Starting out on this adventure 12 long weeks ago, I figured I would exercise diligently all 12 weeks of the Fittest Loser Challenge. But with the proposed Push Start Your Metabolism eating plan so different from what I usually eat, and seeming so New Agey to me, I likely would drop out of that diet after maybe four or six weeks.

In reality almost the opposite happened.

A few weeks ago my right knee blew out. After some false starts in which barbaric treatment like going up and down stairs made it swell up like a sausage, I gave up on the Monday and Wednesday workouts and simply stood to the side during some of the Saturday boot camps, taking notes.

Though I did stick with its essentials to the end, I never stuck with total dedication to the eating plan.

Even the first few days, when I closely followed the number of protein servings and fat servings and "carb" servings (actually mostly vegetables and fruits) for each of the five meals we were supposed to eat each day, I broke some rules. I drank fruit juice. I ate after 7:30 at night -- heck, I usually stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning.

I ate processed foods.

Not beans from the produce department but Campbell's Pork and Beans. Not vegetable smoothies for breakfast, but whole-grain cereal. For some protein servings, I ate very-processed summer sausage.

For some fat servings I ate -- horrors -- Velveeta cheese, which true foodies probably refuse even to call "cheese." Much of my fruit still came in a can. I got virtually nothing "organic."

And when I went to movies, I continued to eat popcorn and pop (though Diet Coke instead of sugary soda).

I did stick pretty closely to the idea of always eating the three food groups together to balance their impact on metabolism and fat storage.

I stopped sucking on Mountain Dew or Cherry Pepsi all day. I stopped eating a bun with my hamburgers and barbecue. I stopped eating bread with my beans and rolls with my dinner. I stopped eating jellied cranberry sauce every night.

My milk drinking has been cut in half and in three months I drank only two milk shakes (sorry, Dairy Queen).

Never have I eaten so many nuts or drunk so much water. For the first time I began eating salads regularly even while dining at home.

Perhaps this really has been cutting down my calories and smoothing out my insulin flow. I can't say I've felt hungry much. And the paunch began to come off.

We did hit some odd glitches. After a delicious Friday night dinner at a restaurant we will refer to as Famous Me's, I put on three pounds in a night. (A lot of salt in that BBQ sauce, perhaps, causing a lot of water retention?)

When I was too busy to keep eating five meals a day, I discovered I actually began losing weight faster than before. I realized that besides being a pain to work into a life schedule, eating five times a day was actually causing me to consume more calories than my body needs or even wants.

Hungry?

No. But I did begin to really crave the kind of candy and crackers and popcorn I used to snack on while watching TV and writing news stories between dinner time and 3 a.m.

The bottom line?

As of the final weigh-in on May 6, I had officially lost 17 pounds. That's pretty measly compared to the 55 pounds and 54 pounds that contestants Tony Wiszowaty and Russ Page lost. But it's the first time in my life I have gone down in weight, or even tried to.

A measurement of electrical resistance showed I had dropped my "body fat index" from an "obese" 35 percent to a still disappointing but more reasonable 29 percent.

Applying those percentages to my weights before and after Fittest Loser, Push Fitness owner Josh Steckler had good news and bad news. The good: Those 17 missing pounds were all fat. The bad: Maybe because my working out stalled, I haven't added any pounds of muscle.

My belt now needs to be cinched two notches tighter. Whipping out his measuring tape, Steckler determined that my chest, hips and abdomen each have shrunk by 3 inches. The upper arm is an inch smaller and the upper leg the same size.

Have I gotten stronger, except in the right knee?

I think so. When Steckler tested my overall fitness in February, I managed to execute only one single pathetic pushup. When he did that three months later I could do four pushups, and that was right after working out with my upper-body muscles for 45 minutes.

In February I could do 20 situps in a minute; now I can do 28. My flexibility was exactly the same.

But everyone agrees that taking off weight and building up strength aren't nearly as hard as keeping that weight off and keeping that strength on. And as I write this, I'm drinking the first can of Mountain Dew Live Wire I've put to my lips in three months.

Look for the Fittest Loser Special Section that comes out June 6 … I'll talk about the future there.

• Dave Gathman is a Daily Herald correspondent. He underwent the same physical workouts and nutritional counseling as this year's Fittest Loser contestants as he wrote about their journey.