Sunday, August 26, 2012

Defining the word "diet": how grammar influences your success

I hate the word "diet". It's so confusing because it's a seemingly simple word, but actually has so many implications depending on the nuances of its use. According to google dictionary, as a verb diet means to "restrict oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food in order to lose weight", but for me that implies a short-term solution. What happens after? Do you go back to your normal "diet" (as a noun) and gain it all back? So why is that diet as a verb makes you lose weight, but diet as a noun makes you gain it back? It shouldn't! As a noun, diet is defined as "the kinds of food that a person, animal or community habitually eats". So why can't our normal diet be how we diet? Or in other words, since we're using the same word anyways, why do we need to think about a short-term solution and a long-term plan as two separate things, the "diet" that we take on should also be the "diet" that we stick to normally for a sustainable healthy lifestyle. Otherwise, we just get trapped in this yo-yoing of weight. So then, how do you know what to eat day to day? There's so many "diet" strategies that it makes my head spin. Instead of endorsing one, let me just highlight why a healthy diet has such a significant influence on weight, and then describe my diet, including characteristics of it that I think make it work for me, and also a snapshot of my meals this week, including some recipes, as an example.

On a fundamental level, weight gain or loss has to be about calories in and calories out. No one can defy the laws of physics, which states that total energy can't be created or destroyed, so all calories in must be used up with exercise or turned into fat and vice versa. With this in mind, I always thought that exercise alone would help me lose weight by increasing calories burned, but it didn't work for me. Why? After doing the math, I realize that for me, and I'd suspect a lot of others since I'm a normal guy, I was in-taking so many calories at baseline, that it was much easier to cut out calories through healthier eating than to exercise enough to make up for everything that I was eating. Stay with me and I'll walk you through it. Let's say I was running everyday for half an hour, that should be enough to lose weight right? For a heavier, slower person like me (12 minute mile) I would burn 355 calories per session. So that's 355 calories/day x 5 days/week = 1,775 total calories burned per week, which would be in addition to the calories I burn on my own throughout the day, which if I calculate my basal metabolic rate, should be around 2100 calories per day. That sounds great, and since burning 3500 calories is the equivalent of losing 1 lbs, that extra 1,775 calories a week I'm burning while running should provide a net loss of .5lbs a week, or around 2 lbs per why didn't that work? Well, let's inspect my diet, which I actually didn't think was that bad. In November 2011, I was on my family medicine rotation at Stanford and was too tired to cook after clinic. Instead, I would regularly run to Panda Express on my way home, where I'd get a 3 item combo, but with the healthy options because I really was trying to be healthy. My typical meal would look something like rice/noodles (500 calories), item 1: Black pepper chicken (200 calories), item 2: Shanghai Angus steak (220 calories), and item 3: Golden treasure shrimp (390 calories) + hot and sour soup (100 calories) + pot sticker appetizer (220 calories) + 2 fortune cookies (32 calories each) + diet drink (0 calories...see, I was making good decisions...anyone?) = 1662 calories. Ok, that might be a lot, but let's say I was good the rest of the day to compensate and only had 300 calories for breakfast (2 eggs, piece of whole wheat toast and an apple) and 500 calories for lunch (a 6" Subway sandwich they advertise as healthy and a bag of chips). So every day, I ate around 2400 calories, except I'm only burning 2100 calories naturally, so overall it would come to 2400 - 2100 = 300 excess calories/day x 7 days/week = 2100 excess calories a week. Luckily, in this hypothetical situation, I'm running 5 times a week, and burning 2100 - 1775 = 325 excess calories per week... no WONDER I wasn't losing weight. I still have a hard time believing a little soup and potstickers was about as much calories (320) as running for half an hour (355). It was just a tiny little addition... who knew calories add up so quickly even with small snack items? In retrospect... I probably could have just cut the little things out and seen significant results.

I started the Paleo diet in May 2012. You may have heard of it as the newest trendy diet. Some may call it a fad diet, but it's only a fad if you want to treat it as a short-term "diet". The basic tenant of the paleo diet is eating foods that our bodies are evolutionarily accustomed to eating, or foods that were available to us as cavemen, hence the nickname caveman diet. It entails using the highest quality of foods possible in terms of meats, fruits, vegetables and oils with the goal of having nutrient dense meals. In strictest practice, to ensure that you're only eating the best foods, you have to cut out things like processed foods (i.e. products with those ingredients on labels that you can't pronounce), dairy (apparently cavemen didn't have domesticated cows), legumes (including peanuts and soy products, and I'm asian... so I can't have tofu or soy sauce?!), no processed carbs, and no added sugar. Admittedly it sounded a bit crazy and unreasonable when I first heard it, and still sounds a bit crazy when I'm writing about it now, but it surprisingly isn't that difficult. I went on the Whole 30 challenge with my gym (Crossfit Palo Alto) in May 2012, which meant I adhered strictly to the Paleo diet for a month, and admittedly that was a bit of a pain, but when I came out of it, I had shed a lot of weight, and I found myself developing habits to make healthy eating more sustainable. One example includes cooking my own meals and planning what I eat. During the month of May, since the rules are so strict, I had to plan and cook my meals on a weekly basis otherwise I wouldn't have anything "Paleo" to eat and be stuck with the dilemma of quitting the diet or just fasting. I didn't like either option, so instead, to maximize my chances of success, I set aside time to cook with friends every week, which was also a fun way to spend time with people. I got really used to this routine and just cook batches of meals regularly now, which ensures I have healthy food available on a regular basis. Over time, I also found my taste in foods changed. I restricted sweets for the entire month, and now I find myself wanting to eat sweets less often, and also less at a time because too much makes me feel a bit sick. So I talk about eating sweets now, because after that month, the Paleo diet didn't become a short-term "fad diet" but instead just a way that I would eat most of the time. I still go out and enjoy myself with friends on weekends, but even when I do that, since my habits and tastes have changed, I still try to do small things like substitute sides for healthier options or pick out the healthier option on the menu, which combined with being relatively strict during the week is enough to make it a sustainable option that works for me.

Andrew and I with our Paleo meal of the week (8/19/12)
So what does my daily diet look like and what did I cook this week? A picture of all the food is above, but for breakfast we made "Reinvented PB&J Paleo Muffin Frittatas". I love making muffin frittatas for breakfast, an idea I stole from the Nom Nom Paleo blog because it's a great grab and go breakfast. Then for lunch, I've been working in the hospital so just make a salad from the salad bar with olive oil and vinegar and add protein in the form of Graeme' Meatloaf Minis, as well as some fruit. Finally for dinner, I made Korean Short Ribs w/ Rice made from cauliflower (both from Nom Nom Paleo). In the end, this cost around $50 for around 4-5 days worth of meals (though my hospital salads were free), and took around 4 hours to prepare total for the week (1 hour grocery shopping, 3 hours cooking). When I calculate it out, per day, I ate around 2000 calories a day.

Am I recommending the Paleo diet for everyone? No. It works for me, and that's what matters to me, so similarly, what should matter for you, is what works for you. I gave you the reasons it works for me, and if you think that those reasons would work in your favor as well, then I say, give it a shot, but in the end, I stand by what the Harvard School of Public Health advises, "The best diet is the one you'll follow." Stay tuned next week, I'll talk a bit about what I've been up to for exercise with CrossFit!


1. (last accessed on August 19, 2012) 
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5. (last accessed on August 19, 2012) 

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