For my entire adult life, I have been the voice of Common Wisdom when it comes to nutrition. A healthy diet should be 50-60% carbs, with a foundation of complex carbs from whole grains, should have a moderate amount of low-fat protein, and should be low in fat overall. Carbs were, after all, the body’s primary fuel! Doctors said it, nutritionists said it, government agencies said it, and goodness knows, the media said it. Weight loss was about a healthy diet and calories in/calories out. I was fat because I ate too much crap and didn’t move enough.
I didn’t just believe it, I *knew* it. It was TRUTH. And because that was truth, low carb was WRONG. It was a lie. Temporary weight loss due, I thought, to calorie restriction. High fat levels meant those foolish adopters would die of heart disease. High protein meant they would all have kidney stones. And their brains were starving to death because their bodies were ketogenic.
TRUTH, I tell you! TRUTH!
Back in late January 2011, I heard about a book called 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. Dr. Oz grudgingly admitted that the tips in the book had solid science behind them, and I was intrigued. It didn’t sound like the usual diet book, and it wasn’t. The book is much, much more than a diet book, and I highly recommend it. But the diet portion — just two or three chapters out of the whole thing — was intriguing enough that I was willing to try it. It’s called “Slow Carb” — not low carb, and at no time does he call it a low carb diet (which is good because I’d have immediately shut my mind to it) — and Ferriss claims that by following these insulin-reducing steps, you can lose 20lbs a month. I didn’t lose 20lbs per month, but I shed 30lb in about 8 weeks, and I felt great the whole time.
Slow Carb is a difficult diet to maintain. No grains, no fruit, no dairy, no starchy veggies. It’s not intended as a permanent lifestyle; it’s formulated for quick fat loss. Six days a week are extremely restrictive and not fun at all, and after a business trip broke my streak and focused me on other things, I found it hard to go back to. But it had one extremely important lasting benefit: It turned me on to the importance of insulin in weight loss.
Fast forward a few months. I had gained back a little of the weight (not all by a long shot, not even most), and I really wanted to get back on track. At the beginning of the year, I had begun working out, and I had kept up at least occasional weekly workouts throughout the year. In July I got interested in improving my endurance. I am built for power, not endurance, and cardio workouts have always been pure torture for me. But, I decided that there were some bucket list goals I had that required endurance, so I needed to get past that hurdle.
I found a book by a man named Phil Maffetone published in the mid 90s. Maffetone’s method was used by elite endurance athletes to get *better*. His book wasn’t just about training, though. He also talked quite a bit about diet. One of the problems the people who came to him had was that even though they were winning races, they were completely wiped out afterwards — and they occasionally bonked during long races and lost. He had them completely change their diet — a change away from the carb-heavy diet promoted by endurance coaches and athletes everywhere.
He never mentions the term “low carb,” which is good because I still wouldn’t have listened. He starts with a two-week carb intolerance phase. No sugar, no grains, no starches. Preferably no fruit. Only heavy cream and unprocessed, full-fat cheese in the dairy category. No processed food. To be 100% honest, I did this because I thought a nice limited intro like this might be good for my *husband*. I knew from Slow Carb that being grain-free felt great. (My husband did it, and struggled through the first week. But he has been a believer since!)
During the Carb Intolerance test, I began researching different, similar diets. I created a spreadsheet comparing Slow Carb, Maffetone’s Carb Intolerance phase, Maffetone’s general recommendations, Paleo, and Primal Blueprint. I wanted something I could live with. No grains was okay, but I still couldn’t tolerate the words “low carb,” so I didn’t look at South Beach or Atkins. Why, out of all the choices, did I choose Paleo and Primal as possibilities? Because of my Crossfit trainer, Jenny.
Jenny is an amazing woman. Amazing. She’s a Crossfit trainer, a weight lifter, a firefighter, and a triathlete. She’s in her late 40s, but she has roughly 14% body fat — and she doesn’t diet. She eats eggs and avocados and coconut milk. She’s Paleo all the way. Jenny had been telling me about Paleo for a couple of years at least, but I wasn’t interested. Frankly, the whole argument that we should emulate the diet of cavemen seemed ridiculous to me. That was a million years ago, and they died at, like, 24. Besides, Paleo guidelines flew in the face of that TRUTH about nutrition I was sure I knew.
I had a lot to learn.
I started reading Mark’s Daily Apple, the blog of a man named Mark Sisson, the mind behind Primal Blueprint. Although Sisson is steadfastly no grains, Primal is fairly flexible about things like dairy and fruit, so I found it the most attractive of the options. In truth, his blog isn’t the best place to go for basic info on Primal. He’s a bit… wordy and hard to follow sometimes. His professionally edited book is a much better source for that. But his blog is filled with interesting tidbits and fantastic success stories. He frequently goes into the science of weight loss and reviews various scientific studies, picking them apart. I began to realize that the science of nutrition isn’t as cut and dried as Common Wisdom would have us believe.
I think it was Mark who was responsible for another major change in my thinking. Common wisdom says that carbs are our primary and preferred fuel. This makes no sense. Our bodies are capable of unlimited fat storage. In contrast, our muscles can provide about 20 minutes of energy via glucose. To fill our bodies with carbs is to increase insulin, which science has known for decades is the culprit behind the physiology of obesity. Our bodies were *meant* to burn fat as fuel, not carbs. That means we are *supposed* to be in a ketogenic state. Our bodies thrive on it. (There is a long continuum, from producing a tiny bit of ketones to a potentially fatal condition called ketoacidosis. A person can exist as a ketone-producing, fat-burning machine indefinitely without ever suffering from ketoacidosis. To suggest otherwise is simply a scare tactic.)
My husband turned me on to another blog, that of Dr. Michael Eades. Yup, an MD. Dr. Mike and his wife are the minds behind a low carb program called Protein Power that came out in the mid-90s. His blog goes much more into the science behind nutrition and obesity. Fascinating reading. For more fascinating reading, I downloaded (for Kindle) one of his more recent books, The Six-Week Cure for the Middle-Aged Middle. Devoured it in a day. Probably the most interesting part was where he presented case studies from his obesity patients. It wasn’t the weight loss that was fascinating — it was the changes in blood chemistry. When he switched people to his low carb plan, he had them stop taking their blood pressure and cholesterol medication *that day*, and their readings were down to normal within two weeks. (He said the actual major changes occurred within three days, but most people didn’t retest that quickly.)
Then I read a book Dr. Mike highly recommended, Why We Get Fat, by Gary Taubes. This book doesn’t provide an eating plan, as I’d hoped. (I wanted to compare it to the others.) This book is all about the science of why we get fat and the history of that science. Did you know that prior to the 1960s (70s?), that obesity was considered a physiological issue, not a moral failing? They knew, as early as the 1920s that insulin and issues with how and when it signaled the body to retain/release fat were the problem behind obesity. Now obesity is the problem of lazy people who overeat and don’t move. The cure: eat less and move more! But Taubes explains why that solution fails and will continue to fail.
He explores WHY the current nutritional wisdom is what it is. Basically, in the 70s, heart disease became a key issue. Someone concluded that because people with heart disease have saturated fat and cholesterol clogging their arteries, then saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet must be bad. Whole grains reduced some of what was determined to be bad. So a whole generation of “heart healthy grains” and “low fat diets” resulted. The problem is, heart disease has increased (yes, really), and we’ve all gotten fatter. And the science that is supposed to show that dietary saturated fat and dietary cholesterol raise fat and cholesterol in the blood don’t show that. They show the opposite.
Taubes also looks at the diets of different peoples around the world, both now and historically. It’s very clear, and rather frightening, that populations that had no history of obesity developed it after the introduction of sugar and white flour. And cavemen? Well, I was wrong about that one too. Humans were hunter-gathers for 99.5% of their total existence. Only .5% of our existence has occurred since the advent of agriculture. From an evolutionary perspective, we were meant to eat a mostly meat diet, high in animal fat, with some plant-based carbs, some seasonal fruit (in some cultures — some, like the Innuits, had NO veggies or fruits [or obesity prior to the introduction of sugar and white flour]), and little (if any) dairy. From an anthropological perspective, the same diet appears in modern hunter-gatherer populations and in the populations with the lowest incidence of obesity. Obesity can be clearly mapped to the introduction of sugar and white flour, especially the flour. (There are some populations that have grain in their diets without obesity, but they prepare the grains through fermentation.)
Basically, I have read enough now to believe that common wisdom is wrong. The science just doesn’t back them up. And frankly, neither do the results. Any system where 95% of dieters gain back the weight they lost is BROKEN.
So based on what I’ve read and learned, I am now firmly in the low carb camp. I’m losing weight slowly and steadily, and I feel fantastic. I have a ton of energy, and I have no problem finishing a hard, trainer-led workout. We’ll see what the long-term results are. I’m scheduled for my annual physical at the end of October, so we’ll see then how my blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol numbers have faired.