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Eating better

July 27, 2017

Since giving up full-time work last year I’ve been able to take a look at how I use my time. Freelancing is going great and I’ve had more time for my family, but as well as that I’ve been able to improve my physical health too. This post is about some of the things I’ve tried and the results.

In mid-2016 I started back at the gym and got back into running more regularly. I was doing weighted squats at the gym with the goal of improving my leg strength and avoid running injuries. It worked but didn’t change me much physically (apart from slightly thicker legs).

In early 2017 I began adjusting my diet, and investigating other ways of exercising to encourage muscle growth. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about how to eat better, as well as using bodyweight exercises to build up a good weekly workout routine.

As a result I’ve lost about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) overall, while gaining a significant amount of muscle in my legs, back, arms, shoulders and core.

There are two parts to this, so I’ll begin with the diet changes, then share a bit about my workout routine. Hopefully this will be useful to some people - but do keep in mind that what works for me might not be right for you, your goals and physical needs. Be mindful and listen to your body!

Losing weight / fat

For many years I weighed around 95 kilograms. Possibly more. I stopped measuring. Last month I weighed in at just under 85 kilograms and I’m looking better, and feeling a lot happier about myself. There are two things that caused this, the first being nutritional changes and the second being exercise.

Over the last 6 months or so I’ve been making a lot of small changes to what I eat. It’s important to note that I didn’t do all this at once, I just changed things gradually, tried things and saw what worked and what didn’t. I even tried intermittent fasting - which was pretty good but left me feeling too drained so only lasted a few weeks.

In the end, the bits that worked involved:

  • Less snacking between meals
  • Fewer treats like ice-cream, sweets etc
  • Replacing starchy carbs like rice, potatoes with green vegetables
  • Protein in every meal - lean meat, protein-rich vegetables
  • A small amount of whey protein supplementation
  • Drinking more water

On top of this, I also took time to track everything in myFitnessPal, a phone app that helps track food and breaks it down into “macros” (how much protein, carbs and fats are in the diet).

By taking the time to track each meal I could see that by the end of each day I was eating somewhere around 3,000 to 3,500 calories per day. Since my goal was to lose weight, I gave myself a target of about 2,500 or so. This helped me get control of my portions, as I knew I needed to aim for this target each day.

I also validated this by calculating my BMR and adjusting for my activity levels (more on those later!) to come up with the 2,500 calorie target. Yours may be different!

Macros

While aiming for a specific calorie target, I needed to make sure I wasn’t losing too much muscle with the weight loss. To help this that meant eating enough protein. There’s a lot of information on this online but the best I can tell is that for gaining or maintaining muscle I needed to aim for 1 to 1.5 times my weight in kilograms per day. For me that meant about 120 to 150 or so grams of protein per day.

Some days I’d go over that (I’m a big fan of chicken breast, egg-white omelettes and quinoa) but in the end that was no problem. “Spending” my calories on protein rather than processed carbohydrates resulted in less of the food being converted to fat, and having protein in my system each day meant I could make the most of any exercise.

Nutrients

As well as getting protein (mostly from lean meats and vegetables) I replaced a lot of the “empty” carbs with better quality carbs such as leafy green vegetables, beetroot, peppers, tomatoes and peas. Keeping the freezer stocked with frozen spinach, peas and mixed vegetables makes that easier.

A typical day of eating

So while every day is different, I’ve found a few habits work for me. They include starting with a large bowl of overnight oats (made with water rather than milk), sweetened with a little honey. I also add in some whey protein powder to the oats to make sure there’s a bit of protein in that meal.

For lunch I might steam some broccoli, or microwave a bowl of peas and spinach, and serve that with a couple of chicken breasts and quinoa. Some days I might chop up a bunch of peppers and put them into an egg-white omelette with some Frank’s hot sauce as a side to some roast beef or fried fish.

Some days I might make a light lunch with boiled eggs, baby corn, mange-tout and chick peas. I guess it helps that I like simple, plain food!

For dinner I would be more likely to be eating with the family, so whatever we’re having. Some days that might involve a bit of pizza or maybe even a burger but more often than not it would be something with a sauce and meat. I’d avoid eating rice or pasta but instead replace it with vegetables or grains.

Most evenings I try to avoid grazing too much (drink water!) but I’d often have a few sweets (if myFitnessPal has me under the target), or some days I’d finish off leftover overnight oats. Having a little protein before bed can be good if you’re working on muscle growth but go light on the carbs!

Basically each day I try to make sure I’m getting enough nutrient-rich carbs (veg), slow burning carbs (oats) and about 30% of my food being protein. Having targets like this means I tend to shop better and see less need to buy snacks and processed food as it doesn’t have what I need.

Make it sustainable!

One thing I’ve tried to avoid is feeling like I’m depriving myself. I love baking, whether it’s crumbles, cookies, brownies or cakes, and I eat “unhealthy” foods when I want to. Having said that, I always track them on myFitnessPal. If I find I’ve gone over my target one day, I’ll make a point of staying under it for a few days to make up the difference. Or I might eat light during the day knowing I’m going out for a special meal that night.

What I don’t do is cheat days. I might do “cheat” meals where I just eat 2,000 calories of carbs, but if I did that all day it would be too much. It’s more important to eat well most of the time and enjoy what you like, rather than torture yourself in a diet. That just leads fo giving up. Make changes with the aim of them becoming your new normal.

Building muscle

The second part to getting healthy has been to work out a decent training plan. This has evolved a lot since last year when I joined a gym, and I’m now in a very different place to where I started, but in the next post I’ll go into more detail about how this has progressed and what I hope to achieve.

If you have any questions, hit me up on twitter.