I lost 100 pounds once thanks to a database. This was before the “quantified self” movement, and there were no Fitbits or Fuel Bands to rely on, so I had to devise my own solution. I built a web site that let me observe every calorie and total up how much I’d eaten, and exercised, throughout the day. On good days I would stay under 2,100 calories (adjusted for exercise expenditures), and on bad ones I’d get a cautionary red number to tell me that I’d crossed the threshold. It worked really well, until it didn’t. I named it ohlih.com: One Huge Lesson in Humility.
I built that site six years ago. My life had gone pretty sour. My career was stalled, and my wife and I were, after years of trying, still unable to have children. I was drinking a bottle of wine a day, smoking, too, and I couldn’t get my eating under control. I must have gotten near 400 pounds, although who knows—when you’re up that far you don’t jump on a scale too often. One night, I looked at some pictures of myself on Facebook from a Fourth of July party. I’d gotten into some pie that evening and felt guilty about my second helpings. It seemed to me that I was simply a vehicle for the expression of a multitude of compulsions. More specifically, my true self, whoever that person was, had been lost—all filling, no crust.
I read articles, web sites, and books in search of expert guidance. This was depressing. No matter how I tried to lose weight I would be letting some people down. The fat-acceptance folks were sure it was oppression that kept me from celebrating my fleshly self. They wrote essays about the politics of airplane seats and “health at every size.” For them, dieting was counterrevolutionary. The new-agier types talked up colonics and cleanses. I considered these but my imagination overwhelmed me. Some doctors seemed to be saying that weight loss was basically impossible. Others recommended therapy before reduction. The Atkins bubble had popped so I wouldn’t be trapped in a purgatory of steak. The burgeoning paleo movement advocated for pork chops and greens. And everyone agreed that the caloric model of nutrition was a cultural disaster, a great lie—that food was more than numbers. My body was a battlefield.
Calories, even if wrong, I could understand. I knew how to program a computer, so I went with calories, with the thesis that although I couldn’t manage myself from moment to moment, a machine could. So I built the site. I used the programming language Python and wrote some code using a framework called Django (named for the musician) that makes it very easy to construct a database.
To create the kind of application I wanted required a firm definition of my model of the world. This is good. Simple. Everything could be divided into events and energy. Breakfast, for example, was an event, during which I’d add energy to my body, in the form of pancakes or eggs or, as was increasingly likely, high-fiber cereal with skim milk. Every food that I added to my database was an energy source, and I assigned it a certain number of calories. Riding a bicycle, meanwhile, was an event, one for which I’d use the energy in my body; I associated it with a negative number (-500 calories per hour). After each event, I’d hurry to a computer and log what happened. This was my system.
I designed the look of the site to resemble an eighteenth-century sales receipt. The homepage was decorated with a cherub, and for my font I used Hoefler Text, which has a sort of late-Enlightenment vibe to it—very serifed. I am an inveterate creator of content management systems, so I added in two more functions: the ability to upload an image every day—a black-and-white photograph that I planned to take with my cell phone—and the ability to add notes and thoughts to a given event.
The process of calorie-estimation involved lots of research, checking web sites, guessing which of the divergent caloric estimates was the most correct. Sometimes I’d just get a bag of pretzels and write down the information from the back of the bag. Not eating the whole bag was hard. Impossible at times. But the key was to count, and count honestly.
And to my shock, where nothing else had worked, this did. Eventually I began to build up a statistical portrait of myself. The best description of my tastes would be: bachelor food. I liked a specific style of sausage links—industrially flavored chicken protein in a casing that can be served on a bed of peas and eaten every night, flavored with pepper. I tracked every calorie. I rode my bike to work. And I wrote a little every day. And put up a picture, too—sometimes of food, sometimes of some city vista, sometimes scenes from the fertility clinic, eventually pictures of my pregnant wife and our twins. My doctor began to smile when he saw me, which was remarkable. No doctor had ever smiled at me before. I bought a medical scale and moved the sliders every day.
(My brother has some of the same problems I do, and once, when his doctor pointed out that he’d gained weight, my brother said, “But doctor, I did it safely: one pound a week.”)
I had it all: charts, graphs, a system, blood pressure dropping into a healthy range, a love for a bicycle. The pounds came off and they stayed off—for a while. I can’t pinpoint when it all went south. After a couple years, the weight crept back on, not all of it, but an awful lot. Lots of things have happened to me. I had the twins, which cut into my bike-riding. I like to joke that I still need to lose my pregnancy weight. And now, four years later, I’m giant again. Every now and then I do my damnedest to get back in there and track calories, but I can’t bring myself to write about what I’m feeling. And I stopped uploading pictures. The site is just a few sporadic updates about sausages and cereal, and not much else. Numbers and meals.
All of this has made me incredibly empathetic to the tools of the quantified self, the little devices that have sprouted around the world—step trackers, wristbands, smart sneakers that connect to your phone—the technology that people use to count steps and track their calories. I’ve tried a few of them because I’d love to get back on the wagon.
But they’re not for me. They lack the capacity for narrative. A chart is not a story. And at least for now, I don’t have it in me to reenter my system and write about my thoughts and ideas. I’ve watched friend after friend show up with black buttons affixed to their lapels, with liquid-crystal readouts. I’ve watched them download calorie trackers and do all manner of tracking. And I’ve also watched, with total sympathy, as they flamed out. And so I’m offering myself up as a cautionary tale about data: It changed everything for me, but then it stopped working.
I went back and looked at some of the things I wrote while I was losing weight; now that I’ve gained much of it back, the person who was riding his bike 50 miles at a time feels like a stranger. Here’s what I wrote in November 2012, when I was still deeply invested in this long diet:
My life was placed in amber when I started to lose weight. I stopped living it and became an observer. Work became confusing, relationships changed because I could no longer define them in familiar terms of food and drink. ... It all came at a price, and I am now at least somewhat an impostor. ... Writing everything down, externalizing the internal process of appetite management, cyborgizing so that I could alter and edit myself at a slight remove. ... This is a different life, one in which basic physical processes have become less about what feels good and more about information. ... Weight loss—the self-improvement industry in general—is a kind of natural, physical postmodernism. You become the text you are editing, rewrite your feelings, the body.
The counting of calories was essential, a way to understand the texture of my existence—food and sweat and so forth. A big part of what worked was the measurement, imperfect as it might be, of what was too much. For some reason related to my fundamental wiring, when I hit that line I always cross it. So having that number go from black to red was a way to know that I’d let myself slip. Some days I crossed over, but for a while there, I stayed on the dark, calm side of that line.
But nothing yet has given me the answer to why I stopped. I loved losing weight; I loved being more fit. I hate that the weight crept back. But it did, and anyone who would sneer at me for lack of willpower is welcome to walk a mile in my size-44 trousers. What I’ve been wrestling with now that I no longer quantify myself is why I don’t want to write the stories and take the pictures that made my diet blog compelling. I think it’s because it’s too detailed a mirror. I’m not in denial about the calories, or the snacking, or the judgments of the scale. I just don’t want to tell that story any more. And until I’m willing to I don’t know how I’m going to get better.