Why was I concerned about body composition?
By the time you read this it will have passed, but today I turned 42 years old.
I’m a personal trainer and wellness coach, so I spend practically every day helping others with their goals, but I’d neglected my own. Why? Frankly, because I’m sleepy. People want to work out from 5 a.m.-8 a.m., then 5 p.m.-8 p.m. I’m fortunate to also have clients who want the middle of the day; however, it doesn’t change the fact that I, like most trainers, burn the candle at both ends. It’s hard to keep up with everything when you’re chronically tired.
In April 2018, I realized that my working out wasn’t really doing much, because I didn’t really have a particular goal beyond increasing the weights for my compound lifts (bench press, row, squat, deadlift, overhead press and lat pulldown). I don’t generally enjoy conditioning per se, but I also didn’t prioritize going way out into nature to do the hiking and walking I love to do. I was also eating relatively clean, but not up to a specified ideal. All that together meant my body composition was beginning to get pretty lackluster. The two underlying patterns that matter the most (nutrition and rest) were the two I was training the least.
I decided to do for myself what I do for my clients: I created a comprehensive 8-week program. My goal was to improve body composition by increasing lean muscle while reducing body fat percentage. I started April 29, 2018 at 149 pounds and 13.5 percent body fat. I thought my goal was 145 pounds and 10.0 percent body fat, which would have been quite a lot of muscle added with quite significant fat reduction. Initially my numbers went in the “correct” direction for the first half; however, they swung wildly in the last weeks. Ultimately I was looking and feeling better, so I began to ignore the numbers. I finished on June 22, 2018. I did the photoshoot that day at 151 pounds and 12.5 percent body fat. Was I better? Definitely. Had I really satisfied myself? Definitely not.
Initially it was enough to bring structure and focus into my exercise, eating and sleeping plan. However, I needed to dig deeper toward the end, and if you were to watch my daily update clips on Instagram you would see that in the last two weeks I made some particularly quick improvements on body fat. How did I do that?
First, everyone is different, so what works for me will not necessarily work the same for you. However, there are some precepts that work generally for most people. If you have not read it, I highly recommend “The Obesity Code” by Dr. Jason Fung, M.D. He offers a very accessible explanation for the ways in which current American diets create body fat at such an alarming rate. Reading it was a revelation to me, and I found it very helpful.
In brief: I have already been intermittent fasting for many years. I was doing it most of my life, simply because of the way my appetite is timed — I don’t like eating in the morning. Waiting until midday or later to break my fast is natural for me. I have also already been very physically active all my life, so I have an advantage in maintaining, re-establishing and/or creating new muscle cells. Being athletic since youth primed my body for continued gains into adulthood and now middle age (GASP!). With this in mind, you might not have the same results I did.
What did I do those last two weeks to get my elusive bottommost abs to peak out? I doubled down on fasting. Normally I eat from about noon or 2 p.m. until around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. This means I nearly always skip breakfast and break my fast at lunch time. However, for those last two weeks, I didn’t do 16-hour fasts. I did 24-hour fasts. Let me clarify that I did not do calorie restriction the first of the two weeks. I limited the timeframe within which I ate all my calories. To amp up the effect, the second week I also replaced carbohydrates with fats. Again, this was not calorie restriction. Also, this was not particularly “low carb,” nor was it gluten free, low fat, “Whole 30,” “Keto,” “Atkins,” “Paleo” or other branded plans.
My diet for improving body composition
I ate lots of whole eggs, coconut oil, guacamole, nuts, seeds, cherries, apples, kiwis, full fat plain Greek yogurt, olive oil, olives, raw vegetables and hard cheeses. I also ate some dried apricots and prunes, a little hummus and sporadic glasses of whole milk. I almost never ate meat, but that wasn’t purposeful or philosophical. When I wanted a treat, I air popped quite large portions of popcorn and slathered it with ghee, pink salt and garlic powder. I avoided breads, pastas, juices, candies, cakes, sodas and snacking in general. What I believe is that Dr. Fung got it right: I was simply avoiding eating in ways that provoke large and/or frequent insulin spikes.
I got all my calories at once in the course of a large, long dinner. I avoided breakfast, lunch and snacks. When I did finally eat dinner, it was a feast, but it didn’t contain processed carbs. I had loads of carbohydrates, but practically no added sugars. The carbs/sugars I did eat were slowed down by fiber, fat and protein. The dramatic difference in my body fat was the result of timing my meal and moving calories away from sugar toward fat. Also, practically every food I ate had a single ingredient. Nothing, except the hummus and guacamole, was premade, and even those had only 4-5 ingredients (all of which were natural, and none of which were sugar).
Am I happy with my results?
The reason I’m not satisfied is because a year ago I was leaner and thicker. This year I had some elbow injuries and additional sleep challenges. I couldn’t work out as intensely; however, I think I did finally find the combination of foods and preparation that will allow me to continue making lean gains going into the foreseeable future. My next challenge will be even better!
This score indicates how damaging a food will be to your blood sugar levels. Foods that score 0-55 are rated low impact (and thus presumed to be better for diabetics and those looking to maintain healthy weight and/or body fat ratios), but this is not the whole picture.
Nearly a year ago to the dot, I wrote an article about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but there I focused on the importance of getting access to a full range spectrum of light. Here I’d like to focus on caffeine and sleep’s effect on SAD. I’ll also offer suggestions for what to do to help you feel better on the dark days.
I don’t generally promote supplements. Most of them play to specific, isolated points of medical research to serve as a magic pill. One remarkable example of this is fish oil.