I have been as low as a 6% body fat percentage and as high as 36%. My background in sports is very diverse and spans from competitive bodybuilding and football to most recently triathlon and endurance sports. I was always active until I got out of the Navy in March of 2005. Even then, I was still working out but as I started to succeed in my corporate careers, my health started to decline. It was gradual but consistent and I ended up topping the scales at over 240 pounds less than 3 years ago. When I left the Navy, I weighed 195 pounds so quick math reveals that I gained about 50 pounds. I knew I was out of shape and wanted to lose weight. I entertained customers and was on the road a lot so I ended up eating out. This, of course, is an excuse because I basically could have chosen anything on the menu and also chosen how much of each item I ate. But regardless, I gained a significant amount of weight.
I tried all of the trendy diets including but not limited to Adkins, South Beach, Paleo, Juice Fasting, and Shakes. I had success with all of them but needless to say, I always ended up gaining the weight back. Adopting good eating habits was easy at first because I was excited. I also always had success early on in the process. After a while, I would find myself back in a stressful situation or traveling and binging on desserts.
When I started doing triathlons about 2 years ago I lost around 30 pounds. I weighed a little over 200 when I participated in my first triathlon. A year later, I participated in over a half a dozen endurance events including an Ironman 70.3 race. I was astounded when only two months after that race I weighed 230 pounds again. How did that happen with all of the training?
My thought process at the time was that I was exercising enough and that I “earned” what I ate and according to my food logs and calorie expenditure, I was ok. It has always perplexed me why I seemed to gain weight while I trained for long distance events like an Ironman 70.3 and half marathons. After all, I was exercising over 6 hours a week, monitoring my daily caloric expenditure, and logging my food (for the most part). It finally dawned on me that what I was doing wasn’t working. I had to take a hard look at myself and my behaviors. Fast forward another year and I am now down to my lightest weight since high school and I did it in what I would consider somewhat of an unconventional way. The following steps are what I used to get to my current weight. I think anyone can use these steps for success.
- Know your behaviors: I always tried to adapt my life to my diet instead of my diet to my lifestyle. What I mean by this is that I would take the “rules” of whatever my current diet consisted of and work them into my life with absolutely no concern of what my actual dietary behaviors looked like prior to starting the journey. Changing the way we do things is difficult. Without getting into theories on behavior modification or the formation of new habits, it is difficult to change. We are who we are. Can we change? Absolutely, but it is difficult. I had to take a hard look at my life and be truthful in evaluating my behaviors and habits. What I discovered was that I love to eat at night, I’m a stress eater, and I love sweets. So figure out who you are and how you behave. Do you like salty snacks, do you eat huge bowls of chips and salsa? Nothing is necessarily wrong with any of this, but you need to have an accurate assessment of how you behave so that you can allow for this when designing your diet.
- Determine your Basal Metabolic Rate: There are a variety of calculators online that one can use to determine your estimated BMR. What is BMR? This is basically the amount of calories that one requires to maintain their current weight in a vegetative state. You will enter your sex, age, weight, and height. There are also calculators that take into consideration your current body fat percentage but unless you are an extreme outlier the regular BMR calculator is a great starting point. One can be found here http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/ BMR tests can also be performed in a lab setting. If you want to save some expense I would start with the calculator. Once you have figured out your BMR then you need to take into account your daily activities. This leads to my third step.
- Use the Harris Benedict Equation to determine the amount of calories you burn during your normal activity. The HBE is basically a multiplier that adds additional caloric load to support normal daily activities. I use the “sedentary” multiplier which is 1.2. I will get to the “why” I use this later. Here are the multipliers:
- Sedentary = BMR X 1.2
- Lightly Active (Exercise 3X/Week) = BMR X 1.375
- Moderately Active (Exercise 3-5X/Week) = BMR X 1.55
- Very Active (Exercise 6-7X/Week) = BMR X 1.725
- Extremely Active (Exercise Daily Plus Physical Job) = BMR X 1.9
So, since my calculated BMR is 1955, my total caloric intake to maintain my weight could be anywhere from 2346 – 3715. That’s quite a large range.
- Don’t Let My Fitness Pal Lie to You. Here is where I would mess up. When I set up myfitnesspal it asks you all of the same questions that a BMR calculator asks because… it’s determining your BMR and then it asks you what your weekly activity looks like… because it’s applying the Harris Benedict Equation. The problem I fell into was not setting up MFP correctly. I would sync my watch automatically with MFP and it would simply add my exercise calories on top of the total calories MFP figured out for me. That’s a problem because the daily exercise calories are already factored into the total that MFP calculated. I overestimated my “activity” level during setup. The reason that I use “sedentary” is because I still like to take into consideration my daily caloric expenditure to get an accurate view of what I really burned that day. I still try not to eat back many of the calories but if I burned 1500 calories during a long workout I get a more accurate level of what I can really take in without gaining weight or ruining my goals. So if you are going to use your watch for daily calorie expenditure don’t set your levels to “active” or set it to “active” and ignore your watch.
Be wary of the calorie estimations by your watch. Polar would tell me I burned 1,000 calories per hour of running and Garmin would tell me 700. That’s a 30% difference. So err on the conservative side and if you are going to eat back some of your calories only eat back up to 50%.
- Eat whatever you want when you want, just record it. Here is where I started having success. I like sweets and I like to eat at night. So I would just work within my daily calorie levels. If I knew I was going to have a big dinner out I would skip breakfast. Sometimes I wouldn’t eat until the early afternoon and then I would just eat a yogurt and a banana. This may seem unconventional, but your body doesn’t really care about breakfast. Some studies have shown that there is no correlation between greater weight loss between groups that ate breakfast and another that didn’t when they maintained the same daily calories. Actually, when I eat breakfast I find myself hungrier towards the mid morning. I’m not saying I don’t eat breakfast ever. If I’m going on a long ride or it’s before a race I always eat breakfast. But if I’m doing a zone 2 or 3 workout that is less than 3 hours, I will do this workout fasted. Sometimes I will use a sport drink during, but the bottom line is that we have plenty of stored fuel in the form of fat and glucose/glycogen to be able to perform well on the workout. If it’s a higher intensity workout then fueling may be required depending on the length. The only way that we lose fat is by converting it into fuel during workouts and depleting your carbohydrate storage is a way to double dip into the fat burning stores through Gluconeogenesis. That’s a very popular term amongst the Octane Athletics folks. It’s a way our body uses non-carbohydrate sources to create glucose. So fasted workouts are an excellent way to maximize fat loss.
There are no clean foods. There are simply foods that may contain more micronutrients or vitamins per calorie. I like cookies and pie and donuts. I had a donut on Saturday. I just had half an apple fritter instead of three. Besides carbs there aren’t a lot of redeeming qualities about an apple fritter short of the fact that it’s frickin’ awesome. You don’t need to eliminate apple fritters or anything from your diet; you just need to be smarter about how you consume food. It’s just like a checking account. You have a monthly budget for your finances and you should have a daily budget for your calories.
If you eat 600 calories worth of snacks before bed then that’s fine. Just figure that into your daily allowance. They key to being successful is knowing who you are and working that into your plan. This isn’t necessarily the easiest way to diet but for me it’s been the thing that is sustainable and that works long term.
So to summarize:
- Know Yourself and Your Behaviors
- Calculate Your BMR
- Calculate Your Activity Level Accurately
- Don’t Let My Fitness Pal Lie to You
- Eat Whatever You Want When You Want
In a follow up article I will give more “practical” advice about the foods I choose and why I choose them. I’ve also found a few little gems that help curb my sweet tooth without killing my calorie budget. Don’t believe the hype of the latest diets. Just go by the numbers and you will have success. I normally cut 500-1000 calories out and it has been very successful for me. If you have any health issues please consult a health professional about your goals and intentions. Cutting 1,000 calories is not for the faint of heart and is probably not advisable initially. Design your diet around your life, not your life around your diet.