This may seem like a bit of a diversion in terms of my usual blog content, but I think people may find this useful.
Today I turn 39 and am happy to be in the best shape of my life. 5 months ago, I was in the worst shape of my life.
Like many men in their late-30s, my body had succumbed to the modern day habits of food indulgence, too much alcohol and too little exercise.
Metabolic slow down is one of life's fun quirks you discover alone. In your 20s you might be able to eat whatever you want and mostly get away with it, but as you age, this becomes less and less true.
Then one day you realize you’ve put on weight and don’t understand why… my diet is the same as always! That’s exactly the problem; if you want to stay healthy you need to modify your behavior as you age.
So 5 months ago, 38 year old me is staring at my muffin-top in the mirror thinking I need to do something.
Here’s a photo taken around November 2018.
Not obese, not super unhealthy, but overall a pretty unremarkable specimen of 21st century late-30s, soft-bodied male.
This was not how I wanted to enter my 40s.
Fast forward 5 months. This a photo taken yesterday.
That’s better. Here’s 8 tips on how to lose weight at 38.
TL;DR I went on a clean ketogenic diet and exercised more. And kept this up for 5 months straight.
The keto diet is enjoying a surge in popularity but it is important to remember that it is just a framework. The keto diet is one where you monitor your daily intake of macronutrients - carbs, fat and protein and keep them within certain limits.
The highest limit is for fat, then protein, then carbs with the lowest daily limit. A typical male with a weight loss goal might end up with daily suggested keto macros of 150g fat, 70g protein and 20g carbs.
Fat and protein limits are guidelines (you’ll find it difficult to go over the fat limit anyway) but the carb limit is a hard limit. In a nutshell, it is a diet where you eat a high amount of fat and a low amount of carbs.
I’m not going to go into the science behind the diet. To do so would involve me having to persuade and undo an incredible amount of nutrition propaganda we’ve all been bombarded with since young about how eating fat is bad. Eating fat is not bad, your body needs fat to survive!
But I digress, if you are interested in learning more about the keto diet and the science behind it, the reddit keto FAQ is an excellent place to start.
The reason I emphasize that it is a framework is because based on these macros, you can fuel your body in a number of different ways. Some people end up binging on cheese and bacon at every meal (since this aligns to keto macros) but I took a natural, whole foods approach.
My keto diet comprised mostly of: meat, fish, eggs, lots of greens, avocados, raw nuts, unsweetened nut milk, coconut oil, olive oil. A philosophy of eating healthy proteins and greens, and using healthy fats to satiate. I believe this is a much cleaner approach to keto.
Here are some photos of my typical meals.
I will say though, that sticking to a 20g carb limit per day is extremely challenging. You can kiss goodbye to anything sweet, anything crispy, any bread, pasta, rice or starchy vegetables. You need to be hyper aware of what ingredients are in the foods you eat, to be successful at this diet. More on this later.
Keto helps you burn fat but it doesn’t magically build muscle. I didn’t want to end up as thin as a rake, so I gradually increased the frequency of my gym visits from “uh, sometimes” to a consistent 3 times a week.
I’m not a fan of cardio so I didn’t do any. At the gym I mostly did old school strength training such as bench press, deadlifts etc using free weights as opposed to machines (since machines provide too much assistance). I also did body weight exercises - by month 4 I had lost enough weight and gained enough strength to be able to do multiple sets of pull ups, something I haven’t been able to do for about 20 years.
I like a glass of wine or two (or three) but if weight loss is your goal then alcohol is probably one of the worst things you can consume. However, I’m not a robot so even while on the diet I did afford myself a cheeky glass of wine once or twice a week, which is considerably less than my pre-diet consumption of multiple glasses per day.
This has other benefits too, such as not waking up with a fog of hangover, and spending less money. The universe has a way of balancing things out though… more on money later.
Many people know me as a foodie. I eat for pleasure. But all this had to change. You can’t have a hedonistic approach to food if weight loss is your goal. You can’t have your cake and eat it. Cake is forbidden remember?
Instead of thinking “what do I want to eat?” I began asking myself the question “what does my body need?” when it came to meal times. Have I had enough healthy fats? Have I eaten enough greens? How about fiber? Could I do with a bit more protein today?
I would ask myself these questions and adjust my day accordingly. For example if I had a “dirty” lunch of bun-less cheeseburger (this aligns to keto macros) I would make sure to consume more healthy fats and greens at dinner.
The easiest way to slow (or destroy) your weight loss progress with keto is by accidentally eating carbs.
Carbs are in basically all the foods we enjoy. Sweet? Carbs. Milky? Carbs. Crunchy? Probably carbs.
A lot of foods that brand themselves as healthy are also full of carbs. Cereal is pure carbs. Energy bars are carbs. Coconut water is carbs.
Not to pick on coconut water or anything… but a can of coca cola contains 140 calories with 39 grams of carbs:
A healthy bottle of organic coconut water? 120 calories and 30 grams of carbs. It's not far off from drinking coca cola.
I'm not saying coconut water is evil, but I am saying that it is not an appropriate drink if your goal is keto weight loss. A single bottle smashes right through your daily carb allowance on keto.
Hidden carbs that are even less obvious: the dressing you put on your salad, the marinade covering a chicken breast - all potentially full of sugar which is, yep, carbs.
To give you another sense of scale, one bowl of cereal and milk contains about 4 times the daily carb allowance on keto.
Navigating that 20g daily limit of carbs is a total minefield.
The only way around this is to learn what foods are low carb and what’s in the stuff you’re eating. You have to get used to googling nutrition info, reading labels and storing that data in your head for future reference. I am now a human encyclopedia of food nutrition info that is useless to most people but vital for anyone doing keto.
Keto is becoming a trend and I’m seeing more and more businesses trying to capitalize on it by launching "keto" products.
As a general rule, always read the label (this of course goes for non keto products too) and calculate the macros per serving. Be rightfully skeptical of ingredients you haven’t heard of before.
Personally I have not touched any keto branded products, especially the sweet ones which are filled with alternative low GI sweeteners such as erythritol. I just don’t really trust them yet.
You've been working so hard, you deserve a cheat day right?
Weekly diet cheat days are something for people in their 20s. In your 30s your metabolism is slower so that cheat day is going to have a more profound impact on your weight loss progress.
If weight loss is your goal, erase the idea of regular cheat days from your brain. In the span of 5 months the only “cheat” days I had was eating a pizza on Christmas Day and some tacos on New Years Eve. Other than that, I was eating the kind of food you saw in the photos earlier.
Carbs are cheap to farm and mass produce compared to other kinds of fuel for your body.
Fueling your body with keto-friendly whole foods such as fish, nuts, greens, avocados and organic healthy fats gets expensive.
Apart from suggesting you just suck up the cost for the good of your health, I have three pieces of advice here.
First, learn to cook. Eating out while doing keto is a challenge. My go-to keto meals when out and about would be those DIY salad bowl places where I could load up on leaves, chicken and avocado, with no carbs. The macros would be perfect but eating at those places regularly quickly puts a dent in your wallet. Learning to cook and doing some meal prep mostly solves this - although realistically I was still eating out for about 60% of my meals during the last 5 months.
Second, focus on keto friendly cheap ingredients you can get anywhere. In Asia, leafy Chinese greens like bok choi and protein-and-fat packed eggs are almost universally cheap regardless of country, even in Singapore. Both of these make daily appearances in my diet.
Third, when cooking, always remember to read the label. You'll be surprised how many things have carbs in them that you didn't even realise e.g. the vast majority of premade cooking sauces have added sugar.
I hope that was helpful to you if you’re looking into keto as a way of losing weight.
The big question now is, what next? I’ve reached my target level of body definition for now and am proud to be a 39 year old with a 4-pack (not quite a 6-pack but still).
Do I just go back to eating whatever I want? Do I continue keto forever?
Honestly I have no idea. What you’ve seen so far is the easy part. Create rules, stick to them, lose weight. Anyone can do that with the right mentality. Now comes the difficult, subtle art of keeping my body healthy while allowing myself some flexibility. I’m not going to pretend I have a strategy here. I’m just going to trial and error, and course correct.
But first, I’m going to have a slice of non-keto-friendly birthday cake :)