In June I started the first calorie-counting diet I've ever been on. It's been a journey, to say the least. A slow, agonizing, but enlightening journey.
I wanted to lose 15lbs. The first 5 were pounds I'd gained in the last two years from literally eating whatever I'd wanted- late night binges on nutella, heaps of bacon, nightly desserts and chai lattes. The last 10lbs were an attempt to get to a bodybuilder level of body fat (15%) to see what it would be like to finally be super lean.
Three months later and I've only lost about 6lbs, but I've learned a lot about how many calories I need to eat in a day, what kinds of macronutrients work the best for me, and what type of eating schedule promotes the greatest happiness while also providing weight loss.
First, I wanted to figure out how many calories I had to eat. My daily activity looks like this:
- Bike to work
- Bike to the gym from work
- Lift weights (1 hour), powerlifting style
- Bike back to work
- Bike home
- Climb (2 hours) or run (2-6 miles) or both.
Being a not very sedentary person makes it rather hard to figure out how many calories you need to eat. How many calories does lifting for an hour burn? How do you factor your rest periods between sets / different exercises / intensity? It's all a little overwhelming at first.
So, I ended up using the IIFYM Calculator to determine my total daily energy expenditure. It put me somewhere around 2500 calories a day if I chose the "Twice Daily" exercise option. I subtracted 500 calories from that number and set that as my calorie intake goal.
The second part of the diet was to start a Leangains approach to dieting. It's an intermittent fasting style diet that centers meals and specific nutrients around workouts. It's pretty popular with bodybuilders and powerlifters because the goal is to lose fat while maintaining or building muscle and strength.
The basic idea is that you have a defined "eating window" during the day- usually 8 hours. Your biggest meal, and the meal that has the most carbohydrates, is eaten immediately following your workout of the day. You also focus on taking in enough protein to prevent muscle loss while eating at a caloric deficit.
This seemed to suit me because I was never really a breakfast person anyways. When I was commuting to classes twice a week this spring, I'd have 3 days off a week. These days would usually start with me getting up at 8am, doing homework until noon, lifting, and then making "breakfast" around 1:30pm. So, fasting until 1:30pm didn't really seem that weird to me. It also meant I could eat like I usually did: big meals that left me feeling full. How hard would it really be to have willpower for a few hours in the morning?
Every weekend I'd take a cheat meal, usually Saturdays, where I'd eat whatever I want and however much I wanted without worrying about how it was going to affect my weight loss. These have been key to keeping me sane: I know that once a week I can still eat out with friends or make the food I've been craving all week. It's also supposed to reset your body's tolerance to your diet so you don't plateau.
I also didn't worry about the diet on vacation, which probably set me back a little bit, but I didn't want to be obsessed about food when I was trying to relax. The longer I do this diet, the more I know that I shouldn't set hard deadlines for when I'm going to be at "X weight," and think of it as more of a lifestyle.
However, about a month ago I realized intermittent fasting wasn't for me anymore. It didn't suit my lifestyle, and it threatened my ability to stick to losing weight. Here are the reasons why I stopped:
- I get really cranky when I'm hungry. I was hungry in the morning, and hated having to wait to eat.
- Even though I ate big meals, it's like my brain knew that I wasn't eating half the day. I'd eat a huge meal and be stuffed, only to feel mentally hungry an hour later.
- I started to obsess about food. I have poor willpower when it comes to eating, and doing IF all day weakened my willpower such that I would occasionally binge during the week. Cheat days were horrible and I ate back most of the calories I'd lost during the week
- During the fast, I'd get really cold and feel sluggish
- It's hard to fast with other people that don't fast. Visiting parents and relatives was really hard when trying to fast and eat properly.
I don't think these things are necessarily the fault of intermittent fasting- just that my body and my personality didn't jive with how it worked. I like a lot of the principles of IF, and once I'm done with this deficit I might experiment using it again a few days a week or to make up for a weekend of bad eating.
So now I've relaxed on IF a bit. I still only eat a light snack in the morning, but that snack reverses 90% of the bad effects of IF for me. I don't get cold, cranky, or obsessed about when I'm going to eat. I still eat my big lunch after I work out, but I don't feel like I'm waiting all day to eat it.
Unfortunately, the diet has been going really slow. I haven't nailed it down yet, but I think it's a combination of overestimating how many calories I burn daily and my intra-IF cheat days. Nonetheless, I'm getting better. Now that I've stopped IF, my cheat days have seriously declined in their binge-yness. I'm way less obsessive and that's a good thing. I was also able to take the data from my previous weeks of dieting and approximate how many calories I was actually burning (for those wondering, it's more like 2350 calories/day instead of 2500 a day. So I've cut down my daily intake to 1850 rather than 2000).
I've also honed in on the macronutrient ratios that are best for me. Lately I've been eating:
50% protein / 25% carbs / 25% fat
Which is a little crazy, protein-wise. The most I've eaten for protein on a given day was 250g, which is more than the 1.5g / body weight figure given for bodybuilders (which I'm not).
One important thing I found is that the lower the number of carbs I eat, the less hungry I feel all day. The second I eat something with a high glycemic index, I start feeling hungry despite having eaten enough calories.
I realized this first when I was putting honey in my tea. I'd be full from my small snack, but after drinking tea I'd be ravenous. By trading out the carbs for protein (and occasionally, fat), I stay fuller longer. I'm working on making it even lower, but daily I usually take in about 80g of carbs.
I also started taking some non-bodybuilding specific supplements. In particular,
- Fish oil. I realized I didn't eat enough fish and didn't get omega 3's in my diet, so these contribute. They're apparently good for staving off depression and preventing inflammation
- Matcha tea powder: lots of antioxidants, supposedly helpful for weight loss and great tasting in greek yogurt
- Whey protein: great in greek yogurt and good pre-workout protein
- Green tea: apparently good for weight loss, keeps the appetite down, and good for focusing at work
I also found some staple foods that I can't live without when dieting:
- Chobani plain greek yogurt: 130 calories in a cup, infinitely changeable (you can add so much stuff and make it so tasty!), and lots of protein
- Frozen mixed vegetables: I eat like 8 cups of veggies a day. They're delicious and filling and I get my nutrient quota
- Eggs: super filling. I eat about 7 a day, and they're cheap
- Frozen chicken breasts: cheaper than fresh chicken and great for putting into salads and soup
- Chicken bouillon: easy soup / flavoring for otherwise bland food (see vegetables)
- Salmon packets: I get the small, 2oz Chicken of the Sea packets. Surprisingly filling, and only 70 calories
- Fresh veggies: now that I eat cleaner, I crave these things. Tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, onions, zucchini, carrots, and cucumbers are staples.
One thing that I worried about at the start was that my workouts would suffer. They've actually been going pretty well. I don't know that I've gained much muscle, but my strength has gone up in my pullups and squats. Not amazing progress, but enough that I'm content in that department.
And that's pretty much it. It's been a journey. I've learned a lot about how my body works, and what it doesn't like (I discovered I don't do well with dairy). I know that if I have to do this again, it'll be way easier next time. My goal for the immediate future is to not think about how long the process is going to take and just let it soak into my lifestyle.
Hope that helps anyone who wants to try something similar.
Cheers and happy weekend,
The Weak Machine