How to lose weight when you’re 46 years old and genetically disadvantaged

I promised my sister I’d post about my recent weight loss when I hit 125. I’m a little over 126, but I have a day off from all responsibilities today, so I’ll go right ahead since I expect to be down to 125 within a few days anyway.

When we got back from a visit with Jonathan’s family in England in May I weighed a whopping 141 pounds. I’ve been struggling with weight since late 2009. I’m still not sure why I put on roughly 10 pounds over the course of about 8 months. Nearly half of that piled on within about two months of starting a new birth control pill (Loestrin 24). Then the next 6 arrived very slowly over time. It may have been hormonal. My metabolism may have simply ground to a halt that year. Dunno.

Over the past 18 months of so of trying to shed the extra poundage, I could not get rid of it by eating sensibly, nor did heavy mileage help. I sought the help of a nutritionist and an endocrinologist late last year, also to no avail.

No wonder I'm so slow. I've been running carrying the equivalent of this box of cat litter for the past several years.

When I weighed myself on May 18, seeing a number over 140 — a weight that was flirting with what I weighed before I started running 12 years ago (an endeavor started because I’d gotten so fucking fat) — the same sense of shame and outrage that overtook me in 1999 reemerged. It galvanized me, inspiring a steely resolve: I was going to lose this fat even if people had to die.

In roughly two months, I’ve lost about 15 pounds. Fortunately, no one has died. It’s been a pretty simple process, but it has not been easy. Here’s how I did it, along with some observations and tips. I should note that I’m no medical expert and this has been an experiment on myself, not unlike the one William Hurt performed in Altered States. Although I have not yet broken into a zoo and eaten an antelope [2:20]. But, believe me, I’ve been close a few times.

Here’s what didn’t work

Going to an endocrinologist in search of a hormonal or other chemical explanation. I got tested for various things and got the all clear. I also got this annoyingly generic piece of medical insight: “Most women gain weight in middle age, especially around the waist.” Yeah, well, I’m not most women.

Going to a sports nutritionist. This was another useless exercise. For four months I followed a supposed expert’s advice, tolerated her insinuations that I was not being honest about what I was eating, and grew increasingly frustrated.

Going off the pill. Actually, that may have sort of worked, but it’s taken forever. Here’s something else I’ve observed: every gynecologist and article will tell you that the hormones in the pill are gone from your system in a week or two. I don’t believe this is true, based on several things. For one, I’ve had friends who were on the pill and went off it in an effort to get pregnant. Some of them took as long as six months to get knocked up. For another, the whole reason I went on the thing (beyond the obvious) was to regulate my wild cycles. I could swing 10 days in either direction. Yet for four months after I stopped taking it in January, I could predict my cycle’s start by not only the day, but also by the hour. In the last month I’ve started to go all wacky and unpredictable again. My weight loss rate has also picked up slightly. Coincidence? Again, dunno.

So what did work?

The nutritionist told me that my resting metabolic rate plus non-running movements resulted in a need for around 1850 calories a day. This was just to function. We based everything on that. I was told not to ever cut more than 500 calories a day from base + exercise output total (I don’t know what awful thing would happen if I did; maybe I’d actually lose weight?). Plus I was given elaborate formulas for how many grams of carbohydrate and protein to take in before a workout and in the hours after a workout in order to recover properly.

I’m sorry, but it was all bollocks. I lost no weight on this plan.

So you know what I did? I took the base calorie intake she had me on — roughly 1650 a day — and chopped it in half. That’s right: my new caloric ceiling was around 850. If I did any exercise, I’d add those calories back in. Here’s an example:

Base calorie intake: 850
Run 6 miles easy: 500
Total allowed: 1350

Following this rather parsimonious formula, I lost a little over 2 pounds the first week, then another 1.5 the following week. It’s varied from week to week, but it’s basically been around 1.5 pounds per week. During a PMS week, I usually stagnate, although I don’t gain water weight like I used to, so I think I’m still “stealth losing.”

There’s no secret to this

The laws of thermodynamics are absolute. Unless you’ve got a thyroid or other issue, if your body is deprived of external sources of fuel, it will start burning its own.

But it’s really hard to do

Aside from the behavioral challenges, I’ve got a few other things working against me. For one, I’m way over 40. If you think you can eat the way you did in your 20s and 30s, just wait. You can’t. For another, my physique lies somewhere along the body type spectrum between mesomorph and endomorph. I blame my Viking genes: you need a lot of muscle for hefting swords and engaging in extended bouts of raping and pillaging, plus you need fat to keep you from becoming too cold in Spitzbergen or wherever the hell my ancestors were from. I build muscle very easily, which is great if I want to be a power lifter, but useless for distance running. So I actually have to be careful about doing too much weight or other resistance work. For another, I hold onto fat like it’s going out of style. I gain it easily and then have a bastard of a time getting rid of it.

What does it all mean?

It means that while it’s possible for me to lose fat, it’s difficult and takes a huge effort and commitment. Have you ever tried living on 850 calories a day? It takes planning. It’s tedious. You’re hungry often. But seeing a pretty much constant weight loss of around 1-2 pounds a week is a great motivator. As I said to someone recently, I can deal with eating 850 calories a day for three months more easily than I can deal with eating 1200 calories a day for six months.

Are you ready to suffer? Here are some handy tips!

Use a calorie tracking program. There is no other way to know what you’re taking in and using up. I like Tap and Track for the iPhone.

Plan ahead. If you have a job that you travel to (as I have since I started this venture), pack your food. Apportion your calories among various food items and stick those items in your bag. If you eat all your food too early in the day, tough luck. You’ll only do this a few times.

Stop drinking. I shouldn’t have to explain this one. With only 850 calories to play with, there is no room for extravagances like liquor. Bonus: you’ll avoid embarrassing Ambien episodes.

Eat “big food.” These are foods that have a high density and volume relative to their caloric content. Examples are: fruits, vegetables, and lean animal proteins. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of grapes, cherries, nectarines, corn on the cob, steak and chicken.

Eat small amounts of fat throughout the day. For example, while nuts are very calorie dense, they will keep you full because they take forever to digest. Also, a cup of coffee with half and half will stave off hunger for a good hour or two.

When the hunger pangs get too bad, just close your eyes and think of England. Failing that, eat your own hand — preferably the one you don’t favor. It’s low in calories and you have another one if you need to make a phone call or something.

A special note for runners

Bear in mind that I’ve only been running 30-40 miles per week during this process and doing 2 hard sessions tops. I don’t know that I’d attempt this during a heavier training schedule. Also note that I’ve been careful to make sure I take in at least 200 grams of carbohydrates and 75 grams of protein a day. On days after a hard run or race, I’ll up the calorie intake a bit because I’m usually starving and to me that’s a signal that I need more food in order to recover properly.

Why am I doing this?

Because I not only looked a lot better when I weighed somewhere in the low 120s, but I ran better too. I am now running a lot faster, despite the heat and humidity. But more on that soon.

24 Responses

  1. I can confirm that the only times I’ve lost significant weight in my life, it was a combination of exercise and cutting calories (regardless of what I ate…could have been one slice of cake a day…which I did a couple of times). For most of us, there really is no mystery: we eat too much and exercise too little for what we do eat.

  2. What is your plan for maintaining your weight now that you are at your goal weight?

    • I am not quite at my goal weight yet. But when I do reach it I plan to experiment with adding back in calories to see what my base needs are now. I have noticed, for example, that having lost 15 pounds I now need to cut an extra 50 or so a day (800 base) to keep losing. This makes sense, because I have less weight to maintain now. I will probably start with around 1500-1600 as a baseline since I was doing that for four months under the nurtrionist’s direction and neither lost nor gained anything. If I continue to lose, I need to add more. If I gain, I need to cut.

  3. Hmmm….Feeling prescient right now.

    A few months back here’s a comment I made on one of your posts: “I guess what continues to stun me about my own weight as a runner is how few calories my body needs to maintain my weight. Based on calculations and about 2 years of data collection, I need 1900-2000 calories to maintain my weight. That’s including an average exercise burn rate of 600 calories a day (since I’m cross training only now) and a moderately active lifestyle. Without the exercise, that would only be something like 1400-1500 calories! That’s hardly any food at all! I really want to be able to eat more than that and still achieve low body fat, but I’m not built like that either.”

    It appears you and I are around the same weight right now, so I think your figures are spot on! Does this mean we have a similar metabolism?

    • That would make sense. I’m sure I read that but it didn’t penetrate my skull. It’s been difficult to accept that I need to eat a lot less; a big problem over the years has been denial. I think we have a similar body type (Coach Sandra referred to it as “solid”), so the similarity of our experience doesn’t surprise me.

      I’m going to continue to lose as I’m still carrying fat, whereas you are ripped. When I am ripped, I’ll stop and have a sandwich.

      • YOU HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD when you say “It has been difficult to accept that I need to eat a lot less!!!” I am 46, and a mother of four kids ages 13, 12, 9 and 7. I have been struggling for the past 8 months over the 8lbs-maybe 9-that have crept up on me. I am beyond frustrated and just googled this morning how to lose this weight, which brought me to your blog. I am very active-but unfortunately have had to stop running due to the many injuries. Maybe less injuries if I could lose this weight!! That has been another hard pill to swallow-not being able to run. But I would say that my workouts are consistent, cross training and productive. Anyway, thanks for the post and I guess I start this eating less thing…starting today! Going to be frickin tough!

  4. I really, really, REALLY love the “eat your own hand” advice, and would add that if that isn’t appealing, you aren’t that hungry anyway ;)

  5. Congrats way way late! I, too, am really curious to hear where you land when recalibrating maintenance.

    One question from your “plan” above stuck out, though – “minimum of 200g carbs and 75g protein per day” – that’s far above 850 total calories. So I would just assume that you make sure you eat that many carbs on workout days only. Or perhaps I am being overly assuming that you had more than one “850 day” per week…. maybe there were very very few of those overall.

    Oh, and another question because I’m nosy…. cheat days? If so, how high over the normal allotted amount, and how many of them?

    Thanks so much and take care of your speedy light self!!!

    • I’ve been in maintenance for a couple of months and it’s not been hard to stay at current weigth of around 126/127. I will be doing another push to lose starting in November.

      I do manage to get 200/75 in, but you have to realize that 850 calories is the base — meaning that’s what I eat if I don’t do any exercise. Which is not most days. So if I’m eating, say, 1300+ it’s not that hard to get in those carb and protein amounts. Fruit and meat.

      I didn’t have official “cheat” days — just days that I couldn’t stand it and had to have a beer and a piece of French bread. Those were maybe once every 10?

      • Wow, thanks. I’m going to pop a nutritionist/dietician question at you – how do you stay consistent with food amounts? Is it a trained eyeball effect or is there a gram scale involved? Note that I advocate the latter when you are actually counting calories to lose weight. Like any tool it can be abused, but it can also be illuminating.

        See this, for example (ignore the title and the punctuation errors; it’s produced by an expert in food but not in engrish): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVjWPclrWVY

    • I use a food scale, measuring cups/spoons, etc. Or pre-measured portions (such as individual serving trail mix packages). It’s the only way. But a total pain in the ass. And it requires extreme discipline. That’s why I can only manage it for a few months at a time before needing a break.

  6. Hey, hope u r doing great, I’m trying my best to eat the right way but so difficult…can you describe step by step the food u consume during the day that will b very helpfull
    vicpez

    • Shop at the periphery of the story and don’t eat things that come in boxes. Eat food with a lot of volume and fiber relative to its caloric count: vegetables, fruits and grains. Throw in small amounts of protein and fats throughout the day. Drink a lot of water and coffee. Stop drinking alcohol. That’s my best advice.

  7. Thank you for posting this
    I too am over 40 in age
    46
    And over 140 lbs
    142
    This just recently came on
    Same thing with birth control pills on and off
    Weight went out of control and lost alot of hair
    I cant afford alot of doctors and such
    But have tried everything over the counter
    Nothing
    Actually more weight
    I bought myself a total gym
    But havent used it much
    I sit all day at my job and my commute is one and a half hours one way
    I went and bought 200 dollars worth of vitamins and supplements at GNC hoping it would help
    Actually my appetite has doubled
    I am desparate for help

    • I forgot to mention I too used to be a long distant runner
      Due to running on broken foot years ago have had to have muliple surgeries
      6
      And dont think my foot could take the impact

  8. I gain more weight after more exercise. I am 47, 5’3 and 120 lbs. I just want to loose 5-10 lbs which was my weight 5 years ago. What should I do?

  9. Finally, what I have learned to be the truth! Thank you for speaking it. Major reduction of calories. I’m 46, very active and a clean eater. In the past year, after recovering from a back injury, I’ve been finding it almost impossible to lose weight. I know it’s hormonal, because my bust size went up a whole cup and I’m getting those yucky brown spots on my face. While Im not over weight, I’m just ten pounds heavier than Id like to be.

    I’m 5’9 and athletically built, weight is 175. I’ve been very consistent with eats and working out for about six months now and this goo isn’t budging. It SUCKS!! I had a major loss of 4 pounds doing a stupid cleanse, but it did remind me of how much I eat, even if its the right food. I agree I need to go rouge and drop those calories to under 1000 on my non workout days. I can do it. Won’t be a stretch, cuz my eating is good, just too much of it. Thank you for saying what few sites will say to the over 40 active woman……drop it like its HOT! The calories and the weight. Strength and Honor!

  10. I am on the same regiment! It is working for me too! I am 51. I started out at 157lbs and I am currently at 141lbs. I have too started slow. I did not balance correctly. But with trial and error, the weight has started to come off. I have been at this since the middle of June and it is just the beginning of August. I cant tell you how much better I feel. I still have a long way to go but I am on the right track. I consume a balanced 850 calories a day and fast walk 1/2 mile and slow jog on the treadmill 1/2 mile. I am just now starting to do this 2 times a day. I haven’t had the energy before. Thanks for the post. I really has encouraged me to keep this up.

  11. I also am 46 years old and am disgusted with my weight. I was always 115-120 and accepted the 130 over the last few years. My scale broke and I just bought another…yes, 142 was the weight. I have been eating what I want and not paying attention. I am now on a strict diet – supplemented with a multi vitamin, vitamin B, iron, ..greens and protein in the morning, fruit and veg throughout the day with a nice salad and protein for lunch..lots of water and I snuck a glass of wine last night…love my coffee (3 cups a day). Exercise every day – either walking, hiking or working out. It is so difficult to stick with this…my hand looks edible also at this point..but I am down to 130 and already feel my confidence building….will stop at 120 and be much more responsible with my weight. Good luck everyone on your journey. Just think how great you will feel. It’s so worth it.

  12. I feel my best when I weigh around 130…right now I am about 157 and am disgusted with myself. I’m always tired and my joints and muscles are achy all the time. I need a work out buddy to stay committed to an exercise plan but I’m going to start slowly first thing in the morning. I’m wondering if I can lose weight if I ate around 1200 calories a day. I’m 5’6″ and am 47 years old. I think I’m addicted to food or at least sweets!! I hate getting old and feeling tired when I get home from work. It’s really hard to motivate myself to go exercise!! But I’ve got to do something…so here goes. Any advice?

  13. As many of us who stumbled onto this website, I am a 45 year old (soon to be 46) runner who is entering peri-menospause and my metabolism feels as if it came to a screeching halt. 5’8” and ideal weight for me is usually 127/128 (couple pounds lower for races, but not much or I don’t look healthy). i have struggled in the last 1 1/2 year with the moment I eat much of any carbohydrate in the form of breads, rice, healthy crackers… BOOM… next day up by 2 lbs,… if I have any more the following day… BOOM… another 2 lbs… and suddenly I’m 133-135. Sure, this is not earth-shattering compared to all the serious things happening in our world these days…yet, carrying an extra 5 lbs sucks on both speed workouts and long runs. I have been dealing with some hamstring stuff, so only ran 2 1/2 marathons this year, but will be gearing up for Boston Marathon training soon. Honestly… I am at a loss as to what to do. Period came 2 cycles late this week, water gain crazy big… so some of this I know is metabolism related. I want to get and STAY at 127/8, and not yo-yo over and under 130 like I’m doing these days. And, I also want to have a game plan for when I do increase intensity of training (speed, hills and distance) for Boston. Questions:
    1- what have you done when you are in training?
    2- have you added any specific strength training that you’ve noticed helps with increasing metabolism and keeping the waist/hip fat & bloating (my prob) stuff in check?
    3- have you got to a point where you can enjoy an occasional glass of wine and/or dessert without BOOM the weight increase that then “sticks” versus slight fluctuation that drops right back to baseline?
    4- have you aimed on any certain BMI?

    Thanks so much for any input you might have. Like you, sure I realize that this “season of life” makes weight-maintenance harder unless you are born with an insanely high metabolism… YET, I too want to get back to my weight that simply feels healthy for day to day living, for which I look better in my clothes, and for which I can run faster (5 lbs makes a huge difference in terms of speed). Warm wishes for your healthy weight maintenance goals and for some great running! :-)

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