How Internet Pioneer Larry Smarr Lost 20 Pounds by Becoming a “Quantified Self”

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is critical to understanding how that food changes the state of your body, with weight, for instance, being a very crude metric.

So every morning I get on the scale naked, same scale, get a number, and record it in a spreadsheet. That way I know how I’m doing. Then I analyze all the food I’m eating. Not just the caloric content, but also the three major subcategories: protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Within the protein sector, is it lean protein? Within the fat sector, how much of it is Omega-3 long chain fatty acids? How much is Omega-6? Within the carbohydrate group, you don’t want food with a high glycemic index, you want low glycemic index. You want lots of fruits and vegetables. Then you calculate what fraction of your caloric intake are you getting from each of these sectors. After that, you have to worry about things like how much fiber you are getting. And how much hidden sugar is in there, how much sodium? To lose weight, you need a caloric deficit. All I did was reduce my caloric intake, by 10 or 20 percent, mainly by portion control, but also by looking at the amount of fat, because fat has over twice the calories per gram as proteins or carbs. Then I increased my aerobic exercise by 10 or 20 percent, trying to get at least five hours a week of aerobic exercise. Then you have a caloric deficit, and your body sheds weight.

X: How much have you lost?

LS: Since I came here [San Diego] in 2000, I had lost about 20 pounds and had been pretty level at that weight. But then I noticed that over the past six months, I was creeping back up. So after my New Year’s resolution I have lost about 20 pounds since January 1.

X: What was most surprising to you, when you started quantifying your diet? I imagine that some of this might be generalizable to a lot of people who eat similar foods.

LS: If you don’t get quantitative, you’re lost. Your illusion of whether you’re eating a lot or a little of something isn’t accurate. So what I do is occasionally sit down, and spend hours and hours of time making comprehensive measurements. Working with guidance from my doctor, I took 12 days randomly, when I knew I would be at home, and created a food intake spreadsheet. I recorded how many grams or how many teaspoons of everything that went into my mouth. Then you go on-line to the USDA. They have a great database, in which you can translate the grams of carrots, or that many teaspoons of olive oil, into the grams of fat, carbohydrates and protein, but also grams of sugar, fiber, sodium, and all the vitamins. Then after 12 days you take an average daily food intake and look at the total calories, the percentage that were from protein, fat, and carbohydrate, whether you are getting enough fiber, etc. The next stage I will take that database for these 12 days and spend a few hours looking across the vitamin sector intake to get an idea where I’m under and over the recommended allowance. These numbers might indicate that I need supplements, for instance.

But the point is, trust your instruments. You cannot fly blind and have a good outcome.

X: It sounds like a lot of work. And not something the average American will want to do. What needs to happen before people start thinking more quantitatively about their wellness?

LS: If you look at the obesity epidemic in America, it’s clear that a lot of people don’t want to do work when it comes to measuring their nutrition, and look what happens. If you’re not going to take personal responsibility for the state of your body, then you may well end up with a body that is much less healthy than it could be.

There are a few simple rules. Stop eating sugar and drinking soft drinks. Stop eating refined flour. Both of these spike your glucose-insulin system. Because they are “flash energy” sources, your blood detects it has enough glucose and your brain tells your body to store everything else in your stomach in fat cells for the future. Then in a short time the flash source of glucose is gone and your brain tells you that you need more food. It’s a vicious cycle. Those two things are, I would say, about 80 percent of the problem. Second, cut your portions down by a factor of two. If you do those things, you have given yourself a chance to get control back of your body. Then you can begin to read and learn about the types of food you are eating. But those are the most important rules to get you started.

X: Having gone through this experience, has anybody in your family or close circle of friends looked at this and said, “Hey, Larry, what you’re doing seems to be working. I want to do that too.”

LS: Absolutely. That’s probably the thing I find most satisfying. There’s a radiating social network of health. It emanates from everybody I see taking this quantitative approach. A few years ago, I felt really isolated out there. But now I’m actually considered pretty conservative about my approach. My more advanced friends ask how come I’m not using all the new techniques, like wearing monitors 24/7 that record a wide range of your body’s parameters. But the good thing is that there is a national movement of people working on having a healthier lifestyle, eating real food and not so much of it, getting exercise, and managing stress. The key issue is that it’s not about losing weight. That’s just the crudest possible measure. It’s creating a healthy body, and moving from a sickness paradigm to a wellness paradigm. That will transform the whole healthcare industry.

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13 responses to “How Internet Pioneer Larry Smarr Lost 20 Pounds by Becoming a “Quantified Self””

  1. David says:

    Almost everything Mr. Smarr says is true. But I also believe that more adults actually know these things than our obesity rate would indicate. The problem is motivation and ease ease of use. People have no desire to sit in front of a spreadsheet and calculate this stuff every day. The company that comes up with a device that calculates all these things with no more interaction from the use than to look down at their smart phone and know their metrics for the day, will be the one to win the prize. The missing piece is a calorie counter that accurately measures intake, without the user having to type anything. Some sort of bioelectronic device that knows, in real-time, what you’ve just eaten.

  2. David is correct that it is discouraging to have to keep track in detail of everything you eat. Even just counting calories is a pain. Fortunately, there are a lot of new iPhone and Android apps that are very helpful in this regard. The reason I did the detailed counting for a fixed number of days, like taking experimental data, was to get insights into my normal eating habits. I found that I was eating too much fat and so that was the sector I cut the calories. I now know to take a teaspoon, not a tablespoon of olive oil, or to limit the number of fat-rich nuts I eat for a snack. So the quantitative “deep dive” once in a while is to sharpen your intuition for eating and come up with some “rules of thumb” for guiding your daily eating routine. I havent spent any time since my 12 day detailed look counting calories, but the results of that experiment have changed my eating habits and allowed me to lose weight.