If you’ve ever struggled with weight gain and can’t seem to lose fat no matter what you do, this post is for you. I’ve been there.

Chris at 47 in the photo on the left and nearly 40 pounds heavier that at 50 in the photo on the right.
Me at 47 in the left photo and two years later in the April photo about to turn 50. Susan is 48 in the April photo.

While I’m probably in my best shape ever, having recently turned 50, there have been several periods in my life where I’ve carried 40 pounds of extra weight, all of it fat.

I didn’t start out with extra fat. I grew up lean and stayed that way well into my early 30s. But then I married my wife, Susan, an elite fitness professional who trains group exercise instructors and has filmed fitness DVDs. She also teaches/presents on stage under bright lights at fitness conferences and events, sometimes in front of almost a thousand instructors at a time. Soon after Susan and I were married, my weight troubles began.

Confused? Maybe you think it would be easier to stay lean if you are with someone whose life revolves around fitness? Not the case for me. And it took a lot of reasoning and research to discover the problem.

Susan Laney teaching BodyFlow
Susan presenting at a Les Mills quarterly where fitness instructors attend to upskill

For a long while when I carried that excess fat, I blamed it on the fact Susan worked out for a living and I didn’t. I made the excuse it was too hard for me to get to the gym, that while I was trapped at a desk most of the day, she was burning a tremendous number of calories doing her job. I was especially discouraged given I’d had a decent physique most of my life to that point, having built solid muscle and abs from the diving workouts on my university swim team, then a stint in the military on a naval destroyer where I lifted weights during free time to get through long deployments.

It seems simple in hindsight, but once I discovered the true culprit behind my weight gain, it surprised me.

Here’s the reason:

I gained a lot of fat because my eating habits changed after Susan and I married, meaning… I started eating like she did.

“Wait,” you say. “How can eating like your wife, who is lean, make you fat?”

Stay with me.

Before my wife and I began to share meals together at home, when I was much leaner, I’d always eaten lots of eggs, meat, and vegetables instead of bread, pasta, rice, and sugar. Friends had made fun of me most of my life because I’ve never especially liked pizza. When other kids were going ape over the simple mention of pizza, I cringed to think about it. All that pizza crust, especially the thick, doughy kind, made my stomach hurt. It made me lethargic. And I rarely ate desserts. I never saved room for desserts because my dinners usually consisted of the biggest, fattiest steaks I could buy. (Ribeye steaks were and still are my favorite and I eat them at least once a week, including much of the fat.) I also loved fatty pork chops and even the crispy skin on a roasted chicken. Most of the vegetables I ate were covered in real butter. That’s what made them taste good to me. Back then, I’d go through at least two sticks of butter a week using it to soak the vegetables I ate. For the most part, bread, pasta, rice, and sugar were not in my diet.

And guess what? I stayed lean and muscular eating like this. People told me it would catch up with me, especially with the large amounts of food I consumed. They told me my metabolism would slow down. Yet at 32, I was still very lean with no excess fat.

bread and pasta and past and bread
The weight gain culprit

Then I married Susan. I married a person who ate bread and/or pasta at most meals. She also liked sugary treats most nights after dinner. I started eating those things too. I ate those things because it was easy access. At night, coming home from work hungry, I ate whatever she had made for dinner, which had now morphed to less meat and vegetables and more bread, pasta, and sugar. I gained weight while Susan, who burned major calories for her job, stayed lean.

In four years of marriage, while Susan looked great given all the calorie burning from teaching several fitness classes a day, I gained 40 pounds, all fat.

Yet the lightbulb didn’t go off for me that it was my diet change, especially since Susan and I were eating the same things. For a while, I thought my metabolism had slowed, like people had warned.

On my birthday in June of 2003, age 36, we visited a local pool near my in-laws’ house. Trying to show off my collegiate diving skills, I launched off the high board. Extra weight makes you much less graceful in the air. Even though I know how to enter the water with minimal splash, a sign of a good dive, it’s near impossible to do when carrying 40 pounds of extra fat. When I got out of the pool, my fitness pro wife had a smirk on her face. “Never seen you make a splash that big before,” she said.

Christopher Laney at 220 and three months later at 180
Results using Body for Life, a good program but ultimately unsustainable for me because portion control is my kryptonite.

I knew then I needed to drop the weight. But how? I set off to find a plan that would work.

Internet research pulled up a program called Body for Life. I followed it and had good results, almost 40 pounds lost in three months. But it took tremendous effort because it exposed me to my particular kryptonite… portion control. I like to eat and I don’t do well limiting my portions. Even though I was able to drop the weight sticking to the plan for three months, it stretched the limit of my willpower. I knew I couldn’t sustain eating that way the rest of my life. And I didn’t. Over the next 4 years I was back near 220. Again, eating pasta, bread, and sugar like Susan, but not being able to burn the same number of calories a day as she did.

Being the life-hack person I am, I looked for other weight loss ideas, especially ones that didn’t include portion control. I found it in the slow-carb diet, popularized by Tim Ferriss in his book, The 4 Hour Body. I had read Tim’s first book, The 4-Hour Workweek and had used multiple techniques from it that helped me in business, so I gave it a try. I consider the slow-carb diet a paleo variation, but essentially, you can eat as much lean meat, vegetables, and legumes as you wanted. Avoid sugar, pasta, rice, bread, and potatoes, essentially, any white starch. You were also able to eat ghee, or clarified butter. Lots of eggs were on the menu as well.

No longer did I have to worry about portion control. I loved it. I started to get so lean, everyone wanted to know what I was doing. Soon, many of those people around me were doing the slow-carb diet with great results.

Cover of Gary Taube's Why We Get Fat and What to Do about IT
Excellent book that reveals why many in the U.S. have gain so much fat over the last few decades

My success with the slow-carb diet made me want to learn more about losing fat by eating more calories with healthy doses of fat. I found Gary Taube’s book, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, which I highly recommend. It confirmed much of what Tim Ferriss said about the slow-carb diet.

As I read Taube’s book, a thought flashed in my head:

This is the exact way I ate my whole life before meeting Susan, when I was lean and fit. Why that realization struck me reading Taube’s book, and not Ferriss’ book, I’m not one hundred percent sure. I do have a guess, however. Taube went into more history around the food pyramid our government had championed years ago. This pyramid recommended that grains make up the bulk of our eating even though it was never scientifically proven to be the best diet for humans. It had more to do with the media jumping on a doctor’s unsubstantiated claim that this way of eating was healthy and then convincing the U.S. population of it.

This was not good for the U.S. population, and I believe the reason so many people are walking around carrying excess fat.

Realizing that I had never eaten like the food pyramid recommendations when young and into my early 30s, and had never once had a weight issue to that point, crystalized my thinking on the subject. These days, anyone who asks what I eat to stay fit gets to hear all about the dangers of sugar, bread, and pasta. Some are sorry they ask, I’m sure, but others heed the advice and it pleases me to see them drop fat.

Protein sources including chicken, fish, steak, pork, eggs, and heavy cream
Eat more protein and eliminate the bread, sugar, pasta, and rice

While the science of why this works may be fascinating to some, I’m more interested in experimenting to see what works for me. Having had success with it, I believe our bodies are naturally supposed to burn fat as energy. When you consume fat from quality meat and healthy oils, but no sugar, bread, or pasta, the body becomes efficient at burning fat for its fuel. But eat the fat AND throw in sugar, pasta, and bread, which are quick, easy sources of energy, the body will draw from those simple carbs first instead of burning fat as fuel. Over time the body stops burning the fat and it lingers and expands. At least that’s my simple theory.

These days, I’ve found a variation of the slow-carb diet, which is a version of paleo. I found it because I had one more episode of weight gain due to an injury that put me into a bad eating spiral.

In 2014, I tore the lower bicep tendon of my right arm by doing something dumb: lifting a heavy object by myself, one that should have been handled by two people. Lesson learned was, even though you may be able to lift heavy objects in a gym, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful lifting something heavy outside it, especially when your muscles are not warm.

I had surgery to repair the tendon, and was told it would take eight to ten months to fully recover. But what no one knew was I had also partially ripped one of the top bicep tendons. After the first surgery and PT to get the bicep back to normal, I tore the top part the rest of the way and had to have a second surgery to repair the upper portion. I spent almost two years recovering from this.

The whole experience messed with my head. You would think, since I couldn’t work out normally, I would have been more adamant about not eating the bread, pasta, and sugar. Instead, I went the opposite way, thinking, maybe it was nature’s way of saying I needed a break. But my mistake was taking a break from the slow-carb diet. By the time I started working out in earnest at the gym again, I was back up in weight, around 217. But I know I could have avoided that had I kept to the slow-carb diet.

Christopher Laney doing low squats with barbell
A Primal Lifestyle Tenet: Life Heavy Things

By this time, when I needed to drop the weight after getting cleared to exercise, I wanted something more of a lifestyle way of eating versus a diet. Enter the primal lifestyle. Popularized (and perhaps created as well) by Mark Sissons at Mark’s Daily Apple, it’s a philosophy that combines eating and exercise recommendations based on what early humans did. Mark used to be a marathoner until he realized that chronic cardio is doing major damage to people versus promoting a healthy body.

These days, I’m following Mark’s philosophy. Plus, Mark seems to be a guy who does get jazzed about the science behind this way of eating, including ongoing analysis of his philosophies to the point he will sometimes reverse his thinking on a subject or at least let you know he’s reconsidering it. Here’s such an example on resistant starches. I like that about Mark.

While Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Body did cover some workout philosophies, my recollection is they were independent of the slow-carb diet, more about how to build large muscles with the least amount of work. He did convey you could have fantastic results on slow-carb even if you didn’t lift weights, which is true. Lose fat layers so you can better see muscle and almost any active person will probably look like he or she lifts weights.

But with Mark’s primal lifestyle, based on what activities early humans did daily, Mark offers a workout plan that I follow. It’s basically this: sprint once or twice a week, lift heavy things, walk a lot, and play. And Mark is constantly refining his eating recommendations, which include healthy doses of fat. I believe Mark knows what he speaks of because even though he is in his early 60s, you can see every ab on the guy.

As for Susan, she has adopted my way of eating over the last couple of years. The amount of high-intensity exercise classes she teaches has decreased. That meant she was burning fewer calories than before. As her calorie burning went down, she began to notice her fat percentage go up. Once she started eating like me, that fat increase disappeared. She still craves some breads and simple carbs sometimes. Unlike me, she does love pizza. But two days after the binge, she’ll complain she gained several pounds on the scale and she’s right back on the primal plan. However, her carb cravings are happening less and less.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a few more items. Both the Body for Life plan and the slow-carb diet include cheat days, one 24-hour period once a week where you can go crazy and eat as much as you want of anything you want. Cheat days helped me tremendously both times by giving me something to look forward to each weekend. They also help you stay on track because you feel like total crap after you eat all this bad stuff and you usually can’t wait to eat healthy the next day to feel better. Just make sure the cheat food is consumed only on one day, once a week, or you will stall your progress.

Another thing you need to know that may make you cringe, if you want to lose fat, is you must stop eating so much fruit. It’s high in sugar. Naturally forming sugar, yes, but it will still put fat on you. Before you get all indignant, know this… we were not meant to eat fruit year-round. In most climates, early humans didn’t have year-long access to fruit. They had to wait for it to ripen in the fall. Then they gorged themselves with it and guess what? All that fruit (sugar) put a nice layer of fat on them to get them through food scarcities during winter. You can get more than enough fruit for your body eating it one day a week on your cheat day. Trust me on this.

For those people on prescriptions to lower cholesterol or blood pressure or have some other types of health issues, whether known or unknown, I’ll give the standard caveat: consult your doctor before you make major changes to your diet and workout routine. Be aware however, there are people in the medical profession who dispense old advice while being behind the times on research. Do that research yourself to decide what’s right for you, while carefully considering what your doctor tells you. Just know many doctors will warn against saturated fats and how they may be one cause of heart attacks. I don’t buy that saturated fats are the root cause of heart attacks. I believe other things are causing them including stress (which can affect the best of us) as well as the incredible amount of sugar and simple carbs people eat, which can inflame the arteries.

At the end of the day you have to figure out what works for you. But if you are tired of going hungry while trying to lose fat, check out the primal lifestyle and make up your own mind. I’m a believer.

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