If you've seen me recently you might have noticed I've lost quite a lot of weight. 31lbs to be precise. I haven't been talking about it much except for the occasional gym check-in on Facebook. But for the first time in about 10 years, I feel "in shape." None of my clothes fit, I have muscle in places that were heretofore overrun with blubber, I have a jawline, and I feel pretty fucking awesome. A lot of people have been asking how I did it so I want to share a few things I've learned so far on this ongoing journey.
tl;dr I lost a lot of weight and built muscle and fitness by removing refined carbs, eating clean food and exercising. It can be done.
A couple of points before I begin; this is what worked for ME. Your mileage may vary. I am not a doctor, nutritionist, personal trainer or anything like that - this is for informational use only. I got a physical before I embarked on this, so should you.
Before you begin
Take "before" measurements and photos, as well as body fat percentage. I made the mistake of not doing this initially and it turned out to be a massive mistake. You can't rely on your weight to be your only barometer of success, inches lost is a much more telling stat. So strip down to your skivvies and take a picture in the mirror. Don't suck in that gut either, be honest with yourself. Take measurements as well; tummy, bum, chest, and thighs at the very least.
Nutrition and Diet
If you take anything from this post, let it be this:
You can't out-exercise a shitty diet.
Weight loss is 80% diet. You can exercise until your blue in the face and not drop a pound or an inch if you haven't addressed your diet. For me this was a total lifestyle change, not a "diet" so I did a ton of research on what had worked for me in the past, what works for other people, the science between nutrition, weight loss, lean muscle mass, carbohydrates, protein, supplements, exercise, etc. It was important to me to see what frameworks worked for other people. Ryan Carson had success with modified Paleo, Joe Stump had success with Tim Ferris' 4 Hour Body. Based on all my research, I set up the following framework/rules for myself initially:
Don't eat white food No flour, no sugar, no dairy, no rice, no potatoes, no pasta. There is almost no positive nutritional value in the white versions of those foods, the exception being dairy but I removed that from my diet to expedite fat loss. Cutting those refined carbs yielded results in a matter of days and I really didn't miss them at all. Indeed some argue that refined carbs are killing you. Either way, cutting them is a great way to kick start the process. As any diabetic knows, carbs drive insulin production and insulin drives fat accumulation.
Drink a whole lot of water each day. I aimed for 3 liters a day. Water is great for you for so many reasons. It keeps you hydrated (obviously), it's great for your skin and helps avoid stretchmarks when you lose weight, it fills you up, it's free. Drink lots of water.
Focus on vegetables over fruit. Both are great, don't get me wrong, but fruit contains fructose, a simple sugar, and so if you go crazy eating fruit you could struggle to lose weight. If you want fruit then lower-sugar varieties like berries are a good choice over high-sugar fruits like grapes, bananas, or oranges.
Don't drink regular soda. Diet soda seems to have little effect on weight loss but I cut waaaaaay back just because I just can't believe it's good for you. Regular soda on the other hand? Evil. A 20oz regular soda has 17 teaspoons of sugar in it. You WILL get fat if you drink regular soda. And probably diabeetus.
Don't drink beer. Sorry guys, I know this sucks but beer has no positive nutritional value and is loaded with calories and carbs. There are 250 calories in a can of lager. Eliminate that nightly beer (or three) and your well on your way. Don't worry, it's not permanent. I like beer but I've only had 3 in the last 3 months.
Avoid overly prescriptive nutrition plans. During my research I came across some REALLY restrictive diet plans. That might work for some people who NEED that level of structure and rigidity but if you ask me the less flexibility in a plan the more likely you are to deviate or "cheat" or get bored. I understand we all need a bit of structure but I've read some plans that say when you can drink certain drinks (coffee, water, green tea AND NOTHING ELSE!!), what brands of food you can eat, etc. I think that's just a recipe for failure, at least in my case.
Stop with the "low fat/reduced fat" nonsense. Especially for things that really shouldn't have that label....like meat. You don't want to know the process and ingredients (read: chemicals) used to reduce the fat. And don't forget, FAT DOESN'T MAKE YOU FAT! Good fat is good. Eat clean, unprocessed food and you can't go wrong.
Focus on good, clean protein. Protein is awesome. It's cheap, delicious and comes in all shapes and sizes. All your favorite meats and a lot of your favorite vegetables are absolutely loaded with protein. And the body loves protein too. It helps you build muscle which helps you burn calories. My favorite source of protein? Spinach. Pound for pound you won't find a better vegetable than spinach.
With all that in mind, here's what my nutrition plan looked like initially (i.e. first 30 days)
Breakfast 3-4 eggs (scrambled or omelette) sometimes with spinach and turkey and almost always with no-sugar-added salsa and/or jalapeños.
Snack Celery sticks, carrot sticks, cold cut meats (turkey, chicken, ham, etc), handful of nuts (almonds and walnuts are good but go easy because those calories add up fast).
Lunch Spinach leaves with tuna or chicken and every manner of additional veg. Cucumber, radishes, bell pepper, celery, snow peas, you name it. I sometimes added a chopped hardboiled egg or some bacon. OR A grilled chicken breast (hot or cold) with some vegetables.
Snack Apple (I later cut this out and replaced with a protein shake) and a handful of nuts, or turkey jerky. Go easy on the turkey jerky though, while it's low fat and loaded in protein, it's super high in sodium.
Dinner Grilled chicken breast OR grilled salmon/tuna OR grass-fed steak with a ton of vegetables. There's so many ways to put this together and our BBQ is in constant use with wonderful meats and grilled vegetables. I also did stir fries (go easy on the oil and try to use olive oil, palm oil, or coconut oil) and chilis as well. I didn't get bored of dinner at all, not once.
Drinks: Water, coffee (black, no sugar), green tea, diet soda, a glass of red wine a few nights a week.
This plan was really easy to stick to because it was all food that was easy to prepare, cheap, and provided enough variety in flavours and preparations so I didn't go nuts. Plus frankly it all tasted amazing and the focus on protein meant that I completely eliminated that shitty post-lunch slump.
I made myself stick to a routine for a minimum of 30 days before I did any deviations or modifications. I felt that was a good amount of time to get enough data on pounds and inches lost to make sensible decisions, and just as importantly see how I was feeling. Was I hungry all the time? Did I feel tired? How was my energy? What effect was it having on my skin, sleep, libido, mood?
After 30 days of the diet plan above I had enough information to start to make modifications to my diet. Here are a few things I did:
- I replaced one of my snacks with a protein shake, usually to coincide with a workout or exercise. I found them to be filling and satisfying (and not all of them taste like ass), and of course they benefit your lean muscle development. I like the Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard Double Chocolate.
- I have a square of dark (75+% cocoa) chocolate every night and that satisfies any sweet cravings. Apparently dark chocolate is also pretty good for you. Bonus!
- You need energy and fuel to lift weights (and recover properly) so on lifting days I added some whole grains (brown rice or wholegrain toast) to the meal I eat directly prior to lifting.
Almost every book and plan I read on this subject advocates some sort cheat meal for a bunch of reasons but mainly as a way to make sure you don't go insane from missing certain foods. But on a physiological level a cheat meal can be a great way to break a plateau (more on those later). By throwing a caloric spike at your body your "metabolic rate doesn't down-regulate from extended caloric restriction" as Tim Ferris says. That being said, I didn't do cheat meals until after I'd finished the first 30 days and even then they weren't a regular thing but they WERE effective at busting plateaus. Oh and go for a cheat meals not cheat days, and do it once a week MAX.
N.B. Under no circumstances should you EVER say the following - "Well I did 45 minutes on the treadmill this morning so I can eat this bucket of ice cream." IT DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT. You're just kidding yourself. Have some self-discipline for Pete's sake.
A word on cheat meals; when you crave a burger, instead of hacking together some low carb, low fat, imitation turkey burger that will leave you bitter and sobbing, save it for your cheat meal and go eat the most awesome burger you can find, complete with fries and a milkshake. Trying to replace what you're used to with something that fits into your new nutritional framework will only lead to disappointment. There is a wonderful range of food at your disposal but let's call a spade a spade and save the burger, pancakes, beer (God help if you try low-carb beer), for a cheat meal. It will be far more rewarding and satisfying.
As I mentioned at the beginning, so much of weight loss comes from diet. I have friends that have lost a staggering amount of body fat by simply applying sensible nutrition to their lives. But the danger is that you end up being skinny fat at the end. You weigh less but you're still squidgy. Plus lean muscle mass burns calories even when the body is at rest so the more you have the more efficiently the body burns calories. Also I wanted to look good and be fit not just weigh less. Bear in mind that for the last several years I've basically been sedentary. I went from walking to and from work (5 miles roundtrip) every day to working from home and walking downstairs to my office.
So I was basically starting from scratch. I didn't have access to a gym initially so all the exercise I did was based in or around the home.
Here's what I did:
Tuesday - Couch-2-5k I am not a runner. At all. I used to be a pretty good sprinter in my school days but never long distance. Hell, I had plantar fasciitis so badly I could barely walk after 9 holes of golf. But this program is solid gold. Absolutely awesome. The premise is simple; over 8 weeks you go from the couch to being able to run a 5k in under 30 minutes by decreasing the amount of walking and increasing the amount of running each week. I used a complementary iphone app called "Ease into 5k" which tracks your progress, plays your music, gives you voice prompts for when to run, walk and when you've hit the halfway point. For me it was a massive motivator to see my progress graphed out after each run. I'd be super motivated to beat my run pace and walk pace each run, as well as increase my distance. A great app, I continue to use it.
Wednesday - Power90 Sculpt Circuit 1-2.
Thursday - Couch-2-5k
Friday - Power90 Sculpt Circuit 1-2.
Saturday - Couch-2-5k
Sunday - Rest day
Every day, first thing in the morning, I did squats and wall presses. I started at 30 but worked my way to 50 of each every day. Bonus: wall presses are great for tackling manboobs (but you need good cardio to really get rid of them). Because of the wall presses my chest muscles are rock solid, even though I still have a little bit of fat to get rid of.
I did this for about 4 weeks until I went to California for the summer. It was at this point I had access to a gym and was ready to take my exercise to the next level.
Next level exercise
The fantastic weightloss community over on reddit are big advocates of lifting heavy weights (barbells instead of dumbbells) as part of a weight loss program. It makes sense for many reasons. You need to build muscle to avoid being skinny fat, you need lean muscle to help your body burn calories more efficiently, lifting heavy things is a great way to burn calories. For people new to the weight room (like me) the Starting Strength program is almost universally recommended as a great place to start. 5 lifts, 2 workouts, 3 days a week. That's it. Here's a graphic (from the great reddit fitness infographic) to show how simple the program is.
I don't know anyone who HASN'T seen really amazing results from this program. One word of advice, get some really good instruction from someone on how to properly execute the lifts. Just grab someone at the gym and ask them to show you. 15 minutes is all it takes and they don't want to see you get hurt either. So I added this to my weekly workout routine, 3 days a week.
Biking I also swapped out the car for my father-in-law's spare mountain bike. I forced myself to bike everywhere. To the gym, the local library (which was my temporary office), the store, friends' houses, you name it. Biking is great low impact cardio. But then I discovered Strava. My brother, an avid cyclist, introduced me to the strava app which tracks your bike rides and logs all the data associated with them. It then compares your performance to previous times you've done the same journey. So immediately you're trying to beat your own previous time. They take it a step further by creating segments (here's one I do frequently) and creating leaderboards that include ANYONE who's ever ridden that segment. Of course being the competitive bastard that I am, I was constantly striving to get higher on the leaderboard. Classic game mechanics. Strava is a great way to stay motivated.
The body is wonderfully and irritatingly efficient so after a while it got pretty good at dealing with the exercise I was throwing at it. Running got easier and the weight loss slowed down. So it was time to up my game.
High intensity interval training is probably the most effective exercise to burn fat. There are studies that show you can burn up to 9x more fat than a standard cardio workout. It's simply 6-10 reps of high-intensity exercise (sprints, going all out on a stationary bike, etc) followed by reps of medium intensity. There's a great iOs app called Seconds that will build timers for you and I used this framework to get started. Be warned, HIIT is brutal but it's brief and it works really, really well.
Another thing I did was take high intensity athletic classes at the gym. I did this for two reasons, I wanted instruction from a professional and I wanted other people. Having other people doing the same routine is a great way to keep you in check and not cut corners. Here's one I did recently. This done was over an hour without any stopping. I wanted to barf at the end but 5 minutes later I felt great.
Now this is one where you're really going to have to do your own research. BE SENSIBLE. After a ton of research, here's what I take on a daily basis:
Fish oil (Target brand 1200mg) - great for joints, skin, heart, you name it. Creatine (AMP Amplified Creatine 189 in tablet form) - used for efficient use of protein for recovery. One of the most efficient amino acids out there. TONS of great high level research on the efficacy of creatine. But again, exercise caution, talk to your doctor. Multivitamin (Shaklee Cinch 3-in-1)
Plateaus are super frustrating and can really break your confidence and motivation. But the body is an extraordinarily efficient machine and adapts quickly to the changes we throw at it. So the key to breaking those plateaus is to keep throwing the changes at your body. Exercise and diet confusion are a great way to break plateaus. If you exercise in the evening, try exercising in the morning for a couple of days in a row. Your body will be like "Ok we've got a good 5 or 6 hours before we need to burn this fat so let's hanOH GOD WHAT'S HAPPENING?! WE'RE RUNNING! BURN THE FAT STORES, BURN THE FAT STORES!"
If your diet remains exactly the same for several weeks then the body will get used to it and start to process calories with even greater efficiency and you might find your weight loss stalling. So throw some diet changes at your body. Drop dairy for a few days, spike your calories at lunch instead of dinner, etc. In many instances, I've found a cheat meal has broken a persistent plateau with great effect. I've also had success with very moderate carb intake. A cookie here, a piece of toast there. But I wouldn't do that until I'd stalled for 5-6 days.
Nutritions and Diet Hacks
- Beat temptation. Your friends/family/office workers will provide all manner of temptation "C'mon man, just one beer!" "C'mon man, the whole crew is grabbing burgers!" "C'mon man, the rest of us drank a pint of bacon grease!" Rise above it, stay strong.
- DON'T CHEAT. You're only cheating yourself. And don't delude yourself into thinking that "oh a couple of tortilla chips won't hurt." It will, it will throw you off physiologically and psychologically and can absolutely disrupt weight loss. If you're in the first 30 days and you cheat (no matter how minor the infraction) the 30 days starts again. C'mon, stick with it and you WILL see results.
- On Sunday evening grill up a bunch of chicken breasts and put them in the fridge. Grab one each morning plus a bag of spinach and some other veg/additions and you're all set for lunch.
- If you want a change (or someone else to make your lunch) go to Subway and get them to make you a spinach salad with your choice of meat and veg. For dressing just go with oil and vinegar.
- In the beginning, count calories. Every one of them. Ultimately weight loss is a simple matter of calories in < calories out. It's not as simple as that but if you maintain and sustain a caloric deficit, you WILL lose weight.. Use MyFitnessPal to help, great app/site.
- If you opt for the Paleo framework, avoid "paleo versions" of dishes that you wouldn't otherwise eat on a low carb plan. I've seen paleo versions of pancakes, tortillas, pasta, cake, and cheesecake. AVOID THESE LIKE THE PLAGUE IF YOU WANT TO LOSE WEIGHT. They are loaded with really high fat ingredients to compensate for ingredients that aren't on the plan. And while they may technically be paleo, they're not in the spirit of the framework (when was the last time you heard of paleolithic man eating some pancakes and cheesecake?).
- Again if you're opting for low carb and are trying to lose weight, resist the temptation to go for a fast food joint's low carb option. A McBurgerTown triple ultra burger with cheese in a lettuce wrap instead of a bun is still loaded with fat, grease and calories. Save it for a cheat day and have the real deal.
- Less than five flights of stairs? Walk. Up or down, doesn't matter.Take the stairs at the tube station, no the escalator.
- Music choice is key, anything that gets you pumped up will work. Couch25k is challenging, especially the first day of the next level, so anything you can do to get yourself amped is a great way to get through those tough spots. Visualize yourself dropping an epic guitar solo at Glastonbury, scoring the winning goal/basket/home run/touchdown/try for your favorite team, having epic sex with your officemate/flatmate/partner (they're all the same person in my case!). Just get amped, get psyched and jam on.
- The hardest part is getting out the door. Sometimes you think "I'm comfortable, the Simpsons is on, and I can't be bothered to get changed."If you can just get out the door, that feeling will disappear as soon as you hit the pavement. Just get out the door, it'll take 30 seconds to get ready and you'll feel great afterwards. Post exercise endorphines are awesome.
- Bored of your routine? Take an "alternative" day and do something different. Play indoor soccer/football, go on a hike, go for a swim. Anything to keep moving. I hiked up one of the Bay Area's highest peaks, Mission Peak, with my father-in-law and brother. Totally amazing experience and a hell of a workout.
What I learned
You can't target fat loss to specific areas of your body, it doesn't work like that. Usually it's first on last off and I'm definitely experiencing that. My last bits of belly fat are hanging on for dear life and it's frustrating. But don't give up. I'm trying to shift deposits that have been there for most of my adult life, it's going to take time to shift.
Starvation mode is a myth. The body doesn't stop burning fat because you're eating too few calories. The only time when the body will start digesting muscle or go into some sort of "starvation mode" is when you are quite literally wasting away. Not when you're just eating less calories than you're burning.
A lot of people have helped me, encouraged me, motivated me, taught me. Whether they know it or not. So thanks to: My wife for being awesome and encouraging me and dealing with my whining about plateaus as well as being a fashion consultant, my in-laws for putting up with my inflexible eating as well as for the use of bikes, cars, etc; Donna and Leaf for the tips, tricks and motivation; the Livermore Valley Tennis Club for the use of their awesome facilities; Will and Cate for proof reading this article; Wayne for the constant prodding and motivation; Liz for the Cinch! Ryan Carson, Joe Stump, Tim Ferris for inspiration and information.