Six Months of Carbohydrate Restriction

October 22, 2009

It still surprises me that the way I’m losing weight actually works.  I mean, seriously, I have real cream in my tea or coffee in the mornings.  I eat cheese regularly.  I make vegetable dips full of fatty ingredients. I douse my salads with olive oil.  I eat meat, lots of it, and don’t skip the sauces.  My dessert is usually a few tablespoons of the fattiest dairy product on the market – mascarpone cheese (which is basically pure butterfat), with some vanilla or cocoa powder added in.  Does this sound like a diet?

Well, the list of what I don’t eat is long too.  Bread, pasta, rice, potatoes of course.  And desserts and candy and sugar and even artifical sweetener are all gone.  But so is most fruit, and for the first time in my life, I don’t treat vegetables like a free-for-all.  I eat plenty of veggies, but keep an eye on the portions of them, which was a big change for me.

What’s strange is that I ended up here.  For years I’ve been a member of a forum all about healthy weight loss (see link under ‘cool sites’).  I have probably read 50 nutrition books in the past decade.  And multiple scholarly articles, and many, many discussions with physicians and dieticans.  I moved to a mainly whole-foods diet about 8 years ago, and organics started coming in around that time too.  I have always been adamantly anti-fad diets.  So how do I find myself on carb restriction?  Doing pseudo-Atkins?

I’ve been doing the carbohydrate-restriction thing for just over 6 months.  The exact 6 month mark fell in the middle of the IVF so the time wasn’t right to talk about it.  I’ve lost pretty consistently one pound a week over those 6 months.  I’m currently down 27 pounds, and that time period includes a 3 week vacation, another trip home, IVF, and a freakin’ cancer diagnosis!  I have never had such a stressful period in my life, but instead of abandoning my diet or trying to soothe myself with rice cakes, I’ve soothed myself with fat.  Which actually works to soothe, unlike styrofoam.

I am not a big fan of people being dogmatic about their diets, nor prostelitizing their choice as the only or best approach.  Nevertheless, I’m going to share how I came to try carb restriction, since I really felt it was a stupid fad diet and I’ve been really surprised by my success.  I don’t believe it’s the only thing that works by the way.  I think ANY diet can work for most people, and I think the single most important thing in a diet is your own motivation, which can come from anything internal or external, or from a belief in someone’s prescribed diet plan.  For me, motivation comes from believing I can happily and easily live with my diet long term (like, forever, give or take a few days of holidays, special events & vacations).

I lost 75+ pounds on a calorie-counting approach that was basically whole foods and low fat.  I kept my calories around 1500 and my exercise sky-high (6 hours a week) and my attention highly focused (calorie counting daily, almost-daily treks to the gym).  Most of that weight I kept off for years until The Decline 2 years ago. Each time I would try again to lose weight, I would find that what worked for me before wasn’t working with my wonderful new Parisian life (with tons of temptations & a foodie husband & French gym hours).  It had worked before, but it didn’t work now.   In addition, it was just stressing me out.

My mom (who has been eating low fat, low cal for pretty much ALL of her life) had read some excellent reviews of a book about weight and gave me the book for the holidays 2 years ago.  It sat on my to-read pile untouched for a really long time.  This Spring I was reading a ton because I was traveling, so I decided to take it on a trip.  I’d been thinking again about getting serious about my weight, and in fact I joined Weight Watchers online 3 weeks before I read this book.  I was learning about points and playing with their system while reading a book that blew everything I knew out of the water.

The book is called “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes, a seasoned science reporter, who first wrote an article in the New York Times “What if it’s all been a big fat lie” which is part of the story he tells in his book.  Basically the article (and book) explain how absolutely horrible the science behind the low-fat recommendations are, and how there was a lot of political pressure to come up with recommendations and very little proof.  It’s eye opening, and surprising.

What the book goes on to detail is that in parallel to the increase in fat consumption that happened as the recommendations came into existence, there were huge increases in carbohydrate consumption — in particular sugar and refined carbs.  So conclusions that were drawn on the effects of fat on the body and health were mixed up with what could have been caused by all the increased carbs.  Where was the villain?

Sounds like a lot of scientific debate and complexity, and it is.  The book is not for the faint of heart – it’s long, dense & scientific.  It’s not a simplified diet bestseller by any means.  I’m fortunate to be from a world where reading scientific papers is a regular occurrence, and I am well-versed in nutritional science, so the book was manageable for me, but certainly not an easy read.

What surprised me was my emotional reaction to a few chapters on obesity.  Why we get obese, why we stay there.  Why it’s so hard to lose.  There were sentences that had me in tears, they hit so close to home.  I was a fat kid who became a fat teenager who became a fat woman.  I often ate LESS than my siblings, LESS than my friends, and yet I was still fat.   With extreme effort on both the exercise and diet fronts together I was able to lose weight, but it was a slow process and needed extreme vigilance and dedication.

Those articles about “change from regular soda to diet and lose 25 pounds” never did anything for me.  My weight was very stable at high weights pretty much regardless of what I did unless I went on a full-court press to lose weight by hours in the gym and really strict control of calories.  And constant hunger.  I lost weight successfully by controlling and surpressing the urge to eat.  But it was always there.  I regained when I took my focus off that self-denial, even for a second.  I struggled with maintenance, because self-denial was feasible when the scale showed nice losses, but excrutiating when it stayed the same.  Taubes book explained some of the obesity research behind such things, and explained that in an obese person, these are NORMAL.  I cried with relief.  I’m not weak, I’m not a failure.

My metatobism is extremely efficient at getting the most out of every morsel of food you put into it.  I can turn calories into fat faster than most other people.  Basically, my genetics (on both sides of the family) have been selected to survive harsh Russian winters as a poor peasant, capable of surviving for months on sawdust and the stores of my fat. …not so useful today.

The author, Gary Taubes, puts forth what he calls ‘the alternative hypothesis’ which basically says, ‘if they’re wrong about fat being the enemy, than maybe it’s carbs’.  It’s hard to read the book and not think he might be right.  There are not enough scientific studies that have been done that could say that he IS right.  But he might be.  So if he was right, what would that mean?  Severe carbohydrate restriction.  Changing your body chemistry so that you eat so few carbohydrates that your body is forced to dig into your stored fat to find fuel.  It’s as simple (and hard) as that.  It’s not magic, not a bestselling-fad-diet.  It’s chemistry.  Your body needs to find certain fuels to run itself.  You either eat them, or it goes searching for them.  That’s why carb-restricted diets are really strict, especially in the early phases — it’s not easy to get your body to switch over, and it will resist with cravings and feeling lousy for a while.

I found the biochemical story of why it could work pretty compelling.  I knew the struggle I’d had for years and years of real, serious effort with low fat and calorie counting.  Carbohydrate restriction does require self control with carbohydrates, but allows for indulgences in a few other areas (mainly fat, but also a good amount of protein).  Reading the book I decided to try it.  I decided to give it a real effort for 3 weeks and then re-evaluate.  Why 3?  Because that’s how long I’d been on WW already, and I figured if I hated it I could still make myself stick to it for 3 weeks.

The hardest part was figuring out what I could eat, and what I could find available to me (I was traveling a lot).  I didn’t follow anyone’s book exactly, although I read Atkins and several other books so I knew the basics of everyone’s plans.  The first few weeks I ate strawberries and nuts (not offically allowed on Atkins until several weeks had passed).  It didn’t matter.  Within days, I was feeling great.

The biggest single change I noticed early on (and that continues to this day) is that I no longer felt terribly hungry.  Hunger has been my constant companion all my life and it was weird for that to go away.  But so freeing!  It wasn’t just that on a low-carb plan you can eat as much as you want (I suspect that’s not really true, that there is a calorie limit beyond which you won’t lose weight).  But biochemically, as your body burns body fat, you feel less hungry.

At first the scale had a big drop (which is normal for low carb diets – carbs make you keep water.  As you start the diet you drop a lot of weight because of this — and each time you cheat you gain a lot back for the same reason).  I had a few weeks of plateau after that, but was so happy with how I was feeling that I kept at it.  Other than figuring out what foods were ‘safe’ on the road, I wasn’t thinking about food all the time.  I turned down snacks and chocolate at work without a second glance.  I was impressed, and so I’ve kept on.

I’ve kept learning about carbohydrate restriction and the theories behind why it works, but the bottom line is that for me it really is working, and that it seems to be part of the low-stress weight loss approach I’d been dreaming about for years.

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