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How Did Alasdair Wilkins Lose 100 lbs in a Year?

Published: 10/5/15
4 readers recommend

By Esther Wu, Tiffany Kha, Adam Brown, and Kelly Close

Alasdair Wilkins, a former diaTribe editor and contributor, recently published his remarkable 100-pound weight loss story. The article – “I lost 100 pounds in a year. My ‘weight loss secret’ is really dumb” – has since garnered over 35,000 Facebook shares and over 1,000 Tweets. Our team had the privilege of sitting down with Alasdair, a former diaTribe editor and current diaTribe contributing writer, to dig into his success story:

  • How did he do it? (One hour a day of uphill treadmill walking while watching Netflix)

  • What advice would he give to anyone trying to lose weight? (Figure out what works for you, set modest, low pressure expectations, don’t expect results overnight)

  • How can loved ones be supportive? (Let the person losing weight set the terms of engagement)

  • How would he invest $10 billion in obesity? (Prevention in childhood)

What we loved most about this interview were the excellent insights around specifics – Alasdair’s routines, goal setting, and mind states. We often hear, “Eat less, move more” as the core advice for weight loss. Unfortunately, that makes the behavior change sound so much easier than it is.

It also ignores the central theme of Alasdair’s journey: He found what worked for him. Here at diaTribe, we are the first to emphasize that weight loss is tremendously challenging in our modern food environment. We would not downplay that fact for a second, but do hope this interview makes it seem a little bit more feasible. Let us know what you think.

How Did You Lose 100 lbs?

KELLY CLOSE: Hi Alasdair! We so miss seeing you around the office! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Your Vox article on losing 100 lbs was an inspiring read, and it’s been terrific to see it widely shared on social media. How did your 100-pound weight loss journey start?

ALASDAIR WILKINS: It really did not start out as a weight loss endeavor at all. About this time last year, I’d reached a point of crisis – there were personal issues, professional issues, and weight issues. I just wanted to do something to feel better about myself. So I began going to the gym, at first with my roommate a few times a week. It felt good to be walking on the treadmill.

I could not bring myself to put my real weight down on the treadmill – I weighed 285 pounds then – so I put 275 down. I just wanted to make the weight counter on the treadmill not a lie. That was basically the extent of my goal at that point: get 10 pounds off.

ADAM BROWN: Was it critical to start with modest initial expectations? Some people get motivated by a huge goal, but it sounds like that might have been too daunting.

ALASDAIR: Yes. The very small initial movement, without adding any larger expectations, allowed me to start going to the gym every day and to do a little bit more each time. I was thinking about my weight loss on a very small scale: I just wanted to be feel better, and I wasn’t trying to lose 100 lbs. That really took a lot of pressure off and allowed me to very quickly find a routine at the gym that I liked. I also didn’t buy a scale until a couple months in.

ESTHER WU: Once you crossed the 10-lb weight loss mark, how did you stay motivated?

ALASDAIR: I kept trying to seek out the next round number. If I was at 270 pounds, I worked to get to 265, and then to 260. I really trained myself to look at these things in discrete steps, as opposed to one giant project. My goodness, losing 100 pounds still seems like a crazy, daunting thing to me. I did lose 100 lbs, but I think it's more correct to say I lost 5 lbs 20 times over.

ADAM: Experts talk about “small wins,” and it sounds like this strategy worked for you. But isn’t this hard with weight loss? Isn’t it easy to get discouraged trying things, not seeing any visible weight loss progress, and then giving up? Did not having a scale at first help keep frustration away? 

ALASDAIR: I am very hesitant to give any big picture advice. But I would say that however someone embarks upon losing weight, don’t weigh yourself at the outset. Not being intentional about it really made a difference. It allowed me to focus on the fact that for the first time in my life, I was enjoying exercising. I was enjoying the act of going to the gym and being on the treadmill. I was doing different elevations and just watching Netflix on my tablet. I was lucky that I hit upon the right strategy pretty quickly, but I think it was really powerful to build a positive, sustainable experience rather than think about weight or goals from the outset.

ADAM: Did you have a goal and just not realize it? Perhaps it was a process goal – just going through the routine?

ALASDAIR: Absolutely. The key thing is that I was setting goals that were much more about the success condition and not the failure condition. Every day, the idea was to do a little bit more on the treadmill than I'd done the day before and just push myself that little bit further. It speaks to the idea of process – there was not really a clearly defined victory, and it’s what set me up to think of weight loss as a daily project. Obesity is a lifelong condition, and my weight is something I'll be working to maintain probably for the rest of my life. But I really thought about it just one day at a time.

I also took stock of my previous negative behaviors and weaponized them against my weight. I tend to be an all-or-nothing kind of person. In the past that has led me to do nothing; in this case, I used it to go to the gym every day

TIFFANY KHA: This is all fascinating. I'm very curious about food – did that play any role in your weight loss?

ALASDAIR: Exercise was very useful as a way to organize my weight loss experience mentally. I was not thinking about diet at all when I started out. I could certainly stand to improve my diet, but other things were working. There was definitely a portion reduction that happened, and I'm sure that that was a piece of it.  

But the way I knew that I was continuing to make progress was going to the gym everyday – it was not food related. I did literally go to the gym every day from the middle of July to May 2nd of this year. In terms of organizing my approach and building a sustainable routine, diet was something that happened incidentally along the way. Exercise was what I focused my attention on and where I drew a lot more strength and sense of accomplishment.

KELLY: That's amazing, Alasdair. With that in mind, has your view of food changed at all in the past year? 

ALASDAIR: When your personal life or professional life isn’t going great, what is the easiest thing to make yourself feel better on a short-term basis? Food.

I'm more aware of how much I'm ordering now versus a year or so ago. I’m eating two thirds at most of what I was ordering previously, and not only do I not have as much of an appetite anymore, but I also don’t need food to complete my day in the way that I used to. I still enjoy food, but at the same time, whether or not I had a good meal isn’t what makes or breaks my day.

ADAM: Did you ever think about trying an obesity drug (Qsymia, Belviq, Contrave, Saxenda)?

ALASDAIR: Not really, because it just didn’t feel like a particularly appropriate thing to explore in my mid-20s. For me, the idea of looking into a drug would also be to concede that my weight was something beyond my control. I was 100 lbs overweight, and I'm sure some doctors might have put me in the morbidly obese category. I thought, “At least I'm not 200 pounds overweight,” which is when it would be really serious. There was always a way to define the “medicalized” section of obesity upward in a way that it excluded me from it. I thought my obesity was something that could be solved with lifestyle on my own.

I’m not sure people want to think about their weight as a medical condition. There’s also uncertainty about whether the drug will even work. I was aware of these drugs pretty early on in their history, but as with other candidates, I just would not have wanted to go to a doctor and talk about it.

Advice for Others Trying to Lose Weight

KELLY: We could talk to you forever Alasdair – we have so many questions. To start, what is the biggest learning from losing 100 lbs that you would share with diaTribe readers?

ALASDAIR: The takeaway from my experience is not “people should do what I did,” unless what we're defining what I did as “finding what worked for me.” Initially that meant something that made me feel better about myself.

The biggest misconception I had was that weight loss would be miserable. If it were, I would have quit. It wasn’t easy to lose all this weight, but I was looking forward to going to the gym every time. And as someone who did not like exercising for the longest time, that was the craziest thing to discover. It’s a misconception that weight loss should be a punishment as opposed to a way of reframing your lifestyle so that healthy behaviors are self-reinforcing and positive.

ADAM: Yeah, that's so interesting. How do you think people should figure out what works for them?

ALASDAIR: It’s more likely that you’re going to find success by taking stock of what things in life you enjoy doing and what your resources are. My big thing was getting on the treadmill and doing inclined walking because I do enjoy hiking. One of my big resources as a freelance writer and SAT tutor was time. I could carve out an hour of my day every day. I’m aware that there are a lot of people who have many more responsibilities than I do, who have families, jobs – often multiple jobs. I'm certainly speaking from the perspective of someone who comes from an upper middle class background and the particular advantages that come with that.

ESTHER: What would you say to people who have tried to lose weight in the past, but have not been successful?

ALASDAIR: You need to know this is a marathon and you cannot sprint a marathon. Prior to this attempt, I unsuccessfully tried to lose weight two other times. In both cases, I was thinking, “My life would be so much better if I took a thousand steps in this direction.” When you're thinking in those terms, it is so hard to take the first step, and it’s so easy to get discouraged. Nothing is going to fix the issue overnight. Even pursuing an option like bariatric surgery is only the start of a solution.

The Culture Around Obesity and Weight Loss

KELLY: Let's move to more big picture stuff. Can you tell us what you think are society’s biggest misconceptions about weight loss?

ALASDAIR: The idea that you can do it all at once and that it's something that has a discrete beginning and end. Going to the gym will always be a part of my routine going forward and will have to evolve as I get older. This is why I think there are a lot more failure stories than success stories. People think, I'm going to lose the weight and then I can go on with my life. Weight maintenance is as important as weight loss, but weight maintenance doesn’t have the same cultural currency as weight loss.

ADAM: And, what about the stigma that surrounds overweight and obesity? How can we reduce it?

ALASDAIR: I think there are three major sources of messaging about weight that we receive: one is from society at large, one is from our friends, family, and loved ones, and the third is from ourselves. In my experience, the third is by far the loudest voice.

When I was fat, I was keenly aware of it at all times. The messaging about weight that obese people get from society at large, from the medical community, and from themselves is consistently negative. So the best option for a positive source of messaging is from friends and loved ones.

That’s difficult, because I understand that you want to help someone who is struggling with weight to the point that it may be a health problem. The best thing is to care about someone, not define them solely by weight, and to not see them predominantly as a medical condition or problem. You're there to be supportive, if and when they want to work on improving their health.

ESTHER: We know many of our readers do not have diabetes or even weight problems, but are supporting people who do. How can family members or friends be supportive without increasing pressure or stigma?

ALASDAIR: Weight is a very fundamental part of identity, and it's something that, unlike some socially stigmatized identities, is very difficult to keep invisible. Allowing someone to set the terms of their own social interaction with their weight loss can be very powerful. If they’ve haven’t talked about it yet, then just let it be. When I started this process, for the longest time, I only talked about it with my family. I didn’t want to talk about it with others in case it failed. I didn’t want to lose 20 lbs, tell everyone, and then gain it all back again and feel like even more of a fool and a failure than before.

If someone has set out and said, “I'm going to lose weight,” then the best thing you can do is provide unconditional support. Let the person trying to lose the weight set the terms of engagement.

ESTHER: We've been discussing and writing more about government interventions here. Thinking about public policy or legislation to help with obesity, what is most promising – soda taxes, nutrition labeling, subsidies for fruits and vegetables?

ALASDAIR: One idea I heard, just as a not entirely serious thought experiment, is that if you really want to attack obesity and our food environment, the biggest single thing you could do is ban refrigerators. If you literally could not store food, it would certainly change things.I realize there are logical issues with that - it's not a completely serious proposal! - but it's a quick, back-of-the-envelope way of illustrating the role of access to plentiful supplies of food.

But more seriously, I think soda taxes are interesting. A lot of the discourse has not been great – some comes from corporate interests, and some stems from people not discussing weight in a healthy or productive way. Are taxes a positive form of social engineering or something that is punitive? I’m not sure we know.

We also need to think about the experience of the working class in our country. What can we do as a society to help them? Vast swaths of the population are working ridiculous hours and the only way to support themselves is by buying low nutrition foods high in sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

KELLY: Okay, the big question! If you had $10 billion to spend on treating and preventing obesity, what would you invest in?

ALASDAIR: The temptation is to say that with $10 billion you can do a Manhattan Project for obesity and find the treatment. I'm skeptical about the treatment for obesity, and I think there's much more scientific evidence to say prevention is the real thing. I would put a lot more money towards prevention and ensuring that kids are not becoming obese in the first place. It's a lot easier to keep weight off if you never gain it in the first place. Michelle Obama is doing it with Let’s Move! and the Partnership for a Healthier America, and it seems like there’s been some early success there.

The other thing is the obesogenic environment. With $10 billion you could do a lot of things to redesign society and our lived environment: sedentary lifestyles, low nutrition foods, and a disproportionate impact on low-income individuals.

ADAM: Alasdair, thank you so much for speaking with us! It was an honor to work with you at diaTribe, and we’re so glad that your story can now inspire so many others!

ALASDAIR: Thank you! Thank you so much.

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