I am not a doctor. And even if I was, I’m not your doctor. If you have any kind of medical issue, don’t get your info from the internet, still less from swordsmanship instructors. Do some research, then go talk to your doctor. Clear?
I dropped 10kg from round my waist, almost by accident. Here’s what happened. I’ll go back to the very beginning, so you can see the process.
In the beginning:
In the late nineties, the metabolism I inherited from my father started to kick in, and without my really noticing it, I had to let my belt out, notch by notch. I got this belt from my sister when I was 21, so I’ve had it round my waist for about half my life. It tells a sorry tale…
Back when I was 21, I wore this belt on its fourth or fifth notch from the end. By the middle of 2000, it was on the third. Then, after coming down from the mountain and deciding to open my school, I started training at dawn every day, on the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh (I do love my traditional martial arts training tropes). In about three weeks, I lost 7kg (15 lb), from round my waist. 3 weeks later, the weight was back, but round my shoulders. I had to get a new jacket because my old one was suddenly too tight. I was 26, with all the metabolic advantages that gives.
When I got to Finland in 2001, what with the stress of starting the school, and lots and lots of training, I ate what I wanted and stayed skinny. On a normal day, I was training for two or three hours and teaching for two or three. I had to eat every three hours or so, or Hungry Guy would appear and make everyone’s life miserable. The closest I have come to murder was probably when I hadn’t eaten for four hours, went to a Thai restaurant for an emergency feed, and the waiter seemed to dilly dally about getting the food on the table.
I (mis)diagnosed the problem as too-low body weight. I was about 73kg at that point. I ate like crazy to try to put the weight on, but was too stressed and training too much to gain an ounce. Then I met Michaela in 2005, and chilled the fuck out. One of the ways I knew she was the One was that within a few months of meeting her, I’d put on the 4kg (9lb) I was looking for. That did help with Hungry Guy, but only up to a point. I still needed to eat every four hours or so. At this point, my weight was up to 77kg, so I instituted a rule: if my weight got up to 80kg, I’d cut out sugar and alcohol until it was back below 78. Then I could eat what I want. This very often (maybe 5 times a week) included an entire 200g bar of chocolate after dinner, ‘shared’ with Michaela (she’d get maybe one row, so, an eighth of it).
What with one thing and another, by April 2014 I was seriously considering adjusting the rule to anything below 80kg is fine, over 82 cut out sugar and alcohol. (Self-indulgent bullshit is a specialty of mine.) I was at 83kg, and my belt was on the penultimate notch. As you can see, it still has the deepest groove; it had been there for a long time. I had already read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, so I should have known better. But sugar, oh, sugar; sweet heaven.
The Slow Carb diet
Then, on a flight to Melbourne, I read Tim Ferriss’s The Four Hour Body. It was the final straw. There was just no way I could justify the level of sugar I was eating, especially given my family history of high blood pressure, my father’s serious weight problem, and everything I had ever read on the topic of metabolism, nutrition (not counting the junk science rubbish that occasionally made it onto my reading list; I highly recommend Bad Science by Ben Goldacre to help you distinguish the good from the bad), health and longevity.
When I got to Australia, I decided to try the Slow Carb diet. Let me summarise it for you.
1) No fast carbs; no sugar, no starch. No potatoes, no rice, no bread, no biscuits, no pasta, no white food except cauliflower, in other words.
2) Eat the same few meals; perhaps half a dozen different dishes.
3) Don’t drink calories. Avoid alcohol, sweet drinks (especially sodas, obviously, but less obviously also fruit juice).
4) Cheat one day a week. On that day, eat and drink whatever you like, as much as you like. But just one day a week.
You can see the blog post that started it all here.
If you think about it, rule 3 is really just the same as rule 1, and rule 2 is a bit boring, and rule 4 should be optional. What I ended up doing is basically just rule 1, and I was reasonably strict about it.
On the day I arrived in Australia, jetlagged to hell, and about to teach a 4 day intensive seminar, my metabolism was still demanding to eat every 3-4 hours. So obviously, I never went anywhere without back-up chocolate. I arrived on Friday morning and started Slow-carb right away, and taught Saturday-Tuesday, five or six hours a day. Up until this point there was no way I could get through a 6 hour seminar without a sugar hit in the afternoon. I’d crash about 3pm, sugar-up to get me through to the end, then need dinner, large and fast.
On the Monday, after teaching for three days straight, I was digging through my bag for something, and found my chocolate stash. In three days of teaching, in the most energy-demanding situation (jet-lag, long days), I had forgotten to eat in the afternoons. I was astonished.
This was because I was not spiking my blood sugar at any point, and so was not crashing. Cutting out starch and sugar proved to be a complete game-changer, because it evened out my energy demands. Please note though that I was not cutting out carbs, only fast carbs. I was still eating about eight tons of vegetables every day, and a lot of meat (the food in Australia is superb!).
Slow Carb, Low Carb, and Ketogenic:
Let's take a moment to define a few things:
1) Slow Carb v. Low Carb. They are very different. A classic low-carb diet gives you most of your calories from fat and protein. A slow carb diet gives you a lot of carbohydrates, but all with a low glycaeimic index, so you avoid the blood-sugar spike. I think any diet that tells you to steer clear of vegetables is fundamentally dangerous.
2) Ketogenic versus Low Carb. A ketogenic diet, as the name suggests, is a diet that keeps your body running on fat. It is very high fat, and obviously restricts carbs, but it also restricts protein. This is because protein is easily broken down into glucose, and so your body will switch back to a glucose based energy delivery system, rather than stay in a fat based energy delivery system (a state called ketosis). Ketogenic diets are mostly used medicinally to treat children that have drug-resistant seizures. I personally would not recommend long-term ketosis, because it is very hard to do in the modern world, and there is no evidence that any human population has ever subsisted long-term on a ketogenic diet (the Inuit may be an exception, but probably not). Ketogenic diets should be further subdivided into calorie-restricted (less than 1000 per day) and unrestricted. The best-known proponents of the unrestricted ketosis diet are Dom D’Agostino and Peter Attia (both medical doctors). Their podcasts and websites are well worth a listen/look.
Bye-bye Hungry Guy
What I was doing in Australia was a not-terribly-strict Slow Carb diet; after class, at dinner, I quite often wolfed down a bunch of fast carbs in the form of beer, and chips with my steak, that sort of thing. But breakfast and lunch were fast-carb-free. The difference in my energy levels was enough to sell me on the idea. But when I got home less than three weeks later and trod on the scales, I got a shock. I was down from 83 to 74kg, and had not once, even once, gone hungry. I ate like a pig, just not starch or sugar. I was so pleased with the results I decided to keep it up. I now hover around the 72-73kg mark.
Most incredibly, Hungry Guy has disappeared. To test this, in September 2014 I decided to see what would happen if I missed a meal or two. I had lunch on Monday at about 1pm, taught class on Monday night, ate nothing when I got home, had one cup of coffee instead of breakfast on Tuesday, missed lunch, and ate dinner with the kids at 6pm. So, about 29 hours of not eating anything. And I was completely fine. Not even that hungry. Certainly no dizziness, or feeling of weakness. Nothing associated with low blood sugar problems. It's also why I wrote “avoid sugar” as one of my top 3 stay-sane-and-healthy tips for modern living.
This has lead me to do some further research on fasting; it comes in all shapes and sizes. The simplest is just don’t eat for a while. I would not try that without preparation, if I were you. The health benefits of at least occasional ketosis are well-documented; I think of it as a metabolic spring-clean. But you can fast for a couple of days and not get into ketosis because your body breaks down your muscles to produce glucose. So if you don’t want to a) feel too hungry and b) lose muscle mass, it’s a very good idea to get into ketosis before you fast. Here’s how.
1) Be very strict about fast carbs for a week or two. This gets you off any sugar-high rollercoaster. When you fast your blood sugar will probably fall a bit, so make sure that it’s not a dramatic drop.
2) Follow a ketogenic diet for a couple of days. Use pee-sticks to make sure it’s working. Not everyone can handle a ketogenic diet, so if it makes you feel ill, stop. Try step 3 instead.
3) You can dose yourself with exogenous ketones to speed up the process of switching over. Exogenous ketones or ketogenic foods that I have used successfully (as measured by pee-sticks) include medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and raspberry ketones. When your pee-sticks tell you you are in a moderate state of ketosis, such as about 2-3 mmol/L, then stop eating. See how 24 hours feels. If you get really hungry, or dizzy, or your blood pressure drops, or anything like that, then BREAK YOUR FAST. With breakfast, obviously. But unless there are some odd medical issues, 24 hours should be no big deal. Just remember to drink plenty of water. Tea and coffee are also ok.
Just to test this, last Thursday I skipped breakfast, and ate lunch at about 2pm. At 11am I had a ketone level at or close to 0. Lunch was a small salad, with a tin of smoked mackerel in oil, and two teaspoons of MCT oil, and a splash of olive oil. I also took 2 125mg capsules of rasperry ketones (Hi-tech Pharmaceuticals brand) and a 6.33g dose of BCAA's (USPlabs “ModernBCAA+” brand). At 4pm my peesticks told me that I was in ketosis at a level of 4mmol/L. Easy enough!
I am currently about 73kg, stronger than I was in April 2014, and my belt is wearing a new groove at notch 5. If I fasten it at the deeply-worn second notch, there is enough room under my belt now for two bottles of wine.
Further thoughts on fasting:
1) I got all of my weight-loss done without fasting. It’s not necessary for that purpose, but there is a ton of evidence to suggest that it is good for you to fast occasionally. Here are a couple of articles on it: one very pro: Mercola and one from the UK National Health Service, specifically about 5:2 intermittent fasting, which I don't do, which is more measured: NHS.)Whether the benefits come from being in ketosis (which can be achieved without fasting), or from the short-term calorie restriction, or some other mechanism, is not clear yet. But it is abundantly clear that throughout human history, we have had to be able to function for short periods without food, and indeed many traditional cultures (including Christianity’s Lent and Islam’s Ramadan) incorporate longer fasts into their yearly calendar.
2) There is nothing inherently virtuous in not eating. It’s just a training tool, like push-ups and meditation. Do it because it generates specific benefits.
3) Don’t overdo it. Fasting gets much easier with practice. These days, I routinely fast for 24 hours with no preparation, about once a week. It does wonders for re-setting my metabolism. After Christmas I was so full I didn’t eat for 48 hours. No biggy. I’m planning a 5 day fast for later in the year; it takes planning because eating meals with the children is a big part of family life. If you don’t have kids, then it’s probably much easier.
5) For me, the point of fasting is to reap the metabolic benefits and to test that my diet allows me to be free of the need to eat for 24 hours or so. I never feel deprived when fasting, so I don’t feel any need to ‘make up for it’ with a stupid blow-out. I do stupid blow-outs every now and then just because I like them, and because my habits seem to be good, I can get away with the occasional splurge.
6) I think that as a martial artist I just jolly well ought to be able to work fine without food for a short time. Not eat for a day or two, and still fight. In feels simply unmartial to me to be slavishly dependent on a totally reliable food source for my effectiveness. An army marches on its stomach, yes. But I don't think there has ever been an army in combat that didn't go hungry at least occasionally.
Some further thoughts:
If you are trying to control your weight, try changing one thing a time. The first big thing I would is add vegetables. A decent serving of green vegetables at every meal will do wonders all by itself to make up for any dietary deficiencies, and fill you up a bit, which will reduce the amount of other stuff you eat. Also, the fibre in the vegetables will slow down sugar absorption, at least up to a point.
Then, the next thing to try is to cut out fast carbs. Cheat once a week if you must, but make sure you are always eating lots and lots of vegetables, and some decent high-quality fat. So fry your vegetables in organic butter 🙂 If this is too hard, then do it for just one meal a day, ideally breakfast.
The scales are a very blunt instrument. You might drop a bunch of weight, and actually be getting fatter, if you are losing muscle mass instead of the lard. I would take waist measurement over weight as an indicator of progress (see that belt?). I would also take all measurements at the same time of day, on the same day, once a week and not more often. This is much more reliable and less depressing than watching your weight fluctuate from morning to night (as it invariably does).
Systems are better than goals (as Scott Adams says in his interesting How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big). If you are trying to get your weight down to a certain point, every day that you are not at your target weight, you are a failure. This is not good. Better to try a different system (such as replacing your starch intake with extra vegetables) and just see what happens. Systems are sustainable. Goals are less so, because when you reach them, then what?
So, that’s how I lost 10kg without really trying. Will it work for you? I’ve no idea. But you can try it without risk, because all it requires you to do is eat lots of vegetables and cut out one type of food that you don’t really need: fast carbs.
You might also like this post: Eat Right for Fight Night
And let me reiterate: I'm not your doctor. I believe in trying things out sensibly, and building healthy habits. This worked for me; we have a lot of DNA in common, so it's probably at least worth trying for you. I wouldn't put it more strongly than that.
Incidentally, this post appears as part of the “Nutrition” section of my new book, The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts. You can get a free 70 page sample of the book by signing up to my mailing list below.
Also published on Medium.