Saturday, September 11, 2010

Calories in vs. Calories out. Is it really that simple?

I just watched another movie about the growing obesity problem in this country.  It is called "Killer at Large. Why Obesity is Americas Greatest Threat".  You can find it on Netflix. Mixed into the usual fast food bashing was a number of interesting concepts on why we are getting fatter and fatter at younger and younger ages in America.  One of the concepts was that increased levels of stress could be to blame as when the body gets stressed it goes into conservation mode.  It slows down the metabolism and tells the body to store fat.  The movie also talked about how we as humans are not designed to have food available to us any time we want.  We are hunter gatherers.  We were designed to chase down food when we can get it and then eat as much as we possibly can because we don't know when the next time we will be able to eat.  Having food everywhere and anytime confuses triggers our hunger response more frequently.

Obviously as an Ultrarunner I have to be aware of the amount of calories that I take in during a run.   I have to make sure that I practice enough in my training to know how many calories per hour I function best on.  I need to know how much to drink and what to drink as well.  The more I learn, the better of a race result I can get.  What a lot of people who aren't runners don't know is that runners are super (almost hyper focused) on their weight.  This seems to be a bit of a surprise as runners are usually pretty fit, but in a lot of cases runners got into running because they were overweight.  I started running because I was getting out of shape and it seemed like an easy way to do tough exercise in a short period of time.

Until very recently I felt very strongly that most programs and diets focused on weight loss were over complicated.  I felt that it was nothing more than simple math.  If you consume more calories than you use you will gain weight, and vice-versa.  I held the belief that anybody could lose weight by simply monitoring their caloric intake and balancing it against their basal rate (resting necessary calories) and calories burned during exercise.  I believe that somewhere around 3500 calories equals one pound of weight.  If you operate on a 500 calorie deficit per day you will lose one pound per week.  Period.  My rational brain told me that this was a hard and true fact and it should hold true for every person alive.

At the beginning of this year when I committed to running Leadville I decided that I needed a dietary coach in addition to my running coach.I hired Meredith Terranova, somebody who came highly recommended to me from some of my other running friends. To begin, Meredith had me record a food journal for three days, which I then sent to her and she analyzed. She noticed some interesting trends that I was unaware of and then made a few changes to not only my diet, but when I ate and how much I ate. For example, in the morning when I got up for my morning run, I would leave the house without eating anything. It didn't matter if it was a 10 or 20 miles, it was just what I was used to doing. She also noticed that I was eating a lot of fat.  She put me on a 2000 to 2200 calorie per day diet also broke down how many grams of fat, carbs and protein it should equate to. The toughest thing was that she restricted my fat grams to 40 per day (later I convinced her to up it to 50g) This was quite a change for me as I love junk food. 

I worked with Meredith for about a month. When I started working with her I was a little over 170 pounds. After a month of working her diet and I was down to the high 150 range. During this time frame I became very used to recording all of my food into a computer program and almost became neurotic about the number of calories I was consuming versus the number of calories I was burning. Truly, this was a pain in the ass. I couldn't seem to eat anything without writing it down and recording it into my iPod.  But it also created a sense of accountability and I was forced to pay attention to everything that I put into my gullet.

I was happy with the results and found that maintaining the diet was not that difficult in my weight stayed fairly consistent. Over the course of the summer as a trained more I became a little more relaxed about the foods that I was eating, but still I wasn't eating candy bars junk food like I used to. At this point I still believed the calories in versus calories out was the way to maintain my weight, and Amy and I had many discussions about this very topic. Amy have been saying to me for quite some time that weight loss was more than just the amount of calories consumed and used. She is a big believer that the types of foods you eat plays a drastic role in weight loss and overall fitness. About two months before Leadville we stumbled across a book by an author whose name is Mark Hyman. His book has two main principals.  One, you should do everything you can to reduce or eliminate anything that is not a real, whole food.  The other, and probably more important, is that high glycemic index foods are a big factor in weight gain.  This is due to the body's insulin reaction and subsequent cravings for more high GI foods.  He also talks about how many of us have food allergies or intolerance's that we are unaware of.  These cause inflammation in the body.  By detoxing and slowly reintroduction those common allergens you can figure out which ones may be causing you problems.  This book, fittingly enough, is titled ultra metabolism.

I bought the book and began the four-week detox that it recommends. When I started the detox I weighed 157 pounds. For the detox diet you may not eat anything with preservatives or chemicals in it.  You cannot have any alcohol. You can not consume any dairy.  white flour or white sugar. You cannot have any sweeteners, including natural ones like honey. Any high GI foods cannot be consumed.  The only meat you can have is lamb, chicken, and turkey.  During this time for breakfast I ate Amaranth and buckwheat groats with fruit. For lunch I ate salads and fruit. For dinner I ate what we usually eat, homemade fish or the above-mentioned meats along with a salad and maybe some fruit. Since you're not allowed to have caffeine either, I drank a lot of tea.  During the detox I did not track my calorie intake or use.

The first week was an absolute nightmare.  As always, I was in the middle of training heavily and was running somewhere around 80 miles per week, combined with biking for cross training.  I remember that I started on Monday and on Wednesday I needed a two hour nap in the middle of the day. 

The interesting thing about the entire experiment is that I ate a TON of fat during the detox.  For example I ate a ton of nuts, mostly almonds. I also used way more olive oil.  I used it to cook with and on my salads.  I ate lots almond butter.  I ate a huge amount of avocados and fish.  I had avoided all of those foods with Merediths diet because there was no distinction made between good fats and bad fats with her diet.  It was simply fat.  All of the fats I was now eating were high in omega-3.  I was eating no "fake" or "modified" fats that you find in so many foods today.

I also quickly lost the taste or want for sugar.  I used agave syrup, which technically was cheating, but I found a little bit in my tea was very satisfying and it is a low GI food, even though it tastes just like honey.

As the weeks went on I felt better and better and noticed that even though I was now eating lots of fats and eating when ever I wanted I was losing weight.  Even better than the weight loss, I was getting leaner.  I eventually got to between 146 and 150lbs depending on what time of day I weighed myself and weather or not I had exercised yet (due to dehydration).

I still can't believe that I can eat more food and more fat and get leaner.  In the last two weeks I have slacked off a bit on the diet and have gained back weight slowly.  I think the major factor is alcohol.  I have allowed myself to drink on the weekends, where before I didn't touch a drop for 6 weeks.  I'm not sure if the gain has come from the drinking itself or my behavior after I have a few.  I tend to let down my guard and attack the cabinets more.  The most interesting thing is that I have become a little bit less lean.  I'm not upset about gaining back a few pounds as frankly a lot of people have told me that I look to skinny.  But I don't like not being as lean.  I'm going to continue to focus on not eating high GI foods.

Here is a great chart of the Glycemic Index of common foods.  Click here for the chart

This makes me wonder if something I'm eating really is causing inflammation or a reaction.  Either way, if I really want to I now know exactly what I have to do to get that ripped again.  I'm still fascinated that it worked this way and still really don't understand how it all works.   Either way, it bears looking into if you are interested in losing some weight.


Realestatecanbefun said...

This is great and I am sure works wonderfully.

David said...

Nate, you hit the nail on the head with your point about how and why the body stores fat. I started a regular Yoga practice (which reduces stress) about 10 years ago. Without making any changes to my diet I slowly lost 30 pounds over 5 years. Now, I teach a Yoga for Weight Management class. The first concept we teach folks is: "If you are stressed out, your body is storing fat". Step one is to reduce stress so your body stops storing fat. It may be as simple as taking 10 minutes a day and try something that initiates the "Relaxation Response". Of course good diet and exercise are the keys to long term health.