Atrial Fibrillation and Weight Loss or How To Lose Forty Pounds

As I stated previously, when I first discovered that I was in persistent atrial fibrillation I decided that I needed to lose about 40 pounds, and I did.

It just makes sense that if my cardiac output is reduced by atrial fibrillation then I needed to jettison some excess weight.

My days of being a 235 pound marathon runner were over. My way range over the last twelve years has actually been between 220 and 250 pounds. People were so used to see me that my “normal” weight that when I started to get under 200 pounds they would ask me if I was ill, or even if I had cancer.

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Pre-race

Losing weight is easier than one would think. There are a lot of methods that work, but the most important thing is to make up your mind. It’s like quitting smoking cigarettes – it’s extremely difficult if your heart isn’t in it, but if you have truly make the decision there’s no stopping you.

I have loved drinking beer for my entire adult (and teenage) life, but three years ago I decided to completely quit drinking any form of alcohol. As a matter of fact I try not to take in any calories via liquid. Just quitting drinking beer was good for a ten or fifteen pound weight loss. But even as a teetotaler I could find myself drifting up into the 230s.

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Beer Drinking

Over the years I’ve used various methods to lose weight and I’d like to briefly discuss them, and then discuss what I’m doing now, which seems to work the best.

Before I actually tried it I had always thought that a low-carb/Atkins diet was a sort of parlor trick. People on it just deplete their glycogen stores (glycogen also holds a lot of water in the muscles) and have a weight loss that wasn’t really true fat loss. But I started seeing patients who were losing a hundred pounds and more on a low-carb diet – eating a lot of meat and high-fat foods like coffee drinks loaded with heavy cream.

As a person who has been reading Bicycling magazine and Runner’s World for the last several decades I was stuck on the fact that athletes need a lot of carbohydrates in order to train properly. But I decided to try the Atkins diet for two weeks, using my body as an experimental laboratory, fully expecting that it would affect my training and that I would quit after two weeks.

That particular Summer I wasn’t running very much but had been training for some centuries (100 mile bicycle rides) in the Fall. I doubted I would be able to get up any of our mountains without carbohydrates. I was wrong. I found I was able to train normally on a low-carb diet and the sheer amount of weight loss was astounding. Different people, obviously, have different metabolisms – but I found I was able to lose about 30 pounds in six weeks utilizing a low-carb diet.

But there were definitely problems with a low-carb diet for me personally. Intuitively I could tell it was not healthy. You can eat bacon for lunch and think “this is great,” but you can’t honestly believe “this is healthy.” It changes, in an unpleasant way, the smell of your breath, the smell of your sweat, and the smell of your bowel movements.

Another big problem was that I was never able to stay on an low-carb diet for more than six weeks at a time. I didn’t crave carbohydrates – I just got bored. I grew so weary of eating steak that I would sometimes just skip meals.

I also found that while I could train for long-distance bicycling on a low-carb diet, running on a low-carb diet was definitely different. I could still go out and complete long training runs, up to 20 miles, but I was totally wrecked afterwards. My recovery was terrible and sometimes I would come home from a long run, take a shower, and just go to bed.

These are the things I discovered by using my body as an experimental lab.

After abandoning low-carb diet once and for all, I tried the guidelines outlined in Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald. This is great if you are already at a good weight, or just need to lose a couple of pounds – but it really isn’t calorie restrictive. It’s all about the quality of the food you eat. That book was interesting because it had a long section of a day in the (diet) life of quite a number of endurance athletes.

I made my own modifications to his points system and printed up little daily tally sheets to keep in my pocket and keep track of my points each day. I would try for thirty points per day. The main problem with this diet is that you can actually eat a lot of good, healthy food, but still can eat a lot of calories.

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Trail Lunch

A couple of years ago I discovered, for me, absolutely the best way to actually lose weight. I used an iPhone/Internet app called Lose it! There are several similar applications including My Fitness Pal, Weight Watchers Mobile, etc.

With these applications you simply enter your age, gender, and weight – and then you enter how much weight you want to lose per week. The app then tells you exactly how many calories you can eat per day, and efficiently helps you keep track. It doesn’t matter what you eat, you just need to log everything, and nearly every type of food seems to be pre-entered into the application (including foods from specific restaurants). If you eat or drink something that has a barcode on it, like a Clif Bar for example, just scan it. If you log your exercise the program adds more calories to your day.

I think just utilizing an application like Lose it! makes it worthwhile getting a smart phone.

Some pitfalls, obviously, include miscalculating how much food you actually ate. At first I wasn’t very good at figuring out what one tablespoon actually means. For example – a tablespoon of peanut butter doesn’t mean actually scooping out as much peanut butter as possible with a tablespoon. That’s more like four tablespoons.

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Peterson Ridge Rumble

The exercise aspect of it, I felt, was extremely good. But calories for running are based on your weight, time spent running, and your pace. It really does not take into account whether or not the run was hilly, however. As a big, slow endurance athlete I was able to burn up a lot of calories just by being out there for several hours on any given work out.

Although I attribute my 40 pound weight loss to this iPhone app, I no longer log anything I eat with Lose it! but I still use it to log calories burned during workouts, as a rough guide.

Ultimately I discovered the documentary Forks Over Knives. The scientist in me found the data very compelling. I then read Eat to Live Joel Furhman – and between the documentary and this book I completely changed the way I eat. Both of these are manifestos, of course, and are manipulative to a certain extent, but I think they are correct.

At this point in time I would call myself a lackadaisical vegan. I say lackadaisical because I really don’t read the ingredients for things such as bread, which I know will contain some dairy or eggs, but for the most part I am a vegan.

Oh, and I also have trouble avoiding pizza or ice cream which I will have about once per week. So I’m really no vegan, but I guess I’m a vegetarian. We make our own pizza and it’s good stuff – kale, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, and green peppers. At this point in time I can maintain my weight with the semi-vegan diet, and no longer need to log food or count calories. If I started gaining weight again I would definitely utilize the Lose it! app in order to get back down to target weight.

So that’s how I did it.

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Peterson Ridge Rumble

Any restrictive diet is effective, no matter which diet, because you end up eating less. For me personally I have found that the low-carb diet clearly allows incredibly fast, significant weight loss – but I didn’t feel that it was healthy. I know that my nearly vegan diet is healthy – I never had high cholesterol to begin with but the last time I checked my LDL cholesterol (a.k.a. bad cholesterol) it was sixty-one. I don’t take any medications except for Pradaxa. I didn’t know LDL cholesterol could even go that low!

I would be interested in hearing from other endurance athletes with atrial fibrillation, especially about changes in diet. Please feel free to leave comments.