A few months ago, I wrote a blog post on 11 Things I’ve learnt about High intensity Training. Damon Cripps asked for something similar on Nutrition. This one is for you Damon.
My current diet (and workout) has optimised my health and appearance, but it wasn’t always this way. Let me take you back to the start …
Try Telling A Gold-Fish That It’s Wet
Many years back, I used to think diet didn’t matter. When people are young some can (sort of) get away with an imperfect or even bad diet (at least in terms of body composition). The body may be able to use the excess calories to build new materials like muscle and bone, and our hormonal environment is more favourable and forgiving.
During primary school (age 5-11), I used my lunch money to buy sausage rolls, burgers and cakes. Ninety percent of my diet contained processed and refined foods and lots of sugar. My carefree attitude towards diet continued well into my teens and early adulthood. My staples during university consisted of Chicago Town pizzas, Snakebite and Relentless energy drinks.
When eating out, and not knowing any better, I’d typically default to the least healthy item on the menu. I’ve always had a sweet tooth. I’d never (sometimes still don’t) shy away from the most calorie-dense dessert on offer.
During my second year of University, my mindset and attitude towards diet began to change. I stumbled upon personal development book, Double Your Dating (Life priority: get better with girls) and met Stuart Ralph, who introduced me to Be Your Own Life Coach. This marked the first time I REALLY believed I could improve aspects of my life – that there were some things I could control.
I started buying fresh vegetables from a local market and going to the gym. But this didn’t last. I was seduced by the heavy drinking culture and cheap processed food, which was very much the norm.
Looking back, I just didn’t care that much. I didn’t understand how important diet was for good health. I never made the connection between my diet and how I felt, how I looked and how it impacted my productivity. Or maybe I did, but I just didn’t care. The drive to conform and drink alcohol to “enhance” my social confidence was far more “important”.
Despite playing basketball regularly, I graduated skinny-fat. I had a noticeable double-chin and excess belly fat. Having not seen one another for about 6-months, my friend, Tom, was shocked when he saw my new paunch. His reaction at the time was engrained into my long-term memory: “mate, you have got to sort that shit out” … thanks Tom, I’ve always respected your honesty ;-).
After this courteous wake-up call, I caught the body building bug. My friend and fellow hard-gainer, Andy, and I went to the gym 3-4 times per week and trained multi-set with random exercises focused on chest, biceps and … actually, no that’s it. I also wanted to be “super fit” so every week I played basketball, went running, and swam lengths at the local pool.
I thought I could force feed muscle growth and we would always chase up our morning workouts with sausage and egg McMuffins from MacDonald’s.
Sure … I got gains, mostly fat gains.
A few years later, I had an experience that would change my life forever.
The Spartan Health Regime
I went to work for a boutique head hunting firm called Jefferson Maguire. The owner, David Pike, is one of the most inspiring men I have ever met. He was in his mid-seventies and fighting fit, full of energy, strong, lean and muscular. In fact, 8 years later, he’s still cycling up Portsdown Hill everyday.
One morning, we’d just finished a motivational pep talk, reading excerpts from Tony Robbins, when David proceeded to lift his whole body in the air using the arm rests on his chair. I had never seen a fifty year old, let alone a seventy-four year old, demonstrate such strength.
Shocked, I said “Come on David, what is your secret?!”
The next day (my birthday) David slammed a book down on my desk. It wasn’t a typical book. It was obviously an eBook that was printed and bound in black with a transparent plastic cover. It was called The Spartan Health Regime (SHR) by Anthony Bova.
I’m a sucker for romantic and inspiring prose. The SHR was no exception. Based on the work of Dr Weston A Price, it described how our ancestors lived, ate and trained, how the Spartans were able to achieve elite health, strength and fitness and how I could too. I was hooked and devoured the whole book in a single sitting.
This became my new dogma. If you weren’t doing SHR, you weren’t doing it right. I’m really sorry to anyone who had to deal with me during this time. I was intolerable.
I began to follow the SHR principles as closely as possible. I traded in my processed diet for a diet that was high in fruit, vegetables and animal proteins. I traded in my haphazard and random exercise routine for strength training that focused on fewer, more effective exercises like chin-ups and push-ups. I did grip and neck work. I started doing high intensity interval training and a 90-minute run every week.
I was 23. I started to shed body fat like crazy and quickly revealed a six-pack. A few months later, I left Jefferson Maguire and my home city of Portsmouth to pursue a career in technology sales in London, UK. I would finally have my own house (shared, but close enough), and be responsible for my own cooking. Faggots and chips were no longer my default dinner! This was very exciting for me :D.
Once I moved to London, I embraced the SHR diet. Approximately 50% of my £20,000 ($27,659) salary was invested in my diet. The SHR dietary recommendations encourage the best quality you can afford. I remember going to Sainsbury Supermarket in Tooting, London, and spending over $140 on a week’s worth of food for only me. And I wonder why it took me years to get out of my bank overdraft: food and err alcohol spend.
My SHR diet consisted of grazing on a range of fruit until lunch, including oranges, apples, bananas and grapes. I typically consumed an entire box of grapes every morning. Lunch was a white potato, a can of tuna, butter, sea salt and pepper. Dinner was typically steak, haddock or eggs with spinach and Roule cheese. I basically repeated these meals everyday 5-6 days per week.
I “relaxed” on Fridays and Saturdays and drank and ate whatever I liked. I typically drank myself stupid Fridays and/or Saturdays. I tried to strike the “perfect” balance of unlimited confidence and “not-too-drunk” in my attempt to pick up the ladies.
And the cycle repeated itself; week-in, week-out.
Whilst I had made huge progress since childhood and early adulthood, my SHR diet and exercise regime dominated my life. I was always hungry. I exercised ~8-10 times per week, sometimes more. I had no energy or time for anything else.
Although I had built some muscle and improved my performance in sport, I carried too little body fat. I was so lean you could see my skull. I was very self-conscious about my physique and bordering on body dysmorphic disorder.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a single video by Dr Doug McGuff which catalysed another radical change. Doug simplified diet and exercise. It all sounds so simple now: eat whole food as often as possible and exercise hard and infrequently to give your body the stimulus, time and resources to recover and improve.
After watching this presentation and reading Body By Science, my lifestyle changed overnight. I traded in my 8-10 workouts for one 15-minute high-intensity strength training session and one basketball session per week. I swapped my refined carbohydrates and compulsive fruit consumption for an increase in nutrient-rich whole food (eggs, meat, fish, etc) and vegetables.
At a similar time, Tim Ferriss had come out with a hacker’s guide to the human body, The 4-Hour Body. I devoured the majority of it in a few sittings and began experimenting with the Slow Carb Diet along side my infrequent high-intensity training.
My girlfriend and I followed this diet for a few years and it worked really well. It was pretty easy to sustain. I managed to maintain 10-12% body fat all year round.
The Slow Carb Diet is very binary and simple. You eat no white carbohydrates 6 days a week and you have 1 cheat day every week to spike metabolism and provide a psychological break. However after enough time, the cheat days starting taking their toll. Even if I wasn’t gorging myself and just eating till I was satisfied, I still had a 2-3 day physical and mental junk food hangover every week. Also, my girlfriend and I realised it probably wasn’t a good sign that we both became routinely irritable on Saturday afternoons.
Moreover, I wanted to consume more carbohydrate like white rice and white/sweet potato. I also realised that I could get away with eating these foods and relax my diet on the weekends, and still get good results. It was during this time I picked up Dave Asprey’s, Bulletproof Diet, and used the Bulletproof Roadmap to prioritize my eating habits. This heuristic came in very useful.
For a year or two, a typical day was:
- 4-egg omelette or Bulletproof Coffee
- Chipotle Salad Bowl (typically barbacoa, salad, mild salsa, black beans)
- Beef burgers, white rice and vegetables
- Couple of squares of Green and Blacks 85% Dark Chocolate
I still ate what I like on Saturdays.
This diet served me well for years, especially during my time in a Corporate career in London. I pre-ordered the Chipotle salad bowl everyday. I practically had the same meal every day. I never used precious decision-making hit points to figure out was I was going to have for lunch. I saved a template on Chipotle’s website and spent 2-minutes every morning placing my online order. When lunch time came, I casually strolled past a queue of 40-50 people to collect the usual.
You may think me boring for practically having the same lunch every day, but take a moment to consider what you have for breakfast most days? I bet it’s pretty much the same thing. Successful dieters eat the same things they love (or tolerate) over and over again. Counterintuitively, too much variety and choice will often cause people to fall off the wagon and eat unhealthy food. Moreover, I like to automate this decision and preserve my decision-making energy for stuff that actually matters. Back then, I happily automated my tasty lunch in return for improved productivity, which led (with the support of a high-calibre team) to the successful closure of multiple multi-million pound business deals.
My New Efficient Eating System
Eventually the corporate grind began to take it’s toll on my mental health and well-being and an opportunity came up to change it all.
My girlfriend wanted to move to Ireland for various personal reasons and I yearned for more rural surroundings and the opportunity to focus on my passion: the podcast and this blog. As crazy as it may sound, this is what I believe I’m here to do (at least for now).
A few months later my girlfriend and I took the plunge. We handed in our notice to our London employers’ and began culling belongings, selling stuff and only shipping the essentials. We embraced minimalism.
Whilst we spent a month looking for a place to live in Galway, Ireland, my girlfriend’s mother (Madge) was kind enough to let us stay. Madge is a little territorial in her home and preferred that I stayed out of her kitchen as much as possible. I was quite happy with this arrangement since it meant that Madge cooked me 2 big meals everyday!
The meals were typically pretty healthy: meat, vegetables and potatoes (all kinds … obviously). They were big enough that I didn’t have the desire for a higher meal frequency although, on occasion, I did snack in the evening on unhealthy food.
After eating this way for a few weeks (including semi-regular snacking on junk) and strength training very sporadically, I noticed my body composition actually improve. I was getting leaner and retaining my muscle mass. This must have been down to a reduction in overall calories driven by my accidental intermittent fasting and increased consumption of satiating animal protein.
It was around this time, that I started learning more and more about the zero-carb carnivore diet movement. I started reading a lot about it and interviewing people like Dr Ted Naiman and Dr Shawn Baker. I changed my opinion on certain dietary biological mechanisms and why high-fat low-carb had been successful for me and many others for all these years. It wasn’t the insulin control in isolation, it was the satiating effect of the protein and nutrients that moderated my overall calorie intake. Duh.
After a month with Madge, we moved to Galway, Ireland, which coincided with my willingness to self-experiment and transition to a carnivorous way of eating 70-80% of the time. For the last 8-months, a typical day looks like this:
- Fast (Black coffee only)
- 1pm – Rib-eye & 4-egg omelette
- 6pm – Rib-eye, vegetables and potato/rice
- 7pm – Few squares of Green and Black’s 85% Dark Chocolate
- After 7pm – A few peppermint/green teas 😀
I eat the above 6-days a week and usually eat/drink what I want on Saturdays. However, even when I eat some junk food on a Saturday, I’ll be somewhat mindful about it and fast and/or workout before or maybe eat my normal diet for 50% of the day – thanks to Dr Ted Naiman for this tip.
As a result of eating this way, I’ve seen no downside, only upside. With no calorie counting, my body composition improved from 10-12% body fat to ~8-9%, my recovery is fine, my digestion is better, I very rarely get sick, my performance improved on the basketball court and my day-to-day energy levels are really high.
The last two are pretty subjective and the improvement in body composition is likely the result of the intermittent fasting, but the point is that eating more animal protein and nutrient dense foods have led me to eat less frequently and less overall.
In the spirit of completeness, I have experienced a few niggling injuries and occasional mild back, hip and calf pain, but I suspect this is primarily due to wear and tear from basketball and too much sitting at my laptop. Fixing these niggling pains and refining my long-term exercise/lifestyle regimen for optimal health is of massive interest to me right now. Hence why I’m interviewing more experts on things like stretching/warming up before sport and adapting training over a life time.
As a productivity nerd and someone who is obsessed with finding the MED (minimum effective dose) for almost everything, this way of eating has really appealed to me on many levels. Not only has it benefited me in a lot of ways, as described above, but it has made me a lot more productive.
I’m typically only cooking a full-meal once a day, and since I am perfectly happy eating cold meat (especially rib-eye), I can batch cook and store in the fridge. This reduced cooking and eating schedule has both freed up time and kept me feeling well-fed, providing me more energy and focus to allocate to work, social and things I enjoy.
Think it’s expensive? I’d challenge that. Sure, it’s expensive if you buy steak and chocolate, crisps, chips, etc. You’ll spend a fortune. But if you go full zero-carb (just eat red meat, like the Anderson Family) and don’t buy junk food or the unessential, I would argue that net-net it’s very comparable.
With my 70/30 carnivore diet and catering for my vegetarian girlfriend, we spend less than $90 a week on food. That includes my lunches.
Another pleasant and unexpected side-effect of intermittent fasting and simpler living is increased happiness. Twice a day, I feel really hungry and my meals are incredibly satisfying. I didn’t experience this as often when I ate 3-4 times per day. I am more present and enjoy my meals more than ever. I would never have thought that something so basic would contribute so much to my overall happiness and well-being.
Intermittent fasting is also an excellent eating strategy when travelling. Especially if you’re travelling somewhere where it’s difficult to source healthy food and/or you’re surrounded by the temptation of tasty, unhealthy options. A good example, is my recent trip to Chicago and Minnesota (for the Resistance Exercise Conference). I wanted to try a lot of the delicious food that was on offer but I didn’t want to pile on the pounds and feel constantly bloated. Whilst at the conference, Dr James Fisher told me how he defaults to intermittent fasting to cap total intake and not stress about food selection.
Overtime, my diet and exercise strategy for optimising health and appearance has become more and more simple. I credit Dr Ted Naiman and Dr Stuart Phillips for much of this. At the simplest level my principles for optimal health look like this:
- Priortise high quality animal protein (>1.6g per kilogram of body weight per day).
- Eat and exercise in a pulsatile fashion (big gaps between 1 or 2 big meals a day / exercise should be intense and relatively infrequent).
- Sleep 7-8 hours a night.
That’s all. Everything else is window dressing.
If you decide to experiment eating like I do or going full zero-carb, there’s a few things to keep in mind: don’t stress yourself out trying to eat this way all the time. I do not follow the template shown above every single day. There are days when I will have an occasional beer in the evening or buy a protein bar from the shop just because I want to. In my opinion, the key thing is to find and eat a healthy diet (whole food/nutrient dense) that you enjoy and deviate strategically, like Dr Ted Naiman explains here.
The perfect is the enemy of the good. Perfect is impossible to achieve and sustain for most people. Good gets 80% of the gains and is easier to sustain long-term.
I think the key thing is to experiment for yourself and see what works for you. Human beings have a lot of individual variation and different diets work for different people biologically, psychologically and ideologically. The scientific literature is vast and not always applicable to the real world, and if you struggle to keep up with it all like me, self-experimentation can be more productive. There is still a lot we don’t know about health and nutrition.
Personally, if I’m feeling good, sleeping well, performing well during exercise, have good libido, etc, I’m not too concerned about getting regular blood work done (plus it’s expensive and hard to get in Galway!). However, I am not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet, so if you decide to go all-in with any diet protocol, I encourage you to talk to your doctor and get blood work done on a semi-regular basis.
Hopefully, you’ve found my diet journey interesting and useful. Will I eat high-carb in 5-years?! Or something totally different? Who knows, but I’m trying to keep an open mind and listen to my body. And right now, this feels pretty damn good.