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A Dieter’s Journey: The Books of 2010

December 29, 2010
A few weeks ago I announced that I would write about dieting and exercise … I thought about how to get this show on the road, and I settled on first presenting a list of all the books that I read about the topic in 2010, and which diets I implemented during the year and how they worked.

The Situation
Back in the 1990s when I was a teenager I did not have a weight problem. I was never ultra lean, but I also never had any issue with excess weight. Fast forward to early 2010: At the age of 35 I was clearly obese, with a BMI of just over 35. I’m 180cm (5’11”) tall, and my weight had gone from about 80kg (184lbs) when I was 20 years old to 118kg (260lbs) 15 years later. And I surely hadn’t gained a lot of muscle, so we’re really talking about excess fat. I went from 32/32 jeans to 42/32.
Over the years I had tried to lose weight from time to time, but these attempts never amounted to anything. But in 2009 I bought an Amazon Kindle and started to read a lot of books again, which I hadn’t been doing since I was a child – and among other topics, dieting and exercise caught my interest. I was bad at both and I wanted to get better, so my journey began … during the following 12 months I would lose about 20kg of weight, and most of it fat. I read more than 20 books on dieting and exercise, and I found various weblogs and forums about weight loss on the internet and participated in quite a few heated debates. I changed my diet, tried various forms of exercise, and tried to make some sense of the many contradictory opinions on these matters.
I’m going to try to list some of the most noteworthy books in the order that I read them, in addition to a short summary I’ll also comment on what I think about them, and whether they helped me with my fat loss efforts. Of course I could write a full length article on each on of them – or several articles on some of them – and I probably will, in time.
January: The Beginning

Fire Up Your Metabolism
by Lyssie Lakatos and Tammy Lakatos Shames
Please don’t ask me how I ended up starting with this particular book … I can’t remember. I was browsing all the Kindle books about dieting on Amazon, and with no major knowledge on my part, this book had good reviews and looked like a good place to start. In retrospect I can’t really recommend it, and I’m mentioning it here because it marked the start of my journey.
It’s basically about eating many small meals throughout the day, with lots of whole grains and vegetables. I did that throughout January, and I lost a couple of pounds. The problem was: I really don’t like whole grain bread. Eventually I found one brand that I could tolerate, but the diet really wasn’t for me. Also, with all those small meals I ended up constantly thinking about food – and the sudden increase of fiber intake wrought havoc on my digestive system.
February: Hello Low-Carb
Protein Power 
by Michael R. Eades and Mary Dan Eades
I loved this book. At first the title put me off, since it reminded me of bodybuilding and supplements. But the book is really about the general theory – which I still agree with – that ensuring an adequate intake of protein is crucial to dieting. At the same time, according to the book, carbohydrates need to be reduced in order to keep insulin levels low. I was amazed because the book explained the physiological aspects in great detail. 
In retrospect I think that some of the conclusions in the book are debatable, but hey – it worked. I lost several kilos effortlessly in February, and that sealed the deal for me.

March to June: Low-Carb It Was

I went low-carb for another three months and lost about 14kg. I decided to read more books that mainly focused on low-carb, and since it worked so well for me I was sure that it was the appropriate solution. As it turned out later, that was not entirely correct – and essentially an oversimplification.

Good Calories, Bad Calories

by Gary Taubes
I was blown away by this book. Taubes examines in great detail how conventioal wisdom got tainted in the 1970s and people started to blame fat for cardioascular disease, obesity and metabolic syndrome, when it’s actually carbohydrate intake that’s responsible. Or is it really? In retrospect I think that his main conclusions are not really supported by the evidence. Low-carb works, but that doesn’t mean that the mantra “carbohydate dries insulin drives fat” is correct, nor does it mean that a diet high in protein and fat is healthy in the long run. Taubes says that excess carbohydrate is the source of all the problems, when in fact there ae clearly many more factors to consider. Of those factors one of the most imporant ones is total aloric inake, and Taubes tends to downplay it.
The Primal Blueprint
by Mark Sisson
I really like this book, and if I had to recommend one book on diet and exercise to the average obese guy or gal who wants to improve their health, this would be it. Mark also runs a company that sells supplements, but the diet doesn’t rely on supplements at all – he only mentions them briefly in the book (he does plug is weblog a lot, but not his supplements).
He essentially recommends a diet that’s close to what our paleolithic ancestors ate. Of course there’s some debate going on about what that diet actually was – some say it contained some grains, some say it did not contain any grains, some say lean meat, some say fatty meat, others say virtually no meat. Mark has a very practical approach and recommends against grains simply because they don’t contain any essential nutrients, and if you replace them with leafy greens and fruit and add to that adequate protein from animals (preferably organic, grass-fed) you end up with a much more nutrient dense diet. In retrospect I think the paleo crowd (Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf – I read their books as well) took matters a little too far, but Mark’s approach adds the necessary flexibility. While he’s still advocating the low-carb approach, he has been warming up to carbs lately – in the form of tubers and rice, for those who can tolerate them, in conjunction with exercise.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
by Michael Pollan
Another favorite of mine. Nothing to do with low-carb specifically: Pollan examines the modern food industry in the USA and how it depends on subsidized corn and soy mass production He then takes a look at the complete opposite: An organic, self-sustaining farm which does not rely on any external resources like fertilizers or transportation and produces food that’s more nutrient-dense and contains much less chemicals and pathogens than mass produced food. Lastly he hunts and gathers (wild porcupine and mushrooms) to, rather symbolically, experience what it’s like to eat food that you did not buy at a store. 
I guess the conclusion is that self-sustaining organic agriculture is best, but it will be extremely difficult to change our system, since it is in many ways incompatible with running big scale business.
July and August: Exercise Craze
Body by Science
by Doug McGuff and John Little
Like I mentioned above: I love when books not only tell you “what” and “how”, but also “why”. So I really liked this one, too. It’s more about exercise than about dieting, and it essentially advocates a very reduced approach. You’re supposed to exercise only once per week, and make it very brief, but also very intense sessions of weight training where you do one set to positive failure for each body part. Back then I accepted this and changed my training accordingly, but today I think it’s wrong. For one thing, it didn’t work for me – and I tried for more than 6 weeks. But more importantly, the research they quote doesn’t represent the current consensus, and for most of the studies they quote you can find others that suggest the opposite. According to them all the others are training inefficiently, and they’re the smart ones, but I think it’s really the other way round. And that’s the amazing thing about dieting and exercise: a lot of research and no hard facts that everybody accepts. There are studies to support mutually exclusive theories, and which side you end up on depends on which studies you trust – or whom you trust to draw the right conclusions from examining those studies.
September to November: The Downfall
Relapse time. I started eating carbs again, and that meant lots of cake, sweets, chocolate and pasta. A lot of fat as well, as in cheese, cream and the aforementioned (love that word) cake and chocolate. I also stopped the weight training. You may ask yourself at this point: the guy put so much effort into losing fat – why the relapse? Well, it was a gradual process. I started to re-introduce some carbs, and ended up using myself as a laboratory rat to see what would happen if I increased the unhealthy processed food again.
Surprisingly I only gained 3kg during these three months … that somewhat contradicted the low-carb dogma. So, not wanting to simply go back to low-carb I began to look for other alternatives, and I found them.
December: Out Of The Ashes
Meet the blogs, websites and independent authors (as in: not available on Amazon). I had looked at some of these approaches before December, but now I was really diving into the posts and following up on details – I even went to resources like PubMed and checked out study abstracts – for example of the studies mentioned in Body by Science.
by Brad Pilon
Brad’s approach is to implement 1-2 24 hour fasts per week. I haven’t read his book yet, and there are obviously more details, the fasts are merely the basic pillars of his approach.
by Martin Berkhan
Martin has developed a cool approach of intermittent fasting combined with cycling of calories and macronutrients and strength training. The goal is to lose fat or minimize fat gain while maximising lean (muscle) gain. He probably would not want to be associated with low-carb or paleo supporters, but his solution includes carb restriction in some situations, depending on whether strength training is performed on the same day and other factors.
by Lyle McDonald
Lyle has published several books and many, many articles on body recomposition, which is all about achieving a favorable ratio between lean tissue (muscle) and fat. Of course normal people (neither bodybuilders nor athletes) would not want to take their body fat percentage to extremely low levels, but that’s a matter of personal judgement. The general mechanism applies no matter how much fat you have to lose: You need to lose fat while preserving muscle, or – if you’re underweight and want to gain muscle, do so without gaining too much fat in the process.
One of his books is the Rapid Fat-Loss Handbook, and I’ve been implementing its approach for the last couple of weeks. So far I’ve lost about 5kg. It’s a somewhat extreme approach, essentially you remove any non-essential nutrients from the diet. What’s left? The required protein (depending on your activity level and lean body mass), lots of low-carb vegetables, omega-3 fish oil and a multi-vitamin supplement – about 800 calories per day for me. The diet also includes free meals (two per week in my case), and I didn’t find it all that difficult to stick to … I’ll be doing it for another month or so.
The Conclusion
Low-carb worked great for me. It still does (Lyle’s Rapid Fat-loss is essentially zero-carb), but it’s not the end all be all solution to a healthy diet – in fact it may even be unhealthy in the long term, depending, among other factors, which types of fats you replace the carbs with. Carbohydrate is not inherently evil, and neither are grains – at least for the many people who have no problems with gluten. The common denominator of all the approaches that I still agree with is this:
Eat adequate protein – independently of whether you want to lose fat, maintain weight or gain muscle. Protein helps with satiety more than any other macronurient, and thus increases compliance with diet protocols a lot. Combined with strength training It also protects your lean body tissue, which is especially important when dieting, but also when the goal is to maintain or gain. In the latter case it’s obviously required, since the body can’t create new lean tissue out of thin air.
The second factor: The caloric deficit. You need that to lose weight, low-carb dogma (“eat fat, lose fat”, “carbohydrate dries insulin drives fat”) not withstanding. Low-carb can help with achieving the deficit, but even though on an Atkins type diet initially you feel like you’re losing a lot of fat effortlessly without counting calories, eventually people can overeat on fat, too – and find out that they need to eat less than their body needs in order to get it to start meabolizing stored fat.
What’s Next?
Well, I’m now at 99kg, and I really want to get back near 80kg … so 2011 will probably be just another part of this ongoing journey. I won’t wait until next December to log my progress … so expect more frequent updates as well as some posts about various specific topics. Feel free to comment on this article, suggest books that I should read or ask questions about the books that I read. 
Thanks for reading!

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  1. When you said, that you: "… only gained 3kg during these three(high-carbs) months that somewhat contradicted the low-carb dogma."Don't you think it's because you had a better overall insulin response by going low-carbs for the previous months ?I wonder what happens next to thoses 3 months ? Have you kept the high-carbs pace? How your health was affected ?

  2. I was working out at the gym during that time – obviously many factors matter here, and note that I said "somewhat contradicted", not "clearly contradicted". Like I said in the post, after those three months I tried out the Rapid Fat-Loss Diet by Lyle McDonald, a zero-carb diet, for about 8 weeks. It worked and got me down to about 96kg. Now, about half a year after that, I'm back to eating lots of carb and unhealthy stuff that would not be recommended by any expert (be it Low-Carb gurus, conventional wisdom dieticians or experts which I now think are right). I'm back at 105kg, but I more or less kept my waist line … I've been working out at the gym consistently and improved my lat pull from 70kg to 95kg, and other benchmark exercises similarly like the bench press, deadlift and military press. I fell ready now to go back to a paleo/whole food approach once more … and I'll probably write a lengthy post to that effect next weekend. 🙂

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