In order to adhere to a workout and eating program that promised to transform my body, I often imagined what it would be like to live in that body. I foresaw a near-future me who didn’t look quite so incongruous in a gym; one who experienced a much-needed boost in sexual appeal, and wouldn’t think twice about taking his shirt off in public. By the end of the first 28 days, I felt that I’d achieved the first two things and, as soon as it was hot enough to head out to Rockaway Beach, had realized the last of my three aspirations.
The only things detracting from the all-too-rare feeling of profound self-satisfaction were the effects of getting in shape that I didn’t foresee: being cold and irritable, having unquenchable dry mouth, having what seemed like a drop in IQ points and, while at what I considered peak fuckability for me, having a greatly reduced interest and energy for sexual activity. It quickly became clear that impact of a six-pack is somewhat undermined when the person it’s attached to is shivering, floppy-dicked, struggling to string a meaningful sentence together, and always one perceived slight away from going full Naomi Campbell.
Once I stopped being quite so draconian with my diet, those less desirable side effects quickly dissipated. Here’s the skinny on some of the more antisocial side-effects that no one gave me a heads up about.
I underwent my 28-day transformation during a month in which the Atlantic seaboard endured no fewer than four Nor’easters. But as the month drew to a close and the weather got slowly and steadily warmer, I was feeling the chill more and more.
“When an individual loses weight and body fat they may experience cold extremities because they have less insulation and lose heat more quickly,” says Jessica Bihuniak, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at NYU’s Steinhardt School. Though I definitely had some body fat to shed, I didn’t imagine that getting lean would make such a marked difference. A study published in the Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments put this idea to the test and subjected high and low body fat participants to 15 minutes in cold water. They found that when tested 10, 20, and 30 minutes after the cold water exposure, low body fat participants had a significantly lower core temperature to their more well insulated counterparts.
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Writing this in late May, I’m not sure if I’ve acclimatized to having a lighter blubber cardigan or if I’m going to be wearing two pairs of socks and toting around a thermos of soup come October.
Dry mouth and chapped lips
Up until I started Ngo Okafor’s body transformation program, I’d never once experienced having chapped lips and took some pride in that fact. A Chapstick-dependant friend of mine said that I could see it as a low-wattage superpower. “You’re The Unchappable Chap!” he said. (Due to his infrequent defecation habits, his superhero persona was “The Poop Camel.” Sadly, neither of us found a crime-fighting application for our gifts.) After a week on my new program however, I was reduced to being a mere mortal. My lips were peeling off and my mouth felt like the bottom of a hamster’s cage.
Bihuniak tells me that low carbohydrate diets can impact one’s mouth and breath. “During periods of low carbohydrate intake there is an increase in fatty acid oxidation and production of ketone bodies,” she says, explaining that ketone bodies provide an alternative fuel source to carbs but affect your mouth and breath. “Dry mouth can also be a result of reduced salivary flow rate.”
I certainly had the feeling that my body was lacking hydration. Since dropping carbs, I found myself getting up to pee in the night at least once—often two or three times. This phenomena has been shown in studies like this one which showed increased urinary volume when sticking to a low carb diet. When carb consumption drops, the reduction in sodium means a reduction in the amount of water being retained and you can lose a significant amount of weight—water weight—right out of the gate. That phenomenon, plus the intensity with which I was working out, meant that, for the first two weeks, I had an unquenchable thirst, sandpaper tongue, and zombie lips. Sexy.
Brain fog and irritability
Drinking lots of water while eating lean protein and bulky green vegetables meant that I never really felt hungry during the program and therefore didn’t experience common hanger. I did however, occasionally feel depleted in energy, goodwill, and cognitive ability. I nearly fainted once, succumbed to “pedestrian rage” on a handful of occasions, and I constantly found myself forgetting things, wandering away from simple tasks that I was part way through doing.
Bihuniak explains that a daily caloric deficit and restricted carbohydrate consumption can both have a similar impact on how I was thinking and feeling. She points me toward a study that backs this idea up. “The brain likes glucose and when glucose is not available it can have a negative impact on mood and energy level,” she says. Bihuniak adds that the brain has a large energy requirement—about 20 percent of total energy consumption—and is not able to store a significant amount of glucose and thus requires a constant supply. “Carbohydrate is also related to serotonin synthesis in the brain which impacts mood,” she says.
The most ironic of the side effects I experienced was my desire for sexual activity dropping several levels in the admittedly short list of things that I care about. Now that I was eyeballing my new physique in every reflective surface, I literally could not give a fuck.
“Being healthy will always result in higher final testosterone levels and a more robust libido, but a great deal depends on the starting point and the means used to get there,” explains Michael Reitano, doctor-in-residence at men’s health startup, Roman. Reitano says that studies have shown that weight loss in healthy young athletes, can be associated with lower levels of testosterone during periods of training. He goes on to explain that a severe calorie restriction combined with an increased energy expenditure may be too extreme a method for a healthy young man, but not so for an obese man with simmering health issues like metabolic syndrome.
He tells me that calorie restriction also can leave men with flagging energy, which can manifest itself as a loss of interest in sex or indeed participation in any activity that requires the expenditure of energy. “This can be the case with the avoidance of carbohydrates in particular, as they are needed as a more immediate source of energy than are proteins or fats.”
When it comes to my reduced body fat percentage, Reitano says that a certain amount of body fat is needed to create the hormones men and women need to function—one of these hormones being testosterone. However, he’s quick to mention that an increase in adipose tissue—or body fat—can begin a vicious cycle that can be hard to get out of.
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