Sunday, March 16, 2014

On dieting

There will be aspects of grumpy rant to this post, but in order to contextualize it I'll need to do a little autobiographical sketch first. Please excuse both the self-indulgence and the rant.

I've never been skinny, and I have reason to suspect I never will be (genetics, and also past experience; see below). When I was younger I was always one of the fat kids, though never one of the really fat kids, and because of that I was the butt of jokes. When I came back from my Year Abroad in Germany in 2007 I was like that: a bit flabby, but nothing too noticeable. Over the course of my fourth year I gradually put on a fair bit of weight, causing someone who hadn't seen me for a year in the summer of 2008 to make an oblique reference to "too much good living". There were probably a number of reasons for this: I had a flatmate who was an absolutely wonderful cook, but who indulged me in a lot of carbs, and besides there was the stress of the final year in Cambridge (at one point I wrote 16 essays over an 8-week period, I believe).

During my MPhil year (2008-9), nothing much changed. I was getting on well, but was eating the carb-rich diet I was used to, and sometimes snacking grotesquely. Besides that I was drinking a lot of beer. Towards the end of that year I felt like a change was in order, and I took up a friend's offer to introduce me to the local gym. The guy who did the induction seemed like a nice bloke, and offered some trial personal training sessions afterwards, which (after checking my bank balance) I accepted. At that stage when I stepped on the scales I was 107.6 kilos – well into the 'beached whale' section of the BMI chart.

Things changed. I stuck with my personal trainer, kept a food diary, and completely turned my diet around as well as exercising for an hour three times a week. Between the summer of 2009 and the autumn of 2010 I lost about 30 kilos of weight, which I'm told is pretty good going. Not sure exactly what my lowest weight was, but for a while I was consistently under 80 kilos. I didn't feel skinny, and that's because I wasn't: I still had a belly that jutted out, and some handles that shouldn't have been there. Though I felt pretty good about myself, I didn't have girls queuing up to check me out, and my BMI was barely into the "normal" range (for my height, 5'11", normal is below about 81kg, and obese is anywhere above about 97). Okay, these are both stupid metrics: girls aren't that interested in BMI, which in any case is a terrible measure of healthy body composition. I should certainly have cut myself some more slack: at this stage I was doing 10km runs fairly regularly, and did elicit one or two positive comments about my change of shape from people who'd known me for longer.

I managed to keep this up for... not sure how long. A year? By mid-2012 I was up to ninety-something kilos, anyway. Then I moved to Manchester, stopped worrying about my diet, stopped exercising, and just kind of hoped that living a normal life would cause me to stay at a healthy weight. Unfortunately I hoped wrong. By the end of 2012 I weighed in at over 100kg, so I signed up to the local gym. Time constraints and general apathy meant that I didn't go more than about 10-12 times over the course of the year, though. My weight has stayed pretty much constant since then, at about 111-113kg. I cancelled the gym membership at the end of 2013 - figured it was a waste of money - and instead bought an exercise mat and bench and some dumbbells. My reasoning was this: a) these things will last me for much longer than the year of gym membership, b) I can exercise in the comfort of my own home rather than surrounded by meatheads and scarily-fit old people, and c) strength training was always the part of my gym workout that I actually enjoyed. I would go running too, but the only local options seem to involve canal towpaths strewn with broken glass.

The weight gain is unsurprising: I was stressed with a new job and new place, and started eating pretty badly as well as stopping exercising. I'd like to get fit again, since I feel that my posture is being damaged by my oversized belly and I'm often robbed of breath by things that wouldn't have bothered me three years ago. Plus, who wants to be at increased risk of diabetes and heart disease?

The dieting is going to be crucial here, though, and I need to explain how that works for me. My basic meal structure hasn't changed since the time in Cambridge when I lost all those kilos. It goes like this, when I'm at home or on a normal working day:
  • Breakfast: poached egg; porridge (made with jumbo oats and water); pint of water
  • Lunch: salad (any combination of lettuce, peppers, tomato, cucumber, coleslaw, olives) with chicken, tuna or some other meat; banana; pint of water
  • Dinner: roast chicken (sometimes something else like breaded fish); two green veg (usually broccoli and green beans); small yoghurt or two; pint of water
I know this is a good template. I know that because it helped me lose 30kg of body fat. The problem is what else I do. When I'm at work I frequently buy a chocolate bar, a latte and a muffin as an afternoon snack. And on the way back from work or other events I will buy a bag of Sainsbury's double chocolate chip cookies and scoff the lot, and this is by no means a rare occurrence. I also snack a lot on cheese and oatcakes.

So that's me, and that's where I am today. I'm not my own best friend, sure, but judging by the above you might not expect me to be as fat as I am. (I also walk to work for half an hour every day and back, for instance.) That's bad genes for you, and I've learned to accept that.

This incredibly long confessional was meant to be a prelude to a grumble about dieting. It goes like this: pretty much every piece of dieting advice I've ever seen or heard is bad. The worst are the ones that pretend that you can keep eating the things you love. "It's not one of those faddy diets that require you to give up X and Y! You can keep eating wholesome and nutritious meals that are exactly the things you would eat anyway!" Really? WTF? If I wanted to do that, I wouldn't go on a diet in the first place. My sympathies are actually with the faddy diets, since at least they're not pretending to achieve the impossible. And the science behind the diets seems to be all over the place. The Hairy Dieters state that "we focus on the energy equation: your calories in via food and drink versus your calories burnt through exercise". There must be something to it, because it's a bestselling product, right? But I was told by my trainer in no uncertain terms that calorie counting was a radically misconceived approach to fat loss, since not all calories are equal – and that seems to be the standard line in Atkins-style approaches to dieting.

Something else I have heard on occasion is "dieting is bad". Really? Well, I guess it depends what you mean by dieting. All I mean is a change in diet, and there does seem to be evidence (to put it mildly!) that doing that is useful for weight loss. Certainly in my case it worked (for a while). So dieting can't be all bad.

But dieting is hard. Do you a) give yourself absolute prohibitions against certain foods, or b) acknowledge that certain foods aren't great and therefore resolve to limit your intake of them? The rigid a) approach has been problematic for me, since it leads to cravings of exactly those foods. The looser b) approach has in my experience tended to lead to "food creep" where the consumption of those foods has become more and more common. It seems to be a lose-lose situation.

The one thing that I'd hold up as fact throughout all the bullshit is this: dietary change requires willpower. There's just no way around that. I successfully dieted for long enough that I don't think it can be called a faddy phase that I eventually reacted against. If I had the willpower (and maybe I do?), I could do so again. But dieting is hard, and what I hate about most of the dietary advertising out there is that it pretends that it's easy.


SophieABC said...

George, what a great piece. I too struggle with my weight, and have done for all of my 20s. I ran 2 marathons last year and I didn't manage to lose much weight (mostly because the long training runs made me so ravenous afterwards). There are certainly no 'easy' solutions to the whole issue of weight loss.

Wendell Kimper said...

I think one of the problems with dieting is that, even if it's not something that you consciously rebel against, it can be something your *body* rebels against. Taking in too few calories triggers hormonal responses that can cause intense cravings for calorie-dense foods (e.g. an entire bag of cookies) or dials back your metabolism. After you let up on the willpower a little, those same hormonal responses will cause you to stabilise at an even higher weight than before.

What you describe as your basic meal structure sounds about like what I eat, and I probably need about half as many calories as you. Maybe plan for some additional snacks?

It sounds like the Health at Every Size approach might work better for you than diets targeted at weight loss. There are a bunch of different angles on the overall philosophy, but it's basically this: the best research shows that, for the majority of health concerns, excess body fat is not in and of itself causally related poor outcomes. It's a correlation-but-not-causality thing, and measuring health in terms of flab just isn't very accurate. It's still not exactly easy, but it's a lot more tractable to make improvements that impact health outcomes directly than it is to achieve and maintain weight loss --- and more effective at the part of the equation that really matters. (Culturally-prescribed aesthetics can fuck right off; I've always been relatively trim, but by the body fascist standards of Gay Land I'm considered unattractively fat. There's just no winning on that front.)

Triumvirate Interactive said...
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Chris Powell said...

Being a kinda chubby kid (but not the chubbiest) I can relate to a lot of this.

As much as I agree with not all calories being equal, calling counting calories "radically misconceived" is quite hyperbolic in itself. Although I didn't lose quite as much weight as you (10kg versus your 30, which is, by the way, an incredible achievement that shows you can do it again!), I did so on a calorie-controlled diet I made up myself.

(excuse the lbs instead of kgs for this part, they work annoyingly well) 3500kcal=1lb. You eat 3500 more than your resting calorie needs (probably 2300-2400), you gain a pound. Eat 3500kcal less, in theory, you lose a pound. Stretched across 7 days, you try and eat 500kcal less than you normally need, and you should lose a lb a week.

Is there more nuance to this? Absolutely! Drinking 1000kcal of calories a day in alcohol as part of your "allowance" is obviously radically different than getting those calories from protein or carbohydrates. God knows people get enough advanced instruction thrown at them when they're just starting off, so I'd leave counting macronutrient ratios to further off down the road.

I found that losing the weight was 80% diet and 20% exercise (which is almost the opposite of what everyone else expected when I told them). Cardio like jogging will allow you to eat more and still get that caloric deficit, but you can eat less and not do the cardio (you might not be fitter skipping the cardio, but you can still lose weight). Weights are helpful in making sure you look good when you actually do lose the weight (creating the unenviable skinny-fat look hole I've been trying to dig myself out of).

(I would also argue that skinny->fat and unfit->fit are two different but related axes [see sumo wrestlers vs. skinny people that can't run a km] but I've gone on far too long already!)

Alice Young said...

George, I think the snack is the problem.

I used to be fat (compared to CHINESE girls) when I was about 18-21. I tried to go to gym but it did not help much. I was then on dieting. I tried to eat as little as possible for the three main meals everyday; however, this made me always feel hungry and accordingly had too many snacks -I could not take it when I felt hungry so I always allowed myself to have extra snacks despite of a sense of guilt - and this made things even worse.

Then I realised the problem was the main meal. One needs proper main meals. For me, it's lunch and tea - but for some of my friends, breakfast is more important. So I decided to get rid of snacks and allow myself to have big meals. And it worked. I lost weight even without doing any exercise.

So maybe you could try the same and see if it works?

George said...

Chris, I didn't mean to say that calories weren't important. Here's one cautionary tale.