Weight loss, more specifically fat loss, has to be the most talked about topic in the “health sphere”. Nearly everyone I encounter online or in person has something to say about their weight. Nearly everyone “starts a diet” in hopes of loosing some weight. Personally though, I could not relate. I was never someone who was overweight or felt like I had some weight to loose. Even though this blog post is about a recent weight/fat loss experiment I performed on myself, I was not loosing weight because I thought I had to, I didn’t, I was healthy and for most part happy with my body composition. It came about because to maintain that weight I was at I had to eat A LOT! See, when you are an athlete eating a whole foods diet, it takes A LOT of food to maintain your weight, health, and performance, and I was kind of sick of eating that much food. I was constantly forcing myself to make sure I was eating enough, and it just got old. I decided it was time for a break, and instead I decided to follow my bodies natural hunger signals. This resulted in some weight loss since I naturally wanted to eat less. At that point I decided why not go with it and see if I could get below the arbitrary body fat percentage of 10% without extreme dieting and while still performing in my sport, but most importantly while still enjoying the food I was eating and my life in general.
If you don’t want to hear all the nitty gritty details, the highlights of the experiment are below. If you do however want to dig deeper, there are plenty of details about my experience in this blog post. I hope you will find this useful and helpful in some way.
Highlights and Key Takeaways
Don’t want to read the whole article? No Problem here are the highlights and key take aways!
- July 2018 DEXA
- Weight: 160 lbs
- Body Fat: 17.3%
- Lean Mass: 131 lbs
- Visceral Fat: 0.65 lbs
- Lower Bone Mass in spine
- November 2019 DEXA
- Weight: 145 lbs
- Body Fat: 8.9%
- Lean Mass: 129.7
- Visceral Fat: 0 lbs
- 3.9% increase of bone mass in spine
- Thyroid and Testosterone hormones decreased
- No fancy diet, just a plain Primal diet
- No extended fasting
- Enjoyed vacations, nights out with friends and family, not overly restrictive
- Ate higher protein, in the range of 160 grams
- Carbs were between 100-150 grams most days
- Eliminated snacking, just ate 3 meals a day
- Eliminated added fats such as high fat salad dressings and condiments, adding nuts, seeds, and coconut to foods, and dousing vegetables in oils
- Chose leaner protein sources over higher fat sources of protein, this mostly came in the form of white fish, scallops, shrimp, lobster, and salmon
- Sleep was a priority, made sure to try to get the best night’s sleep possible
- Stress was also minimized
- Patience, realize that fat loss is not linear
- Lots of movement, generally being active, walking, standing, stretching, etc
- Got plenty of sunlight
- I was continuing to train for OCR during this time
- I made sure to have at least 2 days a week dedicated to strength training, focusing on compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench pressing, and overhead press
- I was doing a fair amount of endurance training as well, longer steady state exercise in the time range of 1-2 hrs
My First DEXA – July 2018
In July of 2018 I went to get my first ever DEXA scan to see what my body composition looked like.
I really had no idea what it would say. My body weight was hovering around 160 lbs and at 5′ 11″, I was pretty satisfied with that weight. Was it my lightest I had ever been? No. However when I was my lightest, around 135 lbs, I was also my unhealthiest, so it was not something I was striving to achieve. In fact eating more food and putting on more weight was what helped me become healthier, so I was consuming a lot more calories than I was back then and also incorporating strength training in order to put on muscle mass as well. So, while being nearly 30 lbs heavier might seem like a lot, not all of that was fat, a fair amount was muscle mass as well.
When I had the DEXA done and the results came back and said my body fat percentage was 17.3% I was a little surprised. I quickly learned that in reality that was pretty good. DEXA scans are by far the most accurate and sensitive ways to measure your body fat percentage. So sensitive that even your hydration status and whether you worked out the day before can have a significant effect on the results. When people post body fat measurements, most of the time they are not getting those via a DEXA scan so they can appear much lower. Even at 17% body fat, that was not bad by any means. The average male is at about 28% body fat. Considering 2 out of 3 Americans are either overweight or obese, than the average is not something I would be shooting for either. I was significantly lower than the average male via a DEXA scan, so I ended up being pretty happy with that.
The other thing that made me happy about the results of the DEXA was that is showed I had only 0.65 lbs of visceral fat. Visceral fat is the worst kind of fat, it is the fat that surrounds our organs and causes things like fatty liver disease.
From Chris Kresser:
Visceral fat, on the other hand, is not only a smaller storage depot than subcutaneous fat, it is highly active from a metabolic point of view. It is associated with a higher production of inflammatory cytokines, and it is more susceptible to lipolysis. Visceral fat cells are also subject to sudden pressure variations (cough, physical exercise, etc.) that cause them to rupture more easily than subcutaneous fat cells. And as we saw earlier in this article, ruptured fat cells cause inflammation.
All of this explains why visceral fat is an independent predictor of insulin sensitivity, impaired glucose tolerance, high blood pressure and high cholesterol and triglycerides.https://chriskresser.com/not-all-fat-people-get-diabetes-and-not-all-diabetics-are-fat-part-1/
Besides measuring body fat, a DEXA scan also measures the bone mass in your spine and your hips. Unfortunately my results showed some slight osteoporosis in my spine.
That kind of surprised me, and I am not sure why this occurred, but at least I had a baseline to work from now.
My Second DEXA Scan – November 2019
Fast forward a year plus later, still hovering around the same weight (except for a brief period of time in between when I did a detox and was eating less than 1000 calories a day), I was pretty much over having to force that much food down.
It got old.
I decided to take a break and just honor my hunger signals. I knew that meant probably under-eating for the amount of activity I was doing, but I was willing to do that just for a break. I started out mindfully eating less in July 2019 and I started to loose weight, no surprise. I was not trying to, I just ate how I felt I should. As some weight came off I decided to see where this took me. I had learned so much about my body, how it reacts, what happens when I push the line between food intake and exercise, and I knew if I started to go down a dark path I could recognize it and change direction.
I decided to time box the experiment. I had gotten some blood work done in July 2019, and knew I was going to retest again in November, so I would perform the experiment till I got my blood work back. Not only could I then see the results of my weight loss, but also have some bio markers to see how it effected me. I also decided since it had been over a year since I got my last DEXA, I would get another DEXA done around the same time to measure my body fat and check in on my bone density.
From July 2019 to November 2019 my weight trended down nicely. It was a pretty consistent weight loss across the timeframe, but certainly I had started to level off in November. Here is a nice graph.
It is kind of hard to see the trend line in those photos so here are some other ones
The above photos start in April and go through November because my weight started to trend down in May and June slightly, but once we got to July that is where the real trend started. Also notice my weight loss was not linear at all! There were high days and low days, but over the course of time I consistently lost weight!
Visually what did that look like on my body, here you go
The top left picture was July 2019. The bottom right was November 2019.
Ascetics aside the real results were in the DEXA and the blood work.
I weighed in at 145 right before I had the DEXA done in November 2019.
|July 2018||November 2019|
|Lean Mass (LBs)||131.0||129.7|
|Fat Mass (LBs)||27.3||12.7|
|Visceral Fat (LBs)||0.65||0.00|
So not only did I loose 17 LBs between the two DEXAs, but nearly all that weight was fat! You can see my lean mass only went down 1.3 LBs, so I lost very little muscle. I couldn’t ask for a better transition from a body composition point of view! Also, as you can see my visceral fat was nearly non-existant on my latest DEXA. All great signs!
What about the slight osteoporosis on my spine? That got better too! I had an increase in bone density of 3.9% in my spine!
Overall the DEXA results were fantastic, I couldn’t ask for a better result.
Blood Work Results
My blood work was not as good. Don’t get me wrong it was not terrible by any means, however there were some issues due to the caloric deficit I was in.
I wanted to check in on how my blood sugar was trending, so besides the standard fasting blood glucose measurement, I decided to measure HBA1C (a long-term marker of blood glucose) as well as my fasting insulin number. Here are the results:
- Fasting Glucose: 82 mg/dl
- HBA1C: 5.1%
- Fasting Insulin: 2.4 uIU/ml
All of these numbers are within optimal ranges, so I was quite happy with that.
Another marker that is a good one to check is HS-CRP. This marker is a marker of inflammation in the body, if elevated it could mean you have a cold, have a long term infection, or have some serious blood sugar issues. Really it is a high level sign that something was wrong, and further investigation needs to be done. Mine was low, so another good sign!
- HS-CRP: 0.3 mg/L
In the past when I have restricted calories, or put myself in a caloric deficit due to the amount of exercise I was doing, I have seen a dip in key hormone markers. This time was no different.
My thyroid numbers are borderline good even when not in a caloric deficit so this was the area that was impacted the most.
- TSH: 2.89 mIU/L
- T4 Total: 4.6 mcg/dL
- T4 Free: 0.8 ng/dl
- T3 Free: 1.8 pg/nL
- T3 Total: 48 ng/dL
- T3 Uptake: 30%
- T3 Reverse: 16 ng/dL
It is not important to really understand what these numbers mean other than it points to hyperthyroidism. Now I know I don’t have true hyperthyroidism because my Thyroid antibodies are low. The reason for the numbers coming back low was because my body is prioritizing things, less food coming in means less energy for physiological processes that are not critical to keeping me alive. And actually my body is protecting itself. By lowering my thyroid hormones it is slowing down several physiological processes and conserving calories for more important processes.
As a downstream effect of this my cholesterol shot up. I am not going to post those numbers because cholesterol is such a highly debated topic. The thyroid is responsible for recycling cholesterol, but since my thyroid was not functioning optimally less cholesterol was recycled resulting in a higher number.
The other hormone marker that was negatively effected was my testosterone.
- Free Testosterone: 44.8 pg/mL
- Total Testosterone: 456 ng/dl
- SHBG: 55 nmol/L
- DHEA: 159 mcg/dL
What matters most here is free testosterone, that is the testosterone available for the body to use. While 44 isn’t terrible, in the past mine has been in the 60s. Also my total testosterone (while slightly less important) has been in the 600s. Again a slip in these numbers is to be expected, but I am not too disappointed by them. What I think helped maintain them is the strength training, focus on sleep, and stress management practices I incorporated during this time.
How I Did It
When I decided to consciously lean out, I went into it with a plan. I did not want to do any kind of extreme, trendy, or fad diet. What I wanted to do was eat a Primal diet and just restrict calories just enough so I saw a consistent weight loss. I had a number of guidelines I wanted to follow during this period of time:
- I needed to be able to continue to train for and perform at my OCR races
- I wanted to avoid loosing any more muscle than I had to
- I did not want my caloric deficit to effect my sleep
- I did not want my caloric deficit to effect my performance at work or as a father and husband
- I wanted to still be able to enjoy the food I was eating
- I wanted to still be able to go out to eat at restaurants and enjoy special occasion meals with family and friends
- I did not want to have to go to any extremes. By that I mean I just wanted to eat 3 meals a day without restricting any particular macronutrient.
I know that is a lot of guidelines, but I wanted to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Since I was just doing this more as my own n=1 experiment than anything else, I didn’t want to have to give up a lot to do it.
When I looked at how I was eating prior to July, I realized if I had any place to cut calories to induce a caloric deficit the best place to start was fat. Shocking I know ;). Here is why. My protein intake prior to July was adequate, but I knew being in a caloric deficit puts your lean mass at risk. In fact when in a caloric deficit you should consume MORE protein than normal. In addition protein is pretty beneficial when in a caloric deficit. For one it is very satiating, meaning more than any other macronutrient it will make you feel full. In addition, protein more than any other macronutrient takes the most energy to digest, meaning you will spend more calories trying to break it down than fat or carbs. In other words, cutting calories from protein was not going to be a good idea.
The next obvious candidate was carbs. I was nowhere near eating a high carb diet, I was consuming somewhere between 75-150g a day. Even at that level, I was still spending quite a bit of time in ketosis due to my training and activity level. Cutting carbs any lower would probably have a negative impact on my athletic performance, as well as my sleep, and also make my diet less enjoyable.
The only macronutrient left was fat, however there was one area of my diet I could clean up before I looked at how to cut out some fat in my diet.
Snacking. Yup, even I fall into the trap of snacking. I had developed this habit of just having a small something after each meal whether that was nuts, dark chocolate, paleo granola, healthy stuff but still it was added calories. I was also having a dessert every night. Generally, it was something like some berries with paleo granola, nothing outrageous, but still it was added calories. I decided in addition to the snacks, this dessert could go as well.
After that I turned my sights to the fats in my diet. There were certain foods in my diet that were nice to have but not necessarily adding much in the way of nutrient density. For example, I loved using Primal Kitchen dressings and mayo. However, these dressings and mayos are avocado oil based, which is great and much better than the products that are made using vegetable oils and sugars, but means they are also calorically dense. I was also adding things like nuts and seeds on top of my salad every day, and again these were calorically dense and not very filling or necessary. Finally, there were things like nut butters and coconut products that I was eating as well. As much as I love them, again they are higher fat and calorically dense. Did I eliminate these things completely from my diet? No, I still ate them on occasion, but I did not use them daily as I was before.
Most of the fat in my diet ended up coming from whole foods instead of adding them to my foods. I think this was a key insight for me. Limiting these added fats not only saved on calories, but made my foods less hyper-palatable. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed eating my meals, but there is a big difference between sweet potatoes roasted in olive oil and topped with almond butter and a baked potato with salt, pepper, and cinnamon on top 🙂 Making them less hyper-palatable made it easier to eat less of them.
The final tweak I made in my diet was adding in leaner cuts of protein at times. This helped in two ways. First, it got my protein intake a little higher (which is helpful for retaining lean mass in a caloric deficit), but at the same time I was eliminating a few more calories with the less fat. I did not however turn to chicken breast to do this. I instead opted for seafood like white fish, lobster, scallops, shrimp, and salmon. I find these foods much less boring palate wise than chicken breast. I still ate things like chicken wings, chicken thighs, various cuts of pork, lamb, and steak, but I also made room for leaner sources of protein as well.
Lifestyle, Movement, and Exercise
Any successful weight loss experience does not only involve your diet but many other aspects as well. I knew for me to be successful I needed to prioritize things like sleep, stress management, mindfulness, sunlight, and social connection. Sleep is a big indicator for me as to where my overall health stands. If anything is off, too few calories, too much exercise, excessive stress, my sleep suffers. So not only was it important for me to get sleep, but use sleep as a barometer for my overall health. There were a few times over the few months of this experiment where calories were too low, stress was excessive, or my exercise volume was high and I saw my sleep take a turn for the worse. When this happened I immediately “let off the throttle” and adjusted whatever was out of balance.
To help along in the fat loss effort I obviously implemented plenty of movement and exercise into my routine. Daily walks and mobility practices were staples in my routine. Of course my exercise was kept up as I was training for a couple OCR races during this time. To my surprise my performance in training and racing did not decline. The one thing I made sure of was have two days out of the six training days dedicated to strength training. This was key in order to prevent loosing too much muscle while in a caloric deficit as well as for my hormonal health, especially testosterone. My strength training was focused around complex functional movements like squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, pull ups, push ups, lunges, and rows. The weight was heavy and the reps were low. I did make sure however that my strength training did not interfere or effect my OCR training. So while the weight was heavy, it was not heavy enough that I couldn’t go out for a run the the next day if I needed too.
While I reached and exceeded my arbitrary goal of getting below 10% body fat, clearly it is not a long term state that my body is happy with. Currently, I have switched focus to performance in my strength training so I have upped my calories a bit. This has several advantages. It should help my hormone profile, but also allow me to push the weights harder, adding even more muscle. In addition from a lifestyle perspective it allows me to enjoy the holidays a bit. With plenty of celebrations between Thanksgiving and New Years I have plenty of opportunity to consume food and then put that to work the next day in the gym. So far so good.
I hope this simple experiment demonstrates several things to everyone looking to achieve similar results
- You don’t need to do anything extreme to achieve weight loss. You can loose weight eating carbs, eating plants, and also enjoying vacations, celebrations, and nights out.
- Weight loss is not linear and needs to be looked at over the course of months not days.
- More is not better. Yes I exceeded my body fat goal, but as you can see it was not optimal from a health perspective.
- You should be in touch with your body and listen to the signals it is sending you. Do you need to take a day to eat more food? You body will tell you.
- You should find a sweet spot as to where your body is happy. That might mean you will be at a higher body fat percentage than you think you should be at.
- Lifestyle factors play an important role in your success. Sleep, stress, sunlight, movement, exercise, and social connection are very important.
Got questions? Have your own experience you would like to share? Need help? Let me know in the comments below!