Eat More. Be More.

How Your Diet can Make or Break You

What a difference a year can make! I thought I had my mind around how I needed to eat to achieve my goals, but the last 12 months have been a learning experience. If I only knew then what I know now!

Flickr image by oklanica

Flickr image by oklanica

The problem is, if you’d have tried to tell me back then, I’d have dismissed you. Only experience could show me how much diet can affect performance. My best lessons have been learned by accident. That’s probably how it needed to happen.

Before cleaning up my diet, I lived on fast food, soft drinks, and high carb foods. As you’d expect, losing weight meant giving most of that up and working out regularly. While that path got me to a point, I’m not sure I’d go the same route again if I was to start all over. However, like I said before, I probably wouldn’t have listened if you told me what I’m about to share.

Three Phases of My Diet

Let me clarify what I mean by diet. It’s easy to think of diet as a four letter word for taking away everything you like to eat. We also tend to think of a diet as what we do to lose weight, which most of us do…while we are on a “diet”. Then you quit, and gain the weight back and then some. (There is scientific research why this happens, so don’t think it’s just you.)

Diets are temporary.

In the literal sense, a diet is everything you consume. To get true lasting results, we have to make lifestyle changes, not go on a diet. Don’t give up living on junk food for three months. Give up living on junk food forever. Notice I said “living on”, not give it up entirely. Make it a lifestyle change and you’ll get the permanent results you desire.

Flickr image by oklanica

Flickr image by oklanica

Phase One: Cleaning It Up

I started with MyFitnessPal and use it to this day. Logging everything consumed can be a pain, but it’s an invaluable eye opener and teaching tool. I spent several days logging the food I used to eat in a typical day and was shocked. I have no idea how I wasn’t more than 100 lbs overweight. Some of my meals had more calories that I was supposed to have in an entire day!

Most of my meals came through the window of my car. Obviously this had to stop. Fast food is full of fat, sodium, and sugar, not to mention being highly processed and vitamin deficient. My wife and I started eating grilled chicken, turkey, lean beef, vegetables, etc. We also cut as much processed food as we reasonably could. While eating “clean” was important, it also had to be relatively easy and convenient or we’d never stick to it.

MyFitnessPal said I should eat 2,050 calories based on my weight and goals. As I lost weight, it changed to 1,910 calories, and then 1,830 calories. This was so that I’d burn more calories than I ate. I’ll get to why this is a flawed system in a minute.

By working out, cutting out fast food, sugary drinks, and junk food in general, I lost about 40 lbs in 4 months! Then the weight loss slowed down.

Phase Two: Cutting Back Carbs

I’d already cut out pasta and bread to lower carb intake, but I still was eating whole wheat tortillas, potatoes, rice, etc. In an effort to keep losing weight, I cut those out. Over the next few months, I dropped another 23 lbs.

Conventional wisdom is that you lose weight by cutting carbs because carbs produce an insulin response. The carbs are broken down into glucose and insulin then takes that glucose and stores it in the muscles and fat as glycogen. These stores provide your body energy when it’s needed. However, once your muscles are full, the additional glycogen is stored as fat.

Cutting carbs to lose weight makes sense if you spend your days sitting at a desk or lying on the couch. It will help you lose weight. If you’re an athlete, think again. (If you work out regularly you ARE an athlete.)

Stagnation, Frustration, and Realization

Most of my current PRs (personal records) were set in June and July. Yes, they are that old. Though I was continuing to lose weight, I wasn’t getting stronger. Once I stopped getting stronger, I started getting weaker! Not exactly what you want when you lift weights three to four times a week.

I was struggling to to lift 70% of my one rep max (1RM) most days. I went from benching 175 lbs for two reps, to struggling with 155 lbs for a single rep. Where I had been able to deadlift 335 lbs 5 times, some days I couldn’t lift 275 lbs once. When it came to the conditioning portion of the workout, I burned out quickly. It was awful.

It took a few months (time I can’t get back) to admit to myself what was happening. I had robbed my body of the energy it needed to perform. When my weight loss stalled, I lost additional weight by cutting carbs and calories. Then I stalled AGAIN! So now I wasn’t losing any more fat, but I was losing strength. Crap. It took a few weeks to stumble into the solution.

Like most of us, I knew the only way to lose weight was by cutting back the calories. You have to eat less than you burn, creating a calorie deficit. That’s basic knowledge. Where most of us go wrong, myself included, is in determining how many calories we burn and how many we need. Through testing, I knew my basal metabolic rate (how many calories your body burns just being alive) is 2,205. Cutting to 1,800 calories gave me that deficit and I lost weight.

The problem is, while most of it was fat, some was probably lean mass. This is why I wasn’t adding much weight, even though I was working out like a fiend. So why did I stop losing weigh, even with calorie restrictions in place? Simple, homeostasis.

Homeostasis is the body’s natural proclivity to remain in balance. Drink more water and your body sheds water. Drink minimal amounts of water and your body will try to retain it by storing it in tissue and preventing you from sweating. The same thing happens with food! My body realized calories were being restricted and went into starvation mode actually trying to hold onto fat! When you’re trying to lose weight, the last thing you want is for your body to fight to keep it.

Flickr image by oklanica

Flickr image by oklanica

Phase Three: Fueling Performance

There were a few weekends where my wife and I would go out to lunch while running errands, then have dinner dates. While I didn’t eat junk, I ate more than I did during the week, including extra carbs. After a few weeks I made the connection between my increased caloric intake and my improved workouts on Monday and Tuesday.

On Monday, I’d get back on my plan of 1,800 calories. By Wednesday, my workouts sucked again. Huh…eat more, workout harder. Eat less, feel weak. So what do do with this info?

While discussing this with my wife, she mentioned I should look into carb cycling. A friend then introduced me to Eat To Perform, which is based on the same principle. Essentially, I was starving myself which robbed me of the energy I needed to workout and repair the damage later, while also causing my body to attempt to hold onto fat. What a mess.

Using some guidelines from Eat To Perform, I increased my calorie intake significantly. Within a few days I was back to working out at the prescribed percentages of my one rep max while getting extra reps on my last sets. I also started doing much better during the condition portion of the workouts. I went from feeling like I was dying to feeling invincible.

Changing The Diet Yet Again

I paid $60 to join Eat To Perform and they customized a nutrition plan for me based on my workout schedule, goals, and current body composition. On workout days I eat 2,819 calories from 219g of protein, 261g of carbs, and 100g of fat. On rest days I cut my calories back to 2,376 calories by dropping carbs to 125g to 150g. Even on rest days that’s three times the amount of carbs and 600 more calories than I was getting on ANY day!

I’m starting this plan today, but I’ve been eating close to this since December 1st. In almost a month of eating a ton more calories (yay food), I’ve lost 3lbs. I’m not as concerned with the scale, but it’s good to see that this huge increase in calories hasn’t caused me to gain weight. While I should still lose about a pound a week this way, my focus is on getting stronger and building lean mass. What I’ve noticed is that my weight can fluctuate three to four pounds from one day to the next.

If you’d have told me in January that I could increase my calories by 55% and still lose weight, I’d have laughed at you. It’s already started to happen and should continue as I spend the next couple of months tweaking the diet based on how my body reacts.

Now I’m getting enough calories and carbs to go hard in my workouts and enough protein to build muscle and increase strength. I’m also dumping so much food into my system that my body isn’t trying to hold onto fat, but burn it off because there is a constant and abundant supply of calories on the way. As my lean mass increases, I will be burning even more calories thanks to improved thermogenesis.

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