It's (probably) Not Your Fault!


I know it can be difficult to make changes in your lifestyle in order to improve your health.  These typically involve diet changes because your doctor tells you to lose weight and/or improve your cholesterol or fasting blood sugar.  I know because I've been there and felt the frustration.  In fact, I had gotten to the point where I felt it was impossible, I didn't have the willpower and couldn't figure out how to lose the weight or improve my cholesterol or blood sugar.

In retrospect, now that I have learned and practice a better lifestyle approach to health, I can see that there are probably three scenarios why people might be having trouble.  For the most part, in these scenarios, any failures in seeing success are probably not your fault.  Here are the three scenarios as I see them.

You are following the recommended approach to the letter

In this case you've listened to your doctor tell you that your cholesterol and/or blood pressure and/or fasting blood sugar tests are getting too high.  You're told that you may need to start medication soon but you can give lifestyle changes a try.  You're told you should lose some weight, you should follow a healthy diet (and a specific diet may or may not be suggested,) and you need to exercise more.  All of the suggestions, at least in my experience, are pretty vague, and may leave you without much to go on for how to proceed.  But, you take on the challenge, thinking you really don't want to start new medications and be stuck on them for the rest of your life, and you rigorously follow the "My Plate" guidelines (or DASH diet, or whatever.)  You might start walking regularly (great!) or join a Gym and "work your butt off" four or five times a week. The result: probably little or no positive change.  You've likely lost little to no weight or you may have even gained weight, you don't really feel any more energetic, and you may or may not have seen any change in your lab tests.  Or you've seen positive changes, but then over time your health results degrade once again, even though you rigorously follow the recommended action plan.

Your doctor may say that you need to try harder, and/or give up and prescribe medication to improve your "numbers." This implies that you just didn't try hard enough and with just a little more willpower, you could make progress.  But you know you've done what you've been told, to the letter, and you still aren't seeing the results you would like.  You assume this is due to the genes you've  inherited or that it's just a part of the process of growing older.  The problem is not you, it’s not your genes.  Your genes want you to be healthy and fit.  The problem is the advice you’ve been given.

You're trying to follow the recommended approach,
but have trouble sticking to it

In this case, you think you are starting off well.  You're eating what's been recommended, you're even exercising.  But after that workout at the gym, you stop in for some ice cream.  (Hey, you've earned it, and after all, you chose the low fat frozen yogurt!).  You end up hitting the fridge for a midnight snack, or giving in to a rich desert at a business dinner.  I've been there too!  The thing is, after I would give in to that temptation, I would feel guilty and maybe even tell myself I wouldn't do that next time.  Of course, I would indeed give in to the temptation the next time.  After going through that cycle, it only leads to frustration and guilt, and an even lower level of willpower.

Again, I think this is not your fault!  The current conventional wisdom regarding a healthy diet requires a huge amount of willpower.  Some may be able to do it, but for the people who most need the help, this diet causes the cravings, and makes it virtually impossible to succeed.  Just look at the levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes.  That conventional wisdom doesn't seem to be helping, and I don't believe that most of these people are lazy sloths that have no willpower and ignore what the health care system is telling them.

You don't want to try to change because it looks too darn hard, and besides, you've probably inherited it

OK, so maybe this one is partly your fault.  You need to decide to make a change if change is going to happen.  But you may have been misled.  1. You've been misled about how hard it is -- you've seen "Biggest Loser" or imagine people constantly working out at a gym and the hell those people go through to lose weight ... or 2. This problem runs in your family so why should you try to fight it since it would be a losing battle.

While I know it can be hard to make changes in your life, following a good plan of eating real food, and strictly limiting consumption of grains, sugar, and sugary and starchy fruits and vegetables, if you give it a real try, can make it much easier once you've made the adjustment.

Except for maybe a very limited few, I also don't believe that it is pre-ordained in your genes that you should become obese and sick, even if that's the fate of your parents or siblings.  I truly believe that for most everyone, your genes want you to be healthy, and you just have to give them the right raw materials and environmental signals to work with.  If this wasn't true, I don't think we'd be here as a species, we would have already died out.

So it's (probably) not your fault!  There is a way to turn things around with your life and health.  You just need to find and stick with what works, and I'd strongly suggest that the advice on these pages give you a real advantage in making that work.

Change can be daunting and I know it does take some willpower to get started.  So, find someone who has done it and succeeded and find out how they've done it, or find a coach you can trust.  The Primal Blueprint Certified Expert program is now available to start providing these experts. (If you're in the central Tennessee area, I may be able to help.) Use the information on these pages, or the references I've suggested.  Just don't give up.  The conventional wisdom has conspired to make it seem like it's your fault, but there is a way to change things to your advantage.

Calories In = Calories Out

The conventional wisdom, and the mainstream approach to diet and exercise is that you must balance "calories in" with "calories out."  What does that really mean?  I'm going to attempt to answer that from my perspective, and talk about why I think it is more or less true, yet misguided advice.  While calories in may balance calories out, a low carbohydrate approach can take the natural processes that our bodies use and turn them to our advantage.  We can make the process of improving our body composition and improving overall health (usually that also means losing weight) relatively easy and automatic, instead of a tremendous feat of willpower.

The conventional wisdom on diet and exercise can be summed up in the concept that the calories in the food you eat (calories in) is either burned up, or is converted to fat.  When you exercise you burn calories (calories out.)  Part of the “calories out” is your “basal metabolic rate” which is simply the energy your body needs to stay alive, even if you are doing nothing else. The idea is that this simple equation governs whether we gain or lose weight.  If we eat more and don't exercise more, we gain weight.  If we eat less or exercise more, we lose weight.  When put this simply, it’s essentially true, but there are more things going on and our bodies aren't that simple, and how easy it is to hold that equation in balance can depend a lot on what kind of calories you consume.

If we eat a conventional diet, high in carbohydrates and low in fat, we really can affect our body composition by consciously limiting our intake of calories and constantly exercising to burn calories (think “The Biggest Loser”).  If you can do that, you can improve body composition, lose weight, and be fit.  The problem is, you will have to really work at it, you’ll need to have strong willpower.  (Think “The Biggest Loser” again and all the made-for-TV drama as the contestants struggle to stay on the program, driving themselves or being driven to exhaustion, while basically starving.)


If we try to limit our food intake, we are fighting our own body’s chemistry and will have a real struggle. The primary reason this happens, is that when we consume carbohydrates, they quickly turn to glucose in the blood.  (See my post on why LCHF diets work.)  As glucose goes up after a meal, it must be removed from the bloodstream since too much is toxic so insulin is secreted. Insulin drives blood glucose back down.  Assuming someone on the standard American diet high in carbohydrates, the constant insulin surges keep the body form having access to burning fat so when blood glucose drops, this signals more hunger which must be countered with sheer willpower.

If we try to hold our “calories in” the same and just try to burn more calories (exercise more) we run into another problem.  Our bodies know we’ve burned a lot of calories.  If we are consuming a high carbohydrate diet, we can’t access our stored body fat because the constant insulin surges cause fat cells to hold on to their fat stores.  This leads to fuel not being available, particularly to the brain which triggers an overwhelming drive to find food.  Unless we have tremendous willpower, we’re going to eat more and cancel out all that work we did to burn more calories.

The worst case of ramping up exercise and forcing ourselves eat less compounds the problem.  And if we're constantly exercising (again, like you see on "The Biggest Loser") you crank up cortisol (the "fight or flight" response) which also triggers the body to hold on stored fat and more hunger.

If we eat a low carbohydrate diet, we still have to eat fewer calories than we burn, more or less, if we want to lose weight.  The advantage with this approach is that without the constant insulin surges, our fat cells are more than happy to provide the energy the body needs, and we don’t experience the drive the eat.  In fact, if we have some fat to lose, our bodies will actually seek ways to burn more of our fat, giving us a tremendous amount of energy.

So we’re not violating some natural law that calories in equal calories out.  We’re not cheating the system.  We’re leveraging the body’s natural systems to our advantage.  Turning from the need for a an almost superhuman feat of willpower, to an almost effortless, automatic, and quite natural process.

How I got here, pt. 1

where this started

My story starts back in the mid-90s.  This was a time when you learned things from things called books that were made out of paper.  (Strange concept these days.)  The Internet was getting started, but was not yet the go-to place where people got information.  That meant that: 1. Information was harder to come by. 2. It was difficult to get a broad range of views on topics.

I was reasonably healthy but high blood pressure was looming due to family history, I was starting to gain a bit of weight and didn't really have a ton of energy.  What I learned was that: 1. The key way to health and weight control was exercise -- aerobic, to build muscle which burns more calories even at rest than fat.  2. You have to avoid fat, eat lots of complex carbohydrates, vegetables and fruit.  3. You need to watch your calories and eat less than you burn through exercise, etc. if you want to lose weight.

Much of what I learned and believed can be summarized in a couple books that made perfect sense to me, particularly in the vacuum of other information sources.  They were "Fit or Fat" and "The Fit or Fat Target Diet." by Covert Bailey.


a long spiral down

This low fat, high exercise approach worked fairly well for me, on and off at least.  The "on" was when I was really regularly exercising.  The "off" was at all other times.  When I started that, I was getting into road cycling -- typically some pretty long rides like centuries or half-centuries.  Cycling is an excellent calorie burning activity.  For one thing, for me, it is an activity that I can do for extended periods of time because you are moving fast and able to avoid boredom.  Cycling burns a lot of energy.  An hour ride burns around 500 calories.  A half-century burns around 2000-3000 calories (almost double an average day) and a century burns around 4000-5000 calories.

For various reasons, I got out of cycling and then only the intermittent exercise I would do (stationary bike, treadmill, some weightlifting) would keep me at any level of fitness, and allow me to keep weight off.

Simultaneously, and not coincidentally, other health markers declined.  Most importantly,  my blood pressure gradually increased being "borderline high" for a number of years, despite avoiding sodium and largely following the low fat guidance, finally spiking at a somewhat "scary high" level, meaning that I now had to get on medication.  I was daily taking a combined beta blocker and diuretic.   It did indeed control my blood pressure.  Of course, as with most modern medications, it also brought side effects.  Initially I experienced some tiredness, but this wasn't bad, it was more a feeling of relaxation that eventually went away.  Worse though, after several years on the medication, I discovered that my potassium levels were seriously low.  So, I started taking a prescription potassium supplement, eventually taking a very large does just to keep my serum potassium levels reasonable.  I was getting regular heartburn which I thought was probably due to the potassium, but as you'll soon see had nothing to do with that.

Over the years, while my blood pressure stayed fairly stable, other, not-so-positive things were happening.  I was beginning to get arthritis symptoms, particularly in my hands.  The heartburn continued and gradually got more frequent.  (I was taking Prevacid almost daily and sometimes had to take courses of Prilosec.)  My doctor wasn't happy with my cholesterol numbers (he was of course focused on total and LDL cholesterol but my triglycerides were also above normal.)  I had started to take fish oil for a few years and that had helped my arthritis symptoms somewhat and actually brought my HDL numbers just into the normal range.  My blood glucose numbers were getting worse, to the point I was considered pre-diabetic.

Less quantitative, but easily important things were happening as well.  I was getting less and less able to even think about doing what I thought would make me healthier.  While I still tried to eat what I thought was healthy, I would give into temptation more and more when those cookies were sitting out at a business meeting, or having an evening snack that I knew I didn’t need. I would also think about exercising but seldom would I have the energy to start, or if I started would I have the energy to keep it up.  I got to the point that I was starting to resign myself that I was too old to really change my health or fitness level significantly, and figured I would continue to gain weight, would continue to take prescription medications the rest of my life (and add to those that I was already taking.)  I thought this was just an expected part of the aging process and without some super-human effort, which I didn’t feel I had in me, was impossible to change.

There was quite a bit of buzz about low carb several years back, even to the point that restaurants were offering lettuce-wraps etc, I never paid much attention or thought that these people were missing the point that the problem wasn’t the bun or the bread but the fat in the sandwich that was being lettuce-wrapped.

How things changed ...

I welcome your feedback!