My clients are well aware that I’ve been cutting (fitness jargon for restricting calories or dieting) for a month now. I’ll let you ask them how grumpy I’ve been, but I think it’s gone pretty well. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on the road so far.
Why I Decided to Diet
The reason I’ve been doing this is not for the washboard abs or to be more healthy, I decided to do this in order to understand exactly what I was asking my clients to do. I felt it was unfair for me advise my clients to do things I was not willing to do myself and to try to relate to them when I hadn’t put myself in their shoes for at least some time. With that goal, here’s how I approached things.
What I Did
At the start of my diet, I calculated my resting metabolism to be somewhere around 2,400 calories per day. That meant (according to the tool I used) I could eat 2,400 calories per day in order to maintain the weight I was at (180lbs). That number comes from a calculator which takes into account my height, weight, and level of activity. From this number I calculated a 10% reduction which is commonly agreed upon as a healthy place to cut at. That 10% gave me a daily calorie intake of 2160 which I rounded down to a daily target 2100 (~12.5% reduction). Beyond this target caloric intake, I didn’t restrict myself in any other way. I did naturally fall into a pattern of intermittent fasting where I would eat most of my calories in a six hour window between 3pm and 9pm, but that was a convenience thing more than an intentional one. I’ll look at fad diets in the future, but for my first nutrition experiment I wanted to keep things as simple as possible.
How I Did It
For the first three weeks of my experiment, I didn’t change my routine much outside of reducing calories. I kept working out three days each week doing primarily a weight lifting split. My food consisted mainly of a 550cal staple breakfast of 2 strips of bacon and 4 eggs (pictured above with banana bread 250cal extra), a 350cal snack at work (usually a sandwich with 4oz meat), and a simple dinner that changed daily ~800cal with a beer for the last 200cal. Now the detail oriented readers out there will notice this adds up to 1900 and not 2100. I did this intentionally in order to avoid underestimates (mostly at dinner or at restaurants) throwing off my plan. In most cases I tried to overestimate, but this acted as an extra safeguard. For the last week, I introduced a >30min cardio routine in place of my lifting routine do see if this would make any remarkable changes over a one week period.
The End Result
As of the end of the four week period, I reached a low point of 175lbs. There was a little bit of variation in this number but there was definitely an overall downward trend. Once I switched from lifting to cardio, I actually gained 2lbs on the scale. This is a good reminder that the scale isn’t a great tool for tracking fitness or health. The scale is only able to tell you how much you currently weigh, it isn’t able to track where that weight comes from though. A term that gets tossed around a lot is water weight which is essentially the amount of water your body retains. When you are more active, your muscles retain more water and make that scale number go up with no actual change in body composition. This is most likely why I gained the two pounds when I included the cardio. Even though I was still slowly decreasing fat levels (and muscle to some extent) by being at a caloric deficit, I was retaining more water than I was burning fat.
What I Learned
One of the biggest things I learned from this experiment was that preparation is essential. If I was planning on going out with friends one night, I needed to eat less through the day so I could join them. If I was cooking at home, I needed to make sure I had food on hand that wasn’t Ramen and peanut butter. If I was going to be at work for 12 hours, I needed to stop by Kroger to get something that would keep my blood sugar up.
A food scale is a must. My clients know I love to cook for myself and nutrition labels are most accurate when portioned by the gram. For example, the serving size on bacon is one cooked slice or 8g. Now one cooked slice isn’t all that precise and slices vary in size. 8 grams is a much more precise form of measurement and, above all, is consistent. When it comes to cooking more complex things, like my locally famous biscuits and gravy, the only way to figure out the total calorie count is to weigh out the ingredients. To count things I cooked at home, I would find the total calories and divide into equal portions by weight.
Consistency was key to reducing the mental stress involved with dieting. For the first 10ish days of this experiment, I went to bed hungry every night. My body had been used to eating a snack before going to sleep and it took some time for my body to adapt to the new fasting cycle. Whether it is a lot of small meals throughout the day or one or two big ones like I did, your body will adapt to a cycle if it stays consistent. About two weeks in, I learned how to differentiate between the hunger signs my body was sending me. The mental desire for food was just that, a craving which would pass, while my shaky hands were a sign of low blood sugar which required action. Learning how to tell the difference helped me to be in more in tune with my body and not be leashed to any cravings I felt.
Cheating undid days of work. When my family came into town, I took them to a few local restaurants. On the first day I didn’t count calories until the end of the day and came realized I had consumed ~3500 calories worth of food, 1100 more than my resting metabolism and 1400 more than I was trying for. This one day of cheating undid three days of work effectively setting me back four days.
Snacking is what gets you. One extra beer or a handful of chips is all it takes to turn my 2100 calorie cut into 2400 calorie maintenance. On the dieting side it means I need to be careful and be aware of what I’m eating. This can be good news for people who aren’t dieting though, because losing a pound or two may be as simple as that.
At the end of this four weeks, I feel pretty good about my adherence to the cut. It took some extra work and was a little uncomfortable but once I adapted I didn’t really think much about it. I think that the key with any kind of lifestyle change is to make it sustainable and to make it the new normal. I joked about how I was going to binge on my first day off the diet, but for breakfast today you know what I had? Four eggs and two pieces of bacon. As of 3pm on my first day off the diet, I’m at 600 calories and I’m not even trying to cut. I created a daily pattern I enjoyed and am able to sustain and my body adapted. In the future, that is the advice I am going to give to my clients; find something that works for you, make small changes, and make it the new normal.