21 Day Challenge: Transition From Sugar Burner to Fat Burner Metabolism

No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means. ~Maimonides

During the past semester of dental school (or more accurately, the past 2 years of it), I spent a lot of time eating shit. Many 16-hour study days, fueled by barrels of coffee filled with sugar, and layers upon layers of fast food.

Amongst those long days were a few streaks of eating well, but never sustainably. I got the results that I wanted in school, but I got fat – a side effect I was willing to deal with in the semi-short term.

When summer started, I started using my free time to cook a bit more, and started eating about 70% healthy primal food. However, three weeks ago, when I met Mark Sisson, he said something that inspired to me gear up my diet to 100% primal.

Mark pointed out that while people are on Industrial diets, they’re on a perpetual downward spiral of eating sugar to sustain themselves, exercising heavily to burn off the sugar, depleting all their glycogen and thus needing more sugar, just to burn it off again. He said that it takes 2-3 weeks of being on a high protein, high fat, and low carb diet of natural foods in order to switch our metabolic programming from that of a sugar burner to that of a fat burner. I highly suggest reading his article The Metabolic Paradigm Shift, as it was a big catalyst for me in the past 21 days.

So here is a graph of my results:

As you can see from the graph, I experienced a significant change overall:

  • Total Inches Loss – 10.5 inches – via Myotape
  • Total Weight Loss – 11.6 lbs – via Digital Scale
  • Total Bodyfat Loss – 3% – via Omron

The Method to My Madness

Over the past 21 days, I found that there were a bunch of naysayers, but overall most people were actually pretty receptive to my food habits. Especially friends on facebook, since I started a new photo album, and posted 47 photos so far of the delicious-yumminess that I had been consuming. The best part of that? I felt like people were really inspired, they were giving me positive feedback, and they were reporting back to me about their positive food choices and also when they tried my recipes.

In his book Four Hour Body, Tim Ferriss stated that one of the best things you can do for weight-loss is to take a picture of every meal (and I have taken a picture of most). The reasoning is that if you’re going to be taking a pic, and especially if you’re posting them publicly, you’re very unlikely to pig out on a big bag of potato chips or candy. You know what, I agree.

Intermittent Fasting – for most of the 21 days I did my own version of intermittent fasting (IF). Researchers at Columbia and Rockefeller Universities have shown that our hunger cycles on a circadian rhythm. My take away from this is that our bodies learn to anticipate meal times, and so the more meals we have, the more we’ll be hungry between them. By having only one or two meals a day, you’ll be less hungry leading up to those meals.

I said that I did ‘my version’ of IF. On average I would go to sleep at 10pm, and wake up at 6am. I would have a protein shake (30 g protein to 3.5 g carb) within 30 minutes of waking up, then my next meal would be around noon-1pm and my last meal would be at 8-9pm (basically an 8 hour feeding window). So while my fast wasn’t exactly that long, I didn’t consider the protein shake as a meal, so about a 16 hour daily fast. The reason for having such a small ‘breakfast’? Research shows that counter-intuitively to conventional wisdom, having a large breakfast can cannibalize lean muscle mass.

Update: While I read about IF in many places over the years, I recently got a lot of information and inspiration over at LeanGains.com – another highly recommended site by European nutrition author Martin Berkhan. I was using referencing some research above that I found solely via Martin, and accidently forgot to source him. My apologies.

Eating Primally – I’ve been living and breathing the Primal (aka Paleo or Hunter-gather) lifestyle. In short, that means eating lots of meat and vegetables, and occasionally (for me it was once or twice a week) snacking on nuts or a small amount very dark chocolate. Since I’m trying to get lean, I stayed away from fruit, and limited my dairy intake to about two slices of cheese per week.

I ate absolutely no bread, rice, nor consumed any sugar. I incorporated sweet potato into only a couple of meals. My beverages consisted of straight up water (sometimes with a twist of lime), non-flavored seltzer, and coffee/tea with no added sugar.

Did I mention zero alcohol?

Let’s take a look at 4 example meals:

Broiled Steak over Organic Mixed Greens w/ Cherry Tomatoes (Balsamic & Evoo dressing)


Scrambled Eggs, Swiss Cheese, Turkey Bacon, Homemade Tomato Sauce

Raw Sashimi Grade Tuna and Sauteed Bok Choy


Meatza with homemade tomato sauce and broiled veggie topping.

My meals ranged from simple things like throwing a few eggs into a pan and seasoning, to more complicated time consuming dishes like making a Meatza with homemade tomato sauce and broiled veggie toppings. I really looked around the recipes on Mark’s Daily Apple, Primal Quick and Easy Meals Book (highly recommended), and various Primal/Paleo recipe blogs.

Knowing what fits into the eating style and what doesn’t allowed me to make things up as I went along, and to make smart choices at restaurants and family gatherings.

Exercise – I really could have done more exercise. During the last semester I got less than zero exercise. All I did was sit in the library. Sure I had a few bouts of exercise, but then went back into my hibernation state. Lately I haven’t been exercising either. My back has been really sore, some muscle spasms, so I’ve been letting that rest up.

However, what I have been doing a lot of is walking. I’ve been walking everywhere. Sure, I only live 2 blocks away from school, but besides that I’ve been walking around all the Manhattan neighborhoods, and rarely using the train. Finally getting to enjoy some of the city, and feeling good in the process.

What Not To Do

Since posting about my winter morning routine back in January, not everything has gone as planned – I’m not perfect. When school got beyond tough, I diverted all energy and time to one thing – studying. One thing that I did back then, that I didn’t do during the past 21 days, was measure myself daily.

Daily measurements of weight, bodyfat, and inches is not only time consuming, but it’s totally absurd. Your weight fluctuates daily, so being hung up over not moving an inch or a pound is counter-productive. This time around I checked my inches weekly, because I knew they wouldn’t lie to me, and I saved the before and after weight for a one-shot deal, in order to build anticipation, not get hung up in details, and really have something huge to celebrate.

Don’t buy new clothes before starting this lifestyle choice. You will lose weight rapidly and not fit into your clothes anymore, so buy new clothes only after you lose the weight, or you’ll have wasted a lot of money like I did. Yes, it was worth it!


The best part of this experience was partnering up with my girlfriend. She also ate 100% primal, exercised regularly (even with the 16kg kettlebell I purchased recently). Today after our measurement we’ve recommitted to another 21 days of 100%. We’re going to Paris together at the end of August, and I have some very big goals for how I want to look when that day comes, so I’m positively looking forward to that trip.

If you’re curious about my results in the next 21 days, and want to see some more things I cook up, then add yourself to the mailing list, and I’ll see you soon.

Comment on this post, I’d like to know what kind of things motivate you to be healthy.

Posted by in Health | June 15, 2011 | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumble | Print | 9 comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/jimkukral Jim Kukral

    Interesting study. I’ve always wanted to try the paleo method. I just can’t stop eating bread.

    • http://alexshalman.com/ Alex Shalman

      Hey Jim, thanks for stopping by.

      I love eating bread too – once I get to France, I’m definitely going to eat some of their fresh
      Baguettes as I picnic somewhere. Until then, I think what worked for me is just making the commitment and saying that I’m going all in – 100%. This eliminated me from even thinking about making ‘bad choices.’

      I don’t have to be sitting at a meeting and thinking about whether or not I’ll have a slice of that free pizza, because that decision has already been made in advanced. Planning my meals ahead of time, and knowing that I won’t be starving and forced to eat whatever is at hand also plays a role in it.

      Lastly, once I started transitioning into the fat burner metabolism (combined with the research above about being less hungry when you eat less meals daily), I could easily say that I’ll skip a meal, and not suffer the consequences of extreme hunger, headache, or fatigue.If you want to give it a try, and you want some encouragement along the way, just let me know 🙂

  • Marina Tsipenyuk

    Love love love this post! Your results have been amazing and I am so proud of you!

    • http://alexshalman.com/ Alex Shalman

      Thanks for the words of encouragement, as always 🙂

  • Mdsisson

    Hey Alex, I LOVE it when people take on the 21-day challenge and not only see the results, but feel them, too. Nice work documenting everything here as well. I’m sure you’ll inspire many others to regain control of their health and fitness. Thanks for spreading the word, man.
    Mark Sisson

    • http://alexshalman.com/ Alex Shalman

      Thanks Mark, that means a lot coming from you.

      Like I said when we were chatting earlier, sure I get the benefit of accountability by posting this publicly, but the best part of all is getting messages from people that are inspired and ready to make some improvements of their own =)

      Thanks for being the word. 🙂

  • Pingback: Losing 16.4 lbs in 42 Days | AlexShalman.com()

  • Proteinsindia

    I Love this post! Your results have been amazing and I am so proud of you for posting such kind of Challenge that help to burn fat!

  • Audrey Taylor

    Here is a question for the group… Whenever I do a high-protein diet, no matter how many vegetables I eat with it, my metabolism slows down to nothing and I get really sluggish and my pooping just stops. Is this what everybody experiences? I feel the best when I have a flaxseed muffin with a beat and strawberry smoothie in the mornings. Can you account for different body types meeting different things?