How I Lost 20 Pounds in 20 Weeks With My iPhone (or: Data is King)

Well, it was really more like 17 weeks, but who’s counting. ;) First, I’ll give the punchline.


Chad, you were skinny! Why diet?

  • High school: 140 pounds
  • College: 150 pounds
  • Grad school: 160 pounds
  • After four years at IMVU in delicious downtown Palo Alto: 180 pounds

At my height, 180 lbs. isn’t terrible, but the trajectory is obviously wrong. Without adjustments to my lifestyle, you can see what would happen. So I started paying attention.

In February, Laura and I got iPhones. Shortly after, I discovered Lose It!, a calorie-counting and weight-tracking app. I knew my eat-box-of-cheez-its-when-bored habit was bad, so I began simply tracking calories with Lose It!, hoping to break some bad habits. After all, if you give an engineer some data, he’ll optimize it.

A few weeks later, I ended up reading The Hacker’s Diet. It’s a quick, educational, and inspirational read. John Walker’s thesis is that anyone can lose weight if they correct the flawed feedback mechanisms causing them to eat more than they consume every day.

See, our bodies are complicated machines. We can’t entirely understand them, so we use models (created by people smarter than me) to help us predict how our bodies will behave under various inputs. Thus, there are tons of weight loss plans, and I’m sure they’ve all worked for someone: all raw, low-carb, no-carb, low-calorie, intense exercise, glass of red wine every night, protein shakes in the morning, seven snacks a day, etc. etc.

All of that is too complicated for me, so I chose the simplest model I knew: Calories In, Calories Out. It goes something like this:

The Hacker’s Diet (Theory)

(I am not an expert! This is what worked for me. Consult your nutritionist and physician. Don’t starve yourself. Take your vitamins. Etc.)

1 lb. of body fat = 3500 calories
Calories stored = calories eaten - calories burned
Every day, I eat X calories
Every day, I burn ~2500 calories

If X > 2500, you will gain weight at (X-2500)/3500 pounds per day. If X < 2500, you will lose weight at (2500-X)/3500 pounds per day.

Thus, if you eat 500 calories less than you burn every day, you will lose one pound per week.

Key insight: this is not difficult! For example, a strawberry milkshake from In-n-Out is 700 calories. A 6 oz. frozen yogurt with strawberries and mangos from Fraiche is 200 calories. That’s 500 calories saved right there!


Sounds great! How do I deal with this on a day-to-day basis?

The Hacker’s Diet (Practice)

My mother once told me “Chad, be very careful with drugs and alcohol. You have an obsessive personality.” She was absolutely right about the obsessive personality; fortunately, I’ve learned to channel my obsessions productively. (Although I did spend a year and hundreds of dollars on Travian…)

Here’s how calorie-counting with Lose It! works in practice:

  1. Keep track of everything you eat. This is pretty easy because their database contains most common foods. If it’s not in the database, just enter it yourself. Record it right before or after you eat so you don’t forget.
  2. Estimate your daily caloric burn. There are standard estimation formulae, but the exact amount doesn’t matter a great deal. If you are losing weight faster than you expected, increase your burn. If you are losing weight slower than you expected, decrease your burn. I started at 2500 calories/day, but shortly realized my actual burn was 2300 calories/day.
  3. Stay within your daily calorie budget! Treat it as a hard limit so that, if you screw up and eat a Double Double and Shake (1400 calories total) for lunch, you’ll be very sad at dinner when you can’t eat anything else. :( You won’t make that mistake again. *cough*
  4. Drink water. Take vitamins. Sleep. Take care of yourself if you get sick.
  5. Weigh yourself every day. Watch the mostly-linear progress!

That’s all there is to it! Time + calorie deficit = easy weight loss!

Really? Surely there’s more to it…

Unexpected Side Effects

  1. The first couple weeks after I reduced my caloric intake to ~1800, I got hungry. Then tired. REALLY TIRED. I started sleeping 10 hours a night. It turns out that your body is good at noticing “Hey, where’d the energy go? Time to slow the engine down.” I suspect this is the part where most people quit, especially if they don’t see immediate progress. Remember: this effect is annoying, but temporary. Your body will adjust to the reduced intake and before you know it you’ll feel great again.
  2. My headaches are GONE! I used to get very frequent headaches related to low blood sugar. Maybe burning fat means I have a more even supply of energy through the day? Maybe eating less means my blood sugar doesn’t spike? Who knows, but I’ll take it!
  3. Body fat is an inert material. For years, it quietly stores all kinds of chemicals and toxins. Burning fat means those chemicals go into your bloodstream. Some of those chemicals reek. Thus, you will randomly smell like holy hell for a week or so. You can’t predict when either. I thought John Walker was exaggerating… but it’s true:

    As your body chemistry adjusts, other curious things may happen. One day, trapped in a tedious meeting, I began to emit an odor evocative of a roadkill skunk marinated in ratpiss. My esteemed colleagues were either too polite to remark upon this phenomenon, or (more likely) unsure of the culprit, so I managed to escape to the open air unfingered as the malodorous miscreant. This situation persisted for about two weeks, after which it disappeared for good as suddenly as its onset.

  4. Optimizing for fullness per calorie has unexpected effects. Pizza is actually low-calorie when you consider that two slices of pepperoni is only 600 calories and filling. Fruit is also great: 100 calories for a pear.
  5. Alcohol is full of calories. 80 for a shot of whiskey. :x Turns out I’d rather eat some bread than have a beer.
  6. It’s way too easy to blow your budget on soda and juice. Switch to diet soda, iced tea, black coffee, and water. Liquid calories aren’t worth it.
  7. Speaking of, caffeine is awesome. Suppresses appetite and gives you energy.
  8. Body weight is noisy. On any given day, you may be 4 pounds heavier or lighter than the day before. (You can try this at home: drink two bottles of water before weighing yourself.) Some weeks, it will look like you’ve made no progress. It’s infuriating, but hang in there. In the end, your weight graph will be linear.
  9. When it comes to nutrition, everyone’s an expert. “Are you exercising?” No. “Are you eating healthy food?” Do pizza, burritos, and frozen White Castle count? Dieting is hard enough by itself. Actively avoid being too ambitious. It’s much easier to cut calories if you can still eat things you love. Worry about the low-order bits after you hit your target weight.
  10. I used to love the feeling of a full stomach. Now it’s unpleasant. I’ve finally defeated that post-great-depression “EAT EVERYTHING ON YOUR PLATE OR YOU’RE GROUNDED!” instinct.

Getting Through Rough Days

Let’s face it. Some days you’ll screw up and eat too much for breakfast or lunch. At 11:00 p.m. you can’t sleep because you’re too hungry. How do you take the edge off without blowing your calorie budget?

  • Tomatoes. 35 calories PER! If you like ’em, chow down.
  • Cantaloupe. 35 calories per 1/8 melon.
  • Hot chicken broth in a mug. Warm, tasty, and 50 calories.
  • Strawberries. 8 calories per delicious berry!
  • Low-calorie yogurt. 60 calories.
  • String cheese. 70 calories.
  • Pickles. ZERO.
  • Water. ZERO. Somehow, drinking water can make you less hungry!
  • Also, if you still want crackers or cookies, 100 calorie packs are pretty common these days.

And finally, my secret weapon… Trader Joe’s Whole Wheat Bread. I can’t remember its exact name, but it comes in half-rounds and has three ingredients: whole wheat, water, salt. 200 calories, 16g of protein and 16g of fiber per EXTREMELY FILLING slice. You can eat this stuff until your jaw hurts. It’s epic. However, keep in mind that 16g of fiber is a ton. Stay near a bathroom.


What About Exercise?

Remember the basic equation:

Calories stored = Calories eaten - Calories burned

You can lose weight with exercise, but it’s harder than you’d think. Exercising tends to make me hungry, causing me to eat more than I would normally. Plus, it takes a lot of exercise to burn off a significant number of calories. If you vigorously lifted weights for an hour, you’d only burn ~400 calories, less than a single cheeseburger! You’d have to keep that up every single day without increasing your diet to lose a less than a pound per week. I decided it’s easier to simply eat less.

Note that I’m not saying that exercise is not valuable. Exercise has great health, happiness, and life extension benefits. I just don’t think it’s an efficient way for me to lose weight.

What Next?

What next? I think I’m going to try to drive my weight down a bit further and then replace the pounds of fat lost with muscle. Or maybe I’ll get myself to floss every day. We’ll see!

I always thought weight loss was hard because I’d witnessed people throw themselves at it hardcore and then fail just as hard. In contrast, I chose an easy, long-term, data-driven plan and stuck with it. Small changes over a long time make a big difference.

Vegetables That Don’t Suck, Part III: Leafy Green Things

I grew up eating iceberg lettuce. And then more iceberg lettuce.
I thought iceberg and fruit were the only salads you could eat.
Good thing I was wrong.


(Actually, I wasn’t unhappy with iceberg lettuce salads. When your
base ingredient sucks, you just add a bunch of cheese, bacon, ranch
dressing, and tomatoes. But then, why are you even eating the lettuce
at all?)

You all know this, but I’m going to say it anyway. There are
much better green things to eat. Green things that are so good by
themselves that you don’t need cheese or ranch or bacon. They are
spinach, arugula, dandelion greens, radicchio, and chard. In order:

dandelion greens

Again, limited experience here. The consumption process:

  1. Buy.
  2. Clean.
  3. Optionally add a vinaigrette or eggs or pasta or whatever.
  4. NOM crunch NOM crunch NOM.

You’re happy, full of delicious green things! Now you can eat
your giant cheeseburger without feeling guilty!

Vegetables That Don’t Suck, Part II: Parsnips

July 22nd, 2008 was the first time I’d ever eaten a parsnip. On that
day, I became a parsnip evangelist. Based on the blank stares of my
audience, I realized that most people have never eaten them as well.

Parsnip Raw

So let’s start from the beginning. Parsnips
look like white carrots, and taste sweeter and stronger (and better) than carrots. They have
double the fiber, more vitamin C, more fat, more protein, and, except
for vitamin A, more of most vitamins and minerals.

My cooking experience with parsnips is extremely limited, but so far
they don’t seem to have that characteristic bitterness of wild carrots if
you undercook them.

Again, I’m focusing on easy preparation, so here’s how I prepare them:

  1. Go to the store and buy some!
  2. Peel and cut them into pieces.
  3. Add to a bowl with a couple tablespoons of water.
  4. Microwave for five or so minutes (until they’re soft on the outside).
  5. Add some butter or salt (or sugar).
  6. EAT!


  1. Bake them like this.

Baked Parsnips

Warning: Don’t eat wild parsnips. Apparently it’s easily mistaken for
hemlock, even in taste. If you make this mistake, you will die.

Vegetables That Don’t Suck, Part I: Sweet Potatoes

Growing up, I never enjoyed vegetables that much. Sure, I learned to
eat brussel sprouts, broccoli, lima beans, cabbage, and onions but I
never particularly enjoyed them…

Now that I’m a bit older and my palate has matured, I have
discovered that, indeed, the above vegetables suck. (I know, I know;
some people like broccoli… But I’m with George on this one.)
However, there are vegetables that don’t suck! In addition, they’re
super easy to eat and they’re good for you!

How to Eat Sweet Potatoes

Contrary to typical North American belief, sweet potatoes
are not yams. Yams
are yams. Sweet potatoes are sweet potatoes. They’re not even
related. Nor are sweet potatoes related to potatoes. Sweet potatoes
are simply delicious and easy.

Sweet potatoes, uncooked

Maybe it’s getting late and you want something quick, tasty,
and filling. Follow these easy steps:

  • Buy a sweet potato.
  • Put it on a plate.
  • Pierce it several times along the top with a knife.
  • Put it in the microwave for 6-12 minutes, depending on its size. (It should feel soft around the edges.)
  • Use knife to cut it in half, and leave it alone while the steam billows out.
  • Scoop into a bowl.
  • Mash with fork or don’t.
  • Add butter or brown sugar or salt or none of the above.
  • Gain awesome nutrition!

Delicious sweet potato

You may repeat these steps if you become hungry again.

Asian Remedy

Starting a few years back, I’ve experienced frequent headaches, which turn rapidly into nausea, unless I sleep. I thought they might be caused by having an out-of-date lens prescription, but it turns out my eyes haven’t changed for some time. So I told my eye doctor what’s been going on and mentioned that I usually got a headache when I didn’t eat on a normal schedule. He said they’re probably hypoglycemia-induced migraines, and the best way to prevent them would be to control my diet. (I now remember the all-nighters working on Sphere in my early college years, and how I’d be kind of dizzy and shaky in the hours leading up to breakfast.) Cut to a few weeks later…

I found this bag of “Lump Candy”* in the Asian food section of the grocery store. Since I have this habit of buying new random things every time I restock my pantry, I picked it up. The bag contained lumps of crystallized sugar. I would eat a few pieces a day, and what do you know, the headaches went away! If I came home from school a little hungry and stressed, I’d eat a few pieces while cooking dinner. That would hold off the headache’s onset long enough to get some real food in me. Alas, I finished the bag a couple weeks ago. The headaches are coming back and Kool-aid isn’t cutting it. Maybe I can order bags of it directly from somewhere…

* Pure sucrose and water, straight from China! Energy content measured in kilojoules, and it’s an “ideal food for the young and the old!”.