Today I read an article about the story of Paul Mason, who was once known as “the world’s fattest man.” Mason’s incredible weight gain, which brought him close to a thousand pounds at his heaviest, made it impossible for him to get out of bed or leave the specially-constructed home he lived in.
He consumed 20,000 calories a day.
His was said to have eaten “40 bags of potato chips and 20 chocolate bars a day.”
And all of his eating was rooted in a deeply unhappy life. An uncaring and abusive father. An awkward childhood without friends. Heartbreak and an inability to find lasting love. Mason said that food gave him a rush of endorphins that made him feel good. “I began to be just like a drunk,” he added. “I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself.”
One day, Mason, who is 6’4″, stepped on a scale at work and saw that he was 350 pounds.
“It didn’t mean nothing to me,” he said. And he kept gaining until he had to be taken out of a house with a forklift.
This is what grabbed me about Mason’s story. Because it reminds me of a turning point I recently experienced, and to be honest, I don’t like talking about it. Which is why I’m going to.
I’m also 6’4″. And in May of 2019, for the first time in my life, I got on the scale and saw just that I was just shy of 345lbs.
Let me tell you, it absolutely meant something to me.
I have seven children and a grandchild. I have dreams and aspirations left unfulfilled. I have a lot of work to do before I’m ready to meet my maker. And I’d like very much not to go through the rest of my life being unhealthy, grumpy, and uncomfortable, and unable to enjoy or be present for the people I love.
The fact is, I’m genetically predisposed to obesity. As Dr. Jason Fung writes in his excellent book, The Obesity Code, that’s one of the key factors to weight gain, and it’s one we can’t really control. Like many people, I’ve battled weight problems with varying degrees of success for most of my life. In high school, fed up with being chubby, I went on a very low-fat diet and incorporated some daily exercise. I lost over 30 lbs. I was finally skinny, for the first time I could remember.
But I knew nothing about nutrition, and low-fat meant high-carb. I ate pasta and bread and sugar all the time. I wound up giving myself serious problems with my blood sugar levels. I would get ravenously hungry, my hands would shake, and I could think about nothing but food until I ate whatever I needed to eat to get my sugar levels normal. The summer before my 18th birthday, I got down to 180lbs., but it cost me.
It wasn’t until 2012, when I was 34 years old, after over 100lbs. of slow, steady weight gain, that I was able to fix that. On New Year’s day, 2012, I weighed in at 306 pounds. I was done. I needed a change, and I found one, through my discovery of a modified “paleo” diet known as The Primal Blueprint. I changed my eating habits drastically, and lost 40lbs. in just 6 months, dropping my weight down to just over 260lbs. The only exercise I did was daily walking. I wrote about my experiences at the time. I felt amazing. My moods were drastically improved. I was so happy that I effortlessly quit drinking alcohol, a long-time indulgence that I used to help deal with stress and anxiety, because it only brought me down. My energy levels were high for the first time in my life. I had always felt tired and lacked physical motivation, but I found that I wanted to run instead of walk when I had to cover some distance. Everything seemed better.
Alas, over time, the mental high faded. I can’t tell you exactly what happened. I had discovered, after going “primal,” that when I re-introduced gluten into my diet, it made me sick. At first, there were so few gluten-free products available that it was easy to just eat my normal low-carb, high-fat, natural food “caveman” diet. But then, after a couple of years, that changed. Celiac was on the rise. Suddenly the market was flooded with gluten-free alternatives, even higher on the glycemic index. I began cheating. I’d eat some gluten-free cookies or bread (or donuts if I could find them!). As stress from a toxic environment at work rose, I started having drinks in the evening again. More drinking also meant less walking, and more eating late at night, snacking on things I shouldn’t.
We also became less strict about our food. It was difficult to exclude everything that we weren’t supposed to be eating from our home, all the time. Family get-togethers became obnoxious because of our limitations. Making primal meals from scratch all the time was exhausting for my wife, and I didn’t have it in me to make them in the first place. Rice, potatoes, and corn in various forms re-presented themselves, often because of ethnic cuisines. When we stopped homeschooling our kids and sent them to school, we started looking for fast and easy lunches and breakfasts. Soon our house was stocked with chips, waffles, bread, cereal, crackers, and other snacks.
As various family crises and two home-based businesses piled on the stress, I stopped trying nearly as hard as I should have to maintain my weight loss, which had stalled. I ate and drank with relative abandon. Sure, I’d try to stick to the kinds of foods I knew I was supposed to be eating, but cheating just got easier and easier. I was working all the time — all of it in a chair in front of my computer. We moved six times in three years, at one point with half of our family on the West Coast and half on the East Coast for the better part of six months as we worked to sell our house and transition. The emotional rollercoaster seemed to be non-stop, and I took comfort where I could get it.
In 2017, I started to have serious digestive issues that matched the description of GERD. I had constant acid reflux. I’d wake up choking in the middle of the night. I began to suspect I might have sleep apnea. I was always tired again.
I tried going back to some kind of paleo/primal/keto. I got a Fitbit and started walking every day. First two miles. Then three. Then five.
My weight remained stubbornly stuck at 335, no matter what I did. And it stayed there for two years, almost to the ounce. I’d gain a few, I’d lose a few, but I’d always wind up right back there.
Until that day I got on the scale this past May, and saw 344.5.
And I was just…done.
When I would see pictures of me, I didn’t even see myself in them. I saw a guy who looked kind of like me wearing a fat suit. In my mind, I wasn’t this bad. I wasn’t seeing the same thing in the mirror that the camera was capturing. I can’t tell you how much I hate posting this photo, but this is me back in May:
I’ll be 42 this year. Unlike when I was 34, my body was not responding quickly to dietary changes. I had less margin for error. The things that used to work for me weren’t working anymore.
And although I’d tried Intermittent Fasting once for a couple of months in 2018 with no success, everyone I saw who was losing serious weight was doing it. After reading Dr. Fung’s book — which dedicates a good chunk of space to how important fasting is for dropping both weight and insulin resistance, the latter being a leading cause of obesity — I decided I was going to try it again. But this time, with a scientific understanding of how it worked so that I could get through.
I began my fasting the day I stepped on the scale and saw how close I had come to 350 – about 7 weeks ago now. That first fast wound up being 38 hours, and it was hard. Nevertheless, I kept at it, and this time, the weight loss started happening. It was quick at first, and slow thereafter, and I had a lot of setbacks and difficulties before I settled into a routine. There was trial and error and a lot of research (which is still ongoing), and I’ll be talking more about that in a future post.
Since I started, I’ve completed 45 fasts, averaging 17 hours a piece. I’ve fasted for the past 34 days in a row.
Last week, I stepped on the scale and saw 324, and it felt like victory. Keep in mind – I haven’t been south of 330lbs since 2016. I’d like to get back down to about 230, which is where I was during my sophomore year of college. That means I’ve still got a long way to go.
It also means I don’t have any exciting after photos. Not yet. I’m still a much larger man than I want to be, even if I can already see the subtle differences. A little less enormous face, shirts that aren’t quite so snug, incremental changes that are just barely enough to notice, but they’re there. This is, to borrow a cliche, a marathon, not a sprint. It’s going to take time, just like it took me time to get here.
I plan to share what I’ve discovered along the way because I know how hard it was for me to just see any progress, and I want to help people who are struggling. If you’re in the same boat, don’t get discouraged. There’s a way.
Sadly, Paul Mason seems to have gotten discouraged. After bariatric surgery he lost over 700 lbs., and was down to 280. He moved from the UK to the United States and underwent several additional surgeries to remove excess skin. But then I discovered that the story I read this morning, even though it just came up today in one of my feeds, was from 2017. When I googled his current status, I learned that he had returned to the UK to seek care, because his weight had gone back up to 500lbs.
One of the things that stood out about his story was the battle for perspective. He was apparently very appreciative of being able to get up and go outside and see the world again, but he also appeared to take for granted how much people had done for him. One of his surgeons commented on this:
She remembered that after the surgery he was in the hospital, for free, and had complained about the food. “People don’t want to hear that part of the story,” Capla said. “People want the wonderful story where he does something with his life. We’re hoping he does.”
At the end of the day, if we’re deeply unhappy, and don’t take steps to address it, we’re always going to fail at self-improvement. There’s nothing more destructive than apathy. “I don’t care,” we tell ourselves. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll just do this thing that feels good for right now.” And then we reach for whatever form of self-medication helps us to get through that moment. Only later do we face the regrets and consequences, which can send us into yet another downward spiral.
I believe that gratitude — conscious, deliberate appreciation of the blessings in our lives — is one critical tool in stopping this cycle. I’ll be talking more about that as well in a future post.
It should be clear, since I am still early in this journey back to health and wellness, that I am writing this today not as someone who has found all the answers, but as someone who is actively engaged in seeking them out, and pursuing what I find. I could’ve waited to share this with you until I’ve attained success, but I don’t want to wait. Maybe you need encouragement today from someone who isn’t already sitting on a beach with six-pack abs, no matter what their “before” picture looks like. Maybe me teaching what I know will help me better understand and apply it.
Whatever the case, let’s do this together.