Convenience Foods: Weight Loss & Effortless Eating

One of my biggest problems continues to be weekends. When I am locked into my weekday work routine, it’s easier to stay on plan. Obviously, we have less variation in that work-a-day schedule so unless you have an office where people bring in treats or have catered conferences and luncheons, you only have what you have brought to eat into the office. Feeling hungry or want to snack? There are none because you didn’t bring any! Or, they are healthy snacks like nuts, string cheese or something else nutritious or low calorie.

Weekends, unscripted and constantly changing, are horrendous for me simply because there are too many opportunities for “unscheduled or improvised eating.”  If it’s a ‘Stay-At-Home’ weekend, it’s a little easier to stay closer to the target, but again the opportunities are still there to wander into the kitchen or to have seconds of lunch or dinner.  It’s not much different than the office: not a lot of snacky foods and the ones that are there are healthy or low cal, but too much of any food, healthy or not, isn’t good for you.  I try to keep easy to eat food like string cheese or nuts or beef sticks out of the house simply because they require no cooking or preparation.  When you feel the urge to eat our of boredom, the thought of getting out a pan to scramble some eggs or to put a chicken in the oven is too much of a hassle, not to mention the clean-up later! “I’m not that hungry!” But something ready to eat? Unwrap it, eat it and throw away the trash? Too much temptation there!

The same thing happens when you’re out running errands or shopping or just hanging out with friends: too much convenient ready to eat food! It’s easy to stop for lunch or a snack or even get a high calorie coffee drink and before you know it, you’ve consumed too much sugar, too much starch, too much fat or just too much! We tend not to pay attention to what we ate or even remember that we ate it because it was nearly effortless. We don’t have to deal with preparing it or cleaning up afterwards so our only real consideration is the cost in cash and calories, and we all know how easy it is to give in temptation or to make an excuse.  If we are out with friends, then it’s a ‘special occasion,’ or if we are running from one errand to another, we rationalize it because ‘I don’t have time to eat healthy.’ And let’s not forget the Impulse Buy: see it and throw it in your basket before you have time to think about it! Of course, once you get it home, well, ….I bought it so I might as well eat it….Really?

I remember one of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients complaining that she wished “they’d close up all the bakeries” because they were her downfall. I can empathize because I am someone who looks at bread the way kids look at candy on Halloween. I can walk right past the chocolate, the chips and the soda without even noticing, but bread? That’s most often where I will linger, and the excuses start creeping into my thoughts: the dogs love bread too, so if I get this bag of rolls, I can give half of them to the dogs….. And they love warm cornbread too, so I can split this pan with them….. Yeeaahhhh, riiigghhhttt [insert eye roll here].  While the dogs may end up with part of whatever bread makes it into my home, the fact that I had half of it (or more) still isn’t a good thing!

Again, the problem goes back to how easy is it to eat? Bread is one of those foods that is right there ready to go! You can buy the kind you need to heat up or ready-to-bake and depending on how much ‘work’ that is for you, it’s still far less than making bread from scratch.  Even cornbread mixes, which usually only require you add two ingredients, are much easier than doing it all yourself.

While many health and weight loss gurus decry processed foods for their potentially unhealthy shelf-stable ingredients, in my opinion their biggest problem continues to be they are just too effortless! When we feel the urge to snack, we usually don’t choose these easy convenient foods because they are so wonderfully delicious– we choose them because we just have to open the package! They are as close to instant gratification as we can get with food!  While fast food, bakery and deli foods may have less of those unhealthy processed shelf-stable ingredients, they are just as problematic as the convenient packaged foods because all we have to do is hit the drive-thru or pop them into our basket. They are still as effortless as we can get.

Which is why the only “convenient  and effortless” foods at my house belong to the pets! It’s a ‘hassle’ to prepare food to eat.  It requires actual ‘work’ as in cooking or making a salad dressing.  Just last night I was grumbling to myself about having to cook: the only effortless food I regularly bring home is rotisserie chicken and I had finished the last of it the night before. Now, I had to get out the skillet and put the pork steaks on the stove…grumble grumble. Obviously, pork steaks aren’t a ‘snack food’ or ‘convenient,’ but that doesn’t mean we are doomed to go through the Food Preparation Production each night to keep from bingeing on hot dogs or refrigerator pasta.  When I do cook ‘real food,’ I usually cook the entire package, which means tonight all I have to do is reheat the leftovers.

Having leftovers is almost a forgotten practice. When people think of leftovers today, it’s usually leftover pizza, leftover fried chicken or maybe leftover Chinese.  Most of them are processed foods, as in there are three pieces of last night’s pizza or chicken in fridge. The hassle involved with cooking ‘real food’ each night is one of the reasons convenient effortless food has become so popular, but I also think it’s one of the reasons we’ve become so unhealthy in general.  Like me, we get home from work or errands and when we think about ‘what’s for dinner?’, you have the same response I did last night: “Crap! I have to cook!” So we get in the habit of keeping easy effortless food close at hand: we head home via Jack in the Box or we call in a To-Go order at the Chinese place, or we have something at home that goes right from the fridge/ freezer into the microwave! It’s easy to eat, takes little to no work and before we know it, we’ve eaten dinner so fast that by the time our stomach has noticed it’s full of food, we’ve moved on to dessert! How many of us have finished a pint of ice cream because we’re ‘hungry’ only to feel stuffed and bloated afterwards? (Raising my hand here!)

This is one of the other benefits of eating less convenient, not so effortless foods: it also takes time to eat them! Even the rotisserie chicken that makes a weekly appearance at my house has to be cut up and eaten off the bones rather than being boneless nuggets. Most convenient foods are highly processed so they are easy to eat (I think of them as ‘pre-digested’ since a lot of the work with chewing and metabolizing is already done in the processing.) How easy is it to eat a slice of pizza compared to cutting up a pork steak? Compare tossing french fries into your mouth with eating a salad full of raw veggies? Neither of them is a major production but those few extra minutes means your stomach has a little more time to notice it’s full of food before you start stuffing it with more!

Sticking with the less than convenient foods is a simple way of keeping your hand out of the cookie jar or bag of chips: when you have to make them yourself, it makes you ask yourself  “am I really that hungry?” Starting with real whole foods not only means you’re staying away from unstable fats and chemical preservatives, it also means that when you sit down to eat, you aren’t eating out of boredom or habit.  Another bonus I have noticed when something processed and effortless makes it into my kitchen is that the more you eat real whole foods, the more you taste the chemicals in those convenient foods.  They might be effortless to eat but they tend to taste like the plastic they were wrapped in too!

 

Yay, Whole Foods!: Supplements, Nutrition & Weight Loss

I’m a huge fan of whole foods and I don’t mean the supermarket chain.  (I’m not knocking them; I’ve shopped there before but there isn’t one in my town.) I’m talking about the real as-close-to-right-out-of-the-ground whole foods. Apparently, they are one of the hot trends right now in the food and nutrition arena. One of the other hot trends is biohacking.  Biohacking is a loose term for finding ways to get what you want from your body (or from something else organic) by using some kind of quick trick or other means.  One of the most well known biohackers is Dave Asprey, ‘inventor’ of Bulletproof coffee.  Essentially, Bulletproof coffee is a high energy drink you make yourself that keeps you full and can keep you in ketosis if that’s your thing.  (Ketosis can also be called another biohack by some people.) While I found a lot of descriptions and examples of biohacking, I didn’t really find anything that defines it.  The best example for me is what I used to do when I couldn’t get to sleep at night: I used a placebo of sorts. I’d take a couple of plain ibuprophen.  (Not the PM version because it didn’t exist then!) Generally, within twenty minutes of taking the generic Advil, even if I wasn’t in pain, I’d start to get sleepy and be out before I knew it.  It worked every time.

One of the drawbacks to biohacking is that sometimes people try it with nutrition, which usually comes out to taking handfuls of supplements, smoothies or protein shakes.  I have heard Dave Asprey on podcasts talking about taking about 20 or more supplements and while I don’t want to malign supplements or those that use them (I take a few myself!), I do want to point out that just because you take 2000 mg of Calcium every day, that doesn’t mean you have all your Calcium needs covered.  One important issue that gets marginalized– with both supplements and whole foods– is the subject of bioavailability.   Bioavailability is pretty much just what it sounds like: the nutrients in the supplement or food either is or isn’t available to be absorbed by your body.  This is important because if you’re eating bushels of spinach thinking you’re getting your iron RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance), then you’re sadly mistaken. While the nutritional information label on that bag of spinach may say it’s loaded with iron, it’s not in a form your body can absorb!

Example: being a bit of a geek-groupie, I watch The Big Bang Theory and in one episode Penny was out shopping with Sheldon, who in typical Sheldon fashion, criticized her choices of vitamins and supplements.  He told her (paraphrasing here) that he could help her get her vitamins and minerals because what she had in her hands was “a recipe for expensive pee.” We think we’re getting enough vitamins and minerals and all that good nutritional stuff because we’re popping those supplements daily, but the fact of the matter is while we may be swallowing the pills, they may not be staying in our bodies!  Some nutrients need ‘helpers’ to be absorbed and others may just be plain unavailable! This is what Sheldon meant when he told Penny she was making ‘expensive pee.’ We can take all the supplements and protein shakes in the world and if the nutrients aren’t available, they just pass right through our bodies and do nothing for us but drain our wallets.

Supplement manufacturers usually take a big hit on this topic because while a protein powder label may say it had 25 mg of protein per scoop, what’s actually available to be absorbed is maybe half of that.  We need to check labels for the amount that’s bioavailable.  The protein is there: we just can’t use it. The same is true for supplements: just because it’s there on the label doesn’t mean we actually get the benefit.  Unfortunately people tend to think that whole foods have ‘solved’ this problem which isn’t the case, although they do have a slight advantage. Many whole foods- like spinach- have lots of nutrients, minerals and vitamins, but plants have defenses too, and a lot of their defenses rely on keeping their nutrition unavailable to those who eat them.  For example, while spinach, broccoli and other dark leafy greens have calcium, they also have oxalic acid which binds to the calcium so we can’t absorb it. So while we may eat  five cups of broccoli, we may only end up getting less than half the calcium we think we got.

The advantage to choosing to rely more on whole foods than supplements comes from tradition, in my opinion.  We tend to prepare a lot of foods in ways to make them more bioavailable.  Take creamed spinach: that oxalic acid doesn’t care if it binds to the calcium in the spinach or the calcium in the cream, so we’re getting more calcium in that creamed spinach than if we ate plain spinach.  There’s a similar benefit to eating the traditional beans & rice that come in many cultures: legumes and rice both contain incomplete proteins so if we ate them alone, we wouldn’t get any protein benefit, but by eating them together, we get the proteins.

Whole foods also have a slight advantage because of the ‘whole package’ deal.  For some foods, like white potatoes, there are a lot of vitamins in the skins but once those foods get processed (say into potato flakes), the skins are discarded and we don’t get those vitamins.  We’ve heard a lot of similar stories about other fruits and veggies: eat the whole fruit/ veg rather than just part of it (apple sauce or veggie juice). This also why people advocate eating the whole egg instead of just the whites where the protein is concentrated: the yolk has beneficial nutrition such as vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.

There are a lot of diets that rely on nutrition bars and protein shakes to promote weight loss, but again bioavailability bites you in the butt! There might be 100% of all your RDA on those labels but how much remains in your body? How many times does someone you know who relies on those bars and shakes complain of being tired or not feeling great? Yes, they’re losing weight but is feeling cruddy a great trade off? Are they hungry a lot? I know I was when I was on those diets- tired and feeling really blah. Not the benefit I wanted with my weight loss!

I am not saying you should throw out your bottles of vitamins and supplements. I’ve got quite a collection of those myself but I don’t depend on those bottles to make sure I get all my vitamins and minerals. Remember the word ‘Supplement’ means to ‘add to’ something else. I try to get most of my vitamins, minerals and nutrition from whole natural foods and then use vitamins and supplements to make up any differences that might be lacking.  I’m sure my diet has some holes in it. No one’s is perfect, I’m sure! The point is that I feel better eating mostly whole foods and- not to brag- but a lot of people have been asking me what I use on my skin because it looks so much better.  Umm, nothing? No lotion, no cream- just soap and water! Unless broccoli, eggs, fish and butter lettuce count!

 

 

The WTH?!? Diet: Weight Loss & Listening to Your Body

I recently saw an ad on my local PBS station for a program about “what should I eat?” featuring a famous weight loss/ nutritionist doctor.  As much as I respect this doctor, I’m pretty sure this is a knee-jerk reaction to all the ‘healthy diet options’ spreading like wildfire all over the media.  Everywhere we turn we’re bombarded with ads for the ‘true weight loss diet’ and the ‘healthiest diet’ for athletes, people who want to lose weight and everyone else under the sun. And now, we’re getting slammed with the ‘DNA diet’ ads: “get your DNA tested and find out what diet works for you!”

I guess diets can’t get much more personalized than by testing your DNA, but at the same time, I wonder about the accuracy of those tests. I recently had mine tested (not for a diet plan but it was included in the package) and I was extremely unimpressed by the results.  According to the alleged experts, I should have lost weight (extremely slowly FYI) by eating a carb-heavy, low-fat, low-protein diet and while I apparently don’t drink as much coffee as the average person, “more coffee consumption might help [me] lose weight.”  Since the carb-heavy, low-fat, low-protein diet is what caused me to gain about 150 lbs through my 30’s & 40’s, I pretty much concluded their ‘analysis’ is garbage, especially since they concluded that based on a couple of genes, I’m supposedly not sensitive to refined carbs.  I cannot tell you how easily I am affected by a refined carb! If I have a normal sized piece of cake in the evening, I’m up all night in the bathroom, get nasty leg and foot cramps all night,  feel my blood sugar spike in the early morning, wake up with a ‘hangover headache’ and am absolutely starving within minutes of waking. These things only happen with refined carbs and/ or sugar! But according to the ‘expert analysis,’ I’m not ‘sensitive’ to refined carbs. Yeaahhhhh, riiight….

This is what’s missing with today’s diet-mania: we’re so busy listening to what the ‘experts’ are telling us to do that we aren’t listening to what our bodies are telling us about the food we’re eating! I listened to all the ‘experts’ back in the ’80’s & ’90’s who were pushing the heart-healthy whole grains and low fat diets.  I followed them as closely as I could, ate lots of whole grains, whole wheat and cut out all the fats that I could, and I slowly and steadily gained weight! I was seriously confused because I obviously wasn’t doing the diet right since I kept gaining weight! WTH?!? By the time I topped 400 lbs, I had pretty much given up.  Obviously there was something really wrong with how I was eating but I didn’t know what and all the ‘experts’ kept giving me the same information: low fat, lots of whole grains!

Most of you know that now I follow a Paleo diet and it’s not that I’m pushing my way of eating on anyone, but the fact is the basic Paleo philosophy works for me.  I eat as much whole unprocessed food as I can and more vegetables than meat.  I limit my grains, my legumes, my sugar and my dairy consumption.  While that’s part of most generic “Paleo diets,” I find I feel better and lose more weight without the grains, sugar and legumes in my diet, and while the DNA analysis didn’t mention anything about lactose intolerance, I noticed shortly before I ‘went Paleo’ that I felt really really cruddy after eating yogurt or having any dairy.  After giving it up entirely for a few months, I realized I could have a limited amount without feeling cruddy, but I still feel better keeping it to a minimum (cream in the coffee, a little cheese and yogurt on occasion).

The most important thing I learned from eating Paleo isn’t that “grains are bad for everyone!” or that “cavemen didn’t eat beans!” It’s that we need to listen to our bodies when it comes to what we’re eating! Most athletes are used to listening to their bodies when it comes to activities like running, swimming or whatever their specialty is.  If they normally run a marathon but their hamstrings start feeling it around mile 20, they stop! Their body is telling them something’s not right and to keep running is going to hurt them and they listen to it!

That’s what I didn’t do in my ’30’s when I was gaining weight on the low-fat high-carb diet.  My body was telling me “this isn’t good for us!” and I didn’t listen, until I had gained 400 lbs — major damage! Even though I knew something was wrong, I just assumed I wasn’t doing the diet correctly or that I wasn’t getting enough exercise or I was just eating too much (the last two were definitely true!) but it honestly never occurred to me that the food I was eating was also causing damage to my body.  “I’m not sensitive to gluten. I eat muffins all the time and never get sick!” Between the sugar and the carbs in the muffins I was eating, I was really screwing up my blood sugar! All the starches int those ‘healthy whole grains’ were killing me, slowly and painfully! But it was like I kept limping along in the marathon since ‘my feet don’t hurt- just my hamstrings.’ My body never got the chance to level out my blood sugar or burn fat because I was eating about every two-three hours (“it boosts your metabolism!”– not mine!) and I was eating more ‘healthy whole grains’ aka starches!

Once I stopped eating the processed foods, the starches, sugars and other ‘non-Paleo’ foods, what I found out was that my metabolism and my body really liked eating more leafy green vegetables (spinach, lettuce), more cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts) and more unprocessed foods in general. I basically went to as blank a food slate as I could and I realized I could tell the difference after eating bread and a day without eating bread. It was like I suddenly heard what my body had been trying to tell me all along: pasta ain’t good for us, honey, no matter how much whole grain it’s got in it! Once I began listening to my body, it made eating a whole lot easier. It doesn’t matter if I call it a Paleo diet, a keto diet or a Whole 30 diet: the name doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I feel good after I eat, I don’t feel like crap the next day, my body is healthier with what I’m eating and I’m also losing weight (bonus!)

The problem is that most people like having a food list or some kind of concrete food plan when it comes to dieting or eating healthier.  This is why so many of those packaged weight loss programs are so popular: you don’t have to make any decisions other than “do I want pizza or beef stew for lunch?” To be frank, for a lot of people making their own food decisions is walking the tightrope without a net. What happens if I make a mistake?  In this situation, mistakes are not a bad thing! For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I’d have really horrible leg & foot cramps in the middle of the night so I started writing them down in my food journal when I got up in the morning, and after looking back a few weeks, I realized they always happened after I had something sugary/ starchy for dinner the night before! Hello!! No sugar/ starch with dinner= no nasty foot cramps! Problem solved!

Unfortunately the words “Food Journal” are right up there with “Root Canal” for a lot of people: “You mean I gotta write down everything I eat??” Yes, because that’s how we learn things! You are actually making your own diet as you go along. How do you know what works for you and what doesn’t if you don’t keep track of what you eat? It’s often said that you can’t evaluate what you don’t monitor, and we acknowledge that in other aspects of our lives.  When we look at our credit card bill, it comes with a summary of charges so we know who made what charge where and when and if there’s something on there that we don’t recognize, we call the company to let them know that’s not us! But we don’t look at it, if we just pay the bill and think “I must’ve really been busy with that card!” we’ll never know someone stole our account number and has been spending our money. We monitor our electrical usage (it goes up in summer!), our water bill (also up in summer!) and how much gas we’re putting in the car, but when it comes to keeping track of what we’re eating, ….. umm, fish and chips yesterday and I think it spaghetti the night before… I don’t remember breakfast… Then when we get nasty heartburn or feel like our body’s full of lead, we don’t have any frame of reference for why, so we go on eating the same foods and wondering why we sometimes feel cruddy. [FYI: isn’t this the Not Working For Me diet that made us overweight?]

‘Making your own diet’ only works when you keep track of what you’re eating and how you feel afterwards, but it doesn’t have to be an in-depth intensive account.  For me, I log it in an app and when I get home, I write it in my paper journal along with any notes about how I felt: super hungry at 3:00 p.m.; really tired or stressed all day; nasty leg cramps during the night, etc. I used to weigh and measure everything mainly so I’d have an idea of what five ounces of meat or a cup of spinach looked like. Now that I’ve got a good idea, I only weigh & measure if I want to double-check. It seriously takes me about five minutes to write down everything I ate and drank during the day.  It just needs to be enough to give me a frame of reference if I start feeling good, bad, or stop losing weight or worse start gaining. Keeping track is also how I learned that a little dairy is okay, starches are seriously not okay and a few legumes won’t hurt me. Is this a Paleo diet? I don’t know and I don’t care, because it’s my diet and it works for me but it only works when I pay attention. So what did you eat today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ignorance Hurts! Weight Loss & New Ideas

One of the most painful stereotypes regarding the obese is that they are gluttons, followed hard by the second most painful stereotype: they are lazy.  Neither statement is true in most cases.  Most people who go on diets adhere closely to the program; they eat their diet food, measure their portions, say no to the cheats and treats.  They lose some weight, maybe even hit their goal, but then we all know what happens next: rebound weight gain!  They feel like failures and society for the most part believes they must have screwed up somewhere or just gone off their diet.

The truth is that, like most people, I tried very hard to lose weight.  I played sports; I tried to eat the healthy food.  My mom was always pushing one diet or another at me, and most of them were pretty awful and I never lost much weight.  Some of her plans included a fast-metabolism program, where I eliminate certain foods from my diet, drink smoothies according to the book’s recipe list, and then the following week, I make more changes to my diet to include/ eliminate more foods, and then make even more changes the next week!  This was guaranteed to jump-start my metabolism so I would burn off weight in no time at all!  Another one of her guaranteed fixes included drinking a smoothie made with an expensive powder (like $30 a pound!) and this powder would ‘bind’ to the sugar/ carbs/ whatever to keep it from being absorbed, so I would lose a lot of weight fast!  One of these diets included the questionably ‘healthy’ meal of buttered egg noodles on a regular basis.  Even as a teenager, I really didn’t think buttered noodles counted as ‘diet food’ and it didn’t take long before I stopped listening to my mom’s fad diet schemes.

However weird and wacky some of these diet plans might have been, my mom had the right idea: we need to keep learning and stay open to new ideas.  What we all thought was the ‘right answer’ when I was growing up (low fat-high carb and eat less-move more) is more than likely NOT the right answer!  We know that carbs turn into glucose in the body and that chronically high glucose leads to insulin resistance which keeps the body from metabolizing stored body fat.  Essentially, the more carbs you eat and the more often you eat them, the less body fat you burn off.  All that advice we were given about eating every two-three hours isn’t ‘jump-starting’ our metabolism but it is keeping us overweight.  The carb roller coaster is why we feel tired two hours after lunch and why that afternoon granola bar makes us feel energized.

When you open yourself up to new ideas, there’s always the danger of getting taken for a ride.  This is why if you are going to keep learning new things, you need to do your homework! I confess I am one of those who poo-poo’d the Paleo diet as one more weird freaky fad diet to be avoided, and I did it without learning anything about it.  I simply lumped into another one of those ‘flash in the pan & sell as many books as possible’ marketing schemes.  Bad, bad, bad! I should know better and I’m going to blame a cynical outlook on weight loss for my poor judgment! Before I made a snap judgment, I should have taken a look at what the Paleo/ Caveman Diet proponents were actually saying.

I’m not going to tell you that Paleo is 100% effective for everyone, because I honestly have no idea if it is.  I can tell you that after years of reading about other weird fad diets and trying a few of them that this one made the most sense to me.  The number one reason for me is that it’s a pretty basic plan: eat real whole food.  I don’t have to go looking for some expensive powder or a long list of strange smoothie ingredients, and I don’t have to drink all my food for weeks at time while doing XYZ exercises.  I simply avoid the processed foods.  Essentially, if it comes packaged in a box or a bag and has chemical gobbledygook ingredients, I should probably leave it on the shelf.

Proponents of Paleo have suggested that one of the reasons it took a long time for this way of eating (most don’t like the word ‘diet’) is that other than cookbooks and how-to books, there’s not a lot of marketing to go along with Paleo.  This is one of the failings of the Weight Loss Industry– because it is an industry!  People make money selling others like me the Hope of Losing Weight, usually in some package or some program that we have to pay for.  There are whole aisles at the grocery store full of packaged diet food, mostly full of chemicals, preservatives and other things that may not be good for us. We can lose weight eating those processed foods, usually only until we stop eating them.  This was my major question when I was losing weight on Nutrisystem: what happens when I stop eating their boxed food?  Easy! I gain weight again, because the focus is mainly on eating their food, not how I should be eating (supposedly that comes later, but I never got to that part!)

This is why Paleo works for me: it’s real whole simple food and I don’t have to buy the “Paleo” brand of food, although now there are brands like Primal Kitchen that fit the criteria, but it’s up to you if you want to buy them- you don’t need them to eat Paleo. If I want to buy some simple salad dressing instead of making it myself, I can buy it and not have to worry about it being full of canola oil, but if I want to make a simple vinaigrette, I can still do it.  The bottom line for Paleo is to keep your food as real, whole and unprocessed as possible.  Like I said, simple!

The point I’m trying to make is that if one thing doesn’t work for you, keep an open mind and keep learning about other methods that might work.  You need to give it an honest attempt (one week probably isn’t long enough) but if it’s not sustainable, you should probably cross it off your list.  A temporary fix is always and only temporary, just like all fad diets- once you stop eating their food or following their program, you’ll gain the weight back.  Paleo is no different in this way: if I were to go back to eating the processed foods I ate growing up, I would gain back the weight. What makes it work for me is that I’m still eating real food and it’s real food I like eating, like salad and spare ribs.  I feel better when I eat it instead of feeling hungry and tired after eating the fettucine alfredo.  I like what I eat, I don’t have to buy weird expensive ingredients or take handfuls of pills.  If I had done my homework about Paleo when I first heard about it, I’d probably have lost weight years before I did and no doubt saved myself some grief.  By choosing to stay ignorant and cynical, I only hurt myself.  Shame on me for being narrow-minded!

[Since learning about it, I’ve read some other great books that follow the same kind of idea: Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson; The Paleo Solution and Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf; Always Hungry? by David Ludwig, and Melissa Hartwig of Whole 30 has just come out with two new books.  All of these advocate eating unprocessed nutrient dense foods and keeping the processed ingredients to a minimum.  However you choose to eat, choose nutrition over convenience when possible and always go for unprocessed.]

A Variety of Hobgoblins: Consistency Doesn’t Have to Be Boring!

One of the quotes I used to hear a lot is the “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”  by Ralph Waldo Emerson (the complete quote actually says “a foolish consistency”).  I think most people use it to mean getting stuck in a rut is easier than thinking of solutions all day.  Why use your brain all day long when you can follow the same little track?  In other words, consistency is for boring stupid people.  Remember, “variety is the spice of life!”

You can see the problem when it comes to weight loss: we are constantly being told by others to be consistent when it comes to our healthy eating habits, and we are constantly (consistently??) being told by others that we need variety in our lives to keep us from getting bored with the ‘healthy stuff.’  Some of the complaints I hear a lot is that ‘healthy food doesn’t taste so great’ and ‘I get bored fast eating healthy.’  I’m not going to lie: I can eat the same thing over and over again and rarely get bored with it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the ‘healthy stuff’ or not.  I used to eat the same Jack in the Box meal night after night, and that’s just one example.  It has nothing to do with how yummy or not-yummy something is; for me, it’s usually how hungry or not-hungry I am and whether I ‘want to eat’ or not. So, for me, while I understand what they mean, it’s never been much of a problem for me.

The exception was processed foods vs whole foods.  The more processed a food is, the more chemicals and ‘flavor boosters’ it has in it.  These foods are designed to keep you eating more of them by being ‘highly palatable.’  That’s a nice way of saying they are addictive (‘betcha can’t eat just one!’) So when you taste something that’s processed, it never tastes like something made from a whole food.  I recently saw a salsa taste test on America’s Test Kitchen where the tester tried to fool the host: along with the sample of jarred processed salsas for her to taste was a homemade sample made right there in the test kitchen. It tasted different, obviously (she used the word ‘fresh’ to describe it).  What she wasn’t tasting were all the chemicals and preservatives used in the jarred salsa to keep it from spoiling or to ‘boost the flavor.’  For me, when I stopped eating processed foods and started eating more whole foods, the blandness was the most noticeable change.  Although I knew why it tasted blander and was kind of expecting it, it was still an adjustment. However, eating more whole and nutrient dense foods was more important to me than just taste, so I stuck with it.  I was boringly consistent!

And it paid off! In that first year, I lost almost 100 lbs by not starving myself, not exercising myself to death (hardly exercised at all, really!) and by not eating ‘weird diet food.’ I simply stopped eating high carb processed foods for more low carb whole foods (veggies).  In that first year, I stopped two diabetes medications and in the second year I stopped my hypertension medication too!  Still not killing myself with exercise or starving or eating weird diet food! Being healthy and losing weight has more to do with giving your body the right nutrition rather than counting calories or macros or killing yourself with kettlebells.  Eating real nutrient dense food instead of something that comes in a box or a can or a powder will do more for your weight loss than doing seven workouts a week!

When it came to eating healthy food, I was boringly consistent (that hobgoblin is now my pet!) and I used it to my advantage. I ate a lot of the same kinds of foods over and over again: things like spinach, salad greens, shredded cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts (not so much cauliflower) and a lot of different unprocessed meats like roasted chicken, beef, lamb, and pork.  On weekends, it’s a lot of bacon or sausage and eggs for breakfast.  So while it may look pretty boring, I do spice it up with what I like! I used to make my own simple salad dressing: balsamic or apple cider vinegar, olive or avocado oil and Trader Joes 21 Seasoning Salute or any other spice blend that I like.  (Now, honestly I use mainly Primal Kitchen brand salad dressings because they are made with avocado oil.)  I also make my own spice blend for my meats. I sprinkle on a mix of garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, curry powder and sometimes a little red pepper flakes.  Trader Joes just came out with a garlic salt blend that works pretty good too!  As for the salads, I add in things like avocados, onions (green, red or white), peppers of all colors, sprouts, radishes, carrot shreds, heirloom tomatoes and anything else that looks good in the produce department!

Another thing happened while I was being boringly consistent with healthy eating choices: when I tasted the processed foods I used to enjoy so much, they just tasted weird to me.  When I started eating whole foods, I noticed the absence of all those chemicals in the natural foods, but when I ate the processed foods again, I could really taste them!  And it wasn’t just ‘fake cherry flavor’ that I was tasting: I was tasting all the chemicals and additives they put in during processing.  It’s as if all those ‘flavor boosters’ are there to hide the chemical taste in the food.  It doesn’t taste good to me anymore, which makes it easier to give up.  Remember when you were a kid and the first time you tasted coffee or beer and you probably made a face or spit it out? “Why do grownups drink that yuck?!” Because grownups get used to the taste! Just like we get used to the taste of the sugary sweet jarred pasta sauce and the fake mapley taste in the fake maple syrup (personally, I used the real stuff when I made pancakes- another acquired taste!)

While my menus may look like the same boring thing night after night (“I had salad and rotisserie chicken again last night”), there is quite a lot of variety in there!  Think about it: long before people began processing food in factories, all their foods were ‘whole foods’ and we developed as many different ways of cooking it as there are people on the planet! If you are tired of Mexican, how about Chinese? Tired of Chinese? Then how about Moroccan? That plain piece of beef can be Italian, Indonesian, or Southwestern! Whole foods don’t have to be boring, unless you want them to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sugar: The White Death

It is no secret that we are addicted to sugar.  Most of us are pretty good at recognizing the obvious sources of sugars in our diets: candy, soda, sweetened coffee drinks and sweet pastries.  We all know they’re bad for us and so most of us try to limit those.

But there are other sugars in our diet beyond the mochas, cookies and Pepsi: they are the orange juice and bagel we had with breakfast, the whole wheat bread in our turkey sandwich and the pasta we have with dinner.  “But,” you say “there was no jam on the bagel and nothing at all sweet in any of those!”  That is true but there was still sugar just the same, in the form of starches.  This is where most of us make our mistakes (including me) because we haven’t learned how the body processes what we eat.  We’re told to eat low fat and avoid “sugar” so we think we are “eating healthy” when we have juice instead of soda and a whole wheat turkey sandwich or whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce: “I’m eating my healthy whole grains with lots of fruits and vegetables!” But you are still getting sugars in every bite.

Most of us have been told that we can eat better if we give up anything “white,” like cream, whole milk, cheeses, white flour, bread, potatoes, pasta and sugar. While it’s true that “white” usually means highly processed, which is not the best for you, it’s also true that whole wheat breads and pastas are also made up of the similar starches that make up the “white” varieties.  What most of us don’t know is that starches are simply long chains of sugars (polysaccharides)  and while they may not taste as sweet as more recognizable forms (monosaccharides and disaccharides), the body treats them the same way.

[This is where I remind everyone that I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. I just did my own research to educate myself and I’m sharing what I’ve learned.]

I recently read The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes, mainly because I wanted to learn more about what sugar is and some of the problems it causes.  His book is quite shocking: health professionals have been complaining about sugar since before we even started refining it into the granulated white crystals we are familiar with! He mentions how Hindu doctors in the 4th Century noted how those who ate more sweet foods were more obese, had bad teeth and more health problems.  Since then, he points out how, as sugar usage continued to grow across the world and people began using more and more of it, so did health problems like obesity, heart disease, gout, dental caries, and of course diabetes. Most Americans are used to demonizing the Tobacco Industry for their concerted campaigns to defend tobacco usage as healthy and not harmful despite the overwhelming evidence; what we should be demonizing the is the Sugar Industry because their concerted offensive to keep us believing that sugar is healthy and nutritious has worked despite the mounting evidence that sugar causes all the problems listed above: heart disease, dental caries, obesity, gout, and diabetes.  Doctors as far back as the 16th Century were telling people to limit sugar usage, but because the Sugar Industry was and still is profitable and powerful, these facts were suppressed.  FYI: several of the studies that ‘proved’ saturated fat causes heart disease were funded by the Sugar Industry, which successfully buried the studies that showed heart disease was more closely linked to carbohydrates (such as sugar). Another FYI: the Sugar Industry actually taught the Tobacco Industry how to launch successful ad campaigns; the head of one sugar research association went to work for Big Tobacco.  They were already in bed together: those blended American cigarettes that became so popular after WWII are a blend of sugar soaked tobacco and air cured tobacco.  The sugar allows the smoker to inhale the smoke more deeply: without the sugar, the smoke is too irritating to be inhaled as deeply into the lungs.  Less smoke, less nicotine, less chance of becoming addicted.  Talk about a Demonic Duo! 

The aspect of The Case Against Sugar that was so shocking was the coordinated effort by The Sugar Industry to hide the harmful effects of sugar consumption from the public and at the same time, encourage increased consumption as a “healthy energy source.”  Most of us know that sugar isn’t good for us, but it’s the different ‘hidden’ forms of sugar that trip up most of us. The three easiest ways to limit sugar in your diet is to: 1) avoid processed foods; 2) avoid fruit; and 3) avoid starches. 

Avoiding processed foods is the easiest  way of avoiding sugar and while I’m a huge fan of fruit (“Nature’s candy”), the sugar in fruit is fructose which isn’t metabolized like glucose & sucrose (table sugar) and doesn’t trigger the satiety hormone leptin. Starches, whether natural like rice,  potatoes, etc or man-made like breads or cereals, are actually just long chains of sugar and the body treats them like sugar. 

While I highly recommend everyone read Gary Taubes’ book The Case Against Sugar, I have to say it reads like a history book, outlining sugar’s continued spread into our diet across the world, mainly fueled by greed/ economic gain and status. The scary part is how every attempt is made to keep us buying sugar despite its dangers. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Started: Where Do I Begin?

A friend of mine recently decided to lose weight and eat healthier, and like most of us, she’s a little lost.  She knows what her goal is: being a healthier weight and healthier in general, but as to how to get there? It’s all a little vague. Most of us begin in the same situation.  The goal is usually pretty clear, but the path to take is like finding our way through a maze. Which route do we take and how do we know if we are making progress?

I think she has made a good start: she knows where she wants to go and she has an idea of how she wants to get there.  Although she wants to lose weight, her goal is to be healthier overall, so she began by making some realistic changes.  Instead of changing several habits all at once, she began by trying to eat more fruits and vegetables.  She said growing up, her family didn’t eat a lot of those, so she is making an effort to eat more of them.  She also joined My Fitness Pal and is logging her meals and exercise.  Although she’s just started changing her eating habits, she’s been exercising regularly for about a year now (I met her at the gym) so that habit is already firmly established!

As far as “choosing a diet plan,” she hasn’t really opted for a ‘packaged plan,’ which I think is a good thing.  Too often, I hear people trying to fit their lives and eating habits around the Rules for a diet. This is how people end up malnourished or becoming ill after following Rules carved in stone by someone they’ve never met.  (My all-time favorite is the college student who ‘went vegan’ and ended up almost dying in the emergency room because of B12 deficiency.) I don’t have anything against vegans (my cardio trainers are both vegan) but when we opt for following a way of eating, we need to make sure that it fits our nutritional needs and our own preferences.  I really love grapefruit and cabbage, but I’m sure not opting for the Grapefruit Diet or the Cabbage Soup Diet!

When people ask me if I have a diet, I usually tell them that I do a ‘version of Paleo/ Primal,’ because my ‘rules’ are going to be different from anyone else who also does Paleo/ Primal.  There are even disagreements over how to define Paleo and Primal, so following the rules is a little bit like choosing a religion!  This is why I’ve opted to make my own rules and follow my own version.  What I do may not work for my friend or for anyone else, so while it’s great to ask for advice, if it doesn’t work for you, then what’s the point?

As I mentioned above, my cardio trainers are both vegan and they are big fans of promoting veganism.  It really works for them: they are both healthy and fit 70 year olds (not a typo- they’re both in their 70s!)  Personally, I like eating animal products and I know I wouldn’t be very happy ‘eating vegan’ or even vegetarian!  At the same time, there are a few of my fitness and gym friends who eat keto, which is usually heavy on fat, mainly from animal products.  As much as I love things like butter, bacon, meat and dairy, the few times I’ve tried eating keto, it has not been very satisfying, even discounting carb withdrawal.  I hear repeatedly how healthy vegan/ vegetariansim/ keto are and I don’t doubt they work for a lot of people.  My sister was a happy vegetarian for several years before she opted to change her eating habit again.  None of those really made me feel good, so they’re off my list of eating plans!

My own version of Paleo means mainly whole natural foods as unprocessed as possible.  It also includes dairy (most hardcare Paleo followers insist that Paleo + dairy = Primal). It does not include starchy vegetables, grains/ grain products, cane sugar and some legumes.  Essentially, I started with a basic Paleo framework and adapted it to suit my metabolism and preferences. In fact, when I started, my diet did not include dairy for many months.  Eventually, I opted to include it again although I do think I need to limit it more than I do now.  The point is that the way I eat now makes me feel my best and I am getting the results that I want.

That is how we find the answers to those earlier questions: which route do we take to our goal and how do we know if we are making progress?  If you are feeling your best with your current eating plan and you are getting the results that you want, then that is the route to YOUR goal.  Most of us go into dieting with the general goal of ‘losing weight.’  Weight loss isn’t always healthy!  In fact, when I started losing weight, because I was so extremely obese, I lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time.  When I saw my doctor, her first reaction wasn’t “finally!”; it was “are you feeling alright? are you having health problems?” Rapid weight loss is an indicator of cancer, hormonal imbalance and intestinal/ digestive problems.  It also leads to malnutrition, i.e. the vegan college student with B12 deficiency.  What most of us really want is ‘fat loss,’ not just ‘weight loss,’ and while the distinction is lost on most people, it is an important distinction.  Losing weight can mean losing water weight (and becoming dehydrated) or it can mean losing lean body mass, i.e. losing muscle, among other things.  When the number goes down on the scale, most of us are really happy about it and keep doing what we are doing to keep the number going down.  But if we are doing something unhealthy, then we are only becoming thinner instead of healthier.  My friend made the observation that while most of her family was obese, all the people she knew who were diabetic were thin.  Just as being clinically obese doesn’t equal ‘unhealthy,’ being thin does not equal being ‘healthy.’

Getting the results you want, whether losing fat, building muscle or being fitter, is one way of knowing you are on the right path, but we must also not discount the ‘how am feeling’ part of the answer.  If you are getting the results that you want, like fat loss, but you hate the way you are feeling or eating, then that is NOT the right path for you!  If you hate the way you feel or you hate the way that you are eating, you are not going to sustain it for long. I tried both vegetarianism and keto a few times, and frankly, I hated both ways of eating.  I felt horrible, had terrible cravings and did not enjoy what I was eating. Although I’ve since learned that the cravings and the ‘keto flu will go away, I didn’t like what I was eating and overall, I didn’t like the way that felt. There are days when I eat more to a keto or veggie plan than other days, but those are the exception rather than the rule.  When I opted to include dairy again in my diet, one of the things I watched for was simply “how does it make me feel?”  If it made me feel awful or kept me from making my goals, then I would have kicked it back out again, but the truth is I like cream, butter and cheese and it doesn’t keep me from my goals.

We’ve all done diets where we strictly limit our foods, either the types or the amounts and yes, most of us have lost weight on those diets, but once we stop the limiting, we gain back fat and usually a bit more.  This is why it’s so important that we must enjoy the way that we are eating in order to be successful, otherwise any fat loss is going to be temporary!  Also, what is the point of looking great if we feel miserable?  Remember the last time you lost weight and showed up at a function like a holiday party where everyone commented on how great you look? That felt awesome…. until we reached the buffet table! There was all that food that either wasn’t on our diet or was simply too much! Instead of thinking, yum! what looks good to eat?, we were crying inside because it was all foods we were denying ourselves! I know from experience that situation is no fun at all! I know I don’t want to spend the rest of my life ‘looking great and feeling miserable!’  Even though there are a lot of foods that aren’t on my list, there are a lot of foods that are, and the last time I was at a buffet, there were still a lot of yummy foods that I could and did eat!  It was easy to choose those foods over the foods not on my list because I knew I felt better eating them and I knew I was going to keep making progress!

My friend is still in the early stages of her getting-healthier journey, but as I said, I think she is off to a great start. She is building good habits on a reasonable time line and she is asking herself the right questions. She mentioned it to me because even though she was enjoying her lunchtime salad with leafy greens and chicken, she was still getting hungry before dinner, so she was asking me about options for fixing that.  We discussed adding in some healthy fats (avocado, olives or more cheese) or more fibrous veggies (broccoli, cabbage or kale).  Obviously, what works for me won’t always work for her, but the important points are that you have to eat what you like eating and still get the results you want, because unless you do both, it doesn’t matter what you eat or how much weight you lose.

Flavor Boosters Boost Your Waistline, Not Your Health!

One of the things I’ve been noticing a lot is people complaining about eating healthy because “the food doesn’t taste that good!”  If it’s someone I can respond to, I usually let them know there’s a reason whole foods taste different: it’s because processed foods have been processed full of ‘flavor enhancers,’ among other things.  This is when they ‘boost’ the flavor by filling it full of chemicals, designed to overpower your taste buds and make you want more of it.  This is the manufacturer making sure you crave their product and want to eat/ buy as much of it as possible!

A lot of these ‘flavor boosters’ show up on the ingredients as ‘natural flavors.’  That does not mean that these ‘flavors’ come from food: it just means they are not ‘man-made’ and come from “Nature” whether that can mean it’s something derived from wood by-products, coal tar manufacturing by-products or something else.  It does NOT mean it comes from FOOD!  Seriously, the artificial sweetener saccharin was originally a by-product of coal-tar manufacturing.  Incidentally, that is NOT the reason it’s banned in Canada: the Sugar Industry lobbied long and hard to ban saccharin because of the competition in both the US and Canada.  In the US, they managed to get it labeled as a carcinogen after feeding it to lab rats at mega-high dosages (like it’s all they fed the rats for weeks on end and wow! some of them developed cancer!) If humans ate that much saccharin, they would probably throw up long before they got cancer, the same way we would throw up after eating the same amounts of sugar, if we didn’t fall into a diabetic coma first!

In all honesty, the food manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping you buying their products, so they make the products as enjoyable and addictive as possible.  The more you buy them, the more you want them and the more money in their pockets.  By contrast, the more unhealthy you get!  Processed foods like chips, snack cakes, fast foods and other things that come with an ingredient list, have been tested to determine what flavors light up our brains’ pleasure centers the most.  Taste testers rate the different combinations and additives according to how much they want to keep eating it, the mouth feel, the smell, and everything else that makes food taste “so delicious!”

By comparison, whole unprocessed foods are going to taste different, because they don’t have all the chemicals processed into them.  They haven’t been processed (I think of it as ‘pre-digested’ personally!) so they are going to have a different mouth-feel.  This is the term food manufacturers use to describe literally the way food feels when you put it in your mouth, as in chips should be crunchy but not too crunchy; mashed potatoes should be soft but still have some texture; burgers should be a little chewy; hot dogs should have a little snap to them, etc.  Products are actually tested to see what ‘mouth-feel’ rates highest.  Most of us do this on our own when we make foods from scratch: I like my ground beef to have a little spring in it and not be completely charred; when I used to make mashed potatoes from scratch, I left a few lumps in them because I like to taste and feel the actual potato!  We know how we like our foods to feel as we chew on them!

Whole foods, by comparison, don’t have the chemical additives to boost the flavor and keep us eating more.  So when you’re eating the ground beef burger you made from grass fed beef (hopefully), it only has the flavors and spices you put on it, such as salt, pepper and maybe some onion or garlic powder.  The same goes for the broccoli you steamed yourself, the spinach you sauteed yourself or whatever else you’ve made from whole foods.  It’s not going to have the ‘natural flavors’ or the MSG (monosodium glutamate) unless you put it on the food.  If you’ve been eating mainly processed foods most of your life, like most of us have, whole foods will taste a little bland at first, but our taste buds change depending on what we eat. When we stop eating processed foods in favor of the whole natural foods, we get used to the way they taste, especially once we learn how to prepare them in a way we really enjoy (for me, this includes not walking away from the stove and turning the beef into a charcoal briquet as I usually do!) I like my stronger tasting meats like beef and lamb with a curry powder I mix myself, but milder meats like chicken I usually just roast.  I’ve learned to prepare my vegetables with olive oil dressings or just a little salt and ghee.  It might sound kind of boring compared to garlic mashed potatoes or Kansas City spare ribs from the freezer section or a restaurant, but I know what’s in the food I’m eating, and it’s not ‘flavor boosters’ and chemicals, and that is important to me!

Another way that processed foods boost your waistline is that the chemical ingredients can really mess with your intestinal bacteria (your microbiome).  We in the Western industrialized world eat mainly processed foods.  No surprise there!  But there is a direct correlation between the rise in consumption of processed foods and the rise in metabolic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, depression, and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis.  There are people who say it’s because we’re living longer and we’re exposed to chemicals in our environment.  Both of those are true, but what is also true is that we are exposed to chemicals in our food, and these are chemical compounds that we as a species have never eaten before and were probably not meant to eat (such as a coal-tar by product like saccharin!)  These additives and preservatives are designed to boost taste and mouth feel, not our health.  They keep us fat and unhealthy rather than promoting good nutrition and healthy bodies.  When did the whole point of eating become satisfying our taste buds rather than fueling our bodies?

These chemicals were never part of the human diet before industrialization, the same way polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), what Dr. David Perlmutter calls “factory fats,” were never part of the human diet.  Because they are ‘derived’ from a plant product or ‘Nature’ they are allowed to be called ‘natural,’ but they are not naturally occurring in nature the way an olive, an egg, a fish or a cow are naturally occurring.  These are foods humans and other animals have eaten for millenia and are pretty much recognized in all societies as something to eat. Monosodium glutamate, cottonseed oil and disodium phosphate, not so much! (Incidentally, cottonseed oil has to be processed to make it edible.  That’s really something I don’t want to eat!)  Most of these PUFAs are also high in omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory and unstable.  They are not fully metabolized by the body either and those unstable fats become a part of every cell in our bodies!

Besides the fact that most processed foods are full of pro-inflammatory “factory fats” that really mess with our absorption of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, they are also full of highly processed carbohydrates that spike our blood sugar.  This is why I usually refer to processed foods as ‘pre-digested.’  The foods have been broken down into the simplest compounds possible for fast easy digestion in our system, so the corn chips we ate 20 minutes ago are already metabolized while the cabbage we ate an hour ago is just getting there. Processed foods have almost no fiber, fewer vitamins (unless it’s been fortified and had them added back in) but are full of quick carbs, artificial flavors, preservatives and unstable factory fats.  When these products hit our microbiome in our small intestine, the beneficial bacteria that break down our food so we can absorb it usually take a hit in that the fiber that some of them eat isn’t there, while some of the chemical ingredients are toxic to them. Remember the last time you tried a new food and it sent you running to bathroom and/ or kept you there for the next couple of days?  That’s your microbiome telling you that food didn’t agree with them! More and more health professionals are realizing that an unhealthy microbiome leads to more than just digestion problems: they are making stronger connections to a lot of the diseases mentioned above like Alzheimers, ADHD, MS, arthritis, diabetes and others.  Many of what we used to think of as ‘brain-only hormones’ like serotonin, dopamine and tryptophan are linked to our microbiome: the same microbiome we are attacking daily with processed foods full of chemical flavor boosters!

Realistically, no one is going to eat something that tastes bad, but we forget that our tastes change over time. As a child, most of us made a face the first time we tasted beer or coffee or blue cheese, but as adults, we’ve learned to like those things.  We refer to them as ‘acquired tastes.’  Maybe it’s time we ditch the kiddie junk food in favor of a healthier subtle but sophisticated palate of whole foods?

“No Thanks! I Choose Life!” Weight Loss Starts with You

Every now and then, I hear people talking about how it’s nearly impossible to lose weight once you get ‘older.’  I have been overweight pretty much all my life.  I was a pudgy kid and then when I was in 6th grade (thereabouts) my weight really began getting out of control.  I was around 200 when I was in my 20s and for each decade thereafter, I added roughly another 100 lbs.  By the time I was in my mid-forties, I was about 375, +/- 10 lbs.  I’d lose some weight, gain it back, gain some more, lose a bit, and repeat the process.  I’d gained and lost the same 40 lbs for several years.  Most people would be thrilled at losing 40 lbs, and frankly, I was too, but when you’re going from 375 to 335, it’s a little less thrilling: “Yay! I’m under 350!” Essentially, I’m still sinking, just not as fast as before.  Unfortunately, even that little glimmer of hope soon faded away.

Most of us chronic dieters are pretty good at making bargains with ourselves and rationalizing our choices.  I remember when I realized that I had been over 350 for so long that even if I lost weight, I would need surgery to remove my excess skin.  “I don’t want surgery, so I won’t lose weight.” Great! Now I no longer need to worry about losing weight! Except….. my weight was still a problem.  I remember thinking “not everyone is cut out to be skinny, so I guess I’m just destined to be fat.”  Great! Now I no longer need to worry about losing weight! Except…. I still kept gaining weight.  “I’m still happy and fairly active even though I’m overweight.” Except…. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t very active.

Honestly, I spent about ten years or so- most of thirties and the first half of my forties- being about 375, and for most of those years, that last rationalization was true.  Despite being so overweight, I was independent and fairly problem-free.  I could do just about anything I wanted to do and knew how to get around the activities that were a little more problematic.  If I wasn’t truly happy being 375, it wasn’t a big issue in my life.  But unfortunately, I was still gaining weight and so every year or so, I would add a couple more pounds or so.  I think if it hadn’t been for the changes in my job, I would probably have kept gaining about that same rate and probably would have hit fifty closer to the 400 lb mark but still under.

But, when I was about 46, things changed at my job, which led to changes in my lifestyle, which led to me gaining about 65 lbs over the course of two years.  I remember being 48 and realizing I was not only over 400 lbs now, I was beginning to make some serious progress into that weight range: I was 438. That is some serious weight. Even worse, I was completely miserable.  I couldn’t walk for any distance or stand for any length of time.  It hurt to move around, to sit, or lie down.  While being 375 is far from healthy, those additional 65 lbs really put extra stress on my body physically and I started having health issues I’d never had before.  Family and friends started talking to me about getting a gastric bypass.

Frankly, I hated this idea.  I’ve never been a fan of surgery but having your guts rearranged seemed crazy.  I remember meeting with a bariatric surgeon (mainly just to tell others I’d considered it) but the idea was always a no.  [FYI: that surgeon was a real butthead!]

So what happened? Long story short: I decided to make myself a priority.  One of those goofy movie lines that sticks in my head sometimes: Ice Age– Sid looking at Diego’s ‘short cut’ and saying “No thanks! I choose life!” Yeah, it’s goofy, but it’s pretty much what happened to me.  I was looking down the barrel of a very short and painful future, and “no thanks! I choose life!” I quit the Job From Hell and that was the first of a series of choices that put my welfare first.  That lifestyle change led to others: no more fast food; eating healthier; slowly being more active; getting more rest; and those small changes alone had huge consequences.

And I mean Really    Huge    Consequences.  Like the small changes in my job that led to my being so unhealthy and so utterly miserable, those small decisions to eat less processed foods, eat more whole foods, get more sleep and be more active led to my losing roughly 100 lbs in about a year.  No surgery. No weird diets.  Nothing extreme.  I just decided to eat more whole foods, be more active and put my health first.  I picked a food and lifestyle plan that I liked that was also sustainable and I followed it.  If this were a movie, it’d be easy and my weight loss would have been consistently linear and there would have been no cravings, no difficulties (and I’d be happily married to a great guy who looks shockingly like Russell Crowe,) but- alas!- it’s not a movie.  There were lots of cravings at first.  It was hard work following the diet (Paleo), learning what works better for me and what frankly does not work at all.  I did a lot of research, mainly because that’s one of the things that works to keep me focused and I just like it.  It also gives me access to some new ideas, but while people will fret that “it’s impossible to lose weight after 40!”, I am here to tell you that it is not impossible.  I’ve not only lost the equivalent of an entire large sized adult, I am still losing weight.  I didn’t even start losing weight until I was nearly 50! Yes, it was a lot of work at first, but it gets easier the longer you stay with it!  It’s just like any other habit you learn: harder at first, then you learn the little hacks and it’s not so hard anymore.

I’ve lost 184 lbs and I now weigh about 250 lbs.  I am much more active and I feel so much better physically and mentally.  Yes, I do have some excess skin, but it’s not a problem right now.  Maybe eventually, when I either stop losing weight or it becomes a problem, I might have to deal with it surgically.  But the excess skin is less of a problem than my weight ever was! I know this isn’t a movie, but it still has a happy ending for me, and I know that there can still be a happy ending for everyone else who is over 40, overweight and thinks they are destined to be the ‘fat guy/ girl.’  You don’t need a fairy godmother, but you do need to choose yourself first.  (And if you’re a great single guy who looks shockingly like Russell Crowe, give me a call!)

Down and Dirty: How Clean Living Can Make You Sick

I recently finished Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be at the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and 5 Surprising Steps to Cure it by Josh Axe. (Yeah, that’s a long title!) While audio books aren’t my preferred format, I think this book is worth the effort. Dr. Axe makes a few interesting correlations between the relatively sudden rise in autoimmune diseases and other disorders, our sanitized society and our microbiome.  While he defines the terms ‘leaky gut,’ ‘microbiome’ and ‘microbiota’ in his book, I will give you the short version: our digestive tract is full of bacteria, both good and bad.  This symbiotic relationship is necessary to our own individual survival: we need this bacteria in our digestive tract to break down the food we eat.  Once it has been broken down by the bacteria, our body is able to absorb the nutrients through the lining in our intestines.  The integrity of our intestinal lining is dependent on the health of these bacteria (microbiota).  The microbiome is the environment these bacteria inhabit: essentially our digestive tract.  Leaky gut (Increased Intestinal Permeability) is what happens to our digestive tract when we don’t take good care of our microbiome: the integrity of the intestinal lining becomes compromised, allowing not only foods we’ve eaten to enter our bloodstream and body but also some of the toxins that should have been expelled.  Sometimes it’s not that the food particles which enter are bad for us: they are not as broken down as they should be, and that causes problems.  When foods we’ve eaten before without problems begin giving us problems, it’s usually because our microbiome has been compromised.

This is the reason that so many people have problems like Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Celiac Disease, among others.  The helpful bacteria in the gut has been compromised either by highly processed foods, toxins we’ve ingested (sometimes in the form of medication) and our squeaky clean sanitized society.  Not only are we failing to feed and care for our microbiota the way we should, we are actively attacking it with antibiotics, toxic foods, preservatives, chemicals and hand sanitizers.  While being clean is a good thing and no one is saying don’t wash your hands, there is such a thing as being toxically clean. Not everything needs to be disinfected and that disinfectant you just used to kill the benign bacteria on your counter or desk could be making you sick instead of keeping you healthy. Most of the bacteria in our environment is not harmful and some of it is actually beneficial and necessary to our survival. Being ‘clean and sanitary’ the way we think of it now is killing us through digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, malnutrition and possibly cancer.

The cure for this? Eat dirt. Really. If you were to swab your skin and look at it under a microscope, you would see thousands of bacteria.  Dr. Axe reports that we are probably more bacteria than human since we have them inside us and on us all the time.  We are walking bacteria colonies! The naturally occurring bacteria in our environment helps us to break down the foods that come from that environment.  When humans foraged for food, the bacterias on the foods like roots and berries became part of our microbiome.  Since most of them lived on the foods and broke them down to metabolize them, they continued to do the same thing in our intestines.  Therefore, when that farmer plucked an apple in his orchard and ate it after wiping it on his shirt, the bacteria on the apple skin became part of his microbiome and helped him digest the apple he just ate.  The bacteria take up residence and multiply in our intestines, so it becomes easier to digest the local foods.  When we kill those bacteria before they can get to our intestines, we are killing our ability to digest some of these foods.  This is why we sometimes get a little sick when we eat something we’ve never eaten before: the bacteria needed to digest it isn’t in our microbiome.

Humans- and other animals- have developed this way and it’s not a optional condition.  Without these bacteria, we will die, probably a horrible painful death.  We would be ravaged by disease and illness and be unable to derive any nutrients from anything we ate.  Our microbiome not only feeds us, it protects us from illness: our gut is our immune system’s first line of defense.  If our gut is sick, odds are we are sick too!

Some of you know that I work in the same building as my sister, who’s known the attorneys I now work with for many years. In fact, I heard about many of these people for years before I ever met them, and one of the secretaries was forced to retire because of her Crohn’s disease.  When I first met this poor woman at a social gathering a few years ago, I could not believe how thin and frail she looked.  When I came to work here, a little over a year ago, one of the things that really shocked me was how much hand sanitizer they had in the office.  Seriously, they have Costco size bottles every fifty feet and in every room in the building- NOT KIDDING! After reading Dr. Axe’s book, I think I may have an idea about what contributed to this poor woman’s Crohn’s disease. While I have hand sanitizer in my purse and on my desk (little 99 cent bottles), I don’t often use it.  I also have disinfectant wipes that I rarely use.  If I think I need them, I do (mainly to clean off sticky stuff), but there are a lot of people in this building who consistently smell like hand sanitizer.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m an unsanitary dirty slob (I come from a family of farmers so a little dirt is a way of life), and years ago, I listened to a report about ‘Super Viruses’ and how we were making them ourselves by overuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial everything.  Every time we take an antibiotic or use an antibacterial, we do not kill all the bugs: some are resistant, survive and then when they reproduce, all the new bugs have their parents’ resistance to antibiotics/ antibacterials.  This is how we end up with killer bacteria like MRSA (methilicillin-resistant staph aureus)  and VRSA (vancomycin-resistant staph aureus) just to name a couple.  These killer bacteria are resistant to most of the drugs used to treat the ‘normal’ staph infections, and if not treated correctly, they will kill you.  (No kidding: I’ve the MRSA and it’s not fun.) The doctor quoted in the report advised not taking an antibiotic every time we think we get a cold or flu, and when we wash our hands, regular soap and warm/ hot water is enough. This advice stuck with me and my sister and so while I do keep the antibacterial stuff around for times when I think it’s needed, most of the time I just use the soap and water.  I’ve never been a fan of gulping medications of any kind (the only reason I went to the doctor for the MRSA was because it was MRSA.) I get a cold, I’m miserable for about a week and I get over it.  Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I figure if we consistently hide from dirt and germs, when we do run across them, we have no resistance to them.  As a kid, I played in the sandbox, ran around barefoot and, according to my mom, was a big fan of making mud pies when I was a baby.  I’ve also had pets all my life and they sit on my lap, lick my face and hands, and sleep right next me. (If what Dr. Axe says is true, my pets and I have a lot of the same microbiota!)

Dr. Axe’s philosophy regarding bacteria and germs is fairly similar to my own: micro-exposure.  Basically, my philosophy has been to treat my immune system like a car and keep the battery charged and fuel lines in good shape by using it.  If your car just sits idle in the garage, your battery loses its charge and if it sits too long, the oil and gas start to lacquer.  The tires and fuel lines start to crack and lose flexibility.  In other words, your car falls apart and your immune system isn’t much different.  If your immune system gets triggered periodically by a cut, a cold or some mildly unpleasant stomach bug, it swings into action, takes care of it and then goes back to ‘stand-by.’  If your immune system doesn’t get triggered regularly, then it can overreact and start attacking everything, including your own body.  Or, if it’s constantly triggered because you eat foods you are sensitive to, then it can also start ignoring the triggers, the way you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock when you’re half asleep.  Later, when you wake up after oversleeping, you’re in real trouble! Getting small exposures to bacteria on a regular basis keeps everything functioning normally.  Your immune system knows what’s a real threat and what isn’t and you can pick up additional healthy bugs!

By contrast, not being exposed to different bacteria does not keep you any healthier, and in fact, can make you sick.  Dr. Axe mentions a comparison study done of Amish children and ‘mainstream’ children regarding allergies, food sensitivities and asthma. The Amish children, most living in rural areas surrounded by animals, pollen and dirt, were much healthier with fewer allergies, sensitivities and breathing problems, while the ‘mainstream’ children had higher rates of all these problems.  Dr. Axe’s theory is that being constantly exposed to a myriad of different bacteria kept the Amish children immune to these problems. Again, microexposures to bacteria were keeping their immune system and digestive tracts in good working order.

Obviously, we need to use a little common sense when it comes to bacteria.  Trying to kill off every bacterium and germ we come across is a bad idea, as well as being pretty unfeasible! But we still need to be sensible about things: if you’re in a public restroom, maybe using the hand sanitizer after washing isn’t a bad idea, and if you have a cut on your hand, you might want to use gloves when you’re out in the yard cleaning up the doggie doo.  Using the hand sanitizer after finishing lunch at your own house or your own desk might be a bit overkill, literally. Washing up is a good idea, but warm water instead of soap with triclosan or another antibacterial agent probably isn’t necessary every time.

Besides not killing our microbiota, Dr. Axe gives some advice on the ‘care and feeding of our microbiome.’  They are living organisms and they need an hospitable environment to live and reproduce (our intestines) as well as plenty of food (our food is their food).  Most of those unhealthy bugs also like the junk food we like, and when we eat more of it than we do the healthy foods, the bad bugs crowd out the good bugs. This is a problem for us, because the bad bacteria (ideally about 15% of our microbiome) can cause many of the digestive disorders mentioned above. When the bad bacteria take over our intestines, we lose the ability to digest certain foods, and these are usually the foods with higher nutrients, so even though we are eating the healthy vegetables, fruits and proteins, our intestines and our bodies never get the nutrients because the bugs in our guts that break those down for us aren’t there to break them down.  It’s like having a flashlight with dead batteries: no good batteries, no light and the flashlight is useless to you.  If you have no good bugs in your digestive tract, all that healthy food is useless to you.  Even just feeding the bad bugs more often than feeding the good bugs can cause a population shift favoring the bacteria that cause us problems.

So don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.  Don’t be afraid to hug your dog or cat, even if they’re a little grungy from the yard.  Eat more local organic veggies.  One of the sayings in my family is “God made dirt so dirt don’t hurt.”  I really believe a little dirt isn’t a bad thing any more than getting a little sweaty is a bad thing: they both keep us healthy!