I started trying to “lose weight” in 2012. Over the years I had varying degrees of success with my efforts, but it always ended in burnout and regaining what I lost (and sometimes even more).
Starting in 2021 I decided I was going to stop aiming for a generic “lose weight” goal, but instead to keep at it by trial and error until I was in optimal health. I’m not there and probably won’t be for some time, but I’ve come a long way and am not looking back.
Here are 26 lessons I’ve learned along the way – some by experience, most by good advice gleaned from countless sources.
Some might help you, some might seem totally stupid, and some might not work for you at all. If any one of them helps a single person, then I’ll consider this post worth writing.
1. Resistance training
I believe no matter who you are and almost at every age, resistance training is great for you. Obviously for the young and the elderly some modifications have to be made, but don’t let that stop you from gaining the benefits of increased musculature. Especially for men, it’s good for us to use the strength God built us to achieve.
Be smart, be reasonable, but don’t forget to push yourself. You’re not just pushing up a weight, you’re pushing up the ceiling on your limitations. The physical and mental health benefits of that are enormous. (If you want to get serious about it, I recommend a $5 subscription BowTiedOx’s blog to give you all the info you need from beginner to expert.)
2. Cardio matters, but don’t kill yourself with it
Every so often it’s good to burn yourself out. I end every week with some hill sprints that leave me barely able to stand up. But overall, you need very little of that level of intensity in your cardio. I hate running, so other than that one short workout, I don’t. Most of the time your cardio can be little more than an uphill walk at a decent pace. Google “Zone 2” if you’re not familiar, and put in the time.
3. Mouth tape
Sounds weird, works great. If your nasal passages are clear, put a strip of tape over your mouth before bed to ensure nose breathing. You’ll have deeper, more restful sleep.
4. Actually go to sleep
You don’t need me to tell you the importance of getting enough sleep, especially before midnight. You just need to do it. Set a timer for 10 or 10:30 and when it goes off, your night is over. Put the phone away and go to bed. (I still struggle with this one the most.)
5. Put your phone in another room
Speaking of phones, don’t put it anywhere near your bed. You’ll fall asleep better and wake up better if you don’t have it within reach while lying down and getting up. Get a cheap alarm to put by your bed instead.
6. The snooze button no longer exists
As alluring as it is, that extra 10 minutes only makes you more tired. What’s more, consider the psychological effects. Getting out of bed is your first task of the day – do you really want to procrastinate on the very first thing you have to do every day? What kind of precedent does that set? It’s not worth it.
7. Get a first 10 minute morning routine
How do you avoid the snooze? Remove decision making from the first 10 minutes of your day. Know exactly what comes next after the alarm. For me it’s bathroom->weigh->get dressed->drink water. By that time I’m too alert to crawl back in bed and I’m all set to leave for a workout. (And, again – don’t touch your phone at this time of day.)
8. Sun is great for you – just be smart with it
As a fair-skinned redhead I spent years hiding from the sun. But the sun is a vital factor in good health, and being out in it feels incredible. You just need to build up to longer and longer exposure, and be careful to not overdo it.
Getting into the less harsh morning and evening sunlight for 15-30 minutes should be a goal, especially now that the weather is improving. (Don’t be in it long enough or exposed enough to need sunscreen.)
9. Count your steps – to be active, not to hit a number
7,000 steps a day should be your baseline target. Every phone has a step counter now so you don’t even need to spend any money to start here.
However, while there are great benefits to going on a long walk, it’s not ideal to do 6500 steps at once and then 500 the rest of the day. Try to get regular breaks to move around for 5-10 minutes, especially if you have a desk job.
10. Calorie counting – just do it
Again, apps are cheap or free. Calculate your TDEE online (google it), figure out if you need deficit (~500 under TDEE), surplus (a few hundred over), or maintenance (equal), and start counting.
Get a food scale, measure your portions, and count everything that goes in your body. Not just foods, but drinks, sweeteners, cooking oils, sauces, handfuls of snacks – all of it.
Maybe you won’t need this step forever, but you won’t believe how illuminating it is when you get a feel for the caloric content of different foods. You don’t know what you don’t know, and there’s only one way to learn.
11. Raw milk, raw egg yolks, raw honey
Yeah, yeah, it sounds weird. But grab a pint of vanilla Haagen Dazs, look at the ingredients, and see if it still sounds gross.
I’m throwing it in here because it’s my favorite treat on this journey. It’s one of the most nutrient-dense things you can have, and it’s downright delicious. Drinking 16-20 oz of this melted ice cream mix has had noticeable helpful effects on my weight loss.
12. Stay off of vegetable oils
Start checking ingredients and you’ll see they’re in everything – typically as canola, sunflower, or soybean. Some of it literally began as engine lubricant, almost entirely unfit for human consumption. And obesity and heart disease are direct results of consumption. So toss out the margarine, Crisco, and Wesson and do your best to cook with butter, coconut oil, olive oil, or avocado oil instead.
13. Make your own food
If portion size and quality of ingredients are not in your control, this all gets exponentially harder. Yeah, meals were more convenient when everything came out of a box or a wrapper, but carrying an excess weight the size of a middle schooler and being perpetually low-energy kinda tipped the inconvenience scales for me, you know?
14. Hormones matter
All of this – excess fat, low quality foods, sleep, sunlight – affects your hormonal function. And you wouldn’t believe how many other ways disregulated testosterone and estrogen affect your life, even down to your personality. Being physically weak and lethargic changes you, and not in a good way. At least, it did for me.
15. Sugar and carbs won’t kill you
The more I learn about all of this, the more anti-keto I become. Yes, there’s always a shocking initial weight loss, but long-term sustainability is hard and there are too many nutrient-dense foods left behind when you ditch carbs. Find a way to work them in moderately and use their energy boost to your advantage.
16. Fruit is good
Low calorie, lots of nutrients, tastes great. Don’t let anyone convince you it’s unhealthy.
17. Eat what feels good
The cleaner you eat the more you realize how lousy processed food makes you feel. Once you get a better sense of how you’re supposed to feel, you can better tell what your body processes well and what it doesn’t. For instance, corn makes me feel bad for days, so I just avoid it. For you, it’s probably something entirely different. Pay attention to your body and adapt as needed.
18. Make room for treats
You’ll burn out if you eat nothing but health foods all the time. Every Saturday night my wife and I make a big junk food feast for the family (with clean ingredients, of course) – pizzas one week, burgers and fries the next, you name it. I still keep an eye on calories since they can sneak up in a hurry on the weekend, but if you don’t have any breaks to look forward to, the discouragement will take over.
And don’t think of it as a “cheat day.” Think of it as a scheduled break that’s keeping you from giving up.
19. Deep Nutrition
If you want to do a really deep dive on food and healthy living, Dr. Cate Shanahan’s Deep Nutrition will blow your mind. What we eat does way more to affect us than I ever realized. (And if you don’t want to go 400 pages deep, she’s done plenty of podcasts and YouTube interviews that are much more accessible.)
20. Take supplements… for a reason
It’s easy to start taking supplements and end up with so many that you can’t even remember what they’re for. If you come across one that seems like it might help, give it a try and see what it does for you. Vitamin D and magnesium are good starting points (but watch for vegetable oil additives).
21. Protein is good
Not all weight loss is created equal. Some of the rapid transformations you see come from losing more muscle than fat. Been there, done that. Keep your protein up (at least .6g/lb of body weight per day) to make sure you’re keeping muscle while losing fat. Chicken breasts and whey proteins are your friends.
22. Eggs are very good for you… but not great for protein
One of my first mistakes on this journey was assuming that upping my protein meant eating more eggs. Eggs are incredibly nutrient dense (and delicious, too), but eating tons of eggs isn’t the best way to hit your protein numbers. 6 eggs a day, for example, comes to 420 calories but only 37g of protein. On the other hand, 420 calories of chicken breast gets you about 100g of protein.
23. Weigh multiple times a week
It’s not always fun, but it keeps you on track. It’s way too easy to think “I’m probably doing fine” when you aren’t looking at numbers.
Weighing multiple times a week keeps you disciplined because you want to see the numbers go down over the course of 3-4 weigh-ins.
24. Use your instincts
I’d like to think almost everything here is common sense. And most things are. Eat what your great-grandparents and basically every other human before 1950 ate. Natural is almost always better. Sleep and sun are good. Keep it simple.
25. Know better, do better
You don’t have to know everything to start. Just do the best you can, and if you learn something new, adapts and change. One of the worst mistakes we make is getting paralyzed by indecision, waiting until we’ve figured everything out. Just start and learn as you go. As you know better, do better.
26. Don’t have a goal, make a decision
It’s not about doing something for a while to reach a certain point – because then what happens? Instead, make it about becoming a certain kind of person. (I highly recommend James Clear’s Atomic Habits on this point.)
As I mentioned at the beginning, for years I’d set out to “lose weight,” and I would. Then I’d slowly gain it back. What finally worked was deciding to be as healthy and strong as I can be. I want to be in tip-top shape both for now and to help as I age. I want to set an example for my sons so they can get the head start I didn’t have.
Its been a long journey, and there’s still a long way to go. But the changes that have come about by being more health-conscious have been a huge benefit to my life, so I hope there’s something in here that might help you as well. If I can help in any way, don’t hesitate to reach out.
And, for the standard disclaimer, this does not constitute medical advice and I am not a doctor.