Disclaimer– I have no formal education on nutrition, biochemistry or any other academic topic that might lend professional credibility towards my following blog. What I do have is experience from being a border-line annoying propensity to try every fad that shows up on Men’s Health for the past 20-some years. This blog is dedicated to every 30-40 year old who is trying to “look good in a t-shirt” and not get winded taking a flight of stairs or enjoy a day outside rough-housing with the kids. If you are a games athlete, you may want to pass on this one.
I am fascinated with nutrition and how it can result in high performance or lead to significant health problems if not properly addressed. That being said, I don’t think there are many other topics more comprehensively and confusingly-covered in public discourse and on social media. How do we make sense of the hundreds of dieting and nutritional programs out there? I like to think I have a practical PhD in this area due to all the lifestyle and diet choices I have followed in my thirties. This blog is intended to cut through the advertised, trendy weight-loss gimics and offer my experience as a 39 year old, desk worker who is moderately active to offer what has worked for me.
First of all, I am at most moderately active. I get more than the prescribed minimum levels of physical activity (150 minutes per week) but I sit a dangerous amount. I am not out cutting down trees, farming or doing other manual labour. I don’t walk enough, I sit for a minimum of 10 hours a day, I sleep for 7 hours a day and really I only get physical activity for one hour per day. I think this is the biggest misconception people have is that they are “highly active”.
My goals around food are for optimizing health and wellness and to support cognitive, physical and emotional performance. I am not training to be a professional athlete and I am not on a weight loss program. I don’t want to “get big” or “swole”, I am really just trying to avoid losing sight of my feet as I approach my 40’s (3 weeks away). I am determined to be healthy and ensure my brain is functioning with the fuel it needs to get through my cognitive tasks with the energy it needs. Stephanie Gaudreau used the term “don’t eat for weight loss, eat for health gains” (maybe rough translation) on a podcast on Barbell Shrugged recently. I like that.
I have an impulsive personality. I have annoyed my wife with statements like “I am a vegetarian now” or “I am going to go Paleo”. She has said time and again, “don’t put a label on it, just eat what you feel is best for you”. She was right as I would abandon every new plan I set out for. For the first few days of every meal plan or diet, people think they are making progress and then bam! off the rails with everything the diet does not call for.
I have experimented with many, many different nutritional regimes/plans or lifestyle choices. Here are my thoughts on the ones I have tried and the results I documented:
Vegetarianism- we hosted an exchange student a few years ago from Brussels. She was vegetarian and for a period of 4 months, Rae did her best to ensure we had a lot of vegetarian options and some meals were meatless. I didn’t mind the meatless meals but I just couldn’t stick with it. I tried again recently and lost weight quickly but I just didn’t find I had the strength and was finding it difficult to get the protein I needed (wanted is a more accurate word). I know there are a lot of high-performing athletes who are vegetarian or vegan and I applaud them. I also know you could find many articles on the web which would support going vegetarian and people can poke all kinds of holes in my statement about protein (I am admitting this so people don’t poke holes). Simply put, I felt good (but not my best) and I enjoy meat so I gave up quite quickly. I do have some meatless meals or soups now and I enjoy those.
Paleo- ahhh Paleo. I have read “Wheat Belly”, hundreds of blog articles and have had endless discussions around Paleo. I have also been that guy at the party who talks about Paleo or the “caveman diet” and may have lost some friends for a short period of time. Paleo is essentially mostly meat, fish, some fruit, lots of vegetables, nuts and seeds. Legumes are out, strict followers eliminate dairy. Some benefits are: stable blood sugar, enhanced workouts, clearer skin, better digestion by avoiding grains. For the most part, I follow this nutritional structure but I don’t beat myself up if I have a sandwich from time to time and dairy is a staple in my diet. I do find that my blood sugar is much more stable and I don’t get the drowsiness as much as I do if I am eating many carbs. If I am traveling and I let myself get really hungry, I will crush a plate of pasta and then need an extra large coffee to keep myself awake. The science around simple carbs doesn’t lie.
High carb diet- in the fall I was training for a Crossfit competition and thought I needed more food. I started eating a lot of Quinoa, steel cut oats and other grains to fuel my workouts. But I started getting heavier than I wanted. I was eating around 3,500 calories at a bodyweight of 200 pounds and working a desk job. My workouts weren’t long enough in duration to really need all that food and carbohydrates. I also found that all the grains were not friendly to my digestive system, but perhaps I went to big too soon on the grains. What I learned here is that I am not a cardio athlete like a runner, triathlete, etc., so I don’t need all those carbs. I heard an interesting podcast the other day (it escapes me) about the craze on requiring carbs after a workout. This world-class trainer feels if you do not have an 8 pack or at least a 6 pack, you don’t need much for carbs after a workout…your body will steal some fat instead.
Caloric restriction and Ketosis- recently I have really started following Tim Ferris (4 hour work week, 4 hour body) who is an advocated of intermittent fasting and ketosis/caloric restriction. I started really cutting back on my food intake and got down to about 2,000 calories a day. I track everything either in my phone or through a journal and was interested to see that a lot of the markers were either unchanged or improved. My bodyweight didn’t change and I felt stronger. I added in a lot of fat in the form of nuts, avocado, coconut oil and added MCT oil to my daily smoothie. My energy soared once I tried this. I add in a fast about once to twice a week that is really just no food after supper until lunchtime the next day. Feels terrible first time but then your body just seems to adapt and I can feel it in my metabolism.
My current nutrition
I have adopted mostly a somewhat paleo-lite, calorically restricted plan for most days. I focus on a high-fat, high-protein routine and I have really tried to eliminate much snacking in between. I have enough body fat that I can convert some of that to energy rather than eating a lot of little meals. I eat a lot of meat and I don’t scrutinize over what type of fat is in the cuts. I don’t eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight because I am not training to be a bodybuilder and at my age I need to be mindful of my kidneys. I prepare my food so I make the best decisions afforded to me when I am busy so I don’t give into the my instinct to hit the Wendy’s drive thru (mmmm, Combo #4 with baked potato and chocolate milk…). The Sundays I manage to prepare my food for the week are a good use of my time and help me stay focused and eliminate one more decision through the week.
I do eat very few carbs now but I have one weakness- beer. I don’t mean Bud Light, I mean the strongest, hoppiest IPA you can find. However, I am a man and I enjoy beer and I have no plans on giving it up. Call me a hypocrite, question my dedication to optimal health if you want, I just really love beer. I also don’t want to annoy people by not eating what they put in front of me. Being diligent with your nutrition can mean tough decisions sometimes but if my nutritional choices are mostly dialed in and my health markers are appropriate for someone my age and activity level I am good with that. I will never be on the cover of a Men’s Health magazine but I feel pretty good most of the time and I believe it is because I choose to use food as fuel rather than something to numb the pain of everyday life.
So there you have a very non-expert opinion from someone who has tried most plans. I think my suggestion is really just to try different formulas and see what works. It is also very important to avoid the temptation to adopt “calorie in and calorie out” school of thought or the notion that all calories are the same. I think we can all agree that there is ample literature to suggest that 400 calories from a bag of Doritos will not elicit the same biological response as 400 calories from an apple or spinach.
To all you 30+ weekend warriors or recreational exercisers who practice mostly-solid, nutritional habits that suit you and enjoy a pint after a workout, I salute you.