Earlier this summer I got the idea to try a little experiment. Most people would probably call it a diet, but when someone who looks like me tells someone they’re on a diet they get a reaction which then requires a follow-up explanation that I got very tired of giving.
So, yes, I experimented on myself.
I’m not sure exactly what kicked this off, though I have a few ideas. In January this year I ran my first race ever, the Austin 3M Half Marathon. I trained for a few months to get ready, and while my primary goal was just to run the race, I was shooting for a time under two hours. I ended up running it in 1:54. I also read an article about one of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno’s contemporaries in the Venice Beach muscle scene of the late 70s, Bill Pettis. Something about the simplicity of his approach (40 eggs a day and lots of pushups) and the results he was able to achieve struck me. I also regularly watch The Ultimate Fighter with a little envy of how dedicated the competitors can be with regards to their diets and training. Mix all of that together–training for a specific goal while changing my nutrition and making all of this a priority in my life–and I decided to run a two-month experiment.
The goal: gain weight while losing body fat. I wanted to see if I could add a few pounds of muscle and get a six-pack, though I’ve read a few things about the difficulty of getting your abs to look that way and keep them there. I’ve been running and working out at home regularly for years now, and I’ve been quite happy with how I look and feel but I’ve always been doing those things to be able to eat more or less however I’d like to eat. I have a killer sweet tooth and I eat like it’s a competition. I’ve gotten healthier with my diet over the years, but what I might have considered treats a long time ago became routine at some point. So another side goal was to see if I could get myself away from that sweet craving, especially the one that comes every time I finish a meal.
To accomplish this, I decided to cut out all snacks and as much sugar as I possibly could. The main place the latter would hit would be my coffee, which I always take with a few teaspoons of sugar. Most of my snacks also came with a little sugar. I also decided I’d avoid any intensely carb-heavy meals–bagels, pizza, big sandwiches, burritos. Anything that was really bread-heavy. Another big change was no alcohol. This mainly affects our weekends. Amy and I split a bottle of wine both Friday and Saturday nights with takeout, which is again something that started as a treat but became routine. That’s not to say I took it for granted–I still very much enjoyed it! But it became expected. I’d also make the occasional Manhattan for myself or have a beer if we had some in the fridge, not to mention going out with friends.
I wouldn’t avoid carbs altogether. This wasn’t going to be Atkins or anything. I just wanted more of my calories coming from protein-rich sources so I could add the muscle I was looking for. To that end I got some protein powder and protein bars, and I put together a smoothie for after my runs and workouts (recipe below) to incorporate the powder (which also went into my coffee and hot cereal at breakfast). I also got more plates to add to my dumbbells so I could kick up the intensity of my workouts. Finally, I picked the start date of 8/10, and on that morning weighed myself and took my body fat percentage (165 lbs, 12.1%). And I was off to the races.
I didn’t want to microanalyze my progress, so I decided I’d weigh myself and check the body fat again in one month, and then again when the whole thing finishes on 10/10. Things went well the first month. I didn’t do much to change my runs. Generally I do a roughly 3, 5, and 6 mile run every week. The biggest change in runs was to really push myself on that three-miler. I’d read on Men’s Health or somewhere that your cardio during a program like this should be pretty intense, but I also didn’t want to give up those longer runs because I just enjoy running. I did push a few five mile runs pretty hard, and my longer run has now expanded to eight miles. My times have gotten a little faster and I can do a long run averaging under 10 minutes/mile without breathing through my mouth, so I’m pretty happy with how that’s gone. I feel like it wouldn’t take long to get ready for another half marathon, and it would be a reasonable expectation to finish faster than the first one I did. I felt like I might have plateaued a bit with the weights, so my friend Jeffrey who’s a trainer recommended upping the weight more and doing four sets of fewer reps, then upping again and doing four sets of still fewer reps. So I’m in the last stage of that.
I saw a visible difference within a couple of weeks. I had more definition in my chest and stomach, but I couldn’t tell if I’d actually gotten bigger or not. Turned out at my one-month checkin I lost eight pounds, and my body fat dropped to 9.7%. The math on that means I lost about five pounds of fat. So not ideal with regards to my goal, but still a great place to be. Jeffrey recommended mixing in more snacks, so I started doing peanuts, almonds and pumpkin seeds as snacks and eating an omelette as another meal on days I did weights. I have five more days before I check my numbers again, but I feel like I’ve gotten bigger but kept the definition I had after one month. That makes me think my body fat will still be down where it was a month ago. When I see my upper arms out of the corner of my eye, like when I’m doing dishes or something, they don’t look like my arms. I’d gotten used to the size they were before, and it’s a subtle difference but when you look at the same thing for years it doesn’t take much to throw you off. It’s a weird sensation.
I’d like to take a moment here to talk about some body image stuff. Without minimizing at all the constant barrage of body messages women are subjected to on a daily basis, let it be known that there are plenty of expectations on men as well that can play havoc with how we view ourselves. I only bring this up because I saw this ridiculous cartoon on Facebook or something about the differences between how men and women see themselves, and it was way off the mark. This isn’t exactly it, but it’s the same idea:
My own idea of my body hasn’t really changed since I was 13 or so. Maybe a little hairier, but I’ve always seen myself as that same scrawny kid. I have to look in the mirror and actively tell myself “this is what you look like now, get it into your head.” Never have I seen a six pack where there’s a soft little roll, or extra muscle over my gangly arms. Which is why it’s extra off-putting when I see my arms out of the corner of my eye now. And it’s fun to these changes take place based directly on the actions you’ve taken. There’s a nice sense of accomplishment that goes with that. But the six pack? Still not there. I’ve got more definition, for sure, and it’s easier to feel the muscles under the skin on my abdomen, but I wouldn’t classify it as a six pack. Which just reinforces what I’ve read about that particular goal. I have had zero lapses with my diet this entire time–literally not one drink or sugary snack or teaspoon of sugar in my coffee. I haven’t missed more than one day a week of exercise, and at least once went two weeks without a day off. And still no six pack? So I say no thank you, that’s not for me and I am perfectly fine with it.
One of the biggest challenges these two months has been leaving the house, especially for social gatherings. It’s pretty rare that people say “hey, let’s hang out this weekend. Wanna eat a nice salad somewhere and drink water?” I got used to ordering Diet Coke at bars, or just not drinking anything at all. That ends up being much less of a deal than you may think, initially. There’s always the fear that you’ll feel awkward standing around with nothing in your hand at a party or bar, but it passes. What doesn’t pass is the reaction people tend to give you when you’re not drinking. It seems like a lot of assumptions get made, like no one really understands not drinking for general health and well-being rather than you’re sober or you’re pregnant (only one of which applies to guys). And good lord do we all drink! This is a drinking city. I don’t know anyone who gets together socially without drinking. Which is fine! But it wasn’t something I really realized until I stopped. It was also frustrating to have to explain myself, like I needed to apologize somehow or make excuses for not stuffing my skinny face with all the sugar and fat and bread that I can find. People couldn’t seem to process why someone who by all appearances is thin and healthy would undergo any sort of change in their diet or exercise without some sort of medical reason. It’s not that I was unhappy with anything before. I was just curious about the sorts of change I could effect in my body, especially since those sorts of things come fewer and further between as we age. And to that end I’ve seen success.
So, looking forward, I’m interested to see how much of this sticks. First things first though, I’ll get my final numbers Saturday morning and then get a bacon egg and cheese sandwich on a pumpernickel bagel and cry into my sugar-sweetened latte. Then Amy’s making me mocha fudge brownies, my request. I will drink beer at dinner and it will be glorious. All that being said, I’m going to keep making that smoothie for myself. It’s probably the healthiest thing I eat. I might keep the protein powder around because it makes my morning old-man-hot-cereal breakfast a little more palatable, and I don’t get enough protein as it is. I made myself a dinner of chicken breasts, rice and asparagus a few times and it was delicious, so that will come back into rotation. And I’ll probably keep eating nuts as snacks rather than anything sweet or carby. I think my sweet craving has been reduced, but I’m worried that it’ll escalate again over time when I start periodically indulging again. We’ll see how that goes. My main concern is the mental aspect of letting go of any fixed ideas about how I should look, because I’m not interested in keeping this diet up indefinitely and I don’t want to hurt myself training. I’m amazed and grateful that I’ve made it this two months without hurting myself or getting sick or anything. So it’s inevitable that I’ll lose some muscle mass, and I have to be OK with that. Everything changes with time, and now I know how to get back to this if I need to. In the meantime I’ll be enjoying Donut Plant, sweet coffee and Manhattans.
Colin’s Kitchen Sink Smoothie
Makes about 1 liter, roughly 800 calories and 54 g of protein
1 cup almond milk
1 packed cup of spinach
2 tsp chia seeds
2 tsp flax seeds
1/4 cup walnuts
1 serving protein powder
1 6-oz. container of fat free plain Greek yogurt
1 cup frozen fruit (my favorite was pineapple followed by blueberry. Strawberry was OK, raspberry wasn’t sweet or juicy enough–a juicy fruit helps offset the thickness of the other ingredients)
1 cup-ish of ice
Blend it up and drink!