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The Wolverine Diet

I gorged on bacon without gaining weight (but maybe hurt my kidneys)

For an entire week I splurged on cookies, ice cream, and bacon. My weight, of course, normally balloons on such a diet. But I did not put on a pound during this delicious week. These two simple strategies made all the difference: when I ate and the workouts I did prior to binging.

To be sure, there was a purpose to this seemingly hedonistic act of self-destruction. I wasn't just stressing the limits of my Obamacare insurance; I was testing out a cult bodybuilding theory that exercise and timing matter more in cultivating a swimsuit body than the total amount of food consumed. In other words, all calories are not equal.

The holiday season provided a perfect opportunity to test such a theory, as thousands of partygoers indulge in piles of sweets, lamenting the unsightly bulge that will inevitably result from their lapse in willpower. Thanks to this experiment, if I know I won't be able to control my hair-trigger impulse to chow down on gingerbread cookies at a party, I can change up my workout routine to buffer the damage.

Greg, that's crazy. No one in their right mind would ever do that.

This was not my idea. I was inspired by the world's great action stars.

"I used to go to The House of Pies and eat pies at night," recalls seven-time Mr. Universe winner and former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though he and his workout partner didn't understand the science at time, back in the 1970s, "Instinctively, we just felt like we needed the pie."

Bare chest-enthusiast and professional comic book hero Hugh Jackman is also a fan of calorie- and carb-heavy diets after a prolonged period of fasting. He told Oprah that to get in shape for Wolverine, he ate an astounding 6,000 calories per day. In another interview, he spoke at length about his 8:16 fasting regimen (8 hours of eating after 16 hours of fasting):

This is, in fact, the second time in two years I've successfully replicated a carb-heavy body-building routine. The first time could have been a fluke, so I decided to test a slightly different version during the holiday season. Even though I expected the positive result this time around, it's still kind of amazing to look in the mirror every day after stuffing fist-fulls of ice-cream sandwiches in your mouth and see no difference.

So, what's the protocol?

The so-called "Wolverine Diet", named after Hugh Jackman's on-screen X-Men character, is just a general prescription for fasted resistance training. Because I wanted some structure to the routine, I adapted the protocol  of "Lean Gains," which developed a moderately size fan base for its thorough instructions.

There are four big elements of the strategy:

1)     Intermittent fasting: 18 hours of fasting and 6 hours eating at night.

2)     Olympic lifting every other day, followed by a low-fat, carb- and protein-heavy binge

3)     On rest days, I eat a high-fat, low-carb diet

4)     My training is heavy resistance training of low-rep work to failure (meaning I can't physically do the last rep). I chose mainly Crossfit-style resistance workouts, with Olympic barbells and weighted calisthenics.

What were the results?

For seven days, I fluctuated around 144 pounds and 17 percent body fat. Every night I'd gain about two pounds from stuffing my face, then burn it off by the next day's weigh-in.

During the Wolverine Diet, there was one day where I gained a bit of weight and fat. While I can't say for certain what made me gain fat, I suspect it was because I made the mistake of drinking a juice during my binge.

My weight every day I was on the Wolverine Diet

OJ and other juices are deceitful mountains of sugar masquerading as health drinks. They cause a blood sugar spike unlike any other carb I eat. If I had to choose, I'd go with a milkshake over juices any day (on or off the Wolverine Diet).

You must have been blessed with the genetics of a Greek god. This isn't normal.

Let's be clear: I have the metabolism of a catatonic gerbil. Normally, I get fat just looking at ice cream. In preparation for another diet I experimented this December, I allowed myself to eat the same foods, but without a complicated fitness protocol. My weight ballooned 14 pounds in two weeks.

My weight every day I tried the Wolverine Diet without the fitness protocol

Ok, give me more specifics about the diet and exercise routine

My days were split between workout days and rest days.

On workout days, I'd chowed down like a college stoner in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

After a full day of fasting, I'd head off to the gym around 6 pm. Right before, I'd dose 5 mg of branch-chain amino-acids (BCAAs), which are believed to spike hormones responsible for translating carbs into muscle.  I'd do six bouts of high-intensity intervals in three sets. For two minutes, I'd go all-out in a sprint, jump rope, or rowing machine — 30 seconds of regular intensity and 30 seconds of 100 percent.

How is this article different from all other articles?

This is second in a regular Vox series on better living through technology and science. I, your humble guinea pig, subject myself to all sorts of experiments to discover what practical tips readers can apply to their lives immediately.

What makes this series different from traditional health writing is its emphasis on the techniques of "quantified self": the science of self-improvement. No single study can tell you, exactly, how a diet or exercise regimen will impact your particular body. When it comes to health, we're all individual snowflakes.

Between sets, I would do three of the following: weighted pull ups, Olympic barbell squats, weighted ring dips, Olympic barbell deadlifts, and weighted lunge. Every time, I'd end with a weighted ab exercise (my favorite is hanging feet-to-bar, but I've also done weighted crunches). All told, I'd spend about an hour at the gym.

After the workout, I'd hold a fat kid circus. I tried to keep my carb days free of fat. So, if I indulged in ice cream, I'd pair it with some (relatively) less fattening cookies. Normally, fat is great at dampening the damaging spike in blood sugar from carbs. But, in this case, I wanted a spike. Later on in the night, I'd make sure to get plenty of local seasonal veggies and lean meats.

I'd go nuts for about six hours, taking multiple trips to dessert places near my apartment, and pass out sometime at night after the binge.

Binge days were followed by a rest day. I still fasted during the day, but didn't work out.  When I broke the fast on rest days, I'd go super-high fat: pig fat, cheese, or really fatty cuts of beef. Meatballs are positively divine. I even tried with some low-carb "raw" chocolate, made from coconut butter and stevia. I would dream peacefully of the coming binge fest to come the next day.

I don't have time to go the gym. Can I work out at home?

I'd like to say yes, but I wasn't successful with at-home workouts. I tried continuing the diet for a few days while traveling. I did short 15-minute Crossfit workouts in my hotel room. It did not work. I gained (a lot) of weight.

It might work, though, if you have access to heavy lifting equipment at home. John Kiefer, a fitness trainer who popularized the recent carb-backloading craze, seems to think that circuit-training style workouts don't provide the kind of hormonal changes necessary to change how the body converts carbs to fuel. It's gotta be low-rep resistance training and that means heavy weights.

Potentially, high-intensity interval training alone (like sprints) might work, but I didn't try it.

Are there downsides?

Holy cannoli, yes! Previously, when I did a Wolverine-style diet, my cholesterol jumped 31 percent. This is one major reason why I haven't experimented with the diet in two years. It took a while to get my cholesterol back to normal levels. This time around, I binged half as much for one third the time. So, when I checked my cholesterol a few weeks later, it was not unusually high. But, I still wouldn't do this on a regular basis, as the sugar is probably bad for cholesterol and damaging to my kidneys.

Jackman says he does a much cleaner version of the diet. In the future, I may try a Wolverine Diet with sweet potatoes and raw honey instead of cake and ice cream.

What's the science behind this?

The body transfers energy from food, via insulin, into both muscle and fat. After a workout, especially a fasted workout with heavy weights, nutrients are more likely to be used for muscle.

"This is a pretty straightforward process. If you fast, or restrict calories, then also do bodybuilding training (typically glycogen depleting to a degree), you will then be in a glycogen-depleted state," said fitness researcher Eric Helms, who recently conducted an exhaustive review of bodybuilding studies. "Thus, when you eat, you will have a larger capacity to store energy as glycogen, and you will be less likely to store calories as fat. Of course, this also depends on the composition of what you eat."

The denser the carbs, like sugar without fat, the better for muscle growth. "The quality of the carbs still is fairly important. I would suggest some fast-acting carbs and also some lower-glycemic index carbs also with protein included too," wrote Kingsbury.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, unknowing proponent of the high-fat, intense-exercise dieting strategy (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The scientific literature is less than conclusive. Brad Schoenfeld, assistant professor in exercise science at the City University of New York and a researcher on postexercise nutrient intake said, "No evidence I've seen shows alterations in body fat percentage from nutrient timing in any capacity — it is a function of energy balance."

Unfortunately, the studies haven't exactly looked at the Wolverine Diet. The typical study looks at a small protein shake after a workout, not the kind of super-intense fasted resistance training coupled with a large high-sugar energy spike.

I was most definitely eating more calories than I normally do — about 1,500 calories a day more. Jackman eats 6,000. It would be difficult for any professor to gain approval to run a normal population of participants through the daily routine of Jackman or Schwarzenegger.

Advocates of these diets point to preliminary academic research showing that fasted resistance training does have a measurable and predicted impact on muscle building and that fasted training burns up to 20 percent more body fat.

Is there a moral to this story or are you just crazy?

Unless you're training for an action movie, the Wolverine Diet probably isn't advisable. But it is instructive to think about what it means for dieting.

If the conventional wisdom about calories were true, I should have had to buy a wider pair of jeans after this experiment. But, calories are simply a form of energy and the body converts energy differently depending on how its being stressed.

I used to eat to "lose weight." Now, I eat to accomplish my goals, whether it's to sleep more deeply, lift heavier weights, focus better at work, or run faster. Seeing food as functional has brought sanity to the once antagonistic relationship I had with eating.


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