My Weight Loss Journey

My life-long struggle with weight and current multi-year stretch of shedding it through having a better understanding of health and nutrition

I’ve been overweight and obese most of my life. It’s not very fun to write that, but it’s the truth. There have been ups and downs, like a yo-yo. Here’s my entire journey so far.

Childhood

I was a big kid from the start. My mom never fails to tell people how she had to snip the necks of t-shirts for my gigantic head to fit through. For as far back as I can remember, I was chubby. Even though I played sports, rode my bike around, failed at skateboarding, etc., I was still usually the most overweight kid in the group.

Looking back on it now, my weight problems definitely had to do with what I ate. My relationship with food was troubling. I was unbelievably picky. I didn’t eat any fruits or vegetables. I only ate processed foods.

My favorite food was frozen chicken nuggets. They’re pretty much the only food I remember eating as a kid. I’d sit on the floor and use a little step stool as my table for my nuggets while the rest of my family sat at the table like normal humans. Throw in some pizza, french fries, sugary cereal, cookies, and ice cream, and you’d have a sense of my complex childhood palette.

Understanding and changing my relationship with food is the key to this journey.

Making Cookies at Grandmas House.jpg
Making cookies at Grandma’s

I spent a lot of my childhood and early teenage years with my mom and grandma. They taught me how to bake. While giving a kid the power to make cookies from scratch during summer vacation isn’t the best idea, I’m so incredibly grateful that I started spending time in the kitchen from an early age because I feel comfortable with the process of making food. All that needed to change was what I was making.

Being a chubby little kid isn’t ideal, but I remember thinking at the time that I’d simply grow out of it and be skinny like my other friends in a few years.

Early Teens

That, as you may have guessed, isn’t what happened.

My early teens were dominated by sports. I played a sport every season every year. Football, baseball, soccer, wrestling, basketball, lacrosse. Never a down season. I’d have to imagine playing sports is a big part of most childhoods because it’s a way to get to spend time with other kids and be active.

Baseball Pin.jpg
The industrial and technological revolutions brought along strange things to do with photos

I didn’t dislike sports, and I think I was alright at most of them. As time passed and I entered high school, the competitive nature and how serious both the adults and kids took them made me stop caring entirely.

My poor dietary habits continued. I was legitimately scared of certain foods (e.g. mustard, salad, pickles). The exciting new food I started eating in my early teens were bagels. Really stepping out of my comfort zone. Not much else changed aside from that.

What I ate lead to some of the most mind-boggling things one can put a child through: have to “make weight” for certain sports. To be able to play football with my age group, I had to weigh under a certain amount. Which, I guess, makes sense for contact sports. You wouldn’t want a 150 lb kid plowing over an 85 lb kid and seriously injuring them. As one aged, the weight limit kept increasing, but I was always over it. Football season is during the fall so I would spend late summer and early fall doing everything I could to lose weight before the first game.

This meant extreme fasting and doing a ton of running to try to sweat the weight away. I absolutely hated it. I’d wish that my metabolism would speed up like all of the other kids. So I’d starve myself and run and run and run.

It was the Saturday before game day, and I was five pounds over the limit. It was late summer, and it was hot. I went to the football field with no one else was there and ran laps around the football field for hours wearing a black trash bag like a dress to attract the sun and make me sweat more. I made weight the next morning.

Trash Bag Dress

The most bizarre part of all of this is that after weighing in I would binge eat a bunch of food since I hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. I’d stuff myself with bagels, cheese sticks, chicken nuggets, etc. And then play football. After the game was usually pizza and ice cream.

Reflecting on this, it makes no sense at all. The solution is so clear. I wasn’t able to put that together as a 12-year-old.

You might be thinking at this point, “wow, why didn’t his parents make him eat other food?” I don’t have kids, but I can remember how I behaved. They tried, and I wouldn’t budge. I would only eat what I ate. Parenting seems infinitely difficult, and I don’t blame my parents for what I ate as a kid.

Mid-Teens

My dietary horizons began to expand as I went through high school. I was still picky, but a little bit better. I began to eat rice and different kinds of meat. I also began to eat more fruit. But I still ate mostly meat and processed foods full of sugar and salt.

When I stopped playing sports after the fall of my freshman year of high school, I kept gaining weight. My lifestyle became largely sedentary with hobbies like playing video games, watching television, and spending time on the computer. One day the entire grade was sent to the high school auditorium to get weighed and checked for scoliosis. I weighed 234 pounds.

Late middle school and early high school were particularly rough. I’d guess that I had severe undiagnosed depression. I really didn’t like myself. Bad thoughts, you know.

16th Birthday.jpg
16th birthday with my mom, me at my heaviest in high school

One spring day near the end of my junior year that changed. I went for a run after school, and it changed everything. I ran the next day and the day after. Everyday. Two miles to the fairgrounds and back. Rain or shine or snow or sleet. I did it every day. It had these other side effects where I started eating what I thought was healthy. The more I ran, the easier it got and the longer I was able to. The secret was to run every day. It seemed so simple.

It worked. I lost 60 pounds.

With Mom at Champlain College
Touring colleges one year later, again with Mom

I continued to run, but I also started riding my road bicycle pretty seriously. I’d bike 20 miles a day during summer. I also started a pretty simple weight lifting routine. I was obsessed. So obsessed that I wore a sweat belt around my waste. It was this stretchy fabric that wrapped around my stomach to make me sweat more and hopefully lose my belly fat.

Sweat Belt Illustration.png
Again, the things that get manufactured are bizarre

I was convinced meat was the best food I could eat and that bread and associated wheat-based carbs were the enemies. Also, I stopped eating fried foods and traditional desserts. I ate a cereal every day for breakfast that was marketed to women for losing weight. Looking at that cereal now, it is absolutely loaded with sugar and extremely processed. It’s not healthy at all. I ate a light lunch of fruit, dried fruit, a processed granola bar, and water. For dinner, I ate a large quantity of meat – chicken wings, grilled chicken breasts, ribs, etc. That was what I thought was healthy.

High School Lunch.jpg
What I ate every day for lunch junior and senior year of high school

I kept losing weight and building muscle. I had lost about 60 lbs and weighed around 160~170.

I was 17 years old and thought I had it figured out. So much so that I wrote my college application essay about how starting to run changed my life. I was no longer depressed like I was for so many years

Late Teens, Early Twenties

I left home and went to college in Vermont. I continued to run every day at first. But the dining hall utterly destroyed me.

Vermont, Fall 2010
Fall 2010 in Vermont

Ice cream sandwiches. French fries. Hamburgers. Pizza. Pancakes and french toast drizzled in syrup. Chicken wings. In unlimited quantities. I ate it all and all that I could.

It’s easy for me to blame the school or the company they hired to make the food. But there were less-worse options. And, remember, I had it figured out. This was my fault. I went from a home-life where my parents began to eat healthier and there was little “unhealthy” food in the house. There were no limits to my gluttony in college.

Once I stopped running every day, it was all over. The Freshmen 15 was the Freshman 40. The weight gain didn’t stop. Drinking beer didn’t help. Even when I moved off-campus, I still ate terribly.

I left college after three semesters to try to make it on my own. I thought that I could learn it all on my own. I was extremely naive to think that at 19 I would be able to make video games and earn a living. Why is it that we as a society idolize the young, wealthy entrepreneurs?

I don’t regret leaving college because I was able to avoid going into debt and things worked out. I went back home. My generous parents let me stay with them in the basement while I tried to figure it out. I kept working on my projects and learning, but I wasn’t making any money or contributing in a useful way.

Apple Picking.jpg
A rare trip out during the Basement Months, apple picking with friends

So I was a college dropout living in my parents’ basement without a job. I gained back all of the weight I had lost only a couple of years earlier.

An opportunity to return to Vermont for work arose, and I took it. Returning to a place you left to “make video games independently” was a strange experience. My college friends were still friendly, and I made some new friends too. I got my feet under me in terms of work and had wonderful roommates. I also met my future wife! But I was still gaining weight and eating whatever I wanted.

I was aware of this weight gain, and I kept telling myself that all I had to do was start running again every day and that would fix everything. I would try to start running again – buy some new running shoes and exercise clothes made out of sweat-wicking, fast-drying, anti-chaffing fabrics. It never stuck like it did when I was 16.

I was and am an upbeat, pretty positive person. I didn’t hate myself and my body like I did in high school. But I still didn’t like the way I looked or the way that I felt. Shopping for clothes, sitting in airplane seats, going for walks, all of it was an inescapable bummer.

Nick's Wedding
April 2014 – Abagail and I at my cousin’s wedding, me at my heaviest (250 lbs)

I topped off at around 250 lbs and stayed there for years.

Now

Three years ago I decided to switch to a vegan, plant-based diet when my wife and I moved across the country to Portland, Oregon. She was vegan for a few months beforehand, and I decided to make the leap. We were driving across North Dakota, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. Abagail was losing some weight and feeling better from the change. What did I have to lose?

Nothing but weight.

Changing to a vegan diet not only helped me effortlessly shed some pounds, but it led me to think more about what I eat and why. I watched a lot of documentaries, read books, and researched online all about veganism. I had a better sense of the how and the why, and I still love learning everything I can. I ditched my leather products very soon after.

We also decided to stop drinking alcohol when we got to Portland. It just sort of happened. It’s an expensive, unhealthy part of life that wasn’t adding much value to ours.

Within the first few months of going vegan, my body began to change, and I was feeling physically better. A general feeling of lightness. My digestive system was also working a lot better. I lost a few pounds every few months without doing any intentional exercise aside from walking every day.

Brett, December 2016 - White Wall
A year into veganism and feeling pretty good

I eventually stalled out around 230 lbs. I wasn’t and am not obsessed with the numbers or weighing myself. Weighing myself is just something I do every month or so. I know from before that obsessing over some number doesn’t motivate me to lose weight. It’s about the small choices each day and how they add up over time.

But I did notice that I stopped losing weight. I think Abagail was in a similar position.

During the first two years of being vegan, we were what I like to call Junk Food Vegans. I ate more vegetables and fruits as part of the diet change, but I still ate a ton of fried, greasy, salty, sugary food. Just because something is vegan doesn’t mean that it’s healthy. There’s plenty of vegan-friendly food that’s harmful to one’s health.

In January of this year, Abagail started to watch some videos by Dr. John McDougall. He’s a plant-based doctor who has been practicing for decades. He advocates for a diet high in starches (beans, potatoes, legumes, rice) with some veggies and fruits but no added salt, sugar, or fat. I started watching McDougall’s videos too, and we fell down the rabbit hole in the best way possible.

Salt, oil, and sugar are all associated with various chronic health issues. Oil is also very calorically dense, which leads to eating too many calories too easily through cooking oils and foods like nuts. By cutting out added oils and food high in fat and replacing them with starchy plants that are lower in calories yet more filling, one begins to lose weight without having to reduce the amount food they are eating.

It was revelatory. The missing piece of the puzzle.

We dove into a diet with no added salt, oil, or sugar (SOS) head first. We just went for it. We threw away our coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil. We tossed the sugar and the maple syrup. We just went for it and figured we’d see how it went.

Much like how when I initially went vegan, the changes happened quickly. If going vegan made me feel light, eating a starch-based, SOS-free diet made me feel like a feather. In the seven months since changing our diet, I’ve lost 20 more lbs.

John McDougall and his contemporaries largely work with aging folks with chronic illnesses like arthritis and diabetes. Abagail and I want to get ahead of the curve with these diseases and try to prevent them from ever happening.

We have been loving our SOS-free, whole-foods, plant-based diet. It has its challenges, like eating out is pretty difficult. It’s a lot simpler though, and we’re spending less money on specialty vegan food products. Most importantly though is that we feel better.

I eat mostly oatmeal with berries for breakfast. We have about a dozen recipes we cycle through for lunch and dinner. I’ll definitely be sharing our favorites here soon.

Having a more holistic and science-based understanding of food has utterly changed the way I think about and look at my health. It’s no longer about chasing after my 16-year-old self’s idealism of fixing my health problems by running every day. It’s about the bigger picture of what I’m putting into my body. It’s about understanding what we eat and how that makes us feel.

Weight Loss Chart

Looking back at my journey so far, I can see now that I didn’t have an understanding of nutrition and food and how that played into my weight and how I felt. Even when I was running every day in my late teens, I didn’t fully understand how what’s more important is what I eat.

It’s awesome when people find a physical activity that they love, like yoga or going to the gym or running. I’m just not super into that stuff these days. I’ve stuck to walking the last three years, and it has been treating me well. I get out and move my body every day and that does the trick. It’s free, it’s something I enjoy, and it’s something I hope to do for decades to come.

Montana in March 2018
Abagail and I at Yellowstone National Park in March

I was 208 lbs the last time I got weighed for a medical exam. I also got blood work done as part of this exam, and the numbers were all in healthy ranges. (My cholesterol levels were particularly low and healthy.) I’ll catch a glance of myself in the mirror and be presently surprised with how I look. It’s wonderful.

I don’t have a particular goal in mind other than to see where my body ends up. No longer falling into the obese or overweight category for my height and weight would be nice. I want to set myself up for a healthy and long life that’s as free from preventable, chronic diseases as possible. I’m going to keep on eating unprocessed, plant-based foods and walking daily.

I’ve been feeling great and loving the balance I’ve found. It all makes sense to me. It’s had such a positive impact on my life, my partnership, and my creative projects. I’m excited for the rest of this journey. I’ll be sure to share what I learn along the way.

Author: Brett Chalupa

day: software developer, night: comic artist

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