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.
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.
- 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.
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.