The “Binary Diet”

I will preface this by saying that other than co-authoring a book on alcohol withdrawal treatment, I have absolutely no expertise in medicine or the life sciences. The entire idea for this diet originated with a pal of mine who for many years has been a biomedical researcher, and who is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Pharmacology. At the moment, he's in the middle of a research study, so as a placeholder, I'm going to take my own ridiculous crack at explaining the science behind the idea. Please, don't throw rocks -- as soon as I can beg some cogent paragraphs from my pal, my placeholder explanation will be swept away.

My Pathetic Attempt to Explain the Science

Ok, as I dimly understand it, the human liver has two modes of concern to us. In one, it converts carbohydrates to fat and the body stores the fat. In the other, mode, it burns body fat for energy. So call these the “fat burning” mode and the “fat storing” mode.

Up until recently, it was pretty important for humans to grab any spare bit of food, convert it to fat, and store it away, so there's a real bias in favor of the “fat storing” mode in most of us. After all, we are the surviving descendants of all those people who didn't starve to death when food was scarce. The degree to which we're biased in favor of converting carbs to fat varies by genetic accident. If you have the familiar “apple” shape and tend to pack weight on around the middle, you're one of us.

Needless to say, packing fat on around the middle is not good. There's been a lot of recent research pointing out that abdominal fat is much more biologically active than other body fat, and is associated with everything from inflammatory responses to metabolic syndrome (sometimes called “syndrome X”), diabetes, and heart disease. Bad stuff.

Into the More Practical Part

Ok, I already mentioned that many people have a bias towards the “fat storing” mode, and that we can all recognize ourselves by the fat around our waists. Here's how it plays out:

When you eat carbs — any carbs at all — you go into “fat storing” mode and stay there for three or four hours. So, one potato chip or a cup of coffee with a spoon of sugar in it, and you're socking away fat for hours.

The aim is to spend as much of your day as possible in the other mode: “fat burning.” So how do you do it?

The Basics

To stay in “fat burning” mode, you need to do two things:

  1. Eat only two meals a day.
  2. Eat absolutely no carbs – not a speck – between meals.

The logic is as follows. If you eat only two meals, you're spacing out your consumption of carbs, which allows your body to go through it's “fat storing” mode and settle down into the “fat burning” mode for a good number of hours. And the reason you need to avoid any carbs between meals, even a stray celery stick, is that any carbs at all will send you right back into “fat storing” mode for serveral hours, which defeats the whole purpose.

Is This Do-Able?

This is an interesting approach to eating. I've been working with it for the better part of a year now, and I have a number of observations.

First, the reason I call it the “Binary Diet” is because there's no middle ground. You either follow it or you don't, on any given day (more about that in a minute).

This seems a little weird: when my wife started following the approach, she'd say things like “I kept to the diet, except for some yogurt I had in the middle of the day.” (And yes, that's a carb — virtually all yogurt has added sugar and/or fruit). And I would tell her that if you had a container of yogurt, you might as well not have bothered.

If your aim is to eat absolutely no carbs between widely spaced meals, even eating little tiny “healthy” snacks between meals utterly blows it.

So here's what I've noticed over the past nine months. First, while it seems really odd at first, I got used to eating only two meals a day very fast. I thought that would be the hard part, but it wasn't. The hardest part, the part that almost made me fail at it, was the whole binary issue. Unless you have an unusually steady routine, it is virtually impossible to follow this diet 7 days a week. Stuff happens. The neighbors drop in for a few drinks unexpectedly. You forget that there was a lunch meeting at work. Your husband or wife really wants to go out to dinner on a day when you've already eaten two meals. There's a ballgame on and you want to have a few beers while you watch. You name it. Things come up.

Keeping Track of the Diet

One of my favorite teachers had a saying: “An amateur sometimes remembers, but a professional writes it down.” I've always loved that saying partly because when you've got a memory like mine, you darn well better write things down. It turned out to be an important part of following this diet.

Here's what happened: When I started doing the diet, I got off to a great start for the first three months. I followed the diet very well because it was new and I was really thinking about it. Then it kinda got to be a habit, and I wasn't paying as much attention. I didn't do so well for the next three months — didn't gain the weight back, but didn't lose an ounce.

After doing some thinking and counting things up, I figured out the reason I wasn't doing so well. I honestly thought I was following the diet almost every day, but I was really doing it only three or four days a week. Because I was emotionally committed to the whole idea, I was over-estimating my performance. And then it hit me — if you want to keep track of whether you're following the diet, you have to keep a written record.

You don't need to do anything elaborate, but you do have to write it down. I have a little calendar book I carry around, and I just started putting an “X” next to every day I stuck to the diet. That way I was depending on data, not on my subjective impressions. I also allowed myself one day a week of not following the diet because stuff happens. And of course, knowing that I was keeping track also kept me motivated day to day.

If you want to follow the diet, figure out some way of keeping track that works for you: on your kitchen calendar, in a notebook, on your computer, whatever. It doesn't have to be complicated — my simple little “X” takes me about 10 seconds a day and works great.

What Does it Feel Like to Follow This Diet?

I don't feel deprived on this diet. When you eat, you eat. In fact, because you're going a long time between meals, it's important to eat a good meal when you do eat. Forget a bowl of cornflakes. Unless there's a medical reason you can't, go for a couple of scrambled eggs and some bacon. And put plenty of butter and jam on your toast! Really, don't shortchange yourself, you'll be starving at 11 a.m.

At first, I found going without a meal all day was very odd. But it wasn't so much because I was hungry, it's just because I was really used to taking a break for lunch. Once I got out of the habit, I just started cruising right through the day.

Which meal to skip is another interesting question. I tend to feel a little differently from day to day. Some days I wake up early, full of energy. Those are the days I make myself a big breakfast. Other days, I barely drag myself out of bed. Those are the days I just head into work and have some black coffee, and then take off for an early lunch. Dinner is the one meal I never skip. It's a family meal, and it's important to me.

What works for you will depend on your schedule, your personality, and your lifestyle. Since I work at a very informal office, I can get away with leaving for lunch (breakfast, really) at 10:15 and working through the rest of the day. This might not work for you — maybe you need to be there to cover the phone from 8-noon, or maybe your boss will think you're crazy if you go to lunch two hours “too early.”

One Word of Caution about Snacks: Everything Has Carbs in It

On this diet, you can eat between meals, but fat and protein only - no carbs, none, zero, zip.

And here's the problem: almost everything has carbs in it. People who are concerned with health and diet have often been conditioned to think certain foods are “healthy” and good: fruit, yogurt, raw veggies, tofu, etc. And they are good foods, but they all have carbs.

Your choices in between meal snack foods are very limited: small amounts of cheese (no crackers), unprocessed lunch meat (careful, lots of ham and sausage have added sugar), and... well, not much else, unless you enjoy eating sticks of butter. I am going to try to build a more comprehensive list of absolutely zero-carb snacks (is there a dietician in the house?). In the meantime, it's best to keep it really simple. Just think of between-meal snacks as fuel, read those ingredients lists very carefully, and when in doubt don't eat it.

Another word on these kind of snacks. When you snack on something like pretzels, your hunger goes away immediately and you get an almost instant rush of energy (and half an hour later, often feel a low). When you eat something like sliced roast beef, you'll keep feeling hungry for a good 15 to 30 minutes, and then you get a nice slow-burning energy. No big rush, but you won't feel like taking a nap half an hour later either.

Does it Work?

So far so good. I was breaking through the 38-inch waist barrier when I started early in 2009, running out of holes on all my belts. Now, after about 9 months, I've dropped about 20 pounds and I'm about ready to switch to 36-inch pants. Not bad, especially when you figure in the fact that for two or three months there (until I figured out my system with putting an “X” in my notebook) I wasn't really following the diet. Since I got my recording system going and really started following the diet six days out of seven, I've seen the weight really start to come off around the middle. And yes, I have been working out a bit too, but I'm no gym rat — don't have the time. I shoot for 30 minutes 4 or 5 times a week. And I feel fine, not deprived or starved. I had refried beans with cheese sauce for dinner tonight, and (ahem) a brownie sundae for dessert. I don't eat like that every night, but I'm happy, eating good food and plenty of it.

How Long do I Have to Keep This Up?

Well, this is the bad news, or maybe the not so bad news, since it's a pretty easy plan to follow once you get into it. This is not really a “diet,” it's a way to eat. So, you gotta do it, well... forever. If the basic hypothesis is correct, if you go back to eating lots of meals and snacking between meals, you will inevitably go right back to adding fat around the middle. I have to say that after almost a year on the plan, I don't have any problem with the idea of eating this way for the rest of my life. Assuming it continues to work, of course!

Last Updated September 28, 2009