Sunday, April 17, 2016

the 14-day regime: an explanation and some insights

I'll get right to the point: for fourteen days, I cut back on eating so drastically that I never took in more than 600 calories a day. I didn't want to tell people that I was doing this because I didn't want to hear the usual cant about how this would be unhealthy, or about how there'd be a "starvation response" (much rhetoric about this response is nonsense; it applies mostly to extreme cases, not to fasting for a few days, and not to eating minimally, as I did), or any of the other over-dramatic warnings that supposedly charitable commenters might offer in an attempt to discourage me.

More specifically, I ate no solid food during that period, sticking to drinks, the very occasional cup of yogurt (yes, there were fruit chunks—sue me), and during my second week, bowls of soup. I also took multivitamins the entire time—overdosing on them, to be honest—so there was never any danger of malnutrition.

The idea that the "starvation response" would begin mere days after I began fasting was roundly contradicted by the fact that, for the first four days of the regime, I lost almost no weight. This lack of weight loss would seem to indicate that the starvation response happened immediately, which is obviously ridiculous: the body needs time to "realize" that it's starving before it can react to starvation. I concluded that the lack of weight loss must have had some other explanation unrelated to "starvation response."

There was one immediate effect, which you can imagine: I almost completely stopped pooping. Sure, there was residual poop that took a few days to expel itself, and I did continue to offer earthy gifts to the porcelain god every day for all fourteen days, but that was mainly because I continued to consume my psyllium-fiber tablets. For a frequent and voluminous pooper like me, though, the change from pooping lots to pooping almost nothing was a radical one, and not unwelcome.

Way back when I was in high school, I once starved myself for a week straight. I did this to impress a girl, but of course, she never noticed. This was partly because I never told her what I was doing, and partly because she had no clue I liked her enough to want to impress her in any way. (Can't say that I've evolved much since those days.) What I did back then was fairly hardcore: I consumed only water. What I discovered was that the hunger got intense for the first two or three days, then it stopped. After that, I simply got tired.

With memories of my high-school stunt floating around in my mind, I worried that lethargy would be a major problem this time around, but one of the things I discovered was that, as long as I was still consuming several hundred calories per day, there was no question of lethargy. I was awake, alert, and focused, even while at work doing the fairly boring tasks I do every day.

Over this two-week experiment, I did begin to lose weight; you'll recall that I tracked my weight loss by listing out, on Day 8, the results of my weigh-ins. I tried to be as scrupulous as possible about weighing myself after having evacuated; although this served an ego-driven purpose (you weigh less after you pee and poo), the practical reason for a post-evacuation weighing was to minimize fluctuations: drinking a liter of water after a long walk, for example, would make me seem to have suddenly gained a kilogram (1 g of water = 1 cc, or 1 ml, of water: mass equals volume because water has a metric density of 1,* so 1 liter of water = 1 kg of water). Juices have roughly the same density, and for a "heavy drinker" like me, drinking two liters of fluid is as easy as it would be for a thirsty camel.

Weight loss went from 129.6 kg to 124.6 kg—a loss of five kilos, or 11.025 pounds. Conventionally speaking, a healthy weight-loss rate is about 1 kg per week, so I lost weight at 2.5 times the conventional rate. I'm not saying that to brag, and I'm certainly under no illusions that the trend was linear: I'm pretty sure that the slope of the weight-loss graph would eventually have begun to shallow out. I'm also under no illusions that losing 5 kg amounts to much of a loss overall: on my frame, fat as I am, I'd need to lose another 25 kg before anyone would begin to notice the loss.

As I noted during the fourteen-day period, one big discovery I made was that I have an incredibly slow metabolism. This is bad news: it means I can gain weight easily, but I don't burn calories fast enough to lose weight as quickly as I gain it. Even after having cut down my calorie consumption as radically as I did, weight loss still struck me as slow. The usual rule of thumb is that, for every pound you weigh, you need to consume 12 calories to maintain your weight. Anything below that, and you begin losing. Perhaps because I'm wired strangely or have some sort of alien body chemistry, I think I really need to consume far less than 12 calories per pound to maintain my weight: even 6 cal/lb. might be too much. At no more than 600 calories per day, I was consuming one-sixth of what someone my size should supposedly consume, and I still wasn't losing weight all that quickly. This is an important datum.

It may be because I have large stores of fat hanging off my frame, but I never felt in danger of starving. There were no mood swings; there was no anxiety, and as I said above, I never suffered any cognitive problems in terms of level of focus, attentiveness, etc. If anything, my mind and senses felt ever so slightly honed. I was more alert, more focused, more attentive. Strange, right? But there we are. Perhaps things would have been different had I begun the experiment with only 5% body fat.

Let's talk about the pros and cons of what I just went through. Pros first.

1. Some problems cleared up right away or began to clear up. Blurry vision? Gone. Chest pains and/or tightness? Also gone. Nasty leg scabs? Fading somewhat. These problems could have been related to the volume of food I'd been eating, but more likely, they were related to the dietary quality of the food I'd been eating. By reducing my consumption to a very narrow range of non-solids, I had radically reduced my intake of everything, including carbs. (I confess that I did down the occasional soda, but the key word, here, is occasional.)

2. Not eating meant I didn't have to think about menus and food prep. I saved a lot of time, energy, and effort by simply cutting food out of my life. I started going to bed earlier and waking up earlier, too, mainly because I didn't know what else to do with my sudden gain in free time.

3. My wallet could breathe a sigh of relief. I normally spend a lot on food shopping. By not eating anything solid, I drastically reduced my shopping expenses. Although this particular effect was an unsurprising corollary of my choice to avoid solid food, I feel that it does indicate a way forward because it was a cogent demonstration of the facts that (1) I really don't need much food to survive, and (2) I really don't need much food to stop feeling hungry.

4. The release from physical shackles like chest pain felt liberating and empowering. I had become cautious, almost fearful, of puffing my way up a couple flights of stairs. I had had visions of collapsing because of a heart attack while simply walking home from work. By the time I was more than halfway through my regime, I was able, at some points, to start jogging around my local park—something I would have been scared to do before the regime.

But there were two major cons as well.

1. Removing myself from the world of food felt like a social and psychological amputation. Everyone eats. Eating is often a social activity, and even though I'm an introvert, I appreciate what it means to sit down and break bread with fellow people. I also like cooking and need to cook as a means of self-expression. Not cooking for two weeks was a miserable experience—I won't lie about that. The bowls of soup that I ate came from powdered mixes: not very inspiring.

2. Not eating meant that I frequently dreamt and thought about food. This is obviously related to con (1) above. But part of me wonders whether this is what the rest of you normal humans feel like: you're routinely hungry before mealtimes, routinely thinking about—looking forward to—what you're going to be eating. Maybe the hunger I was feeling during my two-week regime was nothing more than the normal hunger that most healthy people in the first world feel. If so, then in my default state, I'm pretty far from normal. On the plus side, I became much more appreciative of the idea of eating even modest amounts of food. "Hunger is the best sauce," as the proverb goes.

So: how does all of this point the way forward?

Well, let me start by telling you what my Saturday was like. I broke my fast by ordering a large pizza and some "garlic twists" from the local Papa John's branch. I wolfed down all the twists within minutes, then snarled and slavered my way through half of the pizza before I had to quit. This in itself was astonishing: I normally have the capacity to eat a whole, multiple-topping large pizza by myself, plus more. But not this time. This time, I had to stop far short of where I'd normally stop, and I realized... my stomach had shrunk. Not the exterior, mind you: I still looked, and look, as fat as ever. But my stomach, the actual organ, had shrunk, and this was significant. First, it meant that two weeks of self-abnegation had produced real effects. Second, it meant that there might be some sort of force-multiplier at work: as the effects of the regime rippled outward, they had been causing other effects that had, in turn, reverberated with even wider implications.

As I knew would happen, the above realization was accompanied by a wave of guilt. I had joked glibly about "undoing two weeks' worth of progress," but now there I was, doing exactly that. I somehow fought through the guilt and ate another two slices of pizza later in the evening. The remaining two slices are sitting in the fridge. They'll be Sunday's lunch, and I doubt I'll be having anything else the rest of the day.

I also realized that stuffing myself silly had failed to lead to any deeper sense of satisfaction or contentment: gobbling was an empty gesture, a physical attempt to fill a void that couldn't be filled by food. This lesson is important to remember but easy to forget. Hunger makes one forgetful. That said, I need to remain mindful that effort and discipline can lead to real and lasting results, whereas gluttony provides, at best, only a temporary comfort.

The way forward, then, will involve cutting out carbs, raising my metabolism by continuing to walk, and indulging in bad-for-you food only very occasionally. As I've known for a long time, my body does respond more quickly to physical effort than it does to changes in diet, so I need to continue with walking, but I also have to begin to include more intense activities—exercises that have me breathing hard, get me sweating, and leave me tired. During the two-week regime, I saw that the most significant weight loss happened on those days when I also walked, and on days when I didn't walk, almost no weight loss occurred. The math is wrong: my body isn't burning 3,600 calories a day—not with my current lifestyle. I have to adjust the math and plan my activities to match my own personal body chemistry, not the charts in diet and exercise books.

A while back, I reviewed Tim Ferriss's The Four-hour Chef. While I didn't come away from his book with the most positive impression, I can't deny that Ferriss is brimming with interesting ideas. He mentioned something called "the slow-carb diet," which is something I might look into. He also talked about an interesting weight-loss strategy—something he called "30 grams within 30 minutes." Ferriss contends that you can kick-start fat loss by consuming thirty grams of protein (meat, fish, whey protein) within thirty minutes of waking up. I know there are skeptics out there (here, for example), but I'm going to experiment with this for a couple months and see whether it leads to anything. In the meantime, I'm going to eat only at lunchtime on weekdays, and the food I'll eat will be carb-free, or as low-carb as possible. This will be a much more comfortable life than the one I'd been leading for the past two weeks.

We'll see how this goes.

*This is, of course, not an accident: the developers of the metric system originally set water's density at 1.0 (density = mass/volume). See here.



Bratfink said...

Kevin, I admire you for sticking to your 14 day experiment! ^5 That must have been difficult as hell.

Bratfink said...

Just saw this. Thought you might like it:

Surprises Aplenty said...

"for every pound you weigh, you need to consume 12 calories to maintain your weight" This sounds like a very rough approximation. Fat requires less energy to maintain than muscle. If you were 120+kg of muscle, you'd need a lot more calories to maintain it.

"Not eating meant that I frequently dreamt and thought about food. " I had a similar reaction last year when I got seriously into running. Ah, not about food, but about the running. I don't know if I'm making a good comparison because my obsession was a positive one - do something, while yours is a negative one - don't do something.

It really felt like my whole life was devoted to fitting the runs in. I would wake up considering whether I should run or not that day and any time I had a break, I wondered if I could fit a run in. At night, I would do the math and see how I was doing concerning my goal. I know that I talked about it a lot and hope I wasn't too annoying about it but if I wasn't talking about running it was only because I was consciously holding back.

This year, I did not set a goal for running. I wanted, and still want, to exercise but I don't want to be locked into one form. I also like swimming, cycling and other activities and last year they all had to be fit around the running; they could never replace it. Now that i am more wishy-washy about my exercise goals, I am doing much less total exercise. I was down to around 85 kg last year and am currently at 92 kg.

I don't know about you but I need that sort of obsession even while it was annoying and tiring to experience it. Being aware of that need allowed me to relax but only for a short time before the running thoughts would crowd back.

We should be grateful that our obsessions are not over alcohol (I drink more than you but not much) or cigarettes.

Kevin Kim said...




"I wanted, and still want, to exercise but I don't want to be locked into one form."

CrossFit is calling!

hahnak said...

one more idea (maybe faddish?) have you considered (or heard about) intermittent fasting? its where you fast for 2 days a week and eat as you normally do the other 5 days (its aka 5:2 diet). just throwing it out there.

Kevin Kim said...


I do know about it, and I've done it before to no ill effect, so yeah, I'm open to doing that again. In fact, I probably will be doing that. If nothing else, it's a way to save money on food!