Damian Phillips received his doctorate in anthropological sciences at Stanford University in 2011. He went on to do postdoctorate research in ecology and natural resource management at the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, where he acted primarily as a statistician and mathematical modeler. Damian currently owns his own statistical and scientific consulting company, Phillips Research & Analytics, Inc.
I spent the better part of the last two years in Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. It was a place where winters were consistently around -40°F with 50 mph winds, and darkness prevailed. The remoteness meant that store-bought foods were flown in. A gallon of milk cost $10, and fresh produce options were typically limited to potatoes, carrots, and apples. Otherwise, frozen and canned foods dominated my diet. I am a 38 year-old male, and generally fairly active, but the sudden change in diet and a more sedentary lifestyle quickly manifested as an extra 25 pounds. I had anticipated a slow down of metabolism with age eventually, but this was far worse than I had expected. I needed to tackle the problem head-on before it got out of control.
I began exploring research and literature on diet and exercise to chart a path forward, but of course, there are countless theories, often contradictory. Carbs are the problem. Fat is bad. The right fats are good. Whole milk is better than skim milk. Paleo diets. Vegan diets. Raw food diets. All-melon diets and master cleanses.
They couldn’t all be right. Or, more precisely, they couldn’t all be right for me. And that’s what this article is about. Science is concerned with effects on the average human being, but works for the masses may not necessarily work for the individual. What matters to you should be “what works for you?”
I began experimenting, gathering data, and tracking my progress on different dietary regiments. I bought a good bathroom scale, a measuring tape, and a pair of body-fat calipers, and started recording daily measurements. Below, I present some of the data from two different dietary plans: first, a low-carb, meat-heavy (LCMH) diet, and second a low-carb vegetarian (LCV) diet. In the graphs, the blue points represent the results from the LCMH diet, and the red points the LCV diet. The lines smooth out the effects to show the general trends more clearly.
Both diets gave me desirable results. More importantly perhaps, just being able to see the steady progress day after day helped serve as an incentive to keep going. But I also discovered some important differences. While my body fat was decreasing for both diets at about the same rate, I wasn’t really losing weight on the LCMH diet. While my waist and hips were getting slimmer, my arms and legs actually got bigger. If the effect had been due to exercise, and muscle gain, this would be fine, but nothing had changed in my exercise patterns. Larger arms and legs meant fatter, not fitter, ones. In the case of the LCV diet, I lost fat in a much more evenly distributed manner, with arms and legs slimming as well as hips and waist.
“More importantly perhaps, just being able to see the steady progress day after day helped serve as an incentive to keep going.”