Last week we returned to dance lessons after six months away. Our instructor commented on my slimmed down appearance, likening me to some Hollywood personality. She wanted to know if my brother was “available”. I thought to myself, “I think I’m going to like slim and craggy.”
Yes, I made it. A few weeks before Christmas, I hit my final weight-loss target. After averaging almost a pound a week over the previous nine months, I gave birth to the new skinnier me.
It wasn’t a straight-line graph from start to finish! In the early months, the pounds dropped off quickly. But just as my rate of descent slowed, I was hit by a barrage of criticism from well-meaning friends and relatives. They told me that the low-calorie days would slow down my metabolism and make it impossible to lose more weight. They also told me that weighing less than the average was unhealthy.
I checked out some more research on the health benefits of staying thin and came to the conclusion that even my ambitious final goal remained 15 to 20 pounds above anorexic. And once you factor out the people who weigh less because they smoke, or because they are already sick, being of below-average weight does appear healthier overall. Confidence bolstered, I pressed on.
With the up-down rhythm firmly established, my attention moved to other things. My diet blog fell silent. Pounds continued to slink away. Then, one day – just as I began to visualize the scale displaying that final magic number – tragedy struck. It came in the form of a plane ticket for two to Italy.
Snacking in Italy
For a single skinny second, I considered continuing the regime in Italy. I imagined writing this next instalment as “Eat – then don’t, Pray – then don’t, Love – then don’t.” I don’t much care for pasta, I thought, so it ought to be easy, right? Then, I remembered the gelato. Passing by the gelato vendor every second day would be like missing every other opportunity for love. My insanity passed. I took a stand. When in Florence – and Ravenna, Venice, Tuscany, the Riviera – do as the Italians do. So we lingered over antipasto, red wine, pasta, and creamy gelato every day for three weeks. Which allowed me to discover that, unlike any pasta I’d ever tried at home, Italian pasta is “molto squisito”! Despite biking half way from Venice to Florence, scaling the foothills of the Alps overlooking Lake Como, and climbing to countless hilltop basilicas, I returned home four pounds heavier than I’d left.
The next three weeks seemed as hard as the first three of the diet had been. I thought of food a lot – especially pasta and gelato. But five weeks later, I’d lost it all again and then some, and was back on track. A month later I reached my final goal: a calculated BMI of 21.0, or about 13.5% body fat. Despite the little “Italian Alps” towards the end, my weight chart showed I’d slid from “obese” to “athlete” in about 250 days.
The criticism died away. I started hearing from some of my friends who’d been inspired by the effectiveness of this diet. “I lost 20 pounds and it was easy! I made my goal already! My wife’s decided to join in.” Critics notwithstanding, this diet works!
What I'm no longer carrying around.
Are there drawbacks? Sure. I had to toss out most of my belts and pants and buy new ones. Some of them still had wear left in them! I guess they’ll get picked up at Value Village by someone who hasn’t discovered the benefits of intermittent fasting. I’ve discovered I have bones in my butt – rowing benches and bicycle seats are hard! I look for the softer chairs during long meetings. But not walking around hoisting the equivalent of a four-foot long game-fish makes up for it!
After the challenges of Italy, Christmas came and went with barely a ripple in the charts. How great to have a New Year’s Resolution that starts out in the black! I’m feeling good and want to stay that way. What’s next?
For 2011, I’ve switched into maintenance mode and will check to make sure my weight stays in a narrow range. If it goes over a threshold, I’ll revive my post-Italian renaissance for a few weeks. For now, my “down days” supply about 120% more calories than the extremes of last year, and my “up days” require me only to chew thoughtfully and eschew overeating. My research tells me that I will still find health advantages in this regime, even if I’m no longer losing weight.
My next challenge?Two weeks in an Italian Inn on a Caribbean beach!Perhaps mistaken for that Hollywood personality. I’m up for it.
Thus remarked a friend who’s been on this alternate-day diet longer than we have.
I’ve begun to share his view. In the early weeks, there was enough change to keep my interest: learning how to manage the low-calorie days, watching the pounds disappear, wondering what to do with our extra time. But there is sameness in deprivation, however it’s cloaked. A dish of Heavenly Hash ice cream begins to sound exciting.
This couldn’t have come at a worse time. After weeks of steady weight loss, we had both stalled. No change in two weeks. Were we doing something wrong? Was our diet less healthy on the non-fasting days? “Keep an eye on this!” I said.
I needed motivation. Since a growing number of friends had joined us on this diet, I thought their experiences might inspire, so I checked in with as many of them as I could. I started by asking: why diet? And why this diet?
“I want to look like a teenager, like your wife.” Hmmm, that sounds like a good start; another friend accused me of ‘cradle-robbing’, only partly true. “I hope to shed some pounds before my trip to Europe in a few weeks.”
“I tried it because it sounded pretty easy to do. And it seems to work so my wife and I will continue with it. The 500-calorie days are not as tough as I thought they’d be.”
“I started the diet today! Did a little research last night. It seems very natural to me.” Another friend compared it to a caveman diet: a mammoth feast one day might be followed by a hunt day subsisting on acorns. He thought the human body might be adapted to such variability.
“Sounds like this is one of the better diets and I have passed it on to a couple of friends.”
“All diets are extremely boring.” However, even this friend admitted that this one was less boring than most. And that made it work.
Although I now had more interest in keeping my non-fasting days under control, everyone starts out working out their 500-calorie day menus. Typical for us is breakfast: a very large cup of coffee with a lot of skim milk, a quarter of an avocado or a boiled egg; lunch: a very small fruit smoothie and a tablespoon of home-made hummus; dinner: a salad made from greens with skinless chicken breast or smoked salmon and a vinaigrette dressing. A friend reported her version, “I am mostly living on congee with plenty of low calorie nutrient rich flavourful additions.”
People follow different strategies. Mine is to start with a little avocado or protein, and then try and save half my calories till after ; once over that hump, I can usually wait till dinner time. Another friend reports, “My wife is looking for calorie-conscious recipes so we can have a good meal while minimizing calories. Our strategy is largely to eat very little during the day, leaving most of the calories for one meal in the evening.” He suggested two glasses of V8, a small granola bar, a biscuit, and a cup of tea. “The other day we had enough left for a tasty dinner of corn, a little rice and sautéed shrimp.”
Another reports, “For me, that's 3 slices of turkey bacon (105) for breakfast, then a small soup for lunch, another soup at dinner with whatever extras I've got left on my 500. Variations can be a V8, a small piece of cheese, etc. My wife finds the power bars help at work - some green tea and a bar seem to keep her going. To paraphrase John Lennon, ‘Whatever gets you through the day is alright, is alright.’”
Early experiences and later results seem consistent. Typical is this comment: “Day six of the diet and I have lost seven pounds so far. My wife started yesterday.” A week later, “I lost seven pounds very quickly and it is hovering at that level. But we’re sticking to it.” Those who have stuck with it for three months report drops of 20 pounds or more.
A common challenge is synchronizing the low-calorie days with life and exercise schedules, as we found ourselves. Three full days, three fast days, and a “half assed” day every week is the usual solution. Like us, others save their heaviest exercising for their “up” days.
Social rhythms count too. “It's a little hard traveling and doing an intense workshop on the fast days. I knew it was coming up in my week but I decided to start when I did anyways. The diet makes sense to me and helps me appreciate food more.” And appreciate it she did! “Had two potlucks and therefore two half-assed days in a row and a very hungry day today! Got used to eating again I guess. Oh well, tomorrow is an up day again.”
Another common concern is remembering to drink enough water on fast days. With little eating there’s less water from food and thirst declines as well. I’m learning to drink a glass of water with every “micro meal” and every time I feel hungry. I’ve also been tempted to drink diet colas on the fast days, something I rarely did before. I doubt this is a good thing. Others also report diet colas as a staple, but as a replacement for the sugared kind. Probably an improvement. But there’s more water in my future.
What lies ahead?
A friend asks, “My wife wants to know what you do when you reach the weight you want. By my calculations, if I lose two pounds a week and stay on the diet for two years, I should have disappeared completely by then.” My own wife suggests I’ve reached a good weight although I still have four more pounds to shed to reach my final target in the middle of my recommended range. Even then, I'll still be fifteen pounds up from my college weight.
I started the week wondering why I’ve stalled with those four pounds yet to go. I can’t really complain. I recently moved from the heavyweight to lightweight rowing class – less competition there! I feel lighter on my feet – no surprise: I’m carrying 35 fewer pounds than I was last summer, most of it lost during this diet, the rest by eating smarter. And so I resolved to return to my old healthy habits on my “up” days.
Even before I could put the resolution into practice, the results were in. My wife and I both lost weight again this week. When I reviewed our progress, I noticed that we’d had these plateaus before. Perhaps it’s just the way of it. A little excitement to keep our interest. Because, when you come right down to it, “All diets are extremely boring.”
I passed a milestone this week. I should celebrate more, but it seems too easy in hindsight.
Two months before embarking on this diet I created my first “bucket list”. Along with visiting all those “see before you die” places, and soaring in a glider, I also added a weight-loss goal that seemed as remote asKatmandu. Despite consistent aerobics and numerous attempts at culinary restraint, I hadn’t seen such numbers on the scale in decades.
Ten weeks later I have touched down in the Lost World!
At the start of Week 11, I reached the initial weight goal I had set for myself – and ticked off another item on my bucket list. That's 18 pounds in 10 weeks.
Along the “weigh”, I have picked up some fellow travelers. Since my last post, two more friends announced their commitment to try the diet and started their treks. Fare well! This series had its start in the growing interest coming from my circle. Several more may sign on before summer. Saturday at a dinner party, I heard a lot of interest – as we lounged around a table laden with roast beef au jus and chocolate ganache torte!
On the home front, we’ve recently learned that the advancing years have made rising blood pressure more of a concern. It was a relief to hear that losing weight is one of the most recommended non-drug approaches to reducing hypertension. But how much weight? I did a little research looking for a more scientific end goal.
The most important thing I learned? There is disagreement among experts about “ideal weight”. I don’t claim to have resolved these differences – only enough to pick a realistic final target for myself, and to help my wife do the same. In the end, we’ve both chosen values just below the middle of the ranges of the various experts. I’ve got another ten pounds to shake off!
Meanwhile, achieving my bucket-list weight has boosted my morale. And the compliments my wife and I have both been getting of late – and giving each other – are sweeter than any ganache!
My wife blurted out these singular words a few days back.
I decided to subject her to a mini-interview. Here’s a little of what she had to say about our experiment in alternate-day dieting these past two months.
There’s no guilt! If you go over on a “down day”, you get a brand new chance the day after tomorrow. In between you get a day off – without penance – after which you can start fresh.
It’s self-correcting! If you celebrate with dinner out on an “up day”, and feel like you’ve had a little too much to eat, you know you’ll climb right back onto the wagon the very next day. It’s like New Year’s Day every other day.
There’s no drudgery! You can always make it through that one day on the wagon. And savour those special meals on the other days.
It’s fun to see it work! Ten pounds off so far, and no suffering. My wife tells me she hasn’t seen these numbers in years. And she’s looking good!
Yes, we’re counting a success for both of us so far. Eight weeks in, and we’re both almost 60% of the way to our final goals. I pulled a couple pounds ahead of her in the early weeks, but she’s set to overtake me in the coming weeks if I don’t buckle down. Let’s see if my new resolve not to “stock up” the night before can give me back the edge.
In 2002, researchers at the University of Toronto published a study that claimed to show that “merely planning to go on a diet can trigger overeating in restrained eaters, reflecting the dynamic connection between dieting and overeating.” Seven weeks into the alternative day diet, I’ve rediscovered that myself. It’s a tendency I must learn to check.
On some non-fasting days, I feel an urge to “stock up”, especially near day’s end. I’m not hungry. I’m satisfying tomorrow’s hunger in advance. For a while, I tolerated this, but I see it will work against me and have vowed to focus on actual appetite.
It’s ironic that this tendency has surfaced now. In many ways the diet has grown easier in recent weeks. On fasting days, I usually find that the last felt need for food is about two in the afternoon. Once I make it that far, thoughts of food vanish for the rest of the day. If I make it to mid-afternoon on only half my 500-calorie ration, the evening’s menu seems epicurean.
My wife and I both feel we could keep this diet up for as long as we need to. Many nights we drift asleep or awaken, not quite sure whether we’ve just had our “down day” or are about to begin it. “Breaking the fast” on an “up day” never tempts us to gorge. (I might make an exception for Tuesday, which follows half-fast Sunday and a down-day Monday.)
Physical weakness during fasting days no longer plagues us, although we still save our most strenuous exercise for times when we have some carbohydrates available. But I do notice the cold weather more on “down days”. I’ve kept my sweater in service longer this spring.
While we might have to pay more for heating and clothes, we’re banking the savings on food. 500-calorie days rarely require much in the way of meal preparation. Leftovers from other days last almost twice as long. Our college-age boys give us a hard time about the paucity of food on the table on diet days, but they pretty much manage their own mega-meals anyway. Now that we know we only have three or four good evening meals a week, we try harder to make them family occasions.
And that’s something else I’ve experienced directly: the huge role that food and eating plays in our lives, beyond providing physical sustenance. We socialize around food. We eat for the pure pleasure of the experience. We structure many habits and rituals around food, like ice cream at the beach, or Eggs Benedict for Mother’s Day brunch. And sometimes we eat just for something to do. Eliminating all these on fasting days leaves us with far more time on our hands – and the opportunity to take on new challenges.
Seven weeks into this diet, we know we can reach our original goals. My wife “came clean” on her starting weight – with this revision, she is now half-way to her target weight. In order to qualify as a lightweight rower, I decided to push my ultimate goal down a little further, and I’m 57% of the way there. Almost three-quarters of the way to my original destination, I will report when I slide past it. Those regions on the bathroom scale I won’t have toured in almost 30 years.