Nerd Nutrition

One of my older brothers recently reduced his bodyfat from about 30% to 11% by embracing a High-Fat Low-Carb (HFLC) diet that excludes all sugars, grains, legumes, root vegetables and most fruits; his diet is mainly meat, “healthy fats”, and green vegetables. His doctor just took him off insulin, as well as cholesterol and blood pressure drugs.

The diet interests me. Over the last year my bodyfat has been creeping from the high teens to towards the 25% range. While I am still healthy, I really don’t want to find myself at 25 – 30% this time next year, that would be gross. I want those percentages go down this spring. Long term, since I am genetically prone to Type II Diabetes, such a diet would be a way for me to maintain insulin sensitivity.

But I have a few questions:

  • how much of a departure is HFLC from my current eating habits? If it is not a big departure, would it work for me?
  • if I were to switch, would my caloric intake remain the same or would it decrease? Many suspect that the real reason Atkins or Paleo diets work is because – contrary to all appearance – they actually cut calories.

So I decided to take this week to track my baseline diet, and then switch to the HFLC and track my progress. Admittedly, what I ate this week isn’t my true baseline: the very fact that I was recording everything I ate meant I was more conscious of food, and therefore did not eat what I ordinarily might. For example, every Thursday morning I attend a meeting at work and someone always brings doughnuts; it becomes my weekly scheduled sugar splurge. But since now I was recording what I ate, I chose not to eat the doughnuts. This is “the observer effect”, a well known and accepted reality in the world of science. But even if it is an observer-influenced baseline, it is still a baseline.

The first step was to make a list of everything I tend to eat in an average week, which wasn’t hard since I have my standard shopping list memorized. My diet already leans towards meat and green vegetables, with moderate starches and few sugars. Then I estimated typical serving sizes and googled the macro-nutrients – the protein, fat, and carbs (minus fiber, on the HFLC diet it isn’t that important to track the 1.5 carbs per gram of fiber) – to be found in that serving size.

As I prepared meals I adjusted the serving size from what I thought was typical to what I was actually eating. I had some misconceptions about my serving sizes: for example, I assumed that a regular serving size of meat for me was about 1/2 pound. Measuring with a food scale, I found I really eat between 3/4 and 1 full pound of meat for dinner.

I then created a spreadsheet that would record the relevant data:

My averages were about 2000 calories per day. Averages of 28% of my calories are derived from protein, 54% from fat, and 18% from carbohydrates. I usually have three to five carb-heavy meals a week, a couple of bean or rice meals for dinner, my Thursday doughnut splurge, and maybe oatmeal or sushi on the weekends. My daily carb-moderate meals are lunch – the bread in my sandwich – and an apple a day.

This is actually less than I thought. I had figured I was gaining weight because I had quit smoking and started eating more, and while that may be the case, 2000 calories a day is not very much.  Even if my real baseline is higher than my observed, it can’t be more than a couple of hundred calories higher. I have also controlled for alcohol: I am not a heavy drinker and when I do drink it is generally spirits, not beer.

This makes me have to face up to the fact that while I regularly exercise, I have become much more sedentary over the last year between changes at work and going back to school. Perhaps my traditional diet worked well enough when I was on my feet more at work and spending my free time outdoors, but not now that I am chained to a desk 60-70 hours a week. Even 2000 to 2200 calories a day is probably too much for me right now.

What impact would HFLC have on me?

If I were to switch from sandwiches to salads, drop the doughnuts and oats, and swap the rice and beans meals for meat and veggies, my macros would change to 1800 calories a day and 32% protein, 60% fat and 8% carbs, within the macro ranges of a the HFLC diet, though it does recommend a slightly higher fat percentage.

In the example below, I hypothetically swap Monday’s apple and peanut-butter breakfast with bacon and eggs, then the sandwich for a salad, and the beans for rapini. Notice the drop in caloric intake from 1957 to 1800.

Conclusion: for me, a HFLC diet is not a huge shift from my standard diet, but it would still represent caloric decrease which I probably need given my relative inactivity.

The HFLC diet is supposed to work without calorie cutting because it reduces the amount of insulin in the bloodstream and teaches the body to burn fat for energy. I’d like to believe that, I really would, but I’d rather control for both carbs and calories and figure out works by experimenting.

How will I find out the correct number of calories to consume? The old tale that 1 lb of fat = 3,500 calories so you need to cut 500 a day to lose a pound a week is mostly false. It not only varies person to person, it even varies for individuals over the course of their weight-loss.

So I did another spreadsheet that measures my calorie intake and weight-loss so I can figure out what exactly works for me on this diet.

This will track my average caloric intake for the week and whether or not I am running a deficit with regard to the baseline established in week zero (which was this week). I don’t have any way to consistently measure my bodyfat so I’m stuck using weight, which is not as useful a metric but it is the most objective one I have for week to week measurements. Waistline would be the most objective measurement available month-to-month, so maybe I should include that too.

After zeroing in on my ideal intake over the first month, it shouldn’t be so hard to drop down to a more acceptable bodyfat range over the next two.

I’ll be posting weekly updates to keep myself honest.

P.S.: It only took me a couple of hours to create the basic spreadsheets, and then I made minor tweaks as I ate dinner every night. Anyone with Excel and Google should be able to do one at least as good, probably better.




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