This is the story of how Karen Myers, 68, embraced the numbers and finally shed the weight.
It starts off with a familiar story. Karen says she was lean as a teen, but like so many others, she put weight on gradually throughout her adulthood:
“I ballooned as high as 240 at my worst, and I’m only 5’3″.”
Along the way, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Her sense of well-being and self-esteem were suffering.
“Obviously the cosmetics had always been a problem. But the actual physical impact started to worry me … three or four flights of stairs at once started to become a challenge. This was becoming unacceptable.”
But she wasn’t ready to fully commit to a truly effective weight loss plan. She dieted sporadically, and lost some weight, gained some back, and eventually stabilized around 210 to 220. Karen didn’t get serious about weight loss until she experienced an unrelated health scare — colon cancer. She emerged from chemotherapy cancer-free, a few dozen pounds lighter, and with a newfound determination to improve her body.
“I was determined to use that as a reset point and an opportunity for a serious determination to maintain that weight and, if possible, lose more — as much more as I could.”
Karen, a former executive at a tech firm, has an organized, rigorous, data-driven mindset. For the first time in her life, she flexed her analytical muscles and “professional data-nerd skills” and attacked weight loss as if it were a math problem. Which, if you think about it, it really is.
It all started with discovering her true caloric needs. The unavoidable reality of weight loss is that calories matter. Decades of research and the very laws of thermodynamics guarantee that if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. But how do you know how many calories you’re actually burning?
If you’ve ever looked into this question, you may have come across some of what Karen calls “wishful thinking” and “happy horsesh*t” — imprecise advice that doesn’t engage with the science and lets people believe that they can eat a lot more than they really should. But your caloric needs might be well below the 2,000-per-day goal that is so commonly bandied about.
Karen did the research and was shocked to discover that at her size and age, her caloric needs were probably as low as 1,400 per day. And to lose weight, she would have to eat far less. She decided on a goal of about 900 calories per day.
How on earth does one get by on as little as 900 calories per day? Karen found her favorite foods that were not calorically dense and made them the centerpiece of her new diet: “What worked for me was to identify those things that I could eat every day and not get tired of that were not horribly unhealthy.”
She didn’t obsess over nutrition goals — sustainability was the goal. Karen likes red meat, so lean steak became a staple. She swapped cookies, an old favorite, for air-popped popcorn, a low-calorie snack that she can eat “indefinitely.”
Eventually, she achieved “an equilibrium of limited choices that would, if I were paying attention, keep me within that goal of 900 calories per day.”
The important thing is that the numbers worked. Armed with apps and devices — she used Lose It! to track calorie intake, a Fitbit to track exercise, and her own spreadsheets to make sense of it all — Karen saw that she was losing weight about as quickly as the math had indicated she should: “It confirmed what was real, at least for me, and what I could legitimately aim for.”
Type 2 diabetes was not the major concern driving Karen’s weight loss journey. Though she was diagnosed about two decades ago, Karen spent most of that time with her A1C in the 6s, and has never suffered from any obvious diabetic complications.
But “little miss data” couldn’t pass up the opportunity to track another metric. When she started dieting, she also got a continuous glucose monitor (CGM).
Remarkably, her weight loss has essentially ended her struggle with diabetes. Her blood sugar levels are now firmly below the diabetic range. Today, she doesn’t even need the CGM.
“I watched those numbers going up and down for two years. And I don’t do it anymore, because it’s not necessary anymore. I’ve been within normal range now for a couple of years, and I expect to stay there … as long as I’m doing 900 calories per day.”
Along the way, her hypertension disappeared, too.
Karen is nearing her goal weight, 140 pounds, and expects to reach it soon.
She is under zero illusions about what maintenance mode will look like. She knows that keeping the weight off will be a lifelong struggle: “I’m going to need eternal vigilance.”
Many people lose weight by dieting, but very few can actually keep it off. The body has a nasty habit of fighting back against weight loss. When you lose weight, you just get hungrier. At the same time, your body gets more efficient, burning fewer calories. It’s really not fair, and it means that maintaining weight loss can require as much discipline as dieting, or more.
She promises that she will “never give up on the data tracking, being resolutely honest, even when the numbers are bad.” Her rigorous approach will let her know if she can start eating more calories in maintenance mode — or if she needs to stick with 900 calories per day for the long haul.
Karen is painfully aware of her vulnerabilities. One is a sweet tooth that can be difficult to satisfy with such a restricted diet. “I will always like those things that can pack it back on, and I’ve had enough slips to know [the cravings] will probably never go away.”
“The only real solution is to not have it in the house. The weakness is not so much ‘don’t eat it’ as ‘don’t buy it.’” She’s also realized that it’s easier to keep the unhealthy stuff out of her shopping cart if she avoids shopping on an empty stomach.
Another vulnerability is her love of cooking: “I haven’t baked bread for three years. That’s a real pity.” It’s just something she’s learned to live without.
Karen is planning for success. “I don’t own a stitch of clothing that I had three years ago. It’s all gone.” She is ebullient when describing how liberating it is to purchase an entirely new wardrobe. She didn’t save a single garment from her heavy days because she intends to never need those clothes again.
“I’m not letting that happen.”
Karen’s Weight Loss Prescription
Find out your true daily caloric need for your height, age, and gender. Hint: It’s probably not 2,000 calories.
Count calories (a data-tracking app like Lose It! makes it very easy). Log every meal, every snack.
Put together a meal plan that has you eating at a caloric deficit of 400 to 500 calories per day. Stick with it for a couple of weeks and see what happens. You might need to adjust.
Track everything! Karen weighs herself daily and always records the result in her app. She also tracks her physical measurements (like waist circumference) every two weeks.
While food restriction is the most important part of Karen’s weight loss strategy, exercise helps too. She chooses low-impact cardio and strength training with dumbbells from the comfort of her home.
The most important thing is rigor. The best way to keep from spiraling out of control is to keep logging your meals and your results.
Karen’s advice: “To everyone who’s tried and failed to lose significant weight, don’t give up. You CAN do it, and it’s never too late to start (again, if necessary).”
“I never thought I’d be fit and healthy at 68 after a lifetime of fighting significant weight.”