Lately I’ve been toying around with a concept I call “The All-You-Can-Eat Diet.” It could also be described as exercise-only weight loss. To practice it, you simply eat as much as you want and whatever you want and exercise as much as necessary to lose weight. For some people that would be quite a lot of exercise, but so what? There are many men and women who would find it much easier to exercise 10 hours per week than to drastically change their eating habits to promote weight loss.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that any person, no matter how overweight, can achieve his or her optimal body weight without changing his or her eating habits with adequate exercise. It’s a simple game of math. If you start the all-you-can-eat diet and find that it’s not working for you, just exercise more. And if you exercise more and it’s still not working for you, then exercise even more.
The All-You-Can-Eat Diet is based largely on my own experience. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six years, I was, to call a spade a spade, fat—not fat by contemporary American standards, perhaps, but by objective health standards, certainly. I was able to make three golf balls disappear completely between rolls of flab on my belly. While this is not a medical definition of fatness, it makes the point.
Previously, between infancy and the age of seventeen and a half years, I had been the skinniest boy in America—or at least the skinniest boy I ever saw. The only children I observed while growing up who could have defeated me in a scrawny contest were the forlorn stars of those heartrending television fundraising pleas for UNICEF with flies crawling all over their faces. When I entered my senior year in high school, I stood six feet, one inch (my current height) and weighed all of one hundred and thirty-eight pounds. Clearly I was genetically ectomorphic, but I also ran forty miles a week throughout high school, which brought out my full genetic potential to shimmy between the rails of picket fences when occasion called for it.
Since the onset of puberty, my emaciated appearance had driven me nuts, not so much because of such teasing, although that was bad enough, but because it was obvious that girls preferred guys with muscle tone, even a little, and I had none whatsoever. And so, when the cross-country running season ended in early November of my twelfth-grade year, I launched upon a rabid quest to bulk up: I stopped running cold turkey, lifted weights like a man possessed, and ate as much food as my stomach and hollow leg could hold. I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. In ten weeks I gained thirty-four pounds. The only problem was that no more than half of the added weight consisted of muscle; the other half was blubber. Stretch marks appeared on my biceps, chest, buttocks, and inner thighs. I was like mild-mannered David Banner transforming into the incredible Hulk, albeit a Hulk who had let himself go somewhat (and had managed to cure the turning-green part of his unique affliction). I was like the Nutty Professor on steroids at the moment his homemade potion wears off, inflating faster than an air mattress with a motorized pump. Undoubtedly, some other genetic factor was at work. Both of my parents were overweight in their youth and have had to really work to stay trim as adults, so I guess my own bodily expansion was all but inevitable. Yet I had been so lanky for so long that I and everyone who me knew me was shocked by my rapid metamorphosis.
So great was my relief in no longer being Auschwitz skinny that at first I viewed the flab as nothing more than a trifling side effect of a successful cure, and even as an amusing novelty. Not only did the fat not bother me, but I also got a genuine, non-self-ridiculing kick out of showing friends my disappearing golf balls trick. I was far more thrilled by the swelling of my muscles than disappointed in the tumorous multiplication of my abdominal fat stores, which would melt away, I was confident, when I began running again in March, as I then planned to do. And the added weight did in fact markedly improve my relations with the fairer sex. Perhaps this is why I did not start running again in March, even though by that time I had ceased to appreciate my flab’s novelty.
My attitude about my big belly changed abruptly when I realized it wasn’t going to be as easy to get rid of as I had thought. As long as I knew it was temporary—as long as I knew its annihilation would be as simple a matter as returning to running forty miles a week, and even fifty and sixty miles, in preparation for my first year of collegiate running—my belly was funny. But the moment I decided I would rather keep getting laid than run, my belly no longer seemed a fleeting curiosity, and it ceased to be funny.
Dieting Didn’t Work
The very first measure I took to shed my gut, which lasted a couple of months, was to passively hope it would go away on its own. When that didn’t work, I was forced to contemplate the unthinkable. A few days before we donned gowns and mortarboards and marched to “Pomp and Circumstance”, I told my best friend and fellow All-State runner Mike, in a state of utter bewilderment, “Dude, I think I might have to go on a diet!” For all of my life until this time, these were the very last words I ever thought I would hear myself speak. I felt as Ted Kennedy might have felt if he’d ever found himself leaving a voting hall having unaccountably submitted a Republican straight ticket.
I did not, however, start a diet: not then, not ever. To the contrary, during my college years, I gained another thirty pounds, again roughly half blubber and half lean muscle mass, and graduated weighing two-oh-five. I looked like a professional wrestler from the 1970s. I would have preferred to look like a bodybuilder, but I could not muster the discipline needed to make better food choices at the cafeteria, or reduce my massive intake, or drink less beer or eat less late-night pizza. I have always had a hearty appetite and have always craved heavy, savory foods. These tendencies had caused me no harm in my childhood, so I never had to consider whether I could resist gustatory temptation if I had to. But when, upon my reaching the threshold of adulthood, my appetite and cravings began to amass the same consequences they heap upon so many others, I discovered I was powerless to defy them. Each make-your-own omelet Wednesday at the student cafeteria, I told myself I should bypass the omelet counter and have cereal and skim milk instead, but after going back and forth in my mind I went ahead and made a ham and extra cheese omelet, confident I would forego the high-calorie treat next time. Whenever I ordered a Skeeter’s pizza, the phone call followed a similarly self-deceiving internal debate. My food choice and body image psychologies had become those of the typical fat man.
The weird thing about my eight years of mild fatness is that throughout the entire experience I took it as given that I would keep my gut for the remainder of my life, even though I very much wanted to shed it, and I understood exactly what I needed to do to shed it, and I considered the required measures quite easy to execute—all because I just couldn’t motivate myself to even try, and I knew it. In this way I discovered that one of the few things we humans care about more than our appearance is food.
Endurance Sports to the Rescue
Luckily, I wound up slimming down without trying, as a fortunate side effect of returning to competitive athletics. I simply reversed the process by which I had gained the weight in the first place. That is to say, when I was twenty-six, an age at which most folks these days are steadily expanding, my passion for endurance sports was reawakened, and in a mirror image of my initial weight gain, I quit weightlifting and began swimming, bicycling, and running in preparation for my first triathlon. As a result of making these changes my body began burning hundreds more calories each day to fuel the thousands of repetitive muscle contractions I had added to my diurnal routine. In just six weeks I lost about twenty pounds, despite the fact that my food intake actually increased during this time (due to a natural enlargement of appetite resulting from my suddenly increased energy needs), and despite the fact that losing weight was hardly my primary interest: beating my pal Jimmy in the triathlon was.
In the 10 years since I got back into endurance sports and lost weight as a side effect of my training, I am not the only endurance athlete who eats whatever he wants and however much he wants and still has visible abdominal musculature. During intensive training, marathon runners and triathletes burn anywhere from 3,500 to 5,000 calories a day. At that rate of daily energy expenditure, you have to make a concerted effort to eat enough just to avoid losing too much weight. You don’t have to eat junk food to get adequate calories, but you certainly have the option.
There is a widespread misconception that obese men and women consume more calories than any other group in society. This is not true. Endurance athletes do. Muscle work is a far greater calorie magnet than stored fat tissue. The typical obese person could actually start eating more and shed excess body fat quickly by working out as much as the typical marathon runner. Of course, it would take some time for such a person to build enough fitness to work out that much, but if the person is truly incapable of saying “no” to cheeseburgers and second helpings, the All-You-Can-Eat Diet is the only way to go.