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Fat City: How the Pandemic Helped Me Lose More Than 100 Pounds

By

MATT MIGNANELLI
  • Matt Mignanelli

Before the pandemic, I often wondered what would happen if I ever had the chance to do nothing. What if I had no obligations and could just sit and stare and not have to think about work or making rent or anything else? Short of winning the lottery, I never thought I'd find out.

The pandemic changed all of that. A few weeks into lockdown back in March 2020, I was furloughed from this very publication. I had no idea how long it would last or whether I would even get my job back. I was 37 years old, and life looked bleak.

Initially, I was devastated. My identity was fairly entwined with my career. But the security of unemployment checks quelled my initial anxiety. And the safety and privilege of living alone at a time when social interactions could be deadly let me fade into a metaphorical fog and do ... nothing.

By the first week of May, the haze of existential uncertainty metabolized into the most meaningful realization of my life: I was not OK. I was seriously depressed, and my life was in complete disarray. I needed to change. Most importantly, I needed to lose weight. Like, a lot of weight.

I got my job back a few days later, and in the next 54 weeks I lost 100 pounds through diet and exercise. It was both the hardest and easiest thing I've ever done. Hardest, because of the focus and drive needed to accomplish it. Easiest, because I knew it was what I needed for my health and well-being.

Think Thin

I had been overweight for most of my life. You know how some kids are chubby until they hit puberty and then slim down? Not me — at least not at puberty's outset. I did drop some weight in my late teens and early twenties. But that was largely due to drug use and poor diet, not exercise and proper nutrition.

By my mid-twenties I started putting it back on, and by my early thirties I was heavier than ever. I never reached a point of morbid obesity. I didn't have to shop at big-and-tall stores. I could fasten an airplane seat belt. When traveling, I could walk around cities such as London and Copenhagen all day without getting tired.

Living with excess weight was a quiet burden for me and part of a messy network of shitty feelings. With so many other issues bogging me down, like general anxiety and intense loneliness, being overweight was easy to ignore. It was solidly in the background, a given.

I attempted to lose weight and start an exercise regimen many times. I tried jogging outdoors and on treadmills, using an elliptical machine, doing crunches, lifting weights, and calorie tracking. But I never stuck with any of it. And that's largely due to depression.

When you're depressed, it's hard to see outside yourself and recognize your patterns. You feel like shit, you eat, you continue to feel like shit, you can't sleep so you eat some more, and round and round it goes.

My decision to get in shape this time was unique. Other than the shock of the pandemic, several things factored in, such as early evidence that suggested overweight people were at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. But the pandemic confirmed something I'd realized about the world approximately six months earlier.

Watching the HBO miniseries "Years and Years," I had an epiphany. The powerful 2019 series follows a large British family from the present into the 2030s as it grapples with societal breakdown. Each episode features montages of news footage covering the latest global calamity: financial crises, governmental collapse, military coups, climate disasters, viral outbreaks, etc.

As my pulse quickened at the sight of those chaotic scenes, a seed was planted. I thought to myself, There will soon come a time when I will need to run for my life. And I knew that I would not be able to.

In the years leading up to the spring of 2020, I felt like I was standing at the bottom of an ocean. It's lonely and cold, but there's something indescribably comforting about it. The darkness and extreme pressure keeps you snug and, in a twisted way, kind of content. You don't want anything, because there's nothing to want but endless darkness.

The pandemic pulled the drain plug on the ocean, and all the water funneled away, leaving me standing in a desert. As I peered at the vast expanse of sand and sky around me, I thought to myself, Fuck. I have got to get out of this desert!

Food for Thought

At the time, my eating habits weren't great. I ate fruit, salads and lots of other healthy foods. But I ate plenty of junk, too. My biggest issue has always been portion control. It's so easy to eat three times as much of something as you should, especially snack food, which tends not to be filling despite its caloric heft. I was always "zombie snacking": eating too much without even noticing.

Deciding to lose weight was one thing. But how? Moderate daily calorie restriction seemed tedious, and past failures were discouraging.

Then I remembered a friend's mom trying the 5:2 diet a few years earlier. She achieved noticeable results after only several months. A form of intermittent fasting, the diet stipulates that on two nonconsecutive days per week, you only eat 600 calories. Otherwise, you eat normally.

Let me tell you right now: This diet is only for people with an iron will, because 600 calories is basically nothing. On my fasting days, I was hungry all day, except for the first hour after eating.

Fine-tuning the ratio of calories to food volume was key to avoid going crazy with hunger. Soup became my best friend — well, maybe best frenemy. Eating a bowl of beef and vegetable or chicken noodle soup twice a week for the first six months of dieting put me off the stuff for life.

I'd also eat a couple of other low-cal snacks: some crudités, a piece of fruit, a meat bar and a small bag of popcorn or other carb-y snack. Not including my calorically negligible coffee, that was my whole day.

Doing 5:2 helped me completely redesign and reevaluate my relationship with food. Pre-pandemic, I ate takeout more than I cooked, another excessive calorie culprit. But because I was quarantined, I started cooking all my meals and paying closer attention. Excess calories can easily sneak in through things like too much olive oil in a stir-fry.

Because I love snacks, I started buying lower-calorie, individually portioned treats in bulk online instead of making my daily trip to the corner store for a bag of Nutter Butters or Cape Cod chips. I know that creates more trash, but having single-serving packages helps immensely. I now have a veritable convenience store in my apartment — an assortment of four or five carbolicious snacks, plus fruit leather and gummies, peanuts, bars, and oodles of little chocolates from Trader Joe's.

Revamping my snacks made me think about my other groceries. I used to buy a package of chicken or ground beef, pop it in the freezer until I was ready to use it, defrost the whole thing, make a big shepherd's pie or pot of soup, eat it for a few meals, get sick of it, and eventually toss the leftovers.

Now, I preportion all my meats before I put them in the freezer. I cook only what I plan to eat immediately. That keeps my portions on track, cuts down on leftovers and leads to less waste overall. I also picked up The Ultimate Cooking for One Cookbook by Joanie Zisk, which is amazing and not nearly as depressing as it sounds.

I upped my fiber intake, prioritizing fruit and vegetables. And last summer I stopped buying red meat. I still eat it sometimes, like at a party if there's a dope charcuterie spread. But at home, I only eat fish and poultry.

Push It Real Good

I hate gyms. They're loud, bodily fluids are everywhere and walls of mirrors become a panopticon of oppression. And don't get me started on toxic bros.

Gyms are also bad for me because I make the most disturbing noises while working out. I grunt like a stevedore and curse more than a Quentin Tarantino character, and my burps would put Barney Gumble to shame. So I made a modest home gym.

Though I'd never been a cyclist, something told me spinning was for me. I found a decent recumbent stationary bike for under $200.

Cycling was a good opportunity to sneak in some extra TV. How else would I keep my mind distracted from the monotony of spinning my legs? I decided retro network sitcoms such as "Just Shoot Me" and "Malcolm in the Middle" were perfect: They're easy to digest and don't linger or affect me afterward.

Breaking up the time into abstract chunks while I was cycling helped me the most. You're halfway to being one-third of the way done, I'd tell myself. OK, now you're two-fifths done.

In May 2020, my goal was 10 miles a day, roughly 32 minutes, and I've since steadily increased that length of time. Now, I do a little more than an hour, six days per week. Since I started, I've racked up nearly 7,500 miles — the equivalent of traversing the continental United States and back, and then some.

I started lifting weights, too. Since everyone scrambled to make home gyms when the pandemic shut down the world, weights were impossible to find in April 2020. So I settled for resistance bands, which made me feel like Josh Brolin in The Goonies.

Eventually, I picked up a set of adjustable 25-pound dumbbells and a collapsible workout bench. I bought a laminated poster with cartoon diagrams of every conceivable exercise you can do with dumbbells. A little more than a year after I began working with the 25-pound set, I graduated to a pair twice as big.

I also started doing push-ups every day. At first, I could barely do one. With persistence, that quickly became four, then seven, then 10. On a good day, I can do 25. If I worked at Dunder Mifflin, I'd get the rest of the day off.

Finish Line

Watching my body slowly change from fat to fit was a trip. The first places I noticed definition were in my jawline, upper arms and around the outside curves of my knees. After about four months, my quads had really developed. They're like oak now. By the end of 2020, I saw major results.

One thing they don't tell you in weight loss school: You will have to buy all new clothes. That was a fun but expensive process.

The strangest part of the whole experience was that I did it in relative secret. That wasn't my intention. But it was a pandemic, and I just wasn't seeing people. My closest friends knew what was happening. But none of my out-of-state friends, acquaintances, colleagues or work contacts had any idea.

And because I abhor social media, I never posted about it. I didn't want to be a braggy person who talked himself up online for attention. I was getting all the satisfaction I needed by doing the work.

Once vaccines were rolling out, I started seeing people again. That was hilarious for me. I think PC culture has beaten us into a state of permanent politeness, because most people didn't say anything about my extremely obvious weight loss.

Some would maintain eye contact with me while talking but dart their eyes down and back up when they had the chance. Others later reached out by email or text, not wanting to broach the subject in person. But if I brought it up, people seemed interested and wanted to know more.

By mid-May 2021, I had achieved my initial goal of losing 100 pounds in roughly a year.

So, what's next? I thought.

Fat City

I still wanted to lose more weight, but my progress slowed to less than a pound per week by the beginning of July, and the punishing fasting days yielded diminishing returns.

After 15 months, I finally pulled the plug on 5:2. That was scary, because I wondered whether it was the only thing keeping me on track. Yes, I exercised a lot, but you lose more weight from caloric restriction than from exercise.

On my non-fasting days, I still ate pretty much whatever I wanted. I had overhauled my food choices, swapped in healthier snacks and become more mindful of portions. But I worried that, without some kind of system, I would revert to old patterns.

I haven't. After I stopped doing 5:2, I started using the calorie-tracking app MyFitnessPal. Now I track every goddamn thing I put in my mouth and have become a freaking calorie genius.

Nearly two years on, I'm down roughly 120 pounds, sleeping like a drunk baby and getting more pleasure out of food than ever before.

My new outlook spread into other areas of my life, too. I read 55 books in 2021. My apartment is neater and more organized than ever. I finally went back to the dentist after years of avoidance. At a physical a few months ago, my doctor gave me a clean bill of health. And my resting heart rate is 58 beats per minute.

People keep asking me: "Do you feel better now?" I keep telling them, yes, of course I feel better. But what I want people to understand is that I felt better first, before I started. The pandemic's disruption of the status quo made me realize how indifferent I was and gave me a critical boost. That's how I was able to do it. I don't know how anyone does something like this without a catalyst.

My dad often uses the expression "You're in fat city." You finished all of your homework? You're in fat city. You put your snow tires on your car before the first blizzard of the season? You're in fat city. You lost more than 100 pounds, became an athlete and improved yourself in more ways than you ever thought possible? You're in fat city.

And I'm never leaving. 

The original print version of this article was headlined "Fat City"