Sleep, goddamnit!

You aren’t sleeping enough. And when you are, what sleep you are getting isn’t nearly restful enough. I can pretty much guarantee it.

Sleep is one of the most, if not THE most important thing you can fix to improve your quality of life. First of all, if you are morbidly obese, simply working on defattening yourself will help improve your quality of sleep. Assuming you are working on that already if it is necessary, there are a couple of other things you can do.

The easiest one is probably to get away from your computer or tv or other backlit device for about an hour before bed. Staring at a lit screen basically tricks your body into thinking it is still daytime, and suppresses your natural melatonin production. You can install f.lux on your computer to help with this – it changes the colour temperature of the screen to be warmer and less sunlike. It also seems easier on the eyes in the evening.

You should also have good sleep hygiene practices. That means for the most part only using your bed for sleeping (and banging, of course). Keep your room as dark as possible. Keep regular hours – go to bed at the same time, try to get up at the same time every day.

Some supplements can possibly help improve your sleep quality and how long it takes you to get to sleep. I personally am a huge fan of melatonin before bed, I find it really helps me regulate my sleep hours, especially when I am working odd shifts or trying to get to sleep when the sun is still out. [Zinc/magnesium?/?]

You should try to get at least 7 hours of good quality uninterrupted sleep per night. I personally can function on 4 pretty much indefinitely, but it sure isn’t optimal and I get run down a lot faster. Some people need more, basically no one needs more than 9 unless they have some sort of medical condition. If you get your schedule in check and have good sleep hygiene practices, you will find out what you need.

I find that 7.5 hours is perfect for me. I now pretty much always naturally wake up a minute or two before my first alarm goes off, and haven’t fallen back asleep and needed my second one in months.

If you are sleeping poorly or just plain not getting enough, you will most likely see really significant improvements in your overall quality of life if you fix that. I am sharper at work, need less coffee to get me through the day, am not completely drained by the end of the work day, my mood is more stable, and I recover from stresses like training faster than I have in years.

It sounds like some miracle snake oil pitch, but I’m really not selling anything (yet…) and it did help me that much. So go out and get some goddamn sleep.

To back all of this up because I am lazy and didn’t want to cite a zillion studies, here is an article titled “How important is sleep?” Go read it right meow.

That which yields is not always weak

I’ve talked about how trying to be 100% perfect on your nutrition and exercise plan is a great way to set yourself up for failure. Which makes sense, right? You need to accept that sometimes you are going to make little mistakes or life is just going to toss something unexpected at you, and you need to be flexible enough to not have that one cookie derail your whole plan forever.

There tend to be two main camps in the fitness nutrition world, the clean eating bros and the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) people. At at both extremes, they’re kinda nutjobs.

The clean eating bros live on chicken and broccoli and brown rice and say that you absolutely cannot get lean if you ever eat anything that is even slightly processed or “unnatural.” Of course, try to get them to define natural and you’ll find that it’s like pornography – they can’t define it, but they know it when they see it. Usually in advertisements at Whole Foods. Don’t ask them if the steroids they are injecting are natural though, they tend to get bent out of shape about that.

The hardcore IIFYM people say that food quality literally does not matter in the slightest, and that you can eat whatever you want so long as it fits your macronutrient requirements – the common criticism is that it is a “pop-tart” diet.

Of course, the reasonable and maintainable path is probably somewhere in the middle. I personally believe that food quality is a somewhat important factor in the design and implementation of nutritional plans, but that trying to be 100% clean and rigid all the time is just absurd. Whole foods tend to be more satiating, which is important when you are trying to lose weight. They also tend on the whole to have a higher proportion of more bioavailable nutrients in them. These are all Really Good Things.

But if you have your calorie intake set correctly, and are getting the right amounts of protein, carbs, and fats, there is no reason that you can’t get some of your calories from a bowl of ice cream the end of the day, or a bit of chocolate, or some pop tarts, or whatever your guilty pleasure of choice is. Especially if that treat allows you to maintain your diet and not go insane and quit.

Alan Aragon suggests that you get 80% to 90% of your calories for the week from whole nutritious foods, and the rest can (and probably should) be allocated however you want. You can choose to split those up however you want. Some people want to have a small treat daily, while others prefer to have a meal or two during the week or even a whole day of being able to eat whatever they want. I personally prefer the one day per week approach.

Please note, a couple of meals or a whole day where you can eat whatever you want does not mean that you should go to the nearest all you can eat buffet and try to make the owner regret letting you in the door. You still need to take care to hit your calorie and macronutrient targets. And hit doesn’t mean smash – they’re not a suggested minimum, like speed limits. It just means that you can choose to get those calories from a ribs and pasta dinner instead of chicken and broccoli. It is the whole-week calorie balance that is really important, and so long as you hit that, you are going to still be making progress.

It is certainly possible to absolutely destroy an entire week’s progress on a fat loss diet with one crazy day. I’ve done it, and I know lots of other people who have as well. Don’t be stupid.

Please do be aware that especially if you have been cutting carbs, you may see a pretty significant jump in scale weight the following morning after a big meal that is outside your usual diet plan. This is almost entirely due to water balance shenanigans and possibly exacerbated by an increase in straight food mass in your body. It will disappear again in a day or two. Here is where a good weight tracking app that shows you a trendline is really useful, as it smooths out those big aberrations and tells you if you are still on track.

Do calories matter?

Yes. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

I could probably just finish this post there, because that’s really all that needs to be said on the topic. But you know me, I’m gonna beat this horse into the ground a little.

I have recently come across a number of people or groups claiming that calories don’t matter, at all. Which is a completely1 delusional2 belief3, showing that they either really don’t understand nutrition, or hope that you don’t.

Now, it is true that not all calories are created equal. Obviously, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are all handled differently in your body and are used for different purposes, and at various efficiencies. Carbohydrates are used and stored as a source of muscular energy in the form of glycogen, and are the primary energy source your body uses for most day-to-day things, most of the time. Fats are used or stored as triglycerides, or goddamn ass fat as some of us know it. Protein is generally known as the primary building block of muscle, although muscles only contain about 25% protein by mass. It requires a lot more energy to build muscle than the energy contained in the protein however, so you can’t count on ~600 extra calories building a pound of muscle.

If you have spent any time at all consuming information about nutrition or fitness you have probably come across the term “thermic effect of food” or TEF. What this is, is essentially how much work your body has to do to process the calories you are taking in. For fats, it is negligible – something on the order of 1% of the calories you consume are burned to make that energy available to be used for productive things. For carbohydrates, it is a bit higher, but not significantly so – studies have suggested that it ranges from 2%-9% of calories. Protein is significantly higher than either fats or carbohydrates, at roughly 20% TEF. That means that for every 100 calories of protein that you consume, your body is only really able to make use of about 80 of them, as around 20 are consumed in converting the proteins into a form that your body can use. This is one factor in the observed metabolic advantage that high-protein diets appear to have, both in the scientific literature and anecdotally.

So after all that, a calorie is pretty much a calorie. If you are getting a reasonable balance of protein, carbs, and fats, your body will shuttle things around as it needs, and make the magic of our everyday happen.

But what about the people who say that calories don’t matter? Well, I suggest that they stop consuming calories, and tell their body that calories are irrelevant and should just get over it.

If you don’t eat food, or somehow put nutrition in the form of calories and micronutrients into your body, you will die. Thus far, science hasn’t figured a way around this one. Even the silicon valley guys who want to remove food from their lives still consume calories.

Full disclosure: I tried the Soylent thing for a while. It wasn’t terrible, but definitely wasn’t something that I really enjoyed. I like real food too much. I also am not entirely convinced that there aren’t vitamins or other essential micronutrients that we haven’t discovered yet, that we might be missing by not eating whole foods. Anyways, back to your regularly scheduled informational rant.

Are some diets are harder to over-eat on? Absolutely. I had a vegan tell me that it doesn’t matter how many calories you consume, because she could eat as much as she wanted and never get fat while eating only whole foods. Which is completely untrue, and I am actually considering doing a GFH vegan bulk just to prove these assholes wrong. But she does have minor point in that it is very difficult to over-eat when you are on a diet that artificially restricts you to extremely low calorie density foods like green vegetables. However, consume a tub of peanut butter and a gigantic bowl of rice with coconut oil on it every day, and you will get fat. And probably be incredibly miserable, but I think most vegans tend to be, in addition to usually being iron-deficient and thus easily scared away with a large spoon.

Low-carb diets like atkins and south beach and paleo tend to have a perceived metabolic advantage as well, where calories no longer matter. This stems from two main things. One, it is [again] a lot harder to over-eat meals consisting entirely of lean meats and vegetables, at least initially. These foods have a much higher satiety rating when compared to heavily processed junk, which means you feel fuller while consuming less calories. This means that even without counting calories, the vast majority of people will spontaneously consume less food, which means less calories, which means they lose weight! This does not mean that calories don’t matter. The second thing about low-carb diets that makes them feel like magic is the massive initial loss of scale weight that most people see. As we have discussed previously, this is entirely water balance shenanigans, and doesn’t mean that someone lost 35,000 calories of body mass overnight, and thus calories don’t matter.

So, do calories matter? Yes. Are there things you can do to make the calories you do consume more effective, or ways of eating you can employ to make your dieting life easier? Absolutely.

Again, anyone who tells you that calories don’t matter is selling you something or doesn’t have their head screwed on straight. If you eat more whole foods that have more fibre and are more satiating, you will feel fuller and thus be more comfortable eating less food. This is not magic, and does not invalidate the calorie balance hypothesis.

Now go forth, eat mostly real and preferably delicious foods, and be awesome.

  1. Buchholz AC, Schoeller DA. Is a calorie a calorie? Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;79(5):899S–906S.
  2. Schoeller DA. The energy balance equation: looking back and looking forward are two very different views. Nutr Rev. 2009;67(5):249–254. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00197.x.
  3. Schoeller DA, Buchholz AC. Energetics of obesity and weight control: does diet composition matter? J Am Diet Assoc. 2005;105(5 Suppl 1):S24–8. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2005.02.025.

Water balance shenanigans

Over the course of this past week, I lost eight pounds according to my scale. Pretty awesome, right? To put that into perspective, that’s about 5% of my total body mass. Was my caloric deficit for the week really twenty eight THOUSAND calories? Did I actually drop 8 pounds of fat in seven days? Not a chance. My actual caloric deficit for the week when accounting for diet and exercise was somewhere around 5000 calories, because I’m targeting about a pound and a half per week of fat loss. So where did that extra six and a half pounds come from and go?

Welcome to the world of water balance shenanigans. If you go on a very low carb diet, you will see an immediate scale drop of 5+ pounds. If you then go out and have a massive pasta dinner, the next day the scale will be up at least that much the next morning. Is this an actual fat or muscle mass gain or loss? Basically, no. A tiny bit of it maybe, but the vast majority is going to be water weight.

The reason you see that big shift when removing carbs or binging, especially with low carb dieting, is because dieting generally depletes your muscle glycogen, which is an intra-muscular energy source, used to fuel your daily activities. And for every gram of glycogen you have in your muscles, you also store 2.7 grams of water. This whole storage system amounts to about 5-10% of your total body mass, which means that you can possibly see shifts of up to this much on an almost daily basis, according to the scale.

In addition to muscle glycogen and the associated water storage, your body also (obviously) uses water for a ton of other things. Stress and cortisol levels are one of the things that can have a big individual effect on water balance, and is also why you will occasionally see no progress at all for a week or more, then the morning after you go out for a big celebration or “fuck this dieting shit” meal, you will magically be five pounds lighter.

For the ladies in the crowd, the water balance bullshit you have to deal with is even worse. Because of the way your hormones do crazy shit with your water balance, you could possibly see absolutely zero progress on the scale for a full month or more, even if you are doing everything right. This doesn’t mean that you have actually stalled, but rather that your body just hates you. Or loves you so much just like you are that it wants to pretend that you will never change.

I’ve said a number of times that if I could ever manage to make fat loss completely linear without having to worry about water balance shenanigans, I could retire tomorrow. Without even speeding it up at all.

This is one reason I am a big fan of not only using the scale weight to track progress when dieting. I also use weekly circumference and skinfold measurements to track my progress. So long as you are seeing improvements on one of these, you know you are still making progress, and shouldn’t freak out. I recently had one week of really slow scale progress, then a two week period where the scale didn’t budge at all. Not even 0.1 of a lb loss over two weeks. But my skinfolds kept going down, and my other measurements went down as well. So I trusted that it was all working and that I should just keep going, even though it was really really hard to not just rage-quit and answer the siren call of the peanut M&M’s. Then this past week I dropped 8lb.

Even knowing all of the facts about water balance and whatnot, it can be really difficult to ignore the day to day scale weight. When I am dieting, nothing starts my day off worse than having the scale spike by a few pounds for no apparent reason. I know it’s just water balance or extra food mass or an increased sodium intake. I know that it will be gone in a day or two. I know that no single weigh in really matters, so long as I am doing everything right. I know that the thing that really matters is the trendline in my weight tracker, not the daily.

It still sucks. I don’t have a good answer for this one, I’m afraid. Just trust the program. Trust that you are doing things right. Know that in a month you probably won’t even remember the specifics of today. But don’t let a shitty morning weigh-in drive you to go on a food bender and actually destroy whatever progress you’ve made. “The scale went up this morning so I’m going to make myself really fat by eating an entire buffet including the hostess and server!” Is not a healthy choice.

The only person who can make good choices for you is you. So go forth, make good choices, and be awesome.

But I have a medical condition!

Ok then. In this case, you ARE actually a special snowflake. A special snowflake that needs to talk to a medical doctor, preferably one that specializes in whatever your medical condition is.

We are just random assholes on the internet, and I know that this will come as a surprise to many of the people reading this [Hi Mom!], but we are NOT doctors. Not even the kind that got PhD’s in basket weaving just so people would have to call us doctor.

My educational background is in mechanical engineering, process improvement, hard alcohol, and the culinary arts. House was raised by wolves and never went to real school and is not qualified to talk about anything except food and being a fat ass.

So go seek actual medical help. Note: contrary to popular belief, neither the Internet at large nor WebMD is a doctor either.

Actually, you should probably go see your doctor anyways. When’s the last time you went in for a check-up? Isn’t it about time? Yeah, I thought so. Don’t worry, we’ll still be here when you get back.

Odds are pretty good that your doctor will tell you something like “try to eat mostly things that are identifiable as coming somewhat recently from plants or animals, and try not to sit on your ass all the time.” Which also happens to really be what most good fitness advice boils down to. Still. Go talk to them before you make any changes to anything in your life ever. If you try to do anything we talk about on this website, you will probably die a slow and painful death and we will take no responsibility for it.

Now back to your regularly scheduled free-floating hostility.