What Relapse Has Taught Me
Recently, I experienced some life events that gave me an excuse to fall of the low-carb wagon for about three months. This involved me purposefully adding carbohydrates into my daily meals. I want to emphasize that I wasn’t eating more food or more frequently, just simply opting for carbohydrates largely because I felt higher-carb foods were more convenient to prepare and eat during a time of emotional and physical stress. I was also significantly more active during this time (as one of the primary stressors involved moving houses).
As anyone who has stopped eating very low carb may have experienced, there were some immediate and longer term impacts which have caused me to reflect and rededicate myself to a VLC lifestyle. Here’s a list of things I’ve been examining these past few months:
- My metabolism is uniquely adapted to store massive amounts of energy I’ll never be able to use. In the presence of any kind of insulin response, my body does whatever it can to divert energy from being burned to being stored in my body as fat. This is more than just storing excess sugars and for those devoutly beholden to calories-in/calories-out, more than storing excess calories. I can gain weight in an astonishingly short amount of time from small but consistent servings of carbohydrates that don’t actually increase my total daily caloric intake. If I substitute a 100 calorie non-carbohydrate food for a 100 calorie carbohydrate food, I will gain weight. If I eat 1800 calories a day (well below my daily caloric needs) and more than 10% of those calories are carbohydrates, I will gain weight. I seem especially susceptible to weight gain from grain consumption (wheat and rice). This isn’t exactly news to me given the insulinogenic aspect of wheat but was certainly reinforced by my lapse in low-carb eating. Even while eating the same (caloric) amount of foods and being more active than usual, I gained weight. It’s only natural to conclude that in order to not gain weight from eating, I must keep my insulin levels extremely low at all times so my body doesn’t have the option to partition any energy into storage (a.k.a. fat).
When it comes to energy partitioning, I’m an energy hoarder.
- My body will desperately try to adapt to almost anything I throw at it. One of the wonders I hold for the human body is its amazing ability to attempt to adapt to the most adverse conditions one can throw at it. Unfortunately, it’s this quality that I think makes eating properly the most challenging – just imagine how motivated we’d be to eschew foods that are bad for us if the impact was seen/felt immediately? Eat that cinnamon danish and gain 5 lbs a few hours later. Eat that whole-grain muffin and suffer two days of severe angina induced by inflamed coronary arteries. However, most people’s bodies don’t seem to work that way. Outside of an anaphylactic reaction, the impacts of our eating decisions lie silently and asymptomatically under the surface (chronic inflammation, hypertension, hypercholesterol) and when they do manifest (GERD, inflammatory bowel, weight gain) we rely on any number of pharmaceutical remedies to cover the symptoms while our bodies struggle to find stasis. We then go to great lengths to convince ourselves that this is your body’s new normal.
No matter how challenging the behavior one might adopt, our bodies will try desperately to compensate and strike equilibrium.
- I can’t bad-mouth a carb. I was listening to a podcast of Jimmy Moore (my not-so-secret vice) and he was talking about how he abstains from what most of us would consider to be tempting carbohydrate foods by thinking of them as “rat poison”. I just can’t do that. I’ve tried. My brain knows that for decades I subsisted on these foods and the concept that they are poisonous (regardless of the validity of that statement) has about the same cognitive dissonance as cigarettes causing cancer has to the ardent smoker. Deep in my brain, I know that bagel is bad for me but even if it tasted like rat poison, I’d probably still eat it. This goes hand in hand with my point about our body’s adaptive abilities and how it hampers one’s ability to see the impact of food choices. If the person in front of my at the bagel shop keeled over dead after biting into his bagel, it would certainly deter me from eating one. Maybe.
- Carbs beget carbs. There is no moderation when it comes to me and carbohydrates. I can pretty successfully portion control carb intake during a meal but I find that it’s harder to restrict (or remove) carbs at my next meal. Once I’ve eaten a carb, I’ve established an expectation of a carb in every meal afterwards. My past experience has told me that I could, if I wanted, “cheat” and eat a single carb portion during a meal and remain in ketosis – which is surprising given how insulin-resistant I am. Certainly the quality of the carb plays a role – a starchy vegetable vs. a slice of cake – but once the dam is broken and the carb is eaten, I will want it again the next time I eat. Again, it’s the small but consistent consumption of carbs that keeps my insulin response elevated and keeps me in energy-hoarding mode.
- Convenience kills. Carbs are convenient – wraps and sandwiches are easy to make and eat. McDonald’s is convenient. Getting fries as a side at a restaurant because you just don’t want to put more mental effort into coming up with a lower-carb side is convenient. All of this convenience kills – your motivation, your progress and eventually, quite possibly, you.
- My body is talking to me, if I’m willing to listen. While it might not be immediate (see above), our bodies let us know when they’re displeased. We just have to be willing to listen and believe that our bodies may know more than our brains. This active listening is harder than it seems. Especially when we’ve been inundated by beliefs that weight control and healthy living are largely dictated by rational choices and self-control. Mind-over-body sort of thinking. While some may find this line of thinking helpful, the reality is it can set you up to convince yourself that you’re body is wrong when it responds negatively to what you’re doing. This, I believe, is why so many people try to adhere to low-fat, low-calorie diets. When these diets don’t work (cholesterol doesn’t improve without statin intervention, hypertension doesn’t resolve, weight doesn’t reduce), people blame their body’s response to what they’re doing and fail to consider their body may be responding to flawed thinking. When I went off low-carb, there were a series of fairly quick protests from my body – bloating, gastric distresses and other eliminatory “inconveniences”. My body was telling me to knock it off and get back to eating foods it recognized as healthful and non-inflammatory. I chose to treat the symptoms and not the conditions. In a few days, my body struck a new balance and I began to live my “new normal”. Was my alimentary system less inflamed? No. Was my cholesterol and hypertension improving? No. But my symptoms were gone, so all must be good. Our minds can be powerful allies in our quest for health but they can also convince us that our body’s responses are not important and we ignore our body’s “voice” at our own peril.
We need to listen to our bodies and remember they may not always speak loudly or forcefully but they are speaking all the same.
- I need to determine my real motivation. Up to now, I’ve been focused on VLC as a medical intervention for weight loss because I believed that my increased weight (specifically visceral fat) was largely causing many of my metabolic conditions. I also understood and accepted that my significant insulin resistance was also playing a role in increasing my adiposity. VCL seemed to address both these issues and that’s the extent that I chose to understand the impact of a VLC lifestyle. I am certain this is why the first weight plateau that I hit was so devastating. Instead, I should have considered that my VLC eating up to the point of my plateau was simply preparing me for the next evolutionary step in my diet – moving to a truly ketogenic eating style. It’s becoming apparent that even if I never reach my desired weight – which is just a number in my head with more basis on my clothing size than any healthful impact – I have reaped some pretty significant health benefits from the weight I have lost. Benefits that are certainly over and above 10 years of low-fat eating and statin treatments have provided. But it’s not all about the weight. There are a host of other hereditary ailments lurking in my family tree (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer) that I need to have a strategy to prevent. A Keto diet has been used historically (and successfully) to address these conditions. I need to build a philosophical approach to eating that considers not just weight loss (and the health benefits implied there) but also one that can address non-weight related ailments. Keto seems to be able to do that.
It’s not just about weight, it’s about living long and well.
For the new year ahead, I need to consider whether my VLC eating style (>60% fat intake with lots of high protein meats) is truly ketogenic enough to reach my longer-term health goals (continued weight loss, prevention of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other CNS diseases as well as cancer) or whether I need to move to something more aligned to a truly ketogenic (>80% fat and protein restrictive) eating style. I also want to do some more research into the role intermittent fasting may play in “starving” cancerous and pre-cancerous cells. For now, just getting back to consistent VLC will be enough.