I decided to try something to see what would happen. Lately I’ve been reading quite a lot about food – about how it’s not just the quantity of what we eat but the quality that is important and that the simple “common sense” idea that the difference between your calories in and your calories out would dictate your weight gain/loss may not hold true. Not that weight, in and of itself, is the important point. Overall health is the key, but I know that the excess weight I’ve been carrying around has to be indicative of, or a precursor to, some other problem, regardless of whether I have a specific problem that I can point to.
From my reading, it seems that I’m not alone in following the popular views on healthy eating and exercise, but having my weight and fitness level stay roughly the same. Just focusing on the food, I have always eaten relatively well, but still gained quite a bit of weight over the years. I chalked it up to aging and my slowing metabolism. But, even when I tried to eat smaller portions of what I thought were healthy alternatives, my weight still creeped up. And, I had other food related issues happening. Not constant, and nothing that interfered (too much) with my life, but little things that happened more often that I’d like. For example, I’d get acid reflux quite often, usually after a carbohydrate heavy meal like pasta or a sugary dessert. Frequently, it would pop up and stick with me, coming and going, for a few days. I’d also get headaches and a general foggy feeling when I went too long without eating. Sometimes this would be just a few hours after a meal, like midmorning or mid afternoon after large and supposedly healthy meals just a few hours earlier. I remember many times digging into my lunch by 10:30a after my “healthy” breakfast of a fruit and vegetable smoothie, sometimes with a scoop of protein powder a bagel with peanut butter and banana.
I thought I was doing great, not eating too much “bad” stuff. If I ate bread or pasta, I tried to make it whole grain or multigrain. I ate plenty of yogurt and didn’t shy away from milk. I’d eat long grain and brown rice over instant white, and cooked my food with the “healthy” vegetable oils. I hardly ever went to fast food restaurants, and if I did I ate either the salads or their smallest burger and fries combo. For snacks, I tried to eat a few pieces of fruit and veggies each day or pretzels and hummus, etc. And I tried to have at least one vegetable at lunch and dinner. I didn’t eat a lot of meat, other than chicken. Not from any dislike or moral problem with red meat, I just didn’t eat a lot of it. Again, overall, I think I was eating what many of us would consider a fairly healthy diet. At the least, it’s not what mainstream nutrition thinking would call unhealthy. After all, my diet fit in pretty well with what our own USDA suggests in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. What more could we need? The USDA suggests:
- 2.5 cups of veggies per day – check
- 2 cups for fruit per day- check
- 6 ounces of grains per day – check
- 3 cups of dairy per day – check
- 5.5 ounces of protein per day – check
- 5 teaspoons of oils per day- check
Following that approach, my weight slowly increased to over 250 pounds and has hovered in the 245 range for the past year and half. This is even as I increased my exercise and tried many variations on my diet, such as spreading out my meals (ie, grazing), hugely increasing my vegetable and fruit intake, reducing my daily calorie count, not eating after a certain time in the evening, etc. I ended up with the slight loss down to 245 +/- and stayed within 5 pounds of that for about 18 months.
So, I read a lot of blogs, websites, books, magazine articles – basically anything I could find that seemed relevant. I researched paleo, whole food, low carb/high fat, low carb/high protein, The Zone Diet, Atkins, South Beach, juice only, no fat, vegetarian, vegan, and anything else I could find. I decided to switch my diet and exercise plan up pretty drastically. Nutritionally, I decided to cut out as many refined/added carbohydrates as I could. That means I stopped eating bread, bagels, pretzels, muffins, and pasta. I don’t count carbohydrates, I just try to eat only the carbohydrates that naturally occur in the foods I eat. I get most of my carbs now from vegetables and fruit. If had to count, which I’ve done a couple of times, I’d guess that I’m below 150 grams of carbs every day. Before, I was well over 500 grams.
I’ve cut out most processed food – if it has a barcode on it, it is immediately suspect to me. If it came in a box, it’s almost certainly not actual food and probably shouldn’t be eaten. If I can’t recognize something as food, I try not to eat it. That leads me to eating a lot more whole foods. And, my research hasn’t convinced me that grains are good for me, so I cut them way down, too. Grains include corn, oats, wheat and rice. So, I also try not to eat breakfast cereal, oatmeal, grits, potato chips, tortilla chips or crackers anymore.
Finally, I cut out the seed oils, which also contributes to a lot of the foods above getting shoved aside. My guide for oils are to eat oils that come from oily things. Avocados and olives for example. A lot of folks diss on peanut oil, but I use it sparingly. Again, peanuts – oily. Other actual nuts – oily. Corn – not oily.
Now, I eat a diet focused first on protein. I eat more protein in a meal now than I used to eat in a day. I try to have some protein at every meal. I’ve tried using various formulas of grams per pound of bodyweight, adjust for activity, etc. But, what works pretty well for me now is just looking at it and getting about a palm sized piece of protein each time. Then I try to add in a bunch of healthy carbohydrates in the form of vegetables until either my plate, or me, is full. Fat-wise, I just add whatever I want and don’t worry about it. I use actual butter on my veggies sometimes, or olive oil on my salad. I eat more red meat now and don’t worry about eating the fat. I’m not completely sold yet on the whole grass fed/free range/organic/happy animals make happy meat idea, but I’m giving it a go to see how it works. I use heavy cream in my coffee. I eat a lot of eggs, which are awesome little packages of both protein and fat.
So, how is it working for me, after about 6 weeks? Just looking at the weight, I dropped about 10 pounds in the first two weeks. I’m about 15 pounds down now, and still losing. I weigh now just a little more than I did when I left the military over 20 years ago. But, more importantly, are the other changes. For example, I have a small breakfast around 7a that is focused on fat and protein – something like a couple of eggs and some heavy cream in my coffee. I’m usually not hungry until at least noon. And, even then, the hunger feels very different. Where I used to have a headache and generally brain-fogged feeling, now all I feel is a little hunger pang in my stomach. I can still focus and have plenty of energy to keep going. I often don’t eat lunch until 1 or 2 in the afternoon. I also don’t have any acid reflux issues, other than when I’ve fallen off the wagon and eaten a lot of carbs. Overall, I find that I have more energy and can stay more focused for longer periods.
I have a few mantras, guidelines, quips, whatever you want to call them that I try to apply to my food now. One is that if I can’t immediately identify the food or its ingredients, I’m not eating it. Another is that if I can’t find it, kill it or grow it, I’m not eating it. It’s helped me focus on eating foods much closer to their natural state than I did before. For oils, I ask myself, “If I squeezed this thing, would I get oil out of it?” If the answer is no, I’m not eating it. The final thought I use to cover all my bases is “Keep it simple.” I don’t agonize over every meal. If I’m out with friends and burgers are on the menu, I don’t worry whether the meat is grass fed. I don’t beat myself up if I ate the bun my burger or if the dessert looked too good to pass up. I try to do what I can to follow my own guidelines, but if I don’t, that’s ok. Eating well 90% of the time is pretty darned good. And that’s compared to just about any measure I want to use – compared to my habits of just a few months ago, compared to the average American diet, compared to average human’s diet, etc. I think I can live with that. Next post, a little about how I’ve changed my exercise routine around.