Published 31 July 2014. Video added 27 November 2016.
We all know that being overweight has many health risks, particularly heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
However overweight people are also less successful. If you look at successful corporate executives, or at lawyers and accountants in the upper echelons of the professions, fat people can be found but they are a minority.
Part of the explanation will be that being overweight often leads to ill health, and ill health inhibits success. However my impression is that even healthy overweight people are less likely to succeed than healthy people who are not overweight. It is of course relative, as I am aware that I had a successful career at PwC despite being overweight as mentioned below.
On this page I explain why I reduced my weight over the last year by about 25% and how I did it without spending a penny on special diets or advice.
On 20 November 2016 I gave a presentation to the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester on how to reduce your weight. I presented the same points I write about lower down on the page. You can watch it below.
A year ago, I had an adverse finding during my annual medical.
While PricewaterhouseCoopers’s internal affairs are confidential, the Senior Partner Ian Powell has authorised me to disclose the following information regarding my former firm.
PwC, like many large organisations, requires senior personnel to have regular medical examinations. Until about a decade ago, the policy for partners was that partners in their fifties were required to have a medical annually, partners in their forties every two years, and partners in their thirties every three years. While the results of medical examinations are confidential to the individual partner, a copy is also sent to the firm’s external Chief Medical Advisor (CMA).
The CMA concluded that the medicals were picking up so many potentially serious conditions at an early stage that he advised PwC to make an annual medical mandatory for all partners, even those in their thirties. Since this would involve the firm changing the rules governing partners, the matter came before the Supervisory Board (of which I was a member) for ratification. That is why I know about it.
When I retired, I was no longer eligible for medicals paid for by PwC, but I have continued having an annual medical with the same doctor (for continuity) at my own expense.
I am also acutely conscious that about a decade ago one of my brothers-in-law died of his first heart attack at the age of 48. He was unaware that he had ischemic heart disease; something that I am sure a stress ECG as I have in my annual medical would have identified.
I have long been aware that people of Asian ethnicity appear to have a genetic predisposition to type 2 diabetes. However my own fasting blood glucose readings have always been within the normal range, until July 2013. That month my medical showed that my fasting blood glucose was on the borderline between impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes. A re-test a couple of weeks later found the same result, so it was not an aberrant measurement.
Suddenly the risk of developing type 2 diabetes was no longer a theoretical possibility.
I was generally aware that being overweight was a contributory factor to the development of type 2 diabetes and that exercise was generally a good thing. My doctor referred me to an article “Prevention of type 2 Diabetes Mellitus by changes in lifestyle among subjects with impaired glucose tolerance”.
The paper shows that weight loss and increased exercise are independent factors in slowing the development of type 2 diabetes. Obviously both together are better than achieving only one. I have reproduced what I regard as the key conclusions below:
“The average amount of weight lost was not large, yet the difference between the incidence of diabetes in the intervention group and that in the control group was substantial. The low odds ratio for diabetes among those who lost at least 5 percent of their initial weight reveals the importance of even a relatively small reduction in weight in the prevention of diabetes.
Our counseling regarding physical exercise included components designed to improve both cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle strength. Achieving a relatively conservative target of more than four hours of exercise per week was associated with a significant reduction in the risk of diabetes in the subjects who did not lose weight. It is likely that any type of physical activity — whether sports, household work, gardening, or work-related physical activity — is similarly beneficial in preventing diabetes. Many subjects with impaired glucose tolerance are both obese and inactive, and therefore we would expect to find a dose–response relation between the correction of these multiple risk factors and reductions in the risk of diabetes.”
Accordingly I set out to reduce my weight. (I avoid the term “lose weight.” Many years ago I attended a presentation by Anthony Robbins, who made the point that losing things is normally inadvertent. If you “lose” weight, you might find it again! The word “reduce” emphasises conscious choice.)
Click on the thumbnail graph for a larger size high resolution graph which opens in a new tab.
The blue line is daily weight, the brown line is the 10-day moving average.
On holidays it was not possible to record my weight. Excel interpolates for the gap, as shown by the blue line. However it does not interpolate for the calculation of the moving average, so the brown line become inaccurate for those periods.
In July 2013 I weighed 87 kg. The normal range for the Body Mass Index (BMI) for both men and women is from 18.5 - 25.0, so the mid-point is a BMI 21.75. (Your BMI is your weight measured in kilogrammes divided by the square of your height measured in metres.)
I decided that I would reduce my weight until my BMI was 21.75, which required my weight to become 63.5 kg. I achieved it last week.
I weigh myself every day and write down the date and the weight. As my time is split between Manchester and London, I have a piece of paper in each home. To keep the data together and with me, I type it into Excel. That makes it very easy to draw a daily weight graph as shown by the blue line. As the daily weight graph is quiet jagged, I also used Excel to draw a graph of the 10-day moving average which is the brown line. I am pleased by how consistent the slope of the brown line has been; as I have now reached my target, the brown line should flatten out.
My goal for the future is to keep my weight at 63.5 kg +/- 1.5 kg, i.e. within the range 62 kg – 65 kg, since keeping one’s weight exactly constant is clearly impossible. Up to this update I have achieved that without serious difficulty.
I have found that taking control of my weight has also had peripheral benefits. As you take control of one aspect of your life, that extra mental discipline helps with other aspects of your life.
I am now more rigorous about how I manage my diary to limit wasted travel time, how I deal with "difficult" tasks, and have even tackled my filing backlog!
I was determined that any changes I made had to be sustainable. This ruled out dramatic increases in exercise such as going to the gym several times per week or special foods. Instead without eating special foods, I needed to reduce my calorie intake.
I also realised that I needed to accept occasional feelings of hunger. All my life I have disliked feeling hungry; so much so that in the past I have sometimes eaten preemptively in case I otherwise felt hungry later.
A "calorie" is the amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 gramme of water by one degree centigrade. That is a very small amount of energy.
Accordingly the energy content of food is normally stated in "kilocalories" abbreviated to "kcal". A kilocalorie is 1,000 calories, and also equals the amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kg of water by one degree centigrade.
Calories are a measure of the energy content that food releases as a result of chemical processes in your body. Every time you eat or drink, you are taking in calories.
What happens to the calories that you take in?
This is shown diagrammatically below.
Some people metabolise energy faster than others. I have a friend who is always slender no matter how much food she eats! While she might not survive well in the event of a famine, she is better suited to an environment of plentiful food, as in the UK.
However regardless of the speed of your metabolism, the basic science that losing weight requires you to consume fewer calories than your body uses remains irrefutable.
The NHS Choices website states that:
“Within a healthy balanced diet, a man needs around 10,500kJ (2,500kcal) a day to maintain his weight. For a woman, that figure is around 8,400kJ (2,000kcal) a day.
These values can vary depending on age and levels of physical activity, among other factors.”
I am a bit sceptical about the above figures, and consider that they are probably applicable to men who undertake manual work. For a man who is sedentary, my guess is that 2,000 kcal per day would probably result in a steady weight. Accordingly I set out to reduce my calorie intake significantly below that level.
Trial and error would tell me whether my calorie intake was consistent with losing weight or stabilising my weight.
This was accomplished simply by re-engineering my diet to reduce the number of calories in each meal. Each day I kept a running total in my head of how many calories I had consumed in each meal. Initially I estimate that I was eating about 1,500 kcal per day, which I later reduced to about 1,200 kcal per day by making some further changes in what I ate.
I believe strongly in having three meals each day, but limited my eating between meals. Critically, because at times I want to nibble something, I kept a supply of very low calorie food to hand that I could nibble without having to worry about its contribution to my daily calorie total.
I realised from the very beginning that I would have to reconcile myself to feeling hungry occasionally. This happened particularly late in the evening when my daily calorie budget had been used up. Nibbling low calorie food as mentioned above helped. With the passage of time, hunger pangs have become quite rare.
Food choice is an entirely personal decision. Accordingly I believe it would not help to share my own food choices. Each person can choose for themselves what to eat; they only requirement is to control your total daily calorie intake.
It is also essential for each person to spend some time learning for themselves about the calorie content of the foods that they like eating.
It was important for me to maintain a varied and nutritionally balanced diet.
There is no relationship between whether food is “healthy” or “unhealthy” and whether you gain or lose weight. Weight gain or loss is entirely a matter of total calorie intake, and of course calories used.
Much of the food that I eat comes in packaged form from supermarkets. Each tin or each packet states clearly how many kcal are in each 100g or each 100ml of the food item. Accordingly for most things that I ate, finding out how many calories were in the food was straightforward.
It is more complicated with food that does not come pre-packaged. I found a nutritional scale invaluable. This is a kitchen scale that contains extra electronics and a numeric keypad. After putting a certain amount of potatoes (say) on the scale to ascertain their weight, you use the code book that comes with the scale and look up the code for potatoes, say 423. Type 423 into the keypad, press the KCAL key, and the display shows the number of kcal in the potatoes on the scale.
This was very informative in the early days of my diet, and my wife and I learned some surprising things about the calorie content of certain foods. My wife cooks curry for me. By measuring the total number of calories that went into the cooking pot, and measuring how many meals worth of curry came out, we were able to compute the calorie content of the curry that I would consume in each meal.
The sidebox has details of the nutritional scale that I used. It was surprisingly cheap, and the only cash cost involved in reducing my weight. Quite quickly I learned the calorie content of the foods that I eat regularly. Accordingly our nutritional scale now rarely gets used. However in the early days of my diet it was invaluable.
When eating out I had far less information available. However my knowledge of the calorie content of different foods told me what I should avoid or limit, and what I could eat relatively liberally.
For example in formal dinners the dessert is often particularly high in calories. Instead of turning it away, which can be hard psychologically, when it comes I use a spoon to partition the dessert into two parts before I eat any of it. One part I am going to eat and one part I will leave on the plate.
I find that if I just start eating the dessert at one end, there is a terrible temptation to keep going rather than stopping part way! However if you subdivide the dessert first, it is quite easy to stop after eating only the piece you earmark for eating.
Similarly when faced with a buffet of Indian or Pakistani food, I know that some items in that buffet will be much higher in calories than other items. Accordingly I eat relatively large amounts of the low calorie items, so that my hosts do not feel insulted by my abstemiousness, while eating little or none of the high calorie items.
Exercise is of course very important for your health. For example the diabetes article mentioned above explains that exercise can help to delay the development of type 2 diabetes, even in the absence of weight loss.
However additional exercise played no material part in my own weight loss. The reason was that I wanted my weight control regime to be completely sustainable. While I could dramatically increase my gym attendance in the short run, I knew that I could not keep it up for the rest of my life. Accordingly I ignored exercise in formulating my weight loss plan, and concentrated entirely on calorie control.
That does not mean I avoided all exercise. In London I do a great deal of walking, and it has become my habit to walk as fast as I possibly can if I am walking alone. Also in the Underground I always walk down and up the escalators, instead of standing still.
Now that I have reached my target weight, I am taking steps to increase my exercise, but only in a sustainable manner.
Now that I have reached my target weight, I will simply increase my calorie intake, in small increments, until my weight is stable within the band 62 kg - 65 kg that I have set. If my weight is rising towards the top end of the band, my calorie intake will need reducing a bit; if it is falling towards the bottom end, my calorie intake will need increasing a bit.
It is conceptually no different from keeping a car going in a straight line by using the steering wheel.
Despite my previously having decades of failure behind me, losing the weight was actually very easy. All I had to do was simply keep going with my calorie control. The daily weighing gave me continuous feedback, and it was gratifying to see about 2 kg of weight disappear each month.
The arithmetic is quite simple. Since 1 kg of fat represents about 7,700 kcal, if you under-eat 500 kcal per day, after 15 days you will have under-eaten 7,500 kcal which represents about 1 kg of weight.
There were occasional days when it was not possible to adhere to the calorie budget. For example when my daughter’s wedding took place in an Indian restaurant. However the impact of breaking your diet for a day is unimportant provided you go back to the regular calorie budget the following day. There was no need to starve myself to “make up” for the extra calories eaten.
There is a whole industry out there that wants to make money out of your desire to lose weight, by selling you books, motivational tapes, special foods and weight control services.
None of that is necessary. All you need is the desire to lose weight, and the willingness to control your calorie intake.
I used mental arithmetic to keep a rough running total of my daily calorie intake. If you are not good at mental arithmetic, just write down the calorie value of each item you eat or drink during the day. That will be enough to tell you whether your calorie intake is consistent with losing, stabilising, or gaining weight.