This is a hopefully somewhat entertaining and fairly concise summary of the diet that I went from 255 lbs (on a good day) to holding steady at 220 lbs on. It is not difficult or time consuming food to cook: I managed to do this while running my own startup into the ground and then helping a good friend do the same to his, and have continued cooking this way while working the demanding yet fun full time gig I landed in when the smoke cleared from all of that. (update: briefly landed, as I was laid off from that gig during the process of editing this piece. This is good food to cook while, like many Americans, your professional life is in utter turmoil!) I do almost all the shopping and cook breakfast and dinner for my wife and kid nearly every evening, to the point that we’ve had to tell our three year old that some mommies do the shopping and cooking, and that’s ok too.
I am convinced we are eating as cheaply and healthily as humanly possible in San Francisco. This has been a permanent change in what we eat, not a diet that we went on and then felt any need to get off. It’s based on the basic principles in Tim Ferris’s The Four Hour Body. (which I mostly couldn’t stand as a book, but stick with it: there’s a lot of good information in there, and it really works) There’s also strong dash of Michael Pollan’s eat real food, mostly plants approach. In 4HB I felt like Ferris focuses a bit more in that on what you shouldn’t eat, and that it had less detail on appetizing things that you should eat. Since I’ve figured that out in a way that works for my family and I, and over the past year and a half a lot of people have been kind of stunned at how different I look and have asked what happened, I’m finally sharing this.
Start out with these principles:
PRINCIPLE 1: TRY IT FOR TWO CRUMMY WEEKS
I was initially super skeptical of trying this; a good friend suggested it to my wife and then she spent a couple of weeks cajoling me into it and not getting anywhere. The argument that finally worked on my stubborn-ass brain was to try it as an experiment. That seemed to click it into the “yay, science, fun!” neural pathways instead of the “grumpy, grr, diet” paths and made it a ton easier. Think about it: you can do anything for two crummy weeks. This isn’t even that hard!
PRINCIPLE 2: COOK, MEASURE, LEARN
To track my weight, I used a cute, simple little app called WeightBot and a crappy $25 LED scale we got at Walgreens. You definitely do not need a scale with wi fi or any crazy shit like that, as tempting as it was to have an excuse for such silliness! The only thing I’m sad about is that I didn’t start measuring earlier, because I was at a solid 250-255 on this scale before I got around to finding this app. Here’s what the graph looked like after I’d already been eating like this for a week or two:
PRINCIPLE 3: ALL HAIL CHEAT DAY
In 4HB, Ferris prescribes one day a week to eat whatever the heck you want, including carbs, sugar, sodas, booze, beer, smoothies, ice cream, whatever. And as much as you want of it. I’ve found this to work astonishingly well. Basically I could just tell my whiny, carb/sugar needing brain that it could have as much as it wanted in a couple days, and this trick has conjured a semblance of self control where before I had none. Lately, in weight maintenance mode I’ve found that I can even cheat here and there during the week or really blow it on a long weekend and it won’t completely foul things up.
PRINCIPLE 4: EAT THE SAME STUFF MOST DAYS
This one really surprised me: I seem to require vastly less variation in my diet than I ever would have imagined before. But we’ve been eating inside this basic framework every day for a year and a half and I’m not remotely bored with it. Mostly I just feel grateful that I have a bunch of staples that are easy to cook, and it’s easy to mix them up.
Enough with the principles! Here are the details.
First, what not to eat.
Basically, anything white that you love is out: no bread, no pasta, no potatoes, no fried crap, no wheat, no sugar, no rice, no dairy. Sob. Also, no sugar: no soda & not even any fruit. (this wasn’t that hard for me; I mostly gave up soda years ago but hadn’t lost much weight from it) This seemed brutally hard at first and 4HB was, I thought, pretty light on what you SHOULD eat. Which is why I’m writing this up.
I initially had a very difficult time with breakfast. I love my bagels and my ham and cheese croissants, and the alternatives to this that Ferris suggests in 4HB are… canned lentils and hard boiled eggs. Bleggh. This suggestion alone almost turned me off from trying 4HB altogether until one morning I was thinking — ok, I can eat beans, I can eat eggs, I can eat salsa, that’s basically like huevos rancheros minus the tortillas. So I came up with what we call huevos low carbos. It’s super easy: you fry up some beans, put them on a plate, then fry a couple eggs and put them on top. Maybe add a little srihacha or some kind of other spicy stuff. Or go the truffle oil route. You can throw last night’s protein or veggies in with the beans if you have leftovers, too. Or you can scramble your eggs or make a frittata. But the main thing is, eat an egg or two.
Lunch is a little tricky but there are a few places and categories of places you can hit consistently:
Chipotle: get a bowl with beans, the veggies, one of the meats and guacamole. No rice, no chips.
Thai: some thai joints will let you do broccoli instead of rice, just pick non-breaded items beyond that.
Middle eastern: skewers! Hummus or baba ganouj and a couple skewers of veggies and meat and tzatziki. Skip the rice. Hummus and tzatziki are both a little cheaty, but, eh.
Taqueria: get a meat plate and sub in veggies for the rice.
At home: I WFH now and sometimes crave Chipotle, which I ate nearly every day at my last job. I finally realized the thing I was craving the most the was guacamole. So now I do beans and fry some leftover meat and veggies with it, and throw an avocado on top, and that makes me pretty happy.
Sometimes I do those little ramen-like thai noodle packs now, but only because they’re super cheap. They’re definitely cheaty but don’t seem to foul me up too much as long as I eat good protein in the morning.
Update: Bonus Idea for Not Eating Lunch Out.
First, some happy news: two months after the aforementioned abrupt layoff, I found another gig, and one that pays nearly twice as much as the one that laid me off! Huzzah! But I’m still trying to maintain my cheapskate ways, and I finally figured out a good methodology for bringing my lunch. First, at dinner (which we’ll get to shortly), make some extra veggies and proteins. Then in the morning make some extra beans, maybe with some kale, and throw that in a reusable container with the extra veggies and protein. Then take some greens (I’m liking arugula lately) and throw them in another reusable with a quarter of a lemon. Keep a thing of olive oil at the office. To prepare the lunch, make a wee salad from the greens and dress it with the lemon and olive oil and maybe a little salt. Toss the beans, kale and protein in the microwave for a bit, then put it on the greens and boom, you have a tasty salad that has enough going on with it that you’re not going to be hungry again in ten minutes. See the picture below about the exception to the salad rule — this is how you can make it go at lunch and save a pile of money.
Ok, one more principle: In the winter, roast things. In the summer, grill them. We are super lucky in that, even living in SF, we have a gas grill right outside our back door. If we didn’t have access to a grill, this would be more difficult, although not impossible. Here’s what we’ve been doing:
Veggies: the localler and organiccer the better. I’ve been out of the habit of hitting the farmer’s market lately since it adds another trip, but that’s your best best. The secret here is that practically any vegetable can be covered with olive oil, salt and pepper and grilled or roasted in the oven and come out delicious. Some stuff, like broccoli and carrots, work better if you par-steam or blanch in boiling water for a couple minutes before you grill them. I also have a pretty good garlicy kale recipe that I make in the pan occasionally. Broccoli, carrots, eggplant, bell and other kinds of peppers, onions, zucchini, cabbage (yes it is great grilled! try it!), raddichio, all of these things are good.
Beans: Take your slow cooked beans (see below), spread them in a hot pan with olive oil in it, let them sit for a few minutes so they crisp up. Add salt, pepper, and other adulterants and spices: mushrooms, garlic, dill, sun dried tomatoes, oregano, red pepper flakes, chives, fancy spices, whatever.
Meat: My target budget is $5 per meal for both Jen and I. Sometimes it’s more like $6-8, like for three big sausages, but then we usually have leftovers. Anything above that is a splurge, which I do occasionally to mix it up. Here’s what I typically look for:
Sausages. Cheap and yummy. Our kid will even eat them, ha. So we eat a lot of sausages.
Pan fried chicken — skinless breasts, or the pre-marinated chicken thighs etc from Bi-rite or wherever are really good.
Small, cheap steaks: flat iron or tri tip or chuck steaks, I just look for ones that have good marbling, buy a bunch and freeze them.
Fish occasionally, but Jen doesn’t like salmon and the other stuff is usually either too small, flaky and bony or too expensive. I definitely shop for deals and look for local in-season stuff.
Pork chops or loins — sometimes you can get good deals on these. Bi-rite’s marinated bone-in pork chops are my favorite date night or having people over splurge, they’re usually $8 or $9 per chop but, mmm.
Pork shoulder — usually $5/lb or less, and completely amazing in the slow cooker. There are a lot of good wet and dry recipes. Sometimes I whip up a quick dry rub for and that makes it even better. Only problem is that you think you are making a huge piece and are going to have piles of leftovers, and then you eat it all in one sitting!
If you get bored with things, try different recipes for your veggies, or just make sauces. I do a lot of yogurt based sauces, like yogurt, lemon juice, salt & pepper and turmeric is delicious. (thanks to my caterer pal Jen Lynch for that one) Or chimichurri like things. Even butter based sauces are ok, and they feel pleasingly naughty. Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has a great section on sauces and is a kickass cookbook anyway because it will give you some basic ideas for how to cook any vegetable you come across.
I make a 1 lb bag of beans every week in the slow cooker. This is the recipe:
Rinse the beans and dump them in the slow cooker.
Cover with an inch or so of water.
Cook on the high setting for four hours.
That’s it. I shit you not, they come out nearly perfect every time. I don’t bother adding any aromatics or craziness since they absorb spices so nicely when you fry them up.
I lean pretty heavily on the cannelini beans, they seem to be the most flexible. But mostly we’re eating these delicious local heirloom Rancho Gordo beans. (Bi-rite has ‘em, so does Mollie Stone’s but Whole Paycheck doesn’t yet) They are amazing and delicious and have a trazillion varietals, so somewhat amazingly, we haven’t gotten bored with them at all.
Unless I’m showing off for someone, I don’t usually do salads. Salads are a thing before you eat a real meal. Every once in a while they’re nice if you’re making a light dinner, before a date or something. You can throw some kind of grilled or roasted poultry in with some beans and make it more or less like an actual dinner.
Wine and coffee: YAY.
Ferris says two glasses of red or dry white wine is OK and so is coffee. This worked fine for me. He suggests an Americano with a little cream if you need an espresso fix. Most mornings I just make a pot of drip and stick with that. A latte feels a little cheaty but I do one every once in a while. A dry cappuccino feels a little less cheaty, but, I like my iced lattes.
The snack thing is tough. Ferris’s suggestions are horrifying — I think he says to open a can of tuna, or something. Ew. We don’t have any great answers here, but olives are good and I try to keep some kind of salami around, including fancy stuff from the SF salumi scene when we can afford it. Sometimes I’ll make some of the pre-slow cooked beans with a little olive oil and a squeeze of lime or lemon & salt & pepper, that’s pretty good if you’ve got good beans. Nowadays I cheat a little and have hummus and gluten free crackers, sometimes cheese too. That doesn’t seem hugely bad. I’m sure it’s better than the huge chunks of bread I used to snack on. TF claims you will be less snacky so long as you get your protein in the morning, and I’d say I’ve found this to be fairly true. I do go through snacky phases though. One thing you can make that’s a little cheaty but super awesome are almond flour crackers.
As far as 4HB is concerned, there’s basically nothing you can eat for dessert. However, I’ve found that reasonable amounts of chocolate seem to not derail things too badly. I even did an experiment at one point during the weight loss phase where I cut all chocolate out for two weeks, and it didn’t seem to make much difference in my rate of weight loss. And the occasional chocolate nom-fest isn’t knocking me above 220. (I have to cheat for a couple of days to do that — usually getting lazy in the mornings or at lunch and eating bagels and sandwiches or burgers are the culprit) I also usually have almond or peant butter around; I just try not to eat more than a tablespoon or two per day, either as a snack or for dessert.
My main exercise forms are yoga almost every morning (usually not very much) and running, sometimes only 1-2x per week, which is much more for sanity maintenance than for my weight. No amount of exercise has ever made me lose weight like this diet did. I lost a little when I trained for and ran a half marathon, but not much. Although that amount of running did make me feel completely amazing.
That’s it! I hope you’re inspired to give it a try and please hit me back with questions or issues you run into if you do. And I’m happy to be giving medium a whirl for this; it’s awfully nice software and this was a whole lot more fun to write and illustrate than a blog post.