Losing the Last Hundred Pounds

Photograph by Emily Shur

There are a lot of things you could say about my journey to 300 pounds, but I think my wife put it best: I enjoyed every ounce.

That's not to say there weren't moments of concern, efforts made on my behalf, earnest discussions about heart disease and diabetes, even the occasional "I'm worried about you, man" talk from friends.

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But I wasn't having it. That wasn't me. Even at 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, having not completed a day of vigorous exercise since the presidential fitness test, I was somehow immune. Sure, I was fat, technically obese, but I carried it well, like a slightly bigger Dude from 'The Big Lebowski'. I wasn't the guy hiding doughnuts in the closet, and I wasn't remotely embarrassed about my weight. As far as I was concerned, it was a testament to a life well-lived. I wore it like some people wear tattoos – as monuments to all the awesome shit they've done.

It takes a certain level of commitment to get as big as I got. You always have to be up for a good time, and I rarely disappointed. I travel frequently for work, and I was happy to lead an ever-changing bacchanal around whatever city I happened to be in. (Suffice it to say that if you're in a city for a few nights, you're not asking anyone where to find the best quinoa salad.) Bone-in rib eye? Sure, haven't had one since Tuesday. Mashed potatoes? Well, I am having the steak. But let's get the au gratin too, in case we want to mix it up on the potato front. A few beers with that? Sure, after the martinis and wine. Oh, and some appetizers for the table. But let's skip dessert. I'll be eating again later.


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Can I trace all this back to a starting point? I can. It was college. I entered at 167 pounds. Then came the all-you-can-eat meal plan and the $2-pitcher nights. I was 240 when I left. To quote Dean Vernon Wormer, "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life." My college self would agree with exactly one-third of that. Even then, I was settling into the idea that since I was destined to be heavy, I might as well enjoy the hell out of it.

The early 2000s were a good time to be a big man. Hip-hop clothes were forgiving, to say the least, and Tony Soprano gave every guy having a tough time getting up the stairs a reason to believe in his latent sex appeal. And the extra weight seemed, for a while at least, to have no real impact on my health. In fact, my annual physical was a source of reassurance. My blood pressure was low, my cholesterol normal. The only number on the rise was my waist size. The results always confirmed my suspicions: I was one of those guys who was heavy yet miraculously healthy. In order to give some insight into how these visits went, I've included an excerpt:

Doctor: You know you have to do something about your obesity.
Me: Yeah, I know…I'm trying to be better with the eating, and the drinking is definitely a factor, too.
Doctor: How many drinks are you having a week?
Me: [Lying] Oh, I'd say 10 to 15.
Doctor: Wow, that's a lot of calories before you go to bed. You've got to cut back on the drinking at night.
Me: So you're saying I should do most of my drinking during the day?
Doctor: I'm just not getting through to you, am I?

So I continued to live every day like it was Thanksgiving and Oktoberfest wrapped up in one, all the while quietly pledging that I would get it together someday and lose the weight. Eventually, this literal gravy train would have to end. And so, to prepare myself for the healthy deprivation to come, I told myself I was going to have "one more bad meal."

It's amazing how long that final bad meal can last. In my case, it lasted close to two years. In fact, it kind of turned into a World Tour of Bad Meals. Geography dictated appetite. I knew where to go to get the highbrow, lowbrow, and middle-brow; the saltiest, tastiest, fattiest shit in every city I visited. A new bacon-themed place in New York? I was there. There was a hole-in-the-wall po'boy spot in New Orleans I just had to try. Chili dogs in Detroit, Cubanos in Miami, and a signature cheeseburger in just about every city I went to. At last, back in Los Angeles, I could finally lighten up with a few baked-crab hand rolls.

The wake-up call came in June 2010, and surprisingly, it came from my dentist. I have a great dentist, but during checkups, she does a strange thing – she takes my blood pressure. Mine was high, much higher than it had been the previous year. She told me to get myself to a doctor. Now.

Within a day or two, I was in my doctor's office, and he was handing out ultimatums the way cooler doctors dole out Vicodin (just kidding, Doc!). He gave me a month to lose 10 pounds. So I began, in earnest, a program that I thought worked best for me: I ate and drank what I wanted for 28 days, and on the 29th, I pushed my appointment back another month. I let the good times roll for another three weeks and then crammed for the exam with a week left. I showed up six pounds lighter than the month before.

Not enough.

He said it was time to go on blood-pressure medication. I saw the slippery pharmaceutical slope laid out in front of me. I was no longer the bon vivant that L.A.'s panhandlers consistently referred to as "big man." I was a fat, middle-aged guy who was about to begin taking a pill that I'd likely be on forever. It's amazing how the thought of taking a medication every day for the rest of your life will snap your 43-year-old ass in line faster than a thousand well-intentioned chidings from friends and family.

I pleaded with my doctor for one last shot. He told me he would give me four months to lose 30 pounds, but only if I really thought I could do it. I'm sure neither of us thought I actually would. But I did. In fact, I lost 60. Then, over the next six months, I went on to lose another 40. And I've managed to keep it off.

To do this, I had to completely change almost everything about the way I lived my life. I had to second-guess every one of my instincts and toss out everything I knew about how to live. I had to say goodbye to the Dennis Dennehy I'd come to love – or at least throw him out of the house until he learned how to act.

These are a few of things I learned while dropping a hundred pounds.

I stopped for three months – the longest I'd gone without a drink since I was 15. (If you're my parents, I'm just writing that for dramatic flair. If you're anybody else, no, I'm not.) Maybe you don't enjoy the drinks the way I do, but if you do, cutting out the alcohol is a surefire way to get the weight loss to kick in – and once it kicks in, it keeps you motivated. I have lots of friends who drink like I did and manage to stay thin. The lesson here: If you want to lose weight, you can't necessarily live like everyone else.

I figured out that being full and not being hungry are two completely different things. Once I realized that if I ate only when I was hungry – and just enough to quell the hunger – it really cut down on my intake. I started eating dinner like I did when I was a kid: a reasonable amount of food and no seconds. If I went to a restaurant, I ate half of what was on my plate, I almost always got the fish, and I cut out appetizers altogether. Once you get past your initial, excruciating desire to eat something immediately upon sitting down, the sensation passes, and you don't have a problem waiting for the entrée.

Once you've eaten, you're not hungry
I know that sounds simple, but it's something I had to constantly tell myself. When I was craving Chinese food or a porterhouse, I reminded myself that if I had a salad or halibut or brown rice with tofu and vegetables, the craving for steak would go away.

An eating routine
Breakfast and lunch are basically just two meals to get you through the day. No one says they have to be fun. I got into a routine of eating the same thing every day for breakfast and lunch – oatmeal for breakfast and half a turkey sandwich on whole grain plus a banana for lunch. It sounds boring, but breakfast and lunch are pretty boring…unless you live in Paris.

There are no cheat days
In the first three months, I maintained laser focus. You have to if you want to lose 30 percent of your body weight. Only after I lost the first 40 pounds or so – and only then – could I start thinking about having a bad meal at some point in the future. When I was about nine, a born-again kid who lived on my block told me that the Book of Revelation prophesied that one day Satan would rule the Earth. Terrified, I asked her when. Her response: "Someday, we don't know when." That's how you have to think about pizza.

From my vantage point, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who don't like to exercise, and liars. Just accept that it's going to be the longest, slowest part of your day. The good news is that when you're done, it's the longest stretch of time until you have to do it again. And if you keep doing it, you may even turn into one of those liars. If you told me two years ago that I'd be waking up to do yoga twice a week and actually looking forward to it, I'd have slapped you with a Burrito Supreme. But this is my life now: steamed salmon, downward dogs, a vodka and soda before a sensible dinner. It's like Ray Liotta in 'GoodFellas' going from Friday nights at the Copa to his new life in witness protection, picking up his paper in his bathrobe in Anytown, USA. Life's not gonna be as fun as it used to be – but you're gonna live.

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