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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.