How I lost 19 lbs while adding muscle before my trip

About 6 months before I went on my big trip through Asia, I decided it was time to get serious about getting into shape, and ended up losing 19 pounds while adding a bunch of muscle. The best part?  It was easy!

Weight loss wasn’t the goal – I wanted to improve my fitness, physique, body composition, and overall health. Weight’s a terrible measure of success, but it’s often helpful to measure something. I was already getting to the gym, so most of the tweaks that made an impact were from my nutrition, and thus that’s what I’ll focus on here.
A bunch of friends noticed my progress (adding extra motivation!), and asked me what I’ve been doing; which diet I’ve followed, what I gave up, and what the secrets were. Some are already getting great results by making some of these little adjustments. While this post isn’t directly travel related, they’ve asked me to share my nutrition and fitness tips for a positive body composition transformation.  Please do let me know if it helps you!
Group shot - after diving in Bali -
Week one of my trip in Bali – that’s me on the left in the blue bathing suit. I had just finished getting “Open Water Certified” for SCUBA diving
Which diet did you follow?

I don’t have a “diet” – instead i focus on basic principles and stick to them as often as I can. That makes it sustainable. There are problems with every “diet” out there – Atkins, South Beach, etc. Note that I’m not a nutritionist – I’ve read a bunch from RD’s and decided on a strategy, which has been phenomenally successful for me.

Was it difficult?

I’ve also stopped trying to change my lifestyle – I still go out drinking socially 4x per week (note – not recommended…) – that’s not changing anytime soon. And I’m lazy when it comes to cooking – that’s unlikely to change (I cook, but typically they’re very simple meals with minimal planning). Those were my “givens” – I was willing to experiment with changing everything else. Then I started reading up on ideas.

What did you cut out? 

I generally don’t eliminate behaviors. Instead I determine “best practices” and follow as often as I can. Nutrition is about choices. Eat this, not that. I’d make a small change, and it was fine, so I make another. Step by step. The key for me is knowing what’s the better decision at every meal choice, and then choosing it as often as I can. Some weren’t a compromise at all, while others involved trying a variation and seeing if I could get into having it.

7.5 Nutrition Principles to follow:

  1. – Eat protein with every meal, including breakfast. This helps you stay full longer.
  2. – If possible, have vegetables and beans with every meal too. This includes breakfast.
  3. – Eat often.
  4. – Portion control: I used to overeat too often. Moderation is key.
  5. – Drink water (as often as you can).
  6. – Improve quality of snacks.
  7. – Reduce non-water drinking.
Bonus:  when drinking alcohol, a glass of red wine is best.

If you do one thing to improve your nutrition, make it that first principle:

>>> Eat protein, veggies, and beans, in every meal, if possible. This is ideal. I researched what would be best, and while I don’t follow it at all times, at least I know what I’m striving for. This is what a “balanced” meal means to me – note that it’s drastically different from the old food pyramid or even the new USDA plate.

Details in other notes below:

>> Eat Protein with every meal.

  • Why?  It helps build muscle but just as importantly, protein digests slowly, which keeps you full longer.
  • Which is best? – grilled chicken is a wonder food – lean (low-fat) and incredible amounts of protein (26g per serving!). I eat it often. Learn to explore different marinades and sauces to keep it interesting. Some are fatty, so note that it’s a trade-off; spices generally add taste without sacrificing health benefits.
  • 1st Runner up for best protein (after chicken) are most fish options. The fat is typically the “good fat” and loaded with nutrients you want. Turkey’s also among the better options.  Red meat offers lots of protein but isn’t as lean fails in other areas so it should be more of a change of pace.
  • Portion – should be about a fistful of a meat or fish. Don’t count calories every meal – it’ll drive you nuts. Learn once and you never have to count again.

>> Eat vegetables with every meal.

  • Why?  Nearly every vegetable is loaded with nutrients that are good for you,
  • Which ones? – most are good for different reasons.
  • Hint: some canned peas actually have 4g/protein per serving. Who knew! This is an excellent and easy addition to any meal.

>> Eat Beans – with every meal you make at home.

  • Why?  They’re good for you and fill you up, meaning you’ll consume less if you just eat more beans. Skip them and you’re hungry too often.
  • Hint – Draining them will also eliminate flatulence, the primary reason people avoid beans. I have digestion challenges so I never used to buy them – but I bought organic and drained them and now it’s fine. I still don’t order them out but if you don’t have specific digestion issues, add them in your Chipotle burritos!
  • Which kinds?  Most are good – black, pinto, red, et al (nearly all except baked).

> Shopping/laziness – don’t assume that you’ll become a dedicated gourmet chef just because you decided to get serious about your nutrition one day. Fresh vegetables are considerably better, but canned veggies and canned beans are an adequate substitute (and much better than none at all). They’re quick, portioned, and stores well so you don’t have to plan. Done and done!

>> Drink water – lots of it. Keep a glass of water at arms-length with you at all times; you’ll be surprised how much more you drink. After a while you’ll subconsciously just grab the glass of water and drink.  Water fills you up and is good for tons of reasons.

>> Reduce non-water drinking, particularly soda and beer. Diet soda is NOT an exception. Beer and soda are wasted calories and ruin your metabolism. There are lots of other reasons that non-water drinks are bad. Artificial sweeteners trigger appetite in some, which doesn’t help you. I wasn’t a soda drinker but was drinking orange juice because I thought the vitamin C was so good for me – then I noticed the 22g of sugar!  Now it’s a change of pace (there’s other ways to get vitamin C). “Fruit” drinks aren’t helpful -they’re typically high sugar or high in sugar substitutes (often worse) and don’t add many health benefits. Dairy can add some protein and is ok overall, but isn’t helpful in other areas. I recommend lots of water.  Learn to love it.

Portion control – don’t overeat. Eat slowly, and stop when you feel full (instead of eating until your stomach feels like it’s going burst). This is against my tendency so I had to train myself. The immediate result is that you’ll want to eat more often (see below), which is counter-intuitive but is actually ideal. For snacks, take a portion and put the rest away. Instead of eating to try to fill yourself up for the day, just eat more often…

Turn your body into a fat-burning furnace!

eat small meals often, including protein and beans and veggies

Eat often. The more often you eat, the faster your metabolism will be. Eat often and your body knows it doesn’t need to store anything as fat. Eat often and your body turns into a fat-burning furnace. Don’t skip meals.  When you skip a meal, your body stores more fat the next time you finally eat. This includes breakfast…

Eat breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up, hopefully with some protein as well as a small amount of vegetables and beans.

  • I like to grab a piece of fruit when I first wake up to “break the fast” and jumpstart my metabolism. Eating an apple will also contribute to waking you up (perhaps as good as caffeine?).
  • Then I make eggs (typically 1 egg, 2 egg whites for me) with a few spoonfuls of veggies and beans (often leftovers from the night before). It doesn’t seem natural with breakfast but it goes a long way to keeping you full throughout the morning until lunch, which is my goal for breakfast.
  • Oatmeal and cold cereal can be ok but not ideal – they’ll fill you but don’t include significant protein, and often I’m hungry shortly after. It’s considerably better than nothing, since they’re not bad, but they don’t enough add nutrients, and they don’t fill you up. If you go this direction, aim for low sugar cereals and get some whole grain.
  • Baby steps. I used to make or order 3 eggs on a roll with cheese. Then went to 2 egg whites and an egg with cheese on a roll, and so on, until I got comfortable. You still have to like it!  I still wander from this best practice but I know what I should be aiming for at all times. It’s very similar to how a lot of families weaned themselves off of whole milk by going to 2%, and then later become a family that buys 1% milk or skim. This was our pattern growing up, and now when I buy milk I’m getting skim milk.
Those hunger pains are also reminders that your body’s going to need to store more fat the next time it gets food.
Food Rating System: Plus, Minus, or Neutral?
From a nutrition standpoint, I rate foods into basically 3 categories:
+ or –
  • Plus: “+”  Foods that mostly help – fish, grilled chicken, vegetables
  • Neutral/Fillers: Foods that fill you up but don’t add significant nutritional value. These are usually things that are ok in moderation but don’t really add much value. Fruits offer some nutrients.
  • Minus: “-” Foods that mostly hurt – most processed, frozen, packaged, foods are here. Fatty foods are here. Most breads. Really most things people eat are here.


Find a few go-to snacks that aren’t bad for you. What do you do when you get hungry?
  • Ideal – have filling meals with protein, veggies, and beans, so you’re not hungry.
  • 2nd best – have another meal that fits the above criteria. This is easiest when you have leftovers.
  • 3rd best – try to improve what you eat between meals so you’re never hungry. Choose foods that help but in moderation.

Snack ideas:

  • Fruit. I like bananas as a filling option, and add cinnamon (surprisingly good and has lots of bene’s) or almond butter. Other fruits work well here (yes, often high in sugar, but natural sugar).
  • Avocado – so good! It’s fatty but it’s the good fat. Cut it in half for portion size. Put plastic wrap touching the avocado to save (in fridge).
  • I hard boil some eggs so I always have protein that I can just grab and go.
  • I like almonds, which are great as long as you don’t over eat at once. (I do struggle with contributing to California’s drought…)
  • Yogurt can be good but it’s dairy. It’s mostly good but not as effective.
  • Thumbs down to – all chips, even if it says “baked,”multi-grain” or “low fat” on the bag (but you knew that). In addition to the obvious, thumbs down on packaged breakfast bars, protein bars, fruit roll-ups, rice cakes, et al. I’m not suggesting you never eat them, but just realize these aren’t your best choice. For some people, chips are a staple with lunch. If you can learn have a healthier alternative sometimes, it’ll be better for you, and eventually your body might not crave it as much.
 This pic is from the Philippines – see more photos of me from my trip here
Drinking alcohol –
Go for wine!  Water at all times would still be best but given that I’m going to be drinking alcohol at the bars, I need to make choices. Beer is terrible for my digestion challenges, so keeping that to a minimum is already good practice. Soda is still terrible, but I still order a couple of mixed drinks with soda. Wine is the least poisonous to your body. Red is better than white.

What else to Avoid:

Avoid simple carbohydrates – they digest quickly and don’t keep you full.
  • Avoid white bread, pasta, potatoes, and actually just about any food that’s white, or that could be white (egg whites and cauliflower are good, thumbs down on the rest).
  • When buying bread – choose 100% whole wheat. If it doesn’t say “100%” it’s not any better than white bread. Even if it’s 100% whole wheat, it’s still not on the “plus” list for foods.
  • There’s obviously a long list. Importantly – I don’t eliminate, I just make a conscious effort to have these less often. I still have sandwiches at lunch, but realize that the bread isn’t helping. If I could replace the bread with veggies/beans, my meal would be much better.

Good fat” is ok – in moderation, at the right times. Yah for avocado!  Also, I’m still learning about this, but it seems like at the beginning of your day, and the beginning of a meal, eating “good fat” could be helpful (great news for fatty appetizers!). I’m still learning about this part because it’s about glycemic response and don’t have the details down yet.

Eat slower. I’m still terrible at this and keep reverting back to my typical tendencies, but this would be ideal.

It’s about choices – identify what can be improved, find alternatives to the most detrimental choices you currently make, one by one.

Sandwiches – Ideally I wouldn’t have any sandwiches, but they’re practical for me. When eating sandwiches, realize that the average honey mustard is considerably better than mayonnaise (includes even light mayo), and often has a fraction of the fat and calories (often – you need to look. At deli’s, honey mustard is a better blind bet if you’re going the sandwich route). Turkey is easily the leanest deli meat you can choose. Grilled Chicken is easily the best choice at a deli counter.

Free Day!  I don’t follow this, but there’s a theory where if you eat really well for 6 days per week, on one day, go crazy. Binge. Eat everything. Over eat, and eat whatever you want, desserts, a bazillion terrible foods, binge drinking, whatever!
Why? 2 reasons –
1- Keeps you sane and helps you stick with a strict diet for 6 days/week. My lifestyle has me at a dinner and a birthday party a few times per week, so going crazy for at least one of them increases my ability to stick with it.
2- Some technical reasons – it seems to eliminate the potential plateau associated with restricting caloric intake. It also helps make sure your metabolic rate doesn’t starting lowering from reducing your caloric intake.
Note – this ONLY works if you’re strict on the other 6 days per week. I’m still learning about this, and haven’t been doing it because I haven’t been strict on the other 6 days.
Won’t I ruin it all?  They say there’s no risk here – if you eat right for six consecutive days and binge on the 7th, you’ll feel full more quickly and will eventually eat less than you would have anyway.

Sustainability – make one change today, and see if you can live with the adjustment. The idea is to make little changes gradually that you can stick with as part of your new lifestyle.  Losing weight for a month isn’t helpful – making a body composition transformation that will last is the goal.

Every little bit counts – get out of the “all or nothing” mentality, and get into the “every little bit counts” mentality. This goes for both nutrition and fitness. Every tiny food choice matters. Every time you park at the farther space and walk it helps more than parking in the front. Every time you walk or bike cross-town instead of a subway helps. It all counts.

Take the challenge – some of my friends were skeptical that this could have made a big difference. I think these are the key changes I’ve made, and haven’t even done them all the time. Does it work?  Try following all 7 principles for 6 weeks – let me know if you see results. Most importantly, a year later, I’ve kept in the same range. I think you’ll notice the impact, and your friends will too.


Since you asked…

Fitness -Most of my impact was from nutrition, but fitness is of course an important component. If you don’t change your diet, you’re not going to see any of your fitness results. You’ll have more muscle, but it’ll be buried underneath. For example – if you work on your abs every day, and have a gut, nobody’s going to notice. You can’t spot reduce fat. You can’t choose where you lose it.

Some top-line ideas:

Getting there:  For me it was baby steps, and the most important thing was finding parts of the gym that I liked and was comfortable with. Getting there (often) is most of the battle.

For most people, the best fitness routine…is any one that you’ll stick with.

My biggest change was to do a few large muscle groups exercises and spend less time, just doing it intensely and focusing on proper form. Don’t break the body into 4 days at the gym if sometimes you only get there twice.

MED:  Boiling = Boiling.  

I’m a big believer in MED – minimum effective dosage. Boiling is boiling – if water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, then 300-degrees isn’t going to boil it faster, it’ll just evaporate your water. I think it’s the same thing with training. As soon as I’ve exhausted a muscle group, I move on. A lot of people make this mistake.

Spending less time – you don’t need two hours per day for dedicated gym time. Get in and out, and get on with your day.
Walk more often – aside from the gym, force yourself to walk throughout the day. This is especially important if you’re stuck behind a desk all day. A little walking makes a difference.
I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you!
Results! – I’m in the best shape I’ve been in for nearly a decade!  Over time I’ve lost 19 lbs and added muscle, and it’s obvious in my physique. People have noticed. I have muscles that I didn’t have before (or perhaps they just weren’t visible). My energy level is higher and I feel great. You can too. Good luck!
[ I’ll post more photos of me from my trips on this link ]

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