A Calorie Isn’t a Calorie, But It Sort of Is

“A calorie is a calorie and to lose weight eat less calories than you burn”. This is the no-nonsense diet advice that I’ve heard since I first started to get into fat fuck territory in my early teens. When I started my weight loss journey, I did it using an ultra-low carb ketogenic diet based on “Eat less than 30g of carbs every day, don’t bother with calories, they don’t matter.

Keto has worked amazingly for me and most of the weight I’ve lost has been on a keto. In fact, I’m still using keto-diet basics in my current program. Now, one of my bigger peeves with the “fitness industry” is that everyone who wants to sell a product has to invent a new and revolutionary way of doing it.

Whether it’s Dr. Andreas Enfeldt and keto, Dr. Robert Lustig and “Don’t eat sugar” or Dr. Jason Fung and fasting, or many of the others, everyone has to find something unique to their product. I get annoyed with this because it confuses people.

There are 3 ways you can look at a calorie:

Calories As Units of Energy

A calorie is a measure of how much energy is stored in food. From the law of thermodynamics we know that energy can never disappear it can just change form. This is what people talk about when they say “eat less than you burn”. Eat 3000 calories every day and burn 2000, then 3000 calories go into your tank, 2000 leave your tank, and the 1000 in excess are stored in your body.

Calories As A Source of Nutrition

I try to visit my grandmother every week, because I know that she gets lonely these days and I enjoy talking to her. Since I’ve lost a lot of weight, and the grandmother instinct is to fatten you up, we ended up talking about my diet. I love cooking, also I make wine, cider and beer, so my grandmother asked if I was just going to keep making wine, cider and beer since I don’t drink when I’m losing weight.

So, I told her that I’m going to start drinking again, but since my caloric deficit is currently 750 calories every day, and I only eat 1500 – 1600, I would rather spend my calories on protein, healthy fats and fibrous carbs, that are loaded with micronutrients I need, than on alcohol that is more or less empty calories.

If I was eating the 2800 – 3000 calories I burn every day, then I would have space for some beer or a glass of wine without it affecting my nutrition goals.

Calories As a Metabolic Trigger

The third way to see a calorie, is as a trigger of metabolic effects in your body. Sugar triggers an insulin release, and insulin is anabolic (makes you build mass), this is why strength athletes take in dextrose or other simple sugars with protein as a post-workout meal. If your muscles and liver are already full of glucose, and you haven’t done strength training, excess calories are more likely to be stored as fat.

Everything you eat has hormonal and metabolic effects, as a man if you’re not getting enough fat and cholesterol in your diet, your testosterone level drops because fat contains cholesterol and cholesterol is required to produce testosterone.

A Calorie is a Calorie… sort of

If you want to lose weight, you have to consume less calories than you burn (a calorie as a unit of energy). To make sure your body stays as healthy as possible during weight loss, you have to make sure you eat the right foods to meet your macro nutrient  and micro nutrient goals (A calorie as a source of nutrition). To maintain optimal health, avoid bad hormone effects, and make your weight loss easier, you want to make sure that you avoid bad hormonal effects (a calorie as a trigger for hormones and metabolic effects).

So, a calorie is a calorie if you just want to lose weight. If you eat a 500 calorie a day deficit from twinkies and protein shakes, or if you eat a 500 calorie a day deficit from chicken, broccoli and olive oil, you will lose the same lb of weight. You will get a lot less nutrients from twinkies and protein shakes than from olive oil, broccoli and chicken. The twinkies will trigger insulin releases, and various other metabolic effects, and the protein shakes will not supply the micro nutrients required for to make certain hormones, but the weight loss will be the same.

You can get fat from healthy foods and you can get thin from unhealthy foods.

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My Five Biggest Weight-loss Mistakes

I’m getting to be very close to the end-goal for my fat loss (2 – 3 months left), and the beginning of the next phase of my body transformation, this made me think about how long my journey from 153 kg (335 lbs) has been, and the major mistakes I’ve made. The journey has taken me a full 10 years of progress, set-backs and downright disasters. From my record high weight loss in a year of 23 kg (51 lbs) to my record high year of gaining weight back 19 kg (42 lbs), it has been a long and winding road.

Could I have done it faster yes I could, and here are the five biggest mistakes I made in my weight loss journey.

Picking Diets Over CICO

For years I did every possible strange diet program, high-carb, low-carb variations, Paleo, weight-loss shakes, rapid fat loss diets based on protein shakes, the cabbage soup diet, intermittent fasting and many others. All these diets are just ways to create a caloric deficit without making you realize that you are actually in a caloric deficit. I had the most success with low-carb diets and out of the 69 kg (152 lbs) I’ve lost from my highest ever weight,  57 kg (126 lbs) was lost using the ketogenic diet. This is why I’m still a big fan of keto for weight loss.

Once I reached about 95 kg (209 lbs), I constantly stalled out on keto, going through weeks or months of no weight loss what so ever, so I tried what I had always refused to do, calorie counting. Since I started counting calories in MyFitnessPal and tracking all my activity with a Fitbit my weight loss has been pretty predictable, linear and much more emotionally stable.

Being Emotional About Weight

It used to be that I stepped on the scale with a sense of dread and if I needed to buy clothes I walked into the store with a sense of impending doom. Since I mentally cut my emotions away from my weight, and decided to approach my weight from a scientific and rational perspective, it made everything much easier to deal with. Stalls and plateaus are some of the worst things a dieter, especially a long-term dieter can experience, because you feel like you’ve been depriving yourself, have put in a ton of effort and willpower, but you are not being rewarded.

I step on the scale every single morning if I have a scale available (I’m obsessive, but not obsessive enough to pack a bathroom scale in my suitcase), and I see my weight every morning as a datapoint. It doesn’t say anything about me as a person or my personality, it’s an observation.

Not Lifting Weights

I’ve been lifting weights 3 times every week for the past 9 months, and it has made a major difference in my weight loss journey. As I’m writing this I’m at my lowest weight since sometime in junior high, but I also have more lean body mass than I ever had before.

One of the most demotivating things I’ve experienced was when I reached 83 kg (183 lbs) for the first time, looked in the mirror and felt like I was looking at a scaled down version of the same fat fuck. Muscle is expensive tissue, and when losing weight, odds are you will lose some muscle as well. When I hit 83 kg (183 lbs), it was after being in a 1000 calorie per day deficit for 4 months, including doing upwards of an hour of steady state cardio every day. This stripped away a lot of fat, but it also took away a lot of muscle mass. Weight lifting gives your body a reason to hold on to muscle tissue when in a caloric deficit, and this maintains your basal metabolic rate.

Focusing on Weight Loss instead of Fat Loss

When I started my journey back in 2008 and until mid-2017, I was obsessively focused on weight loss. As long as the scale went down I was happy, if the scale went up, I punished myself by not eating for a few days until it went back down. When I started out I was 152 kg (335 lbs) , and at that point it made perfect sense to just focus on losing weight, but when I got closer to my goal weight back in late 2010 and weighed in at 103 kg (227 lbs), it would have made sense for me to switch to a fat-loss focused diet.

I didn’t always keep meticulous track of my diet and body measurements, but I imagine that back 2008 when I was over 300 lbs, I was probably 50% body fat. When you have a 150 lbs of fat to lose, losing lean mass is the least of your worries.

Not Focusing On Sustainability

This is probably one of the biggest reasons why I took so long to lose the weight. At my biggest I had about 77 kg (170 lbs) to lose. In pure fat, this is a total deficit of 592 900 calories that I had to make. Knowing what I know now, and having everything dialed in, it would take me two years at most to lose that weight. Losing it all in a year would mean a daily deficit of 1624 calories, losing it in 2 years means a daily deficit of 812 calories per day. The second is roughly what I had in January of this year. The combination of unsustainable diets meant that I spent a lot of time in a binge-purge type mode, where I’d binge out with 5000 – 7000 calories, then spend the next few days not eating at all to “make up for it”. That does not work. It’s much easier to maintain a calorie deficit of 300 – 500 calories every day than to go through the feast-and-famine cycle I did.

If I had done a 500 calorie deficit every day, it would have taken me a little over 5 years to lose all the weight, this is half the time it has actually taken me to lose it.

 

Fat Habits That Prevents Permanent Weight Loss

The hardest thing for me to do as part of my weight loss journey was fixing my fat-habits, or “fabits” for short. What made my journey such a roller-coaster of weight loss and weight gain was that until 2016, I never focused on changing my habits. I could stop eating certain things, exercise more, drink more water or change my macros, but I never took the time to deal with the habits that lead to weight gain, the change was only temporary. Weight is a result of your good habits and bad habits related to calorie intake and calorie expenditure. I had fabits in both groups that didn’t stop me from losing weight, I could go on a diet and lose over 50 lbs in a year if I was determined enough, but I would gain some of it back every time. This was a “two-steps forward, one step back” deal, that meant that for the most part my weight was trending down, it just wasn’t optimal. In 2015, I had some personal issues and all my fabits came back with a vengeance, and I gained 22 kg (50 lbs) from the end of 2014, to the end of 2015.

My Fabits

Binge Eating 

This was a habit that I’d had for years, but that became even worse when I started using a diet built around a 6 hour eating window once a week where I could go nuts with carbs. I would often put away 6000 – 8000 calories in this window. It became my opportunity to binge on the carbs that I had denied myself for a week, and I spent most days planning what I would have for my next cheat.

Not Reading Nutritional Labels on Food 

Most of my food choices were based around what I enjoyed eating, I didn’t think about calorie content or macros, just that it tasted good. Not reading labels kept me ignorant about what I was putting into my body, not just in calories in vs calories out, but also based on what my body needs. I was consuming large amounts of sugar, very little fiber, hardly any vegetables (except tomato sauce on a pizza), and a lot of fat.

Intuitive Grocery Shopping

I used to go to the grocery store every day, I would pick up dinner, and some form of a snack. Sometimes I would go twice a day, once in the morning to pick up breakfast, usually an energy drink loaded with sugar and a few fresh pastries. Then in once more trip once I finished work to buy a frozen pizza and whatever snack I wanted for that night. This was a habit of convenience more than anything, it meant I spent as little time as possible thinking about food.

Not Thinking About “Bites, Nibbles and Licks” and Secret Eating 

Even when I was at my heaviest, a lot of people in my family and circle of friends would comment “You don’t eat that much”. I didn’t eat much in public or for the main meals, but I was constantly having bites, nibbles and licks on a constant basis. Driving somewhere? Grab a snack for the car. Popping out of the office for something, grab a snack on the way. Had a 2000 calorie dinner an hour ago, better grab a small snack. This constant eating adds up even if the small snacks have few calories by themselves. Eat 10, 100 calorie snacks in a day, that’s half of my sedentary BMR.

What you eat in private becomes visible in public.

Doing as Little as Possible 

These days I get restless if I spend too much time sitting down during the day. I joke that if I dropped something when I was at my heaviest, I would have a discussion with myself about whether I should pick it up or not. I would work very hard to avoid anything that involved being physically active. I would cut gym class most of the time, pretend to be sick for ski trips or other trips in school, and drive everywhere.

Putting Comfort First

I like being comfortable, this meant that I would try to stay in my Goldy Locks zone, not too warm, not too cold, not too full, not hungry and so on. This also meant not being sweaty, staying on the couch instead of going outside, avoiding physical activities and on it goes. The problem was that the more I focused on being comfortable, the less I was able to go outside my comfort zone and the comfort zone included a TV and food.

Using Food As Comfort

This was the biggest one, I would use food to regulate my moods and emotions all the time. Have a bad day at work, have a pizza. Bad date, have some candy. Feeling sick, have some burgers. For every problem that came my way, I would have a snack or meal to make it feel less important. I would be able to regulate my emotional state this way, at the cost of being hundreds of lbs overweight. It was the same as an alcoholic.

 

 

Calorie Creep and Hidden Calories

This is related to portion creep, and most of the time the two work together to create havoc in nutrition. Most foods can be eaten, if you keep track of the calories and adjust the portion sizes to match the calories burned. It takes about 7700 extra calories to gain a kilo of fat, so you have some leeway. Yesterday, I had a corporate event where they served a 4 course meal, that was 2000 calories or so (I skipped dessert and alcohol). I’d eaten about 800 calories earlier in the day, I didn’t have complete control so it was all in estimates, for safety’s sake, I estimated that I ate 3000 calories, 500 calories over what I burned (2515). To compensate I’m going to fast until dinner and only eat 1000 calories today.

Estimating calorie content in food you don’t make yourself can be very hard, especially when you throw in high calorie elements like sauces, mayo, rich meats, butter and a lot of cream. It’s a thing I noticed when calorie counting days that a little bit of something calorie dense can easily wreck your daily allowed calories. It takes surprisingly little of something rich to add a few hundred calories here and a few hundred calories there.

Often people are on a diet, it may be low-carb, the standard balanced diet, IIFYM or any other plan for that matter, and suddenly they stop losing weight. If they have started lifting weights, this could be a reason, so could increased sodium or carb intake, but often if they stop for longer than a few weeks, it’s because they are eating too much. Most people who are new to weight training will get newbie gains, but you can lose fat a lot faster than you can put on muscle, especially if you are eating in a deficit.

If you stop losing weight, you are eating too many calories, this comes from either calorie creep or hidden calories.

Calorie Creep

Calorie creep happens when you add something to a dish that drastically increases it’s total calorie content. For instance, adding bacon and brown sugar to baked beans. Dressing or oils to a salad, cream and sugar to coffee or tea and cheese to pretty much anything. This was part of the topic in healthy but fattening, avocado is healthy, good for you but adding 100 grams of avocado to lettuce wrap, lean beef, tacos, adds 160 calories to the dish.

It can also happen with measuring, if you measure by eye, or use measures other than a digital scale. A tablespoon of mayo is 14 grams, a heaping tablespoon of mayo can easily be 30 grams. A “dash” of oil measured by eye can be 2 – 3 tablespoons in a worst case scenario. I used to rely on the packaging to tell me how much was in a container for things like meats and fish, but when I started weighing them by scale, I noticed that the standard 400 gram (14 oz) packages of lean ground beef could contain between 370 grams and 420 grams.

When I took a month of from counting calories meticulously using a digital scale and instead measured by eye, I missed by about 500 calories a day on average judging from the weight gain during that period. The table shows that according to the calories I tracked, I should have lost weight, but according to the scale I gained weight. There is also a very funny “Oh, that has calories??” situation, where a person adds a dash of heavy whipping cream, creamer, or sugar to their coffee or tea, that may add 20 – 30 calories per cup, but when they drink 5 – 10 cups every day, they still think of it as “0 calorie coffee” but it suddenly adds 150 to 300 calories to each cup.

Hidden Calories

Hidden calories are exactly what they sound like, they are calories that you are unaware of, because they come from something you don’t expect. If you’re served regular coke over coke zero, and don’t notice the difference, that’s an extra 140 calories. Subway for instance lists the calories for a sandwich, but that is without dressings and optional vegetables and using a reference bread. Subway are one of the better fast food places, and have a very good calorie calculator, but if you go with the reference the oven roasted chicken sandwich has 320 calories for a serving of 233 grams. This is with 9-grain wheat bread, no cheese, cucumber, green peppers, lettuce, red onion and tomato, no dressing and no extras. Switch to Italian herbs and cheese bread, add jack cheese, pickles and ranch, the 6” is now 279 grams, but 500 calories.

I’m sure everyone has heard the “I only eat salads and can’t lose weight” statement, but it’s easy to make a salad very high in calories by using bacon, dressings, crutons, and cheese. My favorite Caesar salad is roughly 700 calories despite being mostly lettuce by weight. I often order steaks at restaurants, and even when ordering a grilled steak, they probably use either butter or another form of fat as a basting liquid. When I grill steaks at home I use some neutral vegetable oil to avoid the steaks sticking to the grate. If a steak has been basted with butter throughout the cooking time, you’ll get a lot of extra calories that you had no idea were there.

 

 

Weight Loss Update: January 2018

The 31st of January marked the end of my first month of weight-loss for 2018. While my fat loss goal is less ambitious this year than in previous years, since I have a lot less to lose, I’m still supposed to go from 89 kg (196 lbs.) on January first, down to 77 kg (170 lbs) in the first 3 months of the year, for a total loss of 12 kg (26,5 lbs.), meaning a loss per month of 4 kg (8,8 lbs.). I’m teetering on the upper edge of healthy BMI, depending on whether I’m using the regular BMI calculator or the adjusted BMI calculator.

Unlike earlier years when I had so much fat to lose that I could just cut calories and let the weight drop, I’ve entered a recompositioning phase where my goal is to maintain, or ideally build more lean mass, while reducing body fat. This is one of the things that I did wrong during the first 5 – 6 months of 2017, I just let my weight drop down from 106 kg (234 lbs) to 86 kg (190 lbs), hitting a year low of 83 kg (183 lbs), without lifting weights for the first 5 months of the year, so I ended up with a very bad body composition at my year low. I pretty much looked like a smaller version of the same fat f*ck.

Towards the end of last year, I decided to eat at maintenance and focus on adding some lean mass back. I’ve always tried to maintain a major weight loss for 3 – 6 months after reaching my year goal to give myself a break, and my body time to adjust. I haven’t done all this work only to end up with loose skin or similar problems towards the end. I’m also focusing on maintaining good habits, even during diet breaks.

In 2016 and 2017 my goal was fat loss, in 2018 my goal is to maintain or ideally add more lean mass, while reducing body fat percentage. For this reason I’ve recalibrated my diet to include extra protein, and I’m running a less aggressive deficit than I was for the fat-loss period of 2017.

January Statistics

I had a planned deficit of 750 calories every day for January, this coincided nicely with my plans for an alcohol free month after Christmas. It’s always easier to maintain a solid deficit without alcohol in the picture. I’m happy to say that I was a little bit over the planned 750 calorie deficit for the month. This was somewhat unintentional, but I didn’t bother adjusting on a few days when I went greatly over. As I’ve spent a long time in deficits, I’ve found that it’s better to err on the conservative side, to allow some leeway for those days when you have less control over your intake.

I had to do some travelling for work, and it included dinner with some co-workers at a fancy restaurant, where I had no real way of tracking the calories in the food accurately. On the side of this text, you can see the summary table from part of my weight loss spreadsheet. The starting weight is the 6 day average of the first 6 days of January. The theoretical deficit takes the average for how many days have passed in a month and multiplies it with the number of days in the month, giving me a total deficit if I maintain the same average deficit, the total loss in kg for the month and the estimated end weight for the month. I’m 150 grams over what the theoretical deficit says I should be as of this morning.

I lost exactly 3,5 kg (7,7 lbs) during the month. I started with a body fat percentage of 24,8% and ended with a body fat percentage of 21,8%. My goal for January when I set it on the first of the month was 86 kg. This was a 3 kg loss, as I weighed in at a weight of 89 kg (196 lbs) on the first. This was a result of a heavy party night on New Years eve, along with a big meal, so I’m guessing the 87,75 was more accurate. A funny thing about alcohol and food is that, you usually weigh less the day after a night of heavy drinking because of dehydration, but your body rebounds on day two, so you get a little extra back. I’ve had my weight vary as much as 5 kg (11 lbs) between day of the drink, day after the drink, second day after the drink.

If I maintain the same amount of lean mass, and lose the planned 3,14 kg (6,9 lbs) of fat in February, I should be about 18,7% body fat when I write my next update. Weighing in at 81,4 kg (179,4 lbs) with a total fat mass of 15,14 kg (33,3 lbs).

 

 

Portion Creep

My grandmother had to move into a retirement home recently, and when we cleaned out her house I inherited a lovely vintage dining set. Despite my focus on eating healthy, body composition and weight training goals, I still love cooking, hosting parties and food. In normalizing my relationship with food, I’ve learned that I can still enjoy those foods I love. I can still have wine, beer or other drinks, just not as often and in massive portions.

This is why I laughed a little inside when I saw the size of the “dinner plates” in the vintage set compared to my every-day plates. My regular dinner plates are 12 inches in diameter, they were a gift from a family member when I moved houses a while back. These vintage plates are only 9 inches in diameter. When I think back to some of the rules of eating at my house growing up, we always had enough food, cooked from scratch, but when I moved out, my portions also increased.

I didn’t know how to cook back then, so I would buy a lot of ready packaged meals and many of them were for 2 people, but I would eat the whole thing. I used to say “The serving size is the container”, which explains how I got up to over 300 lbs at my heaviest. When I added in drinking soda with every meal because I thought water tasted boring and a constant snacking habit, on top of being a movie and gaming nerd who hardly moved, of course I got fat.

What is a Correct Portion Size?

I used to trust everyone else to dictate what the “right” portion size was, if I picked up a meal at a restaurant or fast food place, I assumed they did the job of making sure it was the right portion for me to eat. After all, their job is to prepare a meal for the customer, so I made the easy assumption that it was the correct size meal. The trouble for the various chefs and restaurateurs out there is simple, every customer is different. You can easily calculate your TDEE using a calculator such as this one and you’ll notice what only struck me years into my weight loss journey while out for a family dinner. My mother is 5 ft 2 (158 cm) tall, and was about 110 lbs (50 kg) for most of my childhood. I’m 6 ft 1 (185 cm) tall and was about 250 lbs (113 kg) at the time. Her TDEE was about 1300 calories per day, mine was 2382 calories per day.

For her, portion sizes at restaurants were always too big, to me they were always too small. It is impossible to adapt portion sizes to each individual when making a standard product. This is why most nutritional information has a caveat like “Based on a 2000 calorie a day diet” or something similar. I lacked the ability to intuitively eat the right amount, I was inactive, always chubby before blowing up into human planet size, and always overate by between 200 and 500 calories per day on average. My little brother on the other hand was always very active, always thin, and even struggled to put on enough weight, because when he ate as much as he felt he should be eating, he underate by a few hundred calories a day.

I think there may be people out there who naturally eat just the right amount and have stable weights, but I think more of us fall into either the category that I’m in, or the one that my brother is in, overeater or undereater. Even after years of training myself with portion sizes, it’s very easy for me to default to overeating a few hundred calories every single day. I noticed it when I went on a 2 month diet break towards the end of 2017, where I determined that I was not going to track accurately. I still tracked my calories but I didn’t use my digital scale.

You can see from the table on the left, that based on my tracking, I should have lost 0,65 kg (1,4 lbs) in September and another 1,18 kg (2,6 lbs) in October, but I gained 3,96 kg (8,7 lbs). 1 – 2 kg (2 – 5 lbs) is most likely water and glycogen from increasing carbs, but the rest is actual weight gain.

If 2 kg is fat gain, that means I thought I was in a 250 – 300 calorie deficit every day, but I was actually in a a 300 – 400 calorie daily surplus.  This was while tracking calories and food in MyFitnessPal, just not weighing everything on a digital scale, so imagine the damage if I hadn’t tracked at all.

A correct portion size is pretty easy, it is the number of calories you should eat per day according to your TDEE, divided among the number of meals and snacks you eat every day. I like to have a big dinner, never eat breakfast, have a snack before workouts and eat a light lunch, so at the moment I’m eating 1500 calories a day, 450 at lunch, 800 – 1050 at dinner, and set away 250 for my snack on workout days. It’s impossible to decide on this visually, but I can calculate it with my app and trusty digital scale.

Should You Try Flexible Dieting (If it fits your macros)

This is one of the new entrants into the market, promising to give you the most bang for your buck. The allure of flexible dieting is that you can have the freedom to eat the foods you enjoy, while reaping the benefits of calories in calories out and optimal macronutrient composition. This approach is known as both flexible dieting, “If it fits your macros” but also IIFYM for short. The idea behind flexible dieting is that all diets work, but people tend to go off them because they feel deprived of foods they love to eat. So, if you let people have the foods they love, as long as it’s within the boundaries of their eating plan, you get better compliance with the diet.

The approach is very sensible, but it has been misunderstood by many people who see it as the freedom to eat crap and still get results. The idea is that once you decide on your macros (Protein, Fat and Carbohydrate), as long as you stick within them, you will eat a suitable number of calories, while getting the optimal macronutrient amounts to support your goals. To make sure that you are eating to fit your macros, you have to calculate your macros. Here is how I do that:

A man looking to put on muscle, would perhaps eat 1.6 grams of protein per kilo (0,8 grams per lb), this is 148 grams per day for a 185 lb man, 592 calories. If he’s 5ft 10 inches, and 185 lbs, this means he has a daily TDEE (Total daily energy expenditure) if sedentary of about 2166 calories per day. With this protein intake it makes up 27% of his daily calories, leaving 1574 calories for fat and carbohydrates. A fat intake calculator at bodybuilding.com recommends 69 grams of fat every day for a man with his stats who engages in moderate exercise but has a sedentary job. This is 621 calories, leaving carbohydrate at 953 calories or 238 grams.

This makes the man’s macros 27% protein, 29% fat, and 44% carbohydrates. As long as he hits his macros, he can eat whatever he wants.  (more…)