Last Thanksgiving, after a year where I had ballooned up to about 238 pounds rather quickly, I recommitted to low carb yet again.
Today, one year later, I am down to 205.
That works out to 33 pounds in 1 year, or 0.63 pounds a week, an absolutely horrible number – if you’re in a rush about things. But for me, its different. I’ve been doing this low carb thing for eight friggin years. It’s not a diet I go on thinking I lose weight, then go back to old habits and somehow thinking the weight won’t come back.
You take a different perspective when you’re in it for the long haul like I am. Eight years ago I was 265. Today I am 60 pound lighter. Plenty of people can lose a lot of weight, and almost all of them gain it all back within five years. I didn’t, which makes me something of a freak.
I’m sure you’d all like to know my secret, and I’d love to tell you – but the more I reflect on it, it’s not all that simple.
I’ve concluded that low carb, at least for me, is not what you think. And losing weight is not just low carb.
Losing weight and keeping it off for the long-term is more of an elaborate con job that a person must consciously perform on their own mind, their body, and on other people. And a big part of the con is that what works now might not work later, so to keep the con going, you have to be prepared to adapt.
For me, 8 years ago, the place to start was Atkins. I got the book, followed it, and got myself into ketosis – lots of ketosis. I got used to living on very low carbs – maybe under 40g per day – and did so for months at a time. The weight came off: 70 the first year, and another 10 the second that got me to my target weight.
I felt great and had more energy and mental clarity than ever. I was also completely insufferable – blabbing on and on about low carb to anyone who would listen. The problem is: no one cares. And if they might care, like other fat folks, they think you are a little nuts to go on low carb.
Being an insufferable food fanatic aside, I had given up alcohol as part of this 2-year go at the diet. This was hard as I had always loved drinking. A die-hard beer drinker, I gave it up forever. At the 2 year mark, however, I thought I could add alcohol (though not beer) back in, so I would have red wine, martinis, and vodka & tonics.
I’ve done a lot of (ahem) personal research in this area and have concluded that if I want to maintain my weight loss – as well as be able to manage the inevitable weight gain that tries to creep back – I need to completely abstain from the stuff.
So here’s the bargain: drink and gain weight or don’t drink and lose weight and/or keep it off.
I have been trying to prove this bargain wrong for the better part of the past 6 years and have not been able get it to work.
So I’ve stopped drinking, completely, about 6-7 months ago, and I believe it has contributed to my weight loss.
I’m lucky in that my life is not one where the conviviality of alcohol is an important component of my happiness. I don’t go bar-hopping, don’t ‘watch the game with the guys’, nor do I do much of the other things that usually involve alcohol.
I like reading and writing, and spending time with my family. Call me boring.
For those of you that do enjoy partying, I am well aware of the problem. People who drink to have a good time want you to drink as well, and it is awkward to say no. There is also the tendency to think that people who don’t drink and once did must be alcoholics – and if you are not drinking, you not only must be one, but you bring to mind in others that they might be one as well.
It is also hard to stop drinking without sounding sanctimonious.
I think PJ O’Rourke once said something to the effect that: you have to drink to prove you are not an alcoholic.
The subject of drinking came up yesterday with a bunch of young adults I work with. Asking my drinking habits, I said: “If I drink, I get fat – so I don’t drink.” Said to a bunch of skinny kids just getting their start in a world of alcohol-laced good times, I’m sure that I sounded weird. One girl said to me helpfully (as everyone is a diet consultant): “Just don’t drink beer.”
Our drinking discussion continued as I had much drinking-related experience to share with them, and I doubt I came off as sanctimonious, but you never can tell. No lectures necessary, no detailed personal stories required, except the personal excess stories that people relate in good humor about the joys of alcohol. I remember. I enjoyed them. I have only good memories as alcohol was never a problem for me – I just don’t drink anymore.
So maybe I’m not totally cool, but I’m OK, I guess. Or maybe not. I’ve long ago given up caring what other people think about me, which is handy if you are going to go on a low carb diet anyway.
Next up is that I have come to the conclusion that low carb doesn’t work in the long run. Now, before you freak at this heresy, let me explain.
Low carb is a con job that you can pull on your body and lose a bunch of weight that will stop working after a couple of years.
The good news here is: Low carb works for a couple of years.
In low carb circles, there is talk of ‘The Golden Time’. It’s that magical first-time shot at Atkins where the weight melts off. The story usually continues that the individual relating the story then gains the weight back, and their second go at Atkins does not work as well.
This is a complicated thing to understand (for me, at least), but as I see it, you are fat forever. Once you have gained weight, you have acclimated your body to that weight. No matter how thin you might get, your body remembers that higher weight, and wants to go there again. I read of a study that measured chemical markers (or some such thing) in fat folks who lost a lot of weight and they were similar to the markers of people who were starving.
I can only conclude that the best way to avoid being fat is to never allow yourself to get fat in the first place.
Yeah, I know: a little late for that wisdom.
So all this sucks, and if you’d like to set some time aside to feel sorry for yourself, please do so. I always recommend feeling sorry for yourself as part of a normal and necessary grieving process – but put a solid end date on it. Commit to a solid period of teeth-gnashing, wailing, and hand-wringing, but put a circle around the day on the calendar when you’ll stop. Get it out of your system. Then c’mon back and let’s get back to business.
OK – done feeling sorry for yourself? Then let’s continue.
Here’s why low carb doesn’t work in the long run: your thyroid.
Anthony Colpo, once a darling to the low carb community, has spent enormous time and energy bashing low carb because he experienced symptoms of hypothyroidism after being on low carb for a couple of years. I think he’s right. I myself have experienced some of the same issues he mentioned, as well as others:
- Feeling cold when other people don’t
- thinning hair
- crappy memory
As your thyroid controls your metabolism, and a slower metabolism means that weight loss becomes harder, this also means that extreme low carb will ultimately fail – and might lead you to go to a doctor because of the depression and crappy memory and instead of accurately diagnosing the lower thyroid, they misdiagnose you as depressed and put you on a anti-depressant, which might deal with the depression, but provide you with a whole host of new issues to deal with - and still not address the fundamental issue of low-carb-induced hypothyroidism.
Here’s a link to Anthony Colpo’s article on low carb and hypothyroidism. Please be advised – he’s a bit of a jerk – and he knows it – but I still like him and think that his points here have some science to back them, as well as my own experience.
Anthony’s failure in all this is to think that low carb is bad because people in the low carb community think that low carb is forever. I think they’re both wrong.
I think – and am betting on – that ketogenic low carb is a great way to lose weight, but it’s use is limited to a few short years at most. After that, a more complicated meal plan – one that not only allows for, but needs carbs, becomes necessary to keep the metabolism up and running.
So if you’re new to this – ignore Anthony Colpo for a year or two. Then carefully read what he has to say. Use your one-shot at ketogenic low carb for all it’s worth, and be aware that just when you’ve acclimated yourself to avoid nasty, evil carbs, those same carbs will come back to save your ass from hypothyroidism.
Now, there’s one important assumption that I am making here that I freely admit I might be wrong about – because what the hell do I know?
My assumption is that hypothyroidism induced from ketogenic low carb is reversible. I might also be wrong, not being a doctor, that my self-diagnosis of hypothyroidism is even correct, though the fact remains that hypothyroidism is known to be under-diagnosed, at least this hyperbolic website – Stop The Thyroid Madness – thinks so.
Others do too, but I’m too lazy to link them – find ‘em yourself.
Now you might make a reasonable argument here: why would I go on any diet that could cause hypothyroidism? Great question.
I answered that for myself as: because every other diet I tried doesn’t work.
I lost a lot of weight in my twenties by strict calorie counting and exercise. I gained all of it back in a year – and then some.
I lost a lot of weight in my thirties by strict calorie-counting and exercise. I gained all of it back in a year – and then some.
I tried going on an extreme low-fat diet (Dr. Ornish). I never lost any weight.
I went on low carb in my forties and lost 80 lbs., stopped suffering from the symptoms of GERD, stopped eating tums like candy, stopped getting low blood sugar plunges in the afternoon that I could barely keep awake through, have kept a family propensity for diabetes from occurring, had greater mental clarity, and more energy – and have more or less kept a good portion of this weight loss off for most of the last six years, and done so without exercise, which I don’t really enjoy.
I’ll deal with the possibility of hypothyroidism 60 lbs. lighter over all that other stuff. I ‘can’t have it all’.
The introduction of carbs is tough – it’s like threading a needle. I love carbs, and given the opportunity, I would sit and eat a bag of chips like any good fat person could. While I try to avoid bad carbs like the chips, candy, cake, cookies and the like – I don’t.
I do have much less than I used to, before low carb, in the days when my junk food consumption took on awesome proportions, but I am still able to pack away a good amount of carbs before I know it.
This probably has something to do with my 0.63 lb per week weight loss, but there’s another aspect to this.
Is a diet that goes on for 8 years a ‘diet’? Is the whole concept of ‘dieting’ so screwed up that we are all doomed to fail at them? How can we possibly think that we can undergo some temporary period of deprivation to get thin and we’ll stay that way? It’s rubbish.
I might be spinning a fantasy out of whole cloth, but I might be able to look back at the past couple of years and say this:
After the first few inital years of ketogenic low carb success, the onslaught of age, along with the reduction in thyroid function, combined with alcohol, began the inexorable climb in weight – which I beat myself up over even though it wasn’t really willpower, but rather a combination of things. As I increased the effort, I not only saw no results, but decreased my thyroid function further, making me a cranky and depressed bastard to be around. I then recognized that I was beating myself up over it, with my family as collateral damage to all this, and stopped. When offered carbs, I didn’t act like I was attacked, I ate them. I enjoyed myself, the food I ate, and my family.
And my weight ballooned. Obviously, low carb works for me because when I stray from it even for a few short months, the weight comes back. Like I said before, my body is permanently fat, regardless of my weight, and unless I eat a certain way, I will gain it all back.
I don’t look back at this as a bad thing. It was learning. Effort is not without cost. Willpower can get you through some things short-term, but long-term goals need something else.
When I recommitted last November, it was with the new angle that I would not allow myself to engage in self-abuse as part of the diet. I do my best. If the family wants to do something like go to a restaurant that’s high carb, I do my best there, too. And that might mean carbs, and it might mean a day in the proverbial toilet as far as the diet is concerned, but it’s family, it’s joy, life is a series of moments that never come again, and I am not going to miss them, or participate under a cloud of resentment and acrimony because of a diet.
There are plenty of other times that I can enforce an austerity in eating – a food monotony, if you will – that keeps this all together. Eating at work I reduced to a routine that is simple to maintain and that I enjoy. I have my Fage yogurt when I get hungry first thing in the day – whenever that is. I don’t manage my weight as much as my hunger. Folks – I find this to be the single most important thing you can take from this rambling post. If you manage your hunger, you won’t suffer as much. So I eat when hungry – screw the science about eating breakfast. If it works for you – great. I’m listening closely to find my own rhythms.
Next meal might be a can of tuna or sardines. If I cooked over the weekend, it might be some low carb meal I cooked.
Evenings are hit or miss. Sometimes its low carb. Sometimes not. I always aim for low carb, but if that falls by the wayside, I try to limit the portion size. Considering that my total carb count until evening is possibly as low as 5 grams, coming home and having some bread at dinner, which seems lavish for a low carb dieter, can still keep my total net carbs under 50. One slice of bread is maybe 11 grams net carbs.
You might argue that I am wasting my carb intake on bread, which is far less good for you than the carbs from vegetables. I agree. But unlike alcohol, I would like to maintain a truce of sorts with bread and eat it in limited amounts as the past year has proven I can.
For the past month, I have plateaued between 205 and 210. A lot of dieters get frustrated at plateaus – I’m not. On a long climb, a plateau is where you can rest, reflect, and gain energy for the next part of the hike. Switching metaphors, I went to the casino, and won – and I’ve walked away from the table, and kept my winnings. I still low carb, but I don’t do it guns a-blazing right now. The holidays are coming and I’ll focus on keeping my gains only.
The last part of this regards science. I’m sick of science, really, and at this point I’m giving that a rest. I’ve concluded that if I wanted to, I could pick any position regarding weight loss and nutrition, back it up with science I find on the Internet, and have rousing debates with other folks on the Internet who might believe essentially the same thing as I do, but differ in the details.
It can be quite interesting, the character assassination notwithstanding, but does all this science achieve what we all want it to achieve: health and weight loss?
Looking around, it doesn’t appear so.
Right now I’m spending my reading time on the history of diets and the history of medicines, as well as the sociology of diets and dieting. Without an understanding of history, we can fool ourselves into thinking ‘we’ve got it figured out this time!’ while with history, we can see that sometimes it’s the same damn thing all over again, it’s just this time our technology is better and more precise.
It doesn’t necessarily mean our thinking has evolved, but that we’re more sophisticated fools.
I’m going to conclude this ramble with an apology. I’m sorry I took you through this meandering mess of thoughts. The post I wanted to write is in here somewhere, but my time to write is limited. We’ll have to go with this – and I’m sorry if I wasted your time.