s now been a few years, but when I first lost it, many thought I was eating low-carb. Heyill no! Nor low-fat. I can’t even talk to some of those low-carb people, anyone who can’t tell the difference between a pile of brown rice and those sweet white rolls from Costco, is nobody that I’m going to be able to have a conversation with.

  16. Susan says:

    Speaking on behalf of RDs everywhere….. THANK YOU!!!!

  17. evilcyber says:

    Erik, this article was legendary! If I had the money, I’d hire you as a writer! :D

  18. Mezza Luna says:

    Great article that mirrors my own experience. I also use an app on my smartphone and PC (MFP) where I record absolutely everything I eat and my exercise. I was quite surprised at how easy it was to eat more calories than I expended. I love to see the data behind my weight loss, and the odd weight gain when I’m bad, so that I can understand why and how not to do it again.

  19. Frank says:

    Thank you for this refreshing article!

    Like you, I lost 35 lbs over four months, without worrying about carbs, cleanses and breads. On 16 April 2012 I happened to come across a skeptoid story by Brian Dunning on how HE lost weight, entitled “How Does a Skeptic Lose Weight?”: http://skeptoid.com/blog/2011/09/27/how-does-a-skeptic-lose-weight/. The next day, 17 April 2012, I started the program. 4 1/2 months later I had lost 35 pounds.

    Brian pointed out the very simple fact of weight loss or weight gain:
    “I chose to apply the First Law of Thermodynamics, so the key word is calories. If you absorb more calories than you burn, your weight goes up. If you absorb fewer calories than you burn, your weight goes down.”

    He referenced a website with a mobile app called Loseit!: http://www.loseit.com/. This great program tracks calories taken in each day, and also allows for tracking of calories burned. All I did was made sure I stopped eating when I reached my daily calorie level to lose 1.5 pounds per week. As a result, I ate less breads and less cheeses, but only so that I would not be hungry at the end of the day by loading too many calories early on. And surprise… it worked!

    Now I am not saying anything about whether I am healthier being “normal” weight vs. “overweight”. I also enjoy working out more now than I did when I felt “too large” at the gym, so as a result I get more exercise. All I am saying is I feel much better and enjoy the fact that I can wear smaller clothing. I hope this post, and Loseit!, helps someone else do the same!

  20. John Plasterer says:

    Good article Erik,

    Weight loss is a matter of thermal dynamics and is a simple calculation of calories-in minus calories out. It’s pretty straight forward.

    What’s challenging is building a system to do it. What most “fad diets” do is create that system for you. Some create a system that is more healthy than others. In a way calorie counting, as you do it, is a system of keeping your count down.

    Also, building and maintaining muscle mass through the process of losing weight takes a little more planning. This is where paying attention to your exercise, frequency of meals and other items comes in.

    I’ve just lost 40 pounds through balanced meals of carbs, proteins and fats. I didn’t count calories per say but created meal portion sizes appropriate for my weight loss goals.

    Good work to you for pulling it off. Keeping it off will be hard as it’s likely tough counting calories for the rest of your life. So, make sure you come up with a system that will let you keep your calories off.

  21. Silverblaze says:

    Thanks Erik, You have no idea how much your article was a breath of fresh air! :-)

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  3. [...] Worried about gaining weight this holiday season but not wanting to get suckered by a weight-loss plan high in claims and low in evidence? How does a skeptic lose weight? Erik J. Davis writes about “How I Lost 40 lbs Doing Everything Wrong”. [...]

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  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis