Finding Fitness Focus

Whenever I take on too many fitness goals, I lose focus. It is much easier to direct energy in one direction than several. When my primary goal was losing weight or doing knee rehab, I made progress. However, in the last two months, I’ve stalled. The reason is I’m trying too many things.

My current fitness goals:

Increase muscle

Back in August, I got excited about increasing muscle via higher training volumes. During the past 5 years, I have been going through the motions at the gym as I deal with a knee issue. Now that my knee is 80-90% better, I want to recapture the gains I had earned when my knee was 100%.

Increasing volume has been a challenge, as I’ve developed golfer’s elbow which was likely a result of adding too many pull-ups to my routine. High volume has been interrupted.

Cardio Rediscovered

Then the cardio story caught my eye. I’ve been gradually adding some elliptical work with success.

Winter Bodybuilder Diet

Last winter, I was able to stay lean following a peasant diet (higher carb), but now that I’m leaner I know I’ll need a more bodybuilder diet (higher protein) to maintain. So far, I’m doing fine here, but this will be my first winter following a higher protein diet. I think I’ll be fine here, but I do need to be aware of holiday temptations and the reduced-activity I have with shorter days.

Fasting Mimicking Diet

July was the last month that I attempted a 5-day Fasting Mimicking Diet. I made 4 days. I needed to solve for heat before I tried the FMD again. And I did that recently. I joined a gym with a sauna. As I type this post, I am on Day 3 of an FMD and I feel much better thanks to the daily sauna visits.

Nagging Pains

As I mentioned above, I developed a case of Golfer’s Elbow from pull-ups that is taking a long time to heal. I got a lot of advice recently and the consensus is to let it heal and don’t perform any lifts that might aggravate it.

My left knee never gets to 100% healed. I’ll get 90% fine and then it will drop back to 70%. This is putting a brake on the leg workouts I’d like to do.

I Need a Plan

As much as I would love to use the winter months to get jacked on high volume lifting, my elbow and knee are not going to allow that at this time. Maybe not all winter.

Cardio is fine and I will ease into it, but it doesn’t capture the motivation that gaining muscle and getting lean do.

I’ll probably just stay in this holding pattern for another month or two and see what happens. It really sucks that my motivation far exceeds my recovery rate.


Photo by Stefan Cosma

The Dieting Mindset

This post is a collection of notes I assembled throughout this year to help me lose weight. Although you may find value in the notes below, I’m putting this post together as a reminder to myself on how to think about fat loss when I struggle or plateau.

In the post Overcoming False Health Beliefs to Lose Fat, I covered the ideas I moved away from. This the flipside. This is the template I designed to get the mental focus and motivation I would need to succeed.

The 5 Phases of Dieting

I broke the fat loss journey into 5 phases.

  1. The Why – Clearly define the reasons why you want to lose weight. Drill into your motivation. Do this regularly.
  2. The How – Create a plan. Believe in the plan before starting. Use the power of story to make it personally motivating. The How includes both the plan to lose the weight and the plan to keep off the weight.
  3. The Process – How are you going to execute your plan? Day to day. Meal by meal. It is one thing to design a top-down plan, but to be successful, one needs to drill down into the details. How do interact with friends and family? Will you share your goal or not? Imagine getting support and not getting support. Plan around challenges you know will experience. This could be work or travel. The Process is ongoing but needs more attention early in the diet. The Process should be designed in a way that builds positive habits.
  4. Plan For Failure – How will you respond if you are not getting the results you want? How will you deal with setbacks? The time to think about these questions is before they happen. Imagine failure and have a plan ready for how you will respond.
  5. Plan For Success – How will you respond to success? Many times as we make progress we underestimate the effort it took and reduce our effort. Don’t declare victory too soon. Motivation should not decline as the diet progresses.

When I look at the list above, I would estimate that 99% of nutritional writing focuses on #2 The How. And just the part on losing the weight with almost no discussion on keeping off the weight.

I wanted to know why so many people failed to lose weight and then why so many that lose weight failed to keep the weight off. Although every story is different, my guess is many didn’t fully internalize their motivation. And if they did, they didn’t do it regularly. I also believe people don’t plan for success or failure. Too often they relax when winning or quit when failing. It is human nature. Understanding that before it happens and having a response already planned out is a strategy I’m using.

More on Planning For Failure

Here is the 4 step process I execute when I’ve stalled or even gained during a diet.

  1. Review The Why. Use this as an opportunity to drill into motivations.
  2. Confirm The How is accurate if the stall has been for more than 3 weeks.
  3. Review The Process. Tighten up any sloppy behaviors. Find the leaks in the plan. Patch them up.
  4. Move Past the Disappointment and continue.

More of Planning For Success

When the inches or pounds come off, here is how I plan my response.

  1. Acknowledge briefly. I think about my story and the effort it took. A moment of gratitude.
  2. Remind myself to not let up.
  3. No victory laps. No bragging.

A person that loses 15 pounds of their 30-pound goal, should not lose 50% of their motivation as they get leaner. But we often see that happen.

Analogy 1: Excess Calories as Excess Entertainment

Another concept I think about frequently is that idea that if you are over your ideal weight, you are there because you used food as a form of entertainment. You consumed more calories than you needed to nourish you at your ideal healthy weight. The reason you did was the food served as a form of entertainment. If could have been the food tasted good or you ate as a way to reduce boredom, but regardless you took too many calories from the environment and now they are on your body.

Analogy 2: Excess Calories as Body Fat Debt

Every month I pay 100% of my bills in full. I have zero debt and my credit score is very high. What if we imagined body fat as a form of debt. Being heavy is a very visible example of living beyond your means. If you “earn” 2,400 calories a day via lean muscle and activity and you “spend” (aka eat) 2,500 calories a day for months and years on end, you will be carrying a fat balance that needs to be paid off.

The financial analogy might be silly to some, but inspiring to others. Personally, I never want to pay interest or a fee, so thinking of any excess fat as carrying a balance is highly motivating to me.

Killing Cravings Without Exhausting Willpower

I went into detail on cravings in the post How I Beat Food Cravings on the Peasant Diet. The short version is when thinking of high flavor foods to eat, pause – eat something boring (high protein or high volume) – wait 20 minutes. The craving will usually be killed or greatly wounded. Repeat this process. make it a habit. It gets easier. Have the foods you use to kill cravings stocked at all times and prepared if possible.

Victory is Not Losing the Weight But Keeping it Off

The numbers are clear. The vast majority of people that lose weight gain some or all of the weight back at the end of the diet. Some gain even more.

My speculation on the reason is that they never believed they were eating day in and day out a high level of calories when they were heavy. Many people believe a series of incidents is why they are heavy and not their daily habits, so when they lose the weight, they resume their old calorie level and make an effort to reduce incidents. Only now they have a lower LBM (lean body mass) and they need fewer calories. The result is a slow increase in weight. See The Role of Exercise in Preventing Weight Gain for a deeper discussion on this topic.

When I started my current diet, I knew from the math that If I wanted to be at 190-200 and not at 222, I would need to consume fewer calories, not just during the diet, but every day afterward. Period.

Plus knowing that our metabolism will be efficient, means that we will need to eat below a normal metabolism at the reduced weight for a year. At the end of a year, our metabolism will rise up to almost the level of someone that never dieted. (I saw a slide by James Krieger on Facebook recently on this effect. I’m sure we will learn more in coming months and year.)

In short, I’m not declaring victory until a full year has passed after the weight has come off. At that point, my new lower levels of eating should be a firm habit and my metabolism will be up a bit.

Photo by Steve Davis

Last Words

I hope this post was useful to someone. If you have any Mindset tips you use to help when dieting, please leave a comment below.

Safe Use of 5-HTP and L-Tyrosine

In the post L-Tyrosine is my NZT-48, I raved about taking L-Tyrosine to improve focus. It was an idea I got after quickly taking a quiz in the book The Mood Cure. Because the supplement was so effective, I went back and read the book in its entirety. After taking the other quizzes in the book, I discovered that I could possibly benefit even more from 5-HTP. Whereas L-Tyrosine would help with my morning focus, 5-HTP would elevate my evening mood and possibly improve my sleep quality.

The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions--Today
The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions–Today by Julia Ross

I began taking 5-HTP on May 29th. The first effect I noticed was vivid dreams, which seem to a common effect. After about a week, I did notice my evening mood was improving. Nothing dramatic like I experienced with the L-Tyrosine, but still pleasant.

I have been tracking my sleep quality since August 27, 2011. Every morning I assign a score of 1 to 5 on how well I slept. Prior to 5-HTP my average Sleep Quality was 3.8. Since 5-HTP it has been 3.7. A slight decrease, but that could be seasonal, as I tend to get better sleep during the colder months. I found no increased sleep quality at doses of 50 mg or 100 mg. My evening mood improvement may have been from the supplement or something else. So unlike L-Tyrosine, I’m not certain I am benefiting from 5-HTP.

How They Work

My understanding of this topic came from the presentation Amino Acids and Their Application in Brain Chemical Balancing by Dr. Dan Kalish (video no longer on YouTube). I also listened to his podcast interview Brain Drain on Underground Wellness. Serotonin and dopamine do not cross the blood brain barrier. So to increase their levels, you need to add their amino acid precursors along with any essential co-factors. Taking 5-HTP will increase serotonin levels and taking L-Tyrosine will help dopamine levels. The required essential co-factors by Dr. Kalish are:

  • Vitamin C: 1,000 mg / day
  • Vitamin B6: 75 mg/ day
  • Calcium: 500 mg/ day
  • Cysteine: 4,500 mg/ day (divided doses)
  • Selenium: 400 mcg / day
  • Folic Acid: 2,000 – 3,000 mcg / day

Safety Concern

What I learned from Dr. Dan Kalish is that you can create problems down the road if you try to just address a serotonin or a dopamine deficiency independently. If you take 5-HTP without L-Tyrosine for long periods of time, you could end up depleting your dopamine levels. And the same is true in reverse. Taking L-Tyrosine without 5-HTP could end up depleting your serotonin levels. It has to do with synthesis, which the video covers in depth starting around the 24 minute mark.

** Unfortunately the video presentation is no longer available on YouTube. 

To be safe, the recommended ratio is 10:1. Ten units of L-Tyrosine for every 1 unit of 5-HTP. So currently I am taking 500 mg of L-Tyrosine in the morning and 50 mg of 5-HTP in the evening. By accident, I stumbled upon the safe ratio. Dr. Kalish says you can safely use up to 3,000 mg of L-Tyrosine with 300 mg of 5-HTP daily. Any more than that and he recommends getting tested. The important thing is to never use just 5-HTP or L-Tyrosine independently.

The Kalish Method: Healing the Body, Mapping the Mind

The Kalish Method: Healing the Body, Mapping the Mind by Dr. Daniel Kalish came out last month. I have not read it yet.

I have experimented with higher doses than 500 mg L-Tyrosine, but have not noticed any additional benefit. In fact, it seems I am more likely to get a headache. Some quick searching shows this is a common side effect. If you are taking these amino acids to improve mood, I highly encourage listening to the podcast interview. The YouTube presentation is fine, but it is more technical and geared toward practitioners.

Beyond Supplements

My personal approach to supplements is to periodically cycle off them. Use them to make a correction and then see if the body supported by a nutrient dense diet can take it from there. I’m going to take a few weeks off from both supplements. Marks Daily Apple has an article on boosting serotonin without supplements. KnowMyBody has one for dopamine. Mark likes the herb rhodiola better than 5-HTP, because it acts by slowing down the serotonin breakdown. After reading the two articles, the tips that I believe I could benefit the most from are caffeine reduction and playing more challenging games. Another article gives props to beets as an excellent food source for increasing dopamine levels. I like beets, especially fermented.

UPDATE May 2013: I no longer take 5-HTP. For an explanation why see Thinking About Supplements 2013.