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Will I Still Have My 4-Hour Body 4 Years from Now?

4HBI just finished reading Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. The book promises a lot. And it’s based on Tim Ferriss’ own form of research. He operates as a rogue researcher, not within the confines of peer review scientific scholarship. It frees him up to do some crazy things that might not receive ethics approval from an academic research council.

He uses himself, family (especially his dad), friends, and seemingly passing acquaintances as test subjects. He has some recommended “paths” through the book (even he recommends against reading the book from start to finish, and says most people won’t need more than 150 pages to ‘reinvent’ themselves), based on your goals.

The goals the book caters to are: rapid fat loss, rapid muscle gain, rapid strength gain, and rapid sense of total well-being. The book presupposes, as do most physical fitness programs, that its readers are non-disabled individuals who are not thriving physically.

It’s a funny book in lots of ways, not just because the author is quite funny and a great story-teller, but also because it has a mixed message. He starts off talking about the “minimum effective dose,” arguing that in general, where all things fitness-wise are concerned, we tend to do more than is necessary to achieve our desired results. Between that claim and the whole “4-hour body” idea, it seems as if he’s going to hand us a really do-able program.

But then so much of what he recommends is beyond extreme. The preferred diet, for example, is what he calls “The Slow Carb Diet.” The first info he gives about it details the massive food intake on “cheat day”–bear claws, chocolate croissants, grapefruit juice, coffee, pizzas… But cheat day comes only once a week. Outside of cheat day, the diet is ultra-restrictive. No “white” carbohydrates (bread, rice, cereal, potatoes, pasta, tortillas, fried food that’s breaded, or anything white [cauliflower is allowed]). Pick a few meals and eat them over and over and over, spacing them out by four hours. Do not consume any calories as drinks. No fruit (NONE). One day off a week — that’s your “cheat day.”

Any diet that cuts out food groups is a bad idea. It’s not sustainable over the long run, despite Ferriss’s repeated claims that he and some of his friends who followed this diet for his research ended up loving it. He himself maintains that on his Saturday cheat day he eats himself sick.

This is not a big surprise. It’s a documented fact that diets lead to a sense of deprivation that results in binges. Just calling the day off a “cheat day” is itself a sign of dysfunctional eating and an unhealthy attitude about food, where some foods are “bad” and others are “good.”

This may have “worked” for Ferriss and his friends. I have no doubt that they lost weight quickly. Anyone will lose weight on a restrictive diet that cuts out whole food groups, such as carbs. But the real question is, do they keep it off? I have not seen a report of where Ferriss and his test subjects ended up five years out. Are they still eating like this — highly restricted 6 days a week with one splurge day?

Ferriss does not address any of the research about the failure of restrictive diets to produce longterm results. It’s not super-impressive that people experience rapid weight loss when they change their eating patterns for a month and follow a strict diet of the kind Ferriss recommends. The whole thing screams out “fad diet”!

Ferriss is a big believer in drug “cocktails” to bolster muscle and strength gains. One of his go-to consultants for elite training is Charlie Francis (Ben Johnson’s trainer–Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the 1988 Olympics after testing positive for banned substances that his trainer had him on…). For most of the fat-loss “studies” undertaken in The 4-Hour Body, he relies 60% on diet, 10% on drugs, and 30% on exercise. Vegetarians or others who can’t follow the diet will need to do more drugs. No thanks.

He is also a big proponent of measurable results. Lots of tracking and weighing and measuring. In one of his experiments, he even weighs his poop. Since I have an aversion to careful tracking, a feeling not shared by all, this approach (poop aside) simply wouldn’t work for me.

The book is for “rapid” changes to body composition and strength. It’s easy to get caught up in Ferriss’ enthusiasm for getting the job done quickly. But after immersing myself in that crazy world for some time, I started to wonder, what’s so great about “rapid” changes?

On balance, I’d rather have slow, sustainable changes. I and lots of people I know have experienced rapid physical changes on extreme programs in the past. But the real question is always about the longer term. Will the dramatic, rapid changes I make over the course of a month still be with me one, two, five years from now? Will I have new, healthy habits that contribute to my overall well-being? Again, as in the chapter on fat loss, Ferriss doesn’t address this issue.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve encountered so many programs and plans that say “if you just do this, then you’ll achieve these amazing results.” For many of them, it’s absolutely true that “if you just do this you’ll achieve these amazing results.” The difficulty is that no one can do “this,” whatever the “this” may be, forever.

I’ve only focused on the section about fat loss. But many of the other programs for rapid change also strike me as unlikely to be sustained over time. For example, “Occam’s protocol” for rapid muscle gain involves what seems like a fairly manageable workout schedule, but the food requirement is unbelievable. Not many people could do it even for a month. And again, there is no follow up advice. Once you’ve achieved this massive muscle gain in a relatively short period of time, what then?

That leaves me skeptical about the success, for most people, of the “plans” outlined in much of the book.

I am not equally skeptical of everything, however. For one thing, Ferriss has convinced me that kettlebell swings are worth incorporating into a resistance training program, and that there are better ab exercises out there than crunches. I am also totally sold on his endorsement of Total Immersion Swimming. I have experimented with it in the past. Reading about it again in Ferriss’ book has convinced me to revisit it. And I agree with him that body weight and BMI are not useful measures, and that body composition (ratio of fat to lean mass) gives us more useful information.

The chapter on “incredible sex” is written pretty much entirely with a male heterosexual reader in mind. It’s all about how to give a woman an orgasm that lasts for 15  minutes (I first thought it took 15 minutes to get there, which isn’t all that impressive. But an orgasm that lasts for 15 minutes — worth reading about and working on the technique with your partner) and how to increase your testosterone and your sperm count. The sections about women’s orgasms were useful in that it’s not a bad thing to educate heterosexual men about women’s anatomy.

He interviewed some heavy hitters for his information about women and sex: Nina Hartley, Tallulah Salis, and Violet Blue. They provide some interesting, practical suggestions that he reviews in detail. And though Violet Blue provides some excellent advice for the woman who may never have had an orgasm, it’s hard not to feel like the whole reason for spending so much time on women’s orgasm is to give heterosexual men a way to feel like rock stars.

Ferriss has written an entertaining book filled with great stories and fascinating, crazy experiments in rapid physical changes (I hesitate to call them “improvements”). He ends with the words “it’s never too late to reinvent yourself.” This may be true. I doubt, however, that the focus on rapid change so emphasized in The 4-Hour Body is a successful formula for “reinvention.” At most, a lot of the recommendations will produce only short term, even if rapid, results.

23 thoughts on “Will I Still Have My 4-Hour Body 4 Years from Now?

  1. Small point of correction on Ferris and sex. It’s not an orgasm in fifteen minutes. His method is supposed to produce fifteen minute long orgasms. 🙂

  2. I think Ferriss is whackydoodles.

    But as far as the question, “What’s so great about “rapid” changes?” goes, I think that rapidity is what makes fad dieting in general so persistently popular is that rapid, non-sustainable aspect of it. Everyone notices rapid changes, so getting compliments and attention, as well as noticing one’s clothes getting too big very fast produces a high of a kind, and it makes the fad dieters become ambassadors of a sort for the fad diet.

    On the other hand, my best friend lost a large amount of weight slowly and sustainably and I didn’t notice at all until I came across an old picture of her. It happened so slowly, and I saw her 2-3 times a week so I just didn’t register the change.

  3. And I didn’t even talk about the really “whackydoodles” [great word!] parts!

    Your analysis of the appeal of rapid changes is probably right (for some people) and that’s kind of depressing!

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  4. I haven’t read the 4-Hour Body yet but I think Tim Ferriss is addressing something interesting, even if in a whchydoodle way (great word!) I liked his 4-Hour Work Week although it struck me that it was an entirely unreasonable goal, even though he offered some excellent advice.

    The “eliminating categories of food” thing may seem extreme but I think it does hold some merit. I’ve been convinced that sugar is really bad for us — and worse for some people than others. I know I feel way better when I don’t eat sugar at all — and I don’t crave it. This leads me to suspect it’s something addictive. When I avoid sugar and white bread, I don’t get the “shakes” at 4 pm, which I do otherwise.

    I don’t think it’s unsustainable not to eat these foods in general but it’s awfully hard in our society. Recently, I’ve been trying to say no when I’m at a dinner party and offered dessert. This is really hard –NOT because I want it but because my host wants me to have it. (Even when I warn them in advance.)

    1. I like what you say about sugar and think that has some merit. But I don’t consider sugar a “food group” the way carbs are. I eliminated sugar from my diet for a year once. I did continue to eat fruit (not permitted on the Ferriss plan, except on cheat days). As you say, I had no cravings. And I had more energy than ever before. I didn’t make a concerted effort to eliminate white bread, but I’ve never been a big fan of it anyway and have never had much of it in my diet. I even prefer whole wheat baguettes now.

      To support your point about addiction — when I went to South Africa and was faced with a special kind of donut that they make there called a koeksister, I ate a few after not eating desserts or sweets for a year. They were delicious. That was in 2006 and I was never able to go back to the sugar-free thing again. Not because of pressure from others, but because I just like desserts. One thing I’ve noticed since embarking on the Intuitive Eating plan is that desserts are not a problem for me and I don’t eat them nearly as much as I thought I would when I entered into “no rules” territory with food.

      I’m surprised at the pushy hosts in this day and age. I used to do the broken record thing: “no thanks, I’m fine.” Repeat as necessary, without explaining that “I don’t eat desserts.” I do the same with alcohol (which I don’t drink). I just decline but rarely give an explanation. Seems to work.

  5. I don’t drink and I also don’t eat desserts. Also, no or little sugar. As for carbs, I will not touch rice, bread, potatoes, or anything else which converts almost instantly to sugar in your bloodstream. Carrots by the way convert almost instantly to sugar as well. But I certainly haven’t eliminated fruit nor carbs altogether – I will eat fruit and carbs that release their sugars slowly – like for example, oatmeal, sweet potato, apples, and “hard breads” like whole wheat melba toast and rye crisp. You have more energy this way because you’re not continually “sugar-crashing”, and then craving sugar again, and again. The only time you should eat a small amount of a fast-acting carb is immediately after a workout, alongside a fast-acting protein (like a protein shake) because you want the insulin spike to help ward off a catabolic reaction. And I agree utterly with Tracy – it is the hardest thing in the world to resist dessert (and other mid-to-bad carbs; anything really that converts almost instantly to sugar) once you’ve gotten a taste for it again! If you can find a way like “intuitive eating” that really works for you – such that you really can deal with only really wanting dessert intermittently – that’s incredible. I really did try this method and I just can’t do it – the lure of the crunchy cheesie and way too many of them, is just too much for me!

  6. I’m most interested in long term results, 5 or more years out from the initial weight loss. I think anyone can stick to even a very restrictive plan for a period of time, even a year or two. I’m sure that part of this will depend on the motive and motivation for doing it. Serious health reasons probably increase your chances of success (I’m guessing). Moral convictions can also carry people quite far (as I have learned from my own experience as a vegetarian and now vegan). But I just can’t get past the research that shows restrictive eating plans to fail in something like 98% of the cases — 5 years later the people are even heavier than when they started. That tells me that my (and anyone’s) chances of sticking with it are pretty slim. Intuitive Eating has worked well for me over the past couple of months. I “checked” today for the sake of tracking and blogging, and my weight has not budged despite lifting ALL restrictions and (until this morning) not weighing myself since January 1st. The scale has been packed away again.

  7. That is truly amazing! Congratulations! I’m committed to doing what works and not to any particular approach. Right now I’m basically doing what my sister and nephew have done for years now except unlike them I am not vegan. If what I’m doing starts to fail me I certainly have no problem considering alternatives. Congratulations again!

  8. Thank you. Again, it’s the long range results I’m interesting in, even of the Intuitive eating approach. We’ll see where things stand 1, 2, 5 years from now.

  9. Slow and sustainable is always better than fast and unsustainable. Cutting out fruit is completely stupid. Cutting out “white” carbs is OK, and I personally avoid them myself, but foods like quinoa, brown rice and kasha are incredibly good for you. Even real whole wheat bread has its place on one’s training table. I also minimize added sugar too, but you can’t completely avoid it considering how the Standard American Diet creeps in unless you cook every single blessed meal for yourself. I minimize added salt, and I no longer do artificial sweeteners. So far, so good. I plateau a lot but I don’t weight cycle.

  10. I started listening to an interview with this guy yesterday on WTF with Marc Maron and he talks about how he’s hyperactive and has a short attention span and how that contributed to his desire to do things as fast as possible. I guess I can see how that would be desirable if that was how your temperament was wired but I agree that, for me at least, I would rather have lifestyle changes that could be sustained over a long period of time without making me hate my life.

    Also I have been curious about Total Immersion Swimming. I may read his book just for info about that. What was your experience like?

    1. HI Caitlin. That’s interesting about his short attention span. The book certainly does have a breathless quality to it.

      I enjoyed the book (even though a lot of the suggestions seemed off the wall to me) so wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from reading it. But if you are really interested in Total Immersion Swimming, you’d do better to go to the source: Everything you need is there, including access to the resources TF used to learn it. There are some great videos on that site that give you an overview of what the freestyle stroke looks like and how they break it down into drills to re-train swimmers.

      I started working with the drills a few years ago to teach myself (already a strong swimmer at the time) this new, allegedly easier, way of being in the water. I was enjoying it a lot but then started having ear problems that forced me out of the pool. I’m just back, with ear plugs, and plan to get back into the TI method. So i don’t have lot to report yet other than that when I first tried it I liked it a lot. It’s more efficient.

      Good luck and keep me posted on how you do with it if you decide to check it out.

      BTW, that’s not to say that Tim Ferriss didn’t write a good chapter on TI swimming. He really is enthusiastic about it, so reading his chapter and seeing how it transformed his swimming is a “feel-good” experience that will make you want to try it for yourself.

    1. Interesting post about her experience. Thanks. About the “cheat” or “treat” day. I think he at one point makes the claim that its purpose is to prevent the metabolism from slowing down. And there is some science behind the claim that over time the body will adjust to deprivation through “the famine response.” But yes, to gorge weekly on whole pizzas and gallons of ice cream etc. instead of eating sufficiently and well and enjoying a variety of foods throughout the week–that does sound like disordered eating.

  11. Just want to endorse the points made by Craig Burgess, above. Bread, potatoes and white rice do transform instantly into sugar in your bloodstream. For me, that doesn’t work. My hands used to start to shake about three hours after eating white bread, in particular, and sometimes even brown. I’ve switched to Rye Crisps for breakfast. (I mash up a hard-boiled egg and spread it on the crisps.) I think this may be why Tim Ferriss rules out fruit (except on “cheat” days) — the sugar. I try to avoid most fruit now, particularly bananas. Same deal with carrots. I do eat apples, though, because they are slow-releasing.

    The bottom line is that we are ALL different. And what works for one person may not work for another. Tracey, you’re vegan so, in fact, you are already ruling out whole categories of food. Your aim isn’t to lose weight but you’re still eliminating categories. Do you have a hard time maintaining this? I suspect, not. I feel the same way about sugar and most carbs. That said I recognize it would be really hard to be on a vegan low carb diet. I don’t know what you would eat!

    I feel better when I follow a low-carb diet, particularly avoiding sugar. I’m a big fan of the work of Gary Taubes His book Good Calories, Bad Calories is pretty convincing (although a very hard read with very dense science.)

    My husband eats bran flakes, with a banana and low-fat milk for breakfast every morning. This is Taube’s idea of an UNHEALTHY breakfast. I’m inclined to agree.

    I’m also convinced that some people are “insulin sensitive” and I suspect I may fall into this group. If you do, you need to be more careful about carbs than others.

  12. When I was doing research on women’s Body Image in college I came across the tidbit that only around 15% (? exact # it was definitely less than 20%) of people who lose a significant portion of their body weight are able to keep the weight off for more than 1-2 years. There’s apparently a database if volunteers who have lost weight and kept it off for 3 or more years to study their success. No surprise the tips ate to make small manageable sustainable changes that work for you with what you eat and move more. That’s it. Maximum amount of weight that should be lost in a week 2 lbs. After my freshman (+ other year 15s) I came out of college the heaviest I’ve ever been. I found yoga, used my Mom’s old 80s workout tapes, and slooowly changed my approach to food. I am now one of those people who could apply for membership in their fancy database as I’ve kept off 30 of the total 40 lbs I lost 5 years ago. I’m still tweaking my eating as I’m training for my first tri and need more fuel and the scale is starting to creep back up due to building muscle. I’m thankful the craziest fad thing I ever tried were green tea pills and I therefore never messed up my metabolism. I am still obese according to BMI charts but am 6 sizes down from my heaviest. I only know that bc after 8 months of not weighing myself I had two Dr.’s appointments recently. I don’t own a scale and don’t really measure my success that way. Am I faster? Do I have better endurance? Can I lift more? My goals have to do with that.

  13. In reference to what you said…

    Just calling the day off a “cheat day” is itself a sign of dysfunctional eating and an unhealthy attitude about food.

    I don’t see how it is a sign of dysfunctional eating and an unhealthy attitude about food. I have cheat days now and then and they keep me motivated. After a cheat day, I am stricter on my diet than ever because my will power is usually restored right after.

    thanks for posting 🙂

    1. On the Four hour body diet you are not suppose to cut out carbs as you stated above. You are suppose to get your carbs from legumes and every meal must consist of protein, vegetable and legumes. There is no reduction or counting of carbs. Instead you stay away from sources of carbohydrates that your body rapidly converts to sugar, (breads, pastas, etc) which lead to a blood sugar spike and fat storage. Also, the cheat day is not just to help you stay on the diet long term. It is based on the theory of Caloric Cycling, which body builders have been using for decades. It prevents the body from getting used to a lower calorie diet and thus slowing metabolism to accommodate this. I think it is unhelpful and irresponsible to review a diet that you have nearly skimmed through and have never tried yourself.

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