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incredible dieting secret for INCINERATING fat

Spoiler: the secret is to be lucky.

***

Yeah OK, what’s my point. Well back in May of this year, I weighed between 81kg and 82kg. At the time of writing, I weigh between 61kg and 62kg. I had a body fat percentage of around 33%, which is well into obesity by any measure. It’s now 14%, which is well into the range of healthy fitness. Obviously this sounds pretty good, and I do think I have some useful advice to pass on from my experience. But there is a huge asterisk and some gigantic caveats trailing it, and they’re basically captured by that opening sentence. I’m going to give a brief outline of my approach because I think for some people, under certain circumstances, it could be helpful. However, bear in mind that it’s really just the preamble to how it ties in with some wider issues that I want to rant about. But first, the boring diet shit.

***

Until now I’d never dieted before, because for most of my life I didn’t gain weight. I did alter my diet in line with the general advice and common wisdom around resistance training routines (PROTEINCREATINEGAINSSSSS), which I’d done on and off as I thought they were needed. These days I think they’re always needed, for reasons unrelated to weight or aesthetics, but that’s another story. However, I’d never set out to engineer a caloric deficit (if anything the opposite). But over a relatively brief period of time dominated by alcoholism, depression, SSRIs, and way too many Firehouse Pizza meal deals (meal for 2? haha, meal for me), I put on a lot of weight out of nowhere. As I sorted those issues out one by one, eventually I was in a place where I was both inclined and able to tackle what was a pretty big issue in terms of my health and self-esteem. I read a fair bit, thought about what was plausible vs possible, and made a plan, which I’m going to lay out here in a structure borrowed from WW2 Soviet military theory, because I was reading about it at the time and I am just that cringe :/

(sometimes the whole no-bullshit thing is a real pain in the ass)

Strategy: The medium-term goal was to get down to 14% body fat, with the long-term goal being to keep it between 12% and 18%. The short-term goal was tied into the structure of the diet: 3 weeks on diet, with an intake of ~1500 calories per day, then 2 weeks off diet, at a maintenance intake of ~2300 calories per day. I chose a fairly steep deficit against all advice because I was impatient. It was probably unnecessary, but there you go. I chose an intermittent diet because it sounded way less grim than doing it all in one lump, stretching out for weeks on end. And I chose 12%-18% because that was the recommended range for my age, and 14% was fairly square in the middle of it.

Tactics: Before starting, I did some very brief calorie counting of typical foods I ate, figuring out what roughly equated to what, and mapping out useful portions. I stopped this after a few days because I didn’t want to get into a habit of seeing food this way, which I know can lead to obsessive behavior. But it let me plan my meals with some leeway where appropriate.

My first easy win was the first meal of the day: I didn’t have it. Throughout my teens and twenties I used to regularly skip breakfast without difficulty, whereas when I ate breakfast I would typically be hungry by lunch regardless. This wasn’t necessarily good for me (though also not as bad as is sometimes claimed), but I knew it would work and seemed like a great way to carve out a good chunk of the deficit without feeling hungry. A glass of water and a cup of strong coffee was sufficient to get me to 13-14:00. When lunch rolled around, I’d have 3 scoops of protein powder and a (tiny) scoop of creatine. For dinner, I would eat with my family and have whatever was prepared in whatever proportions were prepared. I decided that when it came to dinner, I would just not worry about it at all. Before bed, I would eat a boiled egg or two, or one egg with 3 normal slices of cheese, depending on how hungry I felt. Again, I tried not to sweat it too much – if I was still hungry after the egg, I’d have another, no big deal. Liquid calories were basically zero: I’d have black coffee once or twice a day, a coke zero in the evening, some herbal tea or rooibos at night, and water all the time.

The only major macronutrient decision in all of this was to get as much protein in as possible. There were two reasons for this: the first was that I was once again doing a limited resistance training routine at home, and you need a decent amount of protein to get the best bang for your buck in terms of muscle growth/retention. The second is that protein tends to be good for satiety – a couple of boiled eggs really go a long way appetite-wise. I didn’t avoid carbs or fat or anything like that; at dinnertime I ate absolutely all the pasta. But the emphasis on maximizing protein intake within a limited caloric intake made sense.

Outside dinner, I was eating anywhere between 400 and 600 calories. At dinner, I guessed I was eating something like 700-900 calories. I figured it would end up averaging something like 1500 calories, and certainly a decent deficit, and didn’t think about it beyond that. When I was on my fortnight-long breaks, I pretty much didn’t worry about calories at all. I tried to eat smart in terms of my exercise goals, but again, I was aware of the danger of overthinking my food. I ate porridge for breakfast and had lots of cheese, nuts, and chorizo in the evenings, with whatever I felt like for lunch. I sort of knew I wasn’t really in danger of being in much of a surplus, as my weight had stayed fairly consistent ever since I put it on – it just hadn’t gone down.

Alongside this, I would do resistance training and go for walks. This was realistically not enough to make a difference in terms of the deficit, as even the walks were probably counteracted by reduced energy expenditure elsewhere. Your body isn’t stupid and will compensate for reduced energy with reduced expenditure. But both are good for your brain, and aesthetically building a bit of muscle will make you look and feel better all other things being equal. At the very least, you want to try not to lose it, so you’re only dropping the ‘bad’ weight. I’m not going to go into this in detail here, but it was a simple 3.5x a week routine using the squat, deadlift, push-up, overhead press, and pull-up, plus some dumbell rows, bicep curls, lateral raises, tricep extensions, and planks. There was nothing special about this, it was just a fairly balanced mix I could do with what I had to hand, what with there being a global pandemic and everything. The walks were just 30-50m strolls, usually with meditation worked in, and worth it for that alone.

Operations: Where possible, I tried to make sticking to my plan easy by having the right kind of stuff available to grease the gears. For one thing, I would eat at essentially set times to create a routine, and do basic preparation like always having boiled eggs in the fridge. I got in some hot sauces to spice up certain meals so I was getting plenty of flavour, as well as some herbal teas to break up the water. I’ve noticed that black coffee tends to kill my appetite, so I’d use it tactically to get between meals, and likewise with coke zero in the evening. And when I was about to go into a break, I’d make sure to go to Lidl and get lots of tasty nuts and cheese and chorizo, so the breaks really felt like breaks. When I was out I’d drink cappuccinos and lattes, and if I felt like a glass of milk I’d have it. I kind of wanted to feel as though I was living like a king during those periods, even if my intake was actually normal. However, aside from breakfast I’d still eat at pretty much the same times, so there was no snacking and the routine stayed pretty much the same, except with porridge in the morning instead of coffee.

And that’s it. I did this for 5 months and lost 20kg. Not only that, it was actually really easy. I honestly did not struggle with it at all! Isn’t that incredible? Am I possessed of tremendous virtue and willpower? Have I, on the first go, invented the greatest diet plan in the world? Should I be a millionaire?

Spoiler: remember the first spoiler.

***

Here’s the thing. When I say it was really easy, I mean really, really easy. I don’t mean “easy, because I have incredible willpower”, or “easy, because I stuck to my plan”. I mean that some days I would forget to have lunch until 14:30, and during the breaks, despite aiming to eat essentially whatever I wanted, I was not really inclined to eat a lot, and would sometimes forget to have breakfast or lunch. Having a plan may have helped with adherence, but I definitely don’t have incredible willpower. I think prior to the diet I was keeping the weight on mostly through boredom/distraction eating. I would be bored, or feel bummed, and seek a stimulus like jam on toast or a bar of chocolate after dinner. But I was able to break this habit almost immediately and without difficulty. Because most importantly, I was not that hungry.

Now, I’m not immune to consequences. Towards the end of a given 3 week diet stint, I’d definitely be a bit foggy in the brain and have less energy overall. I would be inclined to nap in the evenings. But hunger really wasn’t an issue. Cravings certainly weren’t an issue. But if you read about how a lot of obese people experience dieting, it’s pretty clear that said experience is dominated by hunger, cravings, and obsession over food. They feel terrible about their health, their appearance, and their moral standing in the eyes of other people. They want to lose weight. They torment themselves in the attempt. But they are hungry, and constantly experiencing cravings and thoughts about food. It absolutely sucks. And whatever weight they lose, they appear to put right back on as soon as they stop dieting. For many obese people, diets are a dreadful, demoralizing, sisyphean cycle.

Now clearly, their experience of dieting and hunger is dramatically different to mine. And my strong suspicion is that whether or not you are currently a healthy weight, or can get back to one, is in large part a function of that experience. In other words, it has very little to do with willpower, how goal-oriented you are, motivation, or anything like that. It is mostly a question of how hungry you are, because being hungry all of the time is not sustainable. Even with incredible willpower levels, in the long run you are very likely to end up eating to sate that hunger. By contrast, I think most people who succeed in keeping their weight at a healthy level mostly don’t have to think about it. In other words, obesity may be a public health crisis, but it is not a moral crisis, except to the extent that people have used it to motivate widespread bullying, shaming, and discriminatory policies.

At this point, some might be inclined to say that prevention is better than cure, and that the moral or personal failure lies in letting oneself go in the first place. This is a slightly more subtle position, but it’s still pretty blatantly wrong. I do suspect that if you have tended to be thin, or have put on weight suddenly, then it’s probably easier to roll back the earlier you start, and not just because there’s less weight to roll. The evidence around the ‘lipostat’ is murky and the concept itself is not well understood, but there does seem to be some correlation with the length of time you’ve held a given weight and your baseline appetite levels. Over time, losing the same amount of weight may get harder, so on the face of it there is a sense in which foresight and prudence are relevant.

However, I still don’t think it’s cause for self-congratulation or moral posturing. First of all, many people become overweight early in life when their control over their diet and lifestyle was close to zero. So by the time you’re old enough to vote, you’re already in a really shitty position. Secondly, in much the same way I suspect people lose weight if they’re able, I also suspect they lose weight when they’re able. I’m pretty lucky in my situation. Throw in a heap more stress and difficulty, and it might not work out that way. And when I say might not, I also mean did not, because that’s exactly how I put the weight on in the first place. If your life is hard, for whatever reason, you are going to find it pretty difficult to find the time and energy required to lose a lot of weight. It’s easy to recommend when you are or have been in a position to do so, precisely because you are in a position to do so. Some people simply won’t get a reasonable chance to nip it in the bud, for reasons entirely beyond their control.

And thirdly? Obesity isn’t something that people do to themselves. It’s something that happens to people.

***

I don’t mean that in some philosophical, deterministic sense. I mean that it is pretty obviously a population-level phenomenon caused by some kind of population-level effect. Starting in the 1980s, obesity skyrocketed in the United States, and is now growing rapidly in every industrialized nation. Even previous outliers like France and Japan now have significant and growing obesity levels. The trend is so huge and so universal that trying to pin it on individual-level behavioral or moral shifts is just a non-starter.

The most respectable explanations for the obesity epidemic boil down to what we eat and drink being nutritionally worse somehow. Maybe it’s full of empty calories, maybe it’s full of sugar, maybe it’s hyper-palatable. None of these theories have particularly strong evidence, and they all have big holes. The less respectable theories argue that what we eat and drink is contaminated somehow. This is definitely down-the-rabbit-hole stuff, but it’s out there and at the very least it’s not implausible that it could be a factor.

The real takeaway (and it’s more than a meal for 2) is that almost the only point of consensus is that obesity happens to people and it’s not their fault. Up until very recently, almost all obesity was genetic. Starting in the 1980s, it began to increase massively across generations and populations worldwide. As a phenomenon we don’t understand it, and we don’t have any effective treatments for it. But it’s clearly a public health failure whereby something has been added to people’s lives that has resulted in skyrocketing obesity levels across the industrialized world. Blaming people for their obesity is like blaming asbestosis victims for their cancer, or children living in areas with high levels of lead in the water for their learning difficulties.

Even if every single obese person were 100% to blame for their weight, a lot of what goes on in our public discourse around obesity would still be disgusting and heartless. The fact that it’s not only not their fault, but clearly a global health catastrophe that people have no control over, makes it truly twisted. There are a lot of people who have made a lot of money out of this disaster, in the food industry and media. And yet the blameless victims, the people who got fucked over through no fault of their own, have been conned into believing that it’s their fault, that they are failures, and that other people have some kind of right to look down at them. Even the shaming is profitable, and takes place on websites and TV networks day-in, day-out, in a cycle of monetized misery and deceit.

I am too angry to finish this. There are no sufficient words.

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