Monday, April 22, 2013

Sugar, Meat and Health


Hi, my name is Julie and I am a sugar-aholic. I used to liken my relationship with food to that of an addict to his drug of choice. I thought my plight was worse than the drug addict because I had no option to quit eating.

I have wrestled with weight since I was a kid. After Lliam was born, I was about 55 pounds heavier than I am now. I have never believed in diets, and my intentions for weight management have always been around sustainable lifestyle changes, rather than short-term fixes.

Weight Watchers

Because of my lifestyle approach, Weight Watchers made perfect sense to me. I joined in 2007 and by the fall of 2008 I had lost about 35 pounds. By mid-2009, 12 pounds came back. I struggled and struggled to lose again. I faithfully followed the WW program. I tracked my points. I believed in the philosophy that "you can eat whatever you want, just not as much as you want." I exercised, and by Spring of 2011 was training for a Half-Marathon. Despite running 25 miles per week, I was still 25 pounds overweight.

In the Fall of 2011, I bought the P90X DVD set, ditched Weight Watchers for a calorie-tracking app called MyFitnessPal and followed the complete P90X 90-day program. I followed that up with Insanity and reached a weight lower than I had on Weight Watchers, but was still a far cry from what I considered to be a healthy, realistic goal. At the time I was focusing on low fat eating and a diet rich with natural, complex carbs as the program had directed.

To Carb or Not to Carb

Around that time, I watched a film called Forks Over Knives. It's is essentially a 90-minute advertisement for veganism disguised as a documentary about what they call a plant-based diet. The material they presented about cancer and disease made me question whether I was consuming too many animal products and too much fat, despite the fact that I was already vegetarian and was eating a lot of whole, complex carbs.

Meanwhile, a coworker and friend was going in the opposite direction. He was reading Why We Get Fat, and described to me some of the biochemical processes that happen in the body when carbohydrates, particularly sugar, are consumed. I was intrigued and picked up the book myself.

Ironically, Why We Get Fat made the exact opposite claim that Forks Over Knives did. The author, Taubes, attributed disease and obesity to the ridiculous consumption of grains, sugars and other forms of carbs. I was amused that both Taubes and the makers of Forks Over Knives used evolutionary arguments to support their respective eating regimens.

The two did have one thing in common, however: processed foods, especially refined sugars are bad for your health and make you fat. I figured it would be pretty safe to eliminate this category from my diet, so I reduced my carb intake from roughly 50-60% of calories from carbs down to about 30%. The reduction in carbs was accompanied by an increase in fat. It turns out that too much protein is also bad for you.

Carnivore Once More

It was hard at first, especially being a vegetarian to eat so few carbs. By the Summer, I realized that it wasn't sustainable to be a low carb vegetarian, so I decided that after 20 years, I was going to start eating meat again. This immediately expanded my culinary options. I quickly learned that I enjoyed ham, chicken, turkey and even bacon. I ate my first Thanksgiving turkey since childhood. I still don't like the texture of steak and not sure that I ever will.

Striking Changes

I started losing weight and experienced a few phenomena that I had never encountered before. First, my weight became very, very stable. Whereas before, my weight could easily fluctuate 4 or 5 pounds from day to day, now it never went back up after going down.

It turns out that weight loss is very nonlinear. When setting weight loss goals, I used to think of progress as a downward sloping line from current weight to goal. In practice, it's not unusual for weeks to go by with no change, and all of a sudden 3 or 4 pounds are gone. This is what happened for me, and I realized that good behavior may not immediately result in a loss. In fact, sometimes I would lose weight after a day of poor behavior. The takeaway is that my body takes time to react.

My fixation on food, which had previously been a preoccupation bordering on obsession, became faint. I am no longer shackled by physiologically manufactured hunger pangs. I have more energy. On Weight Watchers, I was constantly struggling against a barrage of impulses and urges. With low carb eating, I just don't have those impulses.

After the sugar monkey was gone, I learned a surprising truth: It's easier to quit eating sugar than to limit sugar. Small, frequent doses of sugar kept me addicted. It was only after I had broken free of the habit that I realized what a hold it had on me. A happy side effect was that for the first time in my adult life, I did not have nighttime cravings and snacks. This was a huge factor that was previously holding me back.

Low Carb in Real Life

While it would be ideal for all of my meals to be perfectly tailored to my dietary choices, the reality is that I'm often in social situations involving food that I don't have control over. I don't usually have the energy to cook during the week.

This forced me to learn how to improvise. I learned, for example, that I can still eat pizza. Although it looks a little funny, I eat the toppings off and it's delicious. I don't miss the crust at all. I can even eat sandwiches. I eat the inside and throw away the bread. I order my In-n-Out burger protein style. I get the salad instead of the burrito. The possibilities are endless. To supplement, I often carry around some nuts and extra dark (88%) chocolate in case I need a nibble.

When Life Gets in the Way

I had been faithfully tracking my intake using MyFitnessPal for 8 or 9 months, keeping the weight off. Then, I switched jobs. My new employer provided both breakfast and lunch each day. Two things happened. First, the catering menu choices made it more difficult to maintain low carb standards, and I became a little more lax. Second, I was getting tired of entering my intake into MyFitnessPal every day, especially because it was hard to find a match for some of the more exotic menu choices. I gained about 4 pounds.

A few short months later, I changed jobs yet again, and needed to make another adjustment. Both job changes shook up my exercise routine. Over the course of several months (especially punctuated by lapses during the Christmas holiday), I gained back another 7 pounds on top of that. I was continuing to keep my carbs much lower than previous levels, but had lost some of the rigor that came with daily tracking. I'm convinced that the damage would have been far worse had I completely reverted to previous habits.

After reaching my highest weight in over a year, I knew something had to change. I decided to start tracking again on MyFitnessPal and redouble my efforts to lower carbs. This time, I am keeping calories from carbs under 20%. Total grams of carbs range from 50-80 per day, and total sugars are between 20 and 30. So far, I have lost 5 of the pounds I had gained (in a nonlinear fashion, of course).

I have learned that not only do carbs have a huge impact on my psyche, my health, weight, energy, etc., but also, restricting total calories is still necessary on a high fat, low carb diet. It is much easier to do so without sugar cravings.


Holly Amundson said...


Holly Amundson said...

Great post; inspirational. Thank you for sharing. You've really done an amazing job and demonstrated an astounding level of will power!

Julie said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Hol!

Holly Amundson said...

More blog post, please! :-) Maybe one about the 50-person BBQ?!