This appeared in the March 2020 edition of Oral Health Magazine:
Why did I bother writing this?
I’m no health and fitness expert. I have no relevant degrees attached to my name. I offer you no studies or citations. I have no books, pills, shakes or exercise equipment to sell you. No YouTube channel for you to subscribe to. No seminars for you to attend.
I’m not your guru. And I’m not trying to be.
Truth is… I’m just paying it forward. And if, by happenstance, a light bulb goes off in your mind by the time you finish reading this and you decide to invest in your health and fitness as a result, well then… Mission Accomplished.
You see, over the past few months, my lifestyle (and hopefully lifespan) has drastically improved because of what some DENTISTS have shared with me – namely, 8 Health and Fitness Ideas.
Now before we get into the nitty gritty, a caveat: this is my story. What worked for me may not for you. Men are physiologically different than women. Family health history, medication, stress levels, sleep, and what we consume all have an impact on our bodies and minds. So take what I write with a grain of salt. And please talk to your doctor first before embarking on your own health and fitness journey.
With that said, let’s go back 6 months. At 5’ 11”, I weighed 233 lbs and barely squeezed into size 40” pants. No abs were visible. I needed 8 hours of sleep and multiple coffees to keep me going throughout the day. Was I happy with my physical appearance? It was acceptable. I’ve always been a “big guy” and I told myself that some people are just naturally slim and that I was not one of them. Plus, Parastou (my wife) never complained.
Fast forward to today. I’m 183 lbs and proudly wearing size 34” pants. I have 4 abs that are clearly visible in the morning and at night. I feel full and energized all the time. And I get through the day with just 6 hours of sleep and 2 cups of coffee. And it all came about because of these 8 Health and Fitness ideas that Dentists gave me:
Gifts #1 and #2: Food and Fasting
I’ve been working out since I was 16 years old. I don’t slack at the gym. But I’ve always had some kind of gut. Abs, however, are NOT made in the gym: they’re made in the kitchen! And that’s where I was doing everything wrong. My entire perception of food was wrong:
- I ate because I thought I needed energy. But as it turns out, I have lots of energy reserves (stored up fat) in me and I’m never tired nowadays even though I eat a lot less than before.
- I ate because I was regimented to eat at certain times throughout the day (early morning, lunch, late dinner). But I discovered that there are so many amazing benefits to eating within certain timeframes OR not at all for extended periods of time (like 24-48 hours).
- I ate without giving much thought to what I was putting in my mouth. Isn’t it funny (or sad) that there’s no recommended daily intake of sugar (my new enemy #1) listed anywhere?
- I ate without counting calories. But it’s quite astonishing how certain foods and beverages in relatively small quantities can quickly add up to thousands of calories (1 slice of pizza could easily have 300-400 calories; I used to eat 6-8 slices in a single sitting).
And to top it all off, I was an emotional eater. If I had a good day, I was going to REWARD myself with a steak and a few glasses of red wine. If I was having a shitty day, I would PUNISH my body with comfort food to make me feel better – like spicy chicken wings, ribs, pizza, or a burrito (typically on a Friday night). You get the idea…
Enter Dr. Ming Yau (general practitioner, Etobicoke). When I was helping him sell his dental practice last summer, he basically told me that my organs have a certain lifespan (let’s say 100 years) and that I should give them a break by doing INTERMITTENT FASTING. Gift #1. The idea, for example, is for me to eat all my meals during a 6 or 8-hour window, like from 12:00 p.m. noon until 6:00 p.m. And then give my organs a chance to recover, perform better, and last longer. Hmmm… makes sense!
But then he kept going. Dr. Yau suggested I use HEALTHY and HIGH QUALITY FAT as my energy source instead of SUGAR. This way, my body will convert existing stored fat into energy whenever it’s hungry. In other words: KETO. Gift #2.
KETO is about putting the body into a state of ketosis by depriving it of starchy and sugary carbs so that it has no choice but to burn what we give it (a.k.a. external healthy fats) AND internal visceral fat as its energy source. KETO friendly foods include grass-fed meat, eggs, avocado, nuts, certain hard cheeses, high-fat cream and plain yogurt, various high-quality vegetable oils, fatty wild fish, etc. KETO also includes eating above-ground veggies to get nutrients and fibre. Think leafy greens, cucumber, asparagus, brussels sprouts, broccoli, mushrooms, etc. And minimal fruits and booze because of all the sugar.
It all makes sense I thought. Plus, the prospect of eating MORE FAT was intriguing. It’s delicious and a relatively small amount makes me feel full all day long. Dr. Jason Gomes (general practitioner, Barrie), for example, told me that in the morning he puts MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) oil into his black coffee and tops it off with high fat / low-sugar whipped cream and it keeps him feeling full all day long. By the way, Dr. Gomes’ lost a whopping 32 lbs in 3 months doing intermittent fasting and KETO – and he wasn’t even that big to begin with!
So my diet basically changed from high protein / high carbs / very low fat to high fat / medium protein / very low carbs. Fun? Yes. Sustainable? Absolutely. Do I crave carbs and sugar? Not one bit. Do I cheat? Abs-so-lutely (more on that below).
Do I have endless amounts of energy throughout the entire day? YES! YES! YES! How’s the sleep been? Strange. I have way too much energy – why won’t the day start already? No more needing to “catch up” on sleep. And when I talked to Dr. Gomes, he felt the exact same way.
Gifts #3 and #4: Counting Calories and Tech
So a few months into my health and fitness journey, I stopped losing weight and hit my first plateau. FASTING and KETO alone weren’t working. Yes I felt great, but I really needed to start eliminating internal visceral fat. I was missing something. So after talking to Dr. James Vassallo (retired general practitioner, Mississauga), I discovered the benefits of CALORIE COUNTING. Gift #3.
I learned that I needed to burn 3,500 MORE calories than I consumed to lose 1 lb of solid fat. So with that little bit of knowledge, I set my daily caloric intake to 1,500 calories and I burned 1,000 calories working out (2 x 30 minute workouts per day was my typical routine) and stayed active walking around or taking the stairs throughout the day to burn another 2,000-2,500 calories. The math resulted in a daily average DEFICIT of 1,750 calories, or roughly 0.5 lbs of fat loss per day for as long as my body could handle it before hitting the next plateau.
But how exactly was I going to track calories in and out? Enter TECHNOLOGY. Gift #4.
Because of Dr. Vassallo’s advice, I bought and started using a POLAR heart rate monitor to measure the calories I burned during my workouts. At the same time, I subscribed to My Fitness Pal, a popular mobile phone app that allows me to track my caloric intake, as well as my weight and water intake. I particularly like the bar-code scanner on that app, which instantly gives me all the nutritional information of virtually everything I can put in my mouth. It makes inputting calories super easy and, dare I say, addictive. I wouldn’t have had much of an idea of my caloric intake without this app.
What I learned the most from using technology is that it takes me a long time to burn just 100 calories, BUT it doesn’t take much food to get to 1,500 calories. A handful of nuts or a single avocado could easily be 300 calories if I’m not paying attention!
Given how hard and long I was exercising and dieting, I didn’t want to make life harder on myself. So I substituted certain higher calorie KETO-friendly foods – like cheese, bacon and steak – with lower calorie KETO-friendly foods – like egg whites, almonds, and veggies. I also started putting hot sauce on everything because spicy food is low-calorie and helps speed up my metabolism (as does being in lower temperature environments). And don’t forget about water – I was drinking about 3 litres per day and it certainly helped with weight loss and internal regulation.
Now that I was counting calories using technology, I was able to blow past various plateaus.
Gift #5: Hacking Habits
Look, we all know what happens with fad “Yo-Yo” diets, right? You lose a lot in a short period of time (you’re down). Then you eventually gain it all back (you’re back up again). And the cycle repeats. It’s inevitable right? Why? Because we’re creatures of (bad) habit. They’re just too hard to break. Right?
Well, actually, the good news is that, after speaking with uber-fit and health conscious Dr. Sanjukta Mohanta (WellFort Community Health Centre), I’m now more aware of how to HACK MY HABITS so that I can control them and not the other way around. Gift #5.
Case in point, Dr. Mohanta cheats on her diet all the time. But she doesn’t think she’s cheating because she does it in a very controlled way: “I don’t deprive myself of anything. I do whatever feels good. If I happen to want a chocolate chip cookie, I’ll eat it, but I don’t have to finish it. I just need half of it to get the sweet taste that I crave. And I won’t feel guilty or grossed out that I had it.”
You’ve heard of portion control, no doubt. But this is that to the next level – Dr. Mohanta doesn’t have cheat days or cheat meals; she has cheat MOUTHFULS! Powerful stuff here.
Also, the fact that she feels no guilt or pressure about not finishing is simply mind-boggling: it defies the conventional wisdom of needing to finish what’s in your fridge / freezer or what’s on the table or your plate (thanks Mom and Dad ;-). Food is here for US; not the other way around.
So I took Dr. Mohanta’s advice: I don’t deprive myself of anything anymore. But I’ll just do it in a controlled way. If I want pizza, I’ll just take a sharp knife and cut off and eat the top portion of cheese, sauce and toppings – that’s the best part anyways, right? Or if I want a hamburger, I’ll put the meat in a lettuce wrap and put mayo, tomatoes and pickles on top. And because I’m counting calories (Gift #3 above), I’m still staying within my daily caloric limit. If I happen to go over, I’ll just have to modify something that day or the next day (i.e. exercise more, fast longer, consume less calories, etc.).
So I’m cheating… in control! No deprivation. No fad “Yo-Yo” diet. This is a lifestyle.
Now, with that said, and perhaps because of the KETO diet, I actually DO NOT have cravings for unhealthy food or alcohol. Quite the opposite: if I do consume those things, my body will punish me with excess bloating, dehydration, lack of focus and grogginess (there goes my productivity at work or performance while exercising!). These are things that I unconsciously accepted before, but which I DO NOT CONSCIOUSLY ACCEPT now. So there’s this trade-off because I’m paying attention to how my body reacts to certain things. And I’d rather feel and look good long term than try to temporarily satisfy an imaginary craving.
Now, if that weren’t enough, Dr. Mohanta goes on to explain how she ERECTS BARRIERS TO MITIGATE BAD HABITS. At the grocery store, for example, she will purposefully NOT walk through the “sugar and salt” aisles. But if she does end up getting unhealthy snacks, she’ll simply hide them at home or place them high up on the shelves outside of her immediate reach (so she’ll have to take an extra step to think about where they are and how to get at them). Meanwhile, she’ll put healthy snacks front and centre on the kitchen table so they’re accessible without too much thinking (a.k.a. REMOVE BARRIERS AND AUTOMATE GOOD HABITS).
Finally, and I stumbled on this accidentally, I’ve learned to successfully trick my body into thinking that I’m cheating when I’m actually not. That basically comes down to enjoying things I previously wasn’t interested in. For example, I now love – yes, I wrote “love” – making beef bone broth without any salt. I’ve been doing this once a week for the past few months. It may seem strange and bland to many of you (like something your mom would make back in the day if you weren’t feeling well), and up until recently I never gave it any thought, but I’m addicted to it now. And eating the bone marrow inside is a special treat for me (something my dad and older brothers and I would fight over years ago when my mom made Ossobuco).
Besides that, if my sweet tooth starts to act up (and I don’t care for sweets mind you), I’ll just grab a couple of Goli’s Apple Cider Vinegar Gummies (loaded with nutritional benefits and low sugar) or have a Vega Sport Protein Shake (high protein; low calories / carbs / sugar) or have some 90% dark chocolate (containing very little sugar). These are all HEALTHY snack and meal choices, but I’ve tricked my mind and body into thinking I’m cheating by having dessert!
And I’m not the only one who does this. When he wants to cheat, Dr. Gomes will have some low-sugar peanut butter with some low sugar whipped cream on top. “It’s like my special little dessert and it keeps me satiated and happy, even though it’s KETO friendly and healthy!”
Gift #6: Exercise
I’ve been talking a lot about diet, fasting and hacking habits. But what role did exercise play in my journey? Well, obviously, it helped me burn more calories than I consumed – so I could lose the weight (there’s your calorie counting again) and eventually control it.
But there are so many other benefits to exercising, including: de-stressing, reducing risk of disease, strengthening muscles and bones, increasing energy levels, regulating various internal systems (insulin, growth hormones, sleep, etc.), reducing pain, improving mental health and mood, and just plain looking your best. Oh yeah, apparently, exercising regularly promotes a better sex life (it boosts sex drive, improves sexual performance, improves blood circulation and flexibility, etc.), but I haven’t really tested that out yet 😉
Now, let’s get down to it. Walks or Runs? Cardio or Weights? Yoga or Sports? High Interval Intensity Training? What I learned from Dr. Yau and Dr. Mohanta is to simply stay active and change it up all the time. It helps prevent boredom and injury, and shocks the body so it never get used to the same routine (which helped me get past plateaus).
To keep it all fresh, I use www.BeachBodyonDemand.com. I can access over 1300 workout, dance and yoga routines and take them wherever I go. I just need a screen (phone, computer, tablet) and WIFI and I’m ready to sweat.
Finally, I make sure to track my caloric burn AND heart rate on my POLAR heart rate monitor. I aim for a heart rate of around 75% of my maximum heart rate to achieve maximum fat burning; a higher heart rate means I’m burning sugar, which makes me feel like I need to replenish my sugar levels after I’m done.
Gift #7: Hacking Sleep
During my law firm’s annual dental outreach program in Grenada last summer, I noticed that Dr. Yau (my roommate) was wearing a funny-looking ring to bed. Turns out, it’s called an Oura Ring (www.OuraRing.com). He spoke so highly of it. But my gut reaction was: “Why on God’s green earth would I spend $400 and wait a few months to get a sleep ring made in Finland to tell me how good my sleep was? Couldn’t I just wake up and figure that out myself and save myself a couple of bucks?”
But he talked me into it (he’s talked me into a lot of things, come to think of it, and I owe him a lot). Looking back, it’s been so worth it. Unlike any other smart phone or smart device, the Oura Ring uses a combination of Infrared LEDs, NTC body temperature sensors and a 3D accelerometer and gyroscope to give you amazingly accurate insights into your:
- total sleep time broken down by time awake, light sleep and deep sleep;
- sleep efficiency (percentage of time you actually spend asleep after going to bed);
- rapid eye movement (associated with dreaming, memory, learning and creativity);
- optimal sleep timing (whether you’re going to bed when you should be);
- sleep latency (how long it takes you to fall asleep);
- restfulness (whether your sleep was disturbed, resulting in lowered daytime cognitive performance); and
- resting heart rate throughout your sleep.
Each morning when I wake up, my Oura Ring app me a final score after analyzing all of my sleep data. It tells me whether I’m fully prepared for peak physical performance that day or if I should just take it easy. My top daily score thus far has been 89 / 100 and I know all the reasons why: I exercised early that day, fasted, meditated, ate and drank clean and didn’t watch Netflix or stay up on my phone reading e-mails. And I can repeat the process to get another amazing score to have optimal performance throughout the day. P.S. I do really like the “get ready for bedtime” notifications that come from the Oura Ring app. It’s like my mom making me aware of my upcoming sleep 😉
Gift #8: Measuring Progress
If I can’t measure it, I can’t manage it. So I measure everything! My weight in the morning. My calories in and out throughout the day. My pant waist size. My visual appearance in the mirror. And then I record it all in My Fitness Pal app (weight, photos). And then I can see how far I’ve come. Am I obsessed? Yes. But I think it’s a healthy obsession; there are plenty of unhealthy ones out there. Measuring everything has quickly become part of my daily routine. Once again, I hacked my habits to automate the good ones. And it’s been fun!
P.S. when I look back and see how I was, carrying around all that extra weight, barely squeezing into clothes, etc. it makes me realize how lucky I am now. And the rewards I receive on a daily basis encourage me to keep going. Rewards like being fully energized and full all the time, getting compliments on my physical transformation, checking out before and after pics of myself to make sure it’s really me now, shopping for new clothes (I had a huge smirk on my face when I put on a size 34” pants for the first time in decades or saw the scale give me a number starting with a “1”), burning 500 or 1,000 calories a day while exercising and tracking it on my POLAR heart rate monitor, and getting a great sleep score on my Oura Ring. This is instant gratification. Every. Single. Day.
8 simple ideas and a willingness to try. That’s what it took for me to lose 50 lbs in 6 months; to become the healthiest and fittest version of myself thus far. I am forever grateful to those dentists who I’ve mentioned above for their knowledge and support. I still have more work to do (we’re always working on improving ourselves).
When I look back, I get angry. Why did it take me this long to figure out? The answer: too many distractions along the way and bad information out there. Too many disingenuous people and companies that just wanted to sell me unhealthy ideas and products.
But no more. I have finally figured out how to hack my body and unlock its secrets. My body has no choice now but to comply. To lose the weight. To keep it off. To make me feel great. I am free from the chains of old habits. I have shattered life-long assumptions.
And I hope that, by sharing my personal story, it helps inspire you to look inwards so that you too can become the healthiest and fittest version of yourself. And when you’ve achieved your goal(s) of looking and feeling your best and getting compliments from those around you, YOU can then pay it forward in your own way.