I haven’t gained the COVID 15 but darn close to it. Fortunately I’ve remained consistent with exercise, maybe even increased it, throughout this pandemic and lock-down. So some of my weight gain is muscle, but only some. However, my eating habits have deteriorated. It’s time to address this.
This article outlines a simple yet carefully considered diet and exercise plan that I am following now and am calling the Common Sense Diet. Today is Day 1. The Common Sense Diet incorporates the useful bits of more extreme and difficult approaches, such as intermittent fasting, mindfulness, moderation, Grandma’s wisdom, healthy choices, mental health breaks, consistency and freedom. It avoids deal breakers and buzz killers, such as clock-watching, dogma, weighing, measuring and recording food, guilt, and macro-nutrient or food group vilification. The idea here is to do things that will make sense and not be painful and extreme and weird but will also work and can be adhered to easily and gotten back to quickly when the inevitable slippage occurs.
Over the years I’ve tried a number of eating strategies, including paleo, vegan, keto, lacto-ovo vegetarian, intermittent fasting, carnivore, OMAD, mindful eating, the Mediterranean Diet, and, sadly, SAD (standard American diet). A person who is searching must try things. And instead of finding the One True Solution, I have discovered that little aspects of each one of these approaches, when combined and seasoned with a modicum of rationality, produces the right dish: The Common Sense Diet. It’s common sense to put together each little nugget of wisdom in these sometimes radically different approaches to produce the best and most manageable and understandable diet. Hard core omnivory meets Common Sense.
My experiences with the more radical diets listed above follow a familiar pattern. First, I read of someone’s amazing transformation and get very excited to find out what they did to get there. The likely fudged photographs of the person fuel the excitement. Second, the excitement overshadows common sense and my own knowledge of my preferences, uniqueness, and weaknesses. Often the more radical the approach the more interesting it is for me, for some reason. I jump right in almost immediately and without much planning. I get frustrated and fail very quickly, sometimes even within days, because I did not take into account much of anything that would ensure some success. However, through all this experimentation and repeated “failures”, and even in the face of extremely challenging present circumstances, I have managed to stay consistent with a couple of key behaviors, including sticking mostly with real food, and not eating very often. But during these current painful pandemic times where the realization that this will last a very long time is starting to set in, and although I’ve continued to stick mainly to real foods, I’ve also allowed plenty of unreal foods, and the frequency has gone through the roof. This is probably aided by the fact that I’m spending all day every day with two hungry teenagers and I’m seldom more than 20 feet from the kitchen. This whole thing is something like an accidental dirty bulk. A dirty bulk is where you eat in a caloric surplus in order to build muscle but the foods you choose are not the best. Here are some bulking plans by some famous bulkers that vary in their degree of dirt.
Before the pandemic I had maintained my weight at about 180 lb. (I’m about 5’11”) without much effort following a looser version of what will be described below. I’d like to be lighter than 180 in the long run but haven’t worried much about it until now. During the seven weeks (so far) of this lock-down I have gained 14 lb. When I get above 190 lb. I really feel it, and I’m at 194 now. I am very bloated and congested with allergy symptoms and fatigue. I start to get certain inflammatory markers like increased asthma, achy joints, and some mild arthritis in the fingers. It is high time to address this before it gets out of hand! What I describe below is a tightened up version of what I have been doing for years now (during non-pandemic times) without much effort, and what has helped me to stay at a good weight and fitness and strength level. I strongly suspect with this simple approach I will produce positive results within a week, if not immediately, and that is what I am planning to show here and in the next few posts.
Girth: 40″ <– that’s compared to a 32″ waist and tells the biggest story about inflammation and troubled digestion and just generally being off track
1. Two meals a day, no snacks, no seconds, no platters or piling
2. Delay the first meal of the day as long as possible
3. Start or continue progressive strength training
4. Do at least one session per day of jumping rope, running or biking
5. Alcohol only twice a week or less frequently
6. Try to stick with whole foods as close to their source as possible
7. Once a week ignore all this and cut loose
Explanation and Details
Two meals a day, no snacks, no seconds, no platters or piling – This is a bit of intermittent fasting and also mindfulness and portion control wrapped in a Common Sense blanket. Aside from the many benefits of fasting, if I eat frequently I overeat frequently. It’s pretty simple. Once you get used to skipping one meal a day it becomes easy, and then skipping snacks, seconds and huge helpings shortly follows. Jack LaLanne lived to be 96 despite bad genes. He ate two meals a day (and did a lot of other stuff).
When you get used to eating infrequently and only because of true hunger, you start to notice that most people are eating most of the time and it’s just habit. It can be shocking. You understand that you don’t need that much food and it’s so easy to lose sight of the real reason to eat and then to start doing it for pleasure or to satisfy some other need. Furthermore, frequent eating forces the body to occupy itself with digestion and fat storage rather than other things such as fat burning, repair, and taking out the trash. One meal a day (OMAD) is tough, very tough. Two meals a day (TWOMAD?) is not tough once you get used to it. It feels right.
And I suppose it goes without saying that if you’re eating one plate of food per meal, that plate shouldn’t be a garbage can lid or serving platter, and that food shouldn’t be shaped like a mountain.
Oh, and if you want to eat some junk or a dessert, go ahead. Just make sure it fits on the plate with the rest of your food. This is one of the best things about the Common Sense Diet. There will be junk. We are human and we can have junk from time to time. But as long as it fits onto the plate and thus into the plan (literally), it’s just fine. Oh, and it shouldn’t take over the plate.
Delay the first meal of the day as long as possible – This is the essence of intermittent fasting for me and it basically translates to skipping breakfast. Some people skip dinner and have breakfast in the morning but I can’t imagine doing this. Jack LaLanne skipped lunch. Dinner is the main meal for me. But you can do it how you wish. The reason that skipping breakfast works for me is that once I eat, I tend to want to continue. The more frequently you eat, the more frequently you get hungry, but it’s not true hunger or a need for nutrition so much as a desire to eat. Putting this off as long as you can is a good way to stay out of that trap. I like coffee and it can be an appetite suppressant, so when I start to feel hungry for my first meal, I will have a cup of black coffee instead.
There are many different approaches to intermittent fasting that are very popular today. Some examples are 16:8, 5:2, alternate day fasting, OMAD, and the warrior diet. Generally speaking the numbers refer to hours or days. For example, with 16:8, you fast for 16 hours and eat during an 8 hour window. If you finish your last meal at 8:00 PM, for example, you don’t eat again until noon the next day. With 5:2, you eat “normally” five days a week and on the other two, keep your total calories very low, around 500. Some of the other examples have you paying attention to calories. What I don’t like about these approaches is that they inevitably lead to clock watching and counting. I’d prefer keeping the general idea and not concerning myself with the burdensome details. The two meal, one plate per meal guidelines will accomplish the same things without the need for counting and watching the clock. It gives you freedom.
Start or continue progressive strength training
I’m a calisthenics guy and I work out every day and it’s my favorite part of the health and fitness journey. This is a whole discussion in and of itself, or many discussions, but I will summarize it here by saying that I spent many years free-styling my workouts. Lately I’ve finally come to accept that I need to follow a plan and track progress. Below is a snippet of my current workout and the progress I have made using a Grind-Style Technique. Grind-Style has you doing three sets and when you are ready, you add reps to the latter two sets rather than the first one. Once you have all three sets equal in rep count, you add a rep to the first set and try again. This is progressive strength training, calisthenics-style. My goal for the three exercises shown below was to get to three sets of 20. The exercises here are decline diamond push ups, pull / chin ups, assisted pistol squats. And on the alternate days (not shown) I was doing gymnastics ring dips, body-weight rows, and hover lunges using the same plan.
Do at least one session a day of jumping rope, running or biking
These are the activities outside of calisthenics that I like to do but you can choose anything, as long as it is a good fat burner. You can do standard cardio but just be careful that it doesn’t become chronic cardio. By standard cardio I am referring to things like jogging, stair-master, or elliptical, where your goal is to get your heart rate up to the “fat burning zone” and keep it there for 20 or 30 minutes. Such is not my cup of tea but I know that many people like this kind of exercise. Jumping rope, running (sprinting) and biking (at least the way I do it) are HIIT rather than chronic cardio. High Intensity Interval Training is now believed to be one of the best fat-burning approaches to exercise that you can do, in addition to its efficiency and strength-building value. Although, its fat-burning value may be overstated. That’s why I say pick the one(s) that you like the best.
Alcohol only twice a week or less frequently
It just makes sense. I recently wrote about this extensively here.
Try to stick with whole foods that are as close to their source as possible
Apples are whole foods. Apple juice is not. Another way to think of this is the great-grandmother approach. The source for much of her food was the back yard.
Generally whole foods can be picked from the ground or from a tree and eaten. They may have to be dug up, or they ran around or scurried or swam around or flew around and should be cooked. That’s about the extent of the processing. During your great grandmother’s time, people had gardens and perhaps some livestock, maybe fruit trees. They went fishing and ate the catch. There’s a whole foods extravaganza right there, requiring little more than going outside and picking or catching what you want to eat, and maybe a little cooking. Maybe weapons. Certainly no bleaching, grinding, extracting, extruding, centrifuging, extrapolating, or colorizing. The more processing required and the more fractured the food item is, the less whole it is. Do you think your great grandmother would recognize much of what we are eating nowadays?
Why is the whole food greater than the sum of its parts? In essence, whole foods have a lot more of the good stuff and a lot less of the bad stuff than processed foods, while having the same or fewer overall calories and producing more satiety and stable blood sugar. Furthermore, our genes expect and want whole foods.
You must understand that processed foods are engineered in labs to serve one purpose: to compel the buyer to buy more. They are chemically engineered to appeal to the same parts of our brains that underlie drug addiction, which in my opinion makes them drugs. And there is only enough “real food” in processed foods to allow them to legally be called food, with the help of a team of lawyers and plenty of fine print. This is what we are eating, in large part because we can’t help ourselves. We need to break out of this and start using more Common Sense.
Generally speaking most of us don’t have gardens or livestock in the back yard. Therefore, the best way to keep to a whole foods diet is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. The perimeter is where you find the produce, the meats and dairy, eggs, and cheese. The closer you get to the interior, the more likely you will encounter processed food. It is non-perishable, conveniently packaged, and often shouting “health benefits” such as “HIGH IN ANTI-OXIDANTS!” The items in the perimeter of the store actually have the health benefits, although these foods are very quiet about it.
Fortunately, as explained in the book A Grain of Salt: The Science and Pseudoscience of What We Eat by Dr. Joe Schwarcz, we can have our cake and eat it to. That is to say, a little junk is ok as long as the good stuff is there too. Just don’t replace real food with junk. According to Schwarcz, “roughly one in five premature deaths can be attributed to diet, with a low intake of healthy foods being a greater contributor than a high intake of unhealthy foods.” Pay close attention to this statement. It explains that the health problems are not so much from eating the bad stuff as from NOT eating the good stuff! We are starving ourselves to death as we get fat. So it doesn’t bother me that I have a cookie on my plate, because I also have a salad, an apple, and some chicken and it’s a normal sized plate and roughly half of my calories for the day.
Once a week ignore all this and cut loose
In order to be the Common Sense Diet it needs to be sustainable. To be sustainable, we need to be able to take a break. That’s what the last guideline is all about. Once a week just forget about all of this and take a breather. Don’t worry about losing ground. You wouldn’t adopt an exercise program that you only do once a week and expect much progress. It might even be a reset. You can call it a “cheat” meal or a “cheat” day if you want, but I don’t really like the implications. The point is, take a time out and enjoy yourself without restrictions.
The point of the Common Sense Diet is to be understandable, manageable and healthy without requiring a lot of tedious work. If a more radical approach such as paleo, keto or veganism appeals to you and you think you can sustain it and have some support, by all means go ahead. Just make sure that you are getting enough healthy foods, and make sure you are being honest with yourself and assessing your progress. I believe that the Common Sense Diet makes this easy.
I will report my progress in the coming days and weeks.