It’s Diet, Stupid

By | January 1, 2018

The title is a reminder to myself. I’m not calling you stupid.

I’m working on Life Bucket List item #18 — find the good kind of six-pack. All my previous articles on fitness have been about trying to make daily exercising into a habit. That’s all well and good and awesome and all, but diet matters so much more than exercise for how your body functions. It’s pretty much all diet. What you put in your mouth counts more than whatever else you decide to do. You make your body in the kitchen.

A meal from Oman. I should have taken a picture of the entire spread.

My latest approach to diet has been one of awareness. I’m cutting out and trying different foods and measuring what’s working and what’s not working for me personally and specifically. I avoid the items that aren’t working and celebrate the items that are.

Of course I’m still learning and experimenting, but here’s my path so far.

Step 1: Take Stock of Where You Are. Figure out your body fat percentage. Roughly.

The first step is to orient yourself on your map. How’s your body doing?

You can step on a scale to gauge how your body is doing. That’s easy. You probably have a scale.

Personally, I don’t use a scale because they don’t differentiate between muscle weight and fat weight. And I don’t have a scale.

Body fat

How much of your body weight is fat? That’s a more interesting number and a good indication of your health.

You can “officially” measure your body fat to gauge how your body is doing if you want to do that. I’ll never disparage a measuring system. There’s an option for every price level. Calipers cost like five bucks and probably come with instructions. You can spend a couple of hundred bucks to rent the use of a Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry. A Bod Pod session costs maybe fifty dollars. It’s free to figure out your body mass index (BMI).

I’m too anti-stuff to buy calipers and too cheap for the DEXA and Bod Pod. Of course I calculated my BMI, but that’s not a satisfying number. Athletes could be considered overweight in the BMI world. Like scales, it can’t differentiate between muscle weight and fat weight.

Ask your body how it’s doing

The amount of fat on your body and where your body stores that fat are the most important factors in determining how healthy and happy your body is. A bit of extra fat in the breasts and bottom is not the end of the world, but any extra fat deep in the abdominal area is a reason to panic. That’s the fat that stresses the heart and gives you high blood pressure and terrible blood sugar.

So far, I’ve found great success in gauging how my body is doing by asking it. I look at it and it tells me. Then, I check out the collective wisdom and study the body fat percentages of a

bunch

of

people

online

and guesstimate which person I look closest to.

A machine might not be able to determine fat distribution, but you certainly can. Your body is showing you how it feels if you just pay attention. So the first step is just to look at your body. Inspect it. Acquaint yourself. How is your body’s fat storage working?

My body fat, when I started this project, was in the low to mid 20’s. That’s not a bad or unhealthy place and explains why I’ve never pushed very hard on fitness.

Sub-steps if you’re feeling ambitious

1a: Calculate how many calories needed to maintain your current body

Another free and potentially useful step is to calculate your basal metabolic rate (“BMR”). The BMR approximates how many calories your body needs without your input — what your heart needs to pump, your blood needs to circulate, your lungs need to inflate and deflate, etc. BMR assumes you lay in bed all day, staring at the ceiling, wondering how it all came to this.

After you calculate your BMR, you can add in the calories you need after you stop staring at the ceiling. What’s your current activity level?

How many calories do you need if you don’t change a single habit? This is what you need to maintain your current physique, for better or worse, with your current lifestyle. If you love your current physique, let’s fist bump and get out of here.

Drinking tea in Peru.

Step 2: Figure out what you want

If you don’t love your current body, the next step is to contemplate where you want to go.

If you are too skinny for your taste and want to gain some muscle, you have to lift weights and increase your calorie consumption to make up for the extra work your body is doing in lifting those weights. You’re changing your BMR activity level, so you need more calories to get through the day.

If you are too jiggly for your taste and want to lose some fat on your body, you have to alter your calorie consumption. Changing your diet is more effective than exercising by a factor of a hundred. I can’t say this enough. If you’re overweight and drink a lot of soda or beer, replacing it with water is the easiest way to shed some quick pounds. A small change in diet is more reasonable than trying to exercise out those empty calories. You have to walk the length of a football field to burn off one plain M&M.

If you want to both lose some fat and gain some muscle, you have to decrease your empty-calorie consumption and increase your happy-for-your-body calorie consumption.

I want to increase the size of my abdominal muscles and decrease the layer of body fat that sits on top of those muscles, so I need the third option. To see abs, as a woman, I would need to get down to about 15%-17% body fat.

A meal in Iceland

Step 3: Change one small thing about your diet

Now make one tiny, little change that you think may get you to the better place.

Small changes are easy. Pick one thing to try that seems doable. Just for a while. One month, maybe. Put it on your resolutions chart. Eat brown rice instead of white rice. Stop going to Taco Bell. Eat quinoa instead of rice. Don’t eat any fried food. Stop eating ice cream. What does your body think of this? Ask it. Look at it and it will answer you. Take pictures and compare.

Trying to change everything simultaneously is an overwhelming idea. It makes me want to hide under my desk. If I had a desk, I mean. It’s better to start small and chase the momentum. Keep trying new habits that you think your body might like. Keep doing what’s easy to keep.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I tell myself that every single day. The best diet plan is the most healthy one you actually follow.

Step 4: Understand what every food you consume does to your body

Every single item in the supermarket is a business primarily, trying to make money, and vying for your dollars. The food industry puts out a lot of studies to muddy the water. Listen to what your body is showing you and not the what the ad man is shouting at you. What’s in the food you’re consuming and what does it do to your body?

You do this by experimenting from step three. Read labels to assess trends. What’s your body saying? That’s the most important thing.

27 thoughts on “It’s Diet, Stupid

  1. Favourite Aunt

    Great article Anita. I enjoy working out and have never had any weight problem, but this is a great reminder to consider more what I eat.

    By the way did manage to download your excellent book in England after a couple of days – clearly I was too impatient. Looking forward to reading more from you in 2018. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Emily

    Tip 4, yes! “How did i feel AFTER I ate____”. Do I want to feel that again?
    “Who am I eating this for?”
    “Would I enjoy this more if I ate it later?”

    After I started using the tracking app clue, I noticed trends in calorie intake fluctuating with my hormones. This was kind of liberating to understand why I was just so hungry sometimes. I just go with it. It all evens out if I listen to my true hunger levels and not what meals are “supposed” to look like.

    Reply
    1. Thriftygal Post author

      I like these questions. Especially the “who am I eating this for” one. Quite often, it’s for other people.

      Reply
  3. Accidental FIRE

    Nice post. I used to be able to “out-workout” a relatively poor diet. But age has caught up…

    I try to adhere to the simple rule of eat things with as few ingredients as possible Or whole foods (not the store!). Your suggestion of Quinoa instead of rice has been a big one for me and helped very much. I like it and find it to be very healthy.

    As a half-Italian, I found that getting bread out of my diet was extremely painful but necessary. I love it and it’s part of who I am, but sometimes ya gotta make hard choices 🙂

    Reply
    1. Thriftygal Post author

      Yup, your BMR changes as you age. What you might be able to get away with as a kid gets harder and harder. Damn you, age!

      Reply
  4. Alfonso

    I disagree with your idea that diet is more important than exercise. Just not true. For example, recent studies show that exercise, not diet or brain games, was the only factor that helps aging bodies prevent early memory loss. Exercise does so much more than just burn calories … such as improve depression, improve sleep, improve circulation, etc.

    Yes, diet is important, but I would argue that exercise is at least important and likely more important that diet in overall health and achieving your six pack dream.

    Reply
  5. steve poling

    i found the insane number-munging mania I brought to minding my net worth & investments was quite helpful in minding my fitness, weight, and body-composition. MY journey began with Fitbit devices tracking steps and weight/body-fat-%. To hit my exercise targets I had to start getting up to exercise before going into the office. This set up an apex habit triggered by my alarm each morning. It also got me going to bed earlier. I resisted dieting at first, but when I started tracking intake with MyFitnessPal.com I started trying to game intake to maximize target nutrients while minimizing calories. Seems that coming up with a scheme which balances foods to hit targets is an interesting math problem not unlike that of balancing a portfolio. Someone should write an app.

    Reply
  6. Roger

    Being unemployed (retired?) for the past 6 months has been so good for my health and fitness. Work no longer interferes with my exercise routine.

    Reply
  7. mike

    You look pretty good to me. Here’s who mentors me, you can check her out on Youtube–Chef AJ, Weight Loss Wednesdays.

    Her latest edition summerized what she’s all about. Warning: It’s an austere diet.

    Reply
  8. Giovanni

    Love this: “you make your body in the kitchen.” It’s going in my book of quotes!

    Cooking is more than just food prep for me, my Mamma italiana taught me that cooking is putting love into the meals you share with others. One of my guiding principles is an Ayurvedic saying: “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; when diet is correct, medicine is of no need.” For me this means starting with real ingredients that are recognizable; e.g. a carrot instead of a plastic bag of stuff called carrots.

    I’ve found that if I cook real food with real ingredients I don’t have to worry about how much or how often I eat. My friends and family seem to enjoy it too 😉

    Reply
  9. TheTeaBoy

    Damn it, i should have guessed first, I would have got it right which would have been really impressive

    Reply
  10. Simon Kenton

    Not going to say we’re all INTJs here, but we’re all INTJs here. Way over-represented in the FIRE community, as compared to the statistical prevalence. Probably a good thing maritally, because while the other types tend to marry opposites, INTJs tend to marry each other. This is positive, as the other types are dull when not daft, but it is not easy, since we have to find each other. Much hay, few needles.

    Reply
  11. TheTeaBoy

    I feel sorry for INTJs, I met one today, it was the most boring conversation ever. There is no feeling or emotion in what they say and when you express things from an emotional point of view they look at you like you’re an alien.

    Reply
  12. Simon Kenton

    “…look at you like you’re an alien?” Hardly. An ESFP, maybe. An insect, possibly. But not an alien. If an INTJ thought there was real likelihood you were an alien, you’d be in our secret laboratory right now, being examined. Seriously, TB, your INTJ is even now retelling, verbatim from memory, the whole conversation to a coven of other INTJs who are laughing heartily at the Chestertonian wit displayed by your INTJ and the blank incomprehension on your side.

    Reply
  13. Anjani

    Don’t you think we need to exercise to cut down abdominal fat? Not sure we can kill that with changing food habits as it is already accumulated fat….
    And also don’t you think you keep thinking about the food you cut….like for ex, you decide not to eat icecream, don’t you develop craving for that????

    Reply
    1. Thriftygal Post author

      From my research, I think changing food habits is the best way to cut down abdominal fat. You simply don’t have enough time in the day to exercise that much.

      I don’t crave sugary items, so that’s never been a problem for me.

      Edited to add: You’ve asked about sugar a few times already. I get it! Sugar is delicious. Gary Taubes told me in the book Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It that sugar is also very addictive. Taubes also used an analogy I really liked. Your doctor is going to tell you to quit smoking. He doesn’t care that you like smoking. It’s bad for you. It’s the same for sugar. I know it’s delicious, but it’s bad for you.

      Be aware of how much consume. Eat less sugar even if you can’t cut it out completely. The goal is the healthiest diet you can maintain. At least, that’s my goal.

      Reply
  14. Anjani

    Thank you for detailed response. Yes am addicted, I don’t eat more but I eat. I am trying to cut down sugar and use jaggery and honey in place of sugar, not sure if they are also bad. But am working on this part. I don’t have any other addiction 🙂

    Reply

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