I first joined the US Navy thirty years ago, while I was still a junior in college. The recruiter was happy to sign me up, but he was blunt about the rigors of the physical exam, which I was scheduled to undergo thirty days after I signed the enlistment papers. “If you don’t lose about twenty pounds,” he said, “you’ll never pass. My advice is to start cutting the calories and fat.” I fully intended to make the Navy a career, and the window of opportunity for the job specialty I wanted was closing fast. I certainly didn’t want to blow this chance over something as trivial as my weight. I took his suggestion seriously.
“Portion control” became my new mantra, as did “low fat” and “low calorie”. I dutifully threw out my loaded-with-sugar Raisin Bran, my five pound stash of sugar, the half gallon container of butter brickle ice cream, barely touched in the freezer, as well as the loaf of recently purchased white bread and the carton of whole milk I hadn’t even opened yet. Then we drove to the market and shopped carefully, looking for whole grain cereals without added sugar, honey, fresh vegetables, white-meat chicken, nonfat milk and margarine. Back at home, my wife-at-the-time dusted off a thousand-calorie-a-day diet she’d used periodically during her days as a college cheerleader, and handed it to me with a promise to help me stick with it.
By the end of the third day I was nearly incapacitated with hunger. I imagined I smelled doughnuts in the air anytime I ventured out of the house. My part-time job at the college, which was cooking mornings and evenings in the school cafeteria, became torture: I was preparing oatmeal, pancakes, fritters, bacon and toast in the mornings; enchiladas, spaghetti, and macaroni-and-cheese for dinner—most of which I wasn’t allowed to eat. I was miserable. I was hungry to the point I could barely concentrate on my studies.
Then, while I happened to be browsing the school bookstore, I ran across a book entitled Dr. Atkins’s Diet Revolution. The title intrigued me, and, curious, I began flipping casually through the pages. What I read there was, indeed, revolutionary—and thrilling: Calories didn’t count, I recalled reading. The real culprit in weight gain was carbohydrates. And the key to weight loss was limiting carbohydrates, while eating moderate amounts of fat and lots and lots of protein. My heartbeat quickened as I read how I could eat virtually unlimited amounts of red meat, pork, eggs, cheese, cream, and butter—as much as I could stuff into my face (I’m not sure it actually said that, but I remember thinking it had), and the pounds would literally melt off your body—as much as five to ten pounds a week! I nearly cried. Here, it seemed, was a new and exciting way to lose weight which didn’t involve starving! I bought the book, nearly shaking with anticipation as I handed the cashier the five bucks. I took the book home and devoured the entire thing that very day.
I got up from finishing the book, a man on a mission. While my bewildered wife watched, I cleared the pantry and refrigerator of the low-fat, low calorie garbage I’d been eating and threw it into the trashcan. Then we drove to the store. I bought everything I could find that was high protein and low carbohydrate. And over the next week I did exactly as the book (I thought) said I could: I stuffed myself with bacon and eggs in the morning, stacks of deli meats and cheeses for lunch, and broiled beef, chicken, or fish and fresh vegetables for dinner.
Amazingly, at the end of a week, I was even hungrier and more miserable than I had ever been on the low calorie, low fat regimen. How was this possible? I couldn’t stand Atkins. The thought of eating another rib eye steak nearly made me retch. I finally dismissed Atkins as a well-meaning quack, and his diet as just another stupid fad, like the banana-and-hot-dog diet I’d tried a couple of years earlier. I cleared my shelves of the high protein stuff, and loaded them up again with the low-cal, low fat things. It was easier, so much easier, I could eat pretty much anything I wanted as long as I limited the portions so that I stayed below my thousand-calories a day. I increased my exercise, and gutted it through the rest of the month. By the time I took my physical for the Navy, I was barely under my max weight. Relieved, I walked from the recruiting station and immediately went to a nearby diner and ordered a stack of pancakes and eggs with sausage and lots of warm syrup and melted butter, and ate myself into a sugar stupor.
Fast forward twenty years. It was now 1998. I was now out of the Navy. But over the years I’d watched my weight slowly crawl upward until I was now embarrassed to look at myself in front of the mirror. And my blood pressure had starting to climb, too. It’s time to lose some weight.
Enter “Protein Power”
A friend and work associate asked me if I’d ever heard of a new diet program called Protein Power. I told her I hadn’t, and she handed me a paperback with a picture of a husband-and-wife medical team, Michael and Mary Dan Eades, surrounded by dozens of ordinary-looking, but apparently happy clients. “Give it a try,” she said. “I think you’ll be impressed.”
I took the book home and read it. It seemed to be based on the old Atkins diet, and I wasn’t particularly excited about getting back into that again. Still, the writing style was engaging, and more important, the book had extensive scientific research and clinical studies to back up the Drs Eades’s claim that, not only was low-carb, high protein eating the best way to lose weight and keep it off, it was the only style of eating appropriate for humans, period. Additionally, the book contained a section of sample menus, comprised of several recipes that looked downright delicious. I was cautiously optimistic. I cleaned out my pantry and refrigerator, and drove immediately to the store to buy everything I could find that fit the low-carb regimen.
I was more successful with Protein Power than I had been with the Atkins diet. But after several weeks of struggling with low energy, bad breath, and a persistent craving for the high-carb foods I’d been used to eating for the past four decades, I finally abandoned it for the (I thought) more reasonable portion-control, low calorie approach. I was troubled about this for awhile: the Eadeses had, in my mind, adequately demonstrated how much less healthy the low-cal, low-fat, high-carb diet was for humans. But it was just too damned difficult to do it their way. I simply turned away from the subject whenever it came to mind, until eventually I quit thinking about it altogether.
Fast forward another ten years. I was forty pounds heavier than my max ideal weight. My blood pressure was riding at the high end of the ohmygod section of the chart, and my feet were beginning to swell. I couldn’t seem to control my eating, often putting away an entire box of cereal or a pound of spaghetti in a single sitting. I looked in the mirror and saw a stuffed sausage shaped to look roughly like a human; certainly I didn’t look anything like myself anymore. And my closet was filled with clothes I’d officially dubbed my “fat boy” wardrobe.
I told myself I couldn’t do much to improve my situation. Apparently the source of my weight problem was rooted in my very genes. In fact, my mother had struggled with obesity much of her life, eventually developing Type 2 diabetes in her later years. And my uncle, my mother’s brother, had blood pressure so high he finally quit having it checked, it scared both him and the technicians measuring it. What could I do? The only remote possibility I could think of was to begin a serious and extreme exercise program. Unfortunately, my exercise of choice—running—had, over the years, begun having deleterious effects on my joints and my back, and I soon had to abandon it. It quickly occurred to me that I would have to content myself with being fat. Like most people who feel helpless, I simply tried not to think too much about it. And in large part, I was successful.
But when my wife, whom I love more than life itself, began having many of the same health symptoms, I couldn’t ignore the situation any longer. We were both in our fifties. If we expected to live into our sixties, we needed to lose weight, and a lot of it. In fact, between the two of us, we had more than a hundred pounds to lose.
Our look before: my wife Jeanie (center) and me (left) with a friend at Tavern on the Green in NYC.
Enter Weight Watchers
Of course, we went with the easier low-calorie, low-fat, high-carbohydrate approach. This time, it was with Weight Watchers. The choice seemed logical at the time. WW had the highest documented success rate of any weight loss program in existence, ever. It was rated number one for weight loss programs in Consumer Reports. Best of all, they had recently developed what they called the Core Program, where we could eat as much as we wanted from a huge list of Core Foods! We jumped on the program, bought all the right foods (WW even had its own brand of desserts!), and stuck religiously to the program, tracking our progress on line.
In a matter of months, averaging the requisite two pounds per week, we’d shed pretty much all of our excess baggage. To celebrate, we went to the local mall and bought ourselves an entire “skinny person” wardrobe.
From the weight loss standpoint alone, we should have felt great. But there were little nagging problems that had me perplexed. Number one, my digestion didn’t seem to be working quite right: I had chronic constipation, coupled with a resultant case of—no surprise here—hemorrhoids. (Add to this the public embarrassment of an outrageous flatulence problem.) And, as I would discover later, while I’d lost a lot of weight, I had also lost a lot of lean muscle mass. But most troubling was the fact that I was still hungry much of the time. My wife and I would eat a huge breakfast at seven a.m., high in fiber (the only recommended treatment for constipation outside of a stool softener) and by ten a.m. we’d be ready for a large snack. We were eating five, sometimes six meals a day. Large meals.
ReEnter Protein Power, And The Low Carb Lifestyle
I finally had to start looking for some alternative remedies for my constipation issues. I hit the Internet, and came up with some interesting possibilities. Then I happened upon this startling item in Google:
“In the past year, I cut out most of the fiber from my diet (very few veggies, very little grain, etc.). Lo and behold, my constipation disappeared. This past year has been great.”
Two things interested me about this bit of text, which Google had apparently lifted from a forum. The first was the idea that constipation can actually be caused by too much fiber (Weight Watchers, along with ninety-percent of the nutritionists in the world prescribe more fiber and more water to relieve constipation. Additionally, Weight Watchers insists on its adherents ingesting huge quantities of fiber in its Core Program). The second thing that caught my attention was the source of the comment: Protein Power Forums. My good friends the Drs Eades, were still going strong. In fact, they’d written two more books expanding on the earlier work they’d done with Protein Power.
I felt suddenly as if I had come home after a long journey to the other side of the planet. And, just as suddenly, I felt as if a part of my brain which had been asleep for many years had now awakened. I spent hours poring over the forum, as well as the individual blogs written by each of the Drs Eades. Questions I’d had years earlier, but which generally went unanswered (blogs and online forums were still fairly unknown to me back in 1998) were now there for me to view, asked by many others. And the Eadeses, along with many of the online Protein Power community, were offering solidly credible answers backed by solid science. The Eadeses had refined their original program to include new research conducted since I had last encountered Protein Power—much of which completely upended much of the earlier nutritional thought which has been the basis for our ideas about what constitutes “healthy” eating to this very day. Ideas which are still fundamental to many of the popular diet programs—including Weight Watchers.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) I couldn’t go back to eating on the Weight Watchers program. And after doing some independent research on her own, my wife joined me in pursuing the low carb lifestyle. We have been successful beyond our wildest dreams, enjoying better health now than we did back when we were very young adults.
But that isn’t to say it was easy.
Jeanie and me, after (finally) breaking our carbohydrate addiction!
The Difficulty–Carbohydrate Addiction
One of the questions I’ve had for much of my dieting life is this: Why is eating on a low carbohydrate program so hard in the beginning? If eating low-carb is so healthy for us (and there is now a considerable, ever-expanding body of evidence showing this is the case), why do our bodies seem to resist it so vociferously?
The answer came to me via Dr Mike Eades’s blog. The title to one of his later posts pretty much says it all: Carbohydrates Are Addictive. Please take the time to look at this post, it is a real eye-opener. But to briefly summarize here: Dr Mike (as he’s affectionately referred to) came upon an article in Time Magazine, which reported on a study to determine if a high-fat, high-protein diet, eliminating carbohydrates, would have an effect on cancer. Apparently, this study had as its population a group of terminally-ill cancer patients who were offered this experimental therapy. All they had to do for the study (and, if the hypothesis was correct: to save their lives) was to eliminate carbs from their diet. Here’s a quote from the Time article:
“The good news is that for five patients who were able to endure three months of carb-free eating, the results were positive: the patients stayed alive, their physical condition stabilized or improved and their tumors slowed or stopped growing, or shrunk.”
But here’s the kicker, and the point of this post:
“[Some] dropped out because they found it hard to stick to the no-sweets diet: “We didn’t expect this to be such a big problem, but a considerable number of patients left the study because they were unable or unwilling to renounce soft drinks, chocolate and so on.”
Here is Dr. Mike’s comment on what this means exactly:
“Let me see if I’ve got this right. A lifesaving therapy is offered to patients who have undergone the misery of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery, and who are beyond hope, and this therapy requires nothing more than eating a lot of butter, meat, cream, cheese, etc. while avoiding most carbohydrates. And a ‘considerable number’ drop out because they can’t give up carbs?
I say it again. And you don’t think carbs are addictive?”
Of course they are. More, perhaps, than even nicotine, which was at one time considered the most addictive substance on the planet, more so than even heroin and cocaine. Not only has it been shown conclusively (thanks again to Dr Atkins’s research so long ago, finally proven accurate over thirty years after having first being ridiculed) that carbohydrates are, generally, the real culprit in weight gain, obesity, and adult-onset diabetes; but carbs have also been shown to be the real culprit behind the difficulties in restricting them from our diets. Our bodies have been tricked into believing we need carbohydrates. Lots of them. The more, the better. They’re a monkey that refuses to get off our backs.
Of course, I had a hard time embracing the low-carb lifestyle. How could I not? I was addicted to carbohydrates. And dealing with that addiction is probably not much different from an alcoholic dealing with his/her addiction to whiskey.
You work the program, one day at a time.