The 4-Hour Body: Decoded (Does It Even Work?)

This is a blog post about some self-experimentation I did to lose weight after reading Tim Ferriss’ blog post and book on losing 20 lbs in 30 days.

Before I say another word: please talk to a doctor or a nutritionist before you attempt to do/use any of what I am about to discuss. The following content really is just informational and if you do it wrong the effects could kill you (of course, it is also likely that nothing will happen). That would bother me. It would give me a feeling of power I might become addicted to. Kind of like Xander Berkeley feeding monsters in The Booth at the End.

Anyway, my goal for trying any diet (and I have been trying diets for decades) is to learn why the diet works, or not, and how to make weight maintenance more predictable (that is, other than the control thing that makes anorexia possible). That’s it. I just want to know. And after this diet I know more than I ever have and more makes sense than ever before.

The short version: the 4-Hour Body doesn’t really work.

The long version: the 4-Hour Body does work…but you need to pay attention to a few more numbers.

Not being a vegetarian I have no idea how to translate this into something useful to vegetarians.

The Short Version

Want to lose weight? Try this as per the 4-Hour Body:

  • Eat protein-rich food (cooked simply)
  • Eat vegetables
  • Eat legumes
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Don’t skip your cheat/binge day/meal

And I would add:

  • Take multi-vitamins
  • Take supplements to keep your electrolytes up
  • Don’t be afraid of fat (in moderation)

What the above translates into is a low-fat, low-carb, high-protein diet that looks like the Paleo diet, but isn’t (no fruits, for example). Also, the cheat day is a great motivator to get you through the week. Works for me; at least the cheat day keeps me from feeling guilting for eating an ice cream cone or 8 slides of french toast with bacon and juice once a week.

Why do I say that the 4-Hour Body doesn’t work? Because our bodies (damn them!) have this nasty habit of readjusting to our attempts at control. When we eat too much our bodies think things are great; things are so great that our bodies do what most Americans can’t: it saves. If our bodies were investors we would be rich. Unfortunately, what the body saves are calories in the form of fat…for a rainy day…or a famine.

The 4-Hour Body diet suffers the same fate as all diets: the dreaded plateau. You start eating, ignoring the quantity of proteins in your food and maybe not even drinking as much water as you should. And then your scale stops moving in the direction you were hoping for.

That is what I did for the first few months of the Ferriss diet (only I drank enough water and loaded up on protein) until I noticed the dreaded plateau was a constant obstacle.

The short version of the first solution: calorie count. Find out what your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is using one of the bazillion calculators on the web and do the above diet keeping track of calories. Until you hit the calorie counting plateau.

The short version of second solution: goose your metabolism by mildly spiking your calorie count every 2-3 days to let your body know that you are not starving.

I hope that was short enough.

The Longer Version

I, like so many others, need to understand something before I do it. Clear instructions help, but so do numbers. Numbers are compelling even if they are not that friendly. Science is also compelling even if not that friendly (Carl Sagan and Bill Nye notwithstanding). Without the numbers or the science we will never understand what we are looking at.

On top of that beginners need rules:

[B]eginners require simple, context-free rules in order to function in a new environment. They don’t want to see the big picture—it’s overwhelming, confusing, and (to them) irrelevant. Suppose you were giving a recipe to a novice cook. It’s not at all sufficient to say “cook until done,” because the novice has no experience to determine what “done” means. A novice needs to be told to cook it for thirty-five minutes at 350 degrees. No more, no less.

Cook Until Done by Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt

Most dieters are beginners. If they knew about nutrition and dieting they would simply be eating rather than wrestling with their bathroom scale. The appealing thing about the 4-Hour Body is the explicit nature of the rules. Do these few things and you will lose weight. Nothing more appealing than that.

I still consider myself a beginner, but after this experience I am now a little more educated. One of my factoids: the 4-Hour Body is not enough for most people. In fact, I am willing to go out on a limb and say: it is not enough for anyone, but there is always someone whose metabolism sings with a diet like this and thinks they have proved all the years of research wrong. In fact, what they have done is become the exception that proves the rule.

Want the 4-hour body formula to work? Do the above plus:

  • Eat just under your BMR
  • Eat more than 60g, but less than 230g, of proteins everyday

How much under your BMR? The Daily Caloric Intake calculator at freedieting.com says my normal caloric intake should be 1846 calories per day. If I want to lost weight I should bring it down to 1477 calories per day. If I really want to lose weight then I should eat 1200 calories per day. If I want to take into account plateuing then I should goose my metabolism twice a week (1440 calories and 1320 calories) to keep it burning calories.

Notice I did not say burn fat. Here’s a sad fact: your body loses weight proportional to your body. That means that if you are looking for this, or any other diet, to give you six-pack abs that is not happening without exercise. Sorry. When you lose weight it is always a combination of fat and muscle (more on that later). This is one of those places where the 4-Hour Body is just wrong.

So here are my results from following the 4-Hour Body diet for the first 3 or so months of 2011:
January: 2.5 lbs (lost, started the last week)
February: 2 lbs (lost)
March: 1.7 lbs (lost)
April: 3.5 lbs (gained!)
May: 1.9 lbs (gained again!)

Then I started counting calories:
June: 4.4 lbs (lost)

(I won’t embarrass myself with my August to November numbers as I has already gleaned the information I was looking for and was already underweight. This was an experiment after all. Yes, I gained weight…and lost it and I am still at my ideal weight or below.)

A few things to notice: I have not shown the giant weight loss that was originally touted by the 4-Hour Body; that is okay because losing 20 pounds in one month would be more than someone at my age/height/weight should lose (52, 5’10”, 155 lbs.). The goal of the experiment was to find a predictable way to lose weight and to understand why.

Before I burn the rest of this post on discussing food high in protein I want to get the other points out of the way:

  • I am purposely going to avoid discussing vegetables and legumes. There is so much research about the efficacy of eating vegetables and legumes that it is embarrassing to have to say you should include them in your diet. Does anyone believe that eating vegetables is bad for them?
  • Multi-vitamins: if you are eating right you probably don’t need multi-vitamins. I take one as I am pretty sure that the 4-Hour Body diet does not cover the vitamin and mineral spectrum needed every day(consuming enough potassium is extremely difficult!).
  • Electrolyte supplements: consuming all that protein means you are losing calcium, potassium and magnesium at an accelerated rate as your body naturally dehydrates. Consume more electrolytes using supplements, but be conscious of taking too much (especially calcium). Talk to a nutritionist.
  • Drink plenty of water: this needs an explanation? Aside from the obvious need for water in your system you can read about the build-up of ketones in your bloodstream due to burning fat calories instead of sugar calories. You need water, not just fluids, to clean the ketones out.
  • Cheat/binge day/meal: this is the most fun you can have without getting arrested. If you follow the 4-Hour Body diet then the cheat day is your ticket to happiness one day a week. I have found that whatever I gain on that day I lose within 1-2 days, but then I follow the calorie counting rather religiously so no surprise there.
  • Fat: you need fat! Don’t avoid it! Eat it in moderation. Guess what? If your food is really high in protein calories (greater than 70%) it is already low in fat calories. Even if my body was 10% body fat that would mean I have 15 lbs of fat and 10% is low. Your body needs fat; embrace it. Just watch your weight and the rest will take care of itself. And talk to a nutritionist.

Anyway, back to the first aspect of the diet: eating protein-rich food.

Protein-rich food

The 4-Hour Body diet is really all about the protein and eating more protein:

  • cuts back on appetite
  • suppresses sugar cravings
  • convinces your body to burn fat instead of sugar because there is none

On a diet like this you need to make sure you eat more proteins than you normally would. How much more? More than the daily average (which is about 60g), but less than the maximum (about 230g). Why more protein? Your body needs the extra protein; as you lose weight the best you can hope on average is to lose about 75% fat which means that the least muscle mass you will lose on average is 25% at any given time…and it is usually more (remember: this is without exercising. All of this information becomes quite different in the face of exercise).

What does it mean to eat foods that are high in protein? In order to calculate the number of calories that protein brings to the meal you need to take the number of grams of protein multiply it by four and divide by the number of calories. Any food over 50% protein is a winner (for me, anyway. I try for 70% or greater).

For example:
Solgar Unsweetened Vanilla Bean Protein Supplement has 20g of protein per scoop and a total of 90 calories. Based on the formula above this particular protein supplement has 88.89% of its calories from protein. Not a bad number at face value. However, as a supplement it is not as good as actually eating foods that are high in protein calories.
– Chicken has approximately 22g of proteins and 100 calories per 4 oz serving. That is: 88% of the calories in chicken are from protein. Also not bad…as long as you are not a vegetarian.
– Ahi tuna: protein: 28g, calories: 130 per 4 oz. serving. Percent of calories from protein: 86.15%
– Turkey: protein: 5g, calories: 29 per 1 oz. serving. Percent of calories from protein: 69%

The numbers above were found either on the nutritional information on the container or on various web sites .

So:

(grams of proteins) * 4) / total calories = percentage of protein calories

Yes, the Solgar Protein Supplement wins hands down as the highest protein source. Well, duh. It is a protein powder. What did you expect? Don’t drink it very often; in fact, only drink it if you absolutely have to so you don’t get used to skipping meals. Getting your protein from food is always going to be better for you. Frozen uncooked chicken has 88% protein calories! Only 0.89% less than the Solgar supplement.

Stick to real food as often as you can.

As long as I was over 100g of protein per day I was happy. At one point I made sure I was always consuming about 160g of protein per day on the off chance it made a weight loss difference. Apparently not. I found that consuming even 26g of protein still led to weight loss if I was also calorie counting which you need to do if you want to make this work in the short term. In the long term, calorie counting will suck the joy out of eating and diets like the Ferriss diet already do that in spades; that is not their fault. Going back to a simple form of eating means that you don’t get to enjoy the fruits of Western civilization (if you will pardon the expression): the ability to eat all sorts of bad food under the auspices of joining in the social activities that allow us to feel included in society. Not as catchy as “because it tastes good, but is bad for us”, but catches the idea that overeating is just as much a social event as anything else (“Hey! Who wants to go out for lunch?”).

And now the bad news about protein: eating more than average amounts of proteins for long periods of time can cause calcium loss (1). Perhaps supplements a/o exercise minimizes the risk. (Did I mention talking to your doctor a/o nutritionist?)

Alternatives

So here are some suggestions to keep the diet working in your favor. No matter which strategy you find yourself using always eat from the selection of food that Tim mentioned (proteins, vegetables and legumes).

  • Strategy #1 – Follow Tim’s dieting suggestions…until you plateau.
  • Strategy #2 – Start tracking your calories, and your protein intake and any other numbers that will make you comfortable (I also track potassium intake). Don’t skip your Cheat Day. Determine your BMR and consume the number of calories recommended by one of the caloric intake calculators…until you plateau.
  • Strategy #3 – Push up your proteins and stay within your calorie target (your BMR minus some number of calories). I consume about 80-160 grams of proteins a day. It is dangerous to consume more than about 230 grams of protein per day so I am well within the tolerance number. Don’t skip your Cheat Day. This strategy will work fine…until you plateau.
  • Strategy #4 – Bring your calories down to about 3/4 of what you normally consumer per day (that comes down to about 1200 calories per day for me). That is well below what you probably need to live, but the combination of healthy food, vitamins and supplements will make this possible. At 1200 calories per day and eating right you will lose weight. Your body will have no choice. Don’t skip your Cheat Day. This will also work…until you plateau.
  • Strategy #5 – Time for mini-spikes. At this point your body’s metabolism is working against you. In fact, the reason for plateauing at each level is your metabolism starts to slow down as you consume less food, so this is normal. How do you convince your body that it is not starving and that it can continue to lose weight by burning off as much fat as possible? Increase your caloric intake 2-3 days a week, but keep your weekly caloric total about the same. You should not plateau at this step.

Other ways to push up your metabolism:

  • Smoking (increases metabolism by 10-15%)
  • Alcohol (increases metabolism by 10-15%)
  • Exercise

While the first two may be fun, popular and easy they are something you want to do in moderation or not at all (i.e., smoking). While exercise is a sure fire way to increase your metabolism it is not as fun, popular or easy as the other two.

Personal Opinions That Doesn’t Matter

I have my cheat day on Saturdays. That means I have a mini-spike on Sunday and on Wednesday, otherwise I eat about 1250 calories every day. Yes, I want to lose enough fat to get me closer to 10% body fat rather than 15% body fat. But guess what? It is not working. The only way I am going to get to 10% body fat is to exercise. My body is below my body weight (by about 5 pounds) and dieting has allowed me to lose weight, which lowers my body fat percentage, but lowers my overall weight through the loss of muscle (what little I have). Since the point of a diet is to get to a normal body weight I really have nowhere to go unless I exercise.

So why did I do this? To debunk the 4-hour diet? Nah. I had been reading Tim Ferriss’ blog and the comments from various readers/participants who are trying/have tried the diet were driving me crazy. Everyone had varying degrees of success, but none really explained exactly what they were doing or why. It also bothered me that when push came to shove it really wasn’t working for me. What I wanted to do in this post is add more data points to the diet for those readers looking for more information to make the 4-Hour Body diet work for them.

What next?

Bear in mind that after a certain point you will have lost the weight you wanted and can return to a normal range of calories, but you can never go back to your old ways of eating. Maintenance is always going to be interesting, but as long as you eat right and watch your weight you should be fine. Personally I think maintenance is the next big headache: you can’t go back to the old way of eating because you will put the weight back on, but eating such a narrow range of food can be constraining for a lot of people. The days I am bored I just remember the Cheat Day. On the Cheat Day I look at the list of things I want to eat and hope I can afford them. Also, I do have the occasional cheat meal during the week because I know that it will have not lasting effect if 99% of what I eat is correct.

If you were looking for a straight answer to your diet woes I hope the above information helps. If you think that people who diet this obsessively are a little nuts you might be right, but eating the standard American diet is also nuts. Perhaps we can meet in the middle by following more of the recommendations coming out of Harvard.

The next challenge is exercise but I still haven’t found the time to do that. I am looking forward to consuming a few thousand calories a day to build muscle (who wouldn’t?)…if everything goes as it should (but when has it ever?).

What is your dieting goal? When will you know when you get there?

Footnotes (or something like them)

1. Harvard School of Public Health, The Nutrition Source, Calcium and Milk: What’s Best for Your Bones and Health

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, recruiter, psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist or anyone with professional credentials who might actually speak authoritatively on life, the universe or anything. I’ve just been around a while. The above is for informational purposes only. Make up your own damned mind.

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About cvalcarcel

Any and all opinions stated here do not reflect the thoughts, opinions or anything in any way shape or form of whoever my current employer happens to be at any given time. The opinions stated here probably don't even reflect my own opinions.
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One Response to The 4-Hour Body: Decoded (Does It Even Work?)

  1. Rachael says:

    Great post, thank you for sharing all of this information from your experience!

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