As I lay in the emergency room writhing in agony, the nurse asked, “On a scale of one to ten, how bad would you rate your pain?” I had experienced back pain before, but never anything like this.“Let’s put it this way” I responded, “If I owned a gun I would not be ready to use it yet, but I would be comforted just knowing it was there.”
She did not think my lame attempt at humor was funny, but that's what my severe back pain was doing to me.
Not everyone ends up in the ER with back pain. For me, the factors leading up to my emergency room visit included the fact that at only five feet ten inches tall, I weighed about 320 pounds! Becoming overweight didn’t happen overnight. My weight slowly crept up over many years, which is probably one reason I didn’t relate my obesity to overeating. I really didn’t think I was eating much more than I had been eating in the past. Since I loved food (and still do!), eating a half-dozen cookies at one time just didn’t seem unreasonable. I didn’t realize that six cookies could be as much as 1,200 calories! It really bothered me that I was slowly-but-surely gaining weight yet didn’t know what to do about it. Diets always failed and exercise never seemed to help.
This was the final straw, I simply had to lose weight. But like most other overweight people, I had tried all kinds of diets and they never worked. In my case I would always loose an encouraging amount of weight at first and then hit a plateau. After a few weeks on the plateau I would decide, “What’s the point of missing out on all the foods I love when I’m not losing weight anyway?” and that would be the end of the diet.
At first I just laughed it off, made jokes, made light of the situation. Eventually it was no longer a laughing matter. Even minor physical activity became drudgery—just walking up the stairs in my home was exhausting. I was constantly embarrassed because I could no longer find clothes that fit and I always looked sloppy. Worse yet, I felt like my obesity was a poor testimony of my faith. For example, I tried to avoid teaching on Bible passages that spoke of self-control. I felt like a hypocrite teaching on self-control when I was more than 100 pounds overweight. I kept pleading with God "Please help me with this!" In his own timing, he did, but first I had to discover my part in it all.
Calories Vs. Gluttony
Most overweight Christians are painfully aware of what the Bible says about gluttony. For example, “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor…” (Prov. 23:20-21a, NIV). Or, “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach…” (Phil. 3:19, NIV). One of the roadblocks to my weight loss, however, was that I was convinced that I was not one of those people. I really didn’t think I ate all that much. What I didn’t realize was that weight loss is not just about the quantity of food we eat, but about how many calories the food contains--It's all about the calories!
I discovered that the amount of calories a food contains is not always very intuitive. For example, I never would have dreamed that a single “healthy” taco salad can contain as many calories as three, delicious, jelly-filled donuts! I didn’t realize that I could stuff myself with four servings of Culvers’ mashed potatoes and gravy (which I love) for about the same amount of calories as a single Big Mac. It’s not just about quantity. It’s about calories. Understanding this fact, allowed me to eat enough food so that I did not go hungry, while staying within what I soon called my calorie “budget.”
To make calorie counting easier, I signed up to be a user on CalorieCount.com, later changing to LiveStrong.com and finally landing on MyfitnessPal.com. I selected a goal weight of 230 pounds. This was not an ideal weight, of course, but I thought it was a realistic target. The website asked about the level of my physical activity and I selected the lowest level. I admit it, I was a couch potato (mmm, potatoes!).
According to the website, if I ate 2,400 calories per day I should achieve my goal in about 18 months. I knew, of course, that I could lose more weight—and lose it faster—by lowering my calorie goal, but I wanted a calorie total I could live with permanently. I figured that there was little point in struggling to lose weight if I was just going to gain it back again anyway.
Once I signed up, it was just a matter of keeping track of my calories for that day. The calorie websites make that easy as they contain extensive databases of foods which include calorie and nutrition information. All I had to do was type the name of the food and/or restaurant in the search box, fill in the quantity, and click to add it to my list for the day. The websites automatically tally up the calories and other nutritional information and tell me how many calories I have left for the day. Since I am on the computer every day anyway, searching for foods and recording calories turned out to be easy and even fun! I took it so far as to download the apps for my smart phone! I have come to call this weight lost program my “budget” rather than my diet. To me, diet implied something I discarded after I reached my goal. I knew if I discarded this, I would immediately begin to gain weight again.
It’s about choices
Next to losing weight, the main goal of my “budget” is to make the right food choices to ensure that I curb my appetite, stay full and do not run out of calories before the day is over. One danger in this method is that it is entirely possible to lose weight while making unhealthy food choices. As long as I stayed within my budget, I found that I would lose weight regardless of whether my calories included chicken and fresh vegetables, or cake and ice cream.
This, however, turned out to be one of the features that made this budget so successful for me, i.e. that I didn’t have to give up the sweets I love. I just had to budget for them and eat them in moderation. So for example, I will sometimes cut down on the amount of food I eat during the day just so I have enough calories left over at the end of the day to enjoy a cookie or some ice cream! Being able to enjoy the delicious foods I love is one of the things that has kept me on this “budget” for so long.
Not all calories are created equal
Although I haven’t given up junk food entirely, I am actually making MORE healthy food choices now than I ever ate before! This is because, first, the budget has required me to limit my overall intake of sweets, which is certainly healthier. Second, in order to make my calories stretch throughout the day, I tend to choose lower calorie (and more healthy) foods like turkey or grilled chicken rather than high fat, high cholesterol cheeseburgers or fried chicken. Or, as another example, since I love mashed potatoes, I order Culver’s mashed potatoes and gravy instead of fries. This is not only a more healthy option, but a more filling and lower calorie option as well. The point is that while I still eat some junk food, overall I am making much more healthy choices than before I was on my budget.
Exercise and going over budget
So what happens when I go over my budget? Simple. I never go over budget on purpose. I have discarded too many diets by thinking, “Well, I’ve blown it again. What’s the use?!” But on those rare occasions when I have accidentally gone over, I compensate by cutting back on calories the following day. I may also reward myself by setting a slightly higher (no binging!) calorie limit for special days like birthdays or holidays.
Another strategy for some might be to burn off excess calories through exercise. The websites all give the option of factoring in exercise with your calorie budget for weightloss. The more I exercise = the more calories I’m allowed to consume. When in physical therapy for back pain even the required walking around the block was uncomfortable. When the back pain went away, however, I began walking more and more. While walking, I often pass the time by listening to an ipod, talking on my cell phone or praying. This made the walking even more enjoyable.
Once my back was healed, I even began using weights. Nothing serious, mind you- all I have is a cheap incline bench and a couple of dumbbells. But it was beneficial because muscle is active tissue, which helps increase metabolism and helps you lose weight! When I started at 320 pounds, exercise was drudgery but I discovered a happy--rather than vicious--cycle. The more weight I lost, the more I enjoyed the exercise. I discovered, however, while exercise is essential to good health, it did very little to help me lose weight. Losing weight was all about the calories.
In it for the long haul
One of the websites suggested that I should eat all of my allotted calories for the day. If I consistently come in under my target for the day, it may cause me to start becoming hungry which would make it harder to stay on the budget. I love this rule because if I get to the end of my day and have calories left over, I can eat the rest of my calories just for the sheer pleasure of eating— and do so entirely guilt-free! This was one of those features that helped me stay on the budget for so long.
Finally, I mentioned earlier how those pesky plateaus have been the downfall of many of my previous "diets". I found a simple solution. I only weighed myself once a month and it turned out to be great strategy! There were times—especially as I got closer to my goal—that my weight loss for the month would be minimal, but I almost always lost something each month and that was enough to keep me going. Even if I only lost a couple pounds for the entire month, I would look at a pound of hamburger in the freezer to remind myself that losing two pounds is no small accomplishment.
Realistic goals for the future will please God and give you victory
I’ve been on my “budget” for over six years. I exceeded my initial goal of 230 pounds and In fact, after I got down to 230 I found that I really didn’t need so many calories anymore and was able to comfortably lower my calorie limit further. When my weight dropped to 210, I was comfortably able to lower my calorie intake even further to 1,950 and I have now maintained a steady 180 pounds. The point being: the more weight you lose, the easier it will be to lower your calorie limit and you’ll lose a little more weight. After dropping 140 pounds, I now feel better, look better, have virtually no back problems, and rarely if ever go hungry.
One of the major obstacles to weight loss is the understandable desire to lose a lot of weight in as short a time as possible. This causes people to set unrealistic calorie goals that they usually just can’t maintain. Rather than making weight loss your primary goal, make your primary goal to please God by exercising “self-control.” The Bible has a lot to say about self-control. If you set a realistic calorie goal—even if it is just a modest reduction—you can feel good about yourself every day because you know you are exercising self-control regardless of how much you weigh—and eventually the weight will take care of itself.
I’m now 60 years old, 140 pounds lighter, and feel better than I have in decades! I can now run with my grandkids and even pull them on a sled through the snow. When I volunteer at Feed My Starving Children or at the Operation Christmas Child processing plant I step up to the more strenuous jobs (lifting containers of grain or boxes of gifts) I can also keep up with guys 30 or 40 years younger than I am! Now when I look in the mirror and can’t believe the guy looking back…is me, and I am often overwhelmed with joy and gratitude to God for giving me victory!
Dennis Ingolfsland is the library director and a Professor of Bible at Crown College in Minnesota. He is also the pastor of ValleyView Baptist Church in Shakopee, Minnesota. He has published three books, over 80 book reviews and nearly 40 articles in such journals as the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Trinity Journal, Bibliotheca Sacra, Princeton Theological Review, et al. He says, "Before I started my 'calorie budget' I never exercised and found it exhausting and even physically painful just to walk around the block." Now that he has lost so much weight, he can regularly do pushups, sit-ups, weightlifting and enjoy walking. He celebrates being older than 60 and married with three grown children and seven grandchildren.