A Journey Begins
A Journey Begins
By Nicholas Kaminski
In May of 2018 I returned from my first tour the heaviest I have ever been in my life. My heaviest weigh-in was 246 pounds, but I’m sure I weighed over 250 lbs while I didn’t have access to a scale. While on the road for six months, I ate out at least three times a day with no focus whatsoever on the nutritional value of what I was ordering. Living this way took its toll relatively quickly, but I didn’t gain all the weight while I was away.
Working as a gigging musician for ten years before that meant I was eating fast food between closely-booked rehearsals and performances. Giving myself no time between commitments gave me an excuse to cruise into the fast food drive-thru and order whatever I could quickly scarf down while driving between them. On top of that near-daily routine was the bar food while at bar/club gigs, opening night receptions, aftershow late-night eats, and the rare night off to hang with friends inevitably spent eating and drinking. It all added up to keeping me overweight for my entire adult life.
I had two suitcases of clothes with me on the road, and somewhere around 4 months into the tour I noticed the clothes getting tight. I knew I needed to make a change. I made that decision six months ago and I am down 49 pounds at the time of this writing. While the specific choices I made may not be right for everyone, I want to share how I lost that weight, improved my mental state, and learned to love myself.
Metrics are objective, you are not. Even if you are not trying to embark on a weightloss journey, it is good to have metrics with which to monitor your health.
Get an app to track your journey. (I used MyFitnessPal.) You want to keep track of your weight, but also measure parts of your body you’d like to change. I keep measurements of my waist and chest. If you are working out at the same time you are trying to lose weight, you may put on muscle while simultaneously losing fat in a way that makes your weight measurement a poor representation of the changes your body is going through. Having auxiliary measurements like the circumference of your waist helps give you more tangible indications of how successful you are.
Stop Lying To Yourself
Metrics are objective, you are not. Your mind is capable of convincing itself of anything. If you don’t think you eat out that often, check your credit card statement and see just how often you go. You have to be honest with yourself about what your current situation is. You can’t make any progress if your biggest hurdle is yourself. No one is going to hold you accountable but you.
I lied to myself for years. I was in denial of how unhealthy I was. While I was hiding my fast food bags and takeout containers from my friends, family and significant other, I was also burying the very memory of what I was eating. In effect, I was hiding my fast food habit from myself. I would seemingly blackout while having “just a handful” of chips and find that the whole bag was gone and I had lost time.
The problem was exponentially worse when I was drunk, because I could blame “Drunk Nick” for eating that entire Rutgers Fat Sandwich at 2am. It wasn’t me, it was Drunk Me. You don’t need to be an alcoholic to have a Drunk You. You just need to have something you’re ashamed about doing. But the thing is, there is no Drunk Me. There is only me and the choices I made. Any attempt to dissociate myself from the actions of Drunk Me or Hangry Me or Lonely Me or Sad Me or Angry Me was a lie I was telling myself. So I stopped lying.
Now that I was being honest with myself, I could finally see behind the curtain a little bit. Knowing my motivations for my unhealthy behaviors would help me create a plan for how to approach correcting them. I can’t tell you what your triggers are; you’ve got to be honest with yourself. Want to quit smoking? Make sure you’re not in denial about smoking to deal with your failing marriage or else you’re going to light up as soon as you get into another inevitable argument.
Figure Out Why You Eat
Everyone has a trigger for why they choose to indulge their vices. Maybe you drink or maybe you smoke. For me, I like to eat in response to pretty much any emotion. Girlfriend dump me? Let’s get Wendy’s for comfort. Promotion at work? Let’s get Thai food to celebrate! Lonely while on contract? Buffalo Chicken will keep you company. Worried you won’t make friends with your new coworkers? Join them for all-you-can-eat sushi! Just bored? Entire sleeve of Thin Mints to the face.
It’s not like I needed to spend a long time analyzing myself to figure out what my triggers are. I already knew pretty much exactly why I was as unhealthy as I was; I just needed to be honest with myself about those reasons. Problem: if eating was my coping mechanism, how would I react to actually dealing with my emotions? I figured I’d deal with that later; best not to think about it too hard just yet.
Set a Goal
After I had myself figured out, it was time to embark on my journey. However, my journey was never going to be successful if I didn’t know where I was going. So, I needed to set an end goal. The ultimate weight I’d like to get to. I set that weight at 190 pounds. I was 246 pounds at the first weigh-in, so that’s 56 pounds to lose. I felt that was a number that was both reasonably attainable and moderately substantial.
If you’re not trying to lose weight, but rather get healthier in other ways, a goal for you may be to run a marathon or to get your blood pressure down to the point where you no longer need to take medication. Whatever it is, think big but make sure to be reasonable and personal. A goal is not “look like Jason Momoa” a) because that is almost certainly impossible and b) because you should only ever strive to be the best version of you possible. If you’re trying to be someone else, you will undoubtedly fail. You can only be you.
I did not set a timeline. Crossing the finish line is important. As long as I keep pace and keep moving forward, I’ll be happy to be at that weight whenever I wind up getting there. I didn’t need to set a deadline of New Years to motivate myself. Deadlines--at least to me--are only additional chances to fail. I didn’t need any more odds stacked against me. (Nearly 100% of diets fail. More on that later.)
With my main goal set, it was time to set smaller goals. You don’t drive from New York to California without landmarks along the way; likewise, you don’t embark on a journey to a healthier body without small victories to celebrate. My goals were: 5 lbs down, 10 lbs down, 15 lbs down, 20 lbs down, under 220 lbs, under 210 lbs, under 200 lbs, and finally my end goal of 190 lbs.
These markers start at 5 pounds increments because I knew that losing 5 pounds is really easy. You can do it in a few days with a good poop. Getting started is difficult, so crossing a lot of goals early on is good psychologically. This is why video games scale up in difficulty over time. It is really easy to advance through to level 10 in Pokemon Go, which gives you the feeling that you are doing well and are good at this, which only makes you want to commit to it more once more work is required to get to the higher levels. Any health journey functions the same way.
Use Identity Instead of Ability
As I said, Pokemon Go encourages users to continue playing through the increased difficulty of attaining higher levels by scaling the early levels in a way that makes a player feel like they are good at the game. That is an important linguistic distinction: “I am good at…” is a statement of identity, something you are. This is a more powerful statement than “I can…”, which is a statement of ability.
Other statements of identity are statements of things that you do. “I play piano.” “I DJ.” “I write.” These are more powerful than “I can play piano.” “I can DJ.” “I can write.” Statements about who you are--and, are not--have more weight than statements about what you are able to do. This distinction is extremely important in making a lifestyle change.
There’s a reason diets invariably fail: diets are about ability and not about identity. A diet will dictate what you can and can’t eat. But those distinctions are lies. You say I can’t eat a cheeseburger? Watch me, punk. You can eat whatever you like whether you’re on a diet or not. To be successful long term, you need to start using statements of identity. Stop saying “I can’t eat that” and start saying “I don’t eat that.”
I found the difference to be remarkably effective in the changes I was about to make. In a diet of “can”s and “can’t”s, there is a concept of cheating. When you’ve eaten more than your allotted calories or fallen out of ketosis or eaten pizza at a party, you have failed in your discipline and you should feel guilty about it. Feel guilty enough and the emotional stress of the diet outweighs any rewards and you abandon the diet. But in a lifestyle of things that I am and things that I do, there was no way to cheat; there was only a way to betray who I am.
Three years before I would embark on this lifestyle change, I was working as a Music Teacher. I was asked to chaperone a 6th grade weekend trip to a camp in the woods Connecticut where all of the food served was farm-to-table vegan. Many of the students were nervous about the trip because it would be their first time away from home for multiple nights. I was nervous too; about the food.
I was nervous because whenever I wouldn’t eat on time, I would get terrible migraines. I always assumed I was hypoglycemic or something. Being off my own schedule to eat potentially non-filling food was scary. I brought excedrin to carry in my pocket at all times.
The reality of the weekend was life-changing. The first day we were at the camp I got my migraines, so I ate more food to get the migraines to stop and popped some excedrin. On the second day, however, my migraines were nearly gone. I didn’t compensate by eating more, either. By the third, I was migraine-free and thoroughly enjoying my small portions of food.
That’s when I realized the culprit of the migraines was never missing a meal or not eating enough. In addition to the camp being vegan, they also only served coffee, tea, and water as beverages. I used to drink either a diet coke or diet snapple with every meal religiously. I discovered by body had grown somewhat addicted to some ingredient in the diet beverages (likely aspartame). It wasn’t the food my body was craving at meals, it was the diet drinks.
So, diet sodas were the first thing I quit. I never drank regular sodas much, but would have the occasional root beer or Mexican coke. I lost 5 pounds immediately following giving up diet sodas and my migraines--which used to occur any time I was late to a meal--happen every year or so now.
Research shows that when you consume aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, your tongue detects the sweetness and tells your brain to expect sugar to digest. Your brain then instructs your body to produce insulin to process the sugar it thinks is about to be in your stomach. Unfortunately, it’s all a ruse and there’s no sugar to break down! So your body is left with extra insulin, which triggers you to feel hungry so you intake food. But then your tongue tastes food and the cycle starts all over again. The calories you save in a diet drink vs. a regular sugar drink are completely negated by the extra food you consume because the artificial sweetener made you hungrier.
So I had quit my first vice: artificial sweeteners. Problem is, I wasn’t only craving the aspartame. Something was definitely missing from my beverage experience once I tried stopping soda. In fact, it was two things. I craved the bubbly mouthfeel and the caffeine content of the diet coke as well.
Like a nicotine patch for my diet coke addiction, I knew I needed to find alternatives or I would fail. I started drinking coffee and unsweetened iced tea to replace the caffeine. For the bubbles, I learned to like LaCroix. However, I hated sparkling water before this. I think stepping down to unsweetened iced tea first to get used to not having such a sweet drink guided my taste buds to enjoy the muted taste of flavored sparkling water.
Finding healthy alternatives and “stepping stone” foods to replace foods I have an unhealthy relationship with was an important skill to have learned going into the deep end.
Making the Big Change
Back to May 2018. One month left of my tour. I could barely fit in my clothes I had brought in my suitcase. My blood pressure was so high I could hear my blood pumping in my ears when I’d lay down to sleep at night. It was time to make a change.
But being on the road has its challenges and you don’t have very much control over where you eat. Frequently, the tour bus would refuel at a truck stop and that was lunch. We’d play a one-horse town that only had a sketchy Arby’s where you heard someone from the previous tour got robbed. If I didn’t have control over where I ate, I could have some kind of control over what I ate.
So, my first big change was eliminating bread, pasta, and dairy from my diet. I decided that those were no longer foods that Nick eats. (Again, an identity statement.) The goal with this was to lead me towards foods at these restaurants that were less carb- and fat-based. Eliminating carbs and fat completely is dumb and impossible, especially on the road.
When you’re trying to stretch a per diem (or any budget, really), often the cheapest thing to get at a restaurant is a sandwich. Embracing an identity of someone who does not eat sandwiches means you may choose something healthier on the menu. It doesn’t mean you go from four Big-Macs and a large fry to a side salad and a kombucha. So instead of a double-cheeseburger and fries, I may get the chicken nuggets and fries. I got salads here and there. (I wasn’t big on the salads yet.)
I managed to stick to this no bread, pasta, diary life while eating out for every single meal for about two weeks. Then we hit an 11-day sit-down at a casino. Normally we would receive a per diem to buy food on our own. At the casino, however, in lieu of a per diem, we got $75 a day to eat at the guest buffet. All-you-can-eat for 11 days was a lot of temptation. All-you-can-eat for 11 days without the extra spending money to afford venturing outside the casino was worse. I stumbled, hard.
Get Back Up
To be honest, I fell flat on my face. I ate everything at that buffet for 11 days straight. If I had made any progress in the past two weeks, I surely had erased it. That’s when I was faced with a choice: I could say, “Screw it!” and give up on my endeavour, or I could get back up and keep walking forward. This is where the identity statements saved my life. Any other yo-yo diet I had gone on before ended in exactly this scenario. This time was different.
I was no longer a person who gives up. I was no longer a person who trips once and gives up on the journey. When driving to a new place, you don’t turn around and go home as soon as you make a wrong turn. Why do we do it to ourselves when we try to make positive changes in our life?
Maybe it’s social media. You see my post about losing 49 pounds and you just see a “before” and an “after.” It looks like a straight line from point a to point b. But if you looked at my weight graph on my app, you’ll see it was hardly a straight line down. I wish we all appreciated each other’s struggles on the way to success as much as we appreciated the end result.
Whatever it is, I found ways to make this new identity realized. I gave up bread, but that didn’t mean breaded chicken or fish. I still eat tortillas. I found vegan cheese I’ve learned to like. I kept going.
Hit a Plateau, Change the Game
Three months after no longer eating bread, pasta, and diary and I had lost 25 pounds. Two weeks later I had not lost any more weight. I hit my first plateau, just shy of the halfway mark to my goal. It was devastating. I had a great rhythm going. I loved stepping on the scale to see how much weight I had lost. Either something had gone wrong, or I needed to make more changes.
By this point, I was no longer on the road. I was working at summer stock on the Jersey Shore. I cooked most of my meals but a few times a week I would go to the local beach-fare restaurants. One place in particular has the best buffalo chicken tenders platter in the world. (Fight me.) I was able to eat this platter about once a week and still maintain my weight loss so I didn’t pay it much mind.
First, I decided to change my metrics. On the road, I didn’t have access to a scale, so I could only use tailor’s tape to measure my belly. Once I got to stock, I had a scale again. It was important for me in the beginning to only weigh myself once a week. Weight fluctuates daily depending on how much water and food you’ve taken in and how much of that has been processed (pooped) out. Daily weigh-ins at the start of one of these changes have discouraged me in the past, so I stuck with weekly weigh-ins. After the plateau, I changed to daily weigh-ins to see what foods were related to minute changes up and down of my weight.
Thanks to my metrics, this is where I found a huge breakthrough.
Watch Your Salt
I realized a direct correlation with the salt content of the foods I was eating and weight gain. When I ate my beloved buffalo chicken tenders platter, I would gain weight not just that day, but for up to three days after I ate it. I realized that my body was reacting to the high sodium content of the foods I was eating by retaining water until the extra salt was flushed out of my system.
Even if I was watching my portions and remaining true to my no bread, pasta, dairy identity, if I had fried chicken and french fries (which were totally fine for me to eat), it would disrupt my weight loss. Even if the food I was eating was otherwise healthy (like a stir-fry for example), if it was made with too much salt, my body would react to that by holding onto water and grinding my weight loss to a halt.
That’s when I had my “last supper” of Chegg’s Buffalized Chicken Tenders Platter with Santos Sauce, Fries with Ranch ™. I realized that I had eaten enough fried chicken and french fries over the past 28 years for an entire lifetime. It was time to add to the list of things I don’t eat: bread, pasta, dairy… and now fried chicken and french fries. I couldn’t justify the salt any more. Trying to would be lying to myself.
Find What Is Holding You Back
And I got over the plateau. In fact, I lost weight more quickly in the 3 weeks that followed the nixing of fried chicken and french fries than I did before or after. Those foods were truly holding me back from my true potential. Maybe for you, it’s not french fries. Maybe chocolate is holding you back. Maybe it’s beer. Whatever it is, you owe it to yourself to identify everything in your life that is keeping you from realizing your dreams.
That goes beyond just food. Maybe a boyfriend is stifling your growth and it’s time to move on. Maybe your job has no room for growth and it’s time to apply elsewhere. Anything that is preventing you from being your authentic self should be dealt with as directly and immediately as possible.
But I don’t mean throw the baby out with the bathwater, either. Maybe you don’t need to divorce your wife; maybe your wife just needs to communicate better. As I said earlier, deciding to completely cut out carbs is not a good idea. There is a reason we eat carbs. Going into ketosis may be a cheap way to trick your body into losing weight, but it isn’t sustainable long term because you don’t learn very much about your body along the way, besides the fact that you’d kill everyone in Trader Joe’s for a bite of a sandwich.
I made two very difficult decisions during this transformative period. I decided to no longer be friends with my best friend and to break up with my long term significant other. In fairness to them, I won’t get into any specifics. I just came to the realization that my relationships with them were causing me unhappiness, uncertainty, and diminishing self-worth. I still have a lot of love for both of them. I remain best friends with my ex.
Coping with the complete loss of my best friend and the radical change of status with my girlfriend without food was terrifying. I had to face my emotions head on instead of eating them. There was no cheeseburger to hide in. I think this was the first series of traumatic life events that I dealt with in a healthy way. I was sad for a while, but I worked through that grief by improving myself, not destroying myself.
But My Body Is Telling Me Yes
Getting to know your body is important for continued success on a lifestyle change. Often, we don’t pay much mind to what our body is telling us. As gigging professionals, we’re often taught to ignore what our body is telling us because the only thing it says anymore is “Your back hurts because you took too many gigs! You’re not in college anymore! Why are you like this?” That gets annoying. We all tune it out.
But what also gets tuned out is the multiple signals our stomach is sending to our brains. It takes a while, but eventually you can begin to tell the difference between feeling hungry, feeling thirsty, having low sugar, being in healthy calorie deficit, and being bored. Learning to give your body what it needs is a lot like learning to listen to a baby’s cry to instinctively know what it’s asking for. It takes practice and a little bit of trial and error.
Once I got it right, though, I saw huge results. Hunger and thirst feel very similar, but if you eat when you’re actually just thirsty, you’re going to be more thirsty and are probably going to eat more food. I keep fun-size chocolates in the house for when I feel my blood sugar is low. Eat a little chocolate and that feeling goes away quickly. Instead of eating when you’re bored, maybe write an article about weight loss or something. Either way, when your response to the nuanced signals of your gut isn’t just to shove food in your maw until it shuts up, you see a marked improvement in quality of life.
No Straight Lines
As I lamented before, social media makes weight loss journeys look like one-way straight lines from before to after. I can assure you that there is not a single person who has lost 40 pounds in a constant streak downwards. That includes me.
When I made not eating certain foods a part of my identity, I knew there were going to be times where I would be forced to eat these foods. I went to my best mate from high school’s bachelor party in October and we did a walking pizza tour of Brooklyn. I ate so much pizza that weekend. For that friend’s wedding, I went on a road trip to North Carolina and had some fast food sandwiches at Cook Out, because if this Jersey kid is going to be in North Carolina, he’s going to have a cheeseburger at Cook Out. When I got under 210 pounds, I went to White Castle and pigged out as a little reward for my hard work.
Did I gain weight doing these things? Of course! But having a healthy relationship with food means that you can treat yourself sparingly without guilty feelings. I just step on the scale, see the weight I gained eating delicious food with my best friends on very special days, and I say “time to get back to work.” Because if there’s one thing I’ve earned after losing 49 pounds, it’s the ability to gain 5 pounds kicking it with the boys once and awhile.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t strayed from the path and eaten my feelings from to time to time, either. There were times I was weak and sad and got a bunch of cheeseburgers to make me feel better. Again, I could feel guilty that I was weak and faltered. I could feel like I ruined months of work with one Chalupa Supreme. Or, I can live with the knowledge that I am human and not perfect. I can live knowing that I will make mistakes, but I can always strive to make fewer mistakes and fix the ones I do make. That’s personal accountability; that’s identity over ability.
Find The Light
Fast food is designed to target all of your taste receptors at once and overload the reward center of your brain. This is why I craved fast food without really enjoying it. This is how fast food restaurants can make cheap, low-quality food seem to taste so good.
Many people lucky enough to escape heroin addiction say that part of the recovery process is a reawakening of the senses. You can taste food again. You can smell perfume again. You can feel a lover’s touch again. In a considerably reduced way, coming out of a dependance on fast food is similar to this.
Remember how earlier I mentioned that I tried to eat salads at the beginning of my journey but didn’t enjoy them? That has radically changed for me. I enjoy a much broader range of foods now than I did five or six months ago. It started when I dropped fried chicken and french fries. The only thing I could eat at McDonalds or Wendys was chicken nuggets/tenders and fries. Eliminating those foods meant it was virtually impossible to eat at fast food joints, and that was ok!
I noticed being able to taste my food in October. It was magical! Salads tasted amazing. Grilled vegetables were complex and satisfying. Foods that I disliked before I was beginning to enjoy. Fast food (including a lot of el cheapo restaurant fare from Applebees, etc.) is like going to a Skrillex/Excision B2B set without earplugs. You’re going to be deaf leaving the venue. Likewise, fast food overloads your taste receptors so that everything else tastes bland in comparison. Do it frequently enough and nothing but salty, fatty foods taste pleasant at all.
This lifestyle change got easier as I got more successful. I don’t feel like I live in a prohibition on bread anymore. I enjoy a wider range of food than I did before, and the food that I’m choosing rewards me with a better body in so many ways. Yes, my metrics show that I’m on track, but there are less quantifiable benefits as well.
I’ve experienced a significant reduction in depression, which has led to me being able to clean my house and not eat my feelings. Living in a clean house and not regretting “feelings food” further improves my depression. Fitting into my entire wardrobe again gives me a freedom of choice every morning that’s indescribably liberating. My boosted self-worth is useful in getting my personal creative projects completed. Weighing less at 28 than I did at 16 is also a pretty neat stat, even if I’ve still got plenty more to go.
I’m sorry if you wanted to read an article telling you the secret to weight loss is eating persimmons or something. What you got was me telling you I needed to face myself with honesty and not look for a miracle cure. On the surface, I don’t eat bread, pasta, dairy, fried chicken, or french fries. Maybe that sounds like a fad diet, but it’s built on a foundation of self-love that comes with self-awareness. My identity is not a new one I built, but the authentic one I dug out of the discarded fast food wrappers I hid it in.
Cook a large pot of something like chili or curry so you have easily-reheated leftovers when you’re too busy to cook!