The FDA lied to me (and everyone else)!
I am the first to admit that I am not any kind of health/ fitness expert. I never have been and one look at my medical records would verify that! But like most people out there, I think, I tried to follow the best advice for healthy living and healthy eating. So when everyone was freaking out about high fat, high meat diets, and all the benefits of whole grains, I followed their advice. For years, I could not figure out what I was doing wrong as I continued to gain weight through college and grad school and somewhere towards the early 2000’s, I came to the conclusion, that whatever it was I was doing wrong was way beyond me and I was just doomed to be fat all my life.
About that point, I pretty much stopped paying attention to what I was eating and just ate what I wanted, though I tried to keep it in some kind of moderation (usually failing miserably), and it wasn’t until the end of 2014 (about this time two years ago) that I FINALLY figured out what I was doing wrong, began to lose weight and began to feel like an actual human being who had a chance to live a healthy lifestyle. As some of you know, it was a complete and total accident that I stumbled onto my huge (no pun intended- well, maybe) diet problem: I had been following the FDA guidelines on their Food Pyramid.
In the early 1990’s (1992 to be exact) the FDA’s Food Pyramid recommended eating daily 6-11 servings of grains, rice, cereals & pastas, 3-5 servings of vegetables, 2-4 servings of fruits, 2-3 servings of meats & fish, 2-3 servings of dairy and to eat fats and sugars “sparingly.” (They update these guidelines every 5 years or so.) In 1992, I was in college and literally my weight gain started to soar. It was seriously out of control and the more I kept eating the low fat, high carb/ high “whole grain” diet everyone was pushing at me, the more weight I kept gaining. Like I said, eventually I just gave up.
It turns out that everyone else following the same diet was also gaining weight at a high rate too. We had an epidemic of obesity and type II diabetes by the time I finished college. It kept right on rising (I think it still is) and now the doctors know why: it was the low fat, high carb/ high whole grain diet that everyone was eating– at their recommendation!! Now the best doctors are telling us something very different than what they told us 25 years ago. Now they are telling us that high fat does not cause heart disease; it’s sugar that causes the most damage in the body. What they are not explaining fully is that all those “whole grains” & grain products (this includes rice, cereals, pastas, corn & corn products, etc) turns into sugar in the body. When you eat a candy bar, your body breaks it down into glucose, which is a sugar, and the body releases insulin to remove it from the blood stream and it is stored in the body as fat or glycogen for later use as a fuel. What the doctors aren’t telling you is that all those grain/ grain products they were advising us to eat 6-11 servings of each day, are made up of starches, which are long strings of sugar, and are turned just as quickly into glucose by the body and the body goes through the same routine. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bowl of pasta, a bagel, an ear of corn or a candy bar: it all turns into glucose pretty fast in the body and it’s stored as fat or glycogen. (They may as well have told us to have 6 candy bars daily- the effect would have been the same!)
So there we all were: eating lots of grains, cereals and pastas like they said to do, and we were gaining weight, and becoming insulin resistant to boot too! I figured out (22 years later!) that one of the reasons I was gaining weight was that all of those carbs were being stored as fat in my body, and they weren’t being burned later on because in order to burn fat, the blood stream needs to be cleared of insulin. If there is glucose in the blood, there is insulin in the blood and the body can only store fat when insulin is present. It’s an either-or situation: either the body is storing fat (insulin is present) or it is burning fat (insulin is not present). There was always insulin and glucose in my blood stream because I was eating those recommended grain products for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks: bagels, cereals, breakfast sandwich, pasta, sandwiches, granola bars; cereal bars, etc. (Does this sound like the stuff everyone else was eating??) My body was clearing the glucose from breakfast only to have it replaced with the glucose from lunch and then once that was cleared, there was the snack glucose and then the dinner glucose and knowing me, probably dessert glucose as well!!
You know that old saying that if you have Chinese food, you’ll only be hungry again in an hour? This is why:once your body clears the glucose from your blood stream, obviously your blood glucose is low, and it’s usually lower than it was before you ate whatever it was you ate, so your brain sends out a signal that you need to raise your blood glucose, and that signal is hunger. This creates a vicious cycle: you eat carbs (either because they’re “good for you” or you like them- whatever reason); your blood sugar spikes; your body releases insulin to clear the glucose; your blood sugar bottoms out once the glucose is cleared and your brain tells you that you need to eat. This is why you can eat a huge meal of pork fried rice, chicken chow mein and broccoli beef over rice chased down with a fortune cookie and be hungry an hour later. You know you just ate, but your brain says you’re hungry. This is how you can have a breakfast full of good for you whole grains and then munch on a granola bar about an hour and half later. You have a sandwich and whole wheat crackers for lunch and then munch on a bunch more crackers a couple hours later. You have pasta and shrimp for dinner and then have a couple of cookies while watching tv an hour or so later. By the time your body has cleared the glucose from the prior meal or snack, you’re dumping more glucose into the system! It’s not your fault- this is what we were all told and this is not unusual for most people! That is a perfectly reasonable daily diet laid out above and it’s a diet that will most probably keep you gaining weight. It’s not that different from the diet I was on for most of my college years and I kept steadily gaining weight, until I just gave up and ate all kinds of junk food because NOTHING WAS WORKING FOR ME!!
As much as I would love to lay all the blame on the FDA, I can’t. They meant well. Even though I was following their guidelines, which were made with the best of intentions for everyone, I was simply eating too much and it was too much of the wrong things, so it was a perfect storm of weight loss chaos for me (and everyone else it turns out as well)! After I reached around the 370 mark, my weight pretty much stayed in that neighborhood for several years. I would periodically try dieting, again using the low fat high carb model, and I would lose weight and then slowly gain it all back. It wasn’t until things got really bad with my job and my eating habits that it really began to rise again, and it took a major life crisis to stop it. The only good thing out of that crisis (aside from leaving the job from hell) was that I learned how to eat for weight loss and overall health. It involved making permanent lifestyle and eating changes.
As the title of this post states, one size does not fit everyone. The FDA, in putting out guidelines, is trying to help people eat better, which is to be commended, and obviously they cannot tailor a plan to fit each individual: that’s why they are called “guidelines.” It would be a whole lot easier if we could just take a simple test and get an easy to follow instruction manual on how to eat for our body type & lifestyle, but unfortunately we have to find out through trial and error, mostly. What works for one person may not work for someone else, even if you are related. My sister is a vegetarian and she is also losing weight eating a lot of the foods that I don’t eat. The same is true for me: I eat a Paleo/ Primal diet now which includes a lot of animal products she doesn’t eat and I am also losing weight. My sister’s diet includes a lot of starches and simple carbs and mine includes a lot of meat & fish. Pretty much the only things we have in common are dairy (although mine is much less than hers) and non-starchy vegetables.
You would think it would be easy to figure out what to eat. I mean, if you have a cat, you know you don’t feed it oats and grass, just like you don’t feed your rabbit meat and eggs. Because humans are omnivores (meaning we eat everything), we think our diet must include “everything.” Humans have been trying to figure out what we eat for as long as we have been humans; basically, we eat something and if it makes us sick, we cross it off the list and don’t eat it again. This is fine if you are a caveman (or cave person) but with our big brains and modern conveniences, we techno-savvy homo sapiens think we should know better. We can literally touch the stars but we can’t figure out what we should be eating?! As a wise and savvy engineer once remarked, “the more you overhaul the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain” (Mr. Scott). He was right: just because we can make computers that fit in our palms doesn’t mean we should be eating “super techno franken foods.” The shortest distance between points A & B is still a straight line. 1 + 1 is still 2. One of the other things my Paleo/ Primal “cave man” diet has in common with my sister’s animal-friendly vegetarian diet is that we both eat very few processed foods. Most of what we eat is pretty close to its natural state: the vegetables are as fresh and organic as they can be and so are the eggs, dairy and in my case, the meats too.
I can’t tell you that “eating Paleo/ Primal” is the way to go anymore than I can say “eating vegetarian” or keto or low fat or any other diet is the way to go. All I can tell you is what works for me. Before I starting eating Paleo, my weight was out of control, I had high blood sugar and I was always hungry, always tired and felt pretty awful in general. Now that I eat very few processed foods and grain products, my blood sugar is completely normal, I’ve lost 163 lbs and I have a lot more energy and feel pretty good overall. I wish I could tell everyone that I found the magic potion that makes us all feel wonderful and lose weight, but, alas, not so. I honestly believe that some things I’ve learned are true: that too many processed starchy foods cause high blood glucose which prohibits fat burning and that processed foods are less healthy for you than organic whole foods. Beyond those, I think everyone needs to decide for themselves what works best, and we need to remember that what works for one does not work for all. I’ve had many people tell me that “keto is the way to go!” and I know that keto is too hard for me and it does not make me feel good. I’ve also had a lot of people tell me that Paleo did not fix my blood sugar problem because “I bet if you ate a bagel, your blood sugar would go up!” Duh!!! That’s how blood sugar works! When anyone eats anything, your blood sugar goes up!! (That’s why you test it 2 hours after eating- if it’s still high after 2 hours, then you have a problem!) Some people really don’t enjoy eating Paleo/ Primal even if they lose weight. I know when I tried going vegetarian in college, I really didn’t like it. I like veggies but not that much! My sister on the other hand doesn’t like eating meat or fish (especially fish!)
I think the most important thing I learned after this lifelong struggle is that when someone tells you they have The Answer, don’t believe them! Either they are flat out lying to you or they are making a good faith honest mistake. This is why the weight loss & fitness industries flourish: every few months someone has The Answer and they’ll be happy to share it with you for $19.99 plus shipping and handling! All I’m going to do is tell you to listen to your body (for free!) and be patient. Take notes in your diet journal about what you are eating and how it makes you feel. Record your measurements and/ or weight every couple of weeks. Take notes about your activities/ exercises and how they make you feel (same journal). If you like how you feel, if you are losing weight, getting fitter, then keep going. It doesn’t matter if it’s a specialized “diet with a name;” what matters is that you feel better! But the one caveat I’m going to put out there is that you need to be patient and give your body some time to adjust and time to lose weight and quite possibly heal. I had to stop eating dairy for a long time before I could eat it again without feeling wretched from lactose intolerance. I still have to be careful not to have too much too often, but a little is okay for me. I know I was really addicted to starches and I’d really crave bread for days after eating one piece of toast. It was a long time before I could see it and not want it. I’ve learned that while bread tastes really good, it’s not good for me. My sister on the other hand enjoys it without feeling awful afterwards.
It’s a little ironic that humans pride ourselves on our individuality, but when it comes to eating and exercising, we still look for the One Size Fits All approach. Most of us go through the majority of our lives crammed into the One Size diet- and we all know how well those One Size sweatshirts fit: some of us have to roll up the sleeves and the some of us end up ripping a seam! It’s not comfortable wearing someone else’s clothes, so why would you want to eat someone else’s food?