Monday, February 2, 2015

Tortoise and Hare - the tale of two diets

Here I sit on the other side of losing 10 lbs in very short order, and I've had a chance to reflect on the process. This time was a lot different from the method I used last time, and while I was successful both times, I had to ask some deep-thinking questions.

Mercedes Benz tortoise and hare

My first question to myself was "why did I have to lose 10 lbs again?" (ie: why wasn't I able to keep the weight off?) It turns out I have a weakness - I'm not very good at re-adjusting my diet after a big race or event.

The last time it happened I had spent the fall training for a 10-mile run. I was running a lot, and I was eating a lot of food just to maintain my weight. I was able to shove pretty much anything and everything down my neck without consequence. Unfortunately, once my race was over and my workouts tapered down, I continued to snack at my desk all day, and the net result was inevitable.

This time it was because I had been training to hike the Grand Canyon - down and back up on the same day, and the same thing happened. In the spring I was doing a lot of trail running and eating at will. Then, due to injuries and time commitment changes, my workouts slowed down to nothing, but my eating did not. And once again I found myself carrying a dumbbell's worth of extra weight around.

Note to self - stop doing that!

Most of you probably saw the much-hyped Mercedes Benz ad in yesterday's Super Bowl - The Tortoise and the Hare. (if you didn't, click here to watch it on youtube.) That's a great way to describe my two diets. Let's compare the slow and steady tortoise diet with the rapid weight loss hare diet..

Tortoise Diet - Slow and Steady

This was a marginal change diet. I removed the worst offenders and the easiest to find problem spots, such as snacking on sun flower seeds and red vines, and then I ate pretty much whatever I wanted, but I modified my portion size to about 2/3 of what I would normally have eaten. Read the full details here.

The plan was to not have to put a lot of energy into food - counting calories, preparing all my meals, eating specialty foods, changing my behaviors. I kept eating the same foods, only I ate less of them. I guestimated that I was eating about 1,700-ish calories per day, and I expected to lose a couple pounds per month.

Advantages
  • No major food or lifestyle changes required - eat most of what you ate before, but less of it.
  • Not a lot of hunger pains.
  • Easy to modify over time - a little less or a little more is ok.
  • Sustainable - can eat this way the rest of your life.

Disadvantages
  • Thinking about food a lot - you're constantly thinking about what you would normally be eating right now, and then you have to limit yourself to less than that amount.
  • Slow weight loss - spending all month long thinking about food, and then only losing a couple pounds, doesn't feel very rewarding.
  • Not an exact science - you might not know at the end of the day whether or not you've run a calorie deficit for the day.

Hare Diet - Rapid Weight Loss

This was a diet predicated on a severe calorie restriction, eating less than 1,000 calories per day. It required counting calories (I rounded and estimated a bit, so my count wasn't perfect) and an insane amount of willpower. The plan was to lose weight quickly - more of a rip the band aide off type of plan.

Advantages
  • Rapid weight loss - I loved seeing the scale move lower almost every day, and my clothes fit better each week.
  • Rewarding - A quarter-pound here and a half pound there; it was easy to know my hard work was paying off, especially when I graphed each day's weight in Excel. For me, this was enough to push through the tremendous amount of will power required.
  • Food tastes awesome - every meal tasted like the best meal ever. A slice of pizza was sent from heaven. A ham and cheese sandwich on toasted sourdough was a culinary masterpiece. I ate very slowly and relished in the gift of every bite.
  • Quality food - you learn very quickly which foods give you more satisfaction for fewer calories, and you end up spending your calories on nutrition rich foods, simply because they make you feel more full than the empty-calorie foods.

Disadvantages
  • Hunger - you're body is hungry for food, all the time.
  • Will Power - it takes an extreme amount of will power to not power-binge on whatever happens to be closest at any given time.
  • Socially awkward - going out to eat with friends and ordering a small salad and a glass of water (or sharing a meal with your wife) is a little socially awkward. (and requires more of that will power stuff.)
  • Food headaches - the brutal food headaches lessened somewhat after awhile, but they were miserable at the beginning.
  • Physical and Mental changes - your body reacts to the natural environment of not having enough food/energy, so it starts diverting resources from activity it deems to be less important. (sort of like your phone shutting down radio contact when the battery gets down to 5%..)
    • Short attention span - over time I started noticing I wasn't able to focus on a task for more than about 20 minutes at a time. This had a negative impact at work, at home, and as a soccer coach.
    • Exhaustion - I found myself running out of gas at night. I would sit down on the couch at about 8:00, and it was game over for the night. Truth be told, I'm always tired at night, because I run hard all day long and I don't get enough sleep, but I can still motivate myself to be productive for another hour after the kids go to sleep. That simply wasn't the case on this diet.
    • Reduced sex drive - enough said here, but this ties into the exhaustion phase.
  • Water aware - while I'm always aware of hydration, I was almost hyper-concerned about getting enough water to stay safe. (plus it filled my belly and staved off hunger for a few minutes.) Water became almost an obsession.

In the End

If I was designing a diet from scratch, I would take the best of both diets. I would base my long-term diet on the Tortoise, but I would mix in the Hare for a week or so once in awhile. The Hare Diet has too many disadvantages to make it practical for the long term, but it offers two things the Tortoise doesn't:
  1. Quick Rewards - getting almost instant feedback that you're doing it right might be enough motivation to keep you going.
  2. Calorie Conscious - if you really pay attention to your calories, and live on 1,000 per day, then 1,700 Tortoise calories will feel like gluttony.

I think the Mercedes Benz commercial got it right - the Tortoise's slow and steady approach, supplemented by a turbo speed boost now and then, is the winner.

Mercedes Benz tortoise and hare


-Chris Butterworth


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