By Kevin Kolodziejski
Just before Christmas, a cyclist friend told me he weighed six pounds more than normal and 12 pounds more than the weight he likes to race at. Nothing odd about that.
Nor is there anything particularly odd about the fact he’ll probably go on “some weird and extreme temporary diet” to get his weight back to normal. Back in the day, I knew a few racing types who would fast, cleanse, or go keto around this time of year every year to shed some unwanted weight before ramping up their serious riding.
What is odd, though, is the “grossest” diet that ever worked for this guy: the Pickles and Spam diet. I didn’t know there was such a thing because in my secluded world there isn’t. Any information I could find about it comes from a tract I try not to visit. I call it the Land of Lethal Make-Believe. You call it as social media.
But now’s no time for me to rail about that popular way to create and share content and hoodwink and hurt people in the process. Instead, it’s time for a surprising dietary declaration.
I Have No Beef With Spam
I say surprising because I’ve been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for 44 years. While eating that way keeps me lean, allows me to lift and ride with intensity, and accelerates recovery from both, the reason I have no beef with Spam — except for the type that accumulates in my computer’s Inbox — is that if you do choose to obtain your protein from a modified-meat product in vacuum-sealed can, then Spam isn’t half bad. Even though its name is a portmanteau for spiced ham, it’s more pork than ham and only contains five other ingredients, none that are too terrible in moderation: salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrite.
Still, I’ll bellyache about the Pickles and Spam diet because it’s a bellyache — or the unpleasant feeling that precedes one — that caused my colleague’s quick weight loss. “[Eating pickles and Spam] makes you feel kind of sick if you eat enough to fill up for a meal,” he explained. So he didn’t and weight loss resulted.
But there’s a better way. No, not a better fad diet, just an obvious fact about all food. Keep this fact in mind year-round, apply it appropriately— even before you eat good-for-you foods in the summertime — and you’ll never again need to do any type of wintertime dieting to get back to a decent riding weight. The obvious fact: All food has some degree of energy density.
The Lowdown on Energy Density
Energy density refers to the calories present in a given amount of a food. Foods that contain fewer calories than grams per serving are said to have a low ED. A typical apple, for example, contains 81 calories and weighs 138 grams, so it qualifies. A typical slice of homemade apple pie, contains 411 calories and weighs 135 grams, so it doesn’t. In fact, the pie’s considered the opposite, a high-ED food, since it has more than twice the number of cals as grams.
With this single comparison, it’s evident how replacing high-ED foods with low-ED foods leads to weight loss. It’s the same end result I stumbled upon years ago before knowing about energy density.
The Division Done Before the Advent of the Internet
Years before I possessed that knowledge — and the advent of the internet — I was already using what’s truly the determining factor of a food’s ED to keep me lean for cycling and make an already good diet a bit better. All it required was a copy of Bowes & Church’s Food Values of Portions Commonly Used, a book that contains all the important the nutritional information for 6,300 common foods, and a 1980s solar calculator.
By dividing calories by grams for hundreds of fruits, grains, vegetables, and processed foods, I learned how to save calories while still receiving nutritional value. Later, when I became aware that nutritionists used the term energy density and the concept behind it to manage hunger and create weight loss, I realized I was already doing something similar. But by adding one more step — a simple math problem at that — the process became more precise.
Precise enough, for instance, that it gave me reason not to eat a vegetable combo I really like known as succotash and to eat more Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower.
While all four are really healthy for you, consulting aforementioned nutritional guide book and doing the aforementioned division reveals the combo of corn and lima beans has far more calories per gram than the other three. Or you now could go to MyFoodData.com to find that 100 grams of succotash contains 105 calories; Brussels sprouts, 43; broccoli, 34; and cauliflower, 25. In other words, you can eat four times as much cauliflower by weight than succotash for the same amount of calories.
Dr. Rolls Calls It Volumetrics
Research led by Dr. Barbara Rolls years ago shows eating your normal total volume of food while ingesting fewer calories doing so may be the best to lose weight — and the only way to eat more without gaining any. She called the concept Volumetrics and wrote a few books about how to incorporate it into your diet — one of which earned Consumer Reports top rating in 2007 when that watchdog group ranked the year’s most popular diet plans.
One of the studies Rolls led along with Julia A. Ello-Martin, PhD, and appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that same year had nearly 100 obese women eat either a low-fat diet or a low-fat diet fully incorporating the idea behind volumetrics, which is in essence a prescription to add more low-energy density food to a diet.
One year later, all 100 women had lost weight. Those on the low-fat diet that didn’t focus on consuming low-energy density foods lost on average 14 pounds. Those on the low-fat diet that did lost on average 2.5 pounds more.
While eating 25 percent more food by weight.
How’s that for weight loss — and hunger management?
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.