Getting Ripped

This morning I had a BodPod body composition test that yielded my lowest body fat percentage ever. As someone seeking constant improvement in all areas of my life, both professional and personal, I've often been frustrated by my rate of change in this key health metric. Frustration no longer! After years of making modest progress (and sometimes progress in the wrong direction), my body fat has plummeted in the last five months.

Why? Nutrition. But first some history to show how I came to this conclusion.

I began seriously tracking my body composition more than 10 years ago. Since January 2010 I have measured my weight and body fat % every single morning immediately after waking up using a Tanita scale with bioelectric body fat estimation. This method of body fat can be very inaccurate so is not a good method of determining actual body composition. However, this method is consistent so it is still valid for generating insights into body composition trends.

Since 2007 I have visited a BodPod testing station to measure my true body composition once or twice each year. The BodPod is extremely accurate so it helps me understand how far "off" my scale's measurements are. Following is the complete series of 10.5 years of body composition using measurements from my Tanita scale that have been adjusted to match the more accurate measurements of the BodPod.
As you can see, there are several different "eras" identifiable in this data. Each corresponds to a different approach I was taking to health and fitness.

Pre-September 2004:
When I first began measuring I was 204 lbs (156 lean and 48 fat) with the goal of getting under 200 by reducing fat. After more than two and a half years, I was clearly heading in the wrong direction. As a former football player, all I really knew how to do was gain weight, not lose it. By this point I had beefed up to 218 lbs, gaining 10 lbs of lean weight (good) but also adding 4 lbs of fat (Boo!).

September 2004 - January 2005:
Over the course of the next several months I basically returned to my baseline weight and body composition, dropping 11 lbs of lean weight and 3 lbs of fat. This was probably due to playing more beach volleyball and devoting less time to strength training.

In early 2005 I had a transformative meeting with Dan Riley, legendary strength coach of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. He helped me revise my strength training for more effectiveness and efficiency, the result of which was packing on 12 lbs of lean weight over the next two years - but adding 3 lbs of fat again too. In an effort to address this yo-yoing, I began detailed calorie tracking in 2006, estimating my caloric expenditure and calculating my actual caloric intake with a food journal.

After a year of calorie tracking, it was apparent that my "worst" days, those with the greatest caloric surpluses, were conspicuously associated with heavy drinking. I was attending lots of wine dinners and often bar hopping / clubbing late into the night. When you added up all of those drinks, alcohol accounted for fully 10% (!) of my caloric consumption! In 2007 I made a big change, reducing frequency and volume of alcohol consumption (not giving up wine dinners, though!). Alcohol accounted for < 5% of my caloric consumption in 2007 and the impact on my body composition was significant: while I did lose 4 lbs of lean weight, I also lost 11 lbs of fat! I was back to my 2002 starting weight of 204 lbs but with a much better body composition.

2008 - 2009
I spent the next two years in Switzerland, which made it easy to continue my fat loss trend. I was surrounded by fresh, wholesome foods (especially at the IMD restaurant!) and I had to walk (uphill!) everywhere. My strength training options were more limited than I had had in the US but I had shifted my focus by this point to a new phase in my life: it really wasn't important to me anymore to be able to bench press 400 lbs or squat 600. I dropped 6 lbs of lean weight but lost another 7 lbs of fat. I had finally made it down into the 190s and my lighter weight felt great, especially on the volleyball court where I was jumping higher and playing better than ever before.

2010 - 2011
When I moved back to the US I continued my focus on calories, assuming that all calories were equal and it only mattered how many I consumed, not which type they were. I began running more than I ever had before, both aerobically (long jogs) and anaerobically (interval sprints), but slowly/surely my weight was creeping back up. By the end of 2011 I was getting back up toward 200 lbs again - 159 lean and 37 fat.

As you can see from the graph of my body fat weight below, 2012 has been a tale of two halves:
Motivated by several articles from The SHOP, I began the year with a new focus on what I ate rather than how much I ate. Initially I only adopted some of The SHOP's best nutrition practices and, after some brief improvements in the early part of the year (lost 1 lb lean weight but also 3 lbs fat), I stalled out. I was still eating lots of grains and starches because I couldn't really envision a life without bready foods.

Then, during a summer trip to Switzerland, my life changed when Katie and I tried baking with almond flour. An entirely new world opened up to me of food that adhered to "good" nutritional principles but still tasted delicious and satisfying. I'm now eating as much as I want of a specific subset of foods and the results over the last five months have been pretty convincing: I've gained back that 1 lb of lean weight and shed an additional 10 lbs of fat. This morning's BodPod test measured me at 182 lbs (early high school weight!), 159 lean and 23 fat - 12.8% body fat, my lowest by far since I've been measuring.

So, in almost 11 years I have dropped 30 lbs of body fat - but a very big chunk of that in the last several months. My strength is up, athletic performance is up, and finding clothes that fit is much, much easier than it ever has been before. In my next post, I'll address the specific activities I'm doing and nutritional rules I'm following that I believe have contributed to this recent improvement in body composition.