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Diet Nonsense

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

Part 5. Diet Nonsense

Green Superfood!

Of all the aspects of health and fitness, I believe the most controversial is what we put in our mouths. There is just a huge amount of contradictory beliefs out there about food, and opinions seem to fluctuate all the time. When I was on Weight Watchers, we were on the tail end of the “low fat” era – I think the now infamous “Snackwell” cookies were still on the shelves, and I bought a few boxes. A few years later we were in the midst of the “low carb” era, and I tried the South Beach diet for a while. I ate a lot of bacon, and made an ersatz mashed-potato like substance out of cauliflower. Now a lot of my friends avoid animal products or gluten. Others are doing Paleo, Keto, or all-animal diets. It is perhaps worth mentioning that I live in Los Angeles, which is quite possibly the epicenter of weird food fads.

It is really hard to know who or what to believe.

For a long time I have prided myself on being an objective, skeptical kind of person. I’m an atheist. I buy the Skeptical Inquirer and Scientific American. I like to think that I don’t dabble in wierd woo-woo beliefs (but I suspect we all do, and just don’t know it). I’m pretty sure there is no afterlife or ghosts. I subscribe to Occam’s Razor, all that stuff.

And when it comes to food, what can I say? I’ve got a few woo-woo beliefs. It’s kind of hard to avoid them.

At the moment, sugar is the accursed food demon of choice, and I’m inclined to go along with that irrational belief, even though I know, logically, that sugar is probably being excessively demonized. I’m not eating zero sugar — that is impossible and will kill you, but I’m trying to avoid added sugar. Most of my sugar comes from about a cup of fruit a day, as well as the sugar that naturally occurs in some of the foods I eat, like yogurt.

Another woo-woo thing: I use this green powder in my protein shakes. The label on the green powder is full of woo-woo language (“green superfood!” “antioxidant!” “alkalizing and energizing!”) that should be setting off alarm bells in my scientific head. It’s made of 80% chlorophyll from some unnamed source (a substance for which there is little scientific evidence of any benefit, whatsoever). It smells like a barn. It’s made of freshly mown grass, I think. Perhaps I eat it because it smells like a barn. Its my penance for not filling my milkshake with kale.

I think one of the difficulties in thinking about food is that we eat it for different reasons. We might modify our diet because of nutrition (more kale), or because we want to lose weight (cabbage soup!) or because it confers some psychological benefit (mac & cheese!). Usually some complicated combination of these reasons.

It seems clear that we have to strike a balance of all three of those areas: nutrition, calories, and mental health. I tell myself I’m using the green powder for nutritive reasons, but really, I’m probably doing it for psychological reasons. If it doesn’t hurt me, that’s probably okay. You know what they say about chicken soup for colds – “it couldn’t hurt”.

It also seems clear that food is an intensely personal thing, and what works for me is not necessarily what is going to work for you (particularly when it comes to mental health foods). Nonetheless, I’ll tell you what I did, and what I’m doing.

When I started my new regimen in March, I was principally motivated by weight loss, but I figured I may as well improve the nutritive value of the foods I eat at the same time. I knew (or thought I knew, or had read somewhere) that the most significant factor with weight loss is caloric deficit. Basically, using the model of a car, you want to burn more fuel than you are consuming. Not that cars gain weight, at least I’ve never seen a fat car that wasn’t naturally fat, or big boned, but something like that.

So I googled something like “caloric deficit to lose 1 pound”, and the first thing that came up was this quote:

Because 3,500 calories equals about 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of fat, you need to burn 3,500 calories more than you take in to lose 1 pound.

The articles I found online often suggested shooting for a target of 1 pound a week. And I said “fuck that”, I’m going for 2 pounds a week. This was mainly because I had done it before, and I knew I was theoretically capable of it, and I worried I didn’t have the mental fortitude to sustain a 1 pound a week weight loss, even though it is probably much healthier and easier to maintain in the long run.

So this meant that to lose two pounds a week, I would need a caloric deficit of 7000 calories a week. This comes out to 1000 calories a day. A nice round number.

Then I had find out what my “resting” or neutral caloric burn rate is. This is not as easy as it sounds – you can’t just google it. I googled it anyway. “Determine your caloric intake” and got this:

Depending on the amount of physical exercise you do, you can multiply the basal metabolic rate by a specific number to determine calorie needs. For example, if you are not very active, your needed calorie intake is the basal metabolic rate times 1.2.

So now I had to figure out what my “basal metabolic rate is”. I used the calculator thing that Google sent me to, and entered in my age, gender, height and weight, activity level. It said I needed 2,355 to maintain my caloric level when sedentary and 3000 calories when moderately active. And this, my friends, turned out to be complete and utter bullshit.

So, here’s a hot tip: If you want to be super objective and sciency, do NOT rely on these simple online calculators. Instead rely on your own observation.

I ate what felt right to me, to where I wasn’t hungry, but also wasn’t excessively full. This turned out to be about 1800-1900 calories. I found, over time, that if I ate about 1800 calories, I would lose about 2 pounds a week, which means my “basal metablic rate” is actually closer to 1900-2100. When I eat 2300 calories, that’s a “cheat day” and I invariably gain weight.

Now if you can eat 3000 calories a day, and maintain net-zero weight loss/gain. Kudos to you — you are a very lucky person! Me, not so lucky.

The point is, my body isn’t your body, and these kind of tables simply do not take into account every single factor that contributes to metabolism. You need to observe, rather than follow.

So, for the past few months, I’ve targetted 1800 calories, and I’ve averaged two pounds a week weight loss. The highest weekly loss was 4.9 pounds, and the lowest was -0.8. Since I hit about 190, the rate of loss has decreased – I’ve fluctuated a lot more, and if I wanted to continue rapid weight loss, I would have to reduce the calories. I’m at a pretty good weight now though, I think, even though by some measurements, like the BMR system, I am still technically overweight.

I stopped eating a lot of things I ate before. I stopped eating breakfast cereal, except maybe once every 2 weeks. I did this because the amount of breakfast cereal I usually eat is about 6 times the serving size listed on the box, and packs a huge caloric wallop. I found that I could satisfy my breakfast cravings with a container of yogurt and a banana, and eventually, I started enjoying plain yogurt and a little pineapple.

I stopped going to McDonalds, In & Out, and ordering pizza. I stopped asking my wife to make lasagna. I significantly reduced sugar and carbs. I saw a nutrition counselor (Sarah Lynn Baird at FitFax) and she suggested I maintain a specific ratio of carbs/fat/protein (using myFitnessPal as a measuring tool) so I did that. It’s pretty much impossible to do, but it gave me a rough idea of proportions

In addition to a lot more yogurt, I started eating more fruit. Before I started, I hardly ever ate fruit, but I’ve grown to like it more. Reducing sugar has definitely affected my pallete – it makes me crave sugar less, and enjoy things like fruit and plain yogurt, that I didn’t enjoy so much before. I currently limit my sugar intake to 40 grams a day (according to myFitnessPal).

I made a lot of sandwiches on low cal bread (my favorite brand is “Alpine Valley” but any bread that is under 100 calories a slice works for me). I make big Dagwood style sandwiches where I pile on the veggies, but try to use sensible amounts of meats & cheese.

I make a lot of omelets. I can’t stand egg-white omelets, but I found I could use 3 egg-whites and 2 yolks, or maybe 3+1, and it’s still prety good.

Both the yogurt and omelets are attempts to increase my protein intake without too much effort. A lot of folks increase their protein intake by eating chicken, but I’m not a huge fan of chicken (especially tasteless white-meat chicken) so I tried to find other, quick & easy ways to get protein.

Because I’m working out a few days a week, and I like to get a small protein burst after workouts, I found a low-sugar protein bar I like, and started eating one of those after a workout. I also started making low-sugar protein shakes, which I have for a mid-day snack or breakfast substitute. My protein shake of choice is a chocolate flavored low-sugar whey protein powder, woo-woo green powder, psyllium fiber, plain yogurt, water & ice. Sometimes I add a little fruit, milk, cacao nibs or ground coffee. This shake is definitely a kind of wierd soylent green superfood, but I enjoy them and they satisfy my “milk shake” cravings.

Lately though, even chicken has been growing on me, especially since I started using an electric pressure cooker, which is an awesome addition to my kitchen. I use it to make chili, chicken soup, stock, and yogurt. It is very effective at concentrating and maintaining flavor, which is important when you’re eating less fat & salt.

A lot of folks are very anti-red-meat. I believe (and hope) this is partially a woo-woo thing, and I allow myself to get protein from red meat, since I like red meat. I still much prefer a steak taco to a chicken taco, and I don’t deny myself the steak, just because there is some minor benefit to the chicken — in this case, I think the psychological benefit outweights the health benefit.

Sara Lynn encouraged me early on to have regular “off plan meals” (aka “cheat meals”). This is huge, and I love the idea. It confers a huge psycological benefit. Think of it: twice a week I can eat whatever the fuck I want, guilt-free. Love this. I typically do a cheat meal for Saturday morning breakfast. This is because early Saturday morning is my weekly weigh in, where I measure my weight loss for the week. The cheat meal is a really a “celebration meal” which marks and honors the day. The first one I had chicken-fried steak & eggs with gravy and toast, hash-browns. This is something that ordinarily would have filled me with self-loathing and guilt, but I could have it guilt-free, and then I had a few free days to burn off the calories.

Because of the cheat meals, I tended to gain a bit of weight on weekends, and then do most of my weight loss during the work week. By having the cheat-meal in the days immediately following my weigh in, I had a long time to burn it off.

I have had 3 or 4 plateaus where I didn’t lose much weight (or had a gentle rise, like a roller coaster bump) for a two-week period. Psychological these are very hard, and you have to trust that the plateau will end. If you stay on the plan, they always will. Sometimes I tried to shake things up by varying my diet, but it’s really hard to tell, over the short term, whether those methods help. There are simply too many variable factors, I think, to do short term meaningful adjustments.

Speaking of woo-woo diets, I think the Body for Wife” blog is excellent, and I agree with most of the stuff James Fell has to say about fad diets, even what he has to say about sugar, even though my nutrition counselor says the exact opposite.

At some point, you also have to trust yourself.

Next: Where are the skinny endomorphs?

One Response to “Diet Nonsense”

  1. Sar Case Says:

    Jim
    This is so informative, and is food for thought. You have transformed in a year. Looking forward to your future entries.