Stay Out of the Scooter
I’m a reasonably well-informed lay person and *not* a doctor, dietician, or nutritional researcher. So, first off, don’t pay any attention to anything I say.
I married a lovely bread-cheese-and-pasta vegetarian when I was in my mid thirties. By my late thirties I was forty pounds overweight. I went from thin, muscular 7% body fat to a value I shudder to calculate. I’d taken up the family high blood pressure and been prescribed medicine I was told I’d take for the rest of my life. Looking back, I can see I was part of the obesity epidemic.
Then, I fixed it.
I experimented with myself and developed a few theories along the way, which I include here. None of what I have come up with is brand new or particularly revolutionary. But, I believe we need a combination of changes to common practices to reverse the obesity epidemic. Here are my observations and what I adopted as a practice:
#1: Our fat guts will put us in scooters if they don’t kill us first
At this point, everyone knows we’ve got an obesity problem in the West, in China, and, increasingly, around the world. Cuba seems to be the last holdout.
Unconscious bias tests show that many/most of us have unfortunate low level prejudice against fat people, which can lead to all sorts of problematic behaviors involving real cruelty. Obviously, that’s a deplorable situation and we are all capable of being better people, when it comes to how we treat one another.
The more critical issue, in my opinion, is the practical issue — research is increasingly pointing to obesity and belly fat as being deep health issues. It’s my belief that many/most of the systemic diseases (e.g., cancer, heart disease), inflammation disorders (e.g., arthritis), and a huge host of mechanical problems are a direct result of being overweight.
In fact, my working hypothesis is that we are way too lax in our standards for weight. Without getting into any of the “shaming” issues around where people are with their body at any given time (who cares? we’re all works in progress…), I believe that to be healthy you need to be skinny. It won’t guarantee good health and being fat won’t guarantee poor health, but from the research I’ve been seeing, my belief is that you significantly tilt the odds in your favor of good health if you’re skinny — I’m talking zero pounds overweight.
Zero pounds overweight is the right goal. (“Overweight” is defined by body composition. If you’ve got a pad of fat on your gut you’re not there.)
Your other choice is cancer or a scooter. Or both.
#2: Diet, not “a diet”
Diet change is required to affect changes in your body composition. We are chemical factories that store, convert, and exploit different chemical inputs, not internal combustion engines.
The theory that eating was a simple “calories in / calories out” process has led to all sorts of bad outcomes. As has the notion that you “go on a diet” to lose weight, as though a diet was some temporary interruption of the normal lifestyle.
If you want to be skinny and healthy, you need to adopt a diet that will achieve and maintain that weight. This doesn’t have to be a “no fun” process (although if you’re still reading this you’ve probably got to accept the fact that you’ve been living in a state of too much fun… and that will need to change).
#2: Our brains don’t work that well
If you haven’t read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, it’s worth a look. What he has discovered strongly feeds into tactics around what’s going to work or not work, practically, when it comes to changing your diet in a way that will get to the healthy place.
Generally speaking, willpower is somewhere between being deeply overstated as a potential and a myth. Depending on willpower to keep you in bounds on a diet change doesn’t work very well. It’s not a moral failing, it’s a practical problem. We need tactics that work with how we are, not how we’d like to be.
The simplest tactic is this: don’t expose yourself to things that are inconsistent with your goals. If you expose yourself to them, you’ve got a choice and if it’s something desirable, you’re probably going to act in a way that’s inconsistent with your goals.
My general belief is, if we really like something it is probably bad for us if there’s no limit on the quantity. Because we’re crap for limiting ourselves.
#3: Metabolism. It’s goop in / goop out, not calories in / calories out.
One of the things I observed when I started to change my diet was that weight and fat accumulation were non-intuitive. Weighing myself regularly showed that what I ate one day didn’t really line up with how I weighed the next day.
A little research showed that it takes 40 or 50 hours for a meal to pass through our system. So, minimally, your weight on a given day is some combination of today’s food and yesterday’s (maybe the day before, depending on just when you’re weighing yourself). And, that a variety of things happen to the food we take in — we burn some calories, we store some as fat, and we expel quite a lot as carbon dioxide (!) and, not to be indelicate, as waste products.
So, it’s complicated.
I did a bunch of experiments varying the amount that I would eat in a day, watching my metrics. The basic thing I observed is that I could eat more and not gain an equivalent (proportional) amount of weight, just as I could cut down on what I ate a lot and not lose the equivalent (proportional) amount of weight.
Based on how resistant to gaining weight I was, even when I increased how much I was eating, I concluded that my body must be able to shed some of the excess calories I was taking in; it wasn’t strictly turning them into fat.
Based on how resistant I was to losing weight when I decreased how much I was eating, I concluded that my body didn’t actually need all of the calories I was taking in; I was eating more than I needed to keep functioning.
That was a revelation. It seems that my basic assumptions were off — my new model is that I’d been constantly overeating, probably, my whole life, just expelling extra calories. You gain weight depending on your physiology and the mix of food you’re taking in. It was only when the bread/pasta/sugar quota went up enough that it turned into fat accumulation. And, the extra caloric intake was screwing up my efforts to tune my body down to zero pounds overweight.
(Simpler forms of life seem to be able to go forever without eating, which was another clue to me. We’ve got big brains to feed, but with my realization that I was probably overeating I started to wonder if my whole standard for food intake and use was based on some crazy cultural assumptions, not physiological need.)
Looking at the history of food in this country (the US) the idea that we’d be overeating makes perfect sense. We went from a situation where food was relatively hard to obtain and preserve (say, before 1870) to one where it’s not only omnipresent, but being constantly pushed at us. And, the composition of the food has changed to make it, basically, irresistible (more on that in a moment).
We live in a state of toxic overabundance. We do gain weight, slowly, because we eat too much. It’s not so fast that we notice it, but gradual and consistent. Our modern bounty is literally killing us.
So, the next question was, how do I find the right level of food intake?
#4: Hunger is an inaccurate signal, not a tragedy
We’re supposed to know when to eat because we’re hungry. At its base, research shows that hunger is a signal not an absolute indicator. It doesn’t exactly tell us when we’re empty or need calories. It gets screwed up when you’re obese.
Free divers — those divine lunatics who compete to see who can dive down the furthest in water without aid of scuba gear — know that they get to a point in a dive where their body is screaming for them to resurface and breathe. They know, then, that if they press through it the feeling passes and they can dive further. Their “out of air” sensor triggers well before they are actually… out of air.
I was raised to treat three meals a day as something of a necessity. Hunger was a cause for alarm. I don’t recall ever being sent to bed without dinner as a punishment, but you certainly heard about it as some kind of a dire, almost unspeakable outcome.
Fast-ers know that hunger is a pretty fickle signal. If you live with it for a while it goes away. It also comes back… but it’s certainly not a premonition of impending loss of consciousness. Basically, from experiments with not eating I discovered that hunger wasn’t a tragedy, it was just kind of a “let’s give this a try” signal that your body conjures up for various physiological and psychological reasons. It’s not the thing you should be using as your guide for when to eat. (My cat comes in and meows for food about every two hours. It seems to be a similar system.)
I got over the idea that hunger was a guide to anything, and that was a powerful for getting to where I was running my diet, and not the other way around.
Now a word about the other end of eating disorders — when we talk about getting to where you can ignore hunger, it’s worth noting that once you get a handle on that, you really need to use metrics (weight and body composition) and common sense to make sure that you don’t undereat. Eating is a practical problem and since we’re talking about health, it’s critical to eat enough of the right nutrients and get enough exercise to keep your muscles, bones, and organs strong and healthy.
#2: It’s the carbs, stupid, particularly the super-carb known as sugar
My first diet-change success came before my revelations about hunger. My first big success came from adopting the South Beach diet. By reducing carbohydrates I was able to lose twenty five pounds pretty quickly. I became convinced that it was critical to losing weight.
(If you’ve been living under a rock for the last two decades, the thesis of low carb diets is that carbohydrates lead to spikes in insulin which leads to accumulation of fat, and, ultimately, various kinds of organ failure.
Eating high fat foods leads to satiety, so maintaining fat in the diet is part of what’s credited with making low carb diets successful — the fat lets you avoid hunger-driven eating that would defeat the diet goals.
There is continued controversy around whether low fat / high carb or high fat / low carb diets show better results. Generally, it’s hard to get humans to stick to diets and the inputs are really diverse in the wild. So, it’s hard to measure. My experience supports leading the low carb lifestyle.)
I did South Beach in phases, where the refined sugar in my coffee was one of the last things to go.
Sugar is a particularly evil part of our diet. It’s got deeply addictive properties. Dr. Robert Lustig, one of the current anti-sugar champions has a theory that sugar is responsible for a huge host of problems. His belief is that sugar gets converted to fat in some preferential fashion, so that it doesn’t fully count in satisfying your body’s calorie goals. So, you keep eating and it’s one of the big things that gets you fat and keeps you fat.
So, last step, I gave up sugar in my coffee. Until I fully gave up refined sugar, (and minimized fructose), even in the relatively small doses that were left in the final phase, I couldn’t manage hunger hardly at all. I felt hungry as I approached meal times and really bad if I skipped a meal. And, I was compelled to snack often. When I fully eliminated sugar I lost another five pounds and felt much better. And, I was much more indifferent about eating…starting to get on top of my hunger.
Even giving up refined sugar, I plateaued without getting fully skinny maintaining a small pad of abdominal fat.
#5: Three meals a day, are you nuts? Feeding and fasting.
My next phase of diet change came because my wife got interested in fasting. She was interested in the not-yet-proven life extension aspects.
Research is pointing kind of in the direction that fasting can trigger clean up of various kinds of cell detritus. That combined with the fact that (currently inconsistent) results of giving rats very low calorie diets extended their lives, have led people to believe that very low calorie diets can “clean up toxins” in the body. That side of the discussion gets a little hand wavy and tends to promote long (e.g., 10 day) fasts. While intriguing, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of detailed understanding about mechanism or exactly what’s needed to trigger it.
More promising is research that shows that intermittent fasting can decrease the effects of aging.
For myself, I began to think about our current state of eternal plenty and the conditions we probably evolved for, where we’d have some regular periods where no food was available. In our world of eternal plenty, with food taking 40 hours to pass through our system, I realized that even with 8 hours of sleep we are driving our organs, basically, nonstop. That seems like a bad way to treat a machine that you love and depend on.
We started fasting with small fasts. I arranged them so that we’d sleep through the bulk of the fast. And, while it doesn’t prove anything, in the mornings my wife and I both felt great. We both experienced a feeling of significant lightness and ease in our digestive systems. It’s just a feeling but I felt like we were finally giving our organs a rest they so richly deserved.
We subsequently started to question the overall need for three meals a day. Contemporary bodybuilding theory is that you get best performance from your body if you divide time cleanly into feeding and fasting.
We started to narrow down the amount of time we would eat during the day. Combining small feeding windows on weekdays with longer fasts on weekends gave us an easy way to manage weight and get the good feelings that come from fasting.
(Two of the really significant less advertised benefits of adjusting your diet this way are time and money. You realize just how much time you spend shopping / preparing / cleaning when you cut down the amount of time you spend on food. Reducing the amount you eat results in direct savings of money as well. Eating out is neither quick nor free. In addition, during longer fasts time seems to slow way down… when you are cruising towards Sunday dinner, reading quietly lying on your bed, even those of us involved in hectic modern lives can feel a touch of the Ikarian lifestyle.)
#5: You’ve got way more variety than is good for you. And it’s full of sugar.
What makes all of this hard? The amazing food that’s available today.
Reading about the evolution of processed food (e.g., in Robert Gordon’s excellent The Rise and Fall of American Growth), we see that pioneers and before, not only had worse availability of food, but huge amounts of monotony in their diet. Modern food production has meant that we have incredible choices. Which means that each meal can be its own special fiesta. That’s not great, because each meal can get amp’d up with a new, full force crop of dopamines.
And, if you’re buying processed food you are faced with the problem that food manufacturers aren’t stupid. They love to give us sugar. It makes things taste good and makes us eat more of them. As I mentioned, it’s addictive.
Not to mention the sugar-y drinks.
And fruit. Fructose is sugar and we’ve bred up our fruits to be super sugar-y. And, if you press it into juice or blend it into a smoothie you’re basically getting a homemade sugar-y carb bomb that’s masquerading as healthy. Plus fructose seems to be particularly bad for your liver (high fructose corn syrup is an obvious villain here as well).
Generally speaking, we have a hard time judging how much to eat of food that’s novel, and that’s loaded up with addictive sugar and easy-to-turn-into-sugar carbohydrates.
Your best bet for managing a diet is to create a base that’s boring, low carb, and whose ingredients you completely control.
#6: Constant celebration = no celebration.
My last observation is that food is an amazing pleasure and not something you want to miss out on. The old joke applies here, about the old rake being told he can live longer as the result of abstaining from wine, women, and song, where he replies, “to what end?”
When you break your fast one of the things that is notable is how loud the taste of the food is. Which leads me to the last belief that our world of plenty actually diminishes the benefit we get from food. Since every meal (and snacks between) can be full of delights, our capacity for delight is dulled.
If you change your diet, reducing the frequency of celebration can make the celebrations you do have wonderful. However, celebrations are really important. So, we need to maintain celebrations, even as we adjust their frequency.
** The so what **
Here is the essence of the diet we are following. [Again, I’m no one to listen to. And, I lost forty pounds, have kept it off for five years (and counting), and lowered my blood pressure to the point where I’m not medicating. I weigh a little less than I did in high school. I’m 57 years old… you’re never too old to make some changes.]
Use metrics, not feelings.
Step one — get a scale and don’t be afraid of it. It’s just an indicator. Work on five pounds at a time. If you are consistent, weight will decrease over time. A little up is no problem, it will go down again. Five pounds gain means you have something to worry about. Weigh every day so that you don’t lose track.
Working out is awesome but it doesn’t do much for burning calories unless you take on Ryan Hall-level exertion. I kept exercise constant when I was doing my experiments so that muscle gain wouldn’t further confuse my weight measurements.
It’s not cheating, it’s deviation from plan.
Get over the idea that going outside your diet is some terrible moral failing. If you deviate, big deal. Nobody cares. You’ll just have more work to do later.
If you’re at all like me, as you succeed you’ll get motivation from the results and going out-of-plan will be less attractive.
No sugar, low carb.
Get the South Beach diet book and follow its advice. Eliminate sugar. Seriously. Bread’s got to go, also. And, pasta. And rice. You may feel like you can’t do it, but you can.
Don’t eat fruit daily. No fruit juice, no smoothies.
Remember, bread/pasta/rice/sugar are available for celebrations (see below) but you’ll probably find that they doesn’t hold the same allure once you’re not consuming them regularly. (Well, for us bread does. Sugar and pasta went and mostly didn’t come back. But, a baguette makes an awesome celebration.)
Don’t bring it in the house.
Avoid the aisles at the grocery store where food you don’t want to eat lives. Don’t bring it home. If you have it, you’ll eat or drink it. (Chips, potatoes, pasta, chocolate, any kind of drink that’s not water or milk.)
Don’t eat processed foods, don’t drink sugared drinks.
You will be hard pressed to find processed food that’s not got added sugar and probably salt besides.
You may need to cook some more but that’s not the worst thing in the world, particularly if you cook boring food (see below).
No Coke, no Pepsi. Get yourself good water and maybe some carbonated water. You can get so that you really like water. (We still drink plenty of coffee, by the way.)
Socializing is a little challenging but the occasional dinner or meal deviation isn’t going to kill you. Getting in front of portion size (“can I have a half portion?”) will make a big difference. As you tell people about your wacky diet they’ll probably be interested and supportive.
One meal a day; boring food.
Try having one meal period a day of about 3–4 hours (brunch-ish). We get a little hungry in the evening, but it’s not terrible and we generally feel light and full of energy.
Regular meals usually include a salad, cooked lentils with butter, and nuts (I eat no-sugar Greek yoghurt with chopped nuts). Generally, if you get excited about the food it’s likely to get your hunger whipped up.
Stay true to the inter-meal fasting period — it looks like the amount of time between eating matters and it’s likely small evening snacks will disrupt the processing time.
Fast on the weekends.
To make sure we’re hitting the stronger fasting benefits, we fast from breakfast on Saturday to an early dinner on Sunday. That’s a little harder but you feel great Sunday morning and dinner Sunday night is fabulous. We go out for something special (tacos *and* chips if we’re celebrating).
(Make a note: when you first start fasting it’s well known that it can make you feel crappy. Natural health people believe this is “detoxing,” although there doesn’t seem to be specific evidence for that [or a specific definition of what that means]. My personal suspicion is that this indicates that you’re one-time tapering off a sugar dependence. I’m not a doctor. My wife passed through that phase after a couple of tries but, always, check with a doctor if you’re going very far out of model with what you usually do. Be sensible.)
Find unexpected fun.
Like chocolate? Once you’re off sugar try making an unsweetened cocoa with full fat cream. Or mix peanut butter with cocoa nibs. Or just have a teaspoon of peanut butter (make sure it’s unsweetened). Get yourself a Sodastream and make carbonated water… you’ll get to love it. Look into getting a fancy water filter…it makes the water a delight. You’ll learn to love peppermint tea, hot or cold.
If you aren’t making progress you’re probably deviating more than you realize. Start keeping track by writing down what you eat. Don’t bother counting calories, just use South Beach guidelines. It should jump out at you if you’re careful in writing down everything.
This isn’t anything you need to show to anyone, by the way. We’re not engaging in the Diet Inquisition. None of this is a moral issue, it’s just practical. We have thin, weak brains and you need to use tools to compensate — writing down data is an awesome tool.
When you hit some intermediate target metrics… celebrate with something you would particularly like to eat. Keep the portion size modest — don’t be an idiot, it’s hard work to make progress. But, give yourself something to look forward to and take advantage of it. Enjoy it!
Then, get right back to work.
We’ve hit steady state where we celebrate regularly. It’s awesome.
One of the things that’s difficult to know in a diet is exactly what’s essential, what’s OK, and what’s overkill. If you make progress you may want to tweak the process to optimize for what you like. The important thing is to not fool yourself in ways that will defeat your goals.
For example, we still drink plenty of coffee. Our fast includes coffee because giving it up was a non-starter, given our love / addictive relationship with it.
And, we drink wine in moderation. Alcohol absolutely works counter to our goals; it converts quickly to sugar. We limit the volume and still have been able to make good progress.
If you make too many concessions you risk decreasing your progress or plateauing. (The easiest ones to imagine are too many carbs or too little time between eating.) But, if you’re careful with metrics and data you should be able to manage that.
The rest of your life.
Again, this is our life’s diet not some diet event. It’s worth it to keep your organs healthy, your body strong, and to stay out of that scooter.
And, seriously, what you remove in meal-to-meal pleasure, I find you more than make up in food that’s special and loud, in time regained, having your clothes fit and feeling great. And, knowing you are taking very good care of your body.
Don’t take my word for it.
Seriously. If you’re tempted to follow this lead, talk to a doctor. Revert to your previous path if you feel bad.