“Open Wide” – Who’s feeding you?

I was reading some articles on nutrition and obesity yesterday and I had one of my “depressed and confused” moments that I get from time to time.  Ever since I have started seriously trying to figure out a good diet for myself, I have times where I get overwhelmed by how much contradictory information is out there.  When it comes to nutrition you can find an “expert” who will take a contrary view on just about anything.  Some will tell you that saturated fats are the devil, and others will say eggs and butter are perfectly healthy and should be back on the menu.  Some advise you to restrict fruit and eliminate all grains. If you read enough for long enough you won’t feel safe eating anything! If someone starts trying to prove that drinking fresh water and breathing clean air is bad for you I won’t be surprised. So what is an ordinary, struggling person to make of all this? I am not a dietician, doctor or personal trainer, but I have been to many of them, and have tried their advice with limited success.  I have no wish to become an “expert” on any of this, but I do feel compelled to learn enough to navigate my own way through the maze of nutritional advice in an effort to recover my health and well-being. After all, if my weight is my “personal responsibility” then I need enough reliable information to behave responsibly, don’t I? Yet when I see how even the experts can’t agree at the most basic level, I think I must be naive in the extreme to think that I can work this all out for myself.

The only way I can stop myself from going stark raving bonkers is to think about what has been going on in my own body in the last few months. I can’t help but conclude that something is working.  My diet is a success by every possible metric of success that means anything to me:

  1. My diabetes is controlled without medication.
  2. I am no longer hypertensive.
  3. I have lost 26 kgs and 5 dress sizes in 4 months.
  4. I sleep like a baby, have plenty of energy and get restless if I sit still for too long whereas I was barely able to move off the couch before.
  5. I have no cravings, never get ravenously hungry and love my food enough to eat this way forever.
  6. My skin and hair look noticeably better and healthier.
  7. People are starting to comment.
  8. I am no longer plagued by headaches, diarrhea, constipation, excessive thirst or getting up multiple times a night to use the loo.
  9. I get on the scale every morning and every morning I weigh a little less.  The weight loss will stop for a few weeks from time to time, and then resume on it’s own. This stop/start progress seems unrelated to my food intake or activity level in that I am eating and exercising fairly consistently whether I am losing or not.  But there is a definite, steady downward trend and as long as that continues I can just keep doing what I am doing for as long as it takes.

I should be over the moon, so why do I still have crushing moments of self-doubt? I’ll tell you:

  1. My diet is not low-fat enough for the low-fat people. Even though I have a pair of old pants so big that they simply drop off me (they fit a year ago!), I worry that I may be clogging my arteries with coconut oil or raising my bad cholesterol by eating too many eggs.
  2. My diet is not low-carb enough for the low-carb people.  Sure, I have cut out all refined grains, haven’t touched a white potato in months and have greatly reduced my sugar intake.  But I still eat any fruit I damn well please, pretty much whenever I feel like it and I flatly refuse to cut out whole grains and legumes.
  3. My diet is not low-calorie enough for the low-calorie diet police.  Without really trying I am eating far more human-sized portions and not having seconds, but I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full and that means more calories than a committed calorie counter would think prudent and certainly far too many to explain my rate of weight loss under the “calories in/calories out” model.
  4. I cook too much of my food for the raw foodists and refuse to juice my veggies and throw away the precious fiber.
  5. The amount of eggs and dairy I eat would make a vegan cry.  (Raw milk btw, which is illegal in some countries!  Not mine apparently.)
  6. I eat no meat or fish at all and any self-respecting cave man would laugh me to scorn. (In my defense I supplement with fish oil, but that’s as far as it goes!)

By just about any diet theory out there I should be getting fatter, not thinner.  Sicker, not healthier. Robert Lustig argues that the common features of all successful, healthy diets is that they are low in sugar and high in fiber and that is about the only thing that makes a modicum of sense to me.  I think his argument at least partly explains it, because I get fiber every which way I can think of and watch sugar like a hawk (although I probably eat more than he would like me to and I do use alternative sweeteners like xylitol and stevia, which I understand is risky until there is more research on these).  However, I would suggest that there is a third feature of a successful diet that is just as important:  you have to love it enough to marry it and live happily ever after!  You can’t be fantasizing about when it will all be over and you can eat chips again!

My recent diet blues have given me a shocking insight.  I think the problem with the Western diet is that people no longer know how to feed themselves!  Food is a veritable battle ground and the struggle for control begins from the moment someone “plays aeroplane” with a spoonful of pureed carrots and tells you to “open wide.”  A critical part of early development is to move a child from breast milk to solid food, teach them the child to eat a healthy, balanced diet, and ultimately to procure and prepare food for themselves. But something has gone horribly wrong and grown adults have reverted to an infant state where we let a variety of “experts” play aeroplane with us while we “open wide” and swallow the whole thing!  Most of us have given up on feeding ourselves and alternate between letting the food industry or the diet industry feed us.  Or both at once, because the food industry has a product line for every recommendation the diet industry ever came up with!

Until very recently I believed that my weight problem was 100% my personal responsibility, just like the food industry told me it was.  Nothing anyone else could say or think of me for being fat was anything close to the hateful things I said to myself when I looked in the mirror. When I was diagnosed with diabetes my only emotion was shame.  The voice in my head said “You did this to yourself, you know!”  The problem was I thought taking “personal responsibility” meant “making healthy choices” in a supermarket, based on the information they saw fit to provide.  Once I realized that this “information” is concocted by their marketing department and the only motive is profit, I started to realize how heavily the deck was stacked against me all along.  The aisles in the supermarket are as gaudy and colorful as the Vegas Strip, and just as much of a gamble.  No matter how much you are tempted to roll the dice, just remember that the house always wins!

I just finished watching “The Men Who Made Us Fat.”  The inescapable conclusion is that taking “personal responsibility” doesn’t mean “making healthy choices” and going for a brisk walk after lunch.  It means telling the whole food industry to go to hell and take their “food products” and “labels” with them!  They never have and never will have our best interests at heart, so let’s be done with them as much as we possibly can!  I realize this may be well near impossible, but at least we can try to send a bit of a message. They can’t be trusted to put 2 ingredients together without jeopardizing our health so if you do buy anything from them it better not need a label or if it does, it should have as few ingredients as possible and you should be able to pronounce all of them.

I had a very different shopping experience the other day buying some fruit and veg from a local farmer.  She was remarkably unassuming, just standing behind a table filled with her fresh produce and a scale.  Not a price or a label in sight. There was nothing eye-catching, no “specials” no advertising, no “health claims” of any kind and I don’t think anyone was standing around to study my buying behavior!  She had grown it all, she hadn’t messed with it and now she was selling it.  Since she was there in person she could answer any questions I wanted to put to her:

“Hi, lovely tomatoes you have today.  Where do you grow them?”

She pointed, indicating just up the road – “Over there ma’am.”

“When did you pick them?

“This morning ma’am.”

“Are they organic?”

Sounding vaguely offended: “Of course ma’am, we only sell organic here.”  (I should have known better than to ask, she wouldn’t have been allowed to sell at this market if it wasn’t, no labeling required!)

Sure the small farmer also has a profit motive. She needs to make a living just like the rest of us.  But it’s a profit motive I can work with.  She just has a little to sell and, judging by the queues of people who, like me, have come looking for a bit of real food, she is going to sell out before the day is over.  And then she packs up and goes home.  She has no incentive to employ any special tactics to get anyone to buy more than they need.  She has some seasonal fruit and veg. If it’s not in season, you’re out of luck, if you want it you can buy it, when it’s sold out, that’s the end.  I leave this shopping trip, well pleased with the day’s purchases and start thinking about what I will make for dinner.

So why is my diet working?  I am not sure, but I think it has something to do with who is feeding me these days.  It’s not about personal responsibility but shared responsibility.  My part was finding a few reasonably honest people committed to producing real food, taking it home and making something decent with it.  Their part was not trying to push more and more food down my throat until I explode! 🙂

I am far from smug about this.  I realize that it is an unbelievable privilege to live within easy travelling distance of so much fertile farm land, and that some of that land is still in the hands of small farmers.  I am incredibly lucky that I have money to buy food and that the food I want and need is cheap enough to fit my budget.  I am one of a tiny percentage of people left in the world who can do this.  I shudder to think about people in inner cities with too little money and too many cheap calories and not a vegetable in sight.  Or people who have been alienated from their land, struggling with poverty, drought and famine who haven’t got enough to eat at all. Maybe it’s time to stop sitting in a corner feeling ashamed of our personal failings and time to start asking some hard questions about who is feeding us.  Time to learn to eat our veggies without parental or government supervision, prepare our own food and stop “opening wide” for the guy with a large fork and an even larger profit motive!  Maybe it’s time to share and make sure that everyone has enough and no one has too much.  Time for more real food, no more drive-throughs and definitely no more diets!  How’s that for a radical idea?

The head bone is connected to the neck bone. . .apparently!

This post is about how I tricked myself into joining a yoga class.  And changed my life!

It all happened one fateful day when I was going about my business as usual when an unexplained, random thought popped into my head:  “I should join a yoga class!”  I can’t explain what prompted this brief lapse of sanity, and under normal circumstances the thought would have passed out of my mind uneventfully and as quickly as it had come.  Impulses like this usually result in a quick mental process whereby my brain assesses the merit of the thought along the following lines.  “Yoga is exercise.  You are Monique.  Monique does not do exercise.”  Case closed. However, on this occasion I happened to be sitting at my computer when I had the weird yoga thought.  Although the rest of my body is a blob, my fingers are supremely fit, and when they have access to a keyboard they are capable of moving much faster than my brain.  Consequently, before I was able to engage in the logic outlined above, my fingers had typed “yoga teacher somerset west” into Google. Oops!  The profile of Domenique Hendricks popped up, I quickly read it, accidentally filled in her contact form and clicked submit! She sent a prompt, pleasant reply, and to cut a long story short I somehow convinced myself to try out a class.

At this point a bit of my personal background is relevant.  Healthy eating is not a foreign concept to me.  I was raised by an extremely health conscious mother who taught me to cook and to eat right.  She also raised me a vegetarian and I have never eaten meat in my life and never plan to.  I absolve her of any and all responsibility for the fact that I became a “junk food vegetarian”, because never did a mother try harder and face greater resistance than mine did with me!  However, when I eventually decided to stop being a brat and eat like a grownup I had plenty of healthy diet information and cooking skills to fall back on.  What’s more, I actually like healthy food on condition that I eat it to the degree that I have no space left for junk food.  Once the addictive junk food eating takes over for some reason the veggies I adore taste “yucky” and they remain untouched and go rotten in my fridge.  Exercise, however, is a whole other story.  I was extremely uncoordinated as a child and horribly bad at sport.  Always last in a school-yard pick.  The sports field or the gym were places of intense humiliation for me.  In the classroom however, I reigned supreme and took my revenge on the jocks who spurned me at recess and during physical education class.  I excelled at academics and inevitably felt good about myself when engaging in intellectual activities.  It is no surprise then, that I ultimately opted for a sedentary lifestyle and avoided exercise as much as possible, particularly in group situations. I have no positive history with exercise from my early development to return to, unlike the rich heritage of healthy eating that is currently serving me so well.

But enough with the autobiography and back to the yoga class.  How I ended up there is still something of a mystery to me, but perhaps on some level I knew that if I wanted to get somewhere I have never been, I would need to do something I had never done.  I was so ignorant of what yoga entailed that I wasn’t sure if I was meant to wear shoes or go barefoot.  So arrived wearing a pair of trainers just to be safe and quickly discovered my mistake when I stepped across the threshold and was greeted by the instruction “no shoes in the yoga studio!” Also, although Domenique was welcoming, she clearly had serious concerns about my general state of health and my ability to do yoga – for very good reason.  I felt the old feelings of embarrassment rising and tried not to let myself think too much about how this felt like high school all over again. However, Domenique encouraged me to try a class and also informed me that yoga was non-competitive, we all worked at our own pace and ideally the whole class was done with your eyes closed.  Phew!  So not like high school after all!  I was particularly relieved to learn that while I would be watching to learn the yoga postures (asanas) the experienced members of the class would keep their eyes closed and not look at me.  If only my gym teacher had a rule like that things would have turned out very different for me! 🙂

When I joined the class I had made myself one promise:  No matter how tough it was, I would keep coming back until it felt better.  So I did. I was a bit sore after the first class, but other than that have had none of the DOMS (stiffness or “delayed onset muscle soreness”) I have with other high impact workouts. I certainly found it strenuous and struggled through the first few classes, but it was doable.  I put this largely down to the fact that Domenique is an excellent, extremely experienced teacher who knows how to work with people at different levels within the same group.  She modifies exercises for me, and forces me to work within myself.  She also does this in such a way that I do not feel I am disrupting the rest of the class too much.

So now let’s get to how yoga is changing my life:

  1. For almost as long as I can remember I have suffered from regular, severe headaches.  I was getting tension headaches almost every day and severe migraines every few weeks. This is debilitating, to say the least. In order to function at all, I was taking a codeine-based painkiller pretty much like a chronic medication.  This made me feel lousy and I knew this was terrible for my health so I really wanted to get off the drug.  The doctor thought my problem was rebound headaches as a result of addiction to the painkiller, and while this almost certainly was going on, it was not the whole story and she wasn’t giving me any workable alternative. It is probably the headaches more than anything that made me consider taking yoga in the first place.  I have other health issues related to diet, but I firmly believe that my headaches are caused by stress and lack of exercise. I noticed a marked improvement in my headaches within the first week of starting yoga and today they have almost disappeared and when I do get one it is much milder and more manageable.
  2. Yoga has helped me to reconnect with my body. It frightens me when I realize how much I was trying to live my life like some sort of disembodied consciousness hoping somehow that my body would look after itself and leave me alone!  Starting yoga was literally like flicking on a switch, or reconnecting a lose wire.  Simply by exercising with your eyes closed, your awareness automatically shifts inwards.  In addition, yoga focuses very much on breathing, meditation and relaxation which greatly improves your sense of connection to your body.  This is particularly helpful for someone trying to lose weight because you find that you naturally become more aware of signals of hunger, thirst, tiredness, stress and anxiety and can take corrective action before they become a huge problem.
  3. Yoga is one of the best strategies for stress management I have ever come across.  At the end of a class you feel profoundly relaxed, even more so than if you had had a full body massage or taken a sedative!  This is critical for losing weight because high stress levels push up cortisol, which signals the body to eat more and store fat.
  4. I find that I am better co-ordinated, more agile and generally able to get through normal daily tasks more easily since starting yoga.  I have also found that I care more about what I do to my body and am much less inclined to abuse it by eating the wrong things!

One thing that did concern me when I started was that although the internet is full of articles discussing the benefits of yoga, there are quite a few stating that it is not particularly helpful for weight loss.  However, these articles are based on the assumption that the primary goal of exercise for weight loss is to burn calories. Since it is believed that you don’t burn as many calories from an hour of yoga as you would from, say, an hour of running, it is not considered the best choice if your main aim is to shed body fat.  Well, as my new bff, Dr Lustig, points out, calorie burning is actually the least compelling reason to exercise.  In “Sugar  – The Bitter Truth” he states:

  • It’s not the Calorie Burn. You’d have to work-out too many hours to burn off the calories from a candy bar, juice, or dessert.

However, exercise is extremely beneficial for:

  • Toned Muscles. Exercise improves skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity–because insulin works better in strong lean muscle.
  • Stress Reduction. Exercise reduces stress and the release of the stress hormone cortisol–appetite goes down when stress goes down.
  • Detoxifies Fructose. Exercise makes the body’s “Citric Acid Cycle” run faster, which detoxifies fructose, improving liver insulin sensitivity–and preventing fructose from turning into fat.

You can’t beat yoga for strength training and muscle toning, stress reduction and detoxing! Which means that yoga is a fantastic form of exercise, not only for all it’s other well known benefits, but for weight loss as well!  It is has definitely made a massive difference in my life, and I am convinced that it is one of the key reasons why I am succeeding this time where I have failed in the past.

If you are trying to lose weight, get healthy or just generally feel better, I highly recommend finding a good yoga class with an experienced teacher.  If you happen to live in Somerset West, South Africa, look no further than World’s View Yoga Studio.  If not, there is bound to be a good teacher near you.  Come on!  If I can do it, so can you!

More about calories: They do count, but not the way I thought

When I started caring about calories, I was unprepared for how complex, and at times confusing, my exploration would become!  Yesterday I wrote about some myths (or at least gross oversimplifications) around calories and weight loss.

I was particularly hard on health professionals that perpetuate these myths.  In their defense, I know that the real experts do understand the complexity but are faced with the challenging task of trying to modify behavior in their clients, and therefore find oversimplifications like “calories in, calories out” a useful starting point. And this may work well for some people.  I just haven’t met them yet, and I am definitely not one of them!   Instead of starting me down the road to health and lean living, this dictum is apt to send me round and round in circles, chasing my tail until I inevitably end up collapsing in a heap under a great big pile of food!  My problem with “calories in, calories out” is that it sounds like a judgment-laden injunction to simply try to “exert a cognitive inhibition over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. ” (Dr Robert Lustig)  I have finally had the sense to realize that, for me anyway, this is: Just. Not. Possible!

I am not looking for an easy way out of this, believe me.  In fact I would LOVE it if there was a simple formula for me to follow that would result in guaranteed, permanent and sustainable weight loss.  If anyone discovers one, I will be the first to sign up! But so far it has proved to be anything but simple.  Therefore, for my own benefit, I thought I would use this post to summarize my current understanding of calories and where they fit in to nutrition and weight loss.  Anyone reading this, please take note that this is a lay person’s understanding and subject to re-evaluation and further learning on my part.  Also, I think that everyone should study and understand this topic for themselves, examine how the issues around calorie intake play out in their own lives and reach their own conclusions.  I am open to correction and further guidance, but this is what I currently believe:

  1. There is such a thing as an “energy balance” in which a healthy, lean individual takes in the right amount of food to support their energy requirements. In simple terms: they eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.  However, calculating exactly what that energy balance is, is not achieved by a simple equation that a primary school child could understand (Calories in = Calories Out).  It is infinitely complex, highly individual and achieved most successfully by the workings of the body’s own hormones that regulate appetite and fat storage: leptin, ghrelin and insulin.  When these hormones are in balance and functioning correctly, and the brain is sensitive to them, then the individual knows intuitively how much they should eat.  When they are out of balance, or the brain is resistant to them, then the individual is incapable of an appropriate caloric intake regardless of how much theory they know and how much will power they attempt to exert.
  2. From #1 it therefore follows that the first objective of anyone concerned with weight loss, be it: the overweight individual, doctor, dietician, personal trainer, therapist or researcher should NOT be trying to control behavior and somehow getting the starving fat person to “eat less.”  Instead, it should be figuring out how to bring those hormones back into balance and to restore sensitivity to them.  A great deal of research is going on in the area of leptin resistance in particular and I am following this with great interest.
  3. The continual, ready availability of calories is possibly one of the greatest environmental challenges that modern humans have to navigate. We evolved and adapted to an environment of scarcity and now live in one of abundance and excess.  In other words, we are hard-wired to take in as many calories as possible during times of plenty and store excess for the coming famine.  The fact that the famine never comes is irrelevant.  To be human means that if you are hungry and food is available, then sooner or later you will eat.  If you did not have this drive then your ancestors would have died out long ago and you wouldn’t be here to have this conversation!  The disaster is that if you are always hungry and food is always available you will become obese and the very drive that would have ensured your survival in an environment of scarcity could be your undoing in an environment of abundance.
  4. The source of the calories matters as much, or more, than the calories themselves.  In other words you can eat a 2000 calorie a day diet that will promote metabolic syndrome, addictive eating, excessive hunger and obesity, as well as making you disposed to eat more and more calories over time.  Or you can eat a 2000 calorie diet that promotes health, a lean body, balanced hormones, appropriate appetite and a consistent calorie intake over time.  Because a calorie is only a calorie when you are burning food in a bomb calorimeter.  As soon as you put it in your body, however, the source of the calories matters very much indeed! I would even go so far as to propose that the first goal of any weight loss program should not be calorie restriction but calorie replacement.  In other words if you simply try to get the fat person to eat less they will yo-yo diet for the rest of their lives (how much more proof do we need of this?) but if you get them to eat different (whole foods instead of processed junk food) it may be possible for them to gradually move back towards an energy balance, appropriate food intake and a leaner body mass.

Anyone still with me?  You’re a hero!  Given my current thinking on calories, I actually do keep a food journal and I do (sort of) count calories.  But not in an effort to force myself to stick to a daily calorie limit by pure discipline.  I do it to observe which eating behaviors result in the most consistent, economical overall intake that promotes gradual, healthy weight loss.  Not the way I intended to approach this when I started out at all!  I started out by trying to figure out the least number of calories I could eat to lose the greatest amount of weight in the shortest possible time. The outcome was:  I couldn’t keep it up long enough, I felt miserable and, worst of all, I stopped losing weight! I have now wrapped up that experiment and stored it away in a large box marked “FAIL”    I have started a new strategy, as outlined in my post A Bold Experiment.  So far so good, check back in a year or two for the thrilling conclusion 🙂

A Bold Experiment

If you have read through my ramblings on food, addiction and hunger thus far, you deserve a medal!  This post is going to be short and to the point and strive to answer the burning question:  “So where do I go from here?”

The picture is pretty bleak, truth be told.  At the ripe old age of 38 I am spectacularly disillusioned with my ability to lose weight by dieting, much less keep it off!  What’s more I now understand that there is a biological reason for this.  In the words of Dr Lustig: “No one can exert cognitive inhibition over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. It is just not possible.”  So where does that leave me?  Am I destined to die young and die fat?  I really hope!  In an effort to avoid this fate, I am have devised a bold experiment that seeks to determine whether it is possible to eat a diet:

  1. So delicious that I never crave junk food.
  2. So satisfying that I never get hungry.
  3. So rich in nutrition that my body gets everything it needs for health, energy and well-being.
  4. Sufficiently low in calories that I am able to reach and maintain a healthy body weight.

I also want to achieve all of the above by:

  1. Avoiding extremes.  No deprivation and no bingeing. The “weight loss” phase of the plan needs to be as similar as possible to the “maintenance” phase.
  2. Not demonizing or deifying any of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat).
  3. Not using any means to artificially suppress my appetite  (no pills or potions!)
  4. The concept of a dieter’s “Cheat Day” must be rendered meaningless by every-day delicious and decadent eating!

As Dr Phil would say: “It’s a good deal if you can get it!” Of course I realize a deal this sweet will come at a cost.  In order to achieve the above, I will commit to:

  1. Continually educate myself on the subjects of health and nutrition.
  2. Learn to cook and prepare my own meals from scratch.
  3. Do everything within my power to source the healthiest versions of all the foods I consume on a regular basis.
  4. Engage in regular physical exercise and strive to lead a generally active life.

The experiment will be deemed a provisional success if and when I have achieved a healthy weight and maintained it for one year, on the understanding that I would then need to commit to the plan for the rest of my life.  This blog will chart my progress for the purpose of accountability and for my own interest and entertainment.

Anyone who chooses to follow my journey:  Welcome and thank you!  Feel free to comment, offer suggestions and encouragement and ask any questions you may have about what I am doing and why.  I will try to answer to the best of my ability.

Top 10 Tips for Winning at the Hunger Games!

Let me make myself 100% clear:

I think it is unhelpful to tell hungry fat people to eat less.  However, I am absolutely convinced that the desired behavior is for them to eat less, and by “less ” I mean fewer calories, especially from refined and processed foods.  Although we can argue about all the factors that contribute to weight gain, an excessive intake of calories is clearly at least one of them.  Interestingly, in the process of eating fewer calories one may end up eating a greater volume of food and a lot more nutrients, and that is a good thing and just goes to show that just saying “eat less” without explaining what you mean by that and how to achieve it is pointless.

I do not defend overeating, but I do seek to understand it.  My quest for understanding begins with myself.  It has lead me to the conclusion that although the desired outcome is that I eat fewer calories, this is unachievable without first addressing the problem of hunger.

Here’s what I know:  If you are hungry and you have access to food, sooner or later you are going to eat.  What is more, the hungrier you are by the time you give in to the urge to eat, the more you are likely to overeat and the less healthy and rational your food choices will be.  That’s the bad news.  On the flip side, the good news is that if you eat in such a way that you are nourished and satisfied and your hunger is well managed then you will be able to eat more appropriate amounts relatively easily.  Of course while it is quite possible to overeat when you are NOT hungry purely because food is there and it tastes good, it is not inevitable and it becomes relevant to talk about things like will power, self control and common sense.  However, if you are hungry all of that goes out of the window and you can no more prevent yourself from overeating than you can hold your breath indefinitely.

So here are the top 10 things that work for me.  As I write this I am grateful that I can afford to eat in this way and embarrassed that I squandered this privilege by eating badly when there are people in the world that genuinely have nothing to eat or are unable to afford healthy food.  My experience of hunger and obesity is very much a problem of affluence, and fortunately the solution is also within my grasp because of my privileged economic position.  In future posts I will write about how much more complicated the problem becomes when poverty is factored into the equation.

1) Eat a hearty breakfast as soon after waking as possible.  I know your mother already told you this, but this one really is non-negotiable! According to the National Weight Control Registry 78% of people who maintain their weight loss in the long term eat breakfast every day.  There are many reasons for eating breakfast including: kick starting your metabolism for the day, maintaining energy and blood sugar levels etc.  The main reason for me is that it is at breakfast where the battle against hunger for the day is won or lost.  I was one of the “not hungry for breakfast” people who then started bingeing on refined carbs from midmorning until bedtime.  The thought of food first thing in the morning made me nauseous.   Now my stomach screams for breakfast like an angry baby until it is fed, and then my appetite gradually tapers off throughout the day until by evening I am done with food and ready to close the kitchen.  I have gone from eating my main meal at night, followed by incessant mindless snacking in front of the TV to not even particularly needing to eat an evening meal and being perfectly comfortable with a salad or an apple.  I did NOT do this by deciding to eat less at night.  I did it by eating more for breakfast!

2) Drink Water!  Especially: First thing when you wake up (with some lemon juice if you like) and half an hour before meals.  Then drink as much throughout the day as possible. By drinking more water I have stopped drinking other beverages including fruit juice and diet soda (do I even need to bother to mention regular soda?).  I don’t talk a lot about “cutting out” anything from my diet except when it comes to sugary or artificially sweetened drinks.  These simply have to go and a habit of water drinking is critical to success.

3) Eat at regular intervals throughout the day.  Don’t allow yourself to become hungry before you eat but don’t eat past the point of satiety either. End the meal when you feel comfortable, but not “stuffed.” Initially I found that three meals and two snacks worked well for me but now I struggle to manage more than two meals and one to two snacks.   My schedule is:  Breakfast first thing, mid morning snack, lunch, light supper.  I didn’t decide that I would eat fewer meals and snacks.  I ate more earlier in the day and ended up eating less by default because it’s all I can manage.

4) Include a lean protein, a small amount of healthy fat, and plenty of fiber with every meal.  Bulk out the meal as much as possible with non-starchy vegetables.  This combination works best because you get a sustained feeling of fullness, both from the quantity of food and the composition.  I measure proteins, fats and carbohydrates very carefully and throw caution to the wind when piling on the non starchy vegetables. I find that if I just eat a big plate of steamed vegetables I still get hungry, but if I include appropriate portions of protein and fat and occasionally some whole grains, I  am sated until my next meal.  I also make sure to include protein with every snack.

5) Limit your intake of grains and make sure they are really whole grains.  I say this because the more grains I eat the more I want to eat.  Basically they make me hungrier! They also push my blood sugar too high.  Now I know that there is a lot of talk about going gluten free or grain free these days, and if that works for you good and well.  I just don’t feel good on a completely grain free diet, both physically and in terms of satisfaction with my meals.  However, I do make sure that I buy my grains from good sources, and prepare them myself.  I have also tried to make sure I eat diverse grains and severely restrict my intake of wheat and corn.  Learning to cook with quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth has been fun and enjoyable.  I do not eat any grain-based food product from a supermarket or convenience store because I just don’t trust it and  I try to eat no more than 2 measured portions of whole grains a day.

6) Smoothies, Soups and Salads are your best friends and can form the basis of your meal plan.  I love all three because they are satisfying, bulky and an easy way to introduce major nutritional variety.  If I am short of ideas on what to eat I will have a smoothie for breakfast, soup for lunch and a salad for supper.

7) While you are still trying to control hunger, there are some great low cal or no cal options to create a feeling of fullness in-between meals and snacks.  My favorites are: Green Tea – the warmth relaxes my stomach and takes away the stab-you-in-the-gut-and-laugh hunger pang! Soaked Chia seeds – full of Omega 3, soluble fiber and other goodies and great for filling up a belly for relatively few calories. Non-starchy vegetables for an eat as much as you like buffet!

8) Don’t cut out food from your diet, crowd it out! Once you have a good understanding of what you should be eating on a daily basis, the foods you shouldn’t be eating almost become a non-issue. Don’t obsess about what you will be missing out on, and rather think about all the delicious food you are going to stock up on and enjoy from day to day. Make sure there is no room in your budget, your trolley, your kitchen cupboards and, above all, your tummy for the wrong types of food! If you eat something on a regular basis, make it earn its place in your diet. Research its nutritional profile, understand what it does to your hormones, and make sure its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. If a food is not worthy of a regular place in your diet, don’t have it in your home. Make sure home is a “safe eating” zone. This ensures that foods that should only be eaten as occasional treats are not easily accessible and tempting. We all face enough temptations as we live in the real world and we certainly don’t need them in our own kitchens!

Before starting with this approach my relationship with food was troubled to say the least. I didn’t like to think about food. I never cooked, and seldom did grocery shopping. I could never tell you in advance what I was going to eat for my next meal, and when you asked me what I felt like eating I would struggle to tell you, although it definitely wasn’t “vegetables!”  I lived from meal to meal – ate at a restaurant, got take out and if I did prepare something it was usually a sandwich.  Worst of all, although I craved it constantly, I didn’t actually enjoy my food, even the so-called delicious junk food. Now I know exactly what I am going to eat, grocery shopping is done decisively and with military precision and I really look forward to every meal!

9) Every meal should be utterly delicious and fill you with pleasure and delight. I am finally beginning to figure it out – in addition to managing hunger and eliminating cravings, it is really important to me to love the food I eat! People who struggle with weight often develop a lot of emotional issues round food that involve shame, guilt and obsessive compulsive behaviors and erroneously conclude that they are “bad” for liking food so much and that they need to suppress their appetites and put food as far out of their mind as possible. Extreme dieting can just be another part of this dysfunctional dynamic. Sooner or later your body will rebel and force you do perform the basic functions you need to stay alive, be it breathing or eating. Learning that it is healthy and normal to openly love food and derive pleasure from enjoying it is a big part of adopting a sustainable, healthy eating plan. There are so many healthy foods that deserve a place in our diets, so if you aren’t enjoying your bill of fare, keep trying out different foods and experimenting. See “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” by Jonny Bowden for ideas.

10) Prepare your own food! The first thing I learned in the Hunger Games was that when it comes to feeding myself, I am the only person I can trust!  Until further notice everyone with an economic interest in my food supply is guilty until proven innocent.  I have also discovered that the manufactures of processed foods are horrible chefs!  They actually don’t know how to prepare food at all, they just know how to manipulate combinations of sugar, salt and fat to promote addictive eating behaviors.  They literally have this down to a science, but I bet if you gave them a basket of fruit and vegetables and told them to turn it into a meal a kid would eat they would be at a complete loss.  This is why the “healthy version” of any processed food tastes like cardboard – because you have restricted the only ingredients the processed food industry understands.  The flavors in processed and fast foods are simple, overpowering and boring.  Once you learn to enjoy complex, subtly flavored, balanced and artistically prepared dishes, the fast food alternatives quickly become disappointing at best and unpalatable at worst. Unfortunately many restaurants are not much better.  If you do eat out, go to a good restaurant with a great chef who is an artist with fresh local produce and understands portion control. You will have a more enjoyable meal and it won’t do your waistline any damage.

So there you have it.  This has turned out to me a much longer post than I intended.  In my defense, everything I have written has been enormously helpful to me and I hope that at least some of it will be to you too!

Figuring out Food – The joys of eating more to weigh less!

Yesterday I wrote about why it is a bad idea to tell a hungry fat person to eat less. I am still nervous about being arrested by the diet police, so I thought I should follow up quickly with a post about what I think should be done instead!

All joking aside though, anyone who is overweight or obese and experiencing excruciating hunger pangs is in serious crisis and is in dire need of intervention.  I know this from personal experience.  I have absolutely no doubt that such a person is in just as much physical, psychological and social trouble as an alcoholic, drug addict or a person with a serious eating disorder.  Although this is still a hotly contested topic, I do feel that the term “addict” is entirely appropriate for someone in this situation.

It is a very complex problem – if it wasn’t we would have solved it by now instead of holding crisis talks about how to address an “obesity epidemic!”  Hungry fat people are most likely dealing with some or all of the following:

1) They are malnourished from eating a calorie dense, nutrient poor diet.  Hunger signals that are really the body’s cry for nutrients are misinterpreted as a demand to take in more calories, and so a vicious cycle is set up.

2) They constantly ride a roller coaster of sugar highs and lows, always inevitably hurtling towards the next sugar fix.

3) The hormones that regulate appetite and fat storage (Leptin, Ghrelin and Insulin) are in disarray, and will work together to keep the person fat, come hell or high water.

4) They no longer understand the difference between “eating” and “substance abuse” so instead of nourishing their bodies they are abusing sugar, salt and fat to achieve hit after hit of pleasure (at the expense of health and sanity!)

5) They are overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and despair as they know they need to do something but have lost count of all the times they have tried and failed.

So when I say that fat people are hungry I am not merely referring to the fact that they get slightly peckish between snacks and after swinging by the drive through are no longer hungry.  I am referring to chronic, long term hunger that rages unabated for days, weeks, months and years.  A situation akin to starvation.  I have lost a lot of weight in my life and gained even more and, like many people, I always felt that my problem with food was particularly insidious because “an alcoholic can commit to never drinking again, but food addicts still have to eat.”  This thinking had me feeling like a victim, which of course is completely unproductive, until I had a life changing insight: there is a world of difference between food, and drugs pretending to be food! Once I understood this difference I realized that it was in fact possible to take a journey to recovery exactly like any addict trying to get sober.  One that involves taking responsibility for your health and eating more real food in order to get off fake food drugs.

As a veteran yo-yo dieter I kept making the same fatal mistake over and over again. Yes, you guessed it, exactly like a crazy person!  I would start a diet, no matter how extreme and unsustainable, in a bid to just get the weight off, and I would tell myself that once I had lost the weight I would figure out how to keep it off.  I once lost 30 kg by eating 1 energy bar and a handful of appetite suppressants a day. Everyone was super impressed and proud of me, when really they should have been dragging me off to the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital! This was socially sanctioned madness because everyone and their mother likes to tell fat people to eat less! What I didn’t realize was that the decision to start a diet involving eating less was nothing more than a stage in the “try hard – give up” cycle of addiction!  Now I consider myself to be an intelligent person, so I can’t explain why it took me so long to realize that in order to get a different result I would need a different strategy.  But let’s let bygones be bygones – for whatever reason what I am doing now is different, dramatically successful and 100% sustainable.

The breakthrough came when I began to discuss my experience of hunger with my husband. He had no idea what I was talking about, and although he loves to eat as much as the next person, he says that he has never experienced “hunger” in the way that I described it.  This allowed me to figure out that what I felt on a daily basis was not the same thing that every human on the planet felt, but some were just able to ignore.  News flash: Skinny people do not have super powers, after all!  Winning the Hunger Games has absolutely NOTHING to do with will power! This lead me to give up on trying to lose weight and made me decide to just figure out how to stop being hungry.  It was the best decision I ever made!  I also decided that I would lose weight in exactly the same way that I hope to keep it off, and that I would never “go on diet” again.

I figured out a workable strategy through reading books, searching the Internet and experimenting to learn what worked and what did not.  I am happy to say that I have not felt “unnatural zombie hunger” in months.  For some specifics, see my next post: “Top 10 Tips to Win at the Hunger Games.”  Besides not being hungry anymore, I have painlessly lost 25 kilograms (55 pounds), my type II diabetes is controlled without medication and I have gone from being hypertensive to having blood pressure on the low end of normal.  The jury is still out because I know that I could still relapse. I also still have 36 kgs left that I need to lose, but all early indications are that something is finally working!

Fat People Are Hungry! – The misery of being overfed and under-nourished

Listen up!  The Diet Industry, self-help gurus and self righteous skinny bitches need to stop telling fat people that they need to eat less!  It is cruel, ignorant and spectacularly unhelpful!

Now I realize I have just uttered diet blasphemy.  But before you try me as a heretic and burn me at the stake, please hear me out.  I think I can make my case.

Here’s what I know as a soon-to-be-formerly fat person.  For most of my life I have been really, really hungry.  Anyone who saw how fat I was and knew what I used to eat on a daily basis would wonder how this is possible. But trust me, it is.  And I don’t think I am the only one.  Our kind are real and we walk among you! I was hungry (or starving, more accurately) for the simple reason that I was eating the wrong “food” – and a lot of it!  “Food” that was high in calories, low in nutrition and deliberately engineered to make me keep eating without ever addressing my hunger.  It would make a great plot for a horror movie:  the more I ate the hungrier, and the fatter, I got! I was suffering from something I have affectionately named “unnatural zombie hunger.”

Fat people are often encouraged to do a great deal of introspection, hand wringing and soul searching to answer the obnoxious question of some well meaning personal trainer, therapist or parent who looks them in the eye and gravely asks “why are you so fat?”  This line of questioning usually ends with a tearful confession about some childhood trauma with the interrogator nodding in sympathy and self satisfaction at their ability to get to “the heart of the problem.” Well I have asked that question of myself and finally found an answer that makes perfect sense to me. No, it isn’t because I have poor self-esteem, am seeking my father’s approval or didn’t get cuddled enough as a baby.  It is also not because I am lazy, have no impulse control or just “f’ing love cake” as Ricky Gervais so eloquently puts it.  I am fat because I was hungry, plain and simple! Now I realize that this answer is not sensational enough to get me a spot on a reality TV show, but it is one of the greatest insights of my life and the first huge step in my recovery!

Hunger is a basic human drive, like thirst, sex, or breathing!  It is a necessary component of our biology without which we would not survive.  However, we can seriously mess with hunger and turn it into a monster that controls our every waking moment. Simply put, we do this by not eating the right food in a timely manner and then eating way too much of the wrong food.  The big problem for me is that I had no idea that my hunger wasn’t the normal healthy kind, it was the diabolical make-you-fat-and-kill-you kind!  I experienced hunger as an intense physical pain in my gut so extreme that I needed to eat with the same urgency as one might feel when needing to empty a bursting bladder! I classed it as the same level of emergency as needing to take a pain killer for a migraine headache! For me being hungry meant: eat as much as you can, as fast as you can and eat foods containing as many calories per bite as possible!  And I had no idea that this was not normal.  In that state I was eating purely to alleviate physical pain, not for pleasure and most certainly not for nourishment! All I knew was the word for “hunger,” and my physical experience of it.  I didn’t realize that this was not how everyone experienced hunger.  I just thought that skinny people had ironclad will power that allowed them to live in perpetual agony without giving in to the drive to overeat the way I did on a regular basis.

This blog will explore the question of why I was so hungry and what I am doing about it in greater detail.  But here’s a sneak preview:  all my previous attempts at dieting and weight loss were epic failures because they were founded on an attempt to “eat less.”  The problem is that eating less is a really dumb idea if you are starving! Of course I didn’t know I was starving and nor did anyone around me, because I was a great big fat person. But now that I know what the problem is, I know exactly what to do about it.  I have started eating more!  Or, more accurately, I have started eating real food and stopped eating drugs masquerading as food.  “Real food” meaning whole, unprocessed, nutritious food that my body recognizes and knows what to do with. Result:  I am no longer hungry, I don’t have cravings and although the volume of food I take in has increased, without really trying my calorie consumption has dramatically decreased.

So yes, I am mad at anyone who simplistically tells fat people to just “eat less” because I feel that this only aggravates the problem.  This doesn’t mean that excess calorie consumption, especially the wrong kind of calories, isn’t a serious issue that inevitably results in weight gain, among other things.  But this problem is, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, solved by first getting a hungry person to eat more of the right foods until they no longer suffer from “unnatural zombie hunger.”

Not everyone oversimplifies the problem of course, and there are many very insightful, caring professionals who provide excellent advice.  I appreciate the insights of Michael Pollan, for example, who sums it up beautifully and simply with the often quoted: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  My contention is simply that we first need to stress that people should eat a diverse plant-based, whole foods diet (as opposed to fake “food” products), and then the “not too much” will follow as a matter of course.

So I say again – stop telling fat people to eat less!  Doesn’t the statistic that 90% of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back make anyone realize that this advice is completely useless? Having said this, fat people like myself are not victims and we can and must take personal responsibility for our health. For me the best way to do this is not to “go on a diet” but to eat more delicious healthy food, thereby crowding junk food out of my diet, and gently, kindly and sustainably shedding unwanted weight in the process!