Winning the Mental Battle of Weight Loss: How One Man Lost 266 Pounds

The world today is flooded with crappy weight loss advice and it’s easy to get sucked up in the undertow. If you’re like most people who have tried to lose weight, then you have surely come across your share of the scams, the contradictory “science” advice and the empty promises.

aumento-di-peso-ingiustificatoThe weight loss industry has ballooned to over $61 billion dollars in recent years, yet obesity continues to rise steadily in most of the developed world, with the United States leading the way. Studies tell us that most people who start weight loss programs don’t stick with them for more than a month and of those who actually do lose the weight, a vast majority of them gain it all back.

By all objective measurements, the weight loss industry is an abject failure. Whatever it’s doing is not working.

I’ve wanted to write about weight loss for a while now, but I never have. On a blog with over 500 pages written on self improvement, weight loss seems like a pretty big topic to gloss over. In my own journey, I found what worked for me had far more to do with my mindsets and attitudes towards my health rather than any specific fad or program. Like most things, weight loss is all about fundamental behaviors, and the “work” of losing weight is all about how you orient yourself toward those behaviors — i.e., they are as easy or difficult as you allow them to be.

Hitting the gym every week for years on end, I slowly came to these conclusions in private. But I never felt comfortable writing about them publicly because I felt like I didn’t have enough personal experience in this area to give definitive advice to others.

Enter Kelvin Burnett.

Kelvin emailed me about a month ago. It was a simple email thanking me for some blog posts he liked. But in it he happened to mention that he had lost 266 pounds and that some of the concepts I had written about really resonated with him and his experiences.

I’m always on the look out for interesting reader experiences. Occasionally I turn them into guest blog posts. So I asked Kelvin to tell me his story. He had lost a massive amount of weight, and he had done it the old fashion way. But how?

The piece below is the result of a three-week collaboration between Kelvin and I. The story is, obviously, all his. But over the weeks, I edited, added and clarified some of the ideas we wanted to get across.

His story is incredible and the takeaways are powerful. If you are someone who has struggled with weight loss, then hopefully this will get you thinking about it on a deeper level and inspire you to make some real changes in yourself.

Take it away, Kelvin…

Hi, my name is Kelvin. And I’ve lost 266 pounds.

I didn’t use any fancy exercise regimen, no crazy diets, expensive trainers or classes. I didn’t get surgery or join some crazy fitness cult where they monitor everything you do and eat from here to eternity.

The way I did it is a method you probably don’t hear of very often. I got my mind straight.

You already know how to lose weight. Everybody does. You eat less and exercise more. That’s it! That’s all there is to it. Eat less and move your body more. Do that often enough and long enough, and you’ll get skinny.

Sounds simple, right? Maybe even too simple. Because losing weight is hard. Trust me, I know. It’s taken me over three years to get here.

Eat less. Move your body. Why does something so simple feel so impossible for so many people?

It feels impossible because we’re not just dealing with calories. We’re dealing with people. We’re dealing with ourselves. And understanding ourselves and why we do things is one of the hardest things for any of us to do.

I believe that for everyone who is overweight or obese and doesn’t want to be, there’s a story. There’s a story about how they got that way. Therefore, there needs to be a story for how they’re going to stop being that way.

People ignore these stories. They hire a trainer or buy some weight loss program without actually engaging with the stories of their lives. Unsurprisingly, these people pretty much always fail to get thin. And even if they do, the vast majority end up gaining all of the weight back.

Losing weight is as much psychological as it is physical. Counting calories and workout plans are fine, but we don’t change our behaviors without dealing with our mind and our emotions.

Like I said, it all starts with a story, a real story. This is mine.

My Story

I’ll immediately let you know that I am deaf. Not completely as I am able to communicate and speak with some effort, but I am legally deaf.

When I was about seven, I began attending a school for deaf children and looking back, even by then I had already started to gain weight. But being a kid, it was overlooked.

My first memory of realizing I was overweight was in gym class. My teacher often took weight and height measurements, and he liked to create little nicknames for us based on those measurements. Being a large kid, my nickname referred to my weight. I hated it. But I never said anything. I was young, so I just accepted that that was who I was: the big kid.

By the time I reached high school, there was no escaping the fact that I was obese. It was around this time that I began to feel that there was something wrong with me. But I still wasn’t ready to admit it. Instead, I continued to cover it up and ignore it.

Throughout my leisure time, I would watch mindless television for as long as I could and eat all day. Day in day out, rinse and repeat. I got lazy. And looking back, I think I became addicted to the feeling of being full. So I ate, and I ate, and I ate. Food became my drug.

What people don’t realize about being obese is that it becomes part of your social identity. It’s how people come to know you. And as irrational as it sounds, it can be frightening to let go of that.

Being 6 feet and 5 inches tall and weighing roughly 320 pounds in high school, I felt the pressure to live up to expectations of my size. I began to play the “big guy” role in order to fit in with others. I joined the football team since that’s what everyone expected me to do. You would think this would have given me some positive experiences, but instead it just reinforced that same identity: the fat guy identity. That’s who I was and why people liked me, so I went with it. But inside, I was miserable.

Of course, like all fat people, I was made fun of. I got good at hiding and burying my emotions so whenever insults or name-calling came my way, I smiled and pretended they were joking. I was caught in an impossible position of taking on the “fat guy” identity to be accepted others while also being shamed by those same people for it.

I smiled and brushed it off when the desks buckled under my weight. I smiled and took insults as a ‘joke’ when some of the boys would remark about my ‘man-boobs’ every day. I smiled when some of the kids occasionally called me ‘Fat Albert’, a fat ass, or any other names. The times when the kids shamed me, I said nothing. After all, what could I say?

I faked being OK with my weight for so long that I forgot I was faking it.

And girls? Needless to say, they had no interest. On the inside, I grew increasingly insecure and bitter of my friends while they had those normal growing up experiences with girls that I missed out on.

When it came time to leave for college, I was anxious to start fresh. It was a new beginning and I wanted to reshape my identity. I wanted to be more social and more accepted. But naturally, within a few weeks of arriving on campus, the “real” me bled out.

To be frank, I became a hermit. My habits became worse because there wasn’t anyone in college to call me out on them. I was like a full-blown heroin junkie with nothing left to hold me back anymore.

My weight reached the point of embarrassment, which only proved to keep me inside even more. I had to stop taking airplanes home for holiday breaks. I didn’t fit on them anymore. And when I would get home, my dad would quietly shake his head upon seeing me. Each time I had gained even more weight.

My dad tried to help me. He was actually the first person to confront me about my size. But I wouldn’t listen to him. What can I say? I was a college kid. The last person I wanted to have to listen to was my dad.

kelvin-before

From what I’ve seen, the definition of an addiction is when your desire for something begins to interfere with the functioning of other parts of your life.

By sophomore year, my relationship with food had likely reached the point of addiction. Students were given a meal plan for a set amount of food each semester. Our cafeteria had all sorts of options for a food junkie: burgers, pizza, fries, cookies and so on.

I began maxing out my meal plan way before each semester was over. I would call my dad and beg for more money to buy more food. It was sick.

The Intervention

One day during summer break, my grandmother came for a visit. Immediately, she saw me for what I was: a full-blown addict, likely eating himself to death.

But what she did took me by surprise. She scolded me. She spent that entire visit setting me straight. In my whole life, she had never acted like that toward me before and it shocked me.

At one point, she sat me down and told me a story about a time when I was three years old. I was stricken with Spinal Meningitis, the illness that would later make me deaf.

While I was sick, I fell into a coma and my future was uncertain. My parents and my grandparents were at my side the entire time, praying for my recovery. My grandmother said she believed in me then, and she believed in me now.

Because she said that I was in the same situation. I was in a coma. I was sleeping through my life. And a sickness was killing me.

I could hear in her voice the frustration, the anger and the love. It was very hard for me. If there were one person in the world that I was afraid to disappoint, it would be my grandmother.

So I went into the gym for the first time since football in high school. I went with no expectations, which looking back, I think was important in actually getting me there. I decided to just go and see what happened with this whole diet and exercise thing.

And then I stepped on the scale. The number read, “484 lbs.”

My eyes bugged out of my head. Holy crap!

That number, by itself, was an intervention. I was told that my family had a history of hypertension and heart attacks. I didn’t care. I knew all of the health problems that come with obesity. I didn’t care.

But seeing that number for the first time was like a hard slap in the face. I was becoming one of those freakishly obese people you see on television and laugh at. I just had this overwhelming feeling of “this isn’t me.” I had to do something about it.

The Secret: How to Eat Less and Exercise More

The first few months in the gym were awkward. A lot of people who are overweight complain of feeling out of place in a gym and I totally get it. It’s easy to feel embarrassed or ashamed just being there.

So I decided to start simple, something that was impossible to screw up or embarrass myself with: the stationary bike.

I made myself go everyday and pedal for 40 minutes to an hour. That was it. Within a couple weeks I found that I actually started to like it. I looked forward to it.

This was key. If you’re going to stick to a new lifestyle, you have to find a way to enjoy it. If you don’t find a way to enjoy exercising, you will never stick with it.

I also started cleaning up my diet. I ate mostly grilled chicken, fruits and veggies. I didn’t count calories or portions. I didn’t have a complicated regimen. I just made a point to eat the same few things I knew were good for me each day. Then I’d let myself cheat on Fridays to keep myself sane. Sometimes my cheat day would blend into Saturday, but I didn’t worry about it too much early on. I figured small changes are better than no changes.

Soon enough, I started losing weight. I was down to 420-something pounds and the people closest to me would send praises my way. I wasn’t used to being praised and admired. It felt a bit weird at first, but good.

What I found is that success breeds success. Losing that first weight created a lot of positive feedback for me, which then motivated me to keep going. It showed me that it was actually possible and that I wasn’t hopeless. It showed me that people cared. I had even attracted a small group of “fans” that were cheering me on whenever they saw me.

By the time I graduated, I had lost 130 pounds, and I weighed approximately 350 pounds. I flew to Jamaica to visit my dad’s home country that summer. This may sound like a casual trip for you, but I was extremely anxious about it. Not about the trip, but the flight. As I boarded the plane, I found my seat and went to sit down… I fit! And I was able to buckle the seatbelt with no trouble. I breathed a sigh of relief. What a milestone!

But, the joy was short-lived. Taking a beach vacation just reinforced the truth: I was still fat. I was still seen differently and treated differently. And worst of all, girls still ignored me.

Losing 130 pounds was good. But I had to keep going.

It was this period where I became fanatical. This is when I started learning about nutrition and cleaned up my diet further. I started lifting weights and coming up with more complicated workouts. I was on fire.

I accepted no excuses from myself. Regardless of circumstance, I would do long cardio sessions and suffer through long stretches of hunger pangs just to meet my goals. I graduated college, got a job, moved across the country, lost a job, moved home with my parents, and never did I once slip up. Not once.

Was it pure discipline? Yes. But I like to think the discipline to lose weight came from something else.

Just as I had adopted being the “fat kid” as my identity to be accepted by others in school, I had also adopted “losing weight” as my identity in adulthood.

It’s who I was. It’s what made me feel important. For the first time in my life, something gave me pride and confidence in myself. And I wasn’t about to give that up for anything, especially not for a bag of Oreos.

kelvin-after

Today I weigh 218 pounds. Often you read about people who lose all of their weight and there’s some sort of happy ending to it. There is no happy ending for me because I’m focused on the present and what my goals are today. And when I reach those, I will have new goals to aim for.

There’s no endpoint for me. I never want to stop challenging myself in new and exciting ways. And I think that’s the best attitude one can have.

Nonetheless, I’ve done something great and that was to lose 266 pounds. And I did it under my own willpower. No tricks. No gimmicks. It was just me, myself and I.

However, if I can do this, then anyone can. I know everyone says that, but it is true. The trick is to stop looking outside yourself for the answer. Some new diet plan won’t do it for you if you won’t.

You have to find something to drive you, something that can ignite your inner fire, and then let the rest take care of itself. There will be boring days and there will be plateaus and there will be days when you don’t want to get off the couch. And the only way you can persevere through these moments is not by changing your diet plan or your workout routine. It’s by changing how you see yourself and how you feel about yourself.

It’s finding your story and deciding to write the next chapters to it. Take each tiny decision on its own and stay focused on the present. People get caught up in long-term visions of the future and lose hope. They think that if they lose such and such pounds that they’ll magically be happy. But that’s not how it works. It’s the process.

There’s always a simple choice to make in the present. Take those choices one at a time. Forget about yesterday. Forget about tomorrow. And just focus on what you can do now — don’t eat that dessert, go outside and walk 30 minutes. All of these things are a series of tiny choices, not any sort of dramatic lifestyle change. Do that and eventually, one day, you’ll find yourself on top, and you’ll hardly even know how you got there.

Takeaways
  1. Everyone has a story behind how they became unhealthy. This story is important because it tells us the emotional motivators behind all of the unhealthy habits we’ve adopted. Whether it’s depression, covering up anxiety or hurt, coping with loss, or running from our problems, we all use our sedentary lifestyle to avoid what’s actually bothering us.
     
  2. If we’re going to successfully change our bodies, then we must change how we perceive ourselves and think about ourselves. To become a new person, you must literally begin to see yourself as a new person. Simply going through the motions won’t work.
     
  3. If you’re going to maintain a habit of exercise, then you need to find a way to enjoy it. Whether it’s sports, cardio, weights, classes or walking with friends, you need to find a way to look forward to working out every day. Otherwise it will never last, no matter how much willpower you have.
     
  4. Small changes are better than no changes. Don’t get frustrated if you slip up sometimes or miss a day. Every day offers you a new opportunity to make the right decision, regardless of what you did yesterday.
     
  5. Don’t look for answers in a new exercise routine or a special diet program. The answer is always you: you and the simple choices you make every day. When in doubt, always return to, “Eat less, move more.”
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