Diet vs. Exercise on Obesity: Salads or Marathons?

I’ve always been a somewhat cynical individual. I meet people and tend to make up my mind on someone too early. This was especially true of fat people earlier in my life.

I believed what society told me- or more specifically, the government- in that, if you wanted to lose weight, you just had to exercise more and eat according to their pyramid. Also that you were probably stuffing your face and being a piggy.

Many recent events in my life have completely changed that notion. For the past two years or so, I have been through periods whilst very sick and the medication I was put on had me craving very calorie-dense, unhealthy foods. And a lot of them. Because of my very large appetite, I tried eating healthy. Salads, fruits, lean meats, grains, and very little processed foods. This would be the “healthy diet” you’ll hear from the USDA and most people interested in health. Too bad it doesn’t work; I gained more than a little weight. The first time around I gained 70 pounds, the second time was 55 pounds. Oh and did I mention? I was exercising extremely hard. High intensity interval training, long runs, weight lifting, taking the stairs rather than the escalator, and it was all for naught.

Granted, I was consuming large quantities of food, which means even with the best of diets, I couldn’t have done much better than break even. But 70 pounds in 9 months is a staggering figure, as is 55 pounds in 6 months. But I have also shown a resiliency to lose this weight and this is why I have a slightly different perspective on obesity. Anyway, I don’t mean to focus on my 2012 and 2014. Let’s focus on fat people.

Survival Instincts are What’s Killing Us

I’m not going to get into calories here, simply because the math doesn’t work by itself. The sheer amount of calorie deficiencies and exercise to drop a pound of fat is considered an absurdity in the online health community, and to be honest, I agree with them. That’s not to say that calories are completely irrelevant, but it’s far more important of the qualityof the calories you consume the calories themselves.

Ridiculous! You might exclaim. Your food is “fortified” and has all sorts of vitamin & mineral additives, how could it not be as healthy as eating a tomato? Not that Ramen Noodles are fortified at all, but one drastic story to explain my point is the teen who had been living on solely Ramen for 13 years, since the age of 5. Her health at 18 is being described as as poor as an 80-year olds.

Ok, fine. Cheap shot. You don’t eat Ramen every day, but do you really feel safe consuming large amounts of dairy, meat, grains, and processed food products every day? Your brain loves it, sure; it simulates all that we humans used to look for in survival. Salty, fatty, and sweet (SFS) tastes encouraged our survival, simply because they were denser foods through which we could subsist on in the wild. Was it an everyday occurrence that early humans found a deep-fried sugary donut in the morning, a peanut butter jelly sandwich for lunch, and a slice of pizza with a salad for dinner? Impossible.

So our brains are hardwired to seek out these SFS foods, as our bodies are still in survival mode. And because these incredibly heavy foods are very nutrient-poor, we are hungry more often. Our stomachs also don’t fill up nearly as much from 400 calories in pizza as they would be from a salad:

So, to recap: we’re hardwired to seek out processed, calorie-dense foods (i.e. addicted) and they don’t fill up our stomachs fully (we go hungry or we get fat). Let’s move on to exercise.

Exercise

I have already written on exercise in the past as a means of becoming fit, however it is not necessarily needed to become skinny. Anyone running every day will of course slowly lose weight, but as it compares to diet’s impact on overall physique, the results are unmatched. No amount of exercise can compete with my current diet, especially for people who are not fit and don’t have the energy or stamina to put in 3 hours at the gym every day. Most scientists I’ve seen online say it’s 80/20 or 75/25 between diet and exercise in terms of effectiveness. One even went on to say “You can’t out-exercise a bad diet.” Another said, “It’s much easier to cut 500 calories than to spend an hour at the gym burning 500 calories every day.” While I think calories oversimplifies the issue, it provides helpful images like the one I shared above and can equate food with exercise in simplistic terms.

What exercise will do for you, however, is:

  • Strengthen your core
  • Improve bone density
  • Improve your mood and mental health
  • Drastically improve your circulatory and respiratory systems
  • Maintain existing muscle mass
  • Prevent injuries
  • Improve sexual performance
  • And even prevent cancer (although diet does a far better job if you’re strict enough)

Without it, you will lose muscle and bone density alongside fat as you eat well. So there is a great deal of value to being physically fit (through exercise) as there is to trying to lose excess fat (through diet).

However, as I indicated in my simplistic description of exercise on diet, obesity is caused almost exclusively by poor eating choices.

Okay, Let’s Blame The Excess Fat on Poor Eating Choices

Calling obesity a choice implies a level of education and ability to actually choose the right foods for consumption. In many cases, this is simply not the case.

First there are children who simply eat what their parents feed them. This is hardly the kids’ fault, and in fact, parents need to be held far more accountable. Next in line are those who are too poor to afford a proper alkaline meal. I don’t need to represent the numbers here but unless someone is incredibly careful about their expenditures, it is far easier to eat unhealthily than healthily from a cost perspective. Lastly are those who did not receive a proper education, or rather, self-education in wellness, as our government has completely screwed up dietary recommendations since the FDA issued its first version of the food pyramid around 1940:

This is nowhere near a prescription for an optimal human diet and reeks of either poor science or potential industry influence, even right around WWII. The recommendations continued southward from here, however, and the food pyramid I grew up was perhaps the most backwards:

With grains (sugar) at the bottom, the effective recommendation is almost half of your daily consumption to have no nutritional benefit. This is hardly a productive recommendation, and yet it was what I grew up with believing without question.

So before going too far into how poor a job the FDA has done for the average citizen, one can only imagine what seeing something like this does for their mindset on eating. Additionally, as they peruse the internet for low-fat diets, low-carb diets, and various diet fads like a cayenne pepper/lemon juice/syrup cleanse, it’s likely they will try a few things, find poor results, and quit.

The educational piece is what I’m trying to drive home here. Fat people are not a function of their choices in all circumstances. Yes, some chose McDonald’s over salad places, not arguing with that, but given the sheer quantity of misinformation on eating properly from the federal government on down, I have trouble blaming fat people for their choices. It is likely many of them are highly frustrated and I doubt very many would choose to remain that way if they knew how easy eating right can be. I simply think of them as uneducated and likely unwilling or unaware of the ability to educate themselves and pull out of the hole they’re in.

And of course, there is the rare occasion its due completely to something out of your control, such as awful medications or other health concerns. I’m inserting this plug for myself of course, but not every obese person can be blamed for it.

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Antifragility: Running Until I Can’t Continue

I am an avid runner. Given the choice of any exercise, when I am already in shape, running is absolutely my activity of choice. I have a style of running that is pretty different than mainstream advice on how to become a great running, but I’ve found it works far better for me than the traditional way of doing things. This is usually the case for every discipline and it is no different for physical exertion.

The way I like to run is to run about as hard as I can while still maintaining the ability to run at least 2 miles. The difference between 2 miles and 10 is solely training your cardiovascular system, assuming you have your weight at the appropriate level. From there, I keep that pace every time I run but I add incremental distances. The amount I add is not a premeditated amount; I simply run until I literally cannot any more. 

I can generally gauge how long my runs will be each time, based on the prior run I had, so if the run seems a bit shorter than I need I just sprint all out at the end. If it is longer than I need, I do not slow down, I just run until I can’t. Walking home isn’t a bad thing, I just do not want to train myself at a sub-optimal pace, even if just for a half mile.

As for how this compares to other areas of exercise, I am pursuing a heavy lifting strategy, as opposed to circuit training. For cycling, I’d be far more concerned with my heart rate above a certain amount as opposed to my getting longer distances in. Swimming would be pushing myself to the point where I feel like I’ll drown because it’s so hard to breathe. You get the idea; I am not a multi-faceted exercise kind of guy (at least not yet), so I’m sure you can apply the same principles to your own routines.

So Why Not Take It Easy and Get The Hour/Day We Are Told To?

Jogging every day at a 10 minute pace for many miles sounds like a great way to burn fat, but it isn’t really stressing your body very much. You are demanding far less from yourself in terms of performance, and as a result, your ability to improve as a slow-paced runner into a faster-paced one is a far slower transition than mine will be from running hard at 2 miles up to 10. In fact, I bet I could get myself up from 2 miles today at my pace (roughly sub 8 minute miles) to 10 in less than half the time it would take someone jogging 10 minute miles to 8 minute miles for the same distance. You just aren’t stressing your systems enough.

Exasperation should be your goal, not weight loss. That’s how you become fit. Once you are fit, losing weight is incredibly easy. But getting to fit is the harder journey. Feeling like you might die from a run is something not many Americans are willing to even try. Even fewer would do so to get their training from 2 to 10 miles.

Don’t worry about the time spent exercising. Focus on exasperation, difficulty breathing, and sweat. Get all 3 of those every day, even if you do it for 10 minutes, and you’ll become an animal.

Antifragility

Nassim Taleb, one of the smartest thinkers and writers of economic theories, has since delved into other areas of thought that are removed from finance. He is an applied statistician and phD, but surprisingly, he is also a great practitioner (most of these types are academics with no hope of application to the real world). His latest book, called Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, focuses on things that benefit from disorder and randomness.

In other words, something that is stressed and breaks, such as glass, is fragile. But the human body is the opposite of this; the more it is stressed with disorder, the stronger it becomes, so long as you do not break it in the process.
This applies to everything anatomically.
  • Want to improve your sexual performance capabilities? Read up on edging and kegel exercises. They certainly fall into the extreme category.
  • Want to improve your ability to think? Our minds are no different than muscles, so the more different types of problems we throw at them and struggle to learn, the better we think.
  • As it applies to investing, you’re best off taking significant risks or none whatsoever. So perhaps keeping 75% of your money in cash and putting the other 25% with your favorite 23-year old wellness blog writer to start a business with (hint hint) might be something he could get behind. This flies in the face of investment theory, and is indeed an oversimplification, but this post is about exercise, not investments.
  • As it applies to exercise, I’ve already described my views on running and other forms of exercise. This fits perfectly into Taleb’s framework. He explains the barbell approach, which is not doing anything that is luke-warm, medium, and right in the middle, as it doesn’t produce any benefits compared to the extremes.
So, what are you to do? Push yourself to your limits with exercise. Don’t injure yourself, but perhaps become a bit worried that you’re close doing so. And keep it randomized. Just as Taleb encourages barbell extremism, he equally encourages keeping your body guessing.

Running Barefoot

It is often thought that people who stop writing for months usually have lost interest in the subject and have simply given up. I can gladly say that for me, this is simply not the case. I’ve been more active than ever and am quite pleased with the results. In due time I’ll cover the main areas of progress. Today I’m going to talk about feet.

Being an Animal

How often do you feel like an animal in your everyday life? I don’t mean simple minded, sub-human, or even caged, I’m talking about the freedom of an animal spirit.

You feel like that in your cubicle? Sitting on your laptop at home? On the phone with your parents? In the car on the way to the dentist? How about shopping at the grocery store?

Chances are this concept doesn’t occur to most of us. We may get brief moments of it at the first descent of a roller coaster, or perhaps in a physical fight, but rarely will we experience these flashes of our past. Our ancestry is nearly destroyed through our modern civilization.

Not anymore friends. Not today.

Barefoot Slippers

As with all my posts thus far, RJ had a hand in this one as well. Earlier this year, I noticed RJ with the most curious shoes on. They were individually toed and looked more like a strange foot-glove than a shoe. This was my first introduction to vibrams.

image

These shoes piqued my interest and he described the benefits:

  • No shock absorption by the shoe
  • Thin soles to better experience a barefoot run
  • Fixes your stride to take strain off knees/lower back

Know any runners with lower back problems? My mom is one. She has debilitating back trouble that often keeps her from simple tasks such as driving or performing necessary tasks around the house. I know quite a few people who have knee trouble as well. Such is life- our bodies break down, right?

Evolution

Okay, so unless you believe that we were put on this earth not too long ago, you’ll buy into my logic here. Human beings come from a long lineage stringing back 10 million years. You may hear differing estimates by a few million, but that’s largely irrelevant to someone who lives perhaps 80.

How did we get here? Did cars and grocery stores always exist? Have we never had predators to worry about or food that wasn’t within a phone call’s reach? After watching numerous pre-history documentaries on the evolution of human beings, one thing that is often touted is the efficiency of 2 legged running vs. the traditional 4. It’s simply not the ability to see higher because otherwise giraffe’s would be the ones polluting our rivers right now.

Running is something that is in our animalistic DNA. We do it naturally and gracefully. I recently saw an absolutely badass video of a tribe in Africa that still hunts on foot by running miles upon miles chasing 4-legged antelope-type animals before they collapse of exhaustion. How many times have you chased an animal for hours before collecting your bounty? Me neither.

My Wednesday Experience

So, after wandering into a Track ‘N Trail store (great salesperson helped me out as an aside), I purchased these:

img_merrell_barefoot_trail_running_shoes_2

I chose a different style but you can see the lack of a heel. It allows you to run without cushion and get used to running on your toes, so to speak.

On Wednesday, I met up with a local running group and ran 5 miles in these beautiful re-inventions of the foot. I haven’t had such an uplifting experience in a long time and I’d say they’re likely my favorite purchase this year (a close contender with my juicer or my car).

A Short Look at the Pain Caused by Traditional Soles

Why would cushioning the blow of the pavement be bad on you? It allows you to push your feet harder than they should against the ground (i.e. stomping) and those shocks still hit your joints quite hard, regardless of the cushion available in your new Nike shocks. After years of bodily abuse, your back or your knees simply cannot take it any more.

I’m not familiar with recovery stories of the injured becoming the superstar within a year, but as with all areas of health, the body recovers faster than we give it credit (as long as we allow it to heal!).

So, this is your knees begging you: try out some barefoot running. You deserve it.

Update: best shape I’ve been in in 20 months. Should be about 3 months before I get in the best shape of my life. Here’s to keeping it going.