How to lose weight: How I lost 31 pounds (and put on muscle) in six months

Several people have asked me about the weight loss part of my self-improvement-for-retirement plan. I have now lost 31 pounds since January while, thanks to my gym efforts and my wonderful personal trainer, at the same time I have put on detectable muscle. I know it’s noticeable because people comment when they meet me. One to two pounds a week is generally considered to be a sustainable and healthy rate of weight loss. How have I done it?

The first point sounds obvious: you have to really want to lose weight. I’ve intended and tried to lose weight before and failed. It’s well know that many people go on a diet and then lapse, and within six months they’re back to where they were before – or even heavier. You have to make a commitment. By all means make a social commitment tell your friends what you hope to do, but the most important commitment is to yourself. Accept that it won’t be easy.

I remind myself of my goals several times a day. I use nudge techniques such as putting my scales in the middle of the bathroom floor so I have to look at them and walk round them. I bought some compression exercise gear which I wear all the time to remind myself of the shape I want to lose. I look in the mirror often. At the end of the day I think about what I’ve eaten – and what I haven’t eaten. I continually remind myself of why I’m getting fitter. I tell myself healthy body, healthy mind.

I became really, really fed up with psycho-tummy. Someone said I was developing a beer stomach – I don’t drink beer, with coeliac disease, and I couldn’t face explaining that it was a result (in part) of my medication. Having been thin all my life, a natural ectomorph, it hurt. Then I weighed myself and worked out my BMI (body-mass index), and I saw that I had edged into the “obese” category. I know there’s a so-called “obesity epidemic”, but obesity is something that happens to other people!: the couch potatoes who stuff their faces with cake and crisps in front of daytime television. Not me. And because I felt fat, my self-esteem was falling. Self-esteem is a big problem for depressed people, and the last thing we need is people telling us bad things when we meet them on the street, or looking in the mirror and being reminded of how feeble we are. My blood pressure had crept up and being overweight is a major influence on blood pressure. I want to live to be over a hundred and be healthy, and you are unlikely to be able to do that if you’re overweight. So there were many converging factors that made me resolute about changing.

Weight, food, and diet are of course just part of becoming healthy. You have to exercise too. There is now a huge amount of data on mental health, cognitive function, and fitness, so I don’t think most people need convincing they need to exercise. I used to walk a lot and play football, but in recent years I have become increasingly sedentary. I have had enthusiastic spells of trying to exercise, starting to run and cycle, but it just took something to disrupt my pattern and I would stop. So again I made a commitment and signed up with a personal trainer. She won’t let me stop, and pushes me more than I would push myself, and after a year I think that was one of my best life decisions. Of course exercise by itself isn’t a very efficient way to lose weight: it takes about ten minutes of running for an average person to burn off a banana, and well over half an hour to get rid of a typical candy bar. However it is widely thought that exercise increases our resting metabolic rate both in the short and long term, meaning that we burn off more calories just sitting around doing nothing, although some of the evidence is mixed (see this paper for a review).

That’s enough background. You want to know what I’ve done. I should as usual provide a caveat that I am neither a sports nor a nutritional scientist, but I am a scientist and have read a lot of the research. And I mean a lot. Unfortunately much of this research is contradictory, and any diets strike me as faddy and having no scientific motivation. The Paleo and Primal diets are most logical, although the evidence about them is controversial at best, and I don’t understand some of the more extreme claims. But thinking from an evolutionary point of view does make sense to me: how have we evolved to eat? I simply try to eat healthily, with as much variety as possible, hoovering up nutrients and micronutrients, without going to any great extreme. Perhaps the following is obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me.

So forget points, on and off days, food mixing, going to meetings, treats, and spending money on how to diet. Here is the Harley Diet in 25 easy to digest points.

  1. For everything I eat, I ask myself would one of my ancestors, ten thousand years ago, have been able to eat it? If the answer is probably not, I treat it with caution.
  2. That means I try and eliminate processed foods of any description. No cakes, no biscuits, no cook-chill curries, no free-from fishfingers, no pork pies. They’re often full of bad ingredients, particularly bad fats, and usually have far too much salt.
  3. Sugar is evil. There is a splendid book (derided by the food industry) by John Yudkin called Pure, white and deadly. It’s about sugar (sucrose). I have tried to eliminate it altogether.
  4. High-fructose corn syrup seems to manage to be even worse than sucrose. I try and avoid it completely.
  5. That means for anything that isn’t really obvious (e.g. a banana) you have to read the label. With coeliac disease I’m used to reading labels, because it’s amazing how gluten can creep in to what you buy, but I’m learning that very little can be taken at face value. I discovered yesterday that Marks and Spencer cooked Honduran king prawns have salt and sugar added. I tweeted M&S about it and they said it was “to balance the flavour”. I asked them what that meant, and they didn’t reply. Then I checked the raw prawns – and they have added salt too!
  6. Fruit is high in fructose (another sugar), so I approach it with caution. Fruit varies in its fructose content; dried fruit has the highest content; grapes, apples, and pears have a moderate amount. I eat a lot of berries.
  7. If you have to be careful with fruit, then fruit juice is a complete no-no. It is very high in sugar and has little of the good supporting other stuff (such as fibre). Liquidised fruit is OK.
  8. I can’t eat grains with gluten in, of course, but I try to avoid grains altogether. That includes rice and quinoa. Farming and consumption of grains is a huge topic in itself, but suffice it to say I have been convinced by the evidence that they’re best avoided. I see some merit in the claim that the first agricultural revolution (around 10,000 years ago) was one of the worst disasters to befall humans. I’m not puritanical about it; I occasionally eat some rice.
  9. I try and keep my carbohydrate intake low. This goal is easier to achieve avoiding processed food (including bread and pasta) and grains; the main temptation left is potato. I allow myself some Marks and Spencer crinkle cut chips (no added salt, very little added oil, or batter, mostly potato) for lunch. Sweet potatoes are good. Note that my diet is the inverse of the current government recommendations.
  10. Legumes are controversial. A lot of people are against them (Pythagoras had a legendary aversion to beans, and was murdered because he refused to escape through a bean field), and I find the research literature a bit confusing. I allow myself some. I like baked beans, but even reduced salt and sugar beans still have a lot of salt and sugar, so now I make a large batch of my own every three or four days, completely free of added salt and sugar. I find a pressure cooker to be invaluable; I have a combination pot by Andrew James which Amazon sells at a very reasonable price, but there are almost certainly other good ones out there. Baked beans are particularly important for the lycopene, which comes from processed tomatoes – raw tomatoes are no good. Tinned and pureed tomatoes may help prevent prostate and breast cancer.
  11. If the above sounds a bit obsessive, wait until you hear that I weigh everything I eat. I have some digital kitchen scales and use the app Perfect Diet Tracker to keep track of everything (there are almost certainly other good apps out there). I think keeping track of what I eat is the single most important thing I’ve done. It’s very easy to go over target. After a while you get an idea of how much to eat and what sort of thing. I weigh myself weekly and of course keep a graph going. I have experimented with daily weighing but there’s just too much noise.
  12. What is my target? I’m aiming for under 2200 Calories a day, preferably under 2000. From that I want about 85 – 100 g of protein, at least 25 g fibre, and under 100 g carbohydrate and 1 g of salt. I know there is a lot of talk about good calories and bad calories,, and being able to eat as much fat as you like, but at the core of my diet is the belief that more or less, the calories in has to be less than the calories out.
  13. I’m not too worried about my fat intake but remember fats and oils are stuffed with calories. 100 g of olive oil has almost a thousand calories. On the other hand there are many health benefits of many oils so I add them to my diet – carefully. I watch the amount of dairy I eat. I love cheese, but it’s high in calories. I eat it, but only in what I call “extreme moderation”. I never have cream.
  14. I have cut back on red meat and eat a lot of fish, chicken, and turkey. I have prawns a lot for breakfast. I like smoked salmon but it has a high salt content, so I have it rarely. Eggs are good.
  15. Breakfast can be a bit repetitive – a typical breakfast is prawns, berries, and nuts.
  16. Nuts are good too – early hunter gatherers would have eaten a lot of seasonal nuts and berries, supplemented with fish and meat when available. However nuts are high in oil and calories, and some nuts have a better ratio of Omega 3 to 6 oils; macadamia nuts (fortunately my favourite) and walnuts appear to be best.
  17. I mostly eat grilled meat and fish, and season liberally with fresh garlic, ginger, and chillies.
  18. When you’re careful with food you can get hungry, and volume helps prevent hunger. Some foods take up a lot of space, are healthy, and deliver very few calories. Learn to make broccoli and mushrooms your friends.
  19. I reserve a number of calories for daily Champagne, although I have cut back on wine in general – too many empty calories.
  20. I know many disagree with me about this point, but I don’t snack. I’m lucky in that I rarely get hungry between meals. But of course if you do snack you’re going to have to find something that’s not too calorific, and to watch your daily calorie intake and reduce the size of your three main meals accordingly.
  21. I have experimented with partial fasting (which many swear by; sometimes our hunter-gatherer ancestors went a bit hungry) by skipping the occasional breakfast. I don’t make up the calories through the rest of the day.
  22. I have removed all temptation from my house. I particularly love the meal of (gluten-free) pasta, cheese, and garlic fried in olive oil. I used up the pasta in a final memorable blow-out, and just haven’t bought any more since. I miss it though.
  23. Remember to stay hydrated. I now sip water throughout the day. There’s some evidence that being well hydrated reduces hunger.
  24. You can’t weigh food when you’re away your home, and you can’t control everything about what you eat out, but you can still be careful. I don’t eat out as much now, but I still enjoy travelling, and I accept that when I do I will probably put a bit of weight back on. But I enjoy eating local food, and it doesn’t take that long to lose it again.
  25. Apart from travel, I don’t believe in treats and days off. It’s a slippery slope. But you have to be forgiving with yourself if you do slip up.

If this all seems like a lot of effort, that’s because it is, but it’s your health, mood, and longevity, not just your weight, that are at stake. And much of it becomes a habit after a while; the more you do something the more automatic it becomes and the less long it takes to do it. I still think it’s easier to implement than many other diets out there, and I also think mine is a very healthy diet. I should say that I still have some way to go before I reach my target, but I’m getting there and I’m confident that when I get there, I will stay there.

Finally, thank you to everyone who has wished me well in my battle with anxiety and depression. It hasn’t been easy, but I detect a glimmer of light in the darkness. I am sure being fitter and eating healthily has helped.

A reminder you can contact me through the comments section here, or by email at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley. Good luck with losing weight.

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

15 thoughts on “How to lose weight: How I lost 31 pounds (and put on muscle) in six months”

  1. Interesting. I’m trying to cut down on carbs too but I do love potatoes.
    I assume you read New Scientist and will have seen their piece from last month about “Fat vs carbs”: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23030771-600-carb-your-enthusiasm-are-bread-pasta-and-spuds-making-you-fat/
    …I’m intrigued by the suggestion that instead of counting calories you just make half of your intake fat! I’m wondering if that means I can push the bell curve (Bletchley Park style) by just adding cheese to everything? Probably not.

    Like

    1. Yes, I’ve seen that. I am reading more about the effect of fats. I do find the literature persuasive but as it goes against virtually everything we’ve been taught I’ve just been a bit scared to increase my fat intake (particularly saturated) too much. If I do I’d like to get regular blood tests to check things like triglyceride levels.

      I’ve just been reading this, which is in a similar vein:
      http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/04/making-the-case-for-eating-fat/?_r=0

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  2. Hi Trevor. I’ve looked up to you many times during my time as a student and I appreciate you talking about nutrition, exercise and the general ‘get healthy’ advice. However, I have to admit I cringed at some of the points you made. Fruit – sugar from fruit is NOT evil. It doesn’t digest the same way sugar from processed food does. There is absolutely no point avoiding fruit. Remember about the micro nutrients, vitamins, fibre – it’s all good stuff. The rule of thumb is that if your dietician/PT/doctor tells you to limit your fruit intake because of sugar – change the dietician/PT/doctor. Low carbs – I agree 100% that processed carbs are extremely bad for you. However, going low-carb by avoiding whole foods is a recipe for a long-term health disaster. Same goes for point 8. (grains).

    I am sure you did a lot of research on nutrition yourself, I did too. The conflicting evidence you keep talking about is in part due to the food industry sponsoring the studies, in part due to massive subsidies going to the food industry, in part due to poorly done research. My favourite example is a study that found no correlation between egg consumption and high cholesterol. No wonder they didn’t if they tested people whose cholesterol was already at a dreadful level. Think about it. Have you ever seen a million-pound TV ad on carrots or apples? I guess not. Have you seen an ad for eggs? Turkey? Beef? Cheese? Exactly. Think about it. If you’re looking for a legit source of science-based articles, please take a look at nutritionfacts.org. The site is a non-commercial, science-based public service provided by dr. Greger, providing free updates on the latest in nutrition research via bite-sized videos.

    I have personally struggled with weight most of my life, getting on and off diets, weight loss pills, detox teas, low-carb, Atkins, ketogenic, Paleo, you name it. No more! I can finally say I’ve found my health and inner peace with food. I no longer count calories and macros. I count nutritional values, vitamins, and minerals. No magic pills. Only legit nutrition advice from people like dr Greger, dr Mcdougall, dr Barnard, dr Esselstyn, dr Campbell… They all speak the same language. I would be super interested in hearing what you think about their approach.

    All the best,
    M.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I’m all in favour of fruit – particularly the lower-fructose varieties. It’s fruit juice I’ve given up completely – that doesn’t have a lot of the best part of fruit taken out.

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    2. Hmmm, I thought I could write more than a paragraph. To continue, I agree completely about the food industry and advertising. I’ve waded through the books and papers and of course there are conflicts of interest there: people getting us to buy their book, product, diet, even just ideas, and food industries sponsoring some of the original research.

      I’ve just looked at http://www.nutritionfacts.org and it is very good; I’ll be sure to monitor it in future, and I recommend others do too. There’s a wealth of articles (and comments) from the past to wade through, too.

      I count the calories at the moment because it’s the only thing that, so far, has worked for me. Clearly there are individual differences in what suits people best as there are in most things.

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    1. Were you on medication? I think it’s that that did for me. Of course different people are affected in different way.

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      1. “Comfort starve”; a real contradiction in terms for me! My problem is that I really do love food, particularly fatty food.

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    1. Thanks. I have increased the amount of carbohydrate I’m now eating to around 100g a day. You have to be careful to eat enough calories – there’s a limit to how much broccoli a chap can eat. But I’m still losing weight and am still feeling healthier, so I am still confident about the principles I’ve described here.

      Like

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