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!

How I got here, pt. 2

a bit of an epiphany

OK, epiphany might be a little melodramatic, but I can actually remember the specific time when I thought; “If this is true, this could be the way I could get healthier and get off of my regular prescription medication.”  But before I describe this, a little more background.

Going back to my previous learning on nutrition and health from Covert Bailey, I remember he cautioned strongly against very low carb (aka, Adkins-style) diets.  His warning, among other things, was that they were essentially starvation diets that had extreme rebound (weight gain) effects should you ever stray off of them.  

With that in mind, my re-education began when a friend of mine was surprisingly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  He told me that he was going to be going on a low carb diet of some sort to help control his blood sugar.  This brought back the warnings that I remembered from the “Fit or Fat” books and remember actually cautioning him that I had heard that these low carb diets could get you into trouble, particularly if you ever went off of them.

I also heard a couple other comments from various places about low carb diets, etc, but never paid them much attention.  I thought I knew the right path to health and weight control and that was the conventional wisdom of low fat, eating lots of healthy whole grains, and plenty of exercise.

What brought this epiphany into focus was a podcast on internet security, of all things.  I regularly listen to a number podcasts, particularly when I’m in the car. They are mostly various technology podcasts, but include “Car Talk” from NPR, (and today a number of health podcasts.)  One I’ve listed to for years is “Security Now,” with Steve Gibson and Leo LaPorte.  During an episode in May, 2012, Steve made reference to something that had “changed his life forever” with respect to health and that they were going to do a special episode (since it had nothing to do with security) soon.  Intrigued, I made sure I listened to that episode which ended up in two parts.  (Part I, Part II)

Steve Gibson, for those that don’t know, is an ultimate geek that researches things to death and really digs into the science of what interests him.  I listened to what he talked about -- the concept of ketosis brought on by a very low carbohydrate diet and was very intrigued.  While listening to this podcast is when I had my “epiphany,” 

 

the process of change

Being the geek that I am, while all of what I heard made perfect sense, I had to do some research for myself.  For the next several weeks, I read books, blogs and did other internet research and learned what I could about this concept.  I finally decided to start, actually a joint decision with my wife who also wanted to try it.  We started rather suddenly one weekend after going to a couple health food stores reading labels and browsing to see what we could eat.  That was followed a week or so later with a major purging of carbs from the house.  About a week into eating this way, I experienced about a day of feeling pretty weak and with a pretty bad headache. (This is a normal process as your body adjusts to burning fat once again after a lifetime of being dependent on the glucose that comes for carbs.)  After that my energy returned to normal, and started exceeding the energy I had felt in a very long time.

 

and I continued

It has now been over two years since that time, and I have no intention of ever changing back to the "Standard American Diet" (or SAD) that I used to eat.  After that first week or so of adjustment, I can honestly say that a week hasn't gone by that I  don't stop and think in amazement, how good I feel and how much I love eating this way.  I had heard about how hard it is to not get bored because of the limitation of food choices, etc.  I've actually found it to be quite the opposite.  While the choices at fast food restaurants or with packaged food is quite limited if you're low carb, I've found I can get by with some compromise at just about any restaurant.  I cook at home probably more than I used to but that's a good thing with more fresh and higher quality foods.  There are a lot of foods that I used to avoid because there was "too much fat."  Things like eggs, bacon, eating chicken with the skin on, butter, and steak, (better yet, steak with butter on it.)

It's interesting that "conventional wisdom" says the best way to lose weight and get healthy is to exercise first and foremost.  I know for myself that over two years ago when I was eating the SAD, avoiding fat and eating carbs, I often felt guilty but just didn't feel inspired to exercise for any sustained period.  As soon as I started the low carb approach, I quickly started feeling more energy.  It felt like I just had to keep moving.  (There's good evidence that this is a normal function of metabolism that naturally finds ways to burn energy when you have more than enough fat.  This only works if the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar, and the ensuing insulin response, isn't getting in the way.)

I ended up losing 45 pounds in about 5 months and got right down to the "normal" BMI.  My weight leveled off without consciously changing anything in the quantity I ate.  The natural equilibrium of my body seems to have been restored and I have stayed right around that weight without really trying (except consistently avoiding carbohydrates.)

One of the things that changed significantly for me was heartburn.  I had frequent heartburn (several times a week) before I started eating this way.  I was taking Pepcid often and occasionally had to take Prilosec just to keep it under control.  Since I started low carb, I have had no, that's zero, heartburn.  That's for the two years since I started.  The other thing that completely disappeared was the arthritis that was beginning in my hands.

In a future post, I'll talk about measures of health and how these have changed for me.

I welcome your feedback!