Readers who follow me are aware that I’m a big fan of Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Work Week. This book has completely changed my life and, in some ways, yours too, as if it didn’t exist you wouldn’t be here to read this column ;). Two years after the successful publication of his first book, Tim Ferriss published The 4-Hour Body, translated into French with the title (which isn’t too bad) of “4 heures par semaine pour un corps d’enfer”. A book all about the body and all the best ways to keep it in the best condition possible, in all departments, without no need to spend lots of time on it.
The 4-Hour Body, which like his first book, is a bestseller, and a controversial one at that.
As I am known to be a huge fan of Tim Ferriss, over the years, numerous readers have asked me, by email or when I met them at events, why I hadn’t reviewed The 4- Hour Body, as previously I had reviewed The 4-Hour Work Week, or if I had even read it.
My response to them for quite a while was that I bought The 4-Hour Body book in two versions as soon as it was published – the paper version and the digital version – because Tim Ferriss made such a difference in my life that I feel indebted to him and I had helped him with many of his projects, even some of the smaller ones.
But that I hadn’t read it because the subject didn’t really hold much interest for me, and that I had previously spent time to study the subject of the body and health – for example with the books A Fantastic Voyage and Anticancer – and to use this new knowledge (find the summary here: 10 things to do every day to live a long and healthy life).
But I kept The 4-Hour Body on the back burner, with the intention to give it a shot one of these days.
While I was in Paris for 3 months in 2012, I talked to a famous blogger who asked me the same question and told me that he had read the book, but in his opinion “it’s still full of crap”.
I have been told the same thing about The 4-Hour Work Week, and the people who tell me this are generally people who haven’t tried the things that Tim Ferriss proposes, and who therefore have a preconceived opinion, even though they haven’t even put the theories to the test.
Tim Ferriss is human so, like all of us, he sometimes gets things wrong. No doubt quite often. And at times he exaggerates. But I also think he’s very intelligent, and he has a certain thought process, a mental model, an operation system for his brain, if you like, that is highly effective and based on proven and relatively universal principles.
Basically, I think that not only is he smart, but his head is screwed on too, which gives him a definite advantage in life, and that people can use part of this thought process to help themselves achieve some of these benefits.
It was this discussion that prompted me to browse through the book to find an appropriate experiment to test Tim’s hypotheses on myself.
I quickly read a few sections of the book The 4-Hour Body and soon discovered just what I was after.
An experiment that would be easy to carry out and was also of interest for me.
Although I’m generally conscious of what I eat, I had noticed that in the past year I had started to put on weight, mainly because I love to eat out and enjoy this more than when I eat at home (in fact, when at home I eat really healthy food… I’ll tell you about my breakfast later).
I had gained 3.5 kilos in one year, and my weight was about 73.5 Kg, or 3.5 kg more than what is my idéal weight, if you apply the standard BMI (Body Mass Index) formula, given my height of 1m80.
Ideal weight and others based on size, by the BMI formula. Image credit: Wikipedia.
It’s by no means perfect and a highly questionable formula, and 3.5 kg more than your ideal weight alone cannot justify the need to diet, especially since if you work out for a while, you can easily gain 4 kilos of muscle and very little fat.
Weight measurement methods are fairly flawed because they only give you one value, but do not give you the distribution of your mass in relation to what is most important: muscle and fat.
Impedance meters seek to solve this problem as they measure your fat content. To do this, they send a weak electrical current to one of your feet and measure the electrical current that returns to the other foot. Then, as with radar, an algorithm calculates the difference between the current sent and the current returned in order to determine the relevant number … namely your fat level.
This process is not perfect because it is very sensitive to your levels of hydration and to everything in your body at that moment… So if you use these scales, the minimum advice I would offer, so as to avoid skewed results, is to weigh yourself in the morning when you wake up once you have been to the bathroom.
Because, as you can imagine, 74kg with 25% fat content bears no relation to 74kg and 10% fat content…
I’ve used the Withings impedance meter balance for years. Not only does it measure your weight and fat content, but it also automatically sends the results online to your Withings account, which then stores them for easy trend analysis (their new model also measures heart rate and air quality).
Here’s my chart, which includes my extra 4 kilos over the last 13 months:
My weight chart (rising) from January 2012 to February 2013
The fat measurements were too inconsistent to be meaningful, but I still felt I had a little too much fat. Nothing very serious, but let’s just say that I had a bit of a beer gut, as we say in the Ch’Nord region, and that I was conscious of the fact that I enjoyed the restaurants a little too much and a little too often.
In any case, the chart was clearly on the rise, and showed no sign that it was about to stop its meteoric ascent…
So I decided to put weight loss diet, suggested by Tim Ferriss, to the test for 4 weeks.
The guidelines are extremely simple:
- Don’t eat any white food (white carbohydrates), namely any food that is made from wheat and cereals (which include bread, pasta of any kind, anything from milk, etc.), as well as potatoes, rice (even brown rice).
- Notable exceptions: egg white, cauliflower, white meats and fish.
- Eat the same dishes over and over again.
- Do not drink calories. So no sodas or lemonades. Alcohol is tolerated but not recommended, apart from one or two glasses of red wine per day.
- Above all, avoid beer and sweet alcohol (white wine, champagne, etc.), the author tells us.
- Do not eat any fruit (choose vegetables instead).
- The most enjoyable rule of all: every week, you are entitled to one day where you eat whatever you want and as much as you want, with no limits! In fact, it’s pretty much a prerequisite because the author believes it helps you to achieve your goals whilst on the diet and then that means that you won’t just ditch this healthy and enjoyable routine once you’re done.
That’s it. No limits on the quantity.
So, you can see, the guidelines are straightforward. Was it easy for me to follow this diet? We will find out below…
The day-to-day experiment
This experiment was my first diet because I had never felt the need to do so before.
The hardest thing for most people, in relation to the guidelines suggested by Tim Ferriss, is to change breakfast. The traditional Western breakfast, with its bread, pastries, sugars (jam, Nutella, orange juice, etc.) and cereals, is completely incompatible with The 4-Hour Body’s carbohydrate-free diet.
Yet, for cultural and psychological reasons, which I find hard to fathom, it is the most difficult meal of the day for most people to change.
Luckily, for years now I have had vegetables for breakfast (usually on an alternate basis with broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower), with a 1-2 egg omelet and dried fruit (hazelnuts, nuts, etc.), mixed with vegetable juice and food supplements. So no need for changes there.
The most difficult thing for me to do was to not eat bread in restaurants.
Bread is my guilty pleasure, I’m addicted to it and I simply could not resist the temptation to eat it once I had been introduced to the routine when in restaurants (which in France is almost always the case).
When I say difficult… you didn’t actually have to glue me to my seat to stop me. The easy way, rather than to resist the temptation, is to avoid it: I simply asked the people I ate with if they wanted bread, and if the answer was no, I asked the waiter to take it back, which occasionally resulted in puzzled questions such as “are you sure?”. Bread is truly a part of our culture in our beautiful country!
I was also hooked on Japanese restaurants, so I had to adapt, given the ban on rice, it meant that sushi and maki were off-limits to me. This forced me to explore other options, and meant that I ate sashimi more frequently instead.
As for fruit, I no longer ate it, and ate more vegetables instead. Sometimes I snacked between meals, but, generally, it was dried fruit like almonds, cashews, etc. I have eaten a lot of vegetables instead. (unsalted).
These are really the only “difficulties” I’ve had… if you can call them difficulties. In fact this diet was extremely easy for me to follow because it wasn’t particularly different from what I usually ate.
I even found it enjoyable, as it forced me to try dishes that I hadn’t thought of before and to get out of my “food comfort zone”.
I did not consciously follow rule #2. As the author points out, most people just grimace when they see that they have to restrict what they eat, but most people tend to overestimate the range of foods they eat. Most of us eat the same food, repeatedly.
I thought this applied to me, so my intention was to immediately apply rule #2.
My alcohol consumption is still the same, I generally drink one glass of red wine a day, and a few beers on the odd occasion (I live in the North and enjoy the good Belgian beers).
As for the “cheating day”, it’s awesome! Seneca said that you appreciate a glass of water when you’re thirsty more than the best wine, and I can tell you that he’s right! Deprived of bread, rice or makis all week made me really appreciate it when I ate them, considerably more than before the diet.
So, that’s great, but what were the results? Here they are.
The results once I had completed The 4-Hour Body
This was my weight gain over the 13 months:
And these are the results from my 30-day experiment, from March 5 to April 5, 2013:
To put things in perspective, here is the weight gain and loss curve:
As you can see, it produced great results. I lost almost 4 kilos in those 30 days; and I didn’t really feel like I deprived myself of anything at all. I didn’t modify how much exercise I did either, compared to usual.
But then again, pounds aren’t everything. Tim Ferriss gives a precise method in his book in order to measure his fat level, the use of a simple tape measure. On one of my trips to the United States I also took the opportunity to buy an advanced ultrasound scanner, which supposedly measures fat levels much more accurately than impedance meters (yes, I’m very serious when I do an experiment!).
Here are the results:
It didn’t occur to me to take these measurements at the start, but Withings’ figures indicate that I started the experiment at a weight of 72.6 Kg.
How to read the figures: the “MG Rate” is the percentage of fat. You can see that it went from 17.5% to 14.4% in 3 weeks; which is a loss of 3.1%, not bad!
Then the measurements for the arms, waist, hips and legs are the circumference for each, in centimetres. We can see that the circumference of the arms, hips and legs have decreased slightly (except for the right leg, which may be a measurement error), and it’s the waist measurement that has gone down the most, with a decrease of almost 6 centimetres! Which makes sense, as fat is mainly stored in the “small beer belly” in men…
The numbers speak for themselves once again.
And after the diet?
Lots of people have correctly pointed out to me that it’s easy to lose weight on a diet; but it’s when we return to our normal diet that things go wrong.
So what did I do after the 30-day experiment? In fact, I found the diet so easy to stick to that I simply made it part of my lifestyle. I continued to follow it after the 30 days, albeit in a looser way; because I incorporated many of the routines directly into everyday life.
For example: It’s rare for me to eat bread now; and I’m much more conscious to avoid rice and pasta made from wheat or other cereals. And that seems to do the trick, look at my weight chart since I stopped the experiment:
After it soon rose from 69 to 70; my weight remained more or less stable at around 70 kg for 3 months; whereas before it had risen steadily for 12 months.
However, there is a slight upward trend that I need to keep an eye on!
What about health?
To lose weight is a good thing, but to stay healthy, especially in the long term, is better. To really know the results of this diet; I should have had a blood test before and after, which I didn’t do.
However, when I when to America in June, I took the opportunity to have a complete check-up at Wellness FX. Wellness FX is an American start-up that claims to be the “Google Analytics of your body”; from whom you can order a wide range of blood tests; from the classic “general check-up” to a complete “health + performance” profile.
Next, you go to one of the thousands of partner labs in the USA, which takes your blood sample and sends the results to Wellness FX, who will show you all the details in the form of beautiful graphs, where everything that is healthy is displayed in green, things that are not so-good in red, and intermediate results in orange, with advice on how to improve the not so-good results.
The results of the test on June 27th, roughly 2; and a half months after the official end of my experiment; but with my newly acquired systems still in place, were very good.
All the indicators were in the green, apart from three:
- The level of Apo B particles in LDL (“bad” cholesterol); is high: 83 mg/dL whereas a healthy level is less than 60.
- The level of DHEA-S is high: 484.9 μg/dL whereas a healthy level is 160-450.
- T-Uptake thyroid hormone level is borderline healthy: 36% while healthy level is 24-36%.
This is the first time I have had these metrics analyzed; so it is impossible to compare them with any other previous results. I need to discuss this with my doctor, but these levels seem harmless enough on their own; and are probably not related to this diet.
The other 85 (!) measurements are all in the green, which is logical since my diet is a pretty balance one: I eat a lot of vegetables, fish and white meat, and very little red meat. The latter is not necessary for this diet, it’s just a healthy habit I’ve developed (see the column in A Fantastic Voyage).
Will it work for you?
So this plan worked out really well in my case; was extremely easy to stick to, as well as enjoyable to use.
Now, I wasn’t particularly fat, just slightly overweight, so I understand that it may not be so easy for everybody. Additionally, this diet requires a significant change to the typical Western breakfast; though personally this didn’t mean too many changes as I had already done that; but it can be a difficult challenge for others.
So will this work for you? I have no idea. Maybe it will, or maybe it won’t. There’s only one way to find out.
Anyway, if you are overweight and want to try it, there’ s nothing to stop you; just take your measurements (weight, fat content if you can; circumference of your legs, arms, hips and waist) and go for it!
The book The 4-Hour Body is crammed full of fun and worthwhile experiments to try out. The next one I will try is the “Occam protocol”.
It requires you, with a minimal amount of exercise (5 minutes every other day, then every 3 days); to build (potentially stronger) muscle mass, with some food supplements included; and to drink milk every day (which I haven’t done for years).
My aim is to try it out when I know I will have at least one month in Lille; and make sure that I have no plans to travel in that time; after which I might give you an update on how it went.
In any case I hope that I have managed to get my main point across; every time you read good books; you’ll read theories or proposals that seem crazy, that sound like bullshit to you. Some may be correct and some may not work. Or one thing can work for some people but may not work for you. Or vice versa.
The only way for you to be sure is to test it for yourself.
As Tim Ferriss said early on in The 4-Hour Body; “Don’t use scepticism as an excuse for inaction or to stay in your comfort zone. Be sceptical, but for the right reason; because you are looking for the most promising option to test in real life”.
Embrace this principle, and it will differentiate you from those who offer opinions but don’t bother to verify their accuracy.
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