February 28, 2020
by Michael Carabash, BA, LLB, JD, MBA, CDPM
Why did I bother writing this?
I’m no health and fitness expert. I have no relevant degrees attached to my name. I offer you no studies or citations. I have no books, pills, shakes or exercise equipment to sell you. No YouTube channel for you to subscribe to. No seminars for you to attend. I’m not your guru. And I’m not trying to be.
Truth is, I’m paying it forward. And if, by happenstance, a lightbulb goes off in your mind by the time you finish reading this article and you decide to invest in your health and fitness as a result, well then – mission accomplished.
Over the past few months, my lifestyle (and hopefully lifespan) has drastically improved because of what some dentists have shared with me – namely, 8 Health and Fitness Ideas.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, a caveat: this is my story. What worked for me may not for you. Men are physiologically different than women. Family health history, medication, stress levels, sleep, and what we consume all have an impact on our bodies and minds. Take what I write with a grain of salt. Please talk to your doctor first before embarking on your own health and fitness journey.
With that said, let’s go back six months. At 5’ 11”, I weighed 233 lbs and barely squeezed into size 40” pants. No abs were visible. I needed eight hours of sleep and multiple coffees to keep me going throughout the day. Was I happy with my physical appearance? It was acceptable. I’ve always been a big guy and I told myself that some people are just naturally slim and that I was not one of them. Plus, Parastou (my wife) never complained.
Fast forward to today. I’m 183 lbs and proudly wearing size 34” pants. I feel full and energized all the time. I get through the day with just six hours of sleep and two cups of coffee. And it all came about because of these 8 health and fitness ideas that dentists gave me.
Gifts #1 & #2: Food and Fasting
I’ve been working out since I was 16 years old but I’ve always had some kind of gut. Abs, however, are not made in the gym: they’re made in the kitchen! And that’s where I was doing everything wrong. My entire perception of food was wrong.
• I ate because I thought I needed energy. But as it turns out, I have a lot of energy reserves (stored up fat) and I’m never tired nowadays, even though I eat a lot less than before.
• I ate because I was regimented to eat at certain times throughout the day (early morning, lunch, late dinner). But I discovered that there are so many amazing benefits to eating within certain timeframes or not at all for extended periods of time (24-48 hours).
• I ate without giving much thought to what I was putting in my mouth. Isn’t it funny (or sad) that there’s no recommended daily intake of sugar listed anywhere?
• I ate without counting calories. But it’s quite astonishing how certain foods and beverages in relatively small quantities can quickly add up to thousands of calories (one slice of pizza could easily have 300-400 calories; I used to eat six to eight slices in a single sitting).
And to top it all off, I was an emotional eater. If I had a good day, I was going to reward myself with a steak and a few glasses of red wine. If I was having an off day, I would punish my body with comfort food to make me feel better – like spicy chicken wings, ribs, pizza, or a burrito. You get the idea.
Enter Dr. Ming Yau (general practitioner, Etobicoke). When I was helping him sell his dental practice last summer, he told me that my organs have a certain lifespan (i.e. 100 years) and that I should give them a break by trying intermittent fasting. Gift #1: The idea, for example, is for me to eat all my meals during a six or eight-hour window (i.e. 12:00 p.m. noon until 6:00 p.m.). Then, give my organs a chance to recover, perform better, and last longer.
But he kept going. Dr. Yau suggested I use healthy and high-quality fat as my energy source instead of sugar. Using this method, my body would convert existing stored fat into energy whenever it’s hungry. In other words, Gift #2: The keto diet.
Keto is about putting the body into a state of ketosis by depriving it of starchy and sugary carbs so that it has no choice but to burn what we give it (a.k.a. external healthy fats) and internal visceral fat as its energy source. Keto friendly foods include grassfed meat, eggs, avocado, nuts, certain hard cheeses, high-fat cream and plain yogurt, various high-quality vegetable oils, fatty wild fish, etc. Keto also includes eating above-ground veggies to get nutrients and fibre. Think leafy greens, cucumber, asparagus, brussels sprouts, broccoli, mushrooms, etc. And minimal fruits and alcohol because of the high sugar content.
I thought it all made sense. Plus, the prospect of eating more fat was intriguing. It’s delicious and a relatively small amount makes me feel full all day long. Dr. Jason Gomes (general practitioner, Barrie) told me that in the morning he puts MCT (mediumchain triglycerides) oil in his black coffee and tops it off with high fat/low-sugar whipped cream. By the way, Dr. Gomes’ lost a whopping 32 lbs in three months doing intermittent fasting and Keto – and he wasn’t even that big to begin with!
My diet basically changed from high protein/ high carbs/very low fat to high fat/medium protein/ very low carbs. Fun? Yes. Sustainable? Absolutely. Do I crave carbs and sugar? Not one bit. Do I cheat? Abs-so-lutely (more on that below).
Do I have endless amounts of energy throughout the entire day? YES! How’s the sleep been? Strange. I have way too much energy – why won’t the day start already? No more needing to catch up on sleep. And when I talked to Dr. Gomes, he felt the exact same way.
Gifts #3 & #4: Counting Calories and Tech
A few months into my health and fitness journey, I stopped losing weight and hit my first plateau. Fasting and keto alone weren’t working. Yes, I felt great but I really needed to start eliminating internal visceral fat. I was missing something. After talking to Dr. James Vassallo (retired general practitioner, Mississauga), I discovered the benefits of Gift #3: Calorie counting.
I learned that I needed to burn 3,500 more calories than I consumed to lose 1 lb of solid fat. With that little bit of knowledge, I set my daily caloric intake to 1,500 calories and I burned 1,000 calories working out (2 x 30-minute workouts per day was my typical routine) and stayed active walking or taking the stairs throughout the day to burn another 2,000-2,500 calories. The math resulted in a daily average deficit of 1,750 calories, or roughly 0.5 lbs of fat loss per day for as long as my body could handle it before hitting the next plateau.
But how exactly was I going to track calories in and out? Enter Gift #4: Technology.
Because of Dr. Vassallo’s advice, I started using a polar heart rate monitor to measure the calories I burned during my workouts. At the same time, I subscribed to My Fitness Pal, a popular mobile phone app that allows me to track my caloric intake, as well as my weight and water intake. I particularly like the bar-code scanner on the app, which instantly gives me all the nutritional information of virtually everything I can put in my mouth. It makes inputting calories super easy and, dare I say, addictive. I wouldn’t have had much of an idea of my caloric intake without this app.
What I learned the most from using technology is that it takes me a long time to burn just 100 calories, but it doesn’t take much food to get to 1,500 calories. A handful of nuts or a single avocado could easily be 300 calories if I’m not paying attention.
Given how hard and long I was exercising and dieting, I didn’t want to make life harder on myself. I substituted certain higher calorie keto-friendly foods like cheese, bacon and steak, with lower calorie ketofriendly foods like egg whites, almonds, and veggies. I also started putting hot sauce on everything because spicy food is low-calorie and helps speed up your metabolism (as does being in lower temperature environments). And don’t forget about water. I was drinking about three litres per day and it certainly helped with weight loss and internal regulation.
Now that I was counting calories using technology, I was able to blow past various plateaus.
Gift #5: Hacking Habits
We all know what happens with fad “Yo-Yo” diets, right? You lose a lot in a short period of time (you’re down). Then you eventually gain it all back (you’re back up again). And the cycle repeats. It’s inevitable right? Why? Because we’re creatures of (bad) habit.
The good news is that after speaking with uberfit and health conscious Dr. Sanjukta Mohanta (WellFort Community Health Centre), I’m now more aware of Gift #5: How to hack my habits so that I am able control them and not the other way around.
Case in point, Dr. Mohanta cheats on her diet all the time. But she doesn’t think she’s cheating because she does it in a very controlled way. “I don’t deprive myself of anything. I do whatever feels good. If I happen to want a chocolate chip cookie, I’ll eat it but I don’t have to finish it. I just need half of it to get the sweet taste that I crave.” We’ve all heard of portion control but this is that to the next level – Dr. Mohanta doesn’t have cheat days or cheat meals; she has cheat mouthfuls! The fact that she feels no guilt or pressure about not finishing is simply mind-boggling; it defies the conventional wisdom of needing to finish what’s in your fridge/freezer or what’s on the table or your plate (thanks to my parents). Food is here for us; not the other way around.
So, I took Dr. Mohanta’s advice. I don’t deprive myself of anything. I’ll simply just do it in a controlled way. If I want pizza, I’ll take a sharp knife and cut off and eat the top portion of cheese, sauce and toppings – that’s the best part anyways, right? Or if I want a hamburger, I’ll put the meat in a lettuce wrap and put mayo, tomatoes and pickles on top. And because I’m counting calories (Gift #3), I’m still staying within my daily caloric limit. If I happen to go over, I’ll just have to modify something that day or the next day (i.e. exercise more, fast longer, consume less calories, etc.).
I’m cheating – but in control! No deprivation. No fad “Yo-Yo” diet. This is a lifestyle.
With that being said, and perhaps because of the keto diet, I actually do not have cravings for unhealthy food or alcohol. It’s quite the opposite. If I do consume those things, my body will punish me with excess bloating, dehydration, lack of focus and grogginess (there goes my productivity at work or performance while exercising). These are things that I unconsciously accepted before, but which I do not consciously accept now. There’s a trade-off because I’m paying attention to how my body reacts to certain things. And I’d rather feel and look good long-term than try to temporarily satisfy an imaginary craving.
Now, if that weren’t enough, Dr. Mohanta goes on to explain how she erects barriers to mitigate bad habits. At the grocery store, she will purposefully not walk through the “sugar and salt” aisles. But if she does end up getting unhealthy snacks, she’ll simply hide them at home or place them high up on the shelves outside of her immediate reach (so she’ll have to take an extra step to think about where they are and how to get at them). Meanwhile, she’ll put healthy snacks front and centre on the kitchen table so they’re accessible without too much thinking (a.k.a. remove barriers and automate good habits).
Finally, and I stumbled on this accidentally, I’ve learned to successfully trick my body into thinking that I’m cheating when I’m actually not. That basically comes down to enjoying things I previously wasn’t interested in. For example, I now love – yes, I wrote “love” – making this beef bone broth without any salt. I’ve been doing it once a week for the past few months. It may seem strange and bland to many of you (like something your mom would make back in the day if you weren’t feeling well), and up until recently I never gave it any thought. But I’m addicted to it now. Eating the bone marrow inside is a special treat for me (something my dad and older brothers and I would fight over years ago when my mom made Ossobuco).
Besides that, if my sweet tooth starts to act up, I’ll grab a couple of Goli’s Apple Cider Vinegar Gummies (loaded with nutritional benefits and low sugar) or have a Vega Sport Protein Shake (high protein; low calories/carbs/sugar) or even have some 90% dark chocolate (containing very little sugar). These are all healthy snack and meal choices but I’ve tricked my mind and body into thinking I’m cheating by having dessert! I’m not the only one who does this. When Dr. Gomes wants to cheat, he’ll have some low-sugar peanut butter with some low sugar whipped cream on top. “It’s like my special little dessert and it keeps me satiated and happy, even though it’s keto friendly and healthy.”
Gift #6: Exercise
I’ve been talking a lot about diet, fasting and hacking habits. But what role did exercise play in my journey? It helped me burn more calories than I consumed so that I could lose the weight and eventually control it.
There are so many other benefits to exercising, including de-stressing, reducing risk of disease, strengthening muscles and bones, increasing energy levels, regulating various internal systems (insulin, growth hormones, sleep, etc.), reducing pain and improving mental health.
Now, let’s get down to it. Walks or runs? Cardio or weights? Yoga or sports? High interval intensity training? What I learned from Dr. Yau and Dr. Mohanta is to simply stay active and change it up regularly. It helps prevent boredom and injury, and shocks the body so it never gets used to the same routine.
Finally, I make sure to track my caloric burn and heart rate on my polar heart rate monitor. I aim for a heart rate of around 75% of my maximum heart rate to achieve maximum fat burning; a higher heart rate means I’m burning sugar, which makes me feel like I need to replenish my sugar levels after I’m done.
Gift #7: Hacking Sleep
During my law firm’s annual dental outreach program in Grenada last summer, I noticed that Dr. Yau (my roommate) was wearing a funny-looking ring to bed. Turns out, it’s called an Oura Ring. He spoke so highly of it but my gut reaction was, “Why on God’s green earth would I spend $400 and wait a few months to get a sleep ring made in Finland to tell me how good my sleep was? Couldn’t I just wake up and figure that out myself and save myself a couple of bucks?” But he talked me into it. Looking back, it’s been so worth it. Unlike any other smart phone or smart device, the Oura Ring uses a combination of Infrared LEDs, NTC body temperature sensors and a 3D accelerometer and gyroscope to give you amazingly accurate insights into:
• total sleep time broken down by time awake, light sleep and deep sleep;
• sleep efficiency (percentage of time you actually spend asleep after going to bed);
• rapid eye movement (associated with dreaming, memory, learning and creativity);
• optimal sleep timing (whether you’re going to bed when you should be); • sleep latency (how long it takes you to fall asleep);
• restfulness (whether your sleep was disturbed, resulting in lowered daytime cognitive performance); and
• resting heart rate throughout your sleep.
Each morning when I wake up, my Oura Ring app gives me a final score after analyzing all of my sleep data. It tells me whether I’m fully prepared for peak physical performance that day or if I should just take it easy. My top daily score thus far has been 89/100 and I know all of the reasons why. I exercised early that day, fasted, meditated, ate clean and didn’t watch Netflix or stay up on my phone reading e-mails. I can repeat the process to get another amazing score to have optimal performance throughout the day.
Gift #8: Measuring Progress
If I can’t measure it, I can’t manage it. So, I measure everything. My weight in the morning. My calories in and out throughout the day. My pant waist size. My visual appearance in the mirror. And then I record it all in My Fitness Pal app (weight, photos). I can see how far I’ve come. Am I obsessed? Yes. But I think it’s a healthy obsession; there are plenty of unhealthy ones out there. Measuring everything has quickly become part of my daily routine. Once again, I hacked my habits to automate the good ones.
When I look back and see that I was carrying around extra weight, it makes me realize how lucky I am. The rewards I now receive on a daily basis encourage me to keep going. Rewards like being fully energized and sufficiently full, receiving compliments on my physical transformation, reflecting on before and after pictures, burning 500 or 1,000 calories a day while exercising and tracking, and getting a great sleep score. This is instant gratification.
Eight simple ideas and a willingness to try. That’s what it took for me to lose 50 lbs in six months; to become the healthiest and fit version of myself thus far. I am forever grateful to those dentists who I’ve mentioned above for their knowledge and support. I still have more work to do, as we’re always working on improving ourselves. When I look back, I get angry. Why did it take me this long to figure out? The answer? Too many distractions along the way and bad information. Too many disingenuous people and companies that just wanted to sell me unhealthy ideas and products.
But that is not the case anymore. I have finally figured out how to hack my body and unlock its secrets. My body has no choice now but to comply. To lose the weight. To keep it off. To make me feel great. I am free from the chains of old habits. I have shattered life-long assumptions. And I hope that, by sharing my personal story, it helps inspire you to look inwards so that you too can become the healthiest version of yourself. And when you’ve achieved your goal(s) of looking and feeling your best, YOU can then pay it forward in your own way.
About the Author
Michael Carabash, BA, LLB, JD, MBA, CDPM is a founding partner of DMC LLP, Canada’s largest dental-only law firm that helps dentists sell and buy practices in Ontario and now B.C. Michael leads DMC’s annual Caribbean dental mission trips (Grenada, Jamaica and Turks & Caicos). Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 647.680.9530.
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