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Mon, Nov 03, 2014

[Icon][Icon]An experience

• Post categories: Omni, Health, Rant, Exercise, My Life, Helpful, Science:ItWorks

I don't have an addictive personality.

I can't relate to people who talk about it being hard to give things up. I once read an article about the popularity of Thai green curry, and the author (a real fan) stated that if she went too long without eating the stuff she started to get mild anxiety attacks. I can't comprehend the idea of being that attached to a food.

Or smoking: When somebody says they can't stop, I get visions of a cigarette spontaneously igniting itself, leaping into the air and forcibly jamming itself between their protesting lips. This actually makes more sense to me (on a certain level) than the idea that not doing something is somehow difficult. If you want to give up smoking, just don't put a cigarette in your mouth. Simple.

Intellectually, I understand why this isn't the case. I understand that habits are hard to break; I understand that drug addictions are hard to overcome; I understand that psychological attachments to a habit or routine can be hard to suppress. It all makes perfect logical sense. But that's the only level on which it makes sense. I understand, but can't relate.

If you don't appreciate the distinction, try this: I can understand that to a male shark, a female shark is a desirable mate. But I can't actually relate to the concept of wanting to mate with a shark :)

On the few occasions when I've had to give something up for some reason, I've never found it hard: I just stopped. Whether it was a habit like chewing nails; or a food that I had to cut out; or whatever; it just wasn't a problem.

So when I recently found myself facing the prospect of dieting, I was actually quite looking forward to it: Although it's not exactly addictive per se, food is something that it's clearly not easy to go without. And I do have a fondness for sweets and savory snacks. Here, it seemed, was my chance to experience the challenges of going without. At last, I might be able to find a way to relate to the difficulties people report.

My motivations for going on a diet in the first place were a little different than most, I should explain. I was by no means obese: I didn't expect anyone to notice any difference, and sure enough, nobody did. So what was the point? Well, having spent the last year or so working hard on overcoming the damage done by a motorbike accident followed by a car crash, I'd spent a lot of time in the gym. The enforced inactivity for months due to severe whiplash had weakened my back to the point of uselessness: Returning strength and flexibility was a slow process. One piece of advice you'll see on most fitness fora is that an important factor in building strength is fueling it: Eat plenty.

Naturally, if you eat a lot, your body will be prone to putting some of it aside as fat rather than muscle, which leads a lot of people to adopt a "bulk/cut" cycle: Eat a lot to build muscle; then cut back to burn off the fat. It's a chore, sure, but it's easier to over-eat then under-eat than it is to stay at a "sweet spot" where you're doing neither.

I'd done the "eat lots" part, and it certainly helped fuel my time at the gym. But I was starting to have difficulties here and there: A twist hold I do each morning was starting to put pressure on my gut; and I was making next to no progress with pull-ups. Since arms are nowhere near as strong as the legs, being able to use them to lift your entire body weight is quite a challenge. Although I was able to do 18 in a morning workout, I was struggling. And the main advice to make progress with pullups is to ease the burden: Reduce the bodyfat.

I was also curious to see what was involved in cutting back to fat levels that would result in visible abs - something I've never had, but aspire to someday. Probably not realistic to do it all in one go, I figured, but at least finding out what weight loss is like should give me some idea of how big a chore it would be. Starting with a bit of a belly, how far could I get towards that goal?

So I had both practical and cosmetic reasons for wanting to cut down my BF%. And I was also interested in the experience for its own sake: The understanding I hoped it would give me of what it's like to find it hard to give something up.

So I looked at my routine and my eating regime, and came up with a fairly simple plan: A very strict diet during the week, relaxed at the weekend: Since it's the only time I get to spend with my other half, the weekend tends to work out as "date night" and it would have been a major inconvenience to try and stick to a strict eating plan during it, so I didn't try.

Also, building in "cheats" to any eating plan is generally a good idea: It means you don't go through "Oh, I didn't stick to my diet" guilt. Some people might prefer one small cheat per day, but I opted to resolve to stick to a rigid plan during the week and only have the "forbidden fruits" at the weekend.

Partly that was a practical decision - it's easier to manage - and partly it was just to make it a little harder: Five days in every seven, absolutely no snacks or sweets. I'd allow sugar in my first cup of tea, and a couple of biscuits as dessert at the end of the day - that was it as far as sugary things was concerned. Savory snacks were simply not allowed. Ruling out my favorite 'sinful' foods should ensure that I'd feel the temptations that people told me made it so hard to stick to a resolution to go without.

The idea of weekends, I should clarify, was not "Yay! Splurge on everything! Nom nom nom!!!" That would have been rather counter-productive. Rather, it was to be as sensible as possible about intake without there being any rules: If I'd spent the week fancying a donut, at the weekend I could have that donut. But I would have a donut, not scarf a bagful of the things. If we went out for a meal, I'd order the BBQ ribs without a twinge of guilt. But I'd get the half rack rather than the full rack. And so on.

So I began with that plan, and four months later I decided enough was enough: The experiment was over. That was a month ago, and this is the first time I've had to write up my thoughts. First, the good:

I lost weight. Most noticeably, my belt got looser. According to the not-terribly-reliable scales, I went from a little over 100kg to a little under 90kg - I reckon I lost around 13kg all-in.

Muscle definition did indeed improve: If I stand up straight and the lighting's flattering, you can just about make out that I have abs in there somewhere.

Pull-ups got easier/better: I went from maxed-out at six sets of three to being just about able to do three sets of ten. Pushups and single-leg squats also improved noticeably.

The not-so-good:

It was boring. I mean, really boring. I'm one of those people who tends to snack when bored, and losing that option was no fun.

It was frustrating: Walking past a bakery and getting a whiff when you can't eat a damn thing they sell.. no fun!

I was hungry quite often. No surprise there, right? Never painfully "I must feed!!!" hungry, but I was very ready for food when I reached mealtime.

My stamina dropped. Mostly I didn't feel lacking in energy, but cycling up a steep hill killed me in a way it wouldn't usually.

The worst part:

It wasn't hard.

It just wasn't. I successfully lost weight just by dieting for months. Hand on heart, I didn't cheat - not so much as a crumb, not once. (About the closest I got was having to take cold medicine at one point, which technically does contain sugar..) I planned a diet, and I stuck rigidly and absolutely to it. It was no fun at all, it was frustrating and uncomfortable at times.. but it wasn't hard. The worst thing I can say about it was that it was boring. And it *did* give me an unexpected insight: I've never before understood becoming institutionalized. That does now make sense to me - it's proving really hard to get out of the "I know every meal I will eat for the next week" mindset and into "Eat whatever, whenever" mode.

It may seem odd to be disappointed that it was easy to lose weight. But I was genuinely looking forward to a new experience, something that would allow me to relate to people in a way I hadn't been able to before. And that never materialized. The cravings, the temptations, the hunger, all the things that people say make losing weight so hard.. I didn't get them. I still can't relate to the idea that it's difficult to diet off fat.

For a while, this baffled me. It seems like hunger, being a fairly primal thing, should provoke similar reactions in anyone. I'm pretty sure I'm not that much of a freak. Why was my experience so different to other people's?

And then somebody posted a link on Fitocracy which made things suddenly click into place. It was an article titled 10 mistakes women make with diets.

I can't say whether those ten points are valid - I'm not a woman. But they did help me realize that in a few ways, I really am that much of a freak. I don't watch TV: So I don't get bombarded with ads about the latest gimmicks and fads. I have a strong science background: I try to stay current on studies about exercise and nutrition.

So when I came to work out how I would eat to cut down bodyfat, I didn't use a "points" system. I didn't use an "amazing breakthrough" or "one weird trick". I didn't think it was a good idea to cut out major food groups. I didn't go into a massive calorie deficit.

When I factored in how the typical person must go about trying to lose weight, swimming in a sea of misinformation from advertisers and long-discredited yet still-believed studies.. it all came into focus. Dieting is a multi-billion dollar industry, there's no profit in teaching you how to get weight to come off & stay off. The typical dieter is unfortunately a misinformed dieter.

The misinformed dieter has some vague idea that "carbs are bad" so would try to cut out sugar and bread and fruit... which I consumed daily.

The misinformed dieter still believes that saturated fats are bad, which means "no meat or dairy". Which were my main staple foods.

The misinformed dieter thinks that the best exercise when dieting is cardio, so hits the treadmill at the gym. When I'm in the gym, I do no cardio at all: weight training burns more calories and builds more muscle which will burn even more.

For example, here's a breakdown of my last day on a diet:
06:00 Wake up, drink glass of whole milk
06:45 Cycle to work
07:30 Gym: press-ups; horizontal pulls; leg lifts; dips; stretching
09:00 Get to work, tea with two sugars & two slices of buttered white toast
10:00 Tea with no sugar
12:30 Carton of whole milk, lunchtime walk
18:00 Cycle home
19:00 Home-made chilli & couscous with olive oil, glass of whole milk, tea with two sugars, two shortbread fingers
20:00 Holds (crow stand/hollow body) & stretching

That really is everything I ate and the exercise I got. The calorie intake from food was just slightly in excess of my estimated base metabolic rate, i.e. enough to fuel a day when I did no exercise. So the time on the bike & at the gym etc. all went into generating the required calorie deficit for weight loss.

When I look at it and think "What would the misinformed dieter do from that list?" the only thing that comes to mind is "They'd use a cycle machine at the gym" - the carbs and satfats and sugar... no chance.

And yet the misinformed dieter struggles to stay on a diet, and fails to loose weight. I stuck with my diet religiously and the fat just slowly melted off.

And it really wasn't hard.

Not because I'm some superhuman dieting machine. Not because I have amazing reserves of willpower and self-restraint.

No, just because I'm lucky enough to have good sources of information that I pay attention to, instead of the attention-grabbing profit-driven bumf that the misinformed dieter is bombarded with. When I try to work out what you can eat if you believe the typical "these foods are bad" nonsense, about all I can think of is "salad" - which will give you a calorie deficit, sure enough, but it won't supply you with decent nutrition, so it'll cost you muscle mass as well as fat. Which is a Bad Thing.

So having reached the end of my first dieting experience, I can't say it's granted me the insights I was hoping it might; but it does look like I might be able to generate something useful with it even so: I figure the best thing I can do is provide some links to useful sources of information, so that maybe other people who've struggled with losing weight can find something that may help them.

Do bear in mind, I'm neither a dietician nor a qualified fitness professional. My sole claim for credibility is "I succeeded in losing some bodyfat" - Hopefully I can tell you something that will help you do the same. No guarantees, though.

First off: BMI is bullshit. Whilst it may be true that "obesity means high BMI" it's totally wrong that "high BMI means obesity" - in the same way that "tigers are big cats" is accurate but "big cats are tigers" is not. The BMI was meant for measuring populations, it has no place being used on an individual. Do not base your weight loss goal on where it puts your BMI.

Next up: There is no magic bullet or clever eating strategy that will allow you to eat as much as you like and still lose weight. Anything that promises to allow you to do so is bullshit. Eating less calories that you use up is what will work, and it will only work if you do it consistently. Feel free to look for eating plans that will make it easier to do that, by all means, but don't think that cutting out carbs/cutting out fat/eating meat, nuts, and berries/whatever will do the magic on its own. It won't.

Dairy is good for you. Cutting out eggs and butter is not a healthy choice.

Similarly, whole milk is better for losing weight than skimmed - it's a long-discredited notion that switching away from full-fat is good advice for dieters.

Cardio is not the best way to burn calories, weight lifting is. If you do only one exercise in the gym, do barbell squats. Especially if you're a woman. No, weight lifting won't make you bulky: It takes years of dedicated effort to get visibly big muscles. What it will do is strengthen your back (good for your health and helpful if you're chest-heavy); increase bone density (protecting against osteoporosis); and build your thigh and gluteal muscles, countering the long hours of sitting modern life tends to bring. And since it uses all the biggest muscles in the body (the leg and back muscles) it burns calories like crazy. I thoroughly recommend Starting Strength to learn how and why to lift. If you'd prefer a useful free resource, Reddit's Fitness sub has a detailed FAQ. (Kettlebell swings are another good way to burn calories and undo the effects of prolonged sitting, if you really can't face barbells)

Be very skeptical of supplements: Antioxidants have been linked to increased cancer risk; multivitamins give no benefit if you've got a healthy diet; loading up on protein won't build muscle faster; and in quite a few countries, supplements are almost entirely unregulated and can make any promises they like. Absolutely do not rely on "everybody knows" or "I saw on TV" - the amount of bad information out there is staggering.

Because, in the end, there's no money to be made out of healthy people who are happy with their body. The dieting industry wants to make sure you spend your life on a diet that they're selling you. Even the people who run gyms don't believe they're effective. Billions is spent every year on selling you the dream of the body you always wanted whilst making sure you either won't get it, or won't keep it.

Screw that.

The knowledge is out there. Find it, use it. Weight loss isn't complicated. Fitness isn't for an elite few. If you want to change your body, all it takes is persistence.

Good luck!

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