Michael Brunton-Spall     About     Archive     Feed

A geek's diet plan

2012-04-09 14:57:47 +0000

So I’ve been getting a little rotund of belly of late, and my family had started making jokes about my waistline and the jelly like qualities of my stomach.

I’m not terribly keen on this for all the reasons that you might expect, but I’ve been putting it down to lack of exercise (I do about 15 minutes walking to a from work every day, that’s it), and a natural aging spread effect.

This leaves me only three choices, join a gym, start a diet or accept being that fat geek!

I kept considering joining a gym, but I’m not a terribly motivated person, except by money, and a gym seems like a lot of effort and costs a lot of money, so it’s out for both those reasons. I’ve tried belonging to a gym before, but the time commitment is something I’d find hard to keep up, if I could find one at or nearby work that I could use at lunchtimes, maybe I’d go for it.

Anyway that left me with dieting, but a lot of diets require willpower, dedication and effort, none of which I have in vast quantities. I was speaking to my friend Dan Catt about it recently when he was regaling me with details of his diet. He’d lost of a lot of weight on the diet, but it was one of these extreme diets, where you go into ketosis, and your body starts eating itself to keep your energy levels up. Besides sounding awful it comes with a lot of side effects that I didn’t really want, and worst, if you slipped up and ate one single thing that was not on the diet, your body would drop out of ketosis, and you’d take a few days to get back in, which meant hunger, headaches, dizziness and nausea all over again. No thanks to that!

But it got me thinking, maybe I could just reduce my calorie intake, and see how that would go. Luckily Dan (or possibly somebody else, we don’t know who) had a whole bunch of Cambridge Weight Plan milkshakes left, and swapping out a great cooked lunch for a milkshake sounded unappatising, but at least doable. Note that the shakes are essentially unpurchasable unless you are seing their nutritionists. Their recommended diet is the uber extreme diet, which I wouldn’t recommend even trying if you are anything like me. I’m running out, so I’m going to try some weight watchers shakes, or might have to hunt around for some good meal replacement shakes.

But before I started my diet, I needed to find out what I was actually eating. This is the essence of being a good developer, measure everything and most iportantly measure before you act. Ideally I wanted 24/7 ganglia monitoring of all the respective statistics of my body, but I figured I’d start with just two simple emasurements.

  1. What was it that I was actually eating, what was my calorie intake, and therefore which meals/snacks/foods contributed the most
  2. How much did I actually weigh, and how much should I weigh?

I asked a few female freinds of mine who have dieted in the past for modern geeky approaches to dieting, and I got recommended Spark People. The website itself is pretty awful, the system for rewards and blogging and so forth don’t attract me at all, but they had a number of good points on their side.

  • They have android and iphone apps. This means when out and about, with either my ipad, phone or laptop I can record the food I've eaten.
  • They have a great database of calorie information for foods. I tried a number of other apps and a lot of them were very US-centric. I searched for tesco and sainsbury's own brand foods and SparkPeople actually had most items.
  • They have a user submitted calorie information search. Even if their official recipe isn't there, I can search what other users have submitted, and they tend to have pretty much everything.

Naturally like everything the dataset is a little dodgy at times, I still struggle to approximate the size of the jacket potato I just ate in grams, I want small/medium/large. Occasionally you search for something and find a completely bonkers calorie estimate, but there’s often multiple versions of each item and it’s easy to select a new one.

So using the app I started tracking for a week what I was eating. After a few days it became clear to me that I had absoutely no idea about calories, there were things I thought had little that were high calorie, and things I thought had lots that had hardly any! The main thing I noticed was that I was eating on average at least 2500 calories a day. That’s about 500 too many (or the upper end of a mans diet, but I’m essentially sedentary, I shouldn’t eat 2500), and on many days when I treated myself I was reaching 3000 to 4000 calories.

So I decided to start the diet, and my rules were simple.

  1. Track everything I eat
  2. Weigh myself once a week on mondays
  3. Reduce the high calorie snacks and foodstuffs that I'm already eating
  4. Replace my lunch with a low calorie milkshake.
  5. Don't affect the foods my family eats at dinner time too much

I was aiming to hit about 1500 calories per day on average, but I wasn’t worrying too much about it, I mostly wanted to record what I was eating and seeing what happened.

So what did I do?

Firstly it seemed that an awful lot of my calories were coming from milk, I was having latte’s, cappucino’s and just plain white coffee a lot during the day. Coffee with milk is around 25 calories per cup, black coffee is between 2-5 (the experts seem to vary their opinions). I was having an easy 6 coffee’s a day (free at the guardian), so that’s an easy 100 calories to save. A large latte (as I was having every morning thanks to my new Nespresso pod coffee machibne), was about 200 calories.

Breakfast milk also was an issue, theoretically corn flakes with 1/2 cup of milk is only 140 calories, but I tried an experiment and weighed my portion. I was eating more or less a double portion, and my milk was whole fat or semi-skimmed not skimmed. Again I was looking at 300-400 calories for breakfast.

So I removed the latte’s, capucinos etc and only had them as treats, still once a week or so, but my morning coffee is americano style, and I can cope with that just fine.

I switched breakfast to 2 slices of toast with philadelphia light on it, total of 229 calories. I bought the mini tubs of philidelphia light at first, since 1 entire tub is exactly 35g and 55 calories, and for me spreads over 2 slices of toast just fine. That meant I was sure of how much I was eating.

Lunch is a cambridge diet shake, 140 calories in one of those, and they fill me up just fine it seems. I don’t have one every day, for a start there is a long standing ritual at my workplace to go for all-day breakfast on a thursday lunchtime, that I’ve been doing for over 3 years now, and I can’t break the habit.

Dinner is whatever my wife has cooked for us, and this is the area where I did slightly change my diet. In advance of deciding to actually do the diet, I was thinking of losing weight, and I was also reminded by Aral about how awesome vegetarian diets can be. I used to be vegetarian for 5 years or so, and I really enjoyed the interesting diet. So on January 1st I switched back to being vegetarian. Now this wasn’t entirely for a slimming reason, but one of the reasons that I did it was because generally speaking, vegetarian food is lighter in calories and better for you, if you make sure to keep a good nutritious diet going.

So dinner for me might be spaghetti bolognese, made with vegetarian soya mince, whcih I estimate at about 300 - 350 calories. That’s actually a much lighter dinner than I would normally have calorie wise, but the idea is that I’m free to enjoy up to a normal 1000 calorie big dinner, including a couple of glasses of wine and still be in or around the 1500 calorie range.

So how did it all go?

Well I did 3 weeks of the diet before I had to stop (more details below), and then I essentially cut out the shakes and dieting proper for about 6 weeks, and I was simply counting the calories and eating salads and light lunches a lot. I’ve since decided to start the diet proper again, and this is the 1 weeks mark.

During the diet, I went from 181.1 to 174.2 at the lowest, coming back up to 176 at worst but hovering around 175. That’s a loss of 13 pounds in 3 weeks, and keeping stable at the end. Last week I weighed in at 175 pounds, today I’m 171.6, despite the easter splurge this week.


On the diet I didn’t feel particularly hungry, but I did encounter a few problems.

Firstly: The diet shakes.

They do not look terribly appetising. I also made a massive mistake on the first day of going to lunch with all my work mates and sitting with them and trying to drink the shake. This was my first taste of the shake, and while they are actually quite nice, they take a bit of getting used to. My workmates, rather naturally, were not terribly encouraging, pointing out how disgusting it looked, and talking about hte delicious meals that they had purchased. I think I’ve already mentioned that I don’t have a lot of willpower, and I ended up binning the shake and buying a jacket potato with beans and cheese instead (approx 500 calories). The next day I stayed at my desk and forced myself to drink the shake alone.

After the week was up, and I’d gotten used to the shakes, I was able to rejoin my work mates, partly because I’d gotten used to it, and partly because I’d seen my weight drop, so knew it was worth doing!

The other thing, as referenced above is that I was lucky that there was about 15-20 diet shakes left over from Dan’s diet that he kindly gave me.  Getting hold of those shake powders isn’t just a case of popping into tescos.

Secondly: Dizziness, Nausea.

If you don’t eat enough your body does not appreciate it. I’ve had a few days where I’ve been presenting at morning conference, or talking over lunch and I’ve been stressed or much more active than normal. In those cases I have gotten brief waves of feeling sick or dizzy. Every time I’ve had a big glass of water and normally a go-ahead or weightwatchers snackbar, and felt just fine.

Make sure you keep a stash of snacks around that you can eat if it comes to it. I often want to snack at about 4pm, and I let myself have 1 snack a day at 4pm. Because I tend to be so busy at work I’ve often forgotten so I don’t eat it every day, but it’s nice to have, and at around 100-150 calories they are pretty good snacks to have.

Thirdly: Drinking

It’s a common british work culture to go for drinks after work on a fairly regular basis, and the Guardian has a pub/wine bar in the building itself, so it’s even easier to nip out for just one drink. Unfortunately I’m not very good at just one drink! Alcohol is high in calories, a normal sized glass of red wine is around 90 calories, and a pint of bitter has nearly 200 calories. A recent evening out involved me drinking 4 pints, which is the same number of calories as I’d had all day, and meant I was around 2200 calories by the time I got on the train (eating a small burrito - 600 calories, as my dinner)

Finally: Travel and conferences

I had a hectic fortnight recently where I attended multiple events in San Francisco, then flew back to attend InfoQ’s QCon in London. I know that I couldn’t possibly do the shakes with a schedule like that, and I tend to be far more active, on my feet and lot, and having to do a lot fo talking and walking. I gave up the diet, ate whatever was put in front of me (vegetarian of course), and just didn’t worry about it. It took me a week or so to recover from the conferences and get back into recording eating and therefore watching my weight as well, and I expected that I’d have ut on a lot of weight, but it turned out to only put on about 2 pounds of weight, which is not bad for completely abandoning the diet. I went back down by a pound once I started measuring again.


So whats so geeky about dieting then? Well it seems that everybody has a fad they want to use, red days/green days, points systems, the chocolate cake for breakfast diet. But like many geeks I realised that the first step is measurement. Once you can measure your system (calories and weight) you can start to change the things you do and see what difference it makes. Sitting and counting calories on an iPad or phone at the dinner table, estimating portion sizes and even entire meals and starting to understand food better, that’s all part of the geekiness.