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?