Month Without Alcohol / Food Journal

A few weeks ago, I decided to go alcohol free in the whole month of March. The reasons are not important to detail here, but it seemed like a good exercise. Today is day 13 without a drink. I like drinking. But I would also like a more optimal state of health and I had reason to believe that drinking wasn’t helping my health. A month off was a gift to my body. It’s harder going without my frequent fine companion ethanol on Fridays (maybe especially so on this unlucky one). But what makes it easier to bear is how amazing I actually feel today. I really feel good. I’m serious. Today was awesome. Alcohol is an insidious friend.

So I feel good about that. But also, I feel good about my food journal. Yes, I am back to keeping a food journal. Six years ago, a different me wrote about his love of food journals on this blog. I had forgotten how much I believe in them, to be honest. I was woken from my slumber by Josh Hillis’ words in Fat Loss Happens on Monday, which I recently started reading. I really do believe in food journals. Therefore, six days ago, I started keeping a hand written food and health journal. The details of my diet, metrics of weight and body size, statements of gratitude about my body, my workouts, doctor’s appointments, and other stuff are going in there.

The journalling is going well. It’s a change for me to use a paper journal. But I am loving it. It never crashes, or does wonky things. It is handsome and feels nice to hold. I’ve kept good track of everything this week, and it’s marvelously focusing.

my new year’s resolution: body recomposition

I got six real resolutions, none of which directly impact my training, except that if I can keep them, I’ll be a better athlete and trainee, because I’ll be a better person. Those are between me, my God, and my family.

But I’ve got a seventh resolution, that does impact my training. And so I’ll share it here, and hopefully, my efforts to work on it will help others besides myself. Basically, that one has to do with body recomposition.

A short history is in order. December 2008, I was fat, out of shape, and depressed. I got into CrossFit. I went on the Zone diet. I fooled around with Primal and Paleo eating. I kept a detailed calorie and macronutrient counting food journal. And lo, and behold, I dropped the pounds and got leaner, and stronger, than I’d ever been in my life. CrossFit taught me the importance of lifting heavier than I ever thought I could, and it taught me the importance of working harder. But my food journal and Zone/Paleo dieting taught me I could change the composition of my body.

In January 2009, I weighed 215.5 lbs. The first 20 pounds took almost 4 months to lose. The next 20 pounds came off over the next 9 months. I got to a low weight of around 172 in February of 2010. It’s a long story, but by end of summer 2010 I weighed around 180, by choice. Mainly this came about by relaxing my diet and quitting the food journal. I was putting on lean mass and getting stronger, too, so it was all good. My weight was creeping up towards the end of 2010, but in December, after the Carolina Fitness Challenge 2010 (where I placed 5th in the Master’s Division), I still weighed about 180, and was lean, fit and strong.

The next year, 2011, was a year of letting all this go. I let go of MetCons, partly because I fell in love with weightlifting, and partly because I stopped going to CrossFit, and started training like a weightlifter. I briefly returned to tracking my weight in April to May, 2011. By May, I was up to 195. Then I let go of Paleo starting in Summer 2011. And at the end of the summer, I broke my arm, which was a major bummer for my training and especially for my conditioning. By November, I was well up above 200, and spinning out of control. I decided to start measuring my umbilical region and taking a weight measure every single day. But this didn’t really work, as far as a “weight loss” technique. I didn’t restrict myself in any way, and by the end of December, 2011, I was back up to 210, and had put more than an inch on my umbilical measurement over the course of two months.

Time to take action? Hell yes.

I’ll be 43 years old on January 6th. This is the best possible time to halt my recent slide into mindless eating, gain of unwanted adipose tissue, and a less than ideal body composition. This is now.

The Rules of the Resolution

A lot of the 30 lbs I gained in 2011 is lean mass. In fact, I’d estimate at least 50% of it is lean mass. So, since I’d like to keep all of that lean mass, and gain some more, actually, I’m not looking to lose more than 15 lbs. I just want all of that loss to be fat.

I weighed 210 today. My goal weight is 195.

I know some tricks for losing fat while retaining lean mass. Eat plenty of protein, like 1g-2g per pound of lean mass per day (in my case, I’d say, that’s 175g-350g daily). Keep food quality high. Keep the daily eating window relatively short (i.e. intermittent fasting). Take periodic full day fasts. Strive to keep the body in very slight caloric deficit. Periodically “re-feed” (i.e. cheat). Avoid: wheat and grains, alcohol, sugar, most starches. And, to keep your lean mass: lift heavy weights.

To keep making strength gains while losing weight is difficult; some would say, impossible. But I have done it before, mainly because I was so weak to begin with. I am still, in the relative world of strength athletics, quite weak. So maybe I can continue to experience novice-effect like strength gains while getting leaner. Furthermore, another possibility exists, namely that, if I focus on food quality, good eating habits, eat adequate calories to keep my caloric deficit small, eat smart so as to recover well, and prioritize sleep, I should be able to lean out and get stronger.

And of course I’m going to have to start doing my “conditioning” work again.

My personal, prior experience suggests it will take 3 months or so to lose these fifteen pounds. Twelve weeks.

I am going to give it 12 and a half weeks. Starting from right now, in Week 0, which ends on Saturday. Week 1 will begin on Sunday, January 8th. February 5th begins week 5. March 4th begins week 9. Week 12 ends on March 31st.

I am going to practice intermittent fasting during this entire period, with daily feeding periods of 8-10 hours (i.e. 14 to 16 hours of fasting daily). I am going to have full day fasts every other week, on Thursday (fast begins post breakfast) to Friday (first meal is lunch), in weeks 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11.

That, rather than strict paleo or primal eating, will be the primary tool. That and daily weigh-ins and umbilical measures.

Most of my meals will be lower carb, paleo-ish, “primal” meals. But if I want some rice or corn or beans or a little alcohol (wine, bourbon, even beer) or some other non-paleo delicacy I am going to permit it. But I will probably not permit myself to have sugar on most days. (We’ll see if this works).

Also, I’m really not that worried about strictly controlling macronutrient ratios. I don’t think the Zone advocates enough protein for weightlifters, for one. And for another, I want to do this without weighing and measuring every meal. To be clear: the “Zone” changed the way I eat forever. Now I always think of each meal in terms of “what’s my protein, what’s my carb, what’s my fat.” That won’t change. But my diet won’t be Zone in the same respect that it won’t be paleo.

Cheating will be on a 3-6-9 plan. If I lose more than 6 pounds in any two week period, or more than 9 pounds in a three week period, then I will permit myself two cheat meals on a single Saturday or Sunday. In other words, if my weigh in on Saturday AM isn’t more than 6 pounds down from two Saturdays prior, or 9 pounds from three Saturdays prior, then I can’t have my “cheat.” That means that my first possible cheat meal is not until Jan 21st, and then only if I’m down to … whatever is six pounds less than what I weigh in this upcoming Saturday.

Every Sunday, on Weeks 1-13, I will post an update on my progress. Look for it.

Nutritional Information

The fourth in a series of posts on my Weight Loss Arsenal, the tips and tricks I have used to shed fat and keep it at bay.

Before you can fine tune your eating habits, you have to know what you’re eating and how it is affecting your weight loss goals.

That’s why I have, in the previous posts in this series, recommended that you (1) use a good scale to weigh yourself regularly, (2) keep a food journal in which you record everything that you eat, and (3) practice weighing and measuring your food until (and well after) you can accurately estimate quantities.

If you do those three things, you are almost certain to increase your awareness of your eating behaviors, and their effects on your body. Hopefully, that awareness will lead to better dietary choices, and hopefully, those better dietary choices will lead to weight loss.

But really, if you want to take full advantage of this new-found dietary awareness, you’ll have to do more. What good is it if you know exactly what food you’re eating, but don’t really know much about what is in your food?

Nutritional information is important. Yes, we’re talking calories. We’re talking grams of protein, grams of fat, and grams of carbohydrate. This kind of information can help you assess whether your diet is balanced. It can help you meet specific goals related to whatever diet system you are following. It can help you figure out the real reasons that what you eat and how much you eat has the particular effects on your body that it has.

There are a million ways to get good nutritional information. There are books and encyclopedias and websites galore. I could just recommend that you get yourself a favorite one of these and stick with it. But I have something else in mind. There is one particular source of nutritional information that I think EVERYONE should know about and use. After all, if you’re a U.S. taxpayer, you’ve already paid for the creation and upkeep of this source. And, the bottom line is, it’s actually the best and most authoritative source for information, the one that is actually used by most other available sources. It not only provides information about calories and macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates), but also about amino acids, vitamins and minerals, sugars and carbohydrate compositions, and many other potentially useful (or, I guess, potentially obfuscating) pieces of data.

The source in question is the:
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, an on-line database containing information on the nutrient content of commonly eaten foods (both natural and processed, both generic and branded). It doesn’t have everything, but it comes darn close. If Americans eat it regularly, it’s in there.

Using the database is pretty simple, but, in case you’re feeling intimidated, I am going to provide this handy guide to its features.

Using the USDA Nutrient Database

First, you pull up the main screen.

USDA Nutrient Database Front Page

USDA Nutrient Database Front Page (click to enlarge)

There’s a search field on the main page that lets you enter any number of words that might be associated with the food you’re interested in. For instance, if you wanted to know about Corn Chips, you would type, “Corn Chips.” It’s that simple.

When you hit return, or the search button, the next screen gives you the search results.

USDA Nutrient Database Search Results

USDA Nutrient Database Search Results (click to enlarge)

Some things in the are more difficult to find, but once you learn about how things tend to be listed in the database, you figure out how to use it well. So, you might come to expect that most veggies are given listings in either raw or cooked form, so you could type “Broccoli, raw” or “Broccoli, cooked” and find what you’re looking for more quickly. In this example, there are seven results. I want the simple, yellow corn chips we eat at a restaurant, so I select that feature, and then hit the “submit” button.

The next screen lets you specify what quantity of the food you are dealing with. After all, the specific nutrient content of what you eat is dependent upon the total amount of food! Usually, the database provides nutrient data in a variety of formats: by weight in grams or ounces, by volume, or by units of various sizes. In this example, I am interested in the nutritional information associated with 28.35 grams, or 1 ounce, of Corn Chips.

USDA Nutrient Database Amounts Screen

USDA Nutrient Database Amounts Screen (click to enlarge)

(The example assumes that I weighed or will weigh the Corn Chips, or am estimating their quantity, perhaps based on the number of chips I ate; as it happens, most Corn Chips have about 10-12 chips per ounce). Note that you can change the values however you want. You can put in any multiple (including fractions) of the specified units, and the database will return data for that multiple of units. If I knew I ate 5 oz. of chips, I could get the data for 5 oz. of chips instead of one.

Finally, after hitting that submit button again, I get my results.

USDA Nutrient Database Results Screen

USDA Nutrient Database Results Screen (click to enlarge)

The top of the results page contains the most basic information. The information gets more complicated as you scroll down the screen.

If you’re just counting calories, the most useful information will be right near the top. Calories are known in the nutritional sciences by the term “Energy.” The standard “calorie” unit that we are all familiar with is the “kcal” or kilo-calories of energy, the second item in the table (after water… did you know that all food contains some water?). The next few lines cover the basics including: Protein, Lipid (fat), Ash (which has no nutritional value, but is present in food), and Carbohydrates (starches and sugars). (This information would be useful mainly if you’re following a diet like “the Zone,” or if you are trying, as an athlete might, to meet certain targets for different macronutrient amounts in your daily food intake). In this example, we find the shocking information that one ounce of corn chips contains a whopping 139 calories, with 2g of PRO, 6g of FAT, and 19g of CHO, give or take. The lesson here is: lay off those Corn Chips! Or only allow yourself one ounce.

If you keep scrolling down the screen, you can find out MORE really detailed, often fascinating, occasionally useful information; for instance, the database contains information about the types of amino-acids in the proteins found in meats and other protein sources, or about the types of fats found in oils, or about the types of carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables, and grains.

The point of using this (and other sources of) information is to help you with your weight loss. It’s intended to help you get realistic about the contents of the foods you eat, so that you neither over-estimate nor under-estimate what’s actually in things.

One last thing: if you’re a bit of a compulsive food diarist, as I am, you’ll probably want to keep a list of the foods you commonly eat and would often look up in this database in your food journal. That’s just a little tip to make it a bit easier to gain a master’s level understanding of the nutrient content of your favorite food items.

Weighing and Measuring Food

This post is the third in a series of posts on my “Weight Loss Arsenal,” tools and tricks that have been essential for me in the process of losing weight and keeping fat at bay.

For most of us, losing weight requires conscious, sustained effort. If you’re anything like me, a big part of the problem you have had with food is that you’re usually not conscious or aware of how much you are eating. In an earlier post, I suggested that keeping a food journal may be the most effective tool for becoming conscious of your food intake. But a second technique goes hand in hand with keeping a food diary. And that’s weighing and measuring your food. This post is about the very practical skill of weighing and measuring food, which has the side benefit of teaching you the habit of accurately estimating food portions.

Reasons to Measure your Food

It is possible that you don’t need to weigh and measure your food. As coach Corey at CrossFit Asheville has pointed out to me, “cavemen didn’t weigh and measure.” Of course, on the face of it, that is true. But usually, cavemen also didn’t need to lose 40 pounds.

Americans are fools when it comes to portion sizing. Cavemen didn’t have access to the super-abundant food-supplies that we have. One of the reasons so many of us are so fat is that we are used to being served portions that are entirely out of balance with the nutritional needs of a typical human being. As a result, many of us have no idea how to eat moderately. We have never developed a sense of proper portion sizing, because we have never attempted to understand precisely how much we are eating.

Let me state at the outset that this post is about a practical skill. I don’t care what your preferred theory of dieting is based on, you need this skill. You may follow the “paleolithic” or “caveman” diet, or the “Zone diet,” or the theories espoused by Greg Glassman and the devotees of CrossFit (Paleo-Zone). (I’ll explain in a later post how my own experience has led me to believe that this diet theory is the best). You may follow the South Beach diet, or the Mediterranean diet, or the Michael Pollan “food” diet. Maybe you use a super-low-fat and high-carb diet, or the Atkins diet, or even a simple calorie-restriction diet. For all of these diets, one thing is certain: you can follow them, but they really won’t work if you still eat too much. The simple fact is that most of these diets require you to measure or at least think about the quantity of food you put into your system. They require you to meet minimum goals of intake for certain foods, and not to exceed maximum limits for others. The diets will fail if you don’t follow them carefully. But there’s really no way to do that accurately, unless you get in the habit of weighing and measuring all your food.

The Kitchen Scale

My kitchen scale.

My kitchen scale.

If you are ready to weigh and measure, the first thing you need is a good kitchen scale. And what is a good scale? Simply put: it doesn’t need to be fancy. It should be functional, quick, and relatively easy to clean.

In using your scale, you need to be bold. Keep it out on the counter, where you regularly prepare food. Use your scale for any food item that can’t easily be counted or measured by volume, or for any type of food that is usefully recorded in ounces or grams.

There are many different times and ways you can use your scale. If you want to keep track of your actual food intake, probably the best time to use the scale is during the process of “plating” your food. So, unless you have an understanding spouse, partner, or table-mate who doesn’t mind you bringing the scale to the dining room table, you might take up the practice of plating your food in the kitchen, where the scale normally sits. But there are also other times you can profitably use your scale: while butchering meats, prepping food for cooking, etc.

If you use your scale enough, you will probably find that you very quickly develop the skill of estimating food amounts. Before long, you’ll be cutting off 1 oz. or 4 oz. chunks of meat exactly, on the first try. You’ll grab a handful of almonds, throw it on the scale and find that it weighs exactly 1 oz. These skills of estimation will become indispensable to you, as they help you learn about the amount of food you’re actually eating. For example, they allow you to go out to eat in a restaurant, or at a friend’s house, and still limit yourself to a sensible quantity of food.

Measuring Cups and Spoons

My doubly and triply redundant set of measuring cups and spoons.

My doubly and triply redundant set of measuring cups and spoons.

For weighing and measuring, you will also need measuring cups and spoons. But there’s nothing quite so frustrating as wanting to measure a teaspoon of canola oil, or a tablespoon of almond butter, or a 1/4 cup of cooked rice, and finding that you can’t find a clean measuring spoon anywhere. So I recommend having at least three sets of measuring spoons, and two sets of measuring cups, and keeping them in a predictable place, right where you prepare and plate your food.

Once you overcome any residual fears that you may harbor about using these tools—will people think I am a freak because I measure everything?—you will quickly discover that a measuring spoon or cup can work very well as a serving device. You can pull the suckers out while plating. Or you can even bring them right to the table and serve things with them. If you know you are only going to eat a 1/4 cup of cooked oatmeal, then by all means serve yourself with that 1/4 cup measure. If you are committed to limiting yourself to one 4 oz. glass of wine, pour the wine first into that 1/2 cup measure. If you’re planning to eat two cups of strawberries, cut them right into the cup measure, and then put them into a bowl. If you keep enough of these things around, and keep them close at hand while you are preparing or plating food, it becomes second nature to grab hold of them and measure how much you are making, or planning to eat.

The great thing is that, soon enough, as with the scale, you’ll learn what three cups of broccoli or cooked kale really looks like on your plate; you’ll learn to serve yourself exactly 1/4 cup of rice without a cup-measure. You’ll learn how full (or empty) your wine glass looks when filled with 4 oz. of Chardonnay.

For the record, it is also helpful to memorize three or four very simple conversions. 8 fluid ounces = 1 cup. 16 tablespoons = 1 cup. 1 tablespoon = 1/2 fluid ounce. 1 fluid ounce = 28 grams.

The Virtues of Weighing and Measuring

The virtues of this way of eating are many. Chiefly, weighing and measuring helps you be realistic and accurate in the record of your eating you make in your food journal. Secondarily, it helps you achieve specific dietary goals, such as controlling calorie intake, or meeting consumption goals for specific macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs). Thirdly, and perhaps best, weighing and measuring your food trains you to become much more aware of your eating, and how the quantities you eat affect your body and your progress in your diet.

Keeping a Food Journal

Among weight loss tools, tricks, and tips, I have found that nothing else works like keeping a food journal.

Before you even begin to contemplate what dietary theory you plan to follow, you should know this. The best thing you can do to ensure your success is to write down every single thing that you eat. Everything. Keep. A. Food. Journal.

I have gone through two periods in my life (1996-1998 and 2009) where I lost a large amount of weight (30-40 lbs). In both instances, the most important weapon in my arsenal was my food journal.

When I keep a food diary, I attempt to record everything I eat, with unrelenting honesty. If I do this, then two things happen.

First, I am confronted clearly with the facts of my eating, and all excuses vanish. When I spend night after night eating candy before bed, that shows up in writing, where it can’t be denied. Its link to my waistline gets documented too, since I record the data from my Tanita Body Fat Percentage Scale in my food journal too.

Second, I am forced to become more conscious of what I eat. I learn to remember more clearly all the things I consume, and over time, my memory of my eating behavior improves. Learning to be honest about what I eat (and drink!) breeds a different kind of honesty, about what I want from food, my body, and my life. Being honest with myself in this way points me towards success.

There is a simple bottom line. One must own one’s own eating. The food journal helps you do that.

But don’t take my word for this! Scientists have noticed it too. As Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported for Time in July 2008, a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine (Hollis, Gullion, Stevens, et al., “Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial,” AJPM 35:2 [2008] 118-126) found that there is one single factor that correlates highly with weight loss. You guessed it: keeping a food journal. Victor Stevens, one of the lead researchers, told Gupta that in their study of weight loss trials, “hands down, the most successful weight-loss method was keeping a record of what you eat.” Over a six month period, study participants who kept a journal lost TWICE the weight of non-diarists.

An effective diary contains a record of what you eat every day, from waking to sleeping. In it, you attempt to describe all the substances you consume, in whatever quantities you consume them. You record the items, the time of day, and, if necessary, additional information.

If you get serious, you will record the exact amounts (see the next post in this series), and all nutritional data.

I actually use an Excel spreadsheet to keep my food journal. I do this because it’s a stable and quick way to record data in a table. The sheet just goes on forever, and I can customize the look, and update my system as I need to. I use different “sheets” within the spreadsheet to record weight, or frequently utilized nutrition data, or data I calculate about recipes, etc.

Also, I like to take advantage of the spreadsheet’s ability to do math automatically. The spreadsheet file I keep needs input only on the list of items I consume, and then I add in the relevant information about grams of protein, fat, carbs, and alcohol. But then I have the sheet programmed with formulas, so that it then computes automatically the protein/carb ratio, total calories, percent of the protein, fat, carbs and alcohol, and even the number of “Zone blocks” this represents. More on all this stuff later. All this data data is extremely useful in the war against excess body fat.

Tanita Body Fat Percentage Scale

The first in a series of posts on tools and rules I have used for losing weight.

My 8 Year Old Tanita TBF-621

My 8 Year Old Tanita TBF-621

The numbers don’t lie. If you say you want to lose some weight—by which I mean lose some fat, not muscle—then you must be able to quantify the changes to your body. I can almost imagine Coach Glassman saying, if you can’t show that you’re making progress, then what you’re doing isn’t working.

But the thing we have to understand about “weight loss” is that it doesn’t really matter how much you weigh. It’s about the fat on your body. You don’t want to lose weight, you want to lose fat. In fact, unless your weight loss is a loss of excess body fat, then it probably isn’t healthy for you. Enter the Body Fat Scale. I definitely use one. As far as brands go? I really can’t say I’ve tried a variety of brands. In fact, I am familiar only with two models of one brand: Tanita. They’re pretty good. I’ve had mine since April 2001, and only changed the batteries a few times. These scales work by taking a measurement of the electrical impedance of your body. That number, adjusted for age and weight and gender and height and activity level, correlates with the amount of body fat supposedly on your body.

People will sometimes tell you that these body fat scales are not very accurate. In a way that’s true, but not really. What they are is consistent, and their consistency is about as useful as any accuracy. To use them, what is needed is experience and a consistent method of measurement. Then they can be used to track your progress way better than any normal scale.

How to Use a Body Fat Scale

The first thing to realize is that the numbers you get from this scale vary a LOT during the day. Depending on how hydrated you are, depending upon how active you have been for several hours before weighing in, or how long it has been since you slept, depending on the content of your stomach and bowels and bladder, depending on your body temperature or the moisture content of your skin, you may get different readings. So the question becomes, how do you use this thing?



  1. Keep track of your numbers on a spreadsheet or chart.
  2. Keep track of the date and time of each reading of weight and body fat, and use an additional column for notes.
  3. Over the course of one week, weigh yourself a few times. Do this at a variety of times: whenever you can manage to get naked in your bathroom. Get at least four sets of readings during the week, all taken at different points in the day.
  4. In your spreadsheet, once a week you should record the range you observed during the week: your highest and lowest recorded weight, and your highest and lowest recorded body fat percentage.
  5. Week to week, don’t expect to see big swings. Just look for a gradual reduction of both ends of the ranges you measure. It’s all about the trend and the averages.

Remember: these scales don’t provide a very precise measurement. For example, mine gives readings only in whole percentage numbers. That means I have to lose more than 1.8 pounds of fat to lose a percentage point on the scale. But over time, the highest weight I record in any given week has always decreased along the same “curve” as the lowest weight I record during the week. The lowest body fat percentage I observe (often this can be measured at the very end of an active day, several hours after last eating) always decreases at the same rate or along the same “curve” as the highest body fat percentage I observe.

An example of my weight chart

Date Weight BF % Fat Observed Range of Weight over the week Observed Range of BF % over the week
3/29/2009 198.5 18% 35.73 195.0—203 18—21
4/5/2009 195.0 17% 33.15 194.2—199.5 17—21
4/12/2009 194.0 16% 31.04 193.5—198.5 15—20
4/19/2009 192.5 16% 30.8 191.0—196.0 15—20
4/26/2009 191.0 16% 30.56 189.4—193 16—19
5/3/2009 191.5 15% 28.7 187.0—193 15—18

As you can see from this table, there are times when your weight might seem to be increasing, or when you might not seem to be making progress, but the trend in the ranges you observe is what shows the real progress.

Revisiting “the Zone”

Explores my CrossFit inspired rediscovery of “the Zone” diet, 14 years after the original publication of Barry Sears’ 1995 book, Enter the Zone. In my own experience, the Zone-favorable diet is the best way to control your weight and promote your overall health and well-being.