I’ve been interested in the study of health for a lot of years and if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the body is an incredibly complex creation and there are no quick fixes when it’s malfunctioning.
Keeping a healthy body healthy is not complicated though. There are a few simple things you have to do to keep it functioning well:
- eat a variety of unprocessed and uncontaminated food
- drink lots of clean water
- breathe clean air
- move often and in different ways
- get enough deep sleep
- learn to manage stress appropriately.
Simple yes. Not easy.
But easy is what we all want, right?
Everything else in our lives is so complicated. We just want the magic bullet that will remove the need to follow these simple principles.
And nowhere is this more true than with our weight.
As many of us get older, we struggle more and more with age-related weight gain.
It wasn’t until my early forties that I started to pack on the pounds. I’d never really struggled with my weight before then. I could eat whatever I wanted and only had minor fluctuations in my weight.
I got interested in nutrition and natural remedies in my twenties, back when “health food stores” were rare and us early adopters were referred to with disdain as “granola heads.”
So by my forties, I had already established good eating habits and regular exercise. I was fortunate enough to inherit good genes so I felt pretty invincible back then.
The wake up call came with the onset of peri-menopause, followed by a back injury that restricted my movement for several months.
I gained about 30 pounds that year, then continued to add 3-5 pounds a year for the next few years. As I entered my fifth decade, I was pushing the 200 pound mark on my 5’6’’ frame.
At that point I didn’t have the energy to exercise, and my joints hurt so much when I did that I was afraid I would damage them.
I stuck to walking my dog, swimming and cycling which certainly helped but weren’t enough to make any sort of dent in my weight.
I felt totally helpless and frustrated. Here I was, someone who was commited to living a healthy lifestyle, but moving quickly into the obesity category with all its related ills, and I couldn’t seem to do anything about it.
I knew there had to be an answer, so I started to learn everything I could about how the body stores and releases fat.
As you can imagine, I had to sift through tons of misinformation and marketing nonsense, but I eventually found some solid resources and smart people who helped me understand some fundamental pieces that just made sense.
I was able to lose 55 pounds in a little over 5 months, and actually gained muscle mass – a key factor, it turns out, in longevity.
Usually this kind of weight loss is accompanied by a loss of water and muscle tissue. Not a desirable situation and too often the case with many “diet” programs.
I’m not an expert by any means, and there is always more to learn. Science is uncovering more of the body’s miraculous nature everyday, and I’d prefer to get healthier as I get older.
But following the principles I learned turned things around for me so I feel a need to share them.
Two Things We Know
I acknowledge that there are several factors that contribute to weight gain and loss including medical, psychological and hormonal issues which are in themselves worthy of further exploration. It’s not a simple topic.
But for the average Jill/Joe, there a couple of things we know:
- optimum health is directly related to our fat to muscle ratio
- muscle mass is the common denominator among the longest-living people.
Understanding the Metrics
It’s really important to know what we’re measuring.
Losing “weight” is not the same as losing “fat.” Muscle weighs more than fat so you can gain weight in muscle and still lose fat. In fact, this is the ideal scenario.
Unfortunately most “diets” don’t acknowledge this. They measure in pounds lost, rather than inches, which is usually a better measure of fat loss. If the pounds you lose are made up of water and muscle, you’re paying a hefty price with your health and those pounds will return in no time and then some.
So the measure I use for healthy “weight” loss is actually fat loss, without water loss and with muscle gain.
The Bad News
North Americans are the fattest people on the planet.
Apparently more than half of North Americans are carrying an unhealthy amount of excess fat and that number is increasing every year. It’s estimated that individually each of us is getting about 2-5 pounds fatter every year.
Some experts say that children living in North America today will live less long than their parents because of growing obesity numbers due to poor nutrition and a lack of exercise.
And it’s all entirely preventable.
Time to Face Facts
We know that excess fat is related to a significant number of our most serious health issues.
And now more and more research is pointing to our excess consumption of sugar in all its many forms; grains (glucose), fruits (fructose), dairy (lactose) as a key factor.
With our dollars we support an agricultural industrial complex that largely controls our food supply, and whose primary objective is not to create nutritious food but rather to maximize profits for their shareholders.
Combine that with our busy, stressed, instant-gratification culture and you have the perfect storm.
As with most things, the answer lies in education.
Choosing Your Octane
Energy is required for all the body’s processes: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Without energy, we’re toast.
The body uses three types of fuel to create energy: carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Carbohydrates metabolize into glucose which is the easiest and fastest source of fuel the body can access, so it will always burn glucose first. If you stop eating carbohydrates, your reserves will run out usually in about 3-5 days.
Then the body turns to fat and protein as fuel.
For efficiency, the body will burn the fat you’ve just eaten before it burns the stored fat.
If you give the body the right amount of protein, it will use that to build tissue, including muscle tissue. If you give it too much protein, the body will convert it into glucose.
The key to healthy weight loss, without losing water and muscle is to shift your body into fat burning vs sugar burning mode.
You do this by reducing your carbohydrates, determining the right amount of quality protein for your body, and increasing your consumption of healthy fats.
Yes, it seems counter intuitive doesn’t it? Stay with me.
Many diets focus specifically on caloric restriction but they don’t address the kind of calories you’re reducing.
While it’s true that you can’t continuously eat more calories than you burn and not gain weight, calorie restriction alone doesn’t consider how the body responds to different kinds of fuel.
Simply reducing calories usually leads to hunger, cravings, feelings of deprivation and eventually abandonment of the program.
Lowering your caloric intake will also eventually lower your metabolic rate so your body will require less fuel because it’s producing less energy.
This will thwart fat loss, not enable it. It’s why you tend to feel less energetic in mind, body and spirit on a calorie restricted diet. It’s also why so many diets fail and generally result in a loss of water and muscle instead of fat.
You have a lot more energy when your body is burning fat which makes you want to get up and move. Movement gives your body the oxygen it requires for the fat burning process and keeps your metabolism at an optimum level.
If you’re getting enough (quality) protein at the same time, your body will build muscle instead of losing it. In turn, the greater your muscle mass, the more energy, or fat fuel is required.
Calories are used to measure the energy value of food. Carbohydrates and protein provide the body with about 4 calories of energy per gram. Fats provide the body with about 9 calories of energy per gram.
So when your body is burning fat as its primary fuel, you’re getting more than twice the energy. Fat is higher octane fuel.
This is why people on a “ketogenic” (i.e. fat burning) diet have more energy, fewer cravings and better success reaching their goals. There are a whole host of other benefits being uncovered with this way of eating as well. (See the Resources section below.)
Learn to Read Labels
The first step in taking responsibility for what you eat is to learn to read labels. There is a lot of important information there if you know what to look for. I’ve learned to focus first on how many carbs a food contains, then I look at protein and fat.
Why? Because here’s a scary fact.
Four grams of carbohydrate is equivalent to 1 tsp of sugar. When you start to read labels, or do research on different foods, you begin to realize that while some “healthier” carbs have more fiber, they are still very high in what the body recognizes and utilizes as “sugar.”
You’ll hear the term “net carbs,” which is carb grams minus fiber grams. While there are proven benefits to fibre, some fibre (soluble) is still counted as a carbohydrate. Some carbohydrates burn more slowly than others (e.g. beans vs. grains) but still convert to glucose.
Quality carbohydrates are definitely part of a balanced nutritional approach. However, while you’re trying to lose excess body fat, they just present a roadblock.
If these foods are the main staple in your diet, you’re not going to be burning fat. Instead your pancreas will be producing more insulin to deal with all the sugar intake, leading you to store more fat.
Making Different Choices
I followed a specific program that incorporated these principles to lose the fat. It’s a proven, safe and effective program but it required a $500 investment each month and a 100% commitment to stick with it.
In fairness though, that investment included most of the food I needed so it replaced what I would have spent on groceries. It also included all the supplements I needed and a really good digestive formula.
My average fat loss was about 3 pounds a week and I significantly increased my muscle mass. I had tons of energy, more mental clarity and I felt fantastic.
The program also gave me access to a knowledgeable physician and a wonderful support coach as well. For me, it was worth every penny. I found it easier to have a structure to follow and I appreciated the coaching support. (There’s a link to more info in the Resources below.)
But structured programs aren’t for everyone.
Do It (for) Yourself
If you’d prefer to do this on your own, you may not lose at the same rate but if you’re committed, or if you only have about 20-30 pounds to lose, you should have success if you follow these recommendations.
(Important notes: 1. I’m not a health practitioner. If you have health issues, consult your practitioner before making big changes to your diet. 2. This program is designed to be followed for a limited time. See the Slow Carb diet below for a workable and effective lifetime program.)
Reduce all carbohydrates to under 30 grams per day. This includes eliminating fruits, dairy, grains, beans, starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes, carrots, beets), alcohol and all obvious sugar. Instead eats LOTS of low carbohydrate vegetables (raw & steamed). Read your labels and count your carbs.
Reduce Bad Fats
Eliminate unhealthy fats (hydrogenated oils, margarine, fried foods). Eat only good fats (e.g. virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts & seeds). Let go of the fear of fat. (See Resources for links to research on the many benefits of ketogenic diets.)
Increase your (quality) protein. Eat a variety of sources; lean meats, fish, poultry, nuts and seeds. Find a quality protein powder. Be sure and check the carb count though. Just because it says high protein, it doesn’t mean it isn’t even higher in carbs.
Avoid whey and whey isolates as it raises blood sugar and insulin levels and often contains preservatives, sweeteners and artificial flavours. There’s increasing concern about soy too. Look for other options. If you can find it, try cricket protein. It has half the fat and a third more protein than beef, and is much more environmentally sustainable.
Consume approximately 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. Slightly more if you’re pretty active, and less if you’re not.
Eat 30 grams of quality protein within 30 minutes of waking up. (This alone was a game changer for me.)
Drink More Water
I’m sure you’ve heard this one a zillion times. And yet I don’t know anyone who thinks they drink enough water. The list of benefits from drinking water is ridiculously long.
Try this strategy
Fill a litre bottle and keep it within reach. Make a commitment to finish it by the end of your day. Refill and repeat. You’ll be amazed how much better you feel.
Do something/anything physical every day. You don’t have to go overboard but try to get physically tired. This will help with the next two points.
If you’re carrying a fair amount of weight, or lead a sedentary lifestyle, it’s a good idea to cut your activity down a bit at the beginning of this program and increase it as you have more energy from the fat burning.
Use your lungs. Learn to breathe into your belly. Get outside into fresh air. The fat burning process requires oxygen – and so do we!
Get enough good quality sleep. For most people this means about 6-8 hours. If you move enough to tire your muscles, you’ll sleep better. Open your bedroom window and make the room as dark as possible. Most of our cellular regeneration happens while we sleep.
Many of us spend a lot of our time with our faces buried in some kind of screen; computer, TV, smartphone. You’ll sleep better if you shut your screen down an hour before you go to bed. Pick up a book instead. Fiction is a good way to wind down busy brains before sleep.
Add Quality Supplements
Add a good multi-vitamin/mineral complex, omega oils, a calcium supplement and a good digestive formula for optimum results. (e.g. aloe vera, bitters, enzymes)
Once you’ve reached your healthy goal weight, which is individual to each of us, begin to gradually add some high quality, high fiber, slower burning carbohydrates back into your diet. But beware. Carbohydrates are very addictive. Once you start eating them again it’s hard to stop. And you will probably experience a drop in your energy.
I quickly realized that our standard high carbohydrate diet didn’t work for me. I needed to find a solution that I could live with permanently. I discovered Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet and found it works best for me as a lifestyle.
It consists of 5 rules that you follow 6 days a week:
- Avoid “white” carbohydrates (or anything that can be white)
(Exclusions: cauliflower, cottage cheese)
- Eat the same meals over and over again
- Don’t drink calories (fruit juice, pop, sugary drinks)
- Don’t eat fruit
- Take one day off per week (called Cheat Day)
Six days a week I eat lots of vegetables (except potatoes, beets, corn), lean protein, beans and legumes (slow carbs) and drink lots of water. I’ve never been a fan of pop or fruit juice and only occasionally drink wine, although Tim says a glass of red wine a day won’t negatively impact your results.
The 7th day is Cheat Day when you can eat whatever you want and as much as you want.
It sounds crazy but it actually serves you to gorge for that one day because it keeps your metabolism from slowing down, and you actually look forward to getting back to your normal healthy eating the next day.
If I have a craving for something during the week (which is rare), I save it for Cheat Day. Tim suggests Saturday as that’s usually when people are out socializing. But Sunday is the day I reserve just for me and the things I love to do. You choose the day that works best for you.
Many people have had significant weight loss on the slow carb program, but it’s equally valuable as a lifelong way to eat. Try it and see if it works for you.
Hopefully this information will help you reclaim or retain your health. If you want to go deeper, check out the resources below.
And I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Do you have a success story you want to share? Are you going to try this program? If so, please let me know how it goes for you.
On ketogenic and low carbohydrate diets
- Very thorough Ketogenic Diet Resource and Ketogenic Diet Plan
- Watch Dr. Peter Attia’s powerful TED Talk on Insulin Resistance, and his blog.
- Check out Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman
- Here’s a good guide on the Slow Carb diet.
- Tim’s interview with Dom D’Agostino on the power of ketogenic diets. He’s since done some good follow-ups with Dom.
- Check out Mark’s Daily Apple for info on a “Paleo” lifestyle.
- Get inspired by some beautiful images of Low Carb Meals by Jake at Muscles Zone.
On metabolic health
Two good books on metabolism by Stephen Cherniske:
If you’d like to know more about the program I used, please contact me.