How Fat Became My Best Friend
Note: This is likely the first entirely non-development focused post I've made, but I felt it was worthwhile to share my experiences in nutrition and fitness over the last year.
In July 2013, I set out to disprove a lengthy list of straw man arguments against a primarily animal-based diet. I knew from analyzing modern data on the matter that our understanding of fat, carbs, and overall health has evolved rapidly in the last decade. The traditional suppositions I encountered most frequently were as follows:
- An increased intake of dietary fat will lead to an increase of body fat mass over time.
- A diet consisting of high amounts of saturated animal fats will lead to unsafe levels of cholesterol.
- In order to burn body fat, you need to expend more calories than you intake on a daily basis.
From even a cursory glance at the research available, it seemed obvious to me that these claims were at best dubious. But I resolved to take on my own task of self-experimentation to develop a personal understanding of just how certain foods affected body recomposition efforts.
In order to craft a dietary approach to challenge these assumptions, I relied heavily on the research and experimentation of Tim Ferriss, Gary Taubes, and Robert Lustig; the anti-carb triumverate. My marching orders were simple: no grains, no fruit, no added sugars. All my meals should have meat and vegetables with occasional legumes. My daily meal breakdown Sunday through Friday typically went as follows (with relative precision):
Breakfast (all 3)
- 6 pasture-raised organic eggs
- 4 strips of organic bacon (no added nitrates)
- 2-3 cups of coffee w/ organic heavy whipping cream and cinnamon
Lunch (one of)
- 1-2 baked or grilled chicken breasts over almonds and greens (organic kale, spinach, romaine, arugala) w/ homemade dressing (olive oil, macadamia nut oil, balsamic vinegar) OR
- 4-5 cups of organic chili (grass-fed ground beef, black beans, diced tomatos, assorted peppers, yellow onions)
Dinner (one of)
- 8-12 oz. of grass-fed steak (mostly fatty cuts) w/ sauteed broccoli and green beans OR
- 5-6 cups of the aforementioned organic chili OR
- 1-2 chicken breasts stir fryed in macademia nut oil, unsalted organic grass-fed butter, peppers, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, water chestnuts, and sriracha.
- Almonds (limited to only 1-2 handfuls per day because of high caloric density, very easy to eat too much)
- Carrots (a little higher in terms of sugar compared to other veggies, so similarly limited)
- Lunch/dinner leftovers (always had stuff stored in tupperware for hunger moments)
This seems like an exceedingly strict meal plan, but honestly it was super easy to follow. In fact, I attribute much of my success in adhering to this as a function of its relative simplicity. It was easy (and cheap) to shop for these ingredients regularly, keep my shelves stocked, and it was fun to experiment with different spice/sauce variations using the ingredients I had on-hand.
Its also worth noting that I did drink alcohol fairly frequently. I'm a huge Bourbon fan, so during 3-4 of those 6 days I would have a small glass of Bourbon neat. The process of distillation makes the amount of carbs and residual sugar almost negligible. I experimented with my intake and found it had no significant effect on my results.
The above meal plan was adhered to 6 days per week, so the next relevant question would be: what did I eat on Saturdays (or "Faturdays" as they were later dubbed)? Let's take a look:
Note: My food choices here are clearly not nutritionally ideal. There was a psychological benefit to binging on some of the comfort foods that I found myself missing from time to time. You could easily carry out a high-carb Faturday with more nutritional fare (e.g. fruits, whole grains, etc).
- Sugar cereal
- Some form of pastry: donut, muffin, danish
- Energy drink (the incredibly sugary kinds)
- Pub food mostly: usually a steak tip sub, club sandwich, burger, etc
- French fries
- 1-2 20oz beers
- Ice cream
- Large cheese pizza to my face
- Ice cream
- Assorted snack foods: chips, cookies, etc
The purpose of Faturday is to replenish the glycogen stores that have been depleted throughout the course of the week. I don't consider this a "cheat day", I consider this a day of replenishment. There is, of course, a psychological benefit involved to pigging out on all of those old foods I miss from time to time. Ultimately my food choices on Faturday would change week to week, but the above would be my average approach. My caloric intake for both feeding periods was fairly high:
- Sunday — Friday: 3-4k calories per day
- Faturday: 6-7k calories per day
In terms of fitness, my approach was basic. Kettlebell swings and some random dumbbell work. That's it. No insane fad fitness program to speak of (e.g. CrossFit, P90X, Insanity, etc). In my experimentation, exercise was the least impactful portion of my approach to body recomposition.
So now we get to the portion of the post that probably matters the most. How did I do?
Well let's first take a look at my progress photo (left side is July 2013, right side is February 2014):
I've included my weight loss graph (care of my Withings Body Scale) to illustrate the precise cliff drop in weight and body fat I saw immediately when I changed my diet. At my heaviest I was 220 lbs and at my lightest I weighed in at 192 lbs. I have since stabilized, which is to be expected, but I managed to log my lowest point just before the new year.
When I started this experiement I weighed in at 220 lbs and 28.5% body fat. Today I weighed in at 196 lbs and 19.2% body fat.
Now for my lipid profile (numbers on the left are before, numbers on right are as of today):
Total: 210 >> 195
HDL: 54 >> 54
LDL: 135 >> 115
VLDL: 21 >> 26
Triglycerides: 88 >> 130
Basic Metabolic Panel
Glucose: 96 >> 84
Sodium: 145 >> 137
BUN: 18 >> 20
Creatinine: 1.0 >> 1.0
Those are significant improvements in almost all of my lipid measurements. The increase in triglycerides, as Tim Ferriss has noted in his work, can be associated with the significant fat loss as well as the mechanism of triglycerides as the fat transport molecule for the body. Note that while I saw an increase in that metric, it still falls well within the safe/optimal range.
I don't consider my success here to be a product of anything other than informed nutritional research, biometric data tracking, and patience. To review what I set out to disprove...
An increased intake of dietary fat will lead to an increase of body fat mass over time.
False. I pursued a diet extremely high in saturated fats (including all the oils I cooked with) and I saw a 9% drop in body fat.
A diet consisting of high amounts of saturated animal fats will lead to unsafe levels of cholesterol.
False. In my case, I saw improvements in almost all points of my lipid profile and every metric fell within the safe/optimal range.
In order to burn body fat, you need to expend more calories than you intake on a daily basis.
False. I went from working out almost 6 times per week for over an hour each time to 2-3 days per week for only 25 minutes on average. I also increased my calorie intake by 1.5-2k a day on average.
This has been a big milestone for me, not just in terms of body recomposition, but in my holistic understanding of overall health and wellbeing. I'm happy that I lost weight, added 120 lbs to my dead lift, and improved my cardiac health — but mostly I'm happy that I developed an understanding and control of where my health is headed as I creep inexorably towards death. (I always love ending on a positive note.)