My 50-Pound Weight Loss Story, Low-Carb Living, and a Cool Fitness Book, Podcast

There are a million diet books out there, and I’ve read or skimmed many of them. I’m a guy who’s wrestled with weight since I was a kid. My first grade yearbook sports the witty inscription, penned by a classmate, “Hey Burd, hope you don’t get mistaken for a walking beefalo.” That one still hurts.

Besides reading diet books, I’ve tried a bunch of them. I’ve starved myself cutting and counting calories; I hate this. I had a huge appetite as a kid and I love food! Calorie counting sucks. Back in my early twenties, along with the calories, I cut 99% of the fat out of my diet; this worked for a while but left me so physically weak, and with such strange cravings, that I found myself in the kitchen at 9 o’clock one night drinking a tablespoon of olive oil. There’s an odd “binge” for you.

Ernesto in 2002

2002 –  I’d packed back on the pounds getting ready for David’s arrival, probably right around 200 pounds here.

The most effective diet I’ve ever tried was Atkins. I did this in my early thirties, after our eldest son David was born. I’d been as light as 160 pounds about six years before, and as heavy as 220 pounds way back in my junior year in college (I was 180 by senior year, starving myself on an ultra low-fat regimen). Now I noticed that junior-year weight coming back. My wife and I were in New Jersey for a friend’s wedding and our hotel room was beastly hot and I was sweating through my clothes. I was trying not to soak my dress shirt, so I took that off and laid it on the bed. The baby was crying and Kristen was still trying to get ready so I took the baby in my arms and paced the room to soothe him. That’s when I noticed the guy in the huge mirror on one wall pacing and carrying the baby was pretty darn fat, rolls of fat over his waistband and jiggling chest fat. I got on the scale when we got home and I discovered that sometime between hitting 160 during my roaming-writer travels in my mid-20s and my new-dad days almost a decade later, I’d swollen back up to 212 pounds.

Eventually I started Atkins; which is an extremely low carb, high fat and protein diet. It goes through periods of popularity and controversy. But it worked. (And it’s related to the food advice in the book I’ll tell you about below.) I went back to about 185, and I got pretty lax about the diet, but tried to keep with the spirit of it, or something – maybe Atkins meets Volumetrics meets the Mediterranean Diet meets winging it – and there I stayed for about six years, sometimes as high as 190 sometimes as low as 182. Life was busy, the jobs got more complicated, more kids came along.

ENTER MARATHON RUNNING

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But by 2011, the spring I was running the Gansset Marathon in Rhode Island  (there were three kids by then and another on the way!) I’d managed to get down to about 165 by way of running and sensible eating, the range I’m still in today.

I wasn’t doing much exercise, just lifting a little bit and running two or three times a week, two or three miles a run, hiking when time permitted. Then in 2007, I learned something new about myself. I love to run long distances. Even when I don’t enjoy running, even when it hurts, I love it. It fixes something in my body and in my head – energizes me and calms me down at the same time. I ran my first half marathon in fall of 2007 and my first marathon in spring of 2008, finishing in just under 3 hours and 20 minutes. I’ve been running marathons ever since (and whittled than time down to 2:58:43, I’m pleased to note). And on 40-60 miles of running a week, that steady-state 185 dropped to a steady 168.

But I’m still not what you’d call lean by any stretch of the imagination. I get closer to lean right before big race, but otherwise I have a physique that I imagine is just what people used to think of as … regular. I’ve been hoping for two years or more to get down another 10 pounds for a race. Then I might be getting near lean. It hasn’t happened yet.

CALORIES IN, CALORIES OUT? NOPE

And that’s because calories in, calories out only works to a point, and after that point, not so much. Too many other variables kick in.

I burn a lot of calories; last week about 7,100 of them with 56 miles of running. And I don’t eat any more than I used to before I started running. In fact, I think I’m more disciplined about eating now than I was before I was serious about running. I’m careful because I know that every extra pound I wear is one I have to carry across 26.2 miles in a marathon. Ugh.

I eat strategically (and have read a lot about low carb lifestyles and running, though acted on only a little of it), consider what I need to fuel for a training run or recover from one. I don’t eat much sugar – except before or during a race – and skip desserts 95% of the time. So why didn’t that weight loss that started when I first began running marathons continue? Why do elite marathoners who run more than 100 miles a week still diet strictly to maintain their super-lean physiques?

Because exercise isn’t the only factor in weight loss.

SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE BOOK?

fitness-confidential[1]All of which brings me to why I personally connected with Vinnie Tortorich’s book, Fitness Confidential, when a friend gave it to Kristen for her birthday. Based on the book, I found his podcast and have been listening since. He’s got a highly entertaining tone (not safe for listening with the kids), and based on my own experience and reading, I think he’s right about some key stuff.

Vinnie’s a trainer in LA and an ultra endurance athlete, and has worked with celebrities and bigwigs, and he writes about gyms (the good, bad and ugly on membership plans and scams), diet fads, quack trainers, exercise equipment fads (mostly bad – stick with the jump rope, he says), and what you should really be eating.

What you eat is the key to weight loss, not exercise, he says, and the formula is pretty simple. Don’t eat sugar or grains, and you’ll lose weight and feel better.

It’s not Faulkner (though who wants to read a fitness book by Faulkner anyway – the As I Lay Dying Workout?) but it’s a fun, provoking read, and co-written with pro writer Dean Lorey, who’s written for Arrested Development among other things. The podcast, Angriest Trainer, co-hosted with voice over actor Anna Vocino, riffs on the same themes. It’s pretty funny sometimes, and Vinnie and Anna work well together. They’re easy company to hang out with on a run or a commute.

Here are some of our points of agreement, boiled down into my own gross generalizations:

  • Calories in calories out doesn’t work as a formula. Some calories make you fat (carbs), some don’t (fat and protein).
  • Sugar is really, really bad for people. It’s a good part of the reason people are so much heavier than they were decades ago (check out my blog post on this incredible increase in obesity rates).
  • The food pyramid doesn’t work; too much emphasis on grains. We don’t need that much bread and pasta and cereal. Perhaps we don’t need any.
  • If you go to throw something away and the trashcan is full when you’re done, don’t just close the lid and walk away hoping someone else will get it. Take the trash out.
  • He’s got a great chapter on why people do stuff like marathons, ultra marathons, ultra cycling events, climbing Everest, etc. It’s a good read. I know I often have to work to explain to folks who inquire I do these nutty things, and why I think there’s so much sanity in them. Vinnie’s take is dead on.
  • Gym memberships are only useful if you are going to use them. You have to know why you want to exercise. It can’t just be to lose weight, because as Vinnie so accurately puts it, “sweat does not equal fat loss.”

I paced a good friend through the end of his marathon recently. The course was a double loop, half marathoners did one loop, full marathoners did two. We were clipping along fast enough so that we lapped the slowest half marathoners en route to the finish and had to work our way through a pretty large pack of runners as we ran the last three miles. And there were a number of very heavy folks running. I’m not criticizing, I can relate – and bless ’em for getting out there – just noting out that these folks are runners serious enough to train to run a 13.1 miles, and were likely putting in some miles each week. But many were still very, very heavy. Running can take off weight pretty well, but only up to a point, and even then only if you are willing to commit to some decent, regular mileage.

Diet is more important than calories burned in a workout. And because I know this, I’ve decided on my next food-lifestyle personal fitness experiment. As soon as I’ve run the Stonecat in two weeks on Nov. 2 – my first 50 mile running race – I’m going to give Vinnie’s no sugar, no grains a shot. I don’t want to change my diet too much right before such a big race, but afterward I’ll be taking a several week break from running to recover from the past couple of seasons, and that will be the perfect time to embark on a low carb lifestyle. I think I’ll be better for it, and have this book to thank for triggering the idea, reminding me of some things I already knew, and teaching me some that I didn’t!

I’ll let you know how it goes. With any luck, come next April I’ll be standing at the starting line of the Boston Marathon at 152 pounds instead of 162, the lightest I’ve been since fifth or sixth grade, and fueled (mostly) by a no sugar, no grain diet.