Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On Diet and Exercise

Most people are, by definition, normal.  As such, it is safe to say that, in most regards, I am probably a lot like everybody else.  But that's a slippery slope.

I've been wanting to write a bit about weight loss, but it's hard to do without either sounding preachy, coming across like one of those fad-diet salesmen, or otherwise failing to acknowledge that we don't all want the same thing, and what works for one person may not work for another.  So when I write on this topic, I'm going to try to just talk about what I'm doing for me and how it's been working; hopefully there is something that anyone with the motivation to read the post can adapt to her or his own goals.  I don't want to sound dogmatic or presumptuous.

Evolution in Fast-forward

It has been said that physical fitness is an adaptation to the stresses we put on our bodies.  Put another way, fitness happens to support the fight-or-flight response, so long as my body believes it may at some point become threatened.  So if I condition my body to believe that I might need to flee like heck at any given moment, it starts to adapt and get better at going fast.  My metabolism ramps up and starts getting more efficient at using energy instead of storing it in places that are hard to access.

I really haven't seen those kinds of results with low-intensity training.  And by results, I mean weight loss, fitness, and daily energy levels.  All-day rides at a moderate pace have had nowhere near the same impact as quick workouts where I do my best to make my muscles burn and my heart threaten to explode.

The Elusive Eat-tons-and-lose-pounds Diet

I'd like to be able to say that I've found an "eat all you want and still lose weight" diet plan that will work for anybody.  Some of the schmucks selling this kind of thing on television will throw in a "without needing to exercise" for good measure.  I don't even understand the mentality that makes such claims plausible.

Anyway, the best I've been able to come up with is a "eat as much as I want and still lose weight" diet plan that works as long as I'm eating the right kinds of things and getting a good workout on my bike a few times a week.  The problem that I see with most diet plans are that they are detached from the real life of the dieter.  They pose as something that you can do for a little while until you (hopefully) reach a weight goal, and then you can get back to your regularly scheduled program.

In my view, there are a couple of issues:
  1. The goal should be healthiness and fitness - not skinniness.
  2. If I want to get or maintain a particular level of healthiness and fitness, I have to look at ways to adjust my lifestyle so that it happens as a byproduct of living my life.

Another point of contention involves snacking.  And in truth, it can be an easy way to end up overeating.  But another easy way to overeat is to arrive at a meal starving.  So I say never let yourself get too hungry.  I snack as much as I need to to keep my appetite sated and my blood sugar levels stable (my family has hypoglycemic tendencies).  The trick, of course, is to snack on the right things.

Data-driven Decisions

One thing that I found out pretty quickly, once I started paying attention, was that I had no idea how much food I was eating.  That was an easy, if tedious, thing to remedy: I set up a spreadsheet and started writing down everything that I ate.  I tracked calories as well as grams of fat, carbohydrates, and protein.  I can't always get precise numbers, but it isn't too hard to make a decent estimate.  The first time I did this, a couple of weeks provided enough data to answer my questions.

Another thing that quickly became obvious was that I had no sense of proportion when it came to serving sizes.  That has to be done right in order to get valid data, so I got out the measuring cups so I can see what 8 ounces of milk looks like in my cereal bowl, or whatever the case may be.

Having gathered this kind of data, it made it much easier to evaluate what kind of changes I needed to make in my eating habits.  Cut way back on cheese; don't use cream-based salad dressings; reduce the frequency of most desert items.  I read somewhere that fresh vegetables and fruits should be treated as freebies, and I've taken that notion to heart.  I fill half my lunch plate with salad.  To satisfy my sweet-tooth, I have fruit of some kind for desert after most meals.  And fruits and vegetables make great snacks.

The Proof of the Pudding

So what did I get out of all this?  At the beginning of last Winter, I decided that I was going to lose some weight.  Winter is a good time to do that for those of us who are more athletic during the warm months, since you don't want to short-change yourself nutritionally when your energy demands are higher.  And mind you, by that time I wasn't terribly overweight by any standard.  I just wanted to have a few less pounds to lug up the hills once I started riding more in the Spring.  Mountains are, after all, a fact of life in Colorado.

Spring arrived, and in keeping with the goal of getting better at hill-climbing, I started doing interval workouts regularly during the week.  (That's where you go real fast for a little bit; then recover for a bit; then repeat.  See the comments about fight-or-flight conditioning above.)  And on weekends, I like to find a good hill to climb.

The net result is that my metabolism seems to have gone nuts and I'm struggling somewhat to stop losing weight.  I'm taking in what seems like ridiculous amounts of calories (though really, it's not unreasonable), yet I'm almost 10 pounds under what my weight goal was last Winter.  Here is what the month of May looked like:

You can see that dinner at Pappadeaux on the 30th pretty plainly.

I've been feeling great, more energetic, and while I generally pay careful attention to what I eat, it isn't a source of stress or guilt when I splurge from time to time.  And since the eating habits and physical activity are just part of what I do rather than an interruption to my routine, sticking with the program is a non-issue.

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