Weight Loss

Crash Diets

I like the moniker that these diets get, because not only do they tend to crash your weight into the ground, you usually crash and burn when you go on them too. The sales arguments are tempting, “Lose 30 lbs in 30 days”, “Lose 10 lbs in 10 days”, and appeals our urge to fix problems fast. The truth about them is that they are inherently unsustainable and all work off the same principles. As regular readers will know, I track every morsel of food that goes in my mouth, my daily calorie expenditure and my weight every single day. I also do refeeds once in a while, and I’m familiar with the mechanisms that make you drop “5 lbs in 5 days” or the like.

The picture on the left is an excerpt from my January log, right after I came off a 2 week full diet break for Christmas. As you can see, the first of January I weighed in at 89,10 kg (196 lbs), and the morning on the 8th of January I weighed in at 86 kg (189 lbs), this was a loss of 3,1 kg (7 lbs) in 7 days. If I calculate this into calories, it would require a deficit of 24500 calories.

The reality of my 7 lbs in 7 days is simple. Prior to my diet break I weighed in at 84 kg (185 lbs) in a glycogen depleted state, with very little stomach contents, and dehydrated. During Christmas, much like most people do, I ate and drank a large amount of food, filling up my glycogen stores to the max (adding 400 – 600 g of sugar + 1500 – 2000 grams of water). On New Years eve, I had a large turkey dinner with a lot of sodium, a lot of beer, desserts and various other things, that made sure my body was stuffed with glycogen, my stomach contents were full, I was retaining water (from the sodium and alcohol). This pushed my weight up to a peak of 89 kg, when realistically my weight was closer to 87 kg (my 3 day average was 87,5 and 6 day average 86,6).

I didn’t actually eat a calorie surplus of almost 40.000 calories for those 14 days. Meaning an intake of 2500 (my average daily energy expenditure) +2800 per day, making my total calorie intake for 2 weeks an average of 5300 calories per day. I ate a surplus of about 14000 calories, meaning 1000 per day for those 2 weeks. The rest was water and stomach contents. So my massive 5 kg weight gain was 2 kilo (5 lbs) of actual weight, and the rest was just water and stomach contents.

This week was the same case. I decided to have a cheat meal or two during the weekend, where I consumed drastically more calories than I normally do, to the tune of eating 5000 calories on Friday and 3000 calories on Saturday. The first column here is my calories consumed, the second column is my weight. As you can see, i went from 4 days weighing in at a stable 80,2 kg (176,8 lbs) to 83 kg (183 lb) over night.

I do admit that Friday and Saturday had some binge-eating aspects to them. More specifically, I wasn’t planning on eating that full 450g (1 lb) of peanuts and I was planning on a couple of beers, not 8, and the fact that my mother had made cheesecake was completely unplanned. However, I made sure I tracked everything I ate during my cheat, even in an inebriated state. My Fitbit was also in it’s normal position around my left arm, as I used it to raise pint after pint.

This means I have very good data on the entire cheat including calories burned. The first column here are my calories burned from my FITBIT, the second my intake according to My Fitness Pal. Over the course of the weekend, I ate a surplus of 2266 calories on Friday, which was my only calorie surplus that weekend. This would mean a maximum weight gain if it’s all fat of 0,29 kg (0,64 lbs), not a big deal. The weight gain on the other hand, was 2.8 kg (6,17 lbs)

This means that 2,51 kg (5,5 lbs) are unexplained by the food, but they are easily explained by glycogen and carbohydrate. Since my normal diet is lower than 50g of carbs every day, my muscles and liver are completely out of sugar. An adult weighing 70 kg (154 lbs) can store, 100 – 120 grams of glycogen in their liver and roughly 400 grams in their muscles.  This is a total of about 500 grams. Each gram is bound to 3 – 4 grams of water. The total weight of this is 1500 grams to 2000 grams of water plus 500 grams of glycogen, for a total of 2 – 2,5 kg (4,4 – 5,5 lbs) weight gain.

A crash diet works in the same way that my rapid weight loss does. When you drastically reduce your calorie intake, and your carbohydrate intake, your body depletes your glycogen stores and releases the water causing a rapid weight loss. When you start eating normally again, your glycogen stores refill and the water comes back. From this perspective on the 13th, I was at my glycogen depleted weight, the average of the 17th and 18th is my real weight.


Weight Loss Update: February 2018

As of the morning of February 28th 2018, I’ve reached a new low of 80,9 kg (179 lbs), putting me 0,9 kg (2 lbs) short of my next weight milestone of 80 kg (176 lbs). This means that since I started this last leg of my weight loss journey, I’ve lost 9 kg (20 lbs) in total, that is more likely 7 – 7,5 kg (15 – 16 lbs), considering water and glycogen. I’m happy to say that my lifts have been going up in the weight room since new years, so I’m pretty sure that the fat vs lean mass calculations are on point. On February 28th, I have a BMI of 24,4 and my 6 day average body weight is 81,9 kg (180 lbs), which is roughly on target based on my tracked calories in and out.

February started out very challenging because I had to attend a 3 day corporate retreat, and that always means more food and alcohol, plus that I won’t be able to track the calories of every meal accurately. It also means that I had to shuffle around my training schedule. I compensated for the over-indulgence at the retreat by doing extra cardio in sub-zero temperatures and eating less in the 3 days following it. It’s not optimal, but it doesn’t seem to have done any damage.

I’ve increased the weight lifted on the Bench press, Squat, Overhead Press and Barbell Row. My calculated 1 rep max for these lifts after 10 months of training, is 77 kg (169 lbs) for the bench press, 103 kg (227 lbs) for the squat, 60 kg (132 lbs) for the standing overhead press and 100 kg (220 lbs) for bent over barbell rows.

I’ve seen good progress on my lifts in these 10 months, despite being in a severe caloric deficit for the whole period, and I’m getting very exited, but a little nervous about doing my first “bulk” sometime in April or May. I feel like I have full control over my weight and to some degree my body composition at this point, but the idea of eating in a surplus on purpose after losing 45 kg (100 lbs) in the last 24 months, and 77 kg (170 lbs) in total, is a bit scary.

February Weight Loss Statistics

I had the same 750 daily calorie deficit goal as I did for January, this was a bit of a challenge this month, because I had to attend a 3 day corporate retreat where I was unable to track calories accurately. Usually I prepare all my meals from scratch because this gives me control over what I put in my body and how much of it, when dining out I have no way of knowing if a steak was cooked in 5 g of butter or 50 g of butter. I guesstimated the calorie intake for each day at 3500 including alcohol just to be on the safe side. I also made sure to cut calories back extra in the days after I got back home and added some extra cardio.

The overall deficit was down to 774 calories for February compared to 877 calories per day for January, this was mostly because of the 3 days with little to no control over my food, and where I also had some alcohol. My 6 day average around the weigh in for February was 81,85 kg (180 lbs) and my first of March weight was 81,6 kg (179,8), which puts me well within the range of my goal for the month.

I burned a total of 73847 calories this month according to Fitbit, tracked a total of 52178 calories in MyfitnessPal, for a deficit of 21669 calories for the month. This is lower than January both because the February deficit was 100 calories less every day than my January deficit, but also because February has 3 fewer days.  Overall, the deficit difference didn’t make a major impact, if my February deficit was the same as my January deficit I would have lost 3,19 kg (7 lbs) instead of 2,81 kg (6,1 lbs).

My body fat based on the Navy Body Fat calculator is 19%, I’m starting to see some muscle definition mostly in my forearms, shoulders and legs, but I’m still carrying a bit of subcutaneous fat in my problem areas. I’m hoping most of that disappears when I get down to 15 – 16% at the end of March. My waistline went down from 94 cm (37 inches) to 90 cm (35,4 inches) and  I had to punch new holes in the belts I bought last year.

My goal for March is to maintain a daily deficit of 850 calories per day, for a total deficit for the month of 26350 calories, and this should bring me down to 78,5 kg (173 lbs), at 15 – 16% body fat, by the end of the month.

I’m noticing that maintaining this level of deficit is more draining than the 1000 calories per day deficit was last year, I have a bit less energy and my mind is on food a lot. I think this is because as my body fat percentage is going down, my body is noticing that it’s gigantic store of adipose energy is emptying out. I’ve made some changes to my eating schedule to try and get around it. Instead of eating a large main meal totally about 1000 – 1200 calories, and a lunch of about 350 – 450 calories, I’ve reduced my main meal to between 800 calories and 900 calories, and have a snack either in the morning or during the afternoon.


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…)

The Standard Balanced Diet

This is probably the most common diet in use, it’s been recommended by government agencies, trainers, and doctors for decades. The diet is normally based on the USDA food pyramid or the new version called “My Pyramid”. The food group break-down in the pyramid based on a 2000 calorie a day diet is:

170 grams (6 oz of grains)

2,5 cups of vegetables (560 grams/20 oz)

448 grams of fruit (1 lb roughly)

7 dl (3 cups) of milk

155g (5,5 oz) of protein (from lean meat or legumes)

I take issue with the food pyramid in general, because between the grains and the fruit, you are consuming a lot of sugars, but 155 grams of chicken only yields about 50 grams of protein. As 2000 calories is about what a man who is 178 cm (5 ft 10) and weighs 77 kg (170 lbs) would need if he was moderately active, the WHO recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilo, and this leaves him very short.

I’ve also noticed  that people tend to make choices that ultimately undermine them when using this approach to losing weight. Mainly that they pick foods that do not fill them up for a long time, like meats and fibrous vegetables, but often rely on things like granola, bread and fruits.


The Low-Carb Diet

I’ve talked about using the low-carb (ketogenic) diet for years as part of my weight-loss journey. The reason why I like it is that it lets me eat my fill of good, whole foods, while letting me lose weight. I’ve been off and on the low-carb and Paleo wagons for years, and it can be a very good program depending on your goals and preferences.

Any diet will work as long as it creates a caloric deficit, they just go about doing this in a different way. Low-carb does it by switching you off the typical Western diet rich in non-filling, highly processed, low nutrient density but high caloric density foods. Then switching you over to high nutrient density, filling foods that naturally makes you body down-regulate how hungry you get.

When burning fat, you also never get low-blood sugar, and rarely feel hungry at all. I was a person who was constantly hungry, even when consuming hundreds if not thousands of calories in excess every day, who used food as entertainment, but on the low-carb diet I had to remind myself to eat something.

The Benefits of Low-Carb Diets

The major benefit of the low-carb diet is that it can be very low-maintenence.  I can get away with eating just one large meal every day and I can fast for up to 48 hours, when I’m in ketosis without it affecting my moods or energy levels. For a person who has never tracked calories or macro-nutrients, just having to keep track of dietary carbohydrate is also much easier than tracking calories, weighing out portions, meal-prepping, eating 6 times every day and being constantly hungry.

The simplest form of low-carb diet is the “Carnivore Diet” and variations of it are as easy as just eating steak and eggs cooked in butter whenever you’re hungry. There is no tracking involved what so ever, just eat meat, eggs and butter. Going a bit more towards the normal spectrum, sticking with meat, eggs, butter and vegetables like broccoli, lettuce and cauliflower, you don’t have to track anything and you will still lose weight most of the time.

You’ll also lose a lot of weight initially when your glycogen (sugar stores) empty, and your body releases the water it holds along with these sugars, this is very motivating.

The Problems with Low-Carb Diets

The major benefit of the low-carb diet, the fact that it’s low maintenance is also the major problem with it. You can see this if you read low-carb forums or low-carb blogs, people hit plateaus, they stall out, and their weight loss is very unpredictable. I experienced many stalls on the low carb diet, and my weight loss varied between 6 kg (13 lbs.) and 0 kg, month to month. I had no way of knowing why I was stalling or why I’d suddenly lost a bunch of weight one month, despite doing the exact same things and eating the same foods.

In the table (in kg) you can see my results during my last period of the low-carb diet before switching over to another style diet. The results are very erratic, despite me thinking that I ate pretty much the same meals in the same amounts in every month. l

When you plateau on a low-carb diet the advocates will recommend eliminating more foods, usually dairy (cheeses, cream) and nuts. Allegedly this is because some people have problems processing dairy, and nuts. This is half-way true, there are people who have problems digesting dairy or nuts properly. If the nuts are salted, it can also lead to bloating that can mask weight-loss. However, the major reason is that nuts and dairy are what I call “EOE” foods, foods that are easy to eat, but are also very calorie dense and are not really filling.

This means that people can rack up the calories very quickly when they are adding cream to every coffee and snack on slices of cheese containing up to 110 calories per slice.

The biggest problem is that most of the advocates use “You don’t have to count calories or track anything and you’ll still lose weight” as a selling point for the diet, and this is the exact reason why every other post on keto forums is “How do I break my stall?” I stalled out in weight gain at 335 lbs, because at that point I would need to eat between 3500 and 4000 calories every day just to maintain my weight. On the same side of things, the reason people stall on low-carb diets is that they are consuming a very small deficit or have no deficit at all.

Why Should You Pick Low-Carb?

The major benefit of low-carb diets from my perspective is that it helps with breaking addictions to carbohydrate. In my case, I was a major carb addict, and by maintaining a low carb diet for months or even years in some cases, I was able to break this addiction so my relationship with carbs normalized. It’s also a good “gateway diet”, as it gets people who have never dieted before into the idea of thinking about what they are eating, making conscious food choices and tracking.

Much of the eating we do is habitual, grabbing a cookie, a sandwich or a burger because we’re bored or a little bit hungry. These calories do all add up, and just eating 100 extra calories every day (about 1 slice of cheese) will result in a 4.7 kg (10 lbs.) of weight gain in a year. The low-carb diet gets people used to reading labels, tracking macros and being aware of what they are eating.

If you are a carboholic, eat for comfort and emotional regulation, or are just getting started with your weight loss I recommend trying the low carb on for size. If you are the type of person who prefers predictability and control, I’ll review other weight loss programs I used during my journey in the coming weeks that are much better than low-carb for control.