Does the “Slow Carb” diet work for travel?

The Four Hour Body Slow Carb diet while travelling
Hot Pot (火锅) – Meat and vegetables (never mind the yam that snuck in… sneaky devil)

Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Body is notorious in the biohacker community for presenting an 80/20 approach to diet (the Slow Carb Diet) and fitness (the Minimum Effective Dose) on a foundation quantitative self-experimentation. This is my take on whether it works for full-time travel after trying it for a month while living in Europe and then Asia.

Being fit and able in all ways, from staying in shape to being more physically able, is a big part of our challenges over the next year and is something we’re researching and experimenting with constantly. I wrote about the challenge of staying shape on the road initially here as a general prescription. In truth, the quest for a fitness program that works in a diverse range of travel situations is the subject of constant exploration.

Let’s define what we mean by being healthy and fit. For us, generally it means being able to enjoy more things in life. It means being able to hike long trails, learn and retain more, be more full of energy for more of the day, and feel safer if ever threatened (like, we could run away… or worst case, fight back). It also means looking good in photos, of course. In some specific cases when we’re pursuing an athletic goal (like running fast or doing martial arts) we’ll alter our regimes to suit and get functionally fit, targeting something specific like more endurance, striking power and so on.

The ideal, as I expect it is for many readers, is to be able to enjoy life, stay in shape and immerse ourselves in the cultures of where we’re living, regardless of whether we’re there for fun, for education or training for something physical. It’s a lofty ideal. That’s why we’re experimenting, and that’s how I got to read Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Body (specifically, his description of the Slow Carb diet and minimum effective exercise). After considering its 80/20 approach I had to wonder: could this work for travel?

The constraints and challenges of travel

An outdoor gym near Taipei. Nearby there were some rusty outdoor weighted barbells!

When travelling on a budget, it’s difficult to manage both diet and exercise.

When managing diet, you can either order regular food and just eat the healthy bits, find healthy options or visit supermarkets and make your own food at home. We usually end up doing elements of all three. For example, in Taiwan I can order “beef and rice” (卤肉面) from street vendors, ask for a side of vegetables (never standard, and sometimes not available), and ignore the rice for Slow Carb (see below). Apart from being wasteful, it’s a little embarrassing in cultures where it’s impolite to finish one’s meal. We often scout out the kinds of places that are most able to cater to a high vegetable/moderate meat diet and go repeatedly to those places. In Taiwan/China, these are buffet lunch spots, hot pot and some specific snack stalls. And finally, we visit supermarkets but are limited by the options there, and by the (lack of) cooking facilities of our apartment.

Exercising while travelling on a budget is more challenging. Almost no gym wants to give one-week or one-month memberships these days – understandably. It’s not in their interests. You might find some group classes that can accommodate, but these tend to be expensive (on average $20 a session). You’re left the options of running or swimming or working out at home or in a nearby park. (Not the worst options, by the way – people work out in a prison cell – but still, it’s more limited.)

The challenge of both diet and exercise while travelling is that it can take away from fully experiencing a place. By managing our diet, we omit certain foods that we want to eat. By incorporating a diverse range of exercise, we take time away from doing other things.

The Four Hour Body and the Slow Carb Diet explained

The Four Hour Body is a diatribe on a lot of things, ranging from diet through to building muscle, getting a six pack, having better sex and running fast, in a hugely varying amount of detail (he really phoned in the part on running fast).

A lot of what the book posits he has researched with a lot of people. The best evidence was a test of the Slow Carb program on a large cohort of people, in which he found that 86% of people who followed the diet lost some weight, on average 8 pounds for those who did lose weight and that it was sustainable.

There are five main concepts in The Four Hour Body worth examining. These are experimentation with oneself, making it stick, the minimum effective dose, the diet prescription and the minimum exercise regime. These were the concepts I put to the test over the last month.

1. Experiment on yourself; sometimes on others

If there’s one takeaway from the book, it’s that we should be experimenting. No two people react the same way to stimuli.

For example, we react differently to foods. Some people find that when they drink low-calorie drinks their insulin spikes; some people find that the converse is true. Some people’s guts react poorly to eating beans and some people’s don’t. The same goes for exercise, fat loss, mobility and every other aspect of our bodies.

Where we tend to err is that we rarely take on a fully quantified approach to experimentation. We might say “this diet doesn’t seem to be working”, probably looking at ourselves in the mirror or at our weight. But Tim encourages us to go further and measure things like blood glucose levels, body fat percentage, body composition (with a body scan done in a hospital) and other metrics. I’d suggest also adding into the mix resting heart rate, 100% heart rate and other metrics like running speed, weights lifted, and various benchmark workouts.

The challenge for us is to experiment in a way that’s compatible with travel. I would also generally suggest cost-effective ways of experimentation, because I don’t believe this should devolve into a process of just buying everything we can get our hands on.

2. “Make it stick”

There’s no point making a change if you can’t make it stick. There are many transformations that are temporary (so-called ‘yo-yo’ dieting, which has nothing to do with eating Yo-yos, unfortunately). And there are many programmes that are impossible to follow because they’re ludicrously difficult to maintain.

In this part, Tim addresses the psychology of making any transformation, acknowledging that humans have a tendency to cheat and not stick to things. That at its core, no matter what we know, we don’t always act logically. Anecdotally this feels wonderfully right. It definitely is true of me. We can all find areas in our life where we do things that defy logic, just because they feel good at the time.

He addresses this by saying that there are four ways of making changes stick: make it conscious, make it a game, make it competitive and make it small and temporary. Briefly, these mean:

  • Make it conscious: For example, take photos of all your food, logging them in Evernote, Google Keep or the like. Or put a note up on your fridge with a target or rules about what you’re trying to achieve, or a photo of your body to remind yourself what you look has. For me, I like to track everything in a spreadsheet (until I forget for a day and then stop).
  • Make it a game: See if you can make the parameters like those of a game. This is how Strava or activity trackers work: you set a goal, and off you go. People enjoy getting points or tracking against some number and don’t like it when they don’t meet them, no matter how arbitrary they are. It does depend on constantly measuring, and so we’d be limited to what we can take with us (i.e. no scales).
  • Make it competitive: Make a bet with someone that you’ll achieve some goal and if not, you’ll give them money, or donate it to charity. The fear of loss (rather than reward) is a strong motivator, no matter how much money you can in theory stand to lose.
  • Make it small and temporary: This is similar to the “1% better every day” rule, which means it’s easy to make one small change a day and keep it rather than make massive changes all at once. Sometimes it’s good to shock the system, though, to understand what the changes feel like.

These are all easy to do and things we’ve been experimenting with.

3. Follow the “Slow Carb” Diet

The name is catchy, but it’s incomplete as a description. In a nutshell, The Slow Carb Diet is the following:

  • Avoid white carbohydrates. Don’t eat any sugars, cereal, potatoes, pasta and fried foods with breading.
  • Eat the same few meals over and over. Find foods that are high in protein and low in carbohydrates, like eggs, fish, lentils, beans, spinach, broccoli, carrots etc. and eat those. Pre-prepare a bunch of meals and eat them whenever you want.
  • Don’t drink calories. No sodas, sweetened coffee/tea (or boba tea, as is common here in Taiwan where I currently am). This also includes beer and cocktails, which may apply to you but doesn’t to us. He says red wine is OK, mostly because I think he likes red wine.
  • Don’t eat fruit. This is as hard as it sounds. Fruit is delicious!
  • Take one day off per week. He calls this “cheat day” or “Faturday” (typically it’s on a Saturday for social reasons). On this day, eat whatever you like, and this will help you get through another week psychologically. 

There’s a lot of nuance to this which I won’t go into here like when you can eat, how cheat day works and so on (just read the book if you’re interested), but basically he insists that over a wide study of thousands of participants, over 85% lost weight due to this diet and were able to sustain it. It’s the diet Tim Ferriss himself uses to keep himself at a 12% body fat level.

4. Do the “Minimum Effective Dose” of Exercise

The “Minimum Effective Dose” refers to the concept that it only takes a minimum amount to create the necessary stimulus for weight loss or for muscle growth. And once one exceeds the maximum effective dose, there’s no point continuing. In fact, you might even be doing damage to yourself, and limit the amount you can do later.

For example in weightlifting, after a certain amount of “time under tension”, you aren’t doing any more to build muscle. If you work out too hard, you’ll exhaust yourself (and maybe injure yourself) to the point where you’ll have to spend a week or more recovering and thus won’t be able to progress as quickly. The same logic is frequently applied in endurance sports: people training for a marathon may never run a full marathon in preparation for the main event because to do so would require too long to recover. Instead, they’ll train many aspects of a marathon, but more frequently.

When travelling, we don’t have access to a gym. This means we have to be creative with exercise. I have a minimum amount of equipment I brought with me (resistance bands and a suspension training kit to hang from trees), so a minimum exercise regime is attractive if it’ll help us keep in shape.

The 4HB exercise program focuses on a core of

  • Kettlebell swings twice a week – 75 or more consecutive swings
  • “Cat vomit” exercises (basically facing down, like while on all fours, and then expelling air while sucking your belly button in)
  • Hyper-extended slow situps (situps from a position where your back is below parallel, with a 5-second up and down count… hard!)

The combination there is the minimum. There’s optional extra. He usually recommends something like 80-150 seconds of time under tension, doing the maximum amount of weight you can do one set of 10 reps, 5-seconds up, five seconds down. This might be less than half of your 1-rep max (it is for me – I squat about 140kg, but I found this very difficult even at 60kg).

Obviously, I’m not going to take kettlebells with me wherever I go. I would have to either join a local gym or buy some locally.

The Four Hour Body while Travelling – Good Idea?

After a month of trying it, I’ve concluded that it can yield some results but doesn’t work overall as a travel fitness regime. However, some aspects of it provide an interesting point of departure.

In the month I tried it, for the first three weeks I did minimal exercise – once or twice a week at most, focusing on kettlebell swings, light lifting and the abs exercises. In the fourth week, I started working out using resistance bands, doing squats, deadlifts, curls, push-ups and sit-ups/ab work.

Here’s what I found.

Good: we should be experimenting and measuring.

My main takeaway, as I mentioned above, is that we should be tracking, experimenting and measuring.

For me, it means beginning a discipline of taking photos of food to be conscious of it. Measuring body fat, heart rate and weight at regular intervals. 

For body fat: The best way (in fact basically the only reliable way) to measure body fat is to use a DEXA scanner. You have to google where to get this done in the city you’re in and make sure it’s done by a trained medical professional – it can’t be done just by anyone. Many scales come with electrical impedance measurements, but these are unreliable, even if you take two tests in quick succession. I would suggest getting the DEXA scan done on a monthly basis.

For heart rate: a wrist-based heart rate monitor like those found on many watches and fitness tracking tools is fine. I use a Polar H10 chest-based monitor, which is less convenient but more accurate, particularly as heart rate spikes up and down.

For weight: You need scales, there’s no two ways about it. While we wouldn’t take scales with us everywhere, we could (in theory) drop into gyms to ask.

Good: Structure works

I really appreciated the structure in the diet. Having specific things I can and cannot eat at different times gives me a set of rules to live by that was approaching realistic to maintain, and meant there was a time and place for ice cream. This was good for my sanity and also good for explaining it to Jo so we’d be on the same page.

Ultimately I didn’t like the content of the structure, but I still know that other potential structures out there might work. Things like

  • Intermittent fasting (e.g. eating between 12pm and 8pm daily)
  • 80/20 or 90/10 “healthy” meals vs “not so great”
  • Specific lists of things to eat and not eat to balance hunger pangs and energy

I’ll put more of those together into plans later.

OK: Easy to find some”Slow Carb” foods, but I get epic FOMO

Doing the Slow Carb diet while travelling in Europe and Asia so far, I found myself eating boiled eggs for breakfast every day. For lunch I’d eat a salad with grilled meat, or the insides of a sandwich, or in Taiwan I ate hotpot or buffet (which are like self-serve, canteen food) for lunch. In both regions I ate meat and vegetables from the supermarket for snacks, because it’s hard to find clean meat outside, and for some reason nobody likes to serve vegetables in Greater China. It’s always the last thing people think about. And for dinner… who knows? If I’m lucky I find some grilled meat, but finding vegetables for dinner is really hard everywhere.

My best friends end up being things like rotisserie chicken, meat skewers (like kebabs or yakitori) in others, and in extreme cases just meat from the supermarket that I cook by steaming in a bowl of soup. These are hard to find, but they’re hardly the specialties of each country. The sense of FOMO is excruciating.

Slow carb diet FOMO - Taiwanese fried chicken from Angel Fried Chicken (天使鸡排)
This bad boy is what FOMO looks like. A fried chicken cutlet, 鸡排, something Taiwan does very well.

Yes, ‘cheat day’ is welcome every Friday, and I appreciate the two-marshmallow approach. I do eat whatever I like, within reason. But I find the psychology of cheat day questionable: who am I cheating, after all? Why should I be cheating? Was I not in fact cheating myself the other six days, as well? It leaves me with a feeling of never winning.

The day after cheat day I never feel great and typically fast for 75% of the day, eating only at dinner time. This makes me feel better, but I don’t like having my emotions be a slave to my food.

OK: I don’t feel fitter, but I’m slightly leaner

I’ll show an after photo soon. Overall I’m slightly leaner, and see more definition in my arms and abs.

Yes, I’m annoyed at myself, but I didn’t take any measurements or get a body scan. I found a place to do it in Estonia, but it took too much to-and-fro to set up an appointment with them and I gave up. However, I do know I’m leaner, just from looking at myself in the mirror.

It’s important to note that I’ve lost muscle mass over the last month. This is to be expected. I haven’t had access to a heavy weight room, so I haven’t squatted, dead-lifted or bench pressed. I’m also OK with this – I’m moving towards developing a lighter, leaner body which will be more suited to active travel, martial arts, running and dance. I don’t actually need to dead-lift four plates any more (as proud as I am of having reached that point).

OK: I’m conflicted about ‘cheat day’

As I intimated above, I don’t know if I’m in favour of ‘cheat day’. I’ll write more about this later. But what I’ve found so far is that other diet approaches are either for or against a ‘cheat day’, both for compelling reasons.

Those who are in favour say that it helps stick to diet, helps re-stimulate the metabolism, stimulates leptins which are essential for fat burning and generally acknowledge that a 90/10 or 80/20 approach to diet is always going to be more emotionally sustainable than a plan which is 100% all the time.

Those who are against cheat day say that happiness and acceptance need to come from within, and that we are always feeding ourselves, never ‘cheating’ ourselves. They encourage a “non-diet” approach to diet, i.e. a holistic eating plan that addresses all of our goals and needs and which we stick to, not because it’s hard but because it’s in line with our values and with our physical needs.

I find value in both of these approaches, and ultimately think they should be in harmony. In other words, if some elements of the Slow Carb approach don’t feel like they’re natural after a careful objective examination, then it’s not a natural fit.

Bad: The psychological effects of the diet are unpleasant

I get grumpy from low sugar, or low energy. I know I’m not alone in this either. Over time, I found the low-energy grumpiness predictable, but still unpleasant. For example, I now know that if I eat a meal, it’ll take about an hour before it changes my mood, so I have to sense myself becoming slightly grumpy and eat in advance of it hitting. Or I know that the day after ‘cheat day’, I’m going to get hungry by about 2 pm, so I’ll eat at 1pm (that’s the only day on which I do a small ‘fast’. This means that I’m somewhat of a slave to the timing of my meals.

If I were living in a more stable environment, like with a daily job and place to get my food, this would be practical. I could eat every day at the same times, and have meals prepared. But when every day is different – different cities, places to eat, vendors available – it becomes just one more thing to plan and isn’t really how I want to do things.

I also have found that I’m living for Fridays. Fridays are the days on which I can eat in a controlled but unrestricted way. Every other day of the week is just a count-down to Friday! Monday = “so long to go.” Wednesday = “nearly there, baby!” It’s not physically hard to wait until Friday. I’m a patient person. But this is exactly not how I want to live my life; life should be on the whole enjoyable. It creates a parallel to living for the weekends, that I used to do.

This perhaps alone will be enough to kill this approach to eating and force me to replace it with something more practical and holistic.

Bad: Bowel regularity is unpleasantly low

This may be too much disclosure, but it’s important. The book itself describes the importance of bowel movements in some parts (e.g. the chapter on ‘Damage Control’, which encourages combining grapefruit juice and coffee to stimulate a movement).  Look, if he’s going to go into this much visual detail, then so will I!

Since starting the diet, I’ve found bowel movements to be infrequent (once every three to four days) and unsatisfying (small). Frankly, it doesn’t feel that great. I think a large cause of this is that it’s hard to get beans in Asia. Previously, in Europe, I could buy beans in tins, imported from elsewhere in Europe. Gross, but doable. I’d love to be able to make a bean salad and eat beans in a pleasant way rather than scooping them out of a tin. In Asia though, aside from the occasional western supermarket that sells them for an inflated price, beans are a no-go. I think elsewhere in the world is likely to be similar, and with a few months planned in Asia in 2019 anyway, this is already looking bad.

Bad: My libido is down

Continuing with potential TMI, my libido is down. While a lot in our environment has changed over the last two months, I have done enough reading on the effects of low-carb diets to know that this is fairly common. This paper shows that a low-carb diet can reduce thyroid function, slowing down the metabolism but also reducing sex drive. Not great.

Tim Ferriss likes to counteract this by eating loads of grass-fed beef and eating brazil nuts, which is great, but I haven’t seen any in supermarkets in this southern city in Kaohsiung, and I doubt I’m going to in a 7-11 in Egypt, either. This has to be sustainable.

Bad: I feel more constrained than I do free

One goal I was hoping for in a high-protein diet was feeling fuller for longer and thus not being a slave to meals. I prefer to go like a camel and eat two meals a day, stretching out the time between them, so I don’t have to waste time looking for nice restaurants. Two is my ideal – one meal just leads to snacking.

This extends to ‘cheat day’. Because we always know that’ll happen towards the end of the week, we start planning out our week to be somewhere we can eat a lot on those days. That’s fine, and it has worked out so far. However, I don’t want to get to a point where I’d resent doing something like a hike on a Saturday because that’s my cheat day (and I want to eat) or it’s the day after my cheat day (and I want to take it easy while I fast).

Unfortunately, because of the limited amount of things I can eat and the fact that what I eat has such a large impact on my mood, we either have to be near home for meals or have a strategy for finding the right foods. Quite often in Taiwan, this means tea eggs from a 7-11, or if we happen upon a buffet (a common format for economic meals) eating right there and then.

Overall & What’s Next

Things I’m keeping from the Four Hour Body approach are

  • Be scientific and quantitative – measure more things (yay, I get to buy a heart rate monitor!)
  • Keep structure & rules in our diet and routine

Needs more work:

  • A healthy approach to diet that works for travel and allows us to enjoy local cuisine in moderation

Next steps for us to try are

  • Restricted eating windows (e.g. eating only between 1pm and 7pm)
  • 90/10 diet – most meals being whole foods and balanced, one meal in ~10 (let’s say twice a week) being a little YOLO
  • Re-introducing restricted fruit and dairy
  • Increasing carbohydrate intake for endurance training

Notes

[1] I was going to write a post about it, but tl;dr it wasn’t that great. Apparently really good stinky tofu should be crispy, hot, and gooey on the inside. This was not bad but not very good… ultimately I binned it, thinking if anything was going in my stomach, it was more hot fried chicken. I didn’t regret it.

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