I Transformed my Body and Regained my Health, Quit Politics and Became a Precision Nutrition Coach
Here Are Some of the Most Important Things I Learned Along the Way
For my entire adult life, I’ve spent most of my waking hours trying to make the world a better place through organizing and politics. I have run campaigns and organizing drives, worked with an incredible set of comrades, and I’ve learned first hand that David often could beat Goliath. For most of my life, I worked 16 hours a day and many weekends because I simply didn’t know any other way to do a thing that mattered. The work was powerful and meaningful but not without cost. By the time I was nearing my 39th birthday, my back, knees and ankles hurt constantly. I was tired all the time, and I required antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, two types of ADHD medication and literally gallons of Coke Zero and Redbull daily just to function. I was pre-diabetic, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, and I tipped the scales at just over 300 lbs (and 49.8% of that weight was body fat). I could barely touch my knees, became out of breath after just a short walk, and almost had a breakdown when part of accepting an award required a photoshoot. I hated the way I looked; I hated the way I felt; and honestly I hated myself.
I started by immersing myself in the data, and much of what I initially found was depressing. The overall (mixed messages) I heard from most sources in conventional medicine was something along the lines of: ‘death is imminent and you must change drastically’ along with ‘minimal change is possible, lower your expectations and get ready for a lifetime of continuing chronic health problems.’ I decided to take what I had learned from decades of designing and executing winning campaigns against long odds and apply it to something I knew absolutely nothing about: my health. I could not have anticipated what would happen next.
Today marks my 41st birthday and two years since I began what has become perhaps the most transformative experience of my life — not just in terms of how my body and health have changed — but how the journey to make that change shifted how I see and understand myself and the world.
Over the last two years, I’ve optimized 41+ biomarkers (including glucose); dramatically increased my cardiovascular fitness (including V02 max); stopped smoking and got off all the meds; gained 32.6 lbs of lean mass and cut my body fat % in half (moving from being officially categorized as ‘morbidly obese’ to ‘healthy’). I no longer have knee, back or ankle pain. I have more energy, less anxiety, less depression and overall better mood. I can play a game of rugby, basketball or go several rounds on Creed Rising without feeling like I’m going to die. I got re-certified in rowing, tried jiu jitsu, have met my abs for the first time in my life, and decided to become a wellness and Precision Nutrition coach. I began spending time in nature, meditating, and engaging in intentional breathing exercises. I am happier, have more energy, like myself (and other people) more, and for the first time feel like I have a real and positive relationship with my body.
(For the second year of my project, I shifted my focus away from weight loss and towards body recomposition.)
When I first started looking around for help and support, I found much of what was on offer inaccessible and depressing, so I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on the experience and share a little bit about the most helpful lessons I learned along the way. Rather than any one of these lessons being particularly important, the biggest thing I want to share is that health and wellness is just like anything: there’s a lot of brilliance out there, a lot of foolishness and a lot of people trying to sell you supplements along the way. Much of the information is packaged around rigid systems often built around particular personalities and set up in a manner that suggests you can either accept everything shared as the gospel truth or leave. My own experience has taught me to let research be my guide, to learn from and borrow from eclectic practices, to test and assess what works for my body and to take the systems, practices and tools that work for me and leave the rest behind.
Here are a few of things I’ve learned along the way:
Intuitive Eating, Trauma and Disruptive Gadgets: I’ve always been drawn to the idea of intuitive eating, but I found the books I read and communities I explored really inaccessible. At the core, I think being a trans guy with a fairly intense trauma history is a part of what got in the way. For most of my life, I’ve felt incredibly disconnected from my body. Intellectually, I accepted that our bodies are brilliant, and I knew that my body was trying to tell me what it needed — but after years of hating myself, disordered eating, substance abuse (broadly construed) and surviving on menthol cigarettes and a mix of adderall — I struggled to pick up and make sense of what those signals meant. I found that many folks in the ‘intuitive eating’ realm frowned upon the world of biohacking in general and wearables (gadgets that help you track various biomarkers like resting heart rate, heart rate variability, glucose etc.) in particular. Most of the critiques were grounded in the idea that these devices ‘externalize’ our experience and get in the way of listening to our own intuition. I found the opposite to be true. Wearables — used intentionally — can help us to check into our bodies, pick up on and decipher cues, and overtime, learn to trust ourselves. I’ve experimented with a broad range of wearables, but the single most important device I used (and still use today) is the WHOOP band. As an incredibly out of shape guy, I felt a little silly using a device that markets itself for elite athletes, but I’m so glad I didn’t let that get in my way. Over the last few years, I’ve dramatically decreased my resting heart rate, moderately increased my HRV, dramatically increased my daily cardiovascular load, shifted from sleeping 4 hours a night to getting optimal sleep almost every evening, moved my V02 max score from fair to good (borderline excellent) and completely renegotiated my relationship with rest. But more important than any of those metrics — I learned what it felt like — and learned to trust — what it meant to be tired, what it felt like when I was overtraining and when I could really push myself. The other device that has made a dramatic difference is a CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitor). Lab tests taught me that I had moved from prediabetic to healthy, but using a CGM helped me learn how I reacted to certain foods, that cold showers did indeed spike my adrenaline, and that my diet had not just helped me move out of a risk category but helped me actually optimize my insulin sensitivity. Right now, I’m experimenting with a new device called Lief, which monitors your HRV and helps you learn to reset it through breathwork. But the big takeaway here is that wearables — if used with intention — can actually help you cue into your body, learn and decipher the cues your body is sending, and strengthen trust and self-efficacy.
Rest and Recovery Matters: In the first year, I lost 100 lbs, and one of the most important things I did was pay attention to rest and take recovery seriously. I’ve started scores of diet and exercise programs over the years, only to push myself too hard early and quit slightly later. For the first few months, I used a wearable called ‘WHOOP’ to track (among other things) strain and recovery. For the first few months, WHOOP rated me as in the ‘red zone’ of recovery (low sleep quality and inconsistent sleep, low HRV, high RHR) almost every single day. And for once, I listened. I drank water (a lot of water) with lemon and sea salt, smoked fewer cigarettes (and then I quit), and went for long, gentle walks. I meditated, and I experimented with different recovery modalities. I took naps and developed a strong sleep routine and a healthier sleep environment. I ate healthy food. To be honest, those practices reflect 95% of how I lost 100 lbs, became more insulin sensitive, and slowly regained a baseline of mobility. I’ve experimented with cold plunges, ice baths, infrared sauna, compression therapy, infrared light, many types of meditation, qi gong and more, but here’s what really matters: take rest and rejuvenation seriously.
Minimum Effective Doses, Biohacking, Bio-individuality and Fuck Other People’s Expectations: Let’s start with the last one first. I’m a trans guy who grew up in a poor family amidst a lot of violence. I’ve made a life and a career out of rejecting other people’s rules and expectations, and that particular coping mechanism turned out to be a crucial part of the last few years. When I first started reading about how to transform my body, I was predictably enraged when what I read essentially told me to ‘lower my expectations.’ Over and over again, I read articles that insisted significant, long term and healthy weight loss was simply impossible; that once pre-diabetic, always pre-diabetic and likely you’ll develop diabetes and there’s nothing you can do about it; you cannot lose weight and gain muscle; blah, blah, blah. I’m glad I didn’t listen. I’m also glad I didn’t buy into the idea that transformation required that I be miserable. It annoys me — deeply — that we reserve everything we’ve learned about efficiently and effectively transforming our bodies for elite athletes and the already ultra-fit, while insisting that the rest of us work out like it’s 1981. I immersed myself in the data, in the (sometimes weird) world of biohacking and experimented until I found what worked for me. The things that made a dramatic difference for me were: experimenting with macros, ketosis and ultimately working towards metabolic flexibility, intermittent fasting, cold showers, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and breathwork. Everyone’s body is different, and you have to experiment to figure out what works for you. I won’t bore you with the details here, but the big takeaway from me is this: it’s true that transforming your body and your health is a long haul project, but don’t let anyone else tell you what’s possible, and don’t accept the idea that the only way to transform your body is to make yourself miserable by renouncing your family, living in a gym and giving up carbs forever.
Fatphobia and Diet Culture Will Crush Your Soul But It’s a Process: One of the most important things I did was find an incredible, ‘Healthy at Every Size’ therapist who is passionate about dismantling diet culture and challenging fatphobia. Paula, my therapist, was a pain in my ass. She challenged my hatred of my body, my internalized fatphobia and my fetishization of diet culture. Besides her regular refrain of ‘Eat a carb, your brain is dying’, she taught me so much about myself and the world — and in doing so, fundamentally changed the way I felt and understood both. At the highest level, the Healthy at Every Size philosophy dismantles many of conventional medicine’s myths about weight; disentangles the research around fitness, body size and health; and explicitly acknowledges the cost and consequences of fatphobia in our culture. I think of myself as a fairly critical thinker and — two years into this journey — was relatively well read on most of the research around weight and health. It turns out I was wrong about just about everything and had bought — hook line and sinker — so many of the unsubstantiated and roundly debunked myths about weight and health.
On a more personal note, it helped me understand and begin to dismantle so much of the shame I carried around about having spent most of my adult life in a fat body. As my relationship with shame and my body changed, my relationship with food and eating changed too. From an analytical perspective, it helped me situate fatphobia in the broader context of the dehumanizing politics of racism and capitalism. And on a very personal note, it helped me understand that many of the times that I had experienced the rage and violence of strangers — it likely had as much to do with me being trans as it had to do with me being fat. Along the way, I learned to accept myself in other ways. In the context of therapy, it was helpful to have someone that I could say: I know I’m supposed to feel great about being fitter because I’m stronger, but the truth is I just really like that my biceps are bigger and I can see my abs.’ It’s a process. And somewhere along the way, I began to love what my body could do and how it felt — at least as much as the way it looked. It’s still a journey for me but one that I’m so grateful to be on. While Paula and I did not agree about everything, being in relationship with a brilliant and caring therapist who challenged my wrongheaded fatphobic notions has been one of the most important and impactful elements of this journey.
Build a team: I’m blessed to have an incredible doctor and an amazing group of loved ones who have helped me on this journey. I’m very lucky in that I have an amazing team of folks in my life who believe in me, think outside of the box and have my back. These folks don’t have to be paid professionals — though I’ll be honest, it helps — but the most important thing is to be a part of a community (or even better, communities) who are on a similar journey, who will share their experiences and listen to yours, and who will have your back at every step of the way. In part because Aubrey Marcus’ book ‘Own Your Day’ was one of the most influential things I read along the way, I came across two online communities that have been game changers for me: the ‘Onnit tribe’ and the ‘Fit for Service’ Academy.
Over the course of my career, I have come to believe deeply in the idea of prefigurative politics — what is — we cannot only create change that is as healthy and as sustainable as the movements and organizations we build — or, put another way, we can’t give away what we don’t have. Although I continue to do work in the political realm, I feel that at this point in my life, the biggest intervention I can make is to support others on their journey to health and wellness. In some ways, it’s a huge and terrifying change and in other ways — it feels like a deepening of the work I’ve done my entire life. This is just the beginning of my journey, and I’m so grateful for everything I’ve learned along the way and everyone who’s supported me. I’ve got a new set of goals for the next year and plan to continue to deepen my knowledge, expand my practices and continue to grow.