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February 01, 2017

...or, how I learned not to be a jerk in 20 short years

People who are accomplished in one field of expertise tend to believe that they can bring unique insights to just about any other debate. I am as guilty as anyone: at one time or another, I aired my thoughts on anything from CNC manufacturing, to electronics, to emergency preparedness, to politics. Today, I'm about to commit the same sin - but instead of pretending to speak from a position of authority, I wanted to share a more personal tale.

The author, circa 1995. The era of hand-crank computers and punch cards.

Back in my school days, I was that one really tall and skinny kid in the class. It wasn't trying to stay this way; I preferred computer games to sports, and my grandma's Polish cooking was heavy on potatoes, butter, chicken, dumplings, cream, and cheese. But that did not matter: I could eat what I wanted, as often as I wanted, and I still stayed in shape. This made me look down on chubby kids; if my reckless ways had little or no effect on my body, it followed that they had to be exceptionally lazy and must have lacked even the most basic form of self-control.

As I entered adulthood, my habits remained the same. I felt healthy and stayed reasonably active, walking to and from work every other day and hiking with friends whenever I could. But my looks started to change:

The author at a really exciting BlackHat party in 2002.

I figured it's just a part of growing up. But somewhere around my twentieth birthday, I stepped on a bathroom scale and typed the result into an online calculator. I was surprised to find out that my BMI was about 24 - pretty darn close to overweight.

"Pssh, you know how inaccurate these things are!", I exclaimed while searching online to debunk that whole BMI thing. I mean, sure, I had some belly fat - maybe a pizza or two too far - but nothing that wouldn't go away in time. Besides, I was doing fine, so what would be the point of submitting to the society's idea of the "right" weight?

It certainly helped that I was having a blast at work. I made a name for myself in the industry, published a fair amount of cool research, authored a book, settled down, bought a house, had a kid. It wasn't until the age of 26 that I strayed into a doctor's office for a routine checkup. When the nurse asked me about my weight, I blurted out "oh, 175 pounds, give or take". She gave me a funny look and asked me to step on the scale.

Turns out it was quite a bit more than 175 pounds. With a BMI of 27.1, I was now firmly into the "overweight" territory. Yeah yeah, the BMI metric was a complete hoax - but why did my passport photos look less flattering than before?

A random mugshot from 2007. Some people are just born big-boned, I think.

Well, damn. I knew what had to happen: from now on, I was going to start eating healthier foods. I traded Cheetos for nuts, KFC for sushi rolls, greasy burgers for tortilla wraps, milk smoothies for Jamba Juice, fries for bruschettas, regular sodas for diet. I'd even throw in a side of lettuce every now and then. It was bound to make a difference. I just wasn't gonna be one of the losers who check their weight every day and agonize over every calorie on their plate. (Weren't calories a scam, anyway? I think I read that on that cool BMI conspiracy site.)

By the time I turned 32, my body mass index hit 29. At that point, it wasn't just a matter of looking chubby. I could do the math: at that rate, I'd be in a real pickle in a decade or two - complete with a ~50% chance of developing diabetes or cardiovascular disease. This wouldn't just make me miserable, but also mess up the lives of my spouse and kids.

Presenting at Google TGIF in 2013. It must've been the unflattering light.

I wanted to get this over with right away, so I decided to push myself hard. I started biking to work, quite a strenuous ride. It felt good, but did not help: I would simply eat more to compensate and ended up gaining a few extra pounds. I tried starving myself. That worked, sure - only to be followed by an even faster rebound. Ultimately, I had to face the reality: I had a problem and I needed a long-term solution. There was no one weird trick to outsmart the calorie-counting crowd, no overnight cure.

I started looking for real answers. My world came crumbling down; I realized that a "healthy" burrito from Chipotle packed four times as many calories as a greasy burger from McDonald's. That a loaded fruit smoothie from Jamba Juice was roughly equal to two hot dogs with a side of mashed potatoes to boot. That a glass of apple juice fared worse than a can of Sprite, and that bruschetta wasn't far from deep-fried butter on a stick. It didn't matter if it was sugar or fat, bacon or kale. Familiar favorites were not better or worse than the rest. Losing weight boiled down to portion control - and sticking to it for the rest of my life.

It was a slow and humbling journey that spanned almost a year. I ended up losing around 70 lbs along the way. What shocked me is that it wasn't a painful experience; what held me back for years was just my own smugness, plus the folksy wisdom gleaned from the covers of glossy magazines.

Author with a tractor, 2017.

I'm not sure there is a moral to this story. I guess one lesson is: don't be a judgmental jerk. Sometimes, the simple things - the ones you think you have all figured out - prove to be a lot more complicated than they seem.