Sometime back in the 90s, I started going to a fitness center after work several times a week. They offered me a free assessment by a young fit trainer who did the usual, and concluded her assessment by telling me I could stand to lose 30 pounds. I was shocked. I was in my 40s at the time, active, but working full-time in front of computers and in meetings during the workday. I didn’t believe it was humanly possible for me to lose 30 pounds. I thought that the only people who could actually drop that much weight would be the morbidly obese, who could lose large amounts of weight under a controlled diet plan. But for myself, who didn’t even look overweight according to my coworkers (!?) I didn’t see that losing a large amount of weight would ever be an option. And I didn’t try. Besides, well…. whatever.
Fast forward to early last summer — hitting my life-time all-time high, post-menopausal, watching blood pressure creep up, not liking those Christmas photos from last year… what to do. I happened to attend a lecture where I work, presented by a researcher from Wisconsin’s National Primate Research Center, about a study in calorie restriction, comparing longevity and morbidity in two groups of Rhesus monkeys — a study that’s been ongoing for twenty years. You can google it. I listened carefully to the detailed description of the research methodology and the findings so far, and looked at the photographs of some of the monkeys from each group — comparing animals the same age but who had been on very different diets. One group ate a “normal” unrestricted Rhesus monkey diet, and the other group consumed 30% fewer calories. Nutritionally, their diets were identical. The photographic evidence was particularly striking — the monkeys on restricted diets looked young while those on unrestricted diets looked old and haggard. The other striking result was the nearly total absence of age-related diseases in the calorie-restricted monkeys compared to the unrestricted monkeys who manifested the usual set of illnesses — diabetes, high blood pressure, cancers mostly.
I was curious about how they’d started the study. They knew, I guess, what kind of diet Rhesus monkeys “should” have and I believe for the first week, both groups ate the same. The second week, the test group had their diet reduced by 100 calories, the third week by another hundred calories, and on like that until they reached a 30% reduction where they’ve been maintained throughout their lives. The more I read about this research, the more intrigued I became. Calorie restriction research has been done in many species with increased longevity and decreased morbidity shown repeatedly. Apparently in Rhesus monkeys, the 2 studies in two different research centers, comparing 2 groups of monkeys are demonstrating the same results as studies in other species.
I decided after all the reading and listening to the lecture, that beginning after my vacation in late July, I would attempt to practice calorie restriction. My reason was not to live longer but rather to live healthier and to see if I could maintain a reduced calorie diet. I thought it would be horrible — the process of deprivation — and that I would likely become a witch. There had to be reasons why more people did not restrict calories. One of the primate center researchers told me about the Calorie Restriction Society so I consulted their website — you can google it — and read about their cautions, and detailed instructions. You can do the same. I already know what a healthy diet involves and I take supplements, and I see a nutritionist once a month (paid for by my health plan) so I planned a few months in advance that I would start the experiment in late summer.
I thought about it for weeks, wrote Day 1 on the calendar. I was ready.
Back from vakay…. the day after returning was a Tuesday — Day 1 of Week 1 of baseline data collection. I know I could have used Weight Watchers online, but I did not want to pay anything to anybody in the process of the experiment. So, I created an Excel file on my laptop, and used a low-tech paper slip system for keeping track during the day of what I ate. Week 1 was baseline data collection. Each day that first week, I just wrote down what I ate and calculated the calories using calorieking.com. There are many places online to find calories of common foods eaten and of calories in restaurant food. I also recorded hours slept each night, minutes of exercise, and weight each day or so. You can’t lose weight if you’re not getting enough sleep (google that one), and exercise is critical. By the end of the week, I had data for 7 days and I calculated an average of what I normally eat. I was surprised to find that it was 1742 calories per day average — I thought it might be more. 30% less than that meant that my ultimate target would be something over 1200 calories per day, which is not much. I was dubious.
For week 2, I had a target of 1642 average calories per day – 100 less than the previous week’s average. At the end of the second week, I calculated what I had actually consumed, averaged it, subtracted 100 and had a new target for week 3. Each week, I’d aim for 100 calories less than the previous week. And I was exercising. A good amount of weight to lose each week ranges from .5 to 2 lbs, and much to my surprise, that’s what happened. The first few weeks were not as hard as I thought they might be. As I got closer to my target however, it became a bit more challenging. I had to plan more carefully and when I got to my total for the day, I just had to stop eating. Husband was supportive. I dealt with the hunger pangs at night by drinking unsweetened herbal tea, loudly announcing that I was hungry, and going to bed without eating anything else.
This week, was the official arrival at 20 lbs lost, not “almost 20 lbs” but a full and complete 20 lbs. Never in my life have I lost that much weight except after giving birth. Astonishingly, it was not as hard as I thought it would be. It wasn’t simple… well, maybe it was simple but not easy. But it wasn’t as hard as I thought either. No Weight Watchers, no meetings, no “edible food-like substances”, no mail-order diet — we cook at home and eat real food that we like.
Christmas and family all around — a pie a day prepared and consumed by the group, huge turkey…. well, I got through it without gaining anything; didn’t lose but didn’t gain. Progress. I reduced the amount of what I normally eat over holidays, but didn’t eliminate. I love pie! I love wine! But I was focusing on eating half of what I might normally eat over a holiday. So, it’s all possible. The magic is in writing things down — daily. Quantitative tracking and doing things you don’t think you can do — like going to the movies and only eating 2 cups of popcorn.
I would like to shed another 10. We’ll see how it goes. It’s all true — how much better you feel, the blood pressure goes down automatically. All the blood work at the annual physical was great. It works. I called it the Rhesus Monkey Diet, in tribute to those poor primates whose lives are dedicated to medical research. But they inspired me with evidence and a process, I tried it, and I achieved a goal. And I’m not making this up. And I’m not selling anything.