The SOG Diet

After I talked last month about walking and how it’d played a role in my weight loss, a couple of people reached out to ask me what I was doing about food. “If you can’t outrun a bad diet,” one of them asked, “I’m pretty sure you can’t outwalk it either.”

Which is true enough. If you’re eating badly, unless you’re running the Iditarod and burning nine thousand calories a day it won’t matter how much you exercise. Walking has been critical to helping me burn more calories, but as I had a big hill to climb that wasn’t going to be enough. I had to reduce my intake of them at the same time. Here’s how I’ve done that. But first, the caveat.

The Caveat

If you read a review on the Wirecutter, one of the first things they’ll do is explain why you should listen to a particular reviewer. They’ll go through their various qualifications, the testing methodology and so on in an effort to establish their credibility.

I’m going to do exactly the opposite here. I am not credible, and I have no relevant qualifications whatsoever. I’m not a nutritionist, I haven’t tested and compared different diets or approaches – I haven’t even really studied them. Literally the only reason to pay attention to any of this is the fact that, as pictured here, I have had a little bit of success losing weight in recent months so I can at least relay what has worked for me.

My goal here therefore is not to convince you that my approach or particular diet is right. It probably isn’t. What I’m going for here instead is to walk you through my thinking on the chance that something in here can be applied to your situation. And perhaps more importantly, serve as a reminder that a few small, doable changes can add up to meaningful gains.

What I Was Not Willing to Do

  • Calorie Counting: A lot of diets that work for people come down to counting calories. Either literally doing just that, or via some system of points that are easier to count than the calories themselves. That sounded tedious and exhausting to me, so I’ve steered clear of that entirely. My hope – thus far born out – was that if I both increased my caloric burn and just broadly decreased my intake of food, I could skip the calorie counting. So far, so good.
  • Metabolic Hacking: Similarly, a lot of people have had great success with keto or other metabolic hacking diets. I didn’t want to do something like this, first because I wasn’t particularly keen on dramatically specializing my diet out of a concern that it might be depriving me of things that I might need, but more because that didn’t seem sustainable to me. Even if I was successful taking off pounds using one of these plans, it seemed likely that I’d just put them right back on unless I adhered to the diet indefinitely. This wasn’t what I was looking for.
  • Rigid, 24/7 Restrictions: Lastly, I didn’t want any set of rules that I had to follow 24/7. I didn’t, for example, want to get together with friends on a weekend and have to navigate around a bunch of restrictions. Instead, I try to do the right most of the time and not get in a twist about the occasional indulgence (read: beers on weekend nights).

What I Was Willing to Do

  • Track my Weight: This is a non-starter for a lot of people and I completely get it. It’s hard to get on a scale if you’ve let things go. But what success I’ve had with losing weight historically has come from the line diet, so for me weighing myself daily was not optional. And after that first weigh in, I just keep my focus on trying to beat my number each day.
  • Eat Less: As I’ll get to momentarily, I started with exercise, not diet, but that just made it easier for me to make the decision to eat less. It’s not like I was eating fast food all the time or anything crazy, but I had to be willing to make some cuts to my food intake. Otherwise my progress, if any, would have been slow.
  • Make Some Changes to What I Ate: Again, I didn’t have to do anything really radical here because I wasn’t gorging on burgers or eating pints of ice cream in a sitting. But I did make a few small changes here and there for nutritional purposes as well as weight loss.

The Rules

  • No Breakfast: This wasn’t a big deal for me, as I haven’t eaten breakfast regularly since I was a kid. My PCPs over the years have had varying opinions on the importance of breakfast, and it seems like one of those medical subjects where each new study contradicts the last. For me, at least, I don’t have any less energy if I don’t eat breakfast – I walked over ten miles this morning without any – and I actually tend to feel sluggish if I do. Your mileage may vary here.
  • No Eating After Dinner: This was a more significant change. Because I had a tendency to stay up too late, I’d end up getting hungry around midnight and would raid the fridge for leftovers. Under the new plan, I don’t eat anything after dinner, and with very rare exceptions I do this pretty much seven days a week. Eating before bed is not super helpful in general per the science, and it’s additional calories I just didn’t need.
  • Eat a Varied Diet: There’s not much question that eating a diet heavier in protein versus, say, carbohydrates is helpful from a weight loss perspective. And as I’ll get to, I’ve tilted my consumption there just a bit. But I also wanted to make sure that I was getting an appropriately diverse set of nutrients – carbs included.
  • No Beer Four Days a Week: When the pandemic began, I was adhering to a pretty strict schedule of only having beer Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. I held up for about a month or two, then that went out the window. I wasn’t getting shellacked every night or anything, but I was having at least a beer or two every night, if only for medicinal purposes. Those extra calories had to go. So for several months now I’ve been back to the Thurs/Fri/Sat schedule, and you can see the difference quantitatively.
  • These Are More of a Set Guidelines, Not Rules: If the time that will work to meet friends for a beer around a firepit is Tuesday night, I have beers on a Tuesday night and I don’t think twice about it. If I’m at my college reunion and we make food late night, I eat after dinner – so be it. The core assumption here is that if I do the right thing most of the time, the good will outweigh the times when I have to make an exception to the above rules.

The SOG Diet

Enough with all the rules and guidelines and caveats: what’s the actual diet? The joke is that there actually isn’t one. Basically, I eat two meals – lunch and dinner – and occasionally a snack in the afternoon if I’ve walked a lot.

Lunch: is always the same: what I refer to as “terrible tacos,” pictured above. These consist of a tortilla into which I place first some sort of protein. Could be turkey, bacon, left over actual taco meat or most often chicken or turkey sausage. On top of this I throw in a bunch of different random vegetables from our fridge: some combination of lettuce, avocado, pickled jalapenos, onion, carrots, cabbage, cukes, carrots or tomatoes. The more different colors that are represented, the better. Then I add a fried egg – my cholesterol numbers have always been pretty good – and some sort of hot sauce. It’s thai sambal above, but I rotate regularly through a bunch of different sauces from Big Tree Grocery (which, as an aside, is so, so good). One day it’s sambal, another it’s chili crisp, next it’s gochuang and so on. I leave out filler I don’t need and probably wouldn’t be able taste anyway like cheese.

None of the ingredients make any sense, there’s no cohesion or thought into how they might taste together, but the terrible tacos cover a couple of bases for me:

  • They get me both protein and more and more varied vegetables than if I was having, say, a basic turkey sandwich
  • I can make and eat them in ten minutes or less, which is helpful on busy days
  • I don’t need any specific ingredient; I can work with basically whatever we have as long as we have tortillas
  • The Big Tree sauces are excellent, and either hot, overpowering from a taste perspective or both, so I get some variety in how my lunch tastes
  • The taco is filling, if mostly comprised of vegetables, so I’m never hungry after eating

That’s pretty much it. I eat these things close to seven days a week, unless we go out for lunch or pick something up special. So far I haven’t gotten sick of them, though I’m not much of a food person in any event so that’s not a major surprise.

Snack: is always something small. A protein bar, maybe, or a wedge of cheese. Maybe a small portion of this tabbouleh salad our local market makes that has kale in it, but in which, mercifully, you can’t taste the kale.

Dinner: basically I eat whatever we’re having. Could be rice bowls, could be a grilled chicken salad, could be sushi – or it it’s Tuesday, it could be normal, non-terrible tacos. Basically the only adjustments I make are first by going lighter on the carb portions than I might have otherwise; a little less pasta, for example, or a little less rice, and second by eating a little more protein than I might otherwise. These adjustments are very slight, I’m still eating both carbs and protein, just a slightly different ratio than I might have otherwise. Overall, however, it’s simple: eat a little less overall, and a little less of foods that aren’t great for your weight and a little more of foods that can be helpful in that regard. And after dinner, that’s it. No more food until the next day.

And that’s it. That’s the “diet.”

Things That Aren’t a Problem for Me That Might Be for Other People

  • No Dessert: For the most part, I have no sweet tooth. I don’t care for cake, ice cream, pie or most desserts. So skipping desert is not a big deal for me. I do, however, really like peanut butter, and got a couple of bags of peanut butter cups for Christmas. They’re still up on the shelf. I find it’s easier to not eat them if I don’t have a fresh memory of what they taste like. So while I could indulge myself per the guidelines/rules item above, I’ve just dropped anything sweet entirely.
  • I Eat the Same Thing Every Day: After he retired, my grandfather ate the same thing for lunch – a bowl of corn flakes – every day for decades. I appear to be cut from a similar cloth in that respect, because as mentioned above I eat basically the same thing for lunch seven days a week, week in, week out. That’s probably not something everyone wants to do.

When to Start

Personally, I found it easier to start with an exercise plan and then gradually adjust my diet. As I ramped up my physical activity I was burning enough calories via walking that I was seeing some weight loss, which meant that dieting for me was essentially an accelerant. This meant that I was getting concrete, tangible results faster, which made the challenge of making adjustments to my diet much easier to swallow. If you’re losing, for example, a quarter of a pound per day on average and then you can watch yourself double that after a few small diet changes, the incentive to make and keep those changes is much higher.

How to Roll Out Changes to Your Diet

Much like an exercise regimen, I think diet changes are best rolled out incrementally. If your entire diet is different overnight, it’s a shock to the system that’s more difficult to sustain over time. If you make one change, learn to live with it, then make another, and so on, you can boil the frog, so to speak, and wake up after a couple of weeks with a significantly different diet that seems to have materialized out of nowhere. I’ve described a bunch of different changes above, and they were all made at different periods over time, and thus the changes while significant in the aggregate at no time have seemed onerous.

The Net

As stated above, the way I’ve done things is not for everyone. My version of the tacos, as but one example, is not going to work for a vegan. For those of you that don’t have access to a kitchen for your lunch, likewise. But the idea isn’t that you have to do what I’ve done. If anything in here is helpful to you, that’s fantastic, but that’s not the point.

The important takeaway for me, at least, is that if you’re struggling with your diet and your weight – and I’ve heard from a bunch of you that are – you can make a small change here and a small change there, and it all adds up. You might not think you can, at times, but literally anyone can make a small change. And then another. And then another.

Don’t worry about the big picture, just put one foot in front of the other and focus on those small changes. Make enough of them and you’ll get where you want to go, I promise.

Good luck.

Saying Goodbye

Eighteen years ago this month, I hopped in the car and drove up to Augusta to the Kennebec Valley Humane Society. They had a cat there that no one, apparently, wanted to adopt. Which, in turn, made me want to adopt him, hence the ride up north.

As it turned out, however, someone did want to adopt him, and drove off with their new cat about an hour before I got up there. They tried to talk me into coming to see a new batch of kittens that had come in, but I resisted, having had my heart set on the cat that had been adopted. Eventually I gave in because, well, kittens.

When I walked into the room with the them, they were rolling all over each other and play fighting. One of kittens looked up and saw me, sprinted over and proceeded to climb my leg like a tree. When I pried her off my hip, she was purring loudly.

Her name was Azrael. I had to have her put to sleep last week.

When she came home with me that June, I was living alone up the coast from here in Maine, far from friends and family. Az was my companion in those early years. She was my local friend. She rode in with me to the office every day, and rode home with me at night. She curled up in my lap if it was available, and next to it if it wasn’t. She would drape herself over me at night, or crawl under the blanket and go to sleep behind my knees. And her most favorite thing in the world was to be carried. She’d sit in the crook of my elbow, paws on top of my hand and just quietly sit as I wandered around randomly carrying a cat and trying to do things like laundry one handed.

My relationship with her, however, was a lot different from other people’s relationships with her. In my experience there is a type of cat that is basically a one person cat. I grew up with one. Azrael was another.

She liked Kate, which didn’t help much since she’s allergic. One of my happiest memories, meanwhile, was when she gave the newborn Eleanor a tentative lick the first time they met – and she was a very patient cat with a very affectionate toddler. She also got along just fine with my best friend Andrew.

But that was pretty much the list. She hated pretty much everyone else – even people who were kind enough to make sure she had food and water while I was traveling. Best case, they wouldn’t even see her. Worst case, there would be hissing. And if you didn’t pay attention to that and got too close, she would cut you. Happily. The last veterinarian we went to tried to get me to take a fancy plastic cat carrier for free because they were so scared of me taking her out of it. I assured them she’d be fine for me, and she was.

Azrael may have been a tiny cat, but she was fierce. Even those of my friends that didn’t like her – which is to say most of them – would allow her that much, I think.

If she wasn’t particularly friendly, however, she was adaptable. She lived in everything from a one room cottage to a loft to a basement to, when we had that finished, the RedMonk office briefly. She took it all in stride. She was on a plane more than my daughter’s been to date. She didn’t like it, but as long as I was able to stick my hand in the cat carrier so she could know that I was there, she’d settle.

I worked with a guy once whose cat crapped on his clothes as a means of expressing its displeasure when he traveled. Az never did anything at all to protest; she was just overjoyed to see me when I got back.

Throughout all of the changes in my life over the last two decades, Azrael – most commonly referred to in the house as “Pook” – was there for me. Moves. Marriage. A daughter. My deteriorating and then recovering health. My Dad’s death. Throughout all of the ups and downs, I could sit down each night, she’d curl up next to me and I’d feel loved.

Pets have many wonderful benefits, but I’m not sure there’s any that are more important than that.

Last week, I noticed a couple of things that were off. Her food bowl was fuller than it should have been and she felt lighter. And she was making a noise as if she was grinding her teeth, which had never happened before. I took her in assuming it was a dental issue. They called and told me it was a growth, very likely squamous cell cancer. In the span of about thirty seconds I went from wondering how long she’d be in for dental work to desperately trying to get around the fact I was going to have to say goodbye.

Because that was clearly what had to happen. Surgery on the mouth of an eighteen year old cat would be trading at best a few months for me to come to terms for an agonizing, painful struggle for her, which of course is no trade at all. It would mean selfishly putting her through hell so that I didn’t have to feel sad until later.

We might not always be able to be kind to people in these situations, but we can at least do that for our animals.

A half hour later, I was at the vet’s sobbing as they brought her in. True to her nature, they’d had to administer the sedative before they brought her in because she tried to cut a few of them up. Even in her weakened state, she was still fierce.

I thanked her for always being there for me and for making me happy. I told her that she’d been loved. And then they gave her the second drug, and she was gone.

You won’t find many other people who liked her, let alone loved her. You, reading this right now, probably wouldn’t have. But I did. So very much.

Goodbye Pook. You were a great cat.