One of my goals for this little column is to help you wade through the massive piles of junk out there claiming to be the “best” or “only” way to get fit. I can get behind some science as much as the next guy, but at some point, even I get bored. Somehow when it comes to fitness-related science, specifically diets; it seems that you can find science to support almost any diet. Take the Cotton Ball diet, for example, this diet is simple…why take up precious room in your belly with pesky food when you can just stuff a little cotton in there instead. Not enough flavor for you? Dip your cotton ball in some hot sauce, it’s delicious!
Obviously that diet is insane. There are no questions about it. However, if you Google long enough you will find the science that says it is not all that terrible. The Cotton Ball Diet is the extreme end of the spectrum. The gray area comes when the more realistic diets begin to enter the picture. Trying a diet can be costly, confusing, and worst of all, totally ineffective. The problem is that most science agrees that the right diet can contribute to your health way more than exercise can. When I started to get healthy I knew the first thing I needed to do was change my eating habits. I’m not a scientist, so I won’t pretend to babble on about what is healthy and what isn’t. I will tell you what I have tried, and what has worked for me. Everyone is different and not everything I have tried will work for you. Still, the way I found the right diet was by trying stuff that worked for other people. I now have a pretty easy diet to follow that doesn’t require a lot of sacrificing what I like.
The first diet I tried was the ever popular Atkins diet. This diet essentially involves cutting out almost all of your carbs (bread, rice, chips, and other delicious things) and replacing them with protein (meat, nuts, and meat). It sounded all right, and a friend told me I could eat bacon for every meal and it would be ok… who doesn’t want to do that, right? This diet was disastrous for me. Obviously there are some other details to follow the diet properly, but you can look those up on your own if you really want to try it. This diet did not work for me. In fact, I gained about 10 pounds right off the start…which is not cool when you only started dieting to lose weight in the first place. No, I didn’t actually just eat bacon every day, even though I wanted to. I did cut out chips and rice and bread, though, and started having a couple pieces of chicken instead of just one. After 2 months of gaining weight (I wasn’t working out at this point) I decided this diet was dumb, and I quit.
The next month I decided to go in the opposite direction. I decided to become a vegetarian. Surprisingly, the science says that becoming a vegetarian can be just as risky as the Atkins diet. Both of these diets require that you eat pretty specific things, despite what their taglines might suggest (eat meat or eat vegetables respectively). In other words, you can’t just eat bacon on the Atkins diet, and you can’t just eat potatoes and rice as a vegetarian. I have always been a veggie fan, so becoming a vegetarian and eating right was actually pretty easy for me at first. I ate lots of salads and discovered the joys of meatless meat. After a month and a half as a vegetarian, I had lost 14 pounds (I did start riding a bike about 5 miles a day during this time). The only problem was that I was craving meat and feeling tired a lot more.
One thing I have learned about dieting is that when you begin to crave something, and I mean really crave it, that is probably your body telling you that you need nutrients that food provides your body. It’s important to listen to those cravings to some extent.
At first, I would use my willpower to ignore those cravings and fight them back, but eventually my body would win out and I would have to satiate my craving. Typically by this point I would be craving something so bad that I would not just stop at a little bit of food to take care of it, I would binge like a crazy person. That is typically the problem with completely cutting out anything, in general. Your body needs all the nutrients to be able to function so trying to skip all carbs, is going to cause a problem eventually. Then you end up on the couch devouring an entire bag of Doritos in 5 minutes. The trick is to identify what nutrient it is that your body is really craving, and give it that in a healthy way. After a month of being a vegetarian, I wanted… scratch that… I needed some meat. I began to see steaks and fried chicken walking around instead of people. Driving by McDonalds made me want to cry. A little bit of research quickly showed that this is common for vegetarians. With a diet of all veggies it is really tricky to get the amount of protein your body needs to function. A lack of protein can lead to sleepiness and a general lack of energy. I needed to figure out a way to keep losing weight and not be sleepy all the time and get my body the nutrients it really needed. Eventually I decided I needed to balance my veggies with some real meat in order to get my protein.
This was the beginning of my own dietary creation. The most important thing I did between both of these diets is something I still do today. A quick Google search for your weight will tell you how many calories you need to actually intake to lose or maintain weight. Once you find that out, there are a plethora of fantastic apps for your smart phone to let you count calories. Just keeping an eye on what I was eating was a live saver. Not only did I realize how much I was over-eating, but hitting my calorie intake became a game which made it more fun and less of a chore. I would challenge myself to get as close to my calorie level without going over. I would find foods that allowed me to hit my allotted fat, carb, and protein levels while still not over –eating. Once I started this habit my eating was much more manageable. Being an obsessive gamer lends itself well to calorie counting so if you try nothing else, try that. I use an awesome app that I paid $4 dollars for called “Tap and Track” for iPhone. It has a massive database of foods you can search through so finding what you ate and adding its correct nutritional information is really easy. It’s definitely worth the money.