Mat’s Fat-to-fit Notes
I’m a forty-five year old man who’s been overweight for a good deal of my life.
Last summer, I looked like this. I weighed over 90 kilos. Although I’ve begun to think in kilos over the past year or so, being an Englishman of a certain generation, I grew up thinking in stone and pounds. So that was almost 14 stone 5 lbs in old money.
I’m not a tall man (173 cm). I was obese.
As I say, I’ve struggled for a long time. What you see below is a record of my Monday morning weigh-ins from the middle of June 2010 to the middle of 2015.
I found it easy enough to lose weight when I got my head around it. But I also found it extremely easy to regain that weight. Over time, things were getting worse.
Over the past year, however, I’ve had a bit of a turn-around. I’ve lost weight and kept it off.
I’ve been sharing some of the results with my friends on Facebook. They’ve been extraordinarily supportive. Some have asked me what I’ve been doing.
So these notes are for them. They’re not particularly well-ordered. I’ll try to keep them more or less up-to-date.
Mat’s Health Notes
I am lazy and greedy, with a tendency to binge eat. So for me, it’s mostly about eating better, exercising smarter. Plus lots of tracking stuff to keep me honest, engaged, and feeling like I’m achieving my goals
“A six pack is made in the kitchen, not in the gym” (popular saying.)
We all have abs, but until you get to around 10% body fat for a man, 18% for a woman, they’re not going to be visible. I’ve spent too much of my life focussing on the exercise, when nearly everything is food.
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” (Michael Pollan)
“not too much”
- “Calories in, calories out”: Losing weight is thermodynamics — if you eat more than you burn, you get fat. If you burn more than you eat, you get thin.
(Also watch: The mathematics of weight loss)
- The single most important thing to manage is caloric intake.
- Any diet that works does this. Any diet that doesn’t do this won’t work.
- The second most important thing is macronutrients (Protein, Fats, Carbs) — these have an effect on satiety, insulin sensitivity, muscle growth, energy.
- After that, micronutrients (vitamins & minerals).
- But the big one is calories. If you don’t get these right, you’re not controlling your weight.
- Plant food — leafy greens are preferable (because they’re rich in vitamins). Spinach is now a huge part of my diet. I occasionally eat kale.
- “Cruciferous vegetables” (Broccoli, Cauliflower, Sprouts) are good. But they make me fart. The biggest problem I face is gas. It’s fine when my wife isn’t around.
- I am lactose intolerant. Most of the world is — although most Northern Europeans possess the gene mutation that lets them break down lactose. If (like me) you can’t, then the lactose is broken down by friendly bacteria in your gut. I eat huge amounts of dairy. The bacteria give me wind. Again, I can handle this.
- Don’t demonise any particular food group (e.g. fats or carbohydrates) unnecessarily. Consensus, though, is that trans fats (look for mentions of “partially hydrogenated” fats or oils in the nutritional information) are horrifically bad for you.
- Recognise that “carbs” include more or less everything that isn’t “fat” or “protein”or “alcohol” — so fruit & veg are mostly carbs.
- Starchy carbs (potatoes, rice, oats) can be your friend.
- Simple carbs (sugars, refined grains like flour) are less beneficial — although they have their place. This means “less white bread, less sugar”.
- Despite having a lot of sugar, fruit is generally OK (although less OK than you might think) because of the fibre & vitamin content. I made the mistake of juicing fruit & veg at the beginning of the programme: this removes the beneficial fibre (good for satiety, digestion), leaving just the sugars. Smoothies are much better.
- Fats are important for body functions — but they’re calorie dense (9 kcal/g compared to 4 kcal/g for carbs & protein.) That’s why people try to limit them. I use nuts and full fat Greek yogurt to help me hit my targets (more on this later)
- Supplements are just that — supplements. They aren’t replacements for food. I’ve started using some, but wouldn’t recommend starting out with them.
- On the other hand if (like me) you have a big appetite, it’s definitely worth finding some bulky foods that are calorie poor, and which will fill you up. Satiety was a big thing for me. At first I sought out foods that had a lot of bulk, but low calorie density
- Popcorn; Shiritaki noodles; Soup stocks (you may want to be a bit careful about salt content — I didn’t really care); Mushrooms; Cucumber, Green vegetables; Diet versions of foods.
- I drank huge volumes of water (I discovered the joys of over hydration — water intoxication. Now I’m more careful).
Setting a calorie deficit
- Calories in, calories out is everything at first. And at the last.
- Two things you need to get a grip on: your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
- Your BMR is the energy (calories) your body burns sitting on your arse.
- Your TDEE is your BMR plus anything you burn moving around, doing exercise.
- There are plenty of good calculators out there on the web. I recommend this one as a good place to start.
- Fix your calorie deficit somewhere comfortable. I’ve struggled with this. I’m currently on 15% calorie deficit. Seems to be working, because I’m not feeling the urge to binge.
Glycogen, Insulin etc
Worth getting your head around the effect of insulin on the body. As I understand it (which isn’t much):
- When we eat, the carbs in our food are converted to glucose
- As blood glucose levels rise we produce insulin in a response
- Insulin helps glucose be absorbed by muscle cells — where it is stored as glycogen, by and fat cells where its stored as fat
- In anyone but a diabetic, this process is pretty efficient
- We talk about “being low on blood sugar” and so on as though they’re demands our body are making. But actually, most of the time we’re just making excuses for our mental cravings. Man-up and acknowledge it’s greed, or force of habit
- How Insulin and Glucagon Work
- How Insulin Really Works: It Causes Fat Storage…But Doesn’t Make You Fat
I’m not trying to lose weight, I’m trying to lose fat.
- Or rather, I’m trying to change my body fat percentage.
- I started out at about 27% fat. After about 2 months I was at 25%. After another 4 months, 19%. My current goal is about 15%.
- In theory there are two ways I can do this: lose fat or increase muscle.
- In reality, if we’re operating at a calorie deficit, we lose muscle and fat at the same time. Certain kinds of exercise help avoid this a bit — as I understand it, there’s a kind of “if you don’t use it you lose it” prioritisation; and your body will dispose of energy-hungry muscles that aren’t being used. Also:
- We need more muscle to carry our fat bodies around. As we lose weight, we lose muscle
- We burn more calories hauling our fat bodies around. As we lose weight, our TDEE drops
- As we eat less, our BMR can drop as well (particularly if you take too drastic a calorie deficit.)
- So we need to keep recalculating our BMR and TDEE — we can’t lose weight and hope to go back to our original diet. This is the key reason that my weight chart before I started this most recent programme looked like this
On the other hand, more muscle increases BMR. I want to build muscles.
I did huge amounts of cardio to begin with: mostly lots of running (because that’s what I was used to doing). While this made me fit, it’s not necessarily the best way to get oneself in shape for a normal person.
I also did a lot of bodyweight stuff and swimming (I joined a regular swim club). I think that was probably more productive.
I liked all the running because it increased my calorie expenditure, which meant I could continue to eat well and lose lots of weight. But as I get older, I get injured more often, and find it harder to keep putting in the miles.
If I had my time over again, I might not do that. I’d do what I’m doing now, lift heavy weights.
I’m not bodybuilding. If you’re not eating at a calorie surplus, it’s very hard to grow big chunky muscles. Like all things, that’s mostly diet. Bodybuilders eat at a surplus for a few months (bulking) then diet to reduce their fat (cutting.)
But if you lift weights while you’re cutting (eating at a deficit like I am) and you’ve never done it before, you can get a little more muscle (“noob gains”) over the first few months, increasing BMR, and improving body fat%
Beware of “Fuckarounditis.” The big watch-out is that most personal trainers excel at encouraging this.
Stronglifts 5x5 is a good beginners programme: it’s free, and there are only 5 lifts to learn.
- Overhead Press,
- Bench Press,
- Barbell Row.
All the lifts are done with barbells. You start light, and increase the weight each session. If you fail to lift the weight, you come back and try again next session.
It takes 3 (or 4) gym visits per week, about 1 hour per session. Rest days don’t seem so important in the early days, but now I’m beginning to be grateful for them.
Get a trainer to take you through the movements if you’ve not done them before. Also, there are great videos on YouTube.
I get a form check every few months, to make sure I’m still doing it properly.
HIIT works for lots of people — and it’s better than the long endurance stuff. I did a few classes at the beginning, but have dropped off. I’m going to add something like this back into my regime.
Choosing a Diet
The diet needs to be sustainable. This isn’t a “summer diet” thing. My problem isn’t losing weight. I have to stop putting that weight back on.
It takes a while to lose weight. Longer than you think. Much longer. The first 15 kilos came off fine. But it’s hard for me to lose the next 5 kilos. That’s a long slow burn.
I’m trying to find a protocol I can stick with, something that I can control, and that doesn’t limit me too much.
I think I can see light at the end of the tunnel, but who knows. In the meantime, I’ve tried a few things.
Over the years, I’ve tried various “Low Carb” diets. Carbs are the new fat as far as diet books go. Atkins, Dukan, Paleo, Ketogenic etc are all examples of this.
One of the reasons people like them is because low carb diets are supposed to have less effect on your insulin/blood glucose.
Another (related) effect is that fats and proteins “make you feel fuller” (satiated).
But I think the main reason they sell so well is that you lose a shit tonne of water and glycogen from your muscles in the early days — which is psychologically rewarding.
Going “full keto” is really hard. You need to be low carb, moderate protein, high fat. Most of your calories need to come from fat. Otherwise the proteins get converted into glucose, and the effects are lost. It’s technically hard, and the benefits (for the normal person) are dubious.
Paleo diets aren’t wrong per se, but they are a bit of a cult. They demonise some foods (e.g. potatoes) unnecessarily. Still, they work for lots of people, but you have to believe.
5:2 on the other hand worked for me. I stayed on it for about 8 months.
It’s pretty simple: you eat “normally” 5 days a week, reduce to 500kcal (woman) or 600kcal (man) on two non-consecutive days. That’s it. Don’t go overboard on the “normal” days. I did exercise on the fast days, but may not be a good idea.
Benefits: easy to maintain a social life. You learn to cope with hunger by ignoring it (although my mood in the first few fasts was dreadful, I soon learned what I could and couldn’t do.)
After 8 months, though, I got seriously bored. The biggest problem was insomnia on the fast days.
Now I’m doing something called 16:8 — I fast for 16 hours, eat in an 8 hour window. Generally I eat between midday and 8pm, although I’m free to shift the window.
Effectively this means, “skipping breakfast” -
I fast overnight, then extend that fast by a few hours till an early lunch.
Benefits: I get to eat bigger meals that make me feel more full. That works for me.
Lots of people say that 5 or 6 small meals and snacks through the day works for them; and that’s a good way to eat too. But I find that the first meal of the day actually leaves me hungrier, and I’ve noticed that I’m more likely to overeat on days that I eat breakfast.
Going Out, Having A Social Life
I’ve now got to the stage where going out isn’t easy. About a month ago I stopped drinking. Bear in mind, this is a year into the new programme, and before I was absolutely fine.
The 5:2 diet definitely helped, though. I might have a night out, follow up with a fast day.
Binging is a fairly well-known psychological weakness (“bad habit”) that affects some people who’ve been eating at a deficit for an extended period. It hits me hard.
Like all bad habits, it’s a bit of a feedback loop. Once I go slightly off track, I go fully off track — I can eat 3 or more large bowls of cereal, 6 slices of toast, etc. Each time I do this makes it easier to do the next time.
I’m trying to control this by fairly strict tracking of what I eat, even as I’m going over. The deal I’ve made with myself is that I can eat anything, but I have to track it.
But the big change that seems to work recently is increasing my calorie intake (I was at a 20% deficit, have reduced to 15%, and by increasing the percentage of fat in my macro mix — mostly with nuts.
Keep an eye on what triggers a big or small binge. For me, cereal is my kryptonite; although in general salty/sweet carbs aren’t great for me.
For me, the thing that has helped the most is objective feedback.
- Buy an electric gram scale from Amazon to track food
- Download MyFitnessPal, and start tracking what you eat.
- Buy a decent set of impedance scales to track weight & fat% (I use the Withings ones).
They aren’t the most accurate devices (and are very sensitive to things like hydration), but if you weigh yourself after you get up and empty your bladder, a good set should be fairly consistent, so if you’re going down, you’re going down.
I weigh myself all the time. It helped me get used to the weird fluctuations in weight, but I track a rolling average.
- I also get myself DEXA scanned. It’s a technology developed for measuring osteoporosis that is used by bodybuilders and athletes to measure bone, fat, and muscle mass. It’s fascinating and instructive.
I’d do this right before you start, then at regular (6 monthly?) intervals. Price-y, but worth it, I think.
- Runkeeper has been pretty useful as an app. I’ve only recently stopped using it (Krista bought me a lovely Garmin watch.)
Macro Tracking & Flexible Dieting
This is more or less where I am at the moment. I’ve got to a stage where I can keep to within around 50 calories above or below my calorie deficit target; and I’m trying to balance the macros.
Benefits: overall health, improved training response, less impetus to binge, ability to fine tune within the confines of a balanced diet.
Stuff I use and read
- Withings (impedance scales to give some idea of whether body composition is changing.)
- Runkeeper (track calories out. Works nicely with MyFitnessPal)
- MyFitnessPal (track all calories in)
- Stronglifts 5x5 (free weight lifting programme)
- Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor (more accurate readings on Runkeeper. Good for HIIT) (N.B. As Jonathan Beeston points out, RunKeeper does not use heart rate to calculate energy expenditure.)
- Why You Don’t Need A Personal Trainer
- Muscle For Life podcast (some excellent stuff here)
- Books: Thinner Leaner Stronger (women) and Bigger Leaner Stronger (men) — good background and programming
- Accu Measure Callipers (I only use these to measure my belly fat.)
- r/fitness subreddit
- r/Stronglifts5x5 subreddit
- Recommended Routine from Bodyweight Fitness subreddit
- Agile 8 mobilisation routine (I do some of these some of the time.)
My Ocado Shopping List
I eat combinations of the same foods most of the time. I cook a load of stuff at the same time (boil eggs, steam chicken & poem, cook rice, bake sweet potatoes and butternut squash), keep it all in the fridge, make salads & packed lunches. Foods on the list tend to be high in one or other of the macronutrients, so I can balance my macros at the end of the day
- Diet Coke
- Pork tenderloin
- Chicken breasts (skinless)
- Prawns (frozen)
- Feta Cheese
- Greek Yogurt (0%) — don’t get “Greek Style” Yogurt
- Greek Yogurt (5%)
- Egg whites
- Rice milk (for shakes & smoothies)
- Blueberries (frozen)
- Spinach (frozen)
- Red Pepper
- Sweet potatoes
- Butternut Squash
- Rice (brown)
- Tortilla wrap (wholemeal)
- Black beans
- Almonds (I use nuts to increase my fat intake)
- Brazil Nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Flax Seed
- Shiritaki noodles (I get these from Amazon or Slim Noodles from Ocado — you need to rinse them in cold water to get rid of the terrible smell.)
- Miso Paste
- Peanut flour or PB2 (dried peanut butter powder to flavour yogurt, cottage cheese, protein shakes)
- Whey protein (I use a plain whey)