“State Of Slim”: The Colorado Approach To Staying Healthy And Fit

I just read the interesting book State of Slim: Fix Your Metabolism and Drop 20 Pounds in 8 Weeks on the Colorado Diet by Dr. James Hill, Dr. Holly Wyatt, and Christie Aschwanden. Overall, I recommend this book for motivation and good tips. Actually following their program to the letter is optional but it’s still good reading if you don’t ( (I chose not to, I’m already doing something similar).

Dr. James Hill is Director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Dr. Hill is also one of the founders of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), which keeps track of people who have successfully a significant amount of weight and kept it off. His colleague Dr Wyatt is is a physician and clinical researcher at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center (AHWC) on the Anschutz campus of Colorado University. She also runs the Metabolism and Obesity clinic at CU Anschutz where she treats overweight and obese patients. Christie Aschwanden is a journalist and poultry farmer in Colorado who is also the author of Good To Go about recovery methods for athletes.

The title comes from the fact that Colorado is the “slimmest” state in the US (among other statistics, 25% fewer adult Coloradans are in the obese weight range according to bmi charts than the US average). The motivation for the book is answering why this is so, what is different about the lifestyle in Colorado? Also the authors have considerable evidence from their clinical experience and research. A final interesting tidbit is that while not everyone in the NWCR has the same diet or activity levels, there are definite trends. And on average, the lifestyle of people in the NWCR, who are from all over the country, is quite similar to that of the average Coloradan.

Having lived in the beautiful city of Boulder for 3 years, I was intrigued by this book. I can attest first hand that the call to the outdoors is quite strong in Colorado, because of the beautiful scenery and weather. Walking, hiking, running year round, skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, all in close proximity.

The Flatirons and thousands of acres of the mountain park system just west of Boulder, Co

So not surprisingly, one of the salient aspect of the lifestyle is a higher level of physical activity. The other is healthier eating habits, with more emphasis on whole foods and less on processed foods. These are average trends. Not everyone in Colorado is active, and there is as much junk to buy at “King Soopers” as there is in grocery stores in other parts of the country. There are also plenty of fast food joints in Colorado. I remember the amusing sight of a McDonald’s and Burger King peacefully coexisting right next to each other on 30th street in Boulder. There was no need to fight because there were lots of customers to go around. Nevertheless, on average Coloradans move more, eat less junk, and eat more healthy stuff. As does the average person in the NWCR, which shows this lifestyle can be followed anywhere.

There are a couple of interesting anecdotes in the book. In the first, a colleague of the authors at the Anschutz Center moved to Colorado from another state, and ended up losing a significant amount of weight. He described how he thought he had moved to a “planned fitness neighborhood” because there were so many people walking all the time on a nearby path. Then he found out “that’s just what people do around here”. The healthier eating habits of his neighbors rubbed off on him too. He pointed out that in retrospect there’s no reason he couldn’t have followed this lifestyle back in Ohio. The second anecdote is about Dr. Hill’s son, who was fit and healthy until he moved back to Mississippi where he gained about 20 pounds. The main difference was most of his friends in Colorado got together to do something outdoorsy, while the lifestyle with his friends in Mississippi revolved more around eating. But he caught himself and found ways to be more active in Mississippi and regained his former weight and fitness.

University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus 

Interestingly as I was reading this book I came across an entire book on the “Colorado phenomenon” entitled The Colorado Weight Loss Fix: How I Dropped 30 Lbs In 40 Days Copycatting The Secrets Of America’s Healthiest State by Tatia Cerrone. Tatia grew up in Mississippi and attended Ole Miss for college. She was considerably overweight and inactive at the time, and described the favorite foods she grew up on, which are delicious but rich. She happened to have a roommate from Colorado who was slim and participated in various sports, and noticed her eating habits were different. When Tatia graduated she did not have any immediate job opportunities locally. So she decided to visit Colorado, and her roommate was happy to let her come stay with her. You see the results from the title, she learned to eat healthier and get active, doing various outdoorsy activities inspired by her roommate, including rock climbing! During this period she related her experiences to her sister back home, who was inspired to start eating better herself and joined a gym. By time Tatia moved back, her sister had lost a good amount of weight as well, and Tatia intends to continue on with the new lifestyle along with her sister. There’s no reason you can’t be healthy in Mississippi.

Returning to State of Slim, the authors devote a large portion of the book to the diet and lifestyle program they teach, “The Colorado Diet”. The lifestyle part is moving- a lot. They want you to get the equivalent of at least brisk walking for 70 minutes a day, 6 days a week. Or substitute whatever brisk activity you enjoy most, swimming, biking, running, skiing, etc. Or if you want to accumulate some throughout your day, go for 35 minutes of formal exercise 6 days a week, but make sure you also get 7000 steps a day. If this seems excessive, bear in mind that this is probably still less than what the average adult got in the pre-automobile era. The authors give lots of tips on how to move this amount, including the usual ones you hear, like park your car further away or take the stairs instead of the elevator. I was surprised they didn’t mention active transportation, such as walking or biking for commuting or errands, but I would certainly recommend that.

The diet, long term, is pretty much what most mainstream nutritionists would agree with: minimize overly processed junk, eat lots of fruits and veggies, get adequate protein and healthy fats. But if you are currently above the weight you’d like to be, they recommend introducing it in three phases. They make the analogy that most people who have been eating the typical modern diet have “clogged” metabolisms. The calories you bring in are like a faucet, but calories out are too low because of the clogged drain. Just reducing calories turns the faucet down but does not unclog the drain. I would have liked it if they had given a little science on what the clogged drain represents. I assume it’s similar to the various mechanisms discussed by Dr. David Ludwig in his book Always’s Hungry which I’ve talked about previously. The first phase of the proposed Colorado Diet is intended to unclog the drain by keeping fat content low, protein high, and starchy carbs low. This lasts a couple of weeks. Then you loosen it up a bit, introducing some starchy carbs in phase II, which last for a few months while you are losing weight. Then you transition to phase III, which is the long term way of eating I described above. Phase I was interesting to me because it differs from Dr. Ludwig’s approach to “reset your metabolism”, which I’m assuming is the equivalent of “unclogging your drain”. The two approaches agree on minimizing junk and keeping starchy carbs low in the phase. Dr. Ludwig recommends adequate protein and fairly high fat, while the Colorado Diet recommends higher protein and lower fat in this phase. It is possible that both approaches work for fixing your metabolism if it is minimizing junk and starchy carbs that is the key.

Following the formal Colorado Diet plan is optional. From the anecdotes it seems that you can be healthier just moving more and making better eating choices. And as I’ve argued in previous posts, health is the most important thing to focus on. If your new lifestyle is also accompanied by weight loss that is “gravy”, or “icing on the cake” (sorry, I don’t know any whole food expressions for this).

5 thoughts on ““State Of Slim”: The Colorado Approach To Staying Healthy And Fit

  1. After living and playing in Colorado for 38 years I think I can shed a little more light on the ‘Colorado’ lifestyle phenomenon.

    Many people move to Colorado specifically because of the snow skiing in the mountains. Downhill skiing is an activity that requires a moderate level of fitness for even just play and excellent fitness is required for expert performance levels. Most skiing injuries are the result of inadequate fitness or flexibility. It takes months of training in the summer and fall to be ready for the snow in November so we walk the ‘hood with a backpack, swim laps at the pool, bicycle everywhere we can, play tennis, etc. The constant ‘training’ becomes a lifestyle of getting ready for winter and the increased metabolic rate helps shed excess weight.

    Added to the exercise component is the part that no flatlanders get… Altitude and its effects on the human body. Denver is at 5,000 ft which is no big deal but the ski areas are all at around 10,000 ft, meaning the air is thinner and the oxygen molecules are farther apart. This fact alone will require a person to work harder, just to breathe normally. For example, bicycle riding on a flat road in Leadville at 10,000 ft is much harder than in Denver. Many people from sea level get headaches and experience more serious effects of altitude maladaptation when they go too high too soon. Our red blood cells gradually adapt, adding more oxygen attachment points, but the process takes weeks.

    Humans basically run on sugar and oxygen, generating lactic acid and carbon dioxide as waste and the size of our blood vessels, our circulatory system, expands under constant exercise to bring in more oxygen and squeeze out more lactic acid with increased muscle tone. An accumulation of lactic acid is what makes us sore after exercise. People who aren’t active are limited by exercise because their ‘little pipes’ can’t get rid of the waste products fast enough.

    Guys have been souping up cars for the last 100 years at least, in the same way. Automobile engines are air pumps that generate power by adding fuel. More airflow and better fuel equals more power. Guys replaced stock exhaust systems with headers and bigger fuel injection systems.

    The training effect of all that exercise is the release of endorphins resulting in the ‘runner’s high’, the euphoric effect noted by millions. John Denver might have smoked a little cannabis in his time but the ‘Rocky Mountain High’ he sang about comes from prolonged periods of moderate exercise in the mountains, and has nothing to do with marijuana.

    The harder you play in the mountains and the longer you stay, the more you will feel more like Superman, or an Amazon Woman because of how the training effect and exercise naturally feed each other. The increased fitness levels will cause an attitude change that will shift your entire perspective for a lifetime.

    I want to die exhausted with a smile on my face.

    Like

  2. These are good points. Wanting to be better at skiing is a good motivation to put in the work in the offseason. Having the highest average elevation of any state also contributes, because as you say it’s harder work at higher elevation and that soups up the engine!
    I hope you get your wish. But not for a while yet 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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