For those that don’t know, I’ve been on a diet since January 1st of this year. As I get closer to 40 I have gotten more concerned with the state of my health – exacerbated by a family history of early heart attacks and diabetes. At my last doctor appointment in August of 2016 I had blood work done. When I reviewed the results with the doctor he was straight-forward with me. He said that by the next time I came in I would either have improved my health, or I would start on daily medications. I appreciated his bluntness, and promptly did nothing about it for a couple of months.
So obviously for my New Year’s resolution I decided to lose weight. That has been my New Year’s resolution for the last ~3-4 years or so. Typically I would have a goal of losing 15-20 pounds in 3 months, and sometimes I would succeed, but then my goal would be over, and I would promptly put it all back on with a few extra pounds for good measure – a common story for people on diets. I had decided that the reason I always gained it back was because my goals were too short. This year I decided I would do something different – I would set a 9 month goal to lose 37.4 pounds. In case you’re curious, my starting weight was 237.4, and I wanted to get to 200 – hence the odd number.
The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. – Einstein
Now that I had a goal, the question was how to get there. I had absolutely no plan. I knew that I had success with monitoring carbs in previous diets via a somewhat Atkins diet of low-carb and high-protein, but I also knew that I never stuck with it and I was afraid I would eventually plateau and not get the big losses I was looking for (I really needed to lose more like 50 pounds to be fit). Without a specific plan I knew one thing I could do to get started – stop eating like an idiot.
Step 1 – Stop Eating Like an Idiot
At the end of 2016 I was on a 6 month project for a very large client (arguably the biggest mobile app I’ve worked on), and near the end there was a pretty serious crunch. I would wake up, go to the basement, work on the app until lunch, go out and grab lunch (my only chance at getting out of the house), come home and eat, and then get back on the computer until 6. I did this for the majority of ~3 months – mostly living off of fast food for lunch. Between October 1st and December 25th I went from 228 lbs to 237 lbs – that’s +9 pounds in 3 months – done over a year that would’ve been ~40 pounds gained. Just for giggles, here is what I was having for lunch most days:
Arby’s – beef & cheddar (2) – 950 calories, 90g carbs, 11g sugar
Taco Bell – XXL Grilled Stuffed Burrito, 1 soft taco – 1030 calories, 119g carbs, 8g sugar
Chik-fil-a – Chik-fil-a sandwich with american cheese (2) – 1020 calories, 85g carbs, 12g sugar
Zaxby’s – Kickin’ Chicken sandwich & shake – 1565 calories, 169g carbs, 105g sugar
Burger King – Bacon King sandwich – 1040 calories, 48g carbs, 10g sugar
On top of that I was eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream 1-3 times a week – the whole pint. My favorites were Peanut Buttah Core and Half Baked – for reference here are those calories:
Peanut Buttah Core – 1280 calories, 108g carbs, 80g sugar
Half Baked – 1080 calories, 128g carbs, 108g sugar
Since step 1 was to stop eating like an idiot, I (mostly) stopped eating all of the above – simple enough – and that’s all I did from January 1st to February 22nd. During that time-frame I went from 237.4 to 230.8 – a loss of 6.6 pounds. I was headed in the right direction, albeit somewhat slowly, but it gave me time to figure out what I was going to do next.
Step 2 – Track Calories – CICO
So for step 2? I figured tracking calories was the way to go. I became a frequent visitor of /r/loseit and they preach a pretty consistent CICO (calories-in VS calories-out) diet for weight loss. It was straight forward, made sense, and was easy enough to follow, so that was going to be the plan for this year’s diet. I began tracking everything I ate in MyFitnessPal – everything. I used an online calculator to figure out my ‘maintenance calories’, subtracted ~15% from that, and that was the amount of calories I stayed under each day – somewhere around 2000 calories. I primarily switched to a fish based diet for lunch, and since Rachel cooks healthy at night, I had my bases covered. The only problem was that I still really craved ice cream – and Ben & Jerry and I had to break up. Luckily for me, along comes Halo Top – a pretty decent ice cream with 280-360 calories for the whole pint. I could keep eating entire pints of ice cream multiple times a week, and so long as I had room in my calorie budget for the day I was good. Between February 22nd and March 21st I went from 230.8 to 220.2 – a loss of 10.6 pounds.
Now during this stage we picked up a Withings smart scale. The thing was pretty sweet and made daily weigh ins a no-brainer. Basically I just stepped on the scale, and the weight showed up on the scale screen and in MyFitnessPal – no more manual entry. But I started noticing an interesting trend. On days where I would eat bread my weight would always increase by a full pound. I would still be well under my daily calories, but that 6 inch Subway sandwich would add a solid pound to my weight at the next morning’s weigh-in, and by the following day it would be gone – it was repeatable every single time. I started to remember how in previous years I had had good success in avoiding carbs, and thought maybe I should start doing that again.
Step 3 – Tracking Macronutrients and Limiting Carbs
I decided that my next step was to not just track calories, but pay attention to my macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein), something I kept seeing mentioned in weight loss forums – I focused on carbs specifically. I stopped eating bread pretty much entirely, and on days where I did (maybe while traveling for example) I would always still see that 1 pound temporary gain. I started paying attention to carbs in other things as well, but my main guidance was another online calculator which calculated the macronutrients I should be targeting. It suggested 35% carbs, 29% fat, and 36% protein – and that along with my daily calorie goal became my measuring sticks. From March 21st to April 21st I went from 220.2 to 218.1 – a loss of 2.1 pounds.
You might’ve noticed my weight loss in this step was a paltry 2.1 pounds over 30 days. Well, during this time we went to Hawaii for a week, and followed that up with a really nice Easter Sunday family dinner – both included copious amounts of deserts. For our Hawaii trip I put on 3.1 pounds. Interestingly enough, I dropped 2.2 pounds of that 3.1 pounds gain in just 24 hours after stopping the carb/sugar/alcohol/desert madness. For the Easter weekend I gained 2.1 pounds. Interestingly enough, I dropped 1.5 pounds of that 2.1 pounds within 24 hours after the massive Easter meal. This was directly parallel to the gains I had noticed before with eating bread – I had eaten lots of carbs/sugar during these two times, gained a pound or two, and dropped it after 24 hours. It was time to look into this more.
So why despite those two instances (which I mostly recovered from) did I only lose 2.1 pounds in this 30 day period? Well, if you look at my weight graph leading up to these two events it was apparent that my weight loss was slowing and plateauing – something I had been worried about early on with this approach. It was time to go back to the drawing board.
A Brief Intermission of YouTube and Research
Out of curiosity, I started looking into why a slice or two of bread would make me put on an extra pound, but only for a day – I thought that was odd. I found out that carbs (and sodium to a lesser degree) make you retain water weight. I thought that might explain why I would be up a pound, but then it would be gone the next day. But I wasn’t convinced that there wasn’t a larger story there – maybe I would lose more weight if I avoided carbs even more.
During this time I was listening to a lot of the Joe Rogan podcast on YouTube, and kept hearing him talk about the diet that he, and many MMA fighters, were on – the Keto diet. It sparked some interest since Joe Rogan is one of the most fit 49 year olds I’m aware of, and because he is a pretty straight-forward kind of guy. I looked into Keto briefly, saw that it limits daily carbs to less than 20 carbs a day, and immediately thought this was a diet for extremists – which to some degree it is. Less than 20 carbs a day means you can’t even eat a single banana without going over – that was crazy. So, I kept with my calorie and carb counting, started paying more attention to protein as well, and started working out at the church gym – that was going to be my plan for this New Year’s resolution I was already 3 months into.
Another thing I came across during this time was something called ‘intermittent fasting’. If you look at a lot of weight loss enthusiast posts you’ll eventually run into folks preaching on intermittent fasting. The basic idea being that you go some period of time every day in which you don’t eat anything – just drink water. All of us do this when we sleep, but these folks would just push this a bit further, and were claiming to have larger weight loss gains because of it. I was already somewhat doing this as I frequently skipped breakfast, but these folks were doing even more, like not eating from 8pm at night until 2pm the next day – I was doing more like not eating from midnight to noon. As I started looking into this more I came across a Dr. Jason Fung (author of The Obesity Code) – he along with Jimmy Moore literally wrote the book on fasting (The Complete Guide to Fasting). I watched a few of Dr. Fung’s videos on YouTube and got exposed to not just intermittent fasting, but long-term fasting.
The best of all medicines are rest and fasting – Ben Franklin
Can you imagine not eating for a full 24 hours? That’s crazy right? Have you ever seen me if I haven’t eaten for 12 hours? I was a hangry dude. I was blown away that folks could make it a full 24 hours. Obviously I knew that some religions fasted, but I never really thought about it much – it is so counter-intuitive to how most of us live. So if imagining a 24 hour fast is crazy, how about 7 days? How about 14 days? How about 30 days? How about 40 days? How about 300+ days (nearly 10 months)?! I’m not talking about a juice fast here, I’m talking about nothing but water and a daily vitamin for 300+ days. How the hell is that possible? I realized it didn’t matter that I was clueless how it was feasible – it was feasible – and many prominent historical figures including Jesus and Ghandi practiced it. I couldn’t fathom how it was even possible, but I had to admit I was curious if that was a way for me to finally drop this gut. But still, I knew I couldn’t make it 24 hours myself, and I started to wonder why.
Do you remember when you were in health class as a kid? Do you remember why they told you that your body stored fat? What I remember being told is that our body stores excess energy as fat in case we ever need it. That somehow our body could use stored fat during times of hunger. And guess what? That’s how people can fast for 30 days on nothing but water – their body converts their stored fats into energy they can use to survive. So how is it I couldn’t imagine even going 24 hours? Well, as it turns out it is because my body pretty much had never tapped into those fat stores – which is why my weight has gradually increased for the last 20 years – my body was storing excess energy as fat in case I ever needed it, and since I eat 2-3 times a day every day, I was never tapping into that stored fat. So I began learning more about what happens during fasting.
Our bodies are interesting things. They are incredibly adaptable (as shown by being able to fast for 30+ days), and there are processes our body uses to adjust itself based on our diet. Turns out that fasting is possible because our body can convert fat into energy through a process called Ketosis. What’s interesting about ketosis is that it doesn’t generate Glucose for energy (the main energy pretty much everyone uses day to day from dietary carbs/sugars), it generates something called Ketones. Turns out that our body can operate on either glucose or on ketones as its primary energy source. When you fast, typically around days 2-5 (the worst days of the fast) your body switches to burning fat for energy, and for the rest of your fast your body is operating off of burning that fat via ketosis. So, it would seem that ketosis is the process for converting stored fat into energy (aka burning fat), and that was something I wanted to do. So, why was I so afraid of fasting even 24 hours when it was proven folks could go 30+ days? Well, it turns out it is because my body has been addicted to glucose/sugar/carbs for the majority of my life, and switching off of that would cause some serious changes to my body and cause my body to start fiending for glucose because it has never known anything about using ketones for energy.
Learning About the Keto Diet
So then I wondered, how does this fasting ketosis tie into the Keto diet I had heard of? If the ‘keto’ in Keto Diet is short for ketosis, how does that relate to ketosis used in fasting? Well, remember that the Keto Diet is a diet of less than 20g of carbs/sugar a day, and that the glucose that most of us use for energy comes from those carbs/sugars. By avoiding carbs/sugars in a Keto Diet, your body switches to burning fat instead to generate ketones for energy – the same as fasting. I knew this sounded crazy, but this was what I needed to do to get to the next level. I was going to focus on Ketosis – the breaking down of fat for energy (aka burning fat) – and that was going to melt this stupid belly – that was the game-plan for this New Year’s diet that I was already 4 months into.
So at this point I knew I wanted to get into ketosis, and I knew that the Keto diet focused on this, but I didn’t know much more than that. After looking into it a bit further I found that the typical keto guidance for daily macros was ~5% carbs, ~30% protein, and ~65% fat – I thought this was crazy. Surely if I ate that much fat I would have horrible cholesterol and increase the rate at which I had cardiovascular issues right? Doesn’t the intake of fat directly affect cholesterol levels and heart disease? Wasn’t the government telling us for the last 20+ years to avoid fat? Isn’t that why every product on the shelf has a low-fat version (something which always made me wonder why anyone would want the full-fat version)? Well, as it turns out that guidance was bunk, and that there are plenty of examples of people greatly improving their heart health via a Keto diet.
The change in dietary advice to promote low-fat foods is perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history. – Aseem Malhotra, a British cardiologist
Time for a little off-topic story. When I left my last job 4 1/2 years ago it was to focus on mobile app development. I had seen a new mobile development technology that I thought was heads and shoulders above anything else in the market, and they had just received their series A funding. I quit my job, and started focusing entirely on their technology stack. I was convinced this was the way to go, and that I wanted to be at the forefront of it. During my first 3-4 years I would get calls from recruiters looking to staff a mobile dev like me. When they told me the technology stack they were using it was always something other than what I was focusing on – what I had left my job to focus on. I would always tell them to give me a call back if they heard of any jobs using my preferred technology stack, and they would always laugh to themselves and say “sure, I’ll give you a call if anyone ever wants that”. It wasn’t until 4 years later when Microsoft bought that little mobile development technology company for $500+ million dollars that I started getting calls again from those same recruiters – the ones who thought I was crazy for investing so heavily into it just a few years earlier. Now they had plenty of jobs paying plenty of money looking for exactly my skill set – and I had 4+ years of experience in it – more than almost anyone else. I tell this story to say that industries as a whole are slow to move – and that applies to the healthcare industry as well.
A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD. – nutrition.org
After a bit of research I found numerous articles confirming that fat intake is not linked to cardiovascular disease – something that many researchers have been saying for years now and is only finally being accepted. Much like my off-topic story, it takes time for perceptions to change and for industries to catch up with the latest happenings. While it has been admitted for years now, many people still associate dietary fat intake with cardiovascular health – including some doctors unfortunately. It’s kind of like how the rule for the number of spaces after punctuation changed to 1 (from 2) over 15 years ago, but a majority of 40+ year old’s still put 2 spaces because it was in an official guideline book 30 years ago, and chances are they will use 2 spaces for the rest of their lives – despite being wrong and not done in any professional publications for 10+ years.
Still worried about such high fat intake? That’s okay – it is definitely weird compared to the status quo. But suppose I was going to eat lunch today and could have either: A) a bed of spinach + ground beef + cottage cheese + 2 hard boiled eggs + guacamole + shredded cheese with a water to drink, or B) 2 Reese’s peanut butter cups + a bag of Cheetos + 2 slices of pizza with a Coke to drink. Which do you think is healthier? Which do you think is higher in fat? Which do you think is lower in carbs/sugar? When you lower the percentage of carbs/sugar in your diet, one or both of the other 2 major macronutrients must raise, be that protein or fat – and guess what? Excessive protein also can be converted to glucose.
I did quite a bit of YouTube watching and article reading after deciding on going on the Keto Diet. It’s too much to cover here, so I’ll just say to do your own research – which will typically involve watching several incredibly boring hour long videos at various nutritional conferences held over the last few years. Suffice to say, everything I have seen/read suggests that the obesity epidemic we are seeing is largely tied to excess carbs/sugars, and that a ketone fueled body can reduce stored fat and avoid (and potentially reverse) type 2 diabetes. Ketosis can also stabilize your energy throughout the day and avoid peaks and valleys associated with glucose/carbs/sugars, which – TA-DA – makes fasting much easier.
Videos worth watching:
The Calorie Deception – Dr. Jason Fung
The Story of Fat: Why we were Wrong about Health
Cardiovascular Disease and a LCHF Diet – Dr. Sarah Hallberg
The Art and Science of Low Carb Living: Cardio-Metabolic Benefits and Beyond – Dr. Jeff Volek
What’s the Difference Between a Low Carb Ketogenic Diet & the Atkin’s Diet? – Dr. David Jockers
Recent Developments in LCHF and Nutritional Ketosis – Dr. Stephen Phinney (Part 2)
The Cholesterol Myth – Dr. Eric Berg
The Two Big Lies of Type 2 Diabetes – Dr. Jason Fung
Reversing Type 2 diabetes starts with ignoring the guidelines – Dr. Sarah Hallberg
So, on to step 4 – full on ketosis on the Keto Diet.
To be continued..