Weight loss tips for geeks

I'm halfway through a big bet and I just weighed in at a tad over 210 pounds this morning, right on schedule for winning my bet. Getting down to 220lbs from 230 at the start of the year was easy, but the rest of the pounds were much harder. I'm now on a pretty good weight loss streak of a couple pounds per week with no end in sight. Different things work for different people but I thought I'd share what worked for me in the hopes that maybe one or more of these tips will help your own weight loss as well.

Read the Hackers Diet

A good starting point is reading the bible for geek weight loss: The Hacker's Diet. It's a simple free book you can get a copy of online and read on almost any device. It's pretty basic stuff, talking about how food equals calories equals pounds and how to count and curb calories while exercising to further your calorie deficit. The book does a great job of laying out a simple engineering approach that doesn't concern itself with what foods you eat or how you prepare them or even what exercise you choose to do, it's all just simple math on how to make small changes to lose a pound or two a week to meet your goal and maintain your ideal weight. The only downside to the book is that it was written a long time ago and you should ignore all the mentions of spreadsheets and the screenshots of early Excel running in Windows 3.1 because thankfully there are iPhone apps and online apps that can keep track of your data much easier.

Weigh yourself every day, use a moving average to analyze it

I've heard many times in many places that you shouldn't live and die simply by the scale and that you should instead plot your daily weight on an average curve that smoothes out the daily fluctuations in weight. I never had the patience to do this until recently but now that I have I fully understand the benefits.

It's also important to limit your variables by taking your weight at around the same time every day, with the same scale, under similar conditions. I do this every morning right after I get up. I usually pee, get undressed completely, and take my weight. I've been doing this for almost a year and I used to get depressed easily if I happened to shoot up a few 10ths of a pound one day. It wasn't until I switched to a moving average that I started to see the light. It takes a couple weeks to get enough data points but trust me that it is worth it.

There are many explanations of why one would use a moving average, but I'll just say that it covers your weight trends and lessens the daily fluctuations. This means if you drop 0.1 pounds every day for a week then one morning you weigh in at one full pound heavier than the previous day, your entire week wasn't shot that morning because you'd still be trending downwards. If you stick to your plans you'll often see weight continue to go down even with the occasional hiccup.

After trying out several online tools and apps, I like physicsdiet.com the best. It gives a nice history graph and you can use the basic green-means-good, pink-means-bad to continue exercising and watching what you eat. Sometimes it can be frustrating if you suddenly lose a few pounds and your moving average still reads a pound or two higher than what the scale says, but having a slow moving average has done wonders for my happiness each day. An average weight loss trend removes a lot of the emotion from daily weigh-ins, in a good way.

Practice mindful eating

When I first started trying to lose weight I hit a plateau early on. I was doing more exercise but I wasn't losing any weight for months on end and it wasn't until I realized that I was eating larger meals to counteract the exercise that I solved the plateau problem.

Being mindful of your eating for me means a few things. First, I try to have small dinners, early in the evening. Secondly, at every meal and especially dinner I stop every few minutes while eating and take a quick assessment of how full I am feeling. In the past, I've pretty much just shoveled food into my mouth until a plate was cleared, but now I frequently have small light dinners with 14 hours or so before breakfast the next day, which really helps lower my daily calorie intake. Another quick tip came from somewhere deep in Ask MetaFilter: if you're presented with some large meal, rich food, or incredible looking dessert, ask yourself if you'll remember it two weeks from now. If the answer is yes, by all means go ahead and eat it and enjoy it and think back on how wonderful it was weeks from now. If the answer is no, put the fork down and go do something else.

Pick an exercise that doesn't feel like work

I know a lot of friends that have done the Body for Life thing have told me to not just try a diet and not just try a workout, but change your schedule permanently so you can do healthy things forever and it's true. My big win on losing weight was increasing my exercise but doing so with an activity I love to do (cycling). So it wasn't a chore to increase my weekly miles on a bike, it was a chance to spend more time doing something I loved. Even if you hate gyms, hate working out, hate running, hate cycling, and hate jumping rope, you have to find something physical you love to do in order to make it work. Once you find that exercise embrace it and use enthusiasm to help burn some extra calories.

Overall I'm really happy with my 20lbs lost since early this year and I'm looking forward to losing another 15lbs more before I try to stabilize my weight below 200lbs. A lot of it comes down to self-control — there are so many opportunities every day to gorge yourself on free office bagels, high calorie coffee drinks, and rich desserts that it's often hard to say no, but with good feedback and some clear goals it makes it much easier to say no.

32 Comments

  • Congratulations, and good advice. I especially like the “will you remember it in 2 weeks” guideline. Though, I am not sure I will remember today’s shower in 2 weeks, but I’m still going to take one because it makes me feel better ;)

  • Great advice, especially the “pick an exercise that doesn’t feel like work”. I’d also add “make it a part of your daily routine”. I was mountain biking for a while, and lost a lot of weight. Then life got in the way, and I put most of it back on. So now I’ve started riding part way into work, which forces a routine, and has the added benefit of making my workday suck a little less.

  • I’d be interested to hear your opinions on the iPhone apps you referred to. There really are a lot of them so I’m having a tough time choosing one.

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Matt. To put your weight in perspective, would you share your height?

  • I’m 6’4″. My BMI will just start falling into the healthy range when I’m below 205 or so.

  • I tried using Weightbot for tracking weight but didn’t end up liking it because there was no data output (I prefer to have an online backup somewhere). There is a great calorie counting app called Lose It but I found calorie counting tedious because I wasn’t eating any prepared or packaged foods that were in the app’s database.

  • Great post, Matt. Congratulations on your progress! I agree, the moving average thing is key. What you care about is the trend, not how much extra water you retained last night because you ate something salty.
    PhysicsDiet.com is a great site but it desperately needs a Web 2.0 design facelift. The other thing I found helpful is the iPhone app “Lose It!”. It’s a free calorie counter app with a big database. Makes it very easy to understand what you’re eating.

  • This is very useful, thanks. I plugged my data for April-July into physicsdiet.com and now have a much better sense of the trend.

  • I ended up using Wolfram Alpha for this- it not only has a ton of nutritional information on specific foods, but it can combine all your ingredients into a standard-issue nutritional label, like so. Tracking nutrition along with calories was an interesting exercise, too- it’s much harder to get 100% of everything the FDA says I should while staying at or under my RDA, not to mention while trying to lose weight. I take back every joke I ever made about nutrition majors.

  • (and boy oh boy, did I wish I had access to those numbers through a feed. would have saved me a a few hours a week.)

  • Ah, that reminds me that I’ve got a couple of months of hand-written data to plug into PhysicsDiet. It’s so freaking simple that the functionality trumps the ugly(ish).
    I’ve been fighting off a very slow upward creep since midwinter after dropping 60 pounds starting in spring 2007. I think I lost track of the mindful eating thing. (Stress-eating seems to have come back into my life lately, too!) This should serve as a good reminder.
    And agreed about exercise you like. (Also, need to go enter data into We Endure.) Having that 10 miles a day to look forward to makes it easy to get the exercise I really, really, really need.

  • Matt, some great advice here, but if you are waiting 14hrs between dinner and breakfast you should correct that to keep your metabolism ticking over. A lean snack before bed will not hurt and will prevent your body thinking it’s being starved which is a danger when left 14hrs without any food. One of the best lifestyle changes which can aid weight loss is a switch from 3 large-ish meals to 6 smaller meals spread evenly throughout the day, including early morning and late at night, fuelling your body at regular intervals. This is not easy to integrate into a busy lifestyle, but a late night meal is simple enough to take care of.
    Great progress so far, and good luck on completing your goals!

  • Another surprising tip: Develop an obsession about not having food particles sticking around on your teeth. A full brushing soon after each meal helps reduce snacking.

  • Great article, Matt. And just to let you know that Weightbot now lets you export your data and hopefully they will add more functionality too:
    http://tapbots.com/blog/weightbot/weightbotcom-reset-password-and-export-data/

  • #1 for me is exercise more.
    #2 is eat less, following these simple rules:
    Skip snacks, it’s OK to be a little hungry
    Skip soda, “energy” drinks, bottled water
    Substitute tap water or juice
    Skip beer, wine and liquor
    Substitute tap water or juice
    Skip crackers, chips, popcorn
    Substitute fruit

  • I’ve been using the free weight charts at http://www.myweightracker.com with good success. It’s based off the Hacker’s Diet that you mention but with a moderately different smoothing algorithm to reduce the lag introduced by the moving average. The site doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but it works well for what I need.

  • FatWatch for the iPhone is a pretty literal translation of John Walker’s original “Eat Watch” app for the Palm. You can export data out of it using a little HTTP server it runs.

  • Matt,
    Nice article, but be weary of using your BMI as a measure of your progress. Body fat percentage is a much more sensible benchmark. To put it into perspective, when I was 215 at 10% bodyfat, my BMI was technically that of an “overweight” person. This will especially hold true if one is a mesomorph.

  • Like the article said, you can weigh at the same time and wait for data to pile up. Or you can indulge your inner compulsive and weigh yourself several times per day. (If you think of having a brownie, weigh yourself first.)
    The data points add up quickly and the ‘noise’ averages out quickly. I created a spreadsheet with linear and polynomial best fit to see how my weight was trending.

  • What worked immediately for me was eating only 50-100 carbs a day and increasing my protein to 60 gs a day (5’4″ 130 pound woman) also eating more correct oils (mostly olive oil) and nuts. I lost 10 pounds (all I needed to lose) over 2 months and have kept if off. I dance for exercise, its easy, I don’t have to go anywhere and I love music.

  • I took up karate. Dropped 40 lbs and had lots of fun doing it. I’ve been training now for six years. The point is, it feels a whole lot less like a workout when you’re having fun. Find an activity you like and go for it.

  • My friend has started using the Fit Blog section of his profile page to track his weigh ins. He then bounces his daily weight against the number of calories he burns either from running/cycling a route or from doing an gym workout (uses the quick entry app). See if you like it. http://www.fivi.com

  • Sounds like great advice, Matt. I’ve lost about 28 pounds since March 1 with similar methods. What’s I’ve been doing is:
    –Eating almost no cheese, sweets, meats, and oils (it is kind of a mantra when I say it repeatedly). I do eat some but we’re talking a light dusting of cheese, a single cookie, a few crumbly bits of sausage in a sauce, and whatever little oil is needed to stop food from sticking to a pan.
    –Really paying attention to fat on the nutrition labels, ignoring fat-related or health-related claims on the food packaging. (I scorn those “healthy” granola mixes that are 18% of your daily recommended fat intake per serving.)
    –Taking only one piece/helping/serving to start and then no seconds.
    –Drinking only water and black tea.
    –Not eating my toddler son’s leftovers (the little wastrel).
    –Avoid situations in which I have to eat in restaurants or have less control over my diet.
    –Few snacks except no-fat Wasa-style crackers, then just one.
    Where we differ is that I haven’t added any kind of exercise at all and that I do weigh myself everyday. I’ve been at it long enough and have seen good enough results that if my weight plateaus or even rises for a week or more, I don’t feel particularly glum. I just adopt a new resolve, watch my diet a little more closely, and move on.

  • http://blog.360.yahoo.com/douglascrockford?p=324
    Douglas Crockford (a geek!) has an excellent series of short observations that changed the way I thought about eating and nutrition.

  • As a stocky short guy, I hate BMI. I’m overweight, but BMI says I have to lose 1/3rd of my body mass to reach the healthy range. I’m pretty sure I’m more like 25 lbs overweight than 60.
    Other than its use of BMI, I’m really enjoying WiiFit. I try not to endorse new toys for weight loss, but it’s fun and educational in a way that other stuff hasn’t been for me. And Nike+ for aerobic exercise. :)

  • A vital tip for many geeks trying to lose weight is to BREAK THE SODA ADDICTION. If you’re a stereotypical computer geek who has a mug full of Coke on his desk or carries a bottle of Mountain Dew with him on a tech support run somewhere else in the building, you’re probably getting a pretty big percentage of your calories from it.
    Like breaking any addiction, it’s tough for a while, but if you can successfully make the switch to water, you’ll take a huge step toward reaching your weight goal.

  • My personal gain was made when I combined my video game playing and an exercise bike. I figured it was silly to just sit there when I could be doing something constructive. I got my first bike free via the local Freecycle list, and later upgraded for $30 via Craigslist. I’d get up in the morning and play for an hour or two and ride, ride more on the weekends, and sometimes in the evening.
    I stopped feeling guilty about playing video games because I was really exercising and just happened to be playing games at the same time.
    Doing that, I lost 30 pounds in a couple of months (starting from 185 which was overweight for my height) and have maintained ever since. I could probably do better if I changed my diet, but right now I don’t have to.
    The only problem is that good equipment gets expensive, and the cheap stuff goes bad pretty quickly with the use I was getting out of it. So far, though, I’ve gotten away with two free exercise bikes and the one $30 one and just a little elbow grease to maintain them as long as possible.
    So, I owe a lot of my weight loss to GTA IV!

  • I like the iPhone app from Livestrong — the site itself has a lot of ads/”advice” etc and is somehow connected with Lance Armstrong, but their Daily Plate has a pretty big database. It exports if you want,too, and can track exercise. One feature I like is that if you eat something frequently you can add your own “meals” (which can be any group of foods) and add them easily to your daily log any time you eat them after that.

  • One site I’m surprised to not see mentioned is SparkPeople (www.sparkpeople.com). It has a great food logger and fitness tracker, and can suggest workouts for you. What I like most about this site is its large database of informational and motivational articles – so anytime I’m feeling less-than-enthused about exercise (which is frequently), I read a few articles there and get fired up again.
    This site might not be as export-friendly as you need, though YMMV.

  • Install Lose It! Amazing iphone app in the app store. changed my life. Down 50 lbs since january.

  • Fantastic idea using W-A! Very resourceful.

  • It blows my mind people still try to loose weight without atkins.
    I dropped 35 lbs in about 6 weeks and had more energy than I’ve ever had in my life. I quit the diet completely by Thanksgiving, and it took me about 4 months to gain 10 lbs. back, just because the diet forced my body to think I was stuffed everytime I ate a few carbs, so I ate very little compared to life before the diet. I also lost that weight without doing any exercise, unless you count typing and mouse gestures!
    I know people who claim to suffer health problems or not much loose weight that quick, but everyone I’ve talked to was either inadvertantly not doing the diet right, blatently cheating, or not taking the right vitamens. The only time that sucks and actually makes you feel bad are the first two weeks while you break your carb addiction.
    To each his own I guess, I like taking the fasttrack without exercise.

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