This is a summary of some experiences I had a few years ago that changed how I learned to think about what I was eating. I am not a nutritionist, and this essay isn’t anything more than some thoughts and experiences I had that changed my life. I’d recommend you seek out the Renaissance Periodization (RP) books, or even their youtube playlists, for a very thorough understanding of nutrition for performance. Most of what I know today comes from RP.
I had always considered myself a physically fit and healthy person until the day my office received a tasking to go to the university of Auburn to undergo the Kinesiology lab’s physical fitness assessment. The “Tigerfit” assessment consists of a series of tests that evaluate aerobic fitness, body composition, muscular strength, balance and flexibility. I did well on all portions except the bodycomposition test. The lab used three different methodsto test body composition; the skinfold test, a bioelectric impedance test similar to a home body fat scale, and a dual X-ray absorptiometry or “DEXA” scan.
My results were as follows;
“Body Composition: We evaluated your body composition using three different methods, the skinfold test, using bioelectric impedance and using dual X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). DEXA is by far the most accurate and it also gives you a bone mineral density reading which can be useful in maintaining healthy bones. Your bone density was above average. Your % body fat based on the DEXA scan* is 25.2%, which places you above the optimum range for body fat percentage.”
Further down the page there was a chart.
Tigerfit body composition report from Auburn
I saw that my body was “25.2% fat” and realized that an entire quarter of my body was made of fat. I saw that 133lbs of my body was not fat. 45lbs of me was fat.
After completing the test, we each sat down with the Auburn staff, and got a review of our results. A retired Air Force Colonel sat down with me. He appeared to be an endurance athlete. He was lean and had some visible veins. He was clearly not impressed with my test results. I don’t recall hisexact wordsbut his point was clear. I was too fat, and I lacked enough lean mass to really be strongor powerful. I was 34. He was probably in his mid 50s, and I’m sure on that day he was a little disgusted seeing an officer in a combat arms career field, being skinnyfat. (Skinnyfat: Under muscled and over fat. Does not appear traditionally and outwardly ‘fat’ but still has poor body composition) I had never failed the Army’s body fat test. I did not even weigh enough, at my height, to have to take the tape test. At no point in my life had anyone ever told me I was fat. I had been a member at multiple gyms and had multiple coaches. I had been in the Army for 17 years. No one, up until that day, ever suggested to me that I was too fat….but here was a no shit test result that showed I was 133 lean and 45 fat. I had measurable stats in front of my face for the first time. (I was to learn, later, that the Army’s maximum allowable body fat percentage for men my age was 24%, measured with a tape rather than a machine. Apparently this is based not upon human performance, but upon life insurance. To be content with being thin enough for the Army standard is like being content that you are just healthy enough to get life insurance. Additionally, various sources define ‘obesity’ for middle aged males as beginning somewhere at 24 or 25% body fat and above. This is a much lower body fat percentage than most people would casually define as ‘obese’ but this article is about data, not perception.)
I had spent a lot of time from age 18 to 34 wearing combat equipment. I know what a 65lb rucksack feels like, what a 45 pound rucksack feels like and a 35 pound rucksack feels like. I remember weighing all my equipment, weapons, ammunition and water when I was a 19 year old rifleman, and the total being 88 pounds. I know the difference between carrying a 8 pound M4 carbine, and a 26+ pound M240 machinegun. As a 26 year old platoon leader in Baghdad, my body weighed 160 pounds. With all my armor, helmet, ammunition and radio on I weighed 240lbs. I’vebeen to places where you had to put that equipment on just to go outside, and felt what a pain in the ass it was to wear 80 extra pounds just to go 100 yards to another building. I had done runs and obstacle courses with, and without, equipment on my bodymany times in my career. I was fully aware of the effect of ‘dead weight’ on my energy levels and my physical performance. I was fully aware of how much less tired I would be at the end of an event if I were carrying less equipment vs. more.
I did some quick math in my head and realized that if I lost about 25 pounds, and gained a few pounds of muscle the impact on every single aspect of my life would be similar to taking off a full 26lbs Interceptor Body Armor System, or putting down an M240 machine-gun, or taking more than 3 200 round SAW drums out of my rucksack. I realized that if that 25lbs did not go away I was always going tobe performing like I had a full set of body armor on, 24/7/365. No matter how much cardio I did, if that fat did not come off my body, my Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT, 2 minutes of push ups, 2 minutes of sit ups and a 2 mile run for time) 2 mile run time wasgoing to be slow, as even a great runner will be considerably slower if you put a 25lb vest on him.
I was very familiar with the concept of ‘relative strength’ or a person’s strength relative to their bodyweight from studying both Mark Rippetoe, Rob Shaul’s Military Athlete programs. Rob Shaul’s strength standards had been my goals for a long time. Rob’s standards for Soldiers were based on years of experience training military personnel. Here they are.
Rob Shaul’s Strength Standards from www.militaryathlete.com
(Somewhere along the line I picked up a 2x bodyweight back squat standard instead of a 1.5x bodyweight front squat. The source of this is irrelevant to this essay. I don’t remember right now where I came up with that. Maybe something Mark Rippetoe or Dan John wrote.)
These are not unachievable superhuman strength standards. A 2x Bodyweight deadlift max will probably not get anyone in to the olympics.
Since only muscles generate force, only the lean portion of the body has strength. Fat tissue has no strength, but it still has weight and takes up space. Therefore fat counts against relative strength ratios without making any contributions. The DEXA told me that the portion of my body that can generate force, the lean portion, weighed 133lbs. I could already squat 260 easily at the time, and 275 was not terribly difficult. I absolutely could not squat 356, or twice my bodyweight when I was133lbs of lean, and 45lbs of fat. Increasing strength that much was going to require building more muscle. Building muscle prefers caloric excess, and increased muscle almost always brings some fat as well..and at a body fat percentage of 25%, I had too much useless weight to make up for to meet a 2x bodyweight squat standard. I was an inefficient and overloaded machine. On the other hand, if I was able to cut down to an athletic body fat percentage of 12-14 percent or so, while maintaining the muscle I had, I would be about 155 lbs, and only have to get that squat up to 310 to meet the 2x bodyweight squat standard. To get from a 275lbs squat to a 310lb squat, is not nearly as difficult as going from a 275 to a 356.
You brought it, you haul it, applies here too. If one of your Soldiers showed up for a patrol with 15lbs of bricks strapped to the front of his armor, you’d tell him he’s an idiot and to ditch that nonsense. You might be a badass gunfighting freedom fighter in your mind, but maybe in reality you are a badass gunfighting freedom fighter with 25+ pounds of unnecessary dead weight hanging off your combat chassis. If that fat was not there, would you strap a bunch of sandbags to your ass or stomach for some reason? There are no competitive advantages to being overfat.
Quantifiable testing and resultant data (and a little shame from a guy 20 years my senior) made me aware, relative strength put the data in context.
Also, by this time in my life I had read and listened to considerable amounts of knowledge from Renaissance Periodization (RP), and Dr. Mike Israetel. From RP I learned about the concepts of ‘cutting’ or deliberately training, planning and eating meals to lose fat while retaining muscle over a period of several weeks, ‘maintaining’ or eating to maintain muscle and overall weight indefinitely, and ‘massing’ or deliberately eating and training to grow muscle over a period of weeks. Based on someone’s body composition, he or she could lay out a long term plan to reacha desired body fat level and/or amount of muscle. RP recommends that males over about 16% body fat conduct cuts and maintenance repeatedly until reaching about 12% bodyfat. Once a male gets down to 12%, or below, bodyfat, then it makes sense to execute a ‘mass’ as ‘massing’ requires caloric surplus, and the muscle that comes withmassing almost always comes with fat. One will likely gain much more fat than muscle during a mass. Therefore, to set the conditions for massing, one must first cut and maintain down to a lean body fat percentage first. Cut for a while, maintain for a while, repeat until down to about 12% body fat. Once at 12%, mass to 16%, maintain for a while, then cut again. Every mass brings a small layer of muscle at the price of a bigger layer of fat, so macronutrients and calories are manipulated to minimize fat gain. Every cut costs a small amount of muscle as well, so training, macronutrients and calories are manipulated to minimize muscle loss. Maintenance allows the body to readjust the metabolism to its new normal, gives the dieter a physical and psychological break, and sets the conditions for the next cut. There are different schools of thought besides the RP school of thought, but few (if any) of them are based on as much data and experimental evidence as RP.
Before the trip to Auburn, I considered myself a healthy eater, but it was only because I had mentally grouped all the food, on earth, in totwo groups “healthy things” and “not-healthy things.” I only ate what I believed to be “healthy things” but I really had no idea how many calories I was eating, ever. I did not track macronutrients. I had no detailed nutrition plans of any sort. I had made a few attempts to follow a few different diets, and I had some moderate success, and a lot of failures. Despite eating only “healthy things” I was still too fat. RP help me get data, and put it all in a more detailed and useful context than simply “all these foods are good and all these others are bad.”
In the summer of 2015 I moved to Fort Leavenworth Kansas to attend the Army’s Command and General Staff Officer’s Course. I remember following my RP diet templates and hypertrophy training templates in the fall of 2015, and I had some success, but nothing overwhelming or fast. That winter,I scheduled an appointment to the Army Wellness Center (AWC) at Fort Leavenworth. The AWC is a place where Soldiers and dependents can get assistance with assessing and improving fitness and health. An AWC typically has various coaches, trainers, dietitians or nutritionists and other people with letters after their last name. They can assess wellness and/or fitness using very similar methods as the Auburn Tigerfit team. I told the AWC trainer that my main goal was to lose fat, and keep muscle. He put me in a machine called a Bodpod that, similarly to the DEXA scan, measures a person’s body composition. This time the results, and the ‘so what’ looked like this:
(Note the explanation column. Take a few minutes to multiply some body weights you are familiar with times those percentages. Think about how much of a human is lean and fat at those body weights. Think about the machine and how much of said machine can generate force, and how much is just useless cargo.
Also note that it took me almost 10 months from Auburn to the AWC to only cut down about 4% fat. It is not easy to change your habits…)
Despite having a lower body fat than the previous year, I was still in the “Excess Fat” category. To get to “lean” or 12% bodyfat, would require, assuming the retention of 133lbs of lean mass, a loss of approximately 22lbs of fat or the gain of an appropriate amount of lean mass combined with loss of fat. (I would later learn that a Bodpod can be off by 3%, in my case 3% would be around 5lbs either way, fat or lean or a combination of both. Regardless, my priority remained the loss of fat.)
The coach recommended that I try something called the Keto diet. This diet was alleged to make my body switch from burning carbs to fats and put my body in something called “ketosis” where it would be burning the fat already on my body for energy. There were a list of additional alleged benefits as well.
He advised me to maintain a 500 calorie deficit per day, and to consume 0.8g of protein per pound of lean mass, no more than 30g a day of carbohydrates (to include fiber), and the rest of my calories would come from fat. He was also able to tell me that given my size and activity level that I would burn approximately 2300 calories a day, at rest. Therefore, I would plan to eat 1800 calories per day, and add calories from fats to my day, based on my actual activity level, in order to keep the daily caloric deficit at 500 calories.
I would monitor my daily calories burned using a Garmin Vivofit device in conjunction with the Garmin app on my smart phone. I would use my Garmin Forerunner to track calories burned during running, walking or foot marching. I would use the treadmill & exercise bike’s internal calorie counter as well. If I burned more calories, I got to eat more calories, but the difference between burned and eaten would remain 500, until he told me to do otherwise.
He told me that if I ate too much protein, my body would initiate Gluconeogenesis (GNG), a generation of glucose from certain non-carbohydrate carbon substrates, and I would not achieve ketosis. If I ate too many carbohydrates, I would not achieve ketosis. If I did achieve ketosis, and then ate too much protein or too many carbs on any given day, I’d lose ketosis as well. Fats were said to have no negative impact on ketosis, so in order to keep the deficit at 500, any extra calories would come from fats.
I purchased a set of ketone strips, and the device diabetics use to prick their fingers and get a drop of blood for testing. If I could get the machine to read about 1.1 to 1.3 (I think, don’t recall) then I had proof I was truly in this fat burning state of ketosis and successfully executing the ketogenic diet.
The coach recommended podcasts, websites and specific groceries to buy like Epic Bars, sour cream, avocados, butter, coconut oil, eggs, cheese, Isopure Zero carb protein powder, pork rinds and others. (An interesting note about pork rinds. The protein in them is not bioavailable, so a keto dieter can eat quite a few pork rinds and not have to worry about gluconeogenesis.)
I went back to my house and used www.myfitnesspal.com to to design a meal template that met all the criteria specified by the coach. Myfitnesspal.com is an online and app based nutrition tracker and planning tool. You can input almost any food you can find, and a serving size, and it will show you the nutritional values of that food. The app goes on your phone, so you can always have it handy.
I reviewed the coaches plan for my diet:
133 lbs of lean mass x .8 = 106grams of protein, call it 100 grams for easy math
Each gram of protein is 4 calories, so that brings me to 400 calories.
30 grams of carbs, with each gram being 4 calories adds another 120 since 30×4 =120
400 + 120 = 520 calories from carbs and fat, but we have to get to 1800.
1800 – 520 = 1280 calories from fats. Since each gram of fat is 9 calories, that means 142 grams of fat, per day since 1280/9 = 142.
I could set myfitnesspal to reflect 100g or protein, 30g of carbs, and 142g of fat.
(This is a good time to search the internet for a “Basal Metabolic Rate” calculator. Once you’re done with that search for the “Harris Benedict Equation” )
I could then start planning meals by plugging in foods into myfitnesspal. I would adjust the amounts of foods I wanted to eat to meet the above numbers, and always have a supply of additional high-fat foods to eat as well toaccount for daily activities and cardio sessions. I stockpiled and prepared all of my meals in advance.
For breakfast I typically had a big omelet with cheese, fried in coconut oil. Halfway through the morning I’d eat a shake made with Isopure Zero Carb protein powder and Flax seed oil. For lunch I would eat a salad with Lox available in the sandwich shop in the cafeteria and maybe some pork rinds. Mid afternoon Id have another shake identical to the morning one. For fatty snacks I ate avocados with sour cream and tabasco sauce. I also ate a lot of buttery vegetables. Whatever I ate, or planned to eat, went in to myfitnesspal.com to make sure my total calories and macros were correct.
I used the Garmin Vivofit, myfitnesspal and my Garmin forerunner, or their online functionality several times a day. If I remember correctly, the Garmin devices integrated with myfitnesspal, so the total calories for the day were already calculated. I checked my blood with the Ketone strips at least once a day. If I recall correctly, it took a while to get in to ketosis. I was anxious about undoing hard effort and coming out of ketosis, defeating the purpose of my efforts, so this fed the motivation to be precise and accurate with the Garmins an myfitnesspal.
The 500 calorie a day deficit would create a weekly deficit of 3500 calories. There is an old rule of thumb that says a pound of fat is about 3500 calories, therefore I expected to lose roughly, a pound a week.
The caloric deficit will create fat loss, but I also wanted to maintain my muscle. To keep as much muscle as possible while I was in a caloric deficit, I continued to follow my Renaissance Periodization hypertrophy program. As this 12 weeks went on, I definitely got weaker. I could lift less weight, less times. I am sure I would have gotten even weaker had I not continued to systematically use my muscles. This is not to say that I got debilitatingly weak, but performance in the gym definitely decreased.
I did a lot of low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio such as inclined treadmill walks, exercise bike and walking, accounting for all the calories burned. I used the Audible app to listen to a lot of books while I was on the treadmill doing LISS, combating boredom, burning calories and learning things all at the same time. I also did one or two High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions per week. HIIT typically consisted of incline treadmill sprints based on heart rate, again monitoring calories burned. The calorie trackers on my Garmin devices and on the machines at the gym really made me understand the saying “You can’t out-train a poor diet.” I learned it takes about an hour of walking briskly for me to torch 500 calories. If one has no plan for a daily caloric balance, then in today’s environment, one will likely go over by several hundred (or a couple thousand) calories per day. If it takes an hour of walking to burn a mere 500 calories, then there simply isn’t time in the day to work all those excess calories off. In other words calories go in far far easier and faster than they go out. Its better keep your calorie level under control by deliberately planning meals than it is to try to burn off excess calories with exercise, because most normal people do not have the time or the recovery ability to burn off more than a few hundred calories a day with exercise. Almost anyone can plan a day’s meal template, conduct meal preparation and stick to their plan though. This was a huge revelation for me. I had read it before, but it never really sunk in until I had truly paid attention to calories and calories out. I learned you simply cannot add exercise to you lifestyle and expect truly significant results. You have to synchronize your lifestyle with your training, your nutrition and your recovery if you want results.
I had to temporarily give up a lot of things I really like to execute this diet and reach my goal. There would be no beer, no chips and salsa, not too much meat, no pizza, no fries for the time I was on the keto diet because all of those things would push me out of ketosis. It was possible to go to almost any restaurant and find something to eat, but I would usually have to order something not really on the menu, or only eat certain parts of what was available. I distinctly remember going to dinner and refusing to eat chips and salsa while my friends tried to get me to eat them. I learned that you can deal with social awkwardness to meet a goal. You won’t die, I promise, if you skip some chips and salsa and beers with your friends. It helped to decide what to eat before I got to the restaurant, again using myfitnesspal to evaluate my choices and make sure they fit in my plan.
Selecting ‘keto friendly’ foods required some effort. If I wanted to buy something, it went in to myfitnesspal before I bought it. It would experiment with myfitnesspal to see if a particular item fit in to my plan. I’d find too much protein in one thing, and too many carbs in other. This process of evaluating everything objectively made me very aware of the macros of a lot of foods. I no longer simply see foods. I see the building blocks of foods, in the way I’d think a carpenter may see a house.
I could see my body change almost daily. This was pretty motivating. I actually looked forward to weighing in every day on my body fat scale. It was motivating to see the numbers improve. Every day I wrote them down and kept it under the plexiglass on my desk. I lost about a pound a week on this diet, for maybe 12 weeks. I continued to go to the bodpod and get my results measured. Here they are:
During one of the later meetings, the coach from the AWC discussed ‘strategic carbohydrates’ with me. He described eating sugary carbohydrates before and during endurance events in order to improve performance. On the second Army Physical Fitness Test we took at Fort Leavenworth I ate a Clif Bar right before the run. After not having significant amounts of carbohydrates for weeks, and almost zero sugar for weeks that Clif Bar felt like rocket fuel. My two mile run time was 90 seconds faster than the one the summer before. On this day the weather was much better for running, I was at least 10 pounds lighter (probably more) and there were less people on the track. I can’t say which of those factors had the most effect, but they all had a part.
Somewhere towards the end of this diet someone suggested that Quest bars were an acceptable food while on the diet. I may have fit in one or two. One or two turned in to 12 one day. Yeah, that happened. I ate $25.00 worth of Quest bars in about 10 minutes. Later I would learn, again from RP, about how eating something super delicious when you are in a prolonged state of caloric deficit can lead to eating a LOT of whatever it was you chose to ‘cheat’ with. This is due to the level of palatability, which includes not only the taste, but the entire experience of eating something. This is not to say that very palatable foods are always bad, but if you are trying to cut some fat then consider gradually decreasing the palatability of foods as the fat loss phase progresses. Don’t start immediately with tuna fish, boiled chicken, plain oatmeal and steamed broccoli, as there’s nowhere left to go after that, and it’s horrible, and not likely sustainable. On the other hand, if you are well in to a cut phase do you really want to undo all the discomfort you’ve endured for weeks just for the experience of eating something delicious? You won’t die from lack of pizza, I promise. There will be pizza in your future, during maintenance. On a mass the reverse can be true…if you are struggling to maintain a caloric excess because eating feels like a never-ending job, then consider increasing the palatability of your calories.
On the other hand, If you are going to eat less calories than you burn for a long period of time, you probably will not be successful sustaining your caloric goal eating things that are extremely palatable, and have high calories and relatively low satiety. As an example, imagine an 1800 calorie day with Oreos and milk sometime, or one of those Middleswarth ‘weekender’ cartons of barbecue chips, or the office donuts that the well meaning and unaware bring in to the workplace, or even your favorite meals from your favorite restaurant. Somewhere on a scale of palatability with your favorite hyper-palatable, high calorie / low satiety junk foods one one end and boiled chicken breast with kale and plain oatmeal on the other are foods that can fit a certain hunger level to produce a sustainable (and maybe even enjoyable) diet. (I know of no ‘satiety index’ but there probably is one somewhere…)
The 2016 Quest Bar incident taught me where my breaking point was, and what ‘sustainable’ was for me in terms of time and caloric deficit. I was probably past the point where I should have switched from cutting to maintenance. Either way I learned what it feels like to be past the point of sustainability. Fat loss sucks. Your body does not like it. It thinks you are starving. It sends all kinds of signals telling you to eat. You can blunt these signals in a lot of ways (a smaller deficit over a longer time period, eating more satiating foods, activity, hydration, coffee,) but you can’t keep up a caloric deficit forever. The bigger the daily deficit, the shorter the time you can sustain it. The trick is to go from fat loss (caloric deficit) to maintenance (caloric balance) BEFORE it sucks so bad you can’t stand it.
From spring of 2015 until 2017, if the DEXA and Bodpod are accurate, I was able to cut 20lbs of fat. That’s good news, but 20lbs in 24 months is pretty slow. The keto diet experience taught me how to control the variables, and to leverage technology to plan and to learn, and how to lose weight at a good, but sustainable pace, for a good but sustainable period of time.
Coincidentally, I got blood work done right after this diet. My cholesterol sucked. It was obvious that 12+ weeks of 142+ grams of fatty stuff a day had an impact. Transitioning off this diet to something like the RP diet got my cholesterol back under control rapidly.
I learned you don’t really need carbs to live, but they are nice to have. They aren’t the devil, just learn about them and understand them and apply them like any other tool. Same for fat and protein. Understanding what’s on the nutrition label, and what it means to your daily caloric and macro needs is very important.
I learned, obviously, that fat doesn’t make you fat just because it is fat. I consumed over 142 grams of fat per day, for about 12 weeks and I lost a lot of fat. Carbs do not make you fat simply because they are carbs either. I learned, through RP, that that in order of impact with regards to fat loss or muscle gain the factors are calories, macronutrient amounts, timing, food composition and finally supplementation and hydration. The experiences with planning and tracking showed me that I can manipulate all those factors rather than simply scrounging up food in my environment and eating it.
Through this experience I learned I can control what I eat, using planning tools and data, to achieve a purpose. I learned to think of food primarily as fuel. I gained a new perspective of what I see in Americans eating habits daily as well. There’s a lot that goes in to how people eat; convenience, tradition, ‘stress eating’, ignorance, family issues, apathy, personal tastes, and some people associate food with love or happiness. In what order of importance do those things shake out. 5 years after these experiences, and after 5 years of applying what I started to learn in 2015, I am up to 147 lbs of lean mass, and a body weight of 173 pounds. I am a more efficient machine. More of me can create force, and less of me is dead weight. I don’t eat boiled chicken breast and mushy Kale, ever.