I really wish we came with an instruction manual! When I was a student and teacher, one of my standard mantras was “when all else fails, read the directions!” It worked, especially for kinesthetic learners like me who try to figure it out on our own. If the “common sense” method doesn’t work, look in the dang instructions! So, believe me, we would all benefit from a “How to Be a Healthy Human” instruction manual, complete with that little Trouble-Shooting section in the back. “Hmmmm….c, c, c….cataracts….. cramps…. constipation! Here we go!” It would make things a lot easier, especially for those of you with kids! As a pet parent, I’ve been through a lot of breed books for Yorkies , and it just makes it easier if you know that Yorkies are prone to sensitive stomachs, so if he ate a little something spicy or rich and spit up a little while later, it’s not a major deal, unless he keeps spitting up.
Unfortunately, our “instruction manuals” come from a variety of sources, some not as reliable as others and many are sadly out of date, so we get to do it the hard way- through trial and error! Eating is one of the those things that looks deceptively easy but is so much harder, as we all know. What to eat, when to eat, what not to eat and even how to eat: there have been so many “instruction books” on these topics that support and contradict each other, it’s no wonder that most of us just give up- “okay, so I’m just stuck being the fat one in the family!”
I should know: I am a professional bad eater. By that I mean I graduated out of amateur status decades ago! You don’t get to be 438 lbs just dabbling at it! I was listening to a podcast recently (40+ Fitness episode 173 with guests Dr. Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore). The topic was fasting to improve health and Jimmy was explaining how he was doing it to help cure his insulin resistance since he’d gotten to 410 lbs before losing weight. The competitor in me immediately thought: “hah! I beat you!”, followed by “hmmm, that’s not a good thing, is it?” Nope, so not a good thing. I see pictures of myself (the ones I thought weren’t too bad- ugh!) and it’s apparent that yep, I was definitely in the professionally bad category. Dr. Nowzaradan of My 600 lb Life always asks new patients how they got to their current weight in the 500+ range, and my answer would be: I just ate whatever I wanted as much as I wanted whenever I wanted. If someone offered me cheesecake and I’d just finished a burger, fries and milkshake, sure! who doesn’t love cheesecake! (Sadly, I think that was my dinner a lot of nights!)
I know most of us are not as bad as I was, but we do a lot of the same things, just not to the extremes I reached. We have breakfast and a couple hours later at work, we have a little snack as we wander through the break room (yum! cheez-its!). We have lunch and someone brought cookies and they’re sharing- thanks, munch munch! We stop for a latte on the way home, have dinner and then a little snack afterwards as we clean up, maybe just finish off the rest of the garlic bread (it doesn’t keep well), and then, anyone want ice cream? It’s just a handful of crackers, a couple of cookies, a little milk, a couple slices of bread and then a scoop of ice cream. It doesn’t feel like a lot when you eat it, because it’s spaced throughout the day but when you look at it all written down, it starts to look like a lot! That’s because it is a lot, and it’s a lot of extra food on top of what you’re already eating! This is one reason I like keeping a food and activity journal. Writing it all down shows you what you’ve eaten, so if you didn’t eat a lot and you’re starving when you get home, maybe that’s the reason. Or maybe what you ate is why you’re hungry: when I have a breakfast sandwich in the morning, I’m a lot hungrier by lunchtime than if I had something like a cheese omelet. The same happens if I have a latte in the morning. So, even though I’ve had a lot of calories, they weren’t the kind that last (fat or protein). Even though my stomach is growling, I don’t eat. (This has to do with the blood sugar rollercoaster thanks to the simple carbs.)
This was a huge part of my eating problem; frankly, it’s the reason I gave up trying to control my eating. I was eating plenty and it was supposed to be ‘healthy’ but I was still getting hungry. “Well, if I’m hungry, my body must need something to eat.” The same thing if I’m tired: “my energy is really low, so I must need to eat something!” WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!
This is where the instruction manual comes in: I’m eating a lot and I’m gaining weight but I’m tired and hungry all the time! This is one of those situations where the ‘obvious common sense’ answer is only going to make it worse! One of the attorneys at our office (I’m now a legal assistant) has a plant on his desk with droopy yellow leaves and he was complaining: I don’t know why it’s so brown- I water it once a week! That’s the problem: overwatering. When plants get droopy yellow/ brown leaves, it only looks like it’s dried out- it’s actually drowning! We are the same way: our hunger and low energy only looks like a lack of food issue- it’s really a wrong food issue! Just like the plant is getting too much water, I was eating too much of the wrong foods which were only making the problem worse, and like the plant, giving me more of what’s making me worse is just going to perpetuate the problem.
The wrong food for me was the abundance of simple refined carbs I was eating. They were quick energy and they were what my body was craving, so that’s what I ate: lots of those ‘healthy whole grains.’ They hit my bloodstream really fast, due to their being simple refined carbs (like whole grain wheat toast) and then just as quickly, they are cleared out and now I’m crashing about an hour later, so….. more toast! or whole wheat crackers! and the cycle repeats itself. So, I’m constantly eating and constantly getting hungry and constantly gaining weight.
The answer was counter-intuitive: eat things that don’t hit my bloodstream as fast and take longer to metabolize. The energy boost is not as fast, but it lasts a lot longer. I’m not hungry an hour after eating and I’m not crashing. It’s like not-watering the plant and hoping it greens up. (FYI: it worked- the plant is now pushing new leaves!) The same thing worked for me once I stopped eating all those simple refined carbs. All that fat, meat and eggs everyone had told me to avoid became a major part of my diet (along with the veggies everyone is always told to eat), and voila! I don’t crash two hours after eating; I don’t get sleepy after lunch and whoo hoo! I’m losing weight! I wish someone had explained this to me when I was twenty-something! It would have made a lot of things a whole lot easier.
That was probably the biggest and most important change to my diet that had a positive impact on my health. When I use the word “diet” here, I don’t mean a weight-loss diet; I mean the literal definition: the foods a person or animal habitually consumes. Changing what I was “habitually consuming” from simple refined grain based products to proteins and healthy fats has had an enormously positive affect on my total health, but it’s not the only one. Another positive change has been eating intuitively. This means that when you get hungry, your body is telling you that you need fuel. Okay, so that should be easy enough….. but hang on, wasn’t that how I got into this mess to start to start with?
Yep! Absolutely right! That’s why I really want the instruction manual! That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but the blood sugar rollercoaster thanks to those ‘healthy whole grains’ was screwing up the system! It’s like putting used batteries in your flashlight: if you put in new ones, you only have to change them every few weeks or so, but if you put in defective or used batteries, you are always having to change them! Instead of fueling my body with healthy fats, proteins and complex carbs, I was trying to fuel it with simple refined carbs and was running out of energy every couple hours or so. The complex carbs and proteins last four to five hours usually before I get hungry (depending on whether I work out or not), but just doing every day things (like driving or walking around the office), I was always hungry after grain based carbs like crackers or even a sandwich. A lot of bloggers, podcasters and experts (like Dr. David Ludwig specifically) recommend that we eat intuitively to lose or maintain weight. That’s a little scary to me (actually a lot more than ‘a little’)! It’s like getting bitten by a dog and then being told to pet the dog again: “uhhhh, the one that just bit me?!” “Yeah, that’s the one!” The idea is that now that I know what I should be eating, I should be ‘safe.’ But….. I really thought I was ‘safe’ when I tried it before! (niiiice doggie!) We are constantly told to eat only when we’re hungry and then, only until we are ‘satisfied,’ as opposed to being ‘full.’ I have never been good at either of those things! It’s a lot of listening to your body but it means we need to interpret our bodies’ signals correctly. I previously did a post about miscommunication, because I am clearly not fluent in whatever language my body speaks!
That’s the point, however: we have lost touch with our own bodies! It’s like living in a house and having to hunt down the bathroom each time we need to use it! When we were babies, we knew what it was saying, even if we didn’t have the language skills to tell our parents we needed a new diaper! We need to learn to what our bodies are trying to tell us: this is what ‘tired’ feels like; this is what ‘satisfied’ feels like; this is what ‘normal’ feels like, etc. We have grown away from listening to what our body needs because we have been telling it what we think it needs for too long! Eating intuitively is difficult. I’ve tried it since I got ‘bit by the whole-grain dog’ and it wasn’t a big success. It’s time to try it again, because I need to know what my body needs and what it’s saying to me. I am better at it than some people (too much Star Trek as a kid) but still, it’s a mystery to me in a lot of ways. This is why we are chronically stressed, chronically exhausted, chronically overweight. Really stressed? Take a pill! Really tired? Take a pill! Really overweight? Take a pill – and eat more healthy whole grains! Then when the pills stop working, we really start to break down! We no longer have any idea what it feels like to live in our bodies when they aren’t being medicated or stressed or exhausted. We need to get back to our base line and that means we first have to find it!
When my sister was in college, she lived off campus and like most college students, her apartment was filled with a lot of second hand furniture. One of those was a coffee table my dad had gotten when he first moved out on his own. We’d seen it in almost all of his homes through the years: black painted wood, with the shelf underneath and the art deco-ish legs. There was a little lip on the outside of the top. My sister decided to refinish it and started stripping off the paint, only to find there was a parquet wood design under that black paint. My dad told her the table had originally had glass on top to protect the parquet, but it had gotten broken and he’d painted it. Underneath the plain black paint was a beautiful wooden inlaid table but it’d been covered up for so long he forgot about it and we’d never known about it. We need to strip away all of the outside influences that are obscuring our original design and learn to communicate with our bodies. We need to know what it feels like to be hungry, to be satisfied, to be tired, to be rested, to be calm, etc. Only when we know what those feel like can we figure out how to move forward.
Eating intuitively is one way to start finding your baseline. When you get hungry, take a few notes. When did you eat last? What was it? Are you really super hungry? Is it your office-mate’s lunch you smell? Take notes about what you eat: when, what, how much, how hungry were you when you ate. I’m trying to eat intuitively again and it’s going a little better than last time but it’s still a process. This is not about counting calories. Lately, my “calorie counter” has been telling me that I’m way under my calorie limit to lose weight, but if I’m not hungry, I don’t need to eat those extra 400 calories! Yes, I was hungry after my work out and I had a good dinner (chicken, sweet potato fries and an apple). I thought about having something else, but I wasn’t hungry so I didn’t eat it. When I got up this morning, I still wasn’t hungry, although when I did get hungry later, I had breakfast. It’s not about eating according to the clock, or starving yourself, or eating according to a calorie counter. It’s about finally listening to your body when it tells you what it needs. It’s a process (like everything else we have to learn), and sometimes when I’m trying to figure out if I need to eat, I feel a little like I’m talking to one of my pets: are you hungry? do you need to go out? did your toy get stuck on the bookshelf again? what do you want??? But it’s worth the effort if you learn how to speak your body’s language. You learn what ‘real hunger’ is and what is “it’s snack-time, dude!” It also helps when you need to know the difference between what foods work for you and what aren’t so good for you: things like gluten, lactose or even just the simple carbs. Be the bio-detective and learn your body’s language. Most importantly, remember that when it comes to your own health and fitness, you are the only expert on you!