I’m losing weight. That’s how this story ends. I wanted to end the suspense because this post is long, but it has a skeptical point which I hope becomes clear. Why can’t we agree on the healthy human diet?
I’ve been overweight and obese for most of my life. In fact, I have a hard time remembering the times I didn’t have a gut. It’s affected me socially and emotionally since I was little. It defined who I was and wanted to be. Now that I’m reaching forty, I have to make some sort of stand. My mortality is a larger shadow now and I don’t like how it looms.
I’ve tried many diets, failed at all of them. Whether they were fads or not, I just didn’t have the willpower. Depression always superseded my plans for thinness. Most diets drained me of money. I have been at a loss. At each failure, I always ended up asking one question: “There has to be a simple way to do this.”
The problem started when I was a child. I grew up in 80’s America, the decade of abundance and aerobics. I was taught, along with every other child, the four basic food groups and the food pyramid. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nancy Reagan told my class about the importance of fitness. My family ate big home cooked dinners and I was told to “clean my plate” because “there are children starving in Africa”. My father is Cuban and was the main chef of our family. That meant the majority of dinners were of white rice and chicken. I was at the mercy of school lunches. Junk food and McDonalds were present although not a constant. I was pretty sure I ate the same way as my skinnier friends, I just couldn’t explain why I was heavier.
“You just eat too much, fatso,” was the most often thing said to me – even by my older, skinnier brothers.
Whatever the true reason for my heaviness, it stuck with me. And it was always pointed out that it was my fault. Depression set in. I was a gloomy kid. That led to emotional eating, which made matters worse. That, in turn, made me anti-social. I was pasty white because I almost never went outside. (Also, because my mom bought the ugliest clothes for me until the eighth grade – even by 80’s standards. Hello corduroy pants, that made my fat thighs go *zzzzznnbbtth zzzzznnbbtth* when I walked.) I was shy and socially awkward.
Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda told me to move, yet I jiggled. My physical education class was a dreaded one hour of pure embarrassment.
My first diet was a simple one. My parents put me on a basic low fat low calorie meal plan. The portions were small. They fed me a lot of corn, carrots, and peas. My bowels, which never really worked right in the first place, got daily doses of prune juice. I was denied eggs and bacon, in favor of low fat honey cheerios and the occasional cream of wheat. My lunches remained the same.
I didn’t lose any weight and my schoolwork suffered (although, considered unrelated problems at the time).
In high school, a combination of puberty, a car, and a better social life gave me a brief reprieve of humiliation. Hormones had stretched me out, and while I was still overweight, I wasn’t a disaster. I had failed PE in the ninth grade and had to take it in summer school. Summer PE was the worst and best thing for me. The coach, while a sadistic jerk, managed to push enough so that I could run a mile without collapsing into a heap. That helped. I also got a girlfriend during my junior year, my habits were temporarily preoccupied. The emotional eating ceased although I was found after school (or during) at the nearby McDonalds with my friends. Luckily, I had little money, so I resorted to their twenty-five cent hamburgers.
After high school I began working immediately. No time for additional school or eating healthy. I also picked up smoking, as if I needed more trouble.
I had quit smoking three times, all for only a few weeks at most. Healthy eating, however, never lasted more than a few days. Living alone, the two things I had gotten really good at cooking was rice and pasta. Boiling water is a skill only the dead could fail at. Most of the time I was too exhausted to even boil water, and resorted to fast food or take-out, or the worst, the dreaded 7-Eleven run on the way home. Hardly anything is healthy at 7-Eleven as a meal.
This habit was mine for most of my adult life. I slowly ballooned past two hundred fifty pounds. I began to look for solutions, but they offered the same schtick, “Eat/drink our special food/pill/shake.”
Jenny Craig, Slim Fast, Nutri-System and countless others have a large portion of the Travis Estrella fortune. And when I failed (I always did), it was my fault – because I didn’t do what they said and didn’t stick with them.
I briefly lost 30 pounds by drinking slim fast shakes for breakfast and lunch and eating Healthy Choice dinners with a salad (the “sensible meal”). I had splurged and bought Billy Blanks’ Tae Bo workout, which I flailed at in front of my television every other morning. That lasted the longest, but the diet was hard to keep with, since there were only a few variations of the frozen dinners that I liked and only 2 flavors of the shake, (Honestly, who likes a strawberry-flavored powdered shake??). My willpower eventually buckled out of diet boredom.
I turned to the Atkins diet where I lost an additional 40 pounds. I hadn’t been at this weight since high school. It was good. But again, I began to lose sight of the prize. Counting the carb eventually proved to be a taxing daily struggle. I didn’t really understand the diet; something about my kidneys and ketosis and stuff. All I knew was I could have bacon with eggs, tuna-melts, and meat – lots of meat. But life got in the way, and I wanted pizza again. I tried to slowly transition off of it, because it seemed like it was artery clogging. How could it be healthy for me, long term, despite me being oblivious to smoking a pack a day? I eventually stopped Atkins. My weight seemed good and I recall reading an article somewhere that Atkins was giving people heart attacks. This was before I had my skeptics toolbox.
Over a few more years, I gained it all back. I also developed a decent asthma problem.
I turned to the American Heart Association with their book “The No Fad Diet”. I figured if anybody would know what to do, it would be them, right? They espoused the low fat low calorie diet and I immediately had terror flashbacks of starving as a child. The recipes in the book seemed complicated and too involved to do every night. But I tried it. I spent a lot of money on food that went bad in my refrigerator because I never had the energy to make a sensical meal plan to utilize the wacky food the “No Fad Diet” asked for. I was angry at the American Heart Association (although not as angry as I was going to be later).
Fast forward to four years ago.
I had finally stopped smoking. I thought it was hard. My asthma was getting worse, so I had to do something. I liked breathing. I had long become sick of the idea of smoking. I hated the idea that I was addicted. After years of Nicotine patches, gums, and mints, I decided to go cold turkey and just stop. I was a compete monster to my fiancee for about three weeks. The urges stopped. It took about two years before I felt comfortable walking into a drugstore or gas station without wanting to climb over the counter to get at a pack of smokes. Technically, since I smoked for close to twenty years, I haven’t dodged the bullet. I could still die from lung cancer, but statistically speaking, my chances have improved. A half-hearted *Yay*.
The smoking problem was over. The weight problem persisted.
The problem was this: Everybody claims their diet is the way to go. As a skeptic, how could I tell which way was the legitimate way to go? I had suspicions that certain concepts were bullshit. “Fat-Free” was on every box in the grocery store, but it was loaded down with sugar. Hell, even my comfort candy favorite, Red Vines, extolled a “Fat-Free” label. Red Vines are not healthy for me. So what if all this other shit is not healthy either.
One night, I’m watching the Colbert Report and the guest is Dr. Robert Lustig. He is promoting his book “Fat Chance“. His missive is that sugar is a toxin. Sugar is what is making us fat and keeping us fat. Americans, in our mission to have a low fat, low calorie diet, are ignoring the sugar and it’s killing us. When we’re not starving ourselves of protein and fat and fiber, we are sucking in processed foods high in sugar, starches, and other bad things.
A light bulb flickered on in my head. I thought back to every diet I was on. The Nutri-System diet was almost nothing but processed food. The Slim-Fast was basically chemicals with added milk. The next day I walked every aisle in my grocery store and looked at the labels.
“Everything is candy,” I told myself.
I bought Dr. Lustig’s book. I tried to keep my skeptic hat firmly screwed on as I read it. His background seemed legitimate. He is an endocrinologist at the children’s ward at SF. He was dealing with the obese child epidemic. The science of his book seemed sound. It was well researched, cited, and appeared to be sane. And while the book wasn’t a diet book, as it contained no specific diet to follow, it did recommend several diets to try, like the Paleolithic Diet, The Mediterranean Diet, and surprisingly, the Atkins. High protein, high fiber, no sugar, no processed starches. Those were the rules.
In the book, Lustig had examples of foods that fit his paradigm of a healthy diet. I made a list of these foods and created a simple meal plan. And by simple, I mean it takes me ten minutes to shop for the foods at the grocery store. Meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs, some diary – that is on the outside edge of every grocery store. It was head-slappingly simple.
That was four months ago. I’ve lost (at this writing) fifty pounds. The diet is simple and varied enough that I can stay on it for the rest of my life. I am not starving, and, in fact, eat quite a bit during the day.
But I was still skeptical. Is this the best diet? Is there any detractors to Dr. Lustig’s idea? How do I know. Obviously, a lot of vegans are convinced that their way is the best way. The Paleolithic Diet followers are convinced that their system is the way.
I’ve read other books. “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes is an amazing look at the subject. He makes an excellent case for the high protein low carb diet. While he doesn’t pinpoint sugar as the main bad guy, Taubes idea diet almost jibes comfortably with Dr. Lustig’s. It’s the minor differences that worries me. Are carrots good or bad for me?
Other books I’ve read seem to ignore the low carb message as if it was another fad, but doesn’t give an accurate description of why. To them, any fat you eat gets carted off into fat cells. The same cartoon explanation I was told as a child. It doesn’t make any sense. Why does the AHA, FDA, and everybody else still carry on like this is the case? Why aren’t doctors and scientist speaking up? There is a obesity epidemic and I believe it’s because we’re being shoveled lies just to buy more shit.
I know that sounds like a conspiracy theory. Believe me, I want to avoid that. I’m angry because if somebody told me this diet back when I was a teenager, (and was wise enough to follow it), I’d be in a different place today – starting with much better health. The internet is overflow’th in metaphysical psuedoscientific nonsense, and that extends right into diet and nutrition. Thousands of websites offer “The Best Way” or the “Right Way”. Why can’t people apply skepticism to diets and health?