After chugging along on the treadmill for an hour, you press the stop button and look down at the display.
Between the drops of sweat, you see that you burned a whopping 700 Calories! You give yourself a mental pat on the back as you towel down and head back to the locker room.
You’ve got the math down pat: if you run for 60 minutes 5 times per week while eating 20% less than you usually do each and every day, you’ll burn 2 pounds of fat each week.
Well, this is the kind of armchair mathematics that most health gurus with a flimsy grasp of biology and thermodynamics would tell you how to lose weight.
But what if there was a simpler, easier, and more effective way to lose fat than trying to starve yourself, overtrain, and eventually become defeated with guilt when you fall off the wagon?
What if focusing on what you eat rather than how much of it you eat could lead to your goals with much less headache?
Sounds like something I should test myself…
My Mission, Should I Choose to Accept It
In my last experiment, I spent four weeks eating like the average bachelor in his twenties does:
- Cereal and milk every morning for breakfast.
- A couple cans of soda each day.
- Lots of frozen pizza and microwave pasta.
- Eating out a few times per week.
- Eating when hungry, stopping when full.
- Oh yeah, and no “working out.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I wound up gaining almost 15 pounds in four weeks.
But now it’s time for damage control. How do I get my ass back in shape?
Although I might be able to best do this with a combination of eating better and moving smarter, I decided to cut the physical activity out of the equation to see how well diet alone can affect my body composition.
I decided not to do anything as severe as limiting the steps I take each day like Morgan Spurlock did in Super Size Me, but I figured just giving the kettlebells a rest and going about the rest of my life as normal would suffice.
Instead, I focused on diet only.
There are three guiding principles I use in my philosophy of “eat better“:
- Eat food.
- Balance feasting and fasting.
- Cheat occasionally.
In other words, I believe that quality of food is more important than quantity. Instead of counting calories, you should focus on eating more unrefined foods such as meat and veggies and fewer items such as sugar, flour, and vegetable oil. You don’t gotta go all “organic and grass-fed” if you don’t have the dough, but learning how to cook a couple basic meals from scratch will do wonders.
Instead of trying to starve yourself (which is a losing game 99% of the time), you should instead strive to balance the “feasting” and “fasting” in your life. Do you like eating six small meals a day? Fine, as long as you’re not stuffing yourself past belief every meal. Or maybe you like intermittent fasting and only eat once or twice per day? You better make the most of those meals by chowing down.
Lastly, instead of trying to follow a super-strict diet (and burning even more of your willpower), you should make time to occasionally eat your favorite foods, no matter how “bad for you” they may be. Being a bit loose with your rules isn’t going to make any appreciable difference in your body composition, but it will allow you to eat out with your friends without feeling so damned guilty.
So, for 28 days, I would follow these (admittedly loose) rules, and see where it got me.
My “Pre-Experiment” in Argentina
In a perfect world, I would have started this experiment immediately after my 28-day Average Joe Diet. That would certainly be the best way to see how diet alone can undo the damage I did during those weeks.
But I had the chance to travel abroad for the first time in more than ten years and go to the land of Patagonia, tango, and red meat in Argentina. Could you blame me?
I won’t go into too much detail (this ain’t a travel blog!), but suffice to say I walked several miles each day, didn’t eat a whole lot due to the heat, and when I did eat focused on red meat and potatoes. (When a great steak dinner with wine sets you back only twenty bucks with tip, how can you say no?)
And so, in a resounding victory for the “eat less, exercise more” camp which I routinely criticize as being overly simplistic, I lost three pounds during my trip. Nothing terribly big, but it would have been nice to start out this experiment at the same weight as when I left.
The Nitty Gritty… and My New Found Addiction
So how did I eat these four weeks in more detail? Here’s what I mainly subsisted on:
- Coffee with cream and cinnamon (almost every morning)
- Steak and steamed broccoli in coconut oil
- Roast chicken with potatoes, carrots, and onions
- Pot roast with mashed potatoes
- Scrambled eggs and bacon
I also ate perhaps two meals out each week, usually Thai takeout or In-N-Out Burger.
But here’s the crazy part: I found it super hard to stay away from soda.
Let’s back up a moment. All throughout my childhood and into junior high, I drank a TON of soda. I doubt I missed having a can or three per day from elementary school until I turned 16. At this point I started to become much more health conscious and slowly ended up ditching the stuff almost completely.
From college through several years after I probably drank a can per month maximum. I just lost my taste for the stuff.
When I tried to see how much junk food I could eat in a day, drinking soda was the hardest part. It gave me a raging headache and made me feel worse than all the other candy, takeout, and refined carbs I was eating.
The first week or so of my “Average Joe” experiment was similar. I felt awful every time I drank it… but then it cleared up. COMPLETELY. I could drink three cans of soda in a day and feel just fine for the first time in more than ten years.
But now that I tried to cut it out… WOW did I have a rough time! Unfortunately, I have easy access to soda at my job, which is always a willpower killer. Add to that I get free credits to the vending machines every two weeks, and this was just a disaster waiting to happen.
You see, one habit I built over the previous month was going to grab a Coke whenever I was bored or had a lot of desk work to do. The coffee and tea are god-awful at my job, and a nice (free) cold cola seemed like the best option.
And so, like so many others facing the hardest part of getting healthy, I had built up habits that I did on autopilot… and they weren’t helping me.
The first week or so I caved in and drank at least one soda per day. This tailed off to a can or two per week by the end, but was without a doubt the most difficult and demanding part of this challenge.
Apart from that, I followed my “three principles” above to a T.
On To the Results!
So how’d I do?
Over 28 days of eating better, I lost 7 pounds, bringing my BMI from 25.4 to 24.3. My body fat dropped from 14.6% to 13.3%. My waist-to-hip ratio held steady at 0.9, while my waist-to-shoulder ratio went down slightly from 0.74 to 0.72.
The biggest change was obviously in my weight/BMI. I lost proportionally more fat than lean mass, as can be seen in my body fat % and waist-to-hip ratio.
Oh, and here’s the all-too-important before and after pics as well (complete with Zubaz and a most excellent farmer’s tan):
If you crunch the numbers, you can see that I lost 3.0 lbs of fat. Calculating change in muscle mass is more difficult, as there is no good way to measure it directly. The additional 4 lbs I lost were composed of an unknown composition of water and muscle.
By using current approximations of 3,500 kcal per pound of fat and 600 kcal per pound of muscle, we can see that I incurred a caloric deficit between 10,500 and 12,300 kcal during these four weeks, or 375 to 439 per day… not too bad for someone who:
- Didn’t count calories.
- Ate when hungry and stopped when full, instead of focusing on arbitrary “serving sizes.”
- Ate some “unhealthy” foods, such as soda and burgers.
Hm… this flies in the face of all conventional wisdom. Since my body is wired to seek a caloric surplus regardless of context, I should have overeaten on pot roast just as much as I did on frozen pizza, right?
I think it’s going to be a long time (if ever) until the scientific paradigm shifts from calorie quantity to food quality, but the findings of this self-experiment have only served to support the idea that focusing on the minutiae of calorie counting and serving size restriction is useless when you can simply focus on limiting ultra-processed foods and eating more whole and minimally-refined foods.
One recent study has suggested that the types of food people eat matter more than their calorie content in how much weight they use, and another shows that 20% of all foods have 100 kcal more per serving than stated on the nutrition facts label. So I’m not giving up hope yet!
Of course, I’m only one guy, and you should try this out yourself instead of just reading this for entertainment. If you are looking to get into shape, it’s my belief that you should focus on diet first, and don’t even think about getting a gym membership until you have learned to quickly make a few good meals from scratch and have built the habit of eating healthy and avoiding junk food.
Anyhows, I still have a way to go to get back into “fighting shape.” Next experiment: build muscle without living at the gym and eating only chicken breasts, oatmeal, and protein shakes. Should be fun!
Anyone else see any differences from changing their diet only?