“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” -Otto Von Bismarck
I am not a wise man.
There have been more mistakes related to nutrition than I care to admit. The first ‘diet’ I can remember going on was Bill Phillips’ “Body for Life.” I started the diet sometime in the late 90’s when I bought into all the before and after photos. I bought the protein powders, bars and meal replacement drinks. I enthusiastically embraced the once a week cheat day where all bets were off and I could eat anything I wanted. The cheat day and protein powders are all I remember about the ‘diet’. My focus during that first diet was to gain muscle, I wasn’t too concerned about a few extra pounds.
After stumbling through ten years of different diets, my concerns had changed dramatically. I was completely focused on losing extra pounds. I’d tried being a vegetarian, I lived the Mediterranean diet, I tried the zone, and I tried tracking glycemic index and glycemic loads. Lots of work, not much return.
By the Spring 2007 Navy physical I was carrying an extra 25 pounds – and it wasn’t muscle. The extra weigh was frustrating. The Navy Physical Readiness Test has two parts – a height vs weight measurement and a performance test of pushups, situps, and endurance (run or swim). I’ve always been active and I have never had a problem passing the performance portion of the test.
When I stepped up to get measured in May 2007 I was heavier than I had ever been. I’m pretty sure I was holding my breath as I stepped out from beneath the ruler. It was the first time I had really sweated the height vs weight measurement.
I wasn’t exactly sure where the weight had come from, the pounds had snuck on, little by little. In addition to the consistent increases I was seeing on the scale, I kept having the rug ripped out from underneath my food pyramid.
I’d be feeling pretty good, even excited, about a new diet. The next day, I would read a headline story about how the scientifically proven diet I was on had been scientifically proven to kill me.
I can understand arguments about a diet being hard, or not efficient, but how can a diet go from being the best ever to responsible for certain death?
‘Scientifically Proven’ was an addictive idea for me. The idea that all essential nutrients had been identified was comforting. Having the recommended daily allowances for every nutrient precisely measured and available in a vitamin, pill or powder is an awesome idea. Knowing what all the nutrients are and what the nutrient RDAs are would cure cancer, solve world hunger, bring us halfway to world peace, and give everyone a new puppy.
A ‘scientifically proven’ healthy diet is a great concept but we’re not there yet.
Gary Taubes gave me the first peek behind the curtain. Gary Taubes is a writer who built his career covering science. He was interviewing a nutritional scientist one day and quickly realized the scientist he was talking to was positively the worst scientist he had ever interviewed. So, Gary Taubes started pulling the string on the science behind the ‘Fat Hypothesis’. The Fat Hypotheisis states unequivocally that eating saturated fat & cholesterol is what makes us fat and causes heart disease. According to the Fat Hypothesis, cholesterol was invented by the Nazi’s and it is the responsibility of every American to eliminate cholesterol in any way possible. Replace steak with soy, substitute oatmeal for eggs, and eat it all on low-fat cardboard crackers.
If saturated fat and cholesterol are the problem, the solution is easy – eliminate saturated fat and cholesterol from your diet and everything will be peachy.
Losing fat and improving health wasn’t that easy. Throughout the spring and summer of 2007 I got serious and eliminated fat and cholesterol from my diet. I had heart healthy oatmeal for breakfast, salads for dinner, low fat Subway sandwiches for lunch (hey, it worked for the other Jared…). I lost 3 pounds in 3 months. I had borderline high blood pressure and borderline high cholesterol.
I was 179 pounds in August 2007 when I made it through enough of Gary Taubes’ 400+ page ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ to believe he was on to something. I cut out all the white stuff (sugar, pasta, bread, rice, potatoes) and by the end of the year I was down 19 pounds. I hovered around 160 for a few months.
In the spring I tightened up more on the carbs. I stopped eating tortillas, throttled back on beans and switched from a beer with dinner to a glass of wine with dinner. By May 2008, I was down to 148 pounds. I had lost 31 pounds in 9 months. Even though I was eating more steak and more eggs, my cholesterol was down and my blood pressure was down.
148 pounds is not a good look for me and I missed carbs, so I partied. Pizza was back, pasta was back, beer was back, cookies, sandwiches, brownies, ice cream all came storming back. The pounds came back with them. By August 2008 I was back up to 167 pounds.
By this time I didn’t need to be particularly wise to see the connection. More carbs equaled more weight, less carbs equaled less weight and “moderation” was a lot smaller portion than I had previously believed. Yes, exercise levels had some impact, but exercise only amplified what was going on in the kitchen. The food I was eating determined which way the scale was trending.
I yo-yo’d around for another couple of years until finding my ideal weight at 158. A funny thing happens below 160. Back in 2007/2008 I had been prepared to give up bread, pasta, rice and potatoes for good. But below 160, I found I had to keep some easily digestible starch in my diet or I would keep losing weight. Above 160 my weight would start creeping up unless I was very strict with my eating habits.
For the past 3 years I’ve stayed at 160 +/- 5 pounds. I’ve gone months at 158 +/- 2 pounds before slipping off the wagon, drifting above 160 then buckling down to get my eating habits back in order. Managing the fat is simple, but not easy. Our society doesn’t make it easy to maintain a healthy weight. Most of the readily available foods to eat are carbs. Carbs are cheaper and have a longer shelf life. Carbs are conveniently packaged and marketed as meal replacements for a life on the go.
There is still a lot of debate over how to manage obesity, but there shouldn’t be. I was fortunate to be part of the 60% of the population that a simple reduction in carbs was all it took to get weight down. For others, the initial weight loss can be a little more complicated. In addition to getting blood sugar under control, the gut has to be healthy and glands have to be working correctly for hormone levels to stabilize.
Whatever the steps, weight management is not easy but it is relatively simple. Nutrients are hard, but that’s another journey and another story…