Progress so far–with pictures

IMG_20150123_063350Today I return to a previous practice. I will probably only do it for a couple weeks, and then return to weight lifting, but for now I’m posting weekly weight measurements. As my readers know I switched from my previous program (Medifast with Take Shape for Life) over to carb cycling. I did this not because the prior one didn’t work. Actually, it worked miraculously and I would have happily stayed on it until at my final goal weight. However, my medical situation is such (I have been taking testosterone for years) that I wanted to attack my BMI from the lean side for a while, in order to (1) increase my metabolism and (2) increase my own output of testosterone. This required weight training, so, as I’ve reported previously, I switched over to carb cycling. For the last couple months I’ve been on a purely weight training and higher carb cycle, and decided last Friday to switch over to low carb with cardio. I’ve been back on it for a week, and today’s weight was 260 lbs.

I had changed over around 264 lbs. and started lifting. My weight over the next couple months went up to 271 lbs. (my weight last Saturday). Now, before you think this was all fat increase, and was going backwards, understand that my clothes were all starting to fit looser, and everything was getting trimmed up—except for areas I was working to enlarge. This means I was gaining muscle. Body composition and form are far more important than numbers on a scale. The scale can only tell you “how much” is there, but has no idea “what” is there. Gaining fat is bad; gaining muscle is good. However, it is inevitable that one also puts on some fat while building muscle because of the need to consume higher carbs and even some simple sugars and starches to fuel the gains.

I decided it was time to change over for a bit to give some tendons and joints a chance to heal. I had been having problems on occasion with my right wrist, right elbow, right shoulder, left hip and right ankle (Good Lord! How did I get old?). I was able to work around these when it was just one at a time, however, at my last gym session all were making it very hard to work out. I decided to give them a break and concentrate, once again, on burning fat.

An old before and after picture from several months ago.

An old before and after picture from several months ago.

me at heaviest

An old before photo of me before starting this journey.

Now, some people are going to see the number 260 lbs. and think that is still extremely fat. Remember that each person carries fat in their own way. I am not a small guy. The last time I was small was sixth grade, when I had a huge growth spirt and became head and shoulders taller than the guys who had picked on me the year before—a nice turn of the tables. Keep in mind that I came from 425 lbs. lifetime highest, and was 385 lbs. just last Easter (nine months ago). I’ve lost 165 lbs. from my highest and, of that, 125 lbs. was lost in the aforementioned nine month period. I am going to post some pictures to show what I look like now in comparison to before. Understand that I have few pictures from before because I hated taking them. Also forgive me for some of the pictures. I have my shirt off in the latest. While I know in our culture it is acceptable for a man to go shirtless, there are three reasons I am very uncomfortable with it. My wife’s culture and that of many of my friends do not view this the same way. My wife will be very embarrassed by the photo because her family can see them and in her mind they are shameful. Also, I am a pastor, and many will see such displays by one in my position as out of place. I apologize—I assure you, God’s not shamed by this display. The third reason I am so uncomfortable, is that I am not a young man. I am almost fifty and when older men want to show themselves without a shirt on the internet the best answer is “Just say no,” (Geraldo Rivera, for example). The pictures are not meant to show off. They are meant only to show my current condition—to show progress. Wearing a shirt covers many details. Please excuse them. Think of them as medical images only. (I removed one).

So, I’ve dropped from 271 lbs. to 260 lbs. in a week. Keep in mind that only part of this is fat. A great deal will be from a loss of weight lifting inflammation and from reduction in muscle glycogen stores from being low carb.

Starting to see some abs.

Starting to see some abs.

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Changing it up a bit–back to fat burning!

I’ve been debating over the last few weeks the best time to lay off the weights and go into a high cardio, low carb cycle—known as a micro-cycle. In carb-cycling you go back and forth between building muscle and burning fat. The two processes are dependent on different hormones and require different fuels and different amounts of consumption.

A micro-cycle involves a catabolic state. In this state the body is breaking tissue down into components—it breaks down fat if fueled and worked properly, but if not managed well will also break down muscle and other tissue. In this state you eat low carbs, do cardio exercises and maintain a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you actually burn) so your body burns fat stores.

A macro-cycle involves an anabolic state. In this state the body assembles components into tissue—building muscle and other tissues. It requires higher carbs—including some simple carbs—as well as a calorie surplus (eating more calories each day than your body actually uses). The problem is that anabolism will also deposit a certain amount of fat on the body. So, one rotates between the two states to keep down the fat while increasing lean muscle mass.

For the first few months I went back and forth doing a macro-cycle on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with weight training; and a micro-cycle on Tuesday and Thursday accompanied by cardio. I saw improvements to my core and some increases in muscle mass, with no actual increase of the scale. Then about a month ago, I switched to a purely macro-cycle (weight training and higher consumption). I did about an average of 6 hours a week in the gym on weights and core training with no cardio. This brought my weight up about five pounds over where it was, but I have also built muscle mass, especially in areas I had emphasized—chest, arms, shoulders and back. I also tightened up my legs, glutes and abs.

There have been problems. At one point I over did it on my lower back and had to work around that for a while. Now I am having some problems with tendons in my right ankle and right elbow as well as something hurting from time to time in my right shoulder. I have been working around these when needed, but have for a while thought it might be time to drop off weights back to burning fat to get closer to my final goal weight before Easter (2015)—my original target date. This will also have the benefit of allowing these hurting areas to mend for a while.

The other day I decided to finish out the month of January on a micro-cycle to burn fat. As I remove some more fat from my frame, I should get a better idea of just where I need to concentrate my efforts. This means I am back in a low carb cycle and going to replace weights with cardio (rotating between bicycle, treadmill and pool workouts). I’ll switch my five days of weights for five days of cardio (Saturday and Sunday will still be rest days. At the end of January I’ll decide whether to go back to the weights or continue in a fat burning stage (I will still have some weight to lose at that time).

Last Friday (today is Monday) I made this choice and finished out my final higher-carb, weight training day. Because I’ve been on this journey for just under a year, I wanted to test and see how quickly my body would switch back into fat burning mode–having been out of it for over a month. On Friday night, I allowed myself to go wild with carbs and calories. My wife and I went to see a movie and we shared a large tub of popcorn (to be honest my wife had some and I had the rest). We followed that with supper at Fuddruckers. I had fries, and a half pound burger (yes, I ate the bun) with cheese, mushrooms, and bacon (Mmmm! Bacon!). I also ate most of my wife’s fries (I love that woman)…in the name of research, of course. Those of you who’ve read my blog know I’ve discussed the importance of making eating choices before entering the restaurant. I did this on this trip as well. I went in intent on loading down with calories and carbs to see how quickly a low carb regimen would put me back into a catabolic fat burning state—without exercise over the weekend. The next morning I started a strict low carb eating pattern. By that evening, I was already registering mild fat burn on my Ketostix. I’ve monitored since and continue in that state.

I intend to stay in low carb to burn fat for the next two weeks. My plan is, as I said, to do daily cardio during the week (Saturday is for rest and recreation while, as a pastor, Sunday is a very busy work day). However, I don’t want to lose any muscle or reduce my newly developed core strength in any way so I intend to continue hitting certain muscle groups from time to time and doing regular kettlebell routines.

This means I’ll be back to posting weekly weight reports this coming Friday. I look forward to seeing what happens and where I end up. Saturday morning when I weighed, the scale registered 271 lbs. So I still need to lose about 40 lbs. to reach my personal goal.

Health Horror on the Holidays!

The holidays are a major cause of diet failure. Various studies confirm that people tend to gain weight over the holidays. One study I found cited an average of 1 lb. for the season, and one study went as high as 5 lbs. on average. I’ve experienced it myself in the past. Ten years ago I lost a lot of weight on a low-carb program. When the holidays came around I figured “The program has been so easy and I don’t want to try to stay low-carb over the holidays.” I decided to drop off program for the holidays and start again for the New Year. Unfortunately, I went into carb craving since I didn’t transition off and quickly gained the weight I’d lost along with a lot extra. I craved carbs so bad that I could not get myself back onto program.

Built into this is an argument I want to dissect. I will present it here as:

Healthy eating requires deprivation.

Celebrating the holidays requires over-indulging.

Over-indulging causes one to gain weight.

Therefore, holiday celebrants inevitably gain weight.

We have three premises and a conclusion. The form of the argument given is such that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. So our only choice would appear to be skimp on the holidays or gain weight. But is this our only choice? Is the argument above true? It can only be false if one or more of the premises are false, and I believe one could argue that all of them are false.

Healthy eating is not deprived eating

To eat healthy is not to deprivation, but appropriate eating. One who wants to eat healthy takes various things into account: food available, preferences, nutritional need, etc. One eats what the body needs and then stops when the body is provided for. Actually, it is deprivation that is unhealthy. To be deprived nutritionally does harm to the body. Yes, healthy eating can feel like deprivation to one who has spent years eating unhealthy. However, this is actually a symptom of prior bad choices. I want comfort food that is fatty and sugary, not because my body needs it. Our systems are adapted to prefer easy high energy sources. Tie this adaptation for survival to a psychological makeup that ties these foods to some pleasurable memory or makes them into a medicine to cover some bad memory and we have a double whammy telling us to eat what is bad for us, and to do it in copious quantities. It is this that makes such eating unhealthy. It is also this psychological component that makes healthy eating seem like deprivation.

Celebrating the holidays does not require over indulging

When we celebrate the holidays, we are spending time with our friends and loved-ones (and, often, some not-so-loved-ones).  The food is actually there to encourage closeness. The history of feasting and shared meals is one of relationship building. In ancient times, when people shared a meal they established a covenant relationship. To share someone’s food and then turn on them was considered an exceptional level of evil. This was all part of ancient hospitality—“We have shared food and now we are bound to one another.” It is this that was behind the ancient feasts in the Old Testament and is also the root of the New Testament Lord’s Supper. This was, originally, a full meal shared by the congregation. Sharing food brings people together. When there is food between us, we relax. This is a primary reason for the food. There is nothing requiring you to actually consume a certain amount of food—at least not in our culture. Of course, there are some cultures where you must eat a certain amount or you will offend the host. At times it may even be necessary for you to have a bit of everything—even those things you shouldn’t have—in order to spare someone’s feelings. While that person should care more about your health than their contribution to the meal, this is not always the case.

Shared meals are actually common in church, and as a pastor I have attended more than most. We even use the word ‘fellowship’ in church to mean a potluck meal. I’ve been in churches where the ladies would bring their favorite dishes to the church potluck and if I didn’t try every dish someone would get their feelings hurt. I had to develop a tactic to help me with this. I’ll even share it with you and you can use it at church or at your Aunt Gertrude’s house over the holidays. No one actually kept a record of what I or anyone else actually did eat, so when someone brought something that either I shouldn’t eat, or that I even didn’t want to eat, and they would ask me, “Pastor, did you have some of my (fill in the blank)?” I l would look them right in the eye and say, “Why yes! I did and it was great!” That’s right. I lied! Do I feel shame over it? Absolutely not! Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely! By the way, if you think that a person should never under any circumstances tell anything untrue then you are either naïve or uninformed about the realities of life—you are at the least not married.

Over-indulging does not have to cause one to gain weight

Now I understand that what I just said may seem heresy to the dieting crowd. However, please let me explain. Let’s say I am on a strict diet that I follow religiously. I lose weight steadily. One day I decide to allow myself to have more than I should—I over-indulge. Will I gain weight? Probably not! Understand that it takes around 3500 calories to add a pound of fat. This means that in order to gain any appreciable weight I have to consume a very large amount. Recently, an article ran about a man said to have gained the most weight in a single Thanksgiving meal. Everyone at their dinner weighed themselves before eating and again after eating. The article went on to say that he had “gained” 7.5 lbs. in that one meal. Well, this is just patently false. Much of the food he is actually water and will pass; much of it was fiber that will not digest but will pass. That is not weight gain. That is just bulk gain. Much of it will pass out within a day and, he will gain some weight, but not the full amount.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying over-indulging is a healthy choice—especially for someone trying to lose weight. If you are on a diet, then over-indulging should be avoided. However, if something causes you (like your own choices, lack of will-power or that nice little aunt who insists you have just one more piece of her cheesecake) it’s not the end of the world. You may not even register any weight.

You see, the problem is not having too much at one meal. The problem comes when we use the holidays as an excuse to permit ourselves a season of bad eating. From Halloween through New Year most homes are full of bad eating opportunities. We are constantly exposed to the less healthy foods in copious amounts. We show up to work and in the spirit of the holidays a salesman has brought a whole tin of cookies. Everyone is given the giant drums of caramel coated popcorn. Unhealthy beverages are readily available in giant helping. And when facing such temptation the tendency is to say, “Well it is (Christmas/Hanukah/Thanksgiving/etc.).” Most often this is a lie. Thanksgiving is one Thursday in November. Halloween is one day in October. Christmas is two days in December (if you count Christmas day and Christmas Eve). New Years is one night of revelry. Let’s assume first of all that culture dictates that you over-indulge on all of these days. That still means you are having more than you should on five days out of ninety. You see, the problem is not what we eat on these special holidays. The problem is what we eat in between that we blame on these holidays. Halloween through New Year has become a season of excuses to binge eat. This is the problem.

Let’s look at some numbers for a moment. It takes about 3500 calories in excess to gain one pound. In the average Turkey Breast, four ounces has about 126 calories. This means you would need eat over six pounds of Turkey to gain a single pound. Don’t get me wrong. I understand there are other factors: carbs, potatoes, sweets and fats all being consumed. But my hope is that you will at least realize if you gain weight over the holidays it is not because of the actual holiday. It is because of what you use the holiday to excuse.

I have, for several months, being in a carb cycling rotation with an attempt to increase muscle mass. We had our Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday because of other family responsibilities—my wife and daughter both work healthcare. In our house, I do most of the Thanksgiving cooking and wanted to make all the things I traditionally have. I also wanted to experiment with imbibing in all of it, with the goal of gaining no weight. Here was the menu:

14 lbs. Turkey, smoked

10 lbs. Goose, smoked

Sweet potatoes, with lots of brown sugar and marshmallows

Green Bean Casserole

Dressing

Mashed Potatoes with Giblet Gravy

A giant loaf of homemade Swedish Almond Bread

Bourbon Pecan Pie

Sweet Potato Pie

Pumpkin Pie

Sangria

Wine, Syrah

Now, you may think looking at this that we had a huge family gathering of dozens of people. We could have fed them, but instead we only had eight people. Everyone ate their fill. I denied myself nothing—which includes three pieces of pie (two with the meal, and a third later).

The day before this, I spent about an hour in the gym working out and did the same the day after. We handled leftovers in a special way as well. We kept a small amount of turkey for sandwiches, and froze a small amount of goose to use for something later. Every last bit of the rest was given away. We kept none in the house (except for a small plate my wife had made for her lunch the next day). The day before the meal I was on a low carb, low calorie day. The day following I went very low carb—almost none the whole day. Prior to this and after, I went back to my program religiously. We are now one week later and I have lost five pounds.

One of the purposes of my blog and the title is because I believe that if one makes a lifestyle of healthy choices, then one is free on occasion to make a choice to eat in an unhealthy way, for whatever reason. Health does not have to be drudgery. Health does not mean denying myself everything good. However, it means taking control of your choices and using them to your benefit.

I want to add a warning to those reading this. You have to understand that what I did fit with my current program. Carb Cycling actually recommends an occasional undisciplined day because hormone changes can occur with long term low carb and low calorie consumption—I don’t need my T level dropping. However, if I were still in my prior program which is ketogenic, I wouldn’t have dared do this. In such a program one must stay long term in fat burn and getting back into fat burn can take days in the early stages of these programs. That one meal would have led to days of misery trying to get back into fat burn. However, after months of being carefully on program and making healthy choices, my body goes in and out of fat burn rather quickly. For example, the day before yesterday I was in a high carb cycle on a weight day. Because of a celebration, I actually allowed myself to have far more carbs than I intended—including too many simple carbs. Yesterday I went back low carb (I do this on my two cardio days each week). Yesterday evening I checked with a Ketostix and I was already in a good level of fat burn.

First off, follow your program. Second, if you allow yourself too much on a special meal during the holidays don’t lose your mind with guilt and grief. Third, don’t use the holidays as an excuse for a season of indulgence. Fourth, don’t allow others to set the agenda on what you eat because making someone else feel good about their favorite food is not worth more than your health.

Concentrating on Your own Positive

Since changing my goals and concentrating on gaining muscle, I have been in a Carb Cycling macrocycle (meaning more than one day per week consuming higher carbs and lifting weights). I find myself wanting to get my scale weight down. But I can’t build muscle and worry about the scale at the same time. Building muscle can push weight up, since muscle actually weighs more than the same volume of fat. I have to keep reminding myself that I have an end goal to reach. I want to raise my lean body mass and then lower my fat content down to reach a specific BMI.

One reason for doing this is my testosterone. When I was at my heaviest, my weight and sleep apnea all worked together to create a perfect storm against my endocrine system. My body was making so little testosterone that it was practically useless. On top of that, the testosterone I was making was of no use. Fat cells around the abdomen actually convert testosterone to estrogen. My sleep apnea reduced the production of testosterone, and then my excess fat took what was produced and converted it to a hormone that would do even more harm to my system.

Losing weight has helped my sleep apnea. I am no longer using my C-PAP. My testosterone levels are great, but not perfect so the doctor has started reducing my weekly dosage—which is nice because it is a painful, self-administered shot and the lower the dose, the less pain.

I decided to concentrate on weights and muscle gain in order to increase my natural testosterone production. The problem is that I spent so many months thinking about the scale and looking for lower numbers, it is hard to see the scale make no changes in over a month.

I have to remind myself of my current goal—get off the T-shot, and increase lean mass. This means looking at the tape and skin pinch more than scale numbers. I have increased my chest by around 3 inches. My calves have increased from 18 inches to 20 inches. My thighs have trimmed to 27 inches at the widest and tightened considerably. My waist has stayed almost the same. My shoulders are expanding and widening. All of this in about a month and a half. Funny thing is that my shirts had gotten down to XL size, but these are now too tight in the chest and I need to move back up to XXL. Of course this is much better than the 5X I used to wear. My chest was 56 inches back then. It went down to 44 inches (I list 12 inches of fat around my chest)—the smallest I remember it being since high school. It is now up to 47 inches.

I have to keep in mind the goals that matter are mine. Others would look at my scale number and say, “You have to get that down.” They don’t know anything about my actual lean mass (which is heavier than what the traditional BMI chart says should be my healthy weight). They don’t know about the need to gain muscle to increase T production. Worrying about what someone else thinks you need is useless. Set your own goals and work towards them. If others can’t support the goals you set for yourself, don’t talk to them about this area of your life. Even after all this time on program, I still have friends whom I know not to speak to about my weight or health. I know their contributions are useless, so I protect the friendship by ignoring the stupid advice and silly statements. I try to concentrate on my own goals and remind myself constantly of what I am working towards. Since my weight is unchanged but my muscle mass has increased, this means I am “exchanging” fat for muscle—a positive. Concentrating on the positive is always helpful.

Slaying the Scale Monster!

The scale can be a real monster sometimes. Using it to know where you are and if you are going in the right direction is helpful. However, it can also be a real kick in the shorts when you are sure everything is doing well, you step on the scale and it attacks—giving you a number far above what you expected. It is hard to not get worried. There are so many things that can cause a scale fluctuation—inflammation, dehydration, etc. But one can still get quite scared and even emotional when that scale doesn’t say what you want it to say.

To prevent this, you can weigh infrequently. Rather than weighing every day you could pick a day of the week to weigh. If that day, you happen to be in a small scale fluctuation it is likely to be after a week of weight change so even a number higher than it should be will be welcome. This is a good method when doing the same thing over a period of months and you are confident it works. When you are weighing like this, you aren’t trying to figure out if your plan is working. You are just checking to see where you are. This isn’t as helpful when transitioning or changing things up. During these times, it may be necessary to weigh every day—as I have been doing over the last few weeks.

Recently, I transitioned over from trying to lose the maximum amount of weight in the shortest possible time, to trying to build muscle. I reached one goal and now have set another different one. Because of this I transitioned over from MediFast on the Take Shape for Life program (which saved my life and set me on a good path), to using Carb Cycling with a combination of weight and cardio days. Unlike the earlier program, in which everything was so well laid out and easy to follow, the new program takes a lot of study, practice and learning to know what to do. This means there are more chances of screwing up. Since this program means eating more carbs, and I have a history of carb cravings, there is a great deal of apprehension when adding in new things, and watching the scale helps to tell if I am going the right direction, and weighing each day has become part of this.

To handle this I adopted a practice similar to a skill learned in the Army. In the Army I served as an Infantryman for eight years. One skill that you learn is calling in artillery on a target. Artillery is an area target, meaning that you aren’t trying to hit a target on the nose. You are trying to get a special projectile within a certain distance of a target (within the effective area). In the days before laser guided and smart munitions, you began by calling in initial coordinates; then, the gun bunnies fire a shell; the observer sees where it hits, calls in corrections and then another shell is fired. The observer tries to walk the shell impact onto the target with a technique known as bracketing. For example, the first shell lands 100 yards north of the target. Call in a correction and the next shell lands 100 yards south of the target. Correct the next shell back to the north for 50 yards and see if it hits.

When I use the scale I have an area that is acceptable: “If I weight between A and B, then everything is fine.” I also want this area to slowly move down. I notice over time that the lower number of my acceptable range slides down and the upper number is lower and lower. This way, scale fluctuations are built into the expectation. If I am supposed to weigh 260, then anything between 255 and 265 is acceptable. Slowly over time this becomes 250 to 260. For some it might be a ten pound spread. For others it might be five.

In my new program, big week to week changes in the scale just don’t happen—this really makes me miss being on the full TSFL program. Seeing that big drop of pounds each week was nice. However, my goal now is muscle building and changing my body fat percentage by both reducing fat and raising lean mass. One thing that helps to monitor now, is regular tape measuring. For example, my weight hasn’t changed much over the last three weeks. However, my clothes are loose. My muscles seem to be tightening. In my arms and legs I can start to see some new definition. Now I still weight regularly, but I find a tape measure a far more useful tool. Besides measuring various locations, I like to give myself regular tape tests. I use the military tape test because it is the easiest. I know it is not the most accurate, but it gives me a good picture of direction and change that the scale may not see. I found an app for my phone so I simply enter the measurements and it gives me my range.

Even though my scale hasn’t registered any big changes—just a very gradual movement—the tape shows a different story. According the tape I am now out of the obese range and into the acceptable range. This means I am not yet “fit” but would pass a military tape test. That is progress. If you are working and working but not seeing change where you expect then look somewhere else. Are the scales not moving? Well, are your clothes looser? Are your body dimensions changing? Have things disappeared? For example, one day it seemed I wasn’t making progress until it dawned on me that my “moobs” were gone. Yesterday, I realized my “love handles” were gone. One day I looked down and realized I could see the bones in my knees. The fat that usually surrounded them was just not there.

There are health targets to shoot for other than numbers on a scale.