Since stopping the bike ride I’ve been refocusing my energy on my own health. My goal was not to lose weight, but as I focused on my health and fitness the pounds kind of slowly melted off. I know that 20 lbs is not a huge amount of weight and 8 weeks is not an incredibly quick time (my results certainly won’t be on the cover of a magazine in some grocery store check-out lane), but everything I’ve done is something that I think I can maintain long term. The habits are sustainable for me, which I think is going to really help me maintain my health in the long term. There is, of course, the normal disclaimer… this is what worked for me but there is not guaranteed results. I also am not a medical professional, I do like to experiment on my own body and I think the internet provides a wealth of knowledge that allows us to live very unique lives. All I hope from this blog post is that maybe one person will find part of it interesting and be able to improve their own life because of it.
On July 8th I started a new chapter in my life. My partner and I decided to stop our multi-year bicycle tour indefinitely. Instead of travelling, we decided to settle down for a bit in Wilmington, North Carolina. I knew that if I did not take very conscious control of my health as soon as we stopped I would become unhealthy very quickly. One perk of the bike tour is I could pretty much eat anything I wanted because I was constantly active. During the ride my weight stayed around 180lbs, a little heavy for my 5’7” frame but I felt good and wasn’t really concerned about it. I had it in my head that I would lose weight on the bike ride because of all the exercise, but that never really happened. It turns out, for me the key to losing weight is mostly my diet.
Luckily, I’ve always had a reasonably healthy relationship with food. Growing up, food was not a major part of my life. My family very rarely ate meals together and the food that was prepared for us was mostly bland tasting. I didn’t dislike food, but there was nothing about it that was particularly appealing (except pizza). My parents were raising six kids and both of them worked full time so we mostly ate canned veggies, pasta, and processed stuff you can throw in microwaves. Not exactly healthy, but that diet did prevent me from having any kind of psychological connection to food that could lead to an unhealthy relationship. I don’t have any type of sweet tooth and am never tempted by donuts, cakes, candy, etc., at this point sodas are actually unappealing to me because the sugar and such is so overwhelmingly sweet that it makes me sick to my stomach. Of course, there are times when my health fluctuated because of my diet, but that was mostly because I was ignorant to nutrition and how to actually cook good meals. A little education corrected that problem.
Admittedly, by the time I stopped the bike ride I had some things working to my advantage. First, my partner is a dietitian and I can ask her random health and nutrition questions when they come to mind. Those questions rarely change my behavior, but they keep my brain focused on health and keep my curiosity going. A curious mind can be a great source of motivation to improve your life. Second, I’m vegan, which means my diet is already pretty heavy in healthy foods. Yes, you can be a really fat and unhealthy vegan (potato chips, French fries, and some ice creams are vegan after all) but if you stay away from the processed foods your diet becomes really low in calories and rich in nutrients quickly.
Phase 1 – CRON and New Habits
When the bike ride ended I sat down and wanted to re-evaluate my relationship with food. What is the purpose of food for humans? For some people, there is a deep cultural bond with food that relates to their family and upbringing. For others, food provides a mental stability and comfort during stressful times. Neither of those is true for me to any strong degree. For me, food is about two things… calories for energy and nutrients for the body. With those two goals in mind, I started playing around with recipes to see what kind of nutrients I can get from what kind of foods. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains are pretty damn nutrient rich, so I put myself on a vegan CRON (Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition) diet. I actually didn’t know the CRON diet was an official thing until weeks after doing it myself.
The foundation of my daily diet is breakfast. For breakfast, I eat around 900 calories. I have a veggie scramble, a piece of avocado toast, a protein shake, and a piece of fruit. The veggie scramble varies from recipe to recipe but is usually made up of black beans, brown rice, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, mushrooms, spinach, and broccoli, with nutritional yeast and chia seeds added in. The protein shake is Orgain chocolate protein powder (vegan), powdered peanut butter, and coffee. Below this paragraph is a screenshot of Cronometer.com after I have put in my breakfast.
As you can see, after one meal I have already consumed my daily requirements for many vitamins and minerals. It is very, very important for every person, regardless of their diet, to be aware of any nutritional deficiencies they may have. I think many people (myself included) are often ignorant to what their body needs and may lack important nutrients like fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E (http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/missing-nutrients-in-your-food).
The rest of my meals are usually much lighter. Lunch is usually just some beans and rice, and for snacks, I stick with a handful of nuts or fruit. Dinner is a meal that I cook out of one of our cookbooks. I don’t aim for calorie reduced meals specifically, but I have changed my habits so that my meals serve the purpose of providing my body with what it needs. That means I’ve started recording my meals into Cronometer.com before I eat them, which is particularly important when I’m out drinking with friends. If I jump onto my phone and record one more beer before I order it at the bar it can deter me from drinking excessively (which is good for my wallet, my waistline, and my mood the next morning). I also drink lots of water, coffee, and tea to keep my body hydrated and stomach full, I eat a little when I start to get hungry to prevent myself from gorging, and when I eat I treat it like a meditation by eating slowly and focusing on the task at hand instead of allowing myself to watch tv while eating. Also, I have adjusted my sleep habits. No computers or phones after 9pm and in bed by 10pm, and up by 7am. Upon waking I would pee and then weigh myself (see below), the act of weighing myself daily seemed to put me into a healthy mindset at the start of the day.
At the end of Phase 1 (about five weeks) I was very happy with the results, but I wanted to continue with the experimentation. At this point, I’d lost 12 lbs and my body fat % was down 4%.
Side Note: On Exercise
I’ve been focusing on diet as the source of my weight loss, but I have been exercising too. I don’t think exercise has been a major factor, though. Exercise is certainly important to overall health, but weight (at least for me) seems to be controlled more by diet. When I was cycling 6-10 hours a day I wasn’t losing any weight, and sometimes I gained weight, but now I am only exercising 2-4 times a week and I’m shedding pounds.
To lose one pound of fat you need a calorie deficit of about 3,500 calories. Exercise just isn’t an efficient way to burn that much weight. You would need to run about 35 miles to burn that much weight, but only if that added exercise didn’t change your behavior through eating more food or moving around less during non-exercise time. In total, I ended up with a 70,000 calorie deficit and I’ve run 76.5 miles in the last eight weeks (there have been some other exercises like cycling and running but those weren’t cardio and were at a pretty slow pace). So, from running I’ve lost about 2 lbs or 10% of my weight loss is due to that exercise. Even if I double that to account for other extra activity that is still only 20% of my weight loss due to exercise, the rest is dietary changes.
Phase 2: Fasting
As happy as I was with the results, my interest in fasting started to come back. I don’t see fasting as a weight loss tool but as a tool for general health and longevity. If I want to live to the singularity and become immortal I need to take care of this meat suit. There is not a lot of tested evidence that shows fasting extends the lives of humans, but the hypothesis behind it seems pretty solid. At the very least, there isn’t a high chance of harm coming from fasting, and there might be some mental benefits. The Stoics believed in fasting from time to time to help you realize how little you really need in life and I think making yourself uncomfortable from time to time is good. Comfort creates stagnation.
I decided to hybrid two different types of fasting into my life. I started with the “16:8” fast. This fast is a daily fast and basically means you have 8 hours per day in which you eat and 16 hours in which you don’t. For me, that means breakfast around 10am and dinner around 6pm, with some snacks or small meals in between if I’m hungry. The rest of the time is a “fast”. The basic idea behind this (and the second fast I use) is that these times without food are good for the body for a couple of reasons. First, when you fast beyond 8-10 hours your body runs out of glycogen and you start to burn fat reserves. Second, when your body goes into fast mode you start repairing cells instead of producing new ones. If your body doesn’t think it needs to conserve resources it will just reproduce cells in large numbers, which increases the chances of poorly copied cells that can become cancerous, but during fasting mode, your body tries to conserve resources by repairing the cells you already have instead of making new ones.
I actively implemented the “16:8 fast” for about two weeks before starting the “5:2 fast”, which is a little more extreme. In the “5:2 fast” you have five days with normal calorie consumption and two days with a limited calorie consumption of about 600 calories. I actually only did this one day a week for the first couple weeks and just started doing two days a week last week. This is still a bit tough for me and I find myself hungry at around 6pm every fast day (about six hours after my meal) but that hunger goes away after a bit. It is tough right now, but I’m surprised at how fast the hunger goes away after some tea or water. It seems to be getting easier with each iteration as well.
Side note: Social Life
So, does this mean I don’t have a social life? Nah, not really. Sure, it is easier for me because I’m an introvert and really don’t want to leave the house more than 2 nights per week, but I still go out and have fun with friends. I don’t take this nutrition plan too seriously, it is just an outline to help my life out and get more healthy, it is a way to see exactly what my body is capable of. When I go out I just do my best to eat meals at home (or pick healthy choices when out) and keep my alcohol consumption to something reasonable. You can be social and healthy, for me, it is just a matter of self-control.
Now that eight weeks have passed I feel like my diet is under my control. I am enjoying the meals that I eat daily and I like how much healthier I feel. I have more energy, am sleeping better at night, and I’m more productive at work and play. My mood and sex drive have both improved as well (I track all these things daily because I’m a nerd). For me, the next step is to keep this dietary plan while implementing an exercise plan. I want to be stronger. So, hopefully in eight weeks or so I can update you on that and have some measurements that show progress in strength as well as weight loss. (And hopefully I remember to put up some new photos soon… it has been a while)