Sep 28 2010

Coming Full Circle

I’ve kind of been wandering in the desert lately where diet is concerned. I think I’m back on reasonably solid ground now, so I thought I’d share some of my meanderings. I’ll start with two seemingly unrelated things:

Wandering in the Desert

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The last time I talked about diet, I had just gotten back to low-carb, and it was going well. Then I hit a plateau at about 240 pounds, and stayed there for quite a while. I wasn’t cheating on the diet, which is usually the problem, so there wasn’t any obvious reason for it. I’ve always been able to say that low-carb worked every time I did it right, but that wasn’t true anymore. My appetite seemed to just keep climbing, and I found myself eating 5-6 pieces of bacon and 5-6 eggs for breakfast, and then repeating that 2-3 hours later. I was packing away 3000-4000 calories a day. Since it was low-carb, I didn’t gain weight, but I wasn’t losing it either. Something just wasn’t right.

One problem with online discussion forums and blogs is that they tend to be ghettoized. In other words, people of like mind tend to congregate together, and dissenting opinions get weeded out. If you hang out on a low-carb forum, you’ll mostly just hear from people who are low-carbing and doing well with it. That didn’t happen so much on Usenet, because there all the groups were connected. Many people who posted in the low-carb group would post in the low-fat or diabetes groups too, so contrasting ideas made the rounds of all the groups. That doesn’t happen much on the web, because opposing viewpoints segregate themselves much more. And this isn’t a low-carb thing; you get the same effect if you’re hanging out on Catholic sites, or Dodge truck sites, or organic gardening sites. They all become ghettos where everyone’s singing pretty much the same tune about the topic in question.

So, knowing that’s how it works, the opposite danger is that, if you sour on that group and start looking for opposing opinions, you’ll start feeling like maybe that group is nuts and just believes what they believe because they all reinforce each other and ignore conflicting data.

Anyway, that kind of happened to me several months ago. I didn’t reject low-carb entirely, but I started thinking maybe it was missing some pieces of the puzzle, and might even be detrimental in my case. I found sites where people complained about how their metabolism slowed way down on low-carb, and they had to keep eating fewer and fewer calories to lose weight, and their old high-carb symptoms like acid reflux even came back. I read about primitive societies like the Kitavans, who get 70% of their calories from potatoes and have none of the diseases of civilization or obesity. I started thinking maybe low-carb should only be used on a short-term basis, and only after a person fixed other metabolic problems like hypo adrenals or thyroid.

So I started eating more carbs. I stuck strictly to starches like potatoes and rice, to avoid the damage caused by fructose and try to keep my blood sugar reasonable, and stayed away from anything refined. And I gained 20 pounds in a hurry. Hmm. Some people claimed that was just a necessary side effect of boosting your metabolism, and that the weight would come back off once the metabolism sped up, but it gave me pause. It’s one thing to gain a little weight if it’s going to come back off, but gaining so much that you have to buy all new clothes? I started taking a closer look at the claims the anti-low-carbers were making, and realized they were pretty thin and backed up by a lot less science than low-carb is.

Finally I realized that what really happened was I just got tired of low-carbing, and was ready to jump on any excuse to take a break from it. Those potatoes (with plenty of butter, of course) tasted really good. But I hadn’t done the research like I did when I started low-carbing; I just wanted it to be true that I needed to eat potatoes for a while. The fact that a Kitavan can be healthy on potatoes doesn’t apply to me, because he didn’t spend his 20s living on pizza, chips, Mountain Dew, and vodka, and he doesn’t spend most of his time indoors trying to stay awake in front of a computer screen. It’s not really surprising that I can’t eat like him and be fit and healthy. And the idea that your body temperature needs to be high doesn’t have much backing in science that I could find once I actually looked. In fact, there are just as many people who say a high body temperature means you’re burning out your cells faster. When you think about it, you wouldn’t want a fever all the time, right?

So now I’m back to low-carb, and I’ve already lost several pounds. Some of that is the water I gained while eating more carbs, which is fine. But that still leaves the question: What if I get stuck at 240 again? Why couldn’t I seem to get past that point last time, and why was my appetite going through the roof? Low-carb usually suppresses appetite, so why was I having just the opposite effect?

Now that I’ve gotten over my potato fantasy and started looking at the facts again, I think I see some likely reasons why. One is that when I had such great success with low-carb in the past, I was practically broke. That meant I did it by eating mostly meat and eggs from the farm, vegetables I grew, and a few extras like cheese when they were on sale. I couldn’t afford the expensive low-carb snacks like nuts very often, or processed low-carb snack bars, or low-carb desserts with Splenda. Those things are all expensive, so I didn’t buy them much. This time I could afford to indulge in them more, so I did, especially the nuts.

The problem with that is that nuts are high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and we know that inflammation interferes with leptin, which your fat cells produce to signal your hypothalamus where to set your appetite. A handful of nuts now and then would be fine, but eating them by the pound and using nut flours to make breads and cookies are not. Likewise, there’s evidence that artificial sweeteners cause an insulin reponse, and we still have a lot to learn about all the ways they affect the body.  We’re still learning about the effects of fructose, a natural sugar that’s been around forever, so how likely is it that we know everything about how Nutrasweet or Splenda affects us?

Another problem may have been too much protein. When you remove carb calories, you have to replace them with either fat or protein. Too much protein can cause insulin surges like glucose does, and it can also overwork your adrenals. Again, protein foods generally cost more than fats—the more expensive meats are the leaner ones, while the fatty stuff like sausage and corned beef is usually cheaper. So back when I did low-carb on the cheap, it’s not surprising that it worked better.

They're Happy Because They Eat Lard

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The third problem—and maybe the most important—is that I was still getting a little gluten here and there. Gluten is a protein in wheat (and to a lesser extent in barley and rye), which in many people causes an autoimmune reaction. That means (the short, short version) that the gluten protein looks enough like the proteins in your body that your body develops antibodies against itself. Depending on where in the body those antibodies attack, that can lead to leaky gut, thyroid disease, depression, and a long list of other problems, including that pesky inflammation again. The part that really sucks is that once your body has developed those antibodies, it takes very little of the original substance to kick off the full-blown reaction again. I wasn’t getting much gluten on low-carb, of course, but I’d get a little here and there from a piece of lightly breaded chicken or a slice of low-carb bread. Now I’ve gone entirely gluten-free for a few weeks, and I’m starting to feel a mental difference already. I’ll be writing more about gluten in the future, as we’re just starting to figure out what a huge problem it is.

To lower your intake of gluten and protein and inflammatory fatty acids, it’s true that you could eat potatoes all day. But that’s not the only option. The other is to do low-carb the way I used to do it, keeping protein reasonable and increasing the quality saturated fats, and staying away from the processed and artificial stuff. That should let the inflammation clear up, without requiring that I gain a bunch of weight in the meantime.

So I’ll be trying to get about 5% of my calories from carbs, 15% from protein, and 80% from fat.  That’s much more fat (and less protein) than I got before, so it means lots of butter, cream, and lard, used in various sauces and dips and things.  I’m also going to try making some pemmican when we get our beef this fall.  I’ll share whatever recipes I come up with, and report my progress here.

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  • Jason says:

    I tend to stall, then lose a few, then stall… I’ve been suspecting one of the points you made above, that even though I am strict low-carb, or even no-carb, my diet is probably higher in protein than it should be. I’ve been thinking that I need to bring my meat intake down to somewhat normal levels and replace it with various cheeses and such. When I low-carbed in the past, I tended to eat a lot of cheese as snacks, and therefore didn’t eat massive quantities of meat at my normal meals.

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    • Aaron says:

      Same here. I tended to eat the cheaper cheeses too, like cream cheese, which are higher in fat.

      The low-carb books all say too much cheese can be a problem, and I’ve read that cheeses can have an insulinogenic effect too, but within reason they should be good for the fat content. I think Atkins suggests no more than 4 ounces a day, which is quite a bit. I figure as long as you’re losing weight, and you’re eating enough that it’s not from starvation, that’s a good sign that you’re doing it right.

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  • Aaron – have you tried stevia for a sweetener. It’s pretty good and has been around a long time (not processed). Also- read Dr. Agatson’s Book The South Beach Diet which he developed for his heart patients to reduce cholesterol. He discusses the chemistry involved in balancing all of the food groups. And, if you hit a plateau, step away from the computer and go for a walk!

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    • Aaron says:

      Thanks for the comment! Yes, when I need a sweetener, I use stevia. I’m not sure it would be safe in the massive quantities people are used to from things like soda and candy, but for something like full-cream ice cream, it should be fine. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, though, so that doesn’t give me much trouble. The carbs I crave are the crunchy, starchy ones like potato chips and popcorn.

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