I’ve implemented my own weight management program. Not that long ago, I spent some time on the 4 Hour Body Diet (4HB). 4HB is designed to put your metabolism into temporary overdrive through frequent ingestion of high-protein foods. That approach is great if you’re hoping drop a few pounds before an event, or if you’re using it as part of an annual weight maintenance program, but it’s unsustainable. If you’re on the road a lot, it’s nearly impossible to follow the rules and eat healthy at the same time. When you start thinking of Waffle House and KFC as the best places to eat, then you have a problem.
Over the past year, I’ve done a lot of research on dieting and nutrition. I got a lot out of Gary Taubes’ insightful (but tedious) books, Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat. His arguments shine a revealing light on many of the diet myths and natural tendencies that keep people of all shapes and sizes from losing weight.
My goal was to not go on a diet. That might sound odd, but I’ve come to realize that diets are temporary and inconvenient. As such, they’re destined to fail. I don’t want to be only temporarily healthier; I want to be permanently healthier. So I’ve decided to change the way I eat in a habitual way.
If you think of your body as a machine (which it is), then the first part of the goal is to keep the machine humming along with as little degradation as possible. The second part is keeping it running at the highest level without having to concentrate on the machine at all. It should just work, right? I want to keep my body in good shape out of habit, not out of sacrifice. That means I have to make permanent changes in the way I live.
The whole point is to feel like I haven’t really restricted myself any more than is absolutely necessary. The hardest part was breaking some old habits and getting to a place where I don’t think about them anymore. I’ve quit several forms of tobacco and all caffeine in the past several years. That’s actually when I gained weight. In my experience, it takes about a month to break a habit and about a year to lose the impulse entirely.
I’m lucky that I’ve never really liked sweets or traditional junk food (chips, cookies, candy), so cutting desserts and snacks out of my diet wasn’t a problem. The hard part for me was changing the way I approach cooking and eating.
I’ve shifted to a produce-driven meal planning system. I’ve mostly abandoned casseroles in my rotation and have embraced whole foods. I should point out that I’m no hipster “foodie.” I cringe when I hear that word. By whole foods, I merely mean foods with minimal processing. I don’t go out of my way to eat organic, nor do I preach about sustainability. If you wash or peel produce, then there’s no difference between organic and non-organic anyway. It’s just that I’ve gotten to the point where I can make a fast, fresh dish from scratch that’s usually better than anything frozen, boxed, or canned.
Here are the changes I’ve made over the past few years as well as the recommendations I would give to someone who wants to change the way they eat.
1—Don’t eat diet food
Don’t buy low-fat or “lite” food alternatives. I’ve never understood why people buy this crap? It’s either bland, which should be a nonstarter, or it’s a decent substitute, which means it’s filled with salt and sugar to compensate for the reduction in fat. From my experience, lite versions of foods are usually worse for your health than their full-fat counterparts because of the excess sodium, hydrogenated oils, and tras fats.
You have to accept that it’s okay to consume fat. It’s part of a natural human diet. Just be cognizant of how much you’re eating and how frequently you’re eating it.
Most of the time, you don’t have to forego your cravings. You just have to make good choices. For instance, it’s better to eat bacon than sausage; it’s better to eat a lot of salad first at a buffet; it’s better to eat waxy potatoes than fluffy potatoes; it’s better to eat another bite of chicken than another buttered roll. You can still have the bad things, just don’t have as much of them as the not-so-bad things. A good resource for this is Eat This, Not That.
2—Minimize your intake of sugar and carbs
I’ve largely cut potatoes, pasta, rice, and bread out of my diet. It was hard to do because starches are great extenders. You can spend a few bucks on one serving of meat and stretch it into a robust meal for five. Avoiding them makes meal preparation more expensive and more time-consuming in the sense that you’ll have fewer casserole-style leftovers in the fridge for the rest of the week.
I still eat the occasional sandwich, hamburger, and hot dog; those are too good and too convenient to give up. But, all things being equal, I’d rather have a steak and grilled asparagus than a Big Mac and fries most of the time. And if you know what to look for, steak and asparagus can cost less.
3—Eat smaller and slower
I’ve started preparing smaller portions and waiting ten minutes before I get a second helping. Most of the time, my food settles in that time span and I’m glad I didn’t eat any more food. It’s not natural to feel stuffed after every meal. Starving children in Africa should have no impact on whether you eat those last few bites when you’re already full.
Another benefit of ditching starchy extenders is that my leftovers are often made up of meats and vegetables. I don’t feel the urge to finish the leftover flank steak in the fridge because I can simply freeze it and add it to my next batch of chili. When your meals are made up of basic foods, they can be used as basic ingredients in subsequent meals.
4—Don’t force yourself to work out
I’ve never gotten a runner’s high. Ever. I just don’t get it? Some people enjoy working out, and I think that’s great. I get the most enjoyment out of activity that has a purpose, whether that purpose is recreational or laborious. It gets my heart rate up and I feel productive— almost as if I’m cheating at exercising.
Conditioning yourself to negatively associate pain with ‘getting healthy’ is a terrible idea. Why is this so common?
For most people, working out is unsustainable because there’s simply not enough time to go to the gym each week. Instead, I suggest adopting frequent activities that are enjoyable and productive, or, at worst, negligibly more difficult than what you’re already doing. Choose to take the stairs or park in the last spot; do some yard work; clean the baseboards; reorganize the garage; go on a hike; throw the frisbee with the dog. There are a million things you can do to be more active that will leave you with a more rewarding feeling than merely sweating on the elliptical machine. Every little bit helps, but doing regular 30-minute tasks is the goal.
5—Don’t drink alcohol during the work week
I love wine. I have a pretty high tolerance and will drink the better part of a bottle without knowing it. If I preferred dry reds, then I’d probably be okay from a weight loss perspective. But I love pinot grigio. White wines in general, not just the sweet wines, pack a good amount of fructose. Drinking a few glasses of white wine right before bed gave me extra energy I didn’t want and extra calories I didn’t need. The same goes for beer.
I decided to quit drinking on the couch on weekdays. I just wasn’t getting anything positive out of the experience that can’t be replaced by a more healthy alternative like iced chamomile tea. As a result, I’ve been sleeping better and my acid levels have gone down.
6—Eat oatmeal before work each day
You’re probably wondering how this suggestions meshes with “minimize your intake of sugar and carbs.” Well, minimize is not the same as abstain. Like I said before, my eating habits are about making better choices most of the time. If you’re going to consume carbs, then oatmeal is better to eat than a cathead biscuit (it’s a southern thing).
When I was on 4HB, I got the idea stuck in my head that eating a huge breakfast was good for me. Tim Ferriss‘ advice about eating lots of protein was great, as I happen to love eggs, but my execution of his strategy was poor to say the least. Eating a couple of whole eggs mixed with egg whites each morning morphed into eating five eggs with bacon, which morphed into eating the All Star Special at Waffle House on my way to work three time per week.
My cholesterol is already high, so I decided to start eating oatmeal each morning as a way to lower my total and LDL cholesterol and feel more full until lunch. I didn’t like oatmeal when I was growing up, but that’s because I only ever had bland, pasty oatmeal. Now I make a pot of steel-cut oats while I’m cooking something else on Sunday and put it in the fridge. Each morning, I warm up a bowl in the microwave, add a little almond milk, and eat it while I read the news. It’s fast, there’s no real clean-up, and it tastes great. Get my easy oatmeal recipe.
7—Eat seafood for dinner at least twice per week
This has not been the cheapest change I’ve made, but it might be the one I’ve enjoyed the most. These days, tilapia, catfish, and shrimp are comparable in price to beef and chicken. I’ve started cooking seafood on the side burner of my propane grill so that the house doesn’t smell like fish during the wife’s sewing lessons at home. It’s fast, easy, healthy, and tastes delicious.
I usually just blacken the fish fillets, but there’s a place in downtown Greenville called Palmetto Olive Oil Co that sells a premium, lemon-infused olive oil that tastes fantastic with shrimp, scallops, and fish. I’ve been doing a lot of minimal preparation lately where I pan-fry the seafood in lemon-olive oil with a little salt and pepper. I’ll also grill or broil some vegetables while the seafood is cooking. Instead of serving the seafood over rice or pasta, I serve it over greens with a vinaigrette. It’s basically a $45 restaurant meal for two that I can make in 15 minutes at home for a grand total of $10.
Although I’ve developed and nurtured many of these eating habits over the past couple of years, I only recently decided to officially follow these guidelines on a weekly basis and track my results. I figured that if I was strict on workdays, I could cut loose a little on the weekends. As a result, I feel free to drink my sorrows away on Friday nights, eat eggs and bacon on Saturday mornings, and hit up a restaurant or a baseball game on Sunday. It’s nothing like a typical, restrictive weight-loss diet because it’s not a diet in the sense that most people think of the word. It’s a better lifestyle.
During my first two weeks adhering to a rigid plan, I lost 9.5 pounds. I doubt I’ll continue to lose weight at such a pace, but it was a motivational start.
This weight loss method might not be saving me lots of money, but it has saved me needless calories each day. I feel like I have more control over my diet and energy, and I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing anything in the process. That’s win-win in my book.
I’m lucky that I have a farmer’s market down the street where I can get cheap, fresh produce. But since I’m eating more seafood, I find that I have to make small grocery store runs throughout the week. It’s on the way home, so I don’t really mind, but I could see how that would be a bother for someone with kids in the car. Other than that, I haven’t really had to change my routine. I scratch most of my itches, I avoid the
sweat factory gym, and the excess weight is just falling off.
I’ll update you guys again in a month or so. If you think any of these tips might help you to achieve your goals, then try them out and let me know how it works.
If you’re looking for a place to learn more about healthy eating, I highly recommend Dr. Andrew Weil’s The Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Eating. It’s a brief, one-hour audiobook (more like a podcast) that touches on the basic information you need to keep in mind to help you make the better choice most of the time. If you want to dig deeper into the science, then check out Gary Taubes’ books linked below. But the Beginner’s Guide is a good place to start for most people.