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Archive for June, 2011

Diets and weight loss

Posted by aviel on June 27, 2011

I decided to write a post on one of my favorite topics, i.e. weight loss, which is something that has interested me for years. Being a former lard ass (ok, I’m exaggerating) I wanted to do something about it. Many years ago I found myself at the hefty weight of 93 kg (205 lbs and a BMI of 27.2!), which later was pushed below 90 by exercising more and eating better. While serving in the army I estimate my weight was in the low 80’s which at the end of my service went back to the high 80’s. Then I started experimenting with different weight loss methods and lost about 10 kg, bringing my weight back down to 80-83 where I’ve been for the last year or two. (I’m 185 cm, or 6 ft 1 inch, tall)

Few things are as confusing as advice on weight loss today. The lion’s share of the blame belongs to the media which continuously spews out information in endless contradiction, never clarifying or differentiating between method and scientifically based theory. At times we are led to believe that carbs are particularly fattening and at other times that dietary fat is what makes us fat. Cut out one or the other and you’ll end up looking like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.

Other theories abound, often based on (flawed interpretation of) epidemiology, making us believe that consuming calories after certain hours, or not regularly enough, or too big portions at a time or meals without the correct macro-nutrient ratios, will lead to weight gain. Often you’ll find zealous people swearing by all of these ideas and never mind that one method often stands in complete contradiction to other people’s experiences in achieving successful weight loss.

The science of weight loss is pretty clear though. Just as other animals we need to consume the energy that we expend, and any excess energy is stored for later use when energy is scarce. You eat more than you need and you gain fat, you eat less than you need and you empty your fat stores. Plain and simple.

We could go on arguing about the main drivers of over-eating. But it doesn’t really matter whether it’s insulin, the dopamine connection (i.e. food addiction), processed food in general or simply because we have access to unlimited great tasting food and are set up for over-eating by our genetic programming. The fact is that the solution to over-eating is taking control and making sure you’re at times “under-eating” to empty your fat stores, in other words creating an energy deficit. Eating less is the answer. How you go about it is the method and not differentiating between the two is what creates all this confusion.

Most methods, when they work, are based on spontaneous calorie restriction. You cut out one macro-nutrient, for instance, and you’re bound to eat less in the beginning because there are so many foods you used to consume that are now off-limits. Eventually you’ll incorporate a larger variety of great tasting food and your weight loss may stall or even rebound. That they are actually all based on spontaneous calorie restriction is best accounted for by the fact that they have both an initial success and eventual failure in common, regardless of whether it’s low-fat or low-carb etc. We all know people who’ve lost weight using countless different methods. But do they keep the weight off over time?

Now, I’ve certainly tried my share of all the methods out there. Some were more successful than others, but what they all had in common is that they were too restrictive in the long run. For example, whether I was cutting out carbs or fat I couldn’t eat ice-cream, which has both. Embarking on a crash diet is one thing, and it’s not that hard to be very restrictive in what foods you allow yourself and then lose some weight for a limited period of time, but all studies show that diets tend to fail in the long run. I believe it’s because they’re simply too restrictive for us to stay committed to them for long.

So my problem was that I wanted a method of eating that would allow me to both lose weight and live a normal life, without letting food become a huge issue for me. In the end I realized that nothing would work for me aside from tracking my calories. This I long dreaded since it seemed like a huge hassle. Too often you find yourself in a situation where it’s impossible to know for sure how many calories you’re really eating. I resolved this by tracking when I can, guessing the rest of the time and generally eating responsibly, especially when I can’t know for sure how many calories I’m consuming.

Using a program called CRON-O-Meter I’ve been able to track my calorie intake, using a rough estimations, and also track my progress which is displayed below. Note how the weight loss isn’t linear. This is due to the fact that the amount of water you carry and glycogen in your muscles etc., vary on a day-to-day basis.

My starting weight was 84.2 kg (186 lbs) on the 12th of May and now I’m down to 78 kg (172 lbs), as of the 27th of June (today), which equals a weight loss of 6.2 kg in six and a half weeks. My calorie intake has been roughly between 2000-2500 per day, depending on the amount of exercise and other activities. I lift weights, run and take long walks.

My diet has included pretty much everything I felt like. Confirming yet again that weight loss is due to a calorie deficit and not due to an exclusion of this or that, or only eating healthy food.

Some of the food items on my list are: potatoes, bread, rice, beans, cereals, kiwis, bananas, whole milk, cottage cheese, eggs, fish, chocolate, ice-cream, oat-meal, yogurt and candy etc.. Oh, and plenty of red wine and beer as well!

I haven’t really felt deprived during this time, due to the fact that my “diet” has been really flexible. Some days I eat more and others less. A few times I didn’t really feel like restricting my calories so I had a “re-feed”. Some days I skipped breakfast and other times I didn’t. The most important thing is that I make this work in a way that suits my life at this point. Maybe I will try to get “ripped”, and maybe I won’t. Perhaps I will be satisfied as long as I’m relatively lean, weighing less than 80 kg.

My final point is that this is a method I would recommend, and which doesn’t rely on a strange theory that contradicts science, but nevertheless may or may not be suited for you. I believe this is a relatively easy way to lose weight, but it’s definitely not the only way. If you want to lose weight you need to find something that will work for you.


To get ripped I may simply continue on the same path, but from what I’ve learned it becomes increasingly difficult to reach a low %BF (body fat). One alternative that looks promising, but far more structured and rigid, is the Leangains approach. Basically it involves a daily 16 hour fast, i.e. from let’s say 10pm to 2pm the following day. Then you keep calories lower on rest days and higher on days you lift weights, while still creating a deficit over time. It would also mean consuming more protein than I have until now (I’ve kept it around 96-165 grams per day and I would at least need to keep it at the higher end at all times, but since I don’t consume almost any meat it might be too big of a hassle). Lots of people seemed to have been successful on this regimen, but I’m not sure I want to go there. We shall see.

Update II:

I just had to add this article which lists 5 Diet Rules It’s OK to break:

If you find it hard to stick to a strict diet, here’s some good news: Breaking the rules could actually help you slim down—and keep the pounds off over the long term. Astudy published in International Journal of Obesity found that dieters with a flexible strategy that allowed for sweets and other indulgences were significantly more successful at maintaining weight loss during the three-year study than those who strived for rigid control of their eating habits.

That’s because the rigid control group typically had an “all or nothing” mindset. As a result, they yo-yoed between shunning all goodies—including their favorite foods—and falling off the diet wagon completely. Flexible dieters, on the other hand, deemed it good enough to “more or less” follow their weight loss plan, without letting slip-ups escalate into eating binges.

As you can see this fits in perfectly with how I set up my own strategy. I believe the most important part is to know that you will be able to eat what you crave even while dieting. Otherwise your diet will suck and you likely set yourself up for eventual failure. Flexibility is the key.


Posted in Nutrition, Science | 1 Comment »

The Emptiness of Existence

Posted by aviel on June 24, 2011

I was listening to a podcast the other day, where the essay The Emptiness of Existence, by Arthur Schopenhauer, was being read. Now, I’ve found myself being very attracted to the thinking and style of Schopenhauer, being a combination of stark realism (or pessimism, whichever way you prefer), wit and clarity of thought.

In this essay Schopenhauer paints a grim picture of life. Life is for him a constant striving to satisfy needs and attain desires, which when grasped, will only lead to a state of painlessness and in the continuation to boredom and the feeling of the emptiness of existence. Which itself engenders other desires which we then imagine may lead to the much-wanted happiness that seems so elusive. Life is, in this sense, constant motion without the possibility of finding rest, continual Becoming and never Being.

Schopenhauer. Perhaps pondering the emptiness of existence at this very moment..

No doubt we can all connect to this at some level. Schopenhauer states that it would be wisest to regard life as a delusion. The implication of Schopenhauer’s essay seems to me to be actively minimizing desires, after having realized how they in any case are only vanity. Actually, what would even be the point of staying in this game if you can never score?

I do not doubt the futility of life and the impossibility of finding true rest, but I believe that precisely in this nature of ours, of pursuing our desires, lies our salvation from this reality. As human beings we are capable of appreciating just how utterly irrational our existence is, at least at an intellectual level. However, I find it necessarily true that we are designed to disregard this and keep on going until we drop dead (food and sex being the main drivers). The alternative, according to Schopenhauer, would be boredom and the realization of how empty existence is. Perhaps  it is better then to avoid dwelling on this, remain committed to the illusion and keep on pursuing pleasures. The endless cycle of anticipation and reward, both in small and great things, is what seems to make life at all tolerable. And life CAN be tolerable for most of us, I believe. So it would seem the question is if maintaining the illusion (of the possibility of attaining happiness) is better than not to. And I think that nothing makes you as miserable as dwelling on the bleakness of existence. Thus I prefer attempting to tolerate existence by actively forgetting that “all flesh is grass”.

If there is anything more cheerful we can learn from Schopenhauer’s essay, it would be how pointless it is to dwell on past mistakes, regretting all those bridges you never crossed or the ones who took you to a place where you had not intended to go. As he states:

How foolish it is for a man to regret and deplore his having made no use of past opportunities, which might have secured him this or that happiness or enjoyment! What is there left of them now? Only the ghost of a remembrance!

What do you think? Is Schopenhauer right in his assessment of life? If so, what, if anything, can we do about it? Do you think it’s possible to disregard the knowledge of life being without meaning or value, as I suggested?

Read the essay here among other essays by Schopenhauer.

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Posted by aviel on June 24, 2011

The Local has an entertaining piece today on the Swedish celebration of Midsummer. Worthwhile reading for anyone interested in Sweden and for Swedes who take an interest in how their cultural practices are viewed by outsiders. 🙂

Happy Midsummer!

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