How I Lost 40 Pounds in 4 Months at Age 40

Very short version: I lost 40 pounds in 4 months at age 40 though a combination of nutrition, exercise, shopping, psychology, and biochemistry.


Two-Minute Version

  • Less than 100 grams of carbohydrates on almost all days. Complex carbohydrates (like those found in whole grains) are better than simple sugars.
  • At least 50 grams of carbohydrates on most days. Carbohydrates are important for full brain activity.
  • Between 50 and 100 grams of protein per day, depending on the level of weight lifting (more protein when doing more weightlifting)
  • Low fat diet. Low-fat foods like lean meat, fish, dairy, edamame, and nuts (in low quantities) are fine to eat; but effort should focus on keeping fat intake very low.
  • Non-starchy, low-calorie vegetables should make up the majority of the food consumed.
  • Avoid deliciousness. Even low-calorie deliciousness can trigger cravings for high-calorie food.
  • Exercise. Weightlifting and high-intensity exercises can help the body burn fat faster but these anaerobic exercises should be done before (not after) cardio exercise. Cardio exercise can burn larger quantities of fat with less strain on the body’s muscles and joints (but requires more time).
  • Shopping: don’t buy unhealthy foods or foods that you’re going to want to over-eat.
  • Psychology: find ways to decrease the psychological cost and increase the psychological reward of weight loss. Find ways to flip your mentality about a “win” versus a “loss.”

Nutrition for Weight Loss

Proper nutrition is the main physical driver of weight loss. Exercise can, of course, induce weight loss as well, but it’s easier for most people to lose weight by better controlling food consumption. An average person must burn around 3,500 calories in body fat to lose a pound of body fat. To burn this many calories by exercise, you could walk 35 miles (around 10 hours) or ride a bike 100 miles (around 5 hours at an above-average pace). Alternatively, you could spend no additional time by simply consuming fewer calories. The body requires nutrients, including protein and carbohydrates; but a body with excess body fat does not need much food for energy, mostly for nutrition.

  • Low Carb, Very Low Fat

    Carbohydrates and fat are the body’s primary sources of energy from food. Both can easily turn into stored energy (body fat) if more carbohydrates and fat are consumed than what is necessary. If carbohydrates and fat are consumed simultaneously, it’s likely that the fat consumed will convert directly over to body fat. Any carbohydrates remaining after satisfying the body’s current energy needs will also be turned into body fat. On this diet plan, consume no more than 100 grams of carbohydrate per day. Consume very little fat per day. Fat from very lean meat (like poultry), fish, dairy, edamame, and nuts (in small quantities) are okay as long as the food is being consumed in nutritious quantities.

    Many digestible carbohydrates provide glucose (a simple sugar) to the body. The brain uses glucose in its normal function. The brain is able to maintain higher levels of activity and performance when it is able to process glucose instead of a substitute. For this reason, I recommend consuming at least 50 grams (but not too many grams) of carbohydrates per day. Complex carbs are preferred over simpler sugars.

  • High Quantity of Low-Calorie Vegetables

    A proper mix of vegetables can supply the body with a sufficient level of all of the necessary vitamins and minerals. If, however, you are rapidly losing weight and/or exercising a lot, you may need a nutritional supplement to maintain optimal health. You should strongly consider adding plant-based protein powder to your diet if you want to both: (i) stick exclusively to plants while on this diet plan, and (ii) lift weights as part of the exercise plan. Without a supplemental source of protein from meat, dairy, or a powder supplement, it may be difficult to get a sufficient level of protein to support building muscle as a result of weightlifting.

    Some ultra-low-calorie fruits are okay as well: tomato, eggplant, and even grapefruit can provide some valuable nutrition without giving too many calories from fructose (a simple sugar).

  • WATER!!!!

    Water provides so many important necessities for the body. Most importantly, water is the means of transportation in the body. Water also provides a necessary ingredient for many of the body’s processes. Exercise increases the body’s water requirement. Even without exercise, the recommended minimum amount of water for an adult male is around one gallon per day.

    Diets high in protein can increase the body’s water requirements. When protein is fully digested, it’s broken down into its building blocks: amino acids. Excess amino acids can be used to help satisfy the body’s energy requirements (or be turned into fat). To meet current energy demands or supply energy storage, the amino acids must first shed a nitrogen atom. These nitrogen atoms are released by the body in urine. So the more protein consumed, the more water leaves the body through urine instead of participating in other important body functions. When consuming high levels of protein, extra water should be consumed to compensate for the extra water leaving the body. Without sufficient water, the body becomes dehydrated and functions less efficiently. In addition, dehydration and the accompanying fatigue often trigger more intense food cravings.

    Whether you’re on a high-protein diet or not, water is definitely one of the most important ingredients to losing weight. First of all, water gives no calories to the body. Secondly, drinking water can help reduce the feelings of hunger so that the body consumes fewer calories from eating. Third, drinking water has a low enough flavor that it doesn’t trigger any craving for over-eating. Finally, water plays an important role in cooling the body and turning fat molecules into energy.

  • Protein

    With insufficient protein in the diet accompanying rapid or high levels of weight loss, the body can break down muscle tissue and even organ tissue as a source of energy. To prevent this and to allow the body to continue to build muscle during rapid weight loss, the body needs sufficient protein. Caution needs to be exercised with protein consumption, however, since high-protein diets can increase the risk of dehydration. In addition, some foods high in protein are also high in fat. Low-fat sources of protein include lean meat (like poultry), low-fat dairy (like plain Greek yogurt), and legumes (like edamame or beans). The recommended daily allowance of protein is around 50 grams. On this diet and exercise plan, I made sure that I consumed at least 50 grams of protein each day. Since I was also lifting weights and trying to build muscle, I consumed additional protein, usually around 100 grams of protein per day.

  • Carbohydrate Complexity

    Complex carbohydrates are strongly preferred on this diet than simple sugars. Complex carbohydrates provide a longer-term release, providing necessary glucose for the brain or other body requirements over a prolonged duration. Eating simple sugars increases the levels of insulin in the blood more than complex carbohydrates. Insulin effectively delivers glucose-based energy to the body where it’s needed, but insulin also shuts down the body’s processes for turning fat molecules into energy. If there is sugar in the blood stream, there is or will be insulin; and if there’s insulin, no fat molecules are being converted into energy. It’s important to keep blood sugar levels low. In addition, complex carbohydrates also provide less flavor, so the brain does not send as strong of a signal for a desire for over-eating. So eating complex carbohydrates instead of simple sugars often means that fewer calories will be consumed.

Exercise for Weight Loss

While diet alone can dramatically promote weight loss, exercise can significantly accelerate it. Furthermore, exercise has benefits beyond simply weight loss: optimal health comes from a combination of healthy diet and exercise.

  • Weightlifting and Other Anaerobic Exercise

    Weight training is effective at processing glucose-based molecules for energy, so weight training should be completed before any cardio exercise. Otherwise, the cardio exercise depletes the glucose-based energy stores, leaving less energy for weightlifting. In addition, weight training and other high-intensity exercise stimulates the production of several hormones that accelerate the process of converting fat molecules into energy. So weight training prior to cardio exercise can increase the feeling of energy available during the cardio exercise.

    In addition, weight training with sufficient protein in the diet can divert matter that we’ve eaten from contributing to energy needs to instead building muscle. Consuming around 100 grams of protein per day with weight training can add up to around a half of a pound of muscle per week to the body. Although adding muscle mass adds weight to the body, it doesn’t add fat to the body.

    Finally, weight training can help people on diet and exercise plans see visual results that can help provide motivation for continued success. Few things better motivate a person to continue on a chosen path than seeing that it’s a good path that leads where they want to go.

    When it comes to weight training and anaerobic exercise in general, it’s important to remember that the human body cannot use fat molecules to provide energy through the anaerobic respiration pathway. So if you feel as if you have less energy than normal during high-intensity or anaerobic exercise, it could be caused by a low availability of glucose. To have enough energy for intense anaerobic exercise while maintaining a low consumption of carbohydrates, give yourself more time to catch your breath and try to maintain a sufficiently low intensity of exercise that the vast majority of the time spent is without oxygen-depleted muscles. This inability to process fat molecules for anaerobic energy is another reason why weightlifting should be done before cardio exercise instead of after. While the body can (to a limited extent) recycle glucose that goes down the anaerobic pathway and while the body can produce glucose from many amino acids (protein building blocks) and glycerol (present in fat molecules), these are slow processes that typically occur during rest instead of during activity.

    On my exercise plan, I lifted weights three times per week with two sets for each lift. I kept the weights low to minimize risk of injury. To compensate for the lower weight, I completed a lot of repetitions. In addition to the weight lifting, I also completed an ab workout from the app “Six Pack in 30 Days” six times per week. Since I was completing workouts more than the 30 days provided by the app, I simply repeated the final six workouts from the app each week, Monday through Saturday.

  • Cardio Exercise (While Working)

    Cardio exercise is aerobic in nature. The energy demand is sufficiently low that all of the energy could come from fat molecules stored in the body. However, in practice, the body gets as much energy as it can from carbohydrate sources (or glycogen stores) rather than fat. So if you want to burn fat molecules to provide direct energy during cardio exercise, you need to avoid carbs in your diet and maintain fairly depleted levels of glycogen in your system.

    It’s definitely worth noting, however, that burning fat molecules to directly satisfy the energy needs during cardio exercise is not the only way in which cardio exercise can help. Even if cardio exercise simply uses glucose already in the blood along with glucose from the body’s glycogen stores, the exercise will still prevent the glucose from turning into fat. In addition, once the glycogen stores are depleted, the body will rely more heavily on fat molecules being metabolized for energy to satisfy the body’s energy needs at a later time.

    The most difficult aspect of cardio exercise for me is the time commitment. To help alleviate the time burden of cardio exercise, I leverage two key ideas. First, I save a good chunk of exercise until late evening after my younger kids have gone to bed (so that I don’t sacrifice as much time with my family for the sake of cardio exercise). Second, I use a stationary bike with a laptop stand so I can get work done while exercising. To be more productive in my work during exercise, I often have to set the resistance a bit lower so that I’m not using all of my energy to focus on exercise. Although this makes the cardio exercise drag on even longer for an equivalent distance (or calories burned), I am able to make much more efficient use of my time. With this lighter level of exercise to help with work productivity, I still maintain a heart rate of around 100 beats per minute (within my recommended window for fat burning). During my rapid weight loss, I relied heavily on cardio exercise to accelerate fat burning. My stationary bike registered a power of 170 watts for lighter workouts (like when I was working at the same time) and a power of 210 watts for moderate workouts. My exercise on the stationary bike during my rapid weight loss was roughly equivalent to biking 250 miles per week at a speed of just over 20 mph.

  • Physical Activity with Family

    I didn’t want my weight loss goal’s success to come at the cost of my family. By promoting fun activities that involve physical exertion, I could spend time with my family while advancing my weight loss goals. Sometimes just being together was enough. During many of my evening workouts, my oldest daughter would come watch a movie with me; and during some of my ab workouts, my 8-year-old son would come join me and have a blast doing the exercises (I think the plank was his favorite exercise). I hope that the active time I spend together with my family will help my children make healthy decisions in their lives.

Grocery Shopping to Promote Weight Loss

Resisting the urge to purchase unhealthy food is often easier than resisting eating/drinking it. In the grocery store, not only do we know that the unhealthy food will hurt our weight loss goals, but we also have to pay our hard-earned money for it. In other words, while in the grocery store, buying unhealthy foods damages our wallets in addition to our weight loss goals. Another cost that’s present at the grocery store that’s not usually present at home is that we often have to intentionally navigate to unhealthy foods; whereas we unavoidably come across unhealthy food (if it’s present in the home) at home every time we go anywhere near the kitchen.

  • What to Avoid

    A good rule of thumb is that you should avoid buying anything that, after a first serving, you’ll be strongly drawn to a second serving. Desserts and candy may be the obvious items to avoid; but it’s also very important to avoid high-calorie snacks and beverages. Beyond those, there’s a need to avoid purchasing high-calorie food items whether they are high in carbs or high in fat or both. Especially avoid purchasing unhealthy items that are easy to prepare and consume: after getting a single serving of unhealthy food, it needs to be difficult to get a second serving.

    In my household, we stopped buying chocolate chips. Prior to my diet and exercise plan, we would eat chocolate chips by the handful; and we would go through an entire Costco-sized bag of chocolate chips every week. We also changed our snack offering and availability. We stopped buying pistachios (high in fat). While some dietary fat from some sources may be nutritious in some situations, it’s easy to go overboard when tempted with the idea that something tasty is healthy when it’s really only healthy in small quantities. In addition, we dramatically slowed purchase of graham crackers. My 8-year-old son would frequently eat and leave out graham crackers, and I would often have one (or more) while putting them back in the cupboard. When I started my diet plan, we kept the graham crackers further out of reach; and we found that we didn’t really need to keep purchasing them from the store.

    In the grocery store, there are some aisles you should avoid altogether. The products on these aisles are like the sirens of the sea from mythology. They call to us and try to ensnare us in their traps. It’s best to stay away from these aisles as much as possible, especially if you’ve got kids with you in the cart. It’s hard enough to resist buying unhealthy food for ourselves – it’s even harder when there’s extra pressure from a child.

  • What to Buy

    Green vegetables are almost all low in both carbs and fat. They are an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals. Leafy greens (e.g., lettuce, spinach), broccoli, green beans, celery, asparagus, cucumber, and zucchini are all excellent choices, as are many others. Some green vegetables, like edamame, are low in carbs but have a decent amount of fat in them. Even edamame, however, is fine as long as it’s eaten within reasonable limits. The nutritional benefits of eating edamame likely outweigh the downside from the fat content, especially if you eat no more than a serving in any given day.

    Carrots are also low in both carbs and fat; but carrots have more carbs than most green vegetables, so they taste a little better plain. Fortunately, their carb content is low enough that they’re fine for this diet and exercise plan. I ate a lot of carrots during my months of rapid weight loss.

    Most fruits are too high in calories to eat a substantial serving while on this diet and exercise plan. That being said, small servings of fruit should be fine as long as they don’t trigger cravings for more food. However, there are some low-calorie fruits, including tomato and eggplant, that carry significant nutrition without many calories. Warning: tomato sauces (including ketchup) are not guaranteed to have few calories per serving – tomato sauces often have added simple sugars.

    Protein is an essential nutritional element in a healthy diet. The human omnivore’s protein requirements could be satisfied with low-fat meat products like poultry (e.g., turkey, chicken), fish, and plain Greek yogurt. Most legumes (beans) also contain a significant amount of protein without much fat. If you’re finding it difficult to satisfy your body’s protein requirements, you might consider a protein powder supplement. There are plant-based protein powders for those who prefer strictly plant-based diets. Most protein powder supplements use dairy as a major protein source, but some also use protein from eggs. If you care about where the protein comes from, make sure to check the packaging – the protein sources are clearly labeled on most products.

    For those who cannot stand the taste of much plain water, consider water flavoring powders and other zero-calorie beverages. Most of these products contain artificial sweeteners, but the health benefits of weight loss may exceed the health costs of consuming artificial sweeteners. If you want to strictly avoid artificial sweeteners, you may be able to find a suitable ultra-low-calorie water additive that can satisfy your water taste requirements.

    Finally, it’s important to remember that carbs are not prohibited on this diet. On the contrary, it’s important to maintain at least 50 grams of dietary carbs to provide some glucose to feed the brain. The important trick is to make sure the carbs don’t taste very good. I often heated plain rolled oats in water in the microwave to get my carb requirements for the day. Other products can accomplish the same thing – just make sure it doesn’t taste very good so that you won’t want more.

The Psychology of Weight Loss

Losing body fat through a combination of diet and exercise requires at least as much effort from the mind as from the body. In this section, I’ll present the psychological factors that helped me succeed in my weight loss goals.

  • Self-Awareness

    It’s much easier to lose weight if we know ourselves. If we understand our weaknesses, we can better avoid them. If we understand our strengths, we can adjust our plans to leverage their power. Cookies, ice cream, donuts, cake, candy, and chips are all potential weaknesses for any of us. For me, it’s relatively easy to avoid purchasing or preparing all of these. However, once they’re in my home, I have a difficult time resisting gooey cookies, ice cream, donuts, and some candy. The important step for me is to not bring these weaknesses into my home. Sometimes, however, my daughter bakes cookies or my wife buys ice cream or donuts. When this happens, I stay away from the desserts as much as possible or I ask my family to let me know when it’s down to the last serving.

    Another important aspect of self-awareness is the proper strategy for weight loss. I read online all over the place that the healthiest way to lose weight was slowly, around a pound per week. I learned that long-term weight loss wasn’t an effective strategy for me. I could lose a pound two weeks in a row and then gain two pounds the next week, netting zero pounds of weight loss over the three week period. So I had to ask myself, “Is it worse to lose weight quickly or to keep the weight on?” I decided the appropriate strategy for me was to lose weight quickly. I enjoy progress, and rapid progress is often much more enjoyable for me than slow progress. The rapid progress was enjoyable enough for me that the enjoyment from progress outweighed the cost of lost pleasure eating and effort lost in exercise. This may not be the case for you. You may have to be self-aware and find the strategy that helps you accomplish your weight loss target goal.

  • Loss Aversion, Risk Tolerance, and Time

    People love winning, but they hate losing more than they love winning. This is called loss aversion. Most people don’t take risks unless the perceived expected benefit is much higher than the benefit of the best sure thing. On the other hand, most people will gladly take a gamble if there’s enough of a chance of not losing. So when there’s a possible benefit, we prefer to avoid risks; and when there’s a possible loss, we seek risks to avoid an otherwise-guaranteed loss. This may seem complicated and unrelated, but it’s worthwhile knowledge and directly related to weight loss. One last piece: risks and gains/losses are sometimes complicated by time.

    With weight loss, we often feel a guaranteed immediate cost with an uncertain future reward. We can view missing out on desserts as a cost, missing out on more carbs or high-fat foods as a cost, exercise as a cost. And are we really sure exercise and a low-energy diet will make our lives better down the road? Even if we’re sure that exercise and a nutritious balanced diet make lives better for people on average, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be true for me.

    For successful weight loss, we need immediate rewards to counter any immediate losses. A delayed chance at a better life is not usually enough motivation. Every single tool remaining in this section on psychological success factors attempts to reduce the perception of immediate loss, increase the perception of immediate reward, or change the perspective on the identity of costs and rewards.

  • A Great Reason

    In the movie “The Princess Bride,” Wesley sobs in misery as a new form of torture removes years from the end of his life. For most people, this is a very ineffective form of torture. Most people would be much more worried about the immediate pain associated with the torture than about the loss of 5 years at the end of life. The fact that Wesley experiences such misery tells exactly how much each future moment with his precious love means to him.

    Adding unnecessary body fat from over-eating and under-exercising may give the sensation of a short-term reward at the expense of some uncertain loss of time at the end of our lives. We need a great reason to lose extra body fat, avoid over-eating, and maintain healthy levels of exercise. Your great reason could be something that increases the perceived benefit of losing weight or decreases the perceived cost of losing weight.

    I lost weight to help save my country. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I was taught that one reason for JFK’s popularity was his good looks. He may have won a presidential election because he was more physically attractive than his opponent. I’m a candidate to represent Utah in the United States Senate. I have worked for decades to get the life that I’m currently living, and I would much rather enjoy my life than serve as senator. However, the pains of seeing my country dive deeper and deeper into chaos are too great. If I’m willing to give up the joys of my current lifestyle, then it’s really not too difficult to imagine losing 40 pounds to increase my odds of victory. I have a great reason to lose weight and keep it off (especially since my opponent has been gaining weight).

  • Anchors

    Anchors prevent boats from straying too far from the point at which they are anchored. This idea from psychology may be one of the most dominant causes of the “set point” observation in weight loss. Many people observe that it’s difficult to lose more than a few pounds of excess body fat. One of the most important actions in losing weight is to adjust our psychological anchors.

    Often, we set the wrong anchor in our weight-loss goals. Some set their anchor at their current weight, and then it is difficult for them to lose more than a few pounds before returning to their “set point,” or their anchor. Others set the anchor at the end weight goal and then get frustrated with slow progress or distance from the anchor. Once frustrated and discouraged, it’s easier to give up on the end goal.

    The best anchors are usually either focused, within reach, and lead to progress or they are broad, within reach, and require progress. Here are some good anchors:

    • Every day, weigh less than I did a week (or two weeks) prior
    • Consume no more than 100 grams of carbs per day
    • Complete a minimum of 45 minutes of quality exercise per day
    • Consume no more than 20 grams of fat per day
    • Don’t buy desserts or snacks at the grocery store
    • Feel legitimate physiological (not just mental) hunger before eating
    • Eat mostly non-starchy vegetables
    • Drink at least a half gallon of water each day

    Sometimes anchors need to be adjusted. The more body fat we lose, the more difficult it is to lose the next pound of body fat at the same pace. If we are adjusting our anchors because we’ve made a lot of progress, that’s a good sign. Planning on adjusting our anchors can help us overcome the “drop in the bucket” mentality, or the idea that small actions and little choices never make a difference in the long run. By incrementally changing our anchors, we can eventually accomplish great feats.

    Anchors help to flip the identity of “wins” and “losses” in weight loss. While we often see missing out on food as a “loss,” appropriate anchors helps change it to an accomplishment, a “win,” a “victory.”

  • Food Selection

    When shopping and preparing food, don’t buy or prepare food you’ll want to over-eat. If you do buy or prepare something you’ll over-eat, make sure you only buy/prepare a small serving. Alternatively, wait until others have consumed all but the last portion and then eat the last serving. Saying “no” to a food you really want is difficult. Saying “no” to a second serving of a food you really want is often even more difficult. A guaranteed way of battling this human tendency is to refrain from buying and preparing highly desirable food.

    Eating something delicious triggers a response in the brain to eat more deliciousness. Ironically, over-eating something delicious doesn’t necessarily satisfy the brain. The primal purpose of eating is to acquire energy and nutrients for proper body function. If we have excess body fat, we do not need to ingest carbohydrates or fats for the energy side of proper body function. Since there’s a strong correlation between taste and energy content, avoiding over-eating is often correlated with avoiding taste. Salt and spices are an exception to this correlation, but even eating delicious low-fat and low-carb foods can trigger the brain’s desire for more deliciousness. If you’re really committed to losing excess body fat, don’t eat for your brain – eat for better body function instead. Eating for the body instead of the brain helps to decrease the perception of a “loss” when we turn down unhealthy foods. The further away we stay from the unhealthy (but often delicious) food, the less its absence is noticed.

  • Habits

    Healthy habits can help flip the identity of costs and rewards. Missing a day of a habit hits us as a “loss.” Those with an exercise habit feel less accomplished or feel that something was missing from their day if they didn’t exercise. Streaks and records can amplify this effect. If we have a healthy habit streak or a healthy habit record, breaking the streak or not continuing to break the record is a “loss.” Focusing on healthy habit streaks can also help reduce the “drop in the bucket” mentality: one day of exercise may not mean a ton, but a streak of 20 consecutive days means a lot more in our minds.

    Healthy habits can come in the form of proper eating, exercise, or anything that doesn’t involve the consumption of unhealthy food (like a hobby). It’s important to have a habit of staying busy at home or locations where food is near. Eating out of boredom is a danger that is easily defeated if we have a habit of being busy with better things.

  • Social Support

    Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a tremendous example of what can be accomplished with the right steps and support. Many of the lessons of battling alcoholism have their equals in weight loss, and a person trying to lose excess body fat can make a great deal of progress simply by translating AA strategies and methods over to weight loss. AA provides a great example of social support.

    Friends and family can provide encouragement and an important check on progress. Support from others helps to flip the identity of a “win” and a “loss” during weight loss. A public “win” is achieved with progress towards the target destination. Conversely, a public “loss” is experienced when we fail to make progress towards the target. Support from family members living in the same household is very important – they may need and be willing to sacrifice some of their unhealthy habits to help you accomplish your goals. When I started my weight loss plan, my wife stopped buying chocolate chips from the grocery store; and when she did buy snacks I would want, she and the kids would keep them hidden from me.

    Small groups (i.e., 2-5 people) all working together to lose excess body fat can be a very effective form of social support. Seeing others succeed at their goals helps reassure us that it can be done and that the progress is worth the small sacrifices. If the group is too large, the feeling of personal investment in the group’s success is diminished.

  • Sunk Costs

    Imagine you’ve paid a friend $100 up-front to help you lose excess body fat. Now imagine you have an identical twin who will be receiving the same help from your friend for free. Who do you think would be more successful at losing excess body fat, you or your identical twin? You could argue that, from a weight loss perspective, it really shouldn’t matter that you paid $100 and your twin paid nothing. After all, neither of you has to pay anything for the same services going forward. However, psychologically, you and your imaginary twin are in very different circumstances. If you don’t accomplish your weight loss goals, you’re down $100 and you’ve got nothing to show for it. If your twin does not accomplish their weight loss goals, they’ve lost nothing. The $100 paid up-front is called a “sunk cost.”

    The point is this: incurring sunk costs can help flip the identity of “wins” and “losses.” Exercise in the morning helps establish a “sunk cost” for the day: if we over-eat or eat unhealthy after exercising, we lose out on the weight loss that we already paid for. Purchasing fitness equipment provides a sunk cost: if we don’t use the equipment we purchased, we’ve just wasted that money. Pre-paying for each month’s gym membership is a sunk cost: if we don’t visit the gym enough, we’ve wasted money.

  • Ownership

    “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” - Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

    The feeling of ownership increases both the perceived cost of failure and the perceived reward of success. If we feel like we “earned” and now “own” a pound of weight lost per week, we’re hesitant to give up ownership of that accomplishment we’ve earned. So we’ll work hard to maintain ownership of the accomplishment: another pound of weight lost next week. If we feel like we’ve earned and now own a total of 10 pounds of lost weight, we will work harder to keep that weight off. Conversely, if we feel like we “own” the failure of gaining weight for the week or the failure to stick to our weight loss strategy, we will work hard to shed ownership of that failure. We own our choices and our actions.

  • A Much Lesser Evil

    It’s often easier to choose to avoid a very poor choice by making a choice that’s less poor. For weight loss, there are very often “lesser evils” that we can choose instead of the “greater evils” that normally cause weight loss failure. During my weight loss streak, my “lesser evil” was diet caffeinated soda. Many people have warned me about the hazards of artificial sweeteners in diet soda; and I was raised in a household where caffeinated soda was considered a “lesser evil.” I consider both artificial sweeteners and caffeinated soda a “lesser evil” than carrying around 40 pounds of excess body fat. When I got a nearly irresistible craving for something unhealthy, I instead reached for the diet caffeinated soda.

The Biochemistry of Weight Loss

The human body is an amazing scientific achievement that we may never fully understand. We do, however, understand some important chemistry that is relevant for losing body fat.

  • What is Body Fat?

    Body fat is tissue (adipose tissue) made primarily from cells (adipocytes) that contain droplets (lipid droplets) of molecules of carbon and hydrogen called triglycerides. Each fat molecule is a combination of three fatty acid molecules and a glycerol molecule that have joined together to create a single larger molecule. The fat molecules wait to be used to power body functions. Fat molecules are turned into carbon dioxide and water through a series of chemical reactions. All of the carbon atoms from fat molecules get turned into carbon dioxide, and all of the hydrogen atoms from fat molecules get turned into water.

  • How Fat is Burned and Leaves the Body

    As mentioned above, the carbon from fat molecules gets converted to carbon dioxide, and the hydrogen from fat gets converted into water. This overall reaction sequence could be called lipid degradation. Water from the metabolism of fat molecules is used by the body or leaves the body by evaporation, urination, or defecation. Carbon dioxide leaves the body either through exhalation (i.e., breathing out) or through urination (after reacting with ammonium to produce urea). The means by which carbon dioxide departs the body has important consequences: if an activity accelerates the rate of respiration, it means that activity is burning energy faster in the body.

  • How to Accelerate Fat Burning

    Heavy exercise burns energy faster than light exercise; so if you have very limited time, pack it with intense exercise (without injury). High intensity exercise can push the body beyond the limits of aerobic respiration. If necessary, available glucose goes through the anaerobic respiration pathway, helping to deplete glucose levels and triggering a need for the burning of fat (in addition to glucose) via aerobic respiration. Once available glucose is consumed, however, cardio exercise of a longer duration can burn a greater total number of calories from body fat.

    Besides just the type of exercise, the food consumed impacts the speed of fat burning. Insulin, a hormone released when the body detects sugar in the blood, brings the body’s fat burning processes to a screeching halt. To keep the rate of fat burning as high as possible, it’s important to refrain from consuming carbohydrates close to the time of exercise. Even digesting protein can cause a measurable rise in insulin levels; so it’s best to simply refrain from eating anything with calories close to (or during) exercise if your desire is to burn body fat.

    Other hormones in the body can also slightly accelerate the rate at which fat is oxidized and energy is supplied to the body. Several of these hormones are released during weightlifting and other intense exercises. When glucose is not available as an energy source, the body does its best to provide as much energy as possible through the oxidation of fats via aerobic respiration.

  • Biochemical Appetite Control

    Insulin released by the body when consuming carbs (and protein to a lesser extent) can actually increase the feeling that more food is needed. To better control appetite, adjust the diet to prefer more complex carbohydrates when additional carbs are needed. Digesting complex carbohydrates does not have as high a rise of insulin levels; so appetite is more easily managed.

    Taste also triggers the release of hormones that trigger increased appetite. As unpleasant as it is, biochemistry is on your weight loss team when you eat tasteless foods. The better your food tastes, the more biochemistry becomes your weight loss enemy.

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