Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fat-Burning: Nerd Level

These fat-loss posts are being published retroactively. I originally wrote the following in late-July. 

   date       gut"       lbs    gut loss        tl gut loss    lb loss      tl lb loss           ktn avg 
21-Jul 39.5 177.2 0.13 0.75 1.4 6.2                   n/a
28-Jul 39.38 175.8 0.13 0.88 1.4 7.81.35

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from Tom Venuto was combining nutrition/fitness with neuro-linguistic programming. ie, visualizing long-term goals. Not just your body-shape goals, but also how they apply to everyday life -- whether for medical or psycho-emotional benefit, physical accomplishment, or simply for vanity.

Visualizing the goals and their everyday applications is the glue that keeps the program together.

My top goal this time around is mostly utilitarian: Ensuring I'm in the best health for my growing family. (Okay, okay: Looking good at the pool would be nice, too.)

There's also an important time constraint in that I want to maximize my progress before baby No. 2's expected arrival in mid-October.

Midichlorians, NOOOOOooooooooo!

Another huge motiviation comes as a skeptic -- nay, as an "engineer"; And that is validating Best Known Practices for fat loss.

Thus, this week, I started to measure my ketone levels more accurately by using an electronic ketone meter (vs. a pee stick). It's a blood test, via pin-prick, which shows how many ketones are in my blood (vs. how much are eliminated on a stick).

In short, the meter is a real-time gauge of how hot my fat-furnace is burning: Too few ketones means I'm not burning enough. Too many means I've reached a point of diminishing returns. (Too, too many might mean a medical emergency.)

Following the Phinney-Volek model, I should see better fat-loss progress when my ketones are in an optimal range (around 1.5 to 3 millimolar BOHB); and less progress when they are below optimal range.

One drawback of using the ketone meter is that the test strips are prohibitively expensive (even on eBay). For the meter I use, the cheapest strips I could find are about $3 each, lowering to $2 each if buying in bulk at my-wife-will-kill-me level.

While that's too expensive for daily use, I've settled on twice a week: Once at mid-week (Tues. night) to detect any lingering anomalies from the weekend, then again at end-week (Fri. night) to ensure I'm starting the weekend in good shape.

This week's initial ketone meter reading was 1.8, which is smack in the middle of Phinney-Volek's optimal bell-curve. But the end-week reading showed me at 0.9. This reading was likely lowered by eating some fruit and a bite of Rowan's birthday cake a few hours before taking the test. Hello, insulin spike!

If the theory is correct, you can infer the body's response to sugar intake: My body switched to using the digested fruit and cake for energy and lowered its use of fat stores.


Measurements the last two weeks show a consistent pattern: 1/8" and 1.5lbs down per week. That might be a good baseline to tell me how well I'm doing in the future. Again, compared to previous fat-loss cycles, this would be considered solid progress.

Everyday Victories

I made my short-term goal weight of 175ish by end of July. I also made my goal of fitting into jeans I'd only worn once -- before recent travel to NY made me too fat.

Next week: Traveling Tupperware Party

While the progress has been pretty solid so far, I think it can be even better -- especially at this weight since I've got a lot to lose. My biggest fault at the moment is a tendancy to snack late at night when I should be going to bed. Thus, I've come to reconsider the conventional wisdom of five/six-meals-a-day grazing; the constant hunger every 2-3 hours. Wouldn't life be so much easier if I ate just two or three truly satisfying meals a day?

Hmmmm... . Back next week. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

See It Jiggle: Intensity Matters

These fat-loss posts are being published retroactively. I originally wrote the following in mid-July. 

date gut"    lbs gut loss" total gut losswt losstotal wt loss 
14-Jul  39.63  178.6      0.63        0.63    4.8          4.8
21-Jul  39.5  177.2      0.13        0.75    1.4          6.2
Some thoughts about fat: What comprises a fat gut is a combination of visceral and subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat, which sits behind the abdominal wall, burns faster than subcutaneous fat, which is the flabby stuff that makes love handles and muffin tops. This jiggly stuff is the last to go when slimming down.

I'm theorizing here, but I bet that when you see those fat-loss make-overs with seemingly too-good-to-be-true results, you're seeing those freaks who started with good muscle development and relatively little subcutaneous fat (ie, folks experienced with bulk-to-cut cycles).

But if you're like me and have in the past lost a ton of weight only to find a thinner flabby version of your old self (eg, my marathon era), you've got an extra dose of stubborn subcutaneous fat. Reducing this fat has its own training requirements as biochemically, your body doesn't want to give it up.

Combining keto at caloric deficit (ensuring stored fat is being readily used) is the main-thrust of my fat attack. My flanking attack is adding regular HIIT into my workouts. The pincher maneuver is regular strength training. Here are different studies showing HIIT and strength training may make the perfect storm.

HIIT has the added benefit of making me a more-efficient distance runner whenever I can eventually get back into it.

While I'm starting this cut cycle with more fat than in previous cycles, I'm fortunately not completely deconditioned and can fit in HIIT once or twice a week without being absolutely wrecked by it. I can also continue to lift heavy (well, "heavy" for an endurance junky). Hopefully, that'll mean quicker results.

I should note here that I tried a supplement, alpha-yohimbe, that theoretically enhances the body's use of stubborn fat (by addressing the biochemical stuff I linked above). I stopped taking it, however, as it made me feel light-headed, almost drunk-like. And if taken with caffeine, I felt like I needed to do windsprints to keep up with the stim effect. 

So far, I haven't found any human trials that've been done on it. ie, no proof that the strange side-effects are worth it. And so, it goes to the back of the cupboard.

Since Prince Was on Apollonia

While exercise is not necessary to lose weight with a calorie deficit, from my P90X days I know for certain that strength-training makes a worthwile visible difference.

That is, if I'm spending five hours a week in training and food-prep, I better have something to show for it. I'm also doing a workout routine because I want to maximize my fat loss ahead baby No. 2's birth.

A bit more about my training routine: I'm currently using the Advanced Body Weight training program found on Nerd Fitness (NF). I split the workout into lower- and upper-body days, combined with 20 minutes of LISS afterward. On non-strength days, I do 20 minutes of HIIT (near/at sprint effort).

I workout five to six days per week with the goals to get stronger and faster. No "toning" with 5lb weights. No book-reading while on the treadmill.

If my legs and feet are up for it, instead of LISS after strength training, I'll do less-intense HIIT (at lactate threshold). I'll call this medium-high intervals (M/HIIT). M/HITT is also done with longer rest periods to help prevent injury and overtraining.

All of this takes about an hour (including a stretch and shower). Fortunately, my gym is right across the street from my office. But if needed, I can do these workouts at home without any special gym equipment (save a pull-up bar).

A typical week looks like this:

Su:   rest, hike or family bike ride
M:   Lower-body & LISS or M/HIIT
Tu:  Upper-body & LISS or M/HIIT
Th:  Lower-body & LISS or M/HIIT
F:    Upper-body & LISS or M/HIIT
Sa:  rest, hike or family bike ride

What I'm not doing is a dedicated abdominal routine. This is mostly to save time, but also helps check that my weekly gut measurement isn't being too skewed by extraneous ab development. There is also the adage that a "six-pack is made in the kitchen" and not with crunches. I had a six-pack before with P90X. It'll be interesting if it reappears without the extra work.

I've read about 5x5 routines being more effective than the traditional 3x10 for strength gains. I might incorporate that if I start to plateau (or get bored) with the NF routine. Except for the bar dips and 1-legged squats, the NF routine is simpler than previous strength programs I've stuck with (P90X and hip/core rehab). It also fits in better with energy demands from work and family.


Loss from water-weight seems to have petered out this week. Now the real gains can be measured. So far, it's pretty solid progress (1/8", 1.5lbs down) on par with previous fat-loss cycles.

My keto-flu symptoms are diminishing, including the keto-euphoria. Alas, seeing the progress makes me happy.

Next Week: Real-Time Fat Loss Measurements

Being a nerd has its advantages. One of which is being neurotic (in a good way) about data, and visualizing data, and feedback loops that measure how well your ideas are working in the real world.

For fat-loss, the cheapest method for measuring progress is with a tape measure. Sometimes, however, it takes days or weeks to see measurable progress. For the anal-rentive like me, that's not enough!

Then there are times when you're in a situation (like at a party) where healthy food isn't an option and you have to partake in what's available. How do you ensure you haven't wrecked your nutrition and that you're fat-furnace is still on fiyah?

I think I found the answer. More about this next time.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Carb-Loading: Or, Dousing the Fat-Furnace

These fat-loss posts are being published retroactively. I originally wrote the following in mid-July.

week date gut"weight lbgut loss"weight loss lb
7-Jul40.25  183.4--
1 14-Jul39.63  178.60.634.8

Last week, I mentioned keto as the possible answer to my seemingly perpetual yo-yo belly size; that keto/paleo might be the thing to stabilize my thinner-self over the long haul.

If you skipped the links, keto is low-carb nutrition. Why low-carb? Carbs raise insulin levels, and elevated insulin does three things to slow fat-loss: 1) It blocks stored fat from being used as energy, 2) takes fat from the bloodstream and adds it to stored fat, and 3) sparks your appetite.

The goal of low-carb is to induce a state of nutritional ketosis*. This is where the body generates ketones via fat metabolism to use as energy. In contrast, with high-carb meals the body turns instead to glycogen, the energy derived from carbs (and protein to a limited extent).

In carbs' defense, I've heard it sad that "carbs are the flame that burns fat" -- ie, that you need carbs to fuel workouts that burn fat. That might be true for those conditioned to use energy that way. But that's not for everybody all the time. Not for me. Not nowadays.

Check the graph:

Eating low-carb foods (eg, bacon) results in minimal insulin response, resulting in greater use of stored fat. At the opposite end, eating high-carb foods like pasta increases insulin and slows/stops fat loss.

In practical terms, going keto means cutting out all grains and everything made from grains: bread, cereal, oatmeal, tortillas, crackers, pasta, rice, quinoa, etc. It also cuts starchy veggies like potatos and beans, and calorie-dense veggies like corn, tomatoes, and onions. It even sharply restricts fruits when fat-loss is the goal.

65/30/5, What That Looks Like

Right, so I replace all of those calories from grains, bread, fruits, and high-calorie veggies then replace them with fat (assuming I'm already getting enough protein). These are the fatty sources I've found most convenient: Fish, beef, pork, eggs, chicken, coconut butter, olive oil, avocado, and nuts. Here's a good source of keto-friendly foods.

So, yes, that means going hard-core and weighing my food and checking food labels. That's simply how it's done.

This is what a typical day looks like (taken from this week's food diary):

food       total cal  fat   protein  carb
2 eggs      180       120    60         0
2 bacon    140        90    50         0

lunch 1
food                total cal  fat  protein  carb
chicken thigh      152       86     66         0
mixed veggies      25         0       0         25
coconut oil          37        37      0          0
mixed nuts         170     130     24         16

lunch 2
food                total cal  fat  protein  carb
chicken thigh      152       86     66         0
mixed veggies      25         0       0         25
coconut oil          37        37      0          0
mixed nuts         170     130     24         16

food                    total cal  fat  protein  carb
8 oz flat iron steak+  496     256   240        0
2 oz avocado            90       68       0        22       

total cal  fat    protein  carb
   1674   1040    530      104

Percent of total calories
fat     protein  carb 
62%     32%     6%

(+That's a lot of food for dinnertime, when I should be tapering off, but that's an example of a real-world bump in the road.)

As shown above, the day's food is almost spot on with the keto-guideline 65/30/5 split (percent of fat/protein/carbs).

Whoa, Arithmetic

The below are thermodynamics weight-loss basics (calories in vs. calories out and Total Daily Energy Expenditure). Read only if you don't already know what I'm talking about.

If I look at my total calories for the sample day (1,674), it's about 400-500 calories below my maintenance (roughly 2,100 if my lean-mass guesstimates are close). If I add a quality 40-minute workout, that's about a total 700-800 calorie deficit for the day.

If the above is a typical day and I average that five to six days a week, that's a minimum of 3,500 calories lost. It just so happens that a pound of body fat is roughly 3,500 calories.

So I should lose at least a pound a week. Ketosis combined with adequate protein and strengh training should help ensure that that lost pound is mostly fat.

If I'm not losing at least a pound a week, it means my calculations are way off and I need to go back to the lab. If I'm consistently losing a large amount of total weight (say over 3-4 pounds) per week and I'm not seeing any strength gains, I'm probably losing lean mass -- which I want to avoid.


When starting keto, the body adapts to a dwindling glcogen supply and becomes better at using stored fat for energy. The adaptation period may not be so pleasant and is the main reason lots of people quit and/or conclude that keto is unhealthy.

As I alluded to last week, carbs may be as addictive as hard drugs. I'm in rehab this first week.

People describe this sometimes-icky adaptation as the "keto-flu". This week, I felt some of the classic symptoms: 1) headaches, 2) sluggish workouts, and 3) foggy-headedness, but nothing too terrible. (I did, however, try an all-out HIIT session on the bike trainer early in the week, and suffered sharp headaches afterward. I'll need to temper the intensity for now.)

One pleasant fat-adaptation effect is that I got the elusive "runner's high" following a strength workout. This would never, ever happen after a strenth workout for me, and is the main reason I enjoy running over strength work. Overall, I do feel a steady low-grade eupohria.


Body-measurement-wise, the first week's significant progress (5/8", 4.8lbs down) was likely due to water-weight loss. (With less glucose in your muscles, the less water you carry.) Still, it's nice to see expected results.

Next Week: Stubborn Fat

I'm carrying more fat to start this fat-loss cycle than in previous cycles. I also have a good idea of where the most stubborn fat is on my body (when I'm leaner), and at which point that fat starts to be, well, stubborn. This time around, however, I think I have better methods to tap into that stubborn fat for energy. I'll get into this more next week.

Stay tuned.

(NOTES 1: Nutritional ketosis should not be confused with ketoacidis, which is a serious medical condition.) 2: If my primary goal was workout/competitve performance, elevated insulin would actually be helpful and I wouldn't stress carbs as much. This is all a whole other fitness realm that I won't get into here.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I See Your P90X and Raise You Bacon & Eggs

After three months, my projected total weight would put me in the mid-150s. But would that weight look more like the 150s of my skinny-fat self (left) or my P90X self (right)?

These fat-loss posts are being published retroactively. I originally wrote the following at the start of July this year.

Right, so I've done this before. Lost the gut. And the doublechin. And the moobs. I was up to 210lbs at my most heaviest, say around 1999. Straight up, I porked out on too many shrimp burritos and Sourdough Jacks.

The flab came off during three distinct periods:

 Around 2002, when I took up distance running and eventually did a marathon at 160 pounds. (I'm 5'8".)

 Around 2005, when I cleaned up my nutrition (reading Tom Venuto) and got down into the low 140s. 

 Around 2007, when I focused on strength training (with P90X) combined with clean nutrition. Total weight raised to the low 150s, but with definition and six-pack abs! (If the lighting was right, I swear, you could even see my abs through a cycling jersey.)

Vanity-wise, I was content with the results of the combined P90X and Tom Venuto programs. There was still some carving to be done in my lower abs. 

With my lean mass at the time, I would've had to dip back into the low 140s (maybe into the 130s) to get cut like Bruce Lee (or Pinoy brotha Manny Pacquiao). But, even with relatively few responsibilities back then, low 150s with some soft spots seemed as lean as my schedule and willpower allowed.

The Realness

Then other real-life things happened. Good things: Lisa's booming soap business, a house, a baby, a new career, going back to school, a new puppy, a picket fence, a second baby on the way... . All those nice dinners to celebrate all those things.

While livin' the dream, my weight gradually pushed back upwards, into the 180s. Then one day recently I had a hard time getting my wedding ring off. That was it. It was time.

Time to re-focus on slimming down again. Time to make it a top priority.

The slow-gain period was not without attempts, however. But efforts to eat "clean" below maintenance made only marginal improvements weight-wise. (By eating "clean" I mean a "balanced" nutrient ratio of 20/30/50 -- percent of fat, protein, carb -- of non/minimaly processed foods.) The food got boring fast and a meal or two of indulgence seemed to wipeout weeks of progress.

Besides strength training to rehab a nagging hip injury, workout time became more limited. Considering baby No. 2's arrival, there'd be a good chance that workouts would stop temporarily while we adjusted.

I considered whether the extra flab was the not-so-hidden cost of having a full family and work life. Was the cosmos or the comforts of The American Dream enforcing some sort of inescapable balance?

My previous Best Known Practices for fat loss couldn't be maintained in the context of everything else. There had to be a natural, non-medicated way of igniting the fat furnace and keep it burning -- even with the inevitability of missed workouts. But how?

The Eggs Are Alright Tour

With little time for workouts, change had to be based on even cleaner eating habits than ever before. But, low-fat again? Ugh. It seemed without a constant workout routine low-fat at deficit barely made a dent. There had to be something else.

And that something was paleo (paleolithic meals), which, after some trial and error, led to keto (ketogenic meals). I couldn't deny the increasing amount of studies that found its low-carb (high-fat, adequate protein) meals to be more beneficial than eating "clean, balanced" low-fat meals ever could.

That's not to say Keto would be necessarily easier. For steady fat loss, it'd still require precision with meal plans and nutrient ratios. But the kicker was that I could eat tastier, more fulfilling meals! Chicken legs? With skin? Filet mingon? Bacon? Dip for my celery? Seriously?

How could more fat possibly be "cleaner" than its equal in grains and veggies?

With paleo, I became suspicious about carbs but still made space for them coming from an endurance background. (C'mon, how you gonna fuel an intense workout without carbs?!?) But with keto, carbs became even more questionable. And if weekends spent cycling or running were long gone, maybe I could cut carbs even further.

I did the unthinkable. Counter to every training guide I'd ever read up to this point, I reversed my nutrient ratios to the keto-guideline 65/30/5 (percent of fat, protein, carb) split.

Would I lose the fat? Would I see results fast enough to help keep at it? Would it work with our hectic schedules? I had to put keto to the test.

Stay tuned.