My Next Approach to Low Carb

Perhaps taking a vacation from blogging – and low carb – after a decade of thinking about the diet *every damn day* was a good thing.

As mentioned previously, I gained weight toward the end of last year and no matter how much effort I put into low carb – even going so far as to go on an extreme low carb diet  used by some cancer patients along with calorie-restriction, my weight didn’t want to move much outside of a 220-225 range.

I then just gave permission to myself to forget about low carb and blogging for a while. I ate what I wanted, when I wanted. Now doing a low carb diet for a decade certainly changes your habits quite a bit so the ‘eating what I wanted’ still had a lot of aspects of a low carb diet. While I stopped monitoring and measuring things, I did form a routine of sorts that, while it did not lead to weight loss, did not lead to weight gain, either.

This routine left me way more relaxed about eating and removed a lot of the obsessiveness about food. After all these years, removing this yoke was a revelation.

I realized that for a decade, there was an extra family member besides myself, my wife, and my two daughters: my diet.

Like every other family member, this apparition had wants and needs and was part of many conversations. Every family member needed to make room in their lives for this apparition and put up with its peculiarities.

And now I saw clearly what a burden this family member had become.

It’s presence in a household of foodies that all enjoy good food and enjoy the ritual of enjoying good food together led to a distancing between us. Everybody seemed to eat on their own schedules and there was no such thing as a ‘family meal’ at home except on the rarest of occasions or when entertaining.

This summer I consciously began to form a new ritual of a family meal. Sometimes it was my wife who would cook. Sometimes it was me. Sometimes it was my older daughter. Sometimes everybody pitched in. Whatever the result, and no matter the carb count, we all sat down, held hands, said a prayer of gratitude to whatever-the-hell allowed us to have the great fortune to be together at the moment, with a roof over our heads, sitting around a table sharing a meal of good food together. The incessant TV in the background, mumbling and laughing and crying and screaming at random times, got turned off. The iPhones, and iPods got put away, and we all leisurely spent some quiet time eating and talking and enjoying the moment, the food, and the company of each other.

It was unexpected to see that such a simple thing as a common meal held so much power. I suppose it is a ritual etched in our DNA: the communal meal, another day without starvation, another victory against the misfortunes of life that permitted at least one more celebration of life and of food together as a family. So many of us lack one or the other – or both. The kids are getting bigger and this brief window of time where we will all be able to sit and talk and eat will quickly pass.

Low carb, the extra family member, helped prevent this from occurring. It wasn’t the sole reason, but it was a part of it.

This summer we also put a major dent in the family finances and went to France. While my bank account will need to endure a long convalescence to recover, it was a transforming experience for me.

It was a life-long dream of my wife to travel there. I am a reluctant traveler: I like having traveled but do not like traveling. for years I made excuses and we would go places less expensive and easier to get to – and my wife accepted these consolation prizes in place of the Grand Prize she had always held on to.

When she announced that she had found insanely-cheap plane tickets due to a combination of luck, mileage points from some business travel, a credit from the airline that was expiring in October, and other savvy-traveller tricks she pulled out of her bag, I decided that now was the time for her to have her dream – and I would do my best to suppress my bundle of anxieties about traveling and let her have her experience – and allow myself to fully enjoy it as well, because if I brought my anxieties along (another family member), they would reduce my wife’s enjoyment of the trip.

I couldn’t entirely dismiss my traveler’s anxiety, of course – we can’t simply turn off our anxiety. Instead, I prepared and did a bunch of things to reduce it. I am sometimes considered negative because whenever I am involved in a project I think of all the things that can go wrong at the outset. People take this as negativity but I see it as a necessary preparation to prevent things from going wrong. 

I like my optimism to be reality-based, so I worried to myself about things like keeping the house safe during our trip, reading about problems American tourists have in France so I could avoid these, while my wife read the travel books and thought about where we would go and what we would see.

I learned that pickpockets are a big problem in France, for example, and got myself a travel wallet that hangs around the neck. I also jury-rigged a little device with my iPhone and a gizmo to find your keys and had my younger daughter wear this around her neck. The crowds of tourists in Paris can be a crush in August as I read, and this gizmo would go off if she strayed too far from me.

I was also anxious about the tales of French rudeness to American travelers and wanted to know why. I started from the proposition that it wasn’t them – it was something about us that galled the Gauls, so I talked to a person that taught courses in intercultural relations for business people and was recommended two books on how the French think. After all, we were going to be guests there – the least we could do is be well-mannered guests and not do the international equivalent of sticking our napkins in our shirt collars and picking our teeth at the table with the steak knife.

I could not be more amazed at what I learned. The French are a people with a very different worldview than Americans. They are proud of their country, their government (though they are almost always protesting something or other), and their culture. When in public they tend to be more formal in their interactions with other people because for them it is a sign of respect. They also believe in projecting an image of being ‘well put together’. It’s not that you need to dress formally, but walking around in shorts wearing a T-shirt that says ‘I’m with stupid’ or some other typical American casual dress projects to them that you don’t have respect for yourself.

I left my shorts home and dressed ‘business casual’ for the most part, which meant that you might not have been able to tell we were tourists from a block away.

They also always greet people with a formal ‘Bonjour, Madam’ or ‘Bonjour Monsieur’, and expect a ‘Merci, au revoir’ when leaving their presence after an interaction. Again, to them it shows a respect for the individual. I see nothing wrong in that. We Americans once also had this same sense of formality but seemed to abandon it a number of decades ago when we embraced an casual ‘Hey-buddy!-anything-goes-wear-sweatpants-to-church’ informality that didn’t expect such niceties to be the standard.

You could argue that their way is a bit stuffy – but that wasn’t the point.

I didn’t want to change France – I wanted to see if France might change me. Perhaps there would be lessons learned here that might make an understanding of the culture I was about to immerse myself in make the trip more than just seeing sights and taking pictures in front of monuments as a sort of trophy to show off on FaceBook.

I think it did change me. It went way beyond a ‘vacation’.

Paris was a breathtaking experience The grandeur of the place, the almost seamless mix of ancient and modern, great works of art and architecture a part of any glance in any direction, with charming little bistros, brasseries and cafes on every street seemed surreal, perplexing – and unnecessarily expensive to a practical mind. So many things useless except to look at in awe in every direction. No sane US citizen would put up with the taxation necessary to erect and maintain such uselessness which is why we’re a nation that has left behind marble and gilt for Tyvek and vinyl siding.

This left me obsessing over the question: “What kind of people would create a city like this?”

Thankfully I had my two books on France and the French that answered a lot of questions. I read these in my free time back at the hotel. I certainly did not turn into a French cultural expert overnight, but some of the insights at least began to explain some of what I saw.

At one point in the trip I stopped taking pictures. I realized that you can’t fit Paris into a rectangle. Go to the Louvre and stand in the center courtyard and try to take a picture. Compare it to what you see standing there. Nope – doesn’t cut it.

Throughout our trip, almost every French person we dealt with was friendly and gracious. We met many who spoke perfectly acceptable English and patiently put up with our horrible French. I suppose it came down to: treat people as you would like to be treated. It also might have been because it is said that everyone goes on vacation in Paris in August and the city is left to those who remain behind – and to tourists.

Perhaps we might have encountered more grumpiness in September when the Parisians return to take their city back from the tourists – I don’t know.

We also ate their food. Funny: I was asked that question twice. “Are you going to eat their food?” That would be like asking me if I was planning on breathing their air.

The first memorable meal was some duck cooked rare in a raspberry reduction with mashed potatoes. No vegetable side. Each flavor and texture complemented the other. We didn’t eat at any fancy places – just some of the many bistros that don’t get listed in travel books – yet all the food was prepared with such concern for the ingredients that each meal, no matter how humble, was like the random art found around every corner in Paris: unexpected and pleasurable.

To keep costs down we found a French grocery store across the street from our hotel in Paris and ate some meals of fresh baguette, foie gras, sausage, and cheese in the hotel room.

Over the weekend we spent there we left Paris and went to Amboise, a town of about 10,000 people less than 2 hours by train outside of Paris. The centerpiece of the town was a castle-fortress and not too far from there, a short walk down a cobblestone street, was Leonardo Da Vinci’s home for the last few years of his life.

This was wine country and we just happened to arrive during a wine-tasting festival with a downtown marketplace with the most amazing foods and local crafts. Very little in the way of tourist trinkets of the Eiffel Tower made in China – this market was for the locals. The wife and I tasted wines while the kids took a nap back at the hotel (a 5-minute walk from the center of town where the festival was held). We bought some brioche and other foods from the market and a little sweetshop across from the open air market and the next day a much larger weekend market filled a parking lot a 10-minute walk from the hotel. Farmers from miles around brought their fresh-from-the-farm goods and there were many booths cooking fresh food. We bought a huge container of paella from one vendor and bread and foie gras from another and had a picnic on the banks of the Loire river just steps from the hotel.

The way the French eat has always intrigued me. I don’t recall seeing a single fat French person. They ranged from rail-thin to plump, but no one was obese in my estimation. How could they eat like this? Yeah – they eat a lot of fat – but they love their bread and their sweets as well.

The answer was in one of the books I was reading and had to do with part of the main reasons why Americans think the French rude and they think we are rude: a difference in what is considered ‘public’ and what is considered ‘private’. This was a fascinating read. The French consider money to be vulgar and tend not to discuss it in public, don’t want to be asked ‘what do you do?’ in conversation, consider a stranger asking their name to be rude, and if they were to invite you to their home would most likely NOT ‘show you around the house’ or want you to peruse their bookshelf unless invited to do so.

And unlike Americans, they consider eating to be part of the public sphere. Eating is a social activity in France. Meals are meant to be lingered over, preferably with friends and family, and no self-respecting French restaurant would ask you to leave even if you only bought a single espresso and were still hanging out 4 hours later.

Americans, on the other hand, consider most eating to be a private activity: hence we snack, and they – for the most part – don’t.

This brought me back to the ‘family meal’ that I had begun to enforce a month before we left. My seemingly retro notion of a family meal in our house was enshrined in their culture. They lingered over their food and this gave them time to digest and feel fuller on less. They simply ate less of high quality food because it was all they needed and they never ate mindlessly like so many Americans do – hypnotized by the TV with a bag of chips on their laps vanishing bit by bit without being noticed.

Not realizing it, I had hit on something that I thought would derail my diet but now I was thinking might become the center point for it.

The funny thing about the family meal was that I found myself not picking much afterward. There was little ‘raiding the fridge’ after eating whatever meal I had when I came home. We ate later than usual, ate slowly, and ate with a mindfulness – discussing the food itself, it’s preparation, how the different ingredients went together. We discussed future meals – and what we tried that wasn’t liked (while peas were a comfort food for me, neither my wife nor kids like them).

There were also complaints from the family when we couldn’t follow the ritual. It seems it wasn’t something the rest of the family just ‘went along with’ – it was valued by them – despite the prohibition on electronics and the TV.

Perhaps ‘meals’ are more important than ‘eating’. Perhaps ‘dining’ is more valuable that ‘3 squares a day’. So where my head is at present is as follows:

My Low Carb Diet must become invisible

I’ve concluded that talking about diets – especially at a meal with others – is vulgar – akin to talking on the cel phone at a movie theater. It detracts from the enjoyment of others in your company. Discussions about food at meals should only be ones that discuss it as a means to pleasure. Discussing how well the peas and onions complement each other is perfectly acceptable – the carb count, or the discussion about any chemical in any ingredient being shown in studies to do X – is not. Certainly, there is a time and a place for such discussions – like here – but at the table, with dinner companions, conversations about calories, nutrients, and the long-term ill-effects of a particular food is not one of them. I’m going treat any food placed in front of me as I would a guest and not be rude nor denigrating to its presence. Like someone at a party I don’t particularly like, I can avoid them yet still be gracious.

Now, this does present a tricky problem: eating with companions or with family and friends means dealing with what dieters call ‘food pushers’ who might ‘derail your diet’. I’m beginning to think that this sort of thinking might be a misstep. Looking at food from a cultural and communal standpoint, offering food to people is one of the grand gestures of friendliness and kindness that one human being can give to another. In a world that has arisen from one where starving was a very real possibility every day, this gesture is the utmost hospitality – and we dieters reject it. Instead of embracing our humanity we bring science to the table and tear up the social contract that has been built up over thousands of years across almost every culture on Earth.

The diet problem is still there, of course: anyone reading this has probably concluded that they need to control their diet and that certain food should be avoided. I’m beginning to think though that perhaps, once at the table in a social situation, we might be better off focusing on the metered enjoyment of the food we are presented with rather than reciting our list of prohibitions to a table that is more interested in enjoying a meal rather than hearing about your ‘diet’. Again, taking the mindset that the food itself is a guest of sorts, and imagining it as a person you would rather avoid that you bump into at a party, you would probably NOT bring up your list of grievances with them in a public setting, though you might limit your time with them. Do the same with food.

Your diet isn’t ‘blown’ if you participate with smaller portions. At a restaurant you can ask for a double portion of vegetables instead of the side of mashed potatoes. You can still avoid sugary drinks and skip the bread brought to the table. These will be almost invisible to your companions. At a family meal or a when entertaining friends, certain items can be safely avoided – like chips placed on a table before a meal. At the actual meal, where there is some social expectation of participation in the various dishes, taking a small portion and allowing yourself to enjoy it might be more sane and more in the spirit of things than to express your prohibitions.

Either become a monk to your diet or accept the fact that there will be times when the best course of action is the practice of a concealed metering of eating what is being graciously offered.

One meal does not ruin a diet: it’s a series of meals that does that to you. Allow yourself the pleasure of food with family and friends, participate in the bounty we’ve been given, and work to develop the ability to participate fully while watching your diet as much as possible without others noticing you doing so.

Make eating a communal event as much as possible.

A diet is in some ways chasing after wind: “When I get to be my goal weight I will be happy.”

It doesn’t work that way.

Goals are great, but I assure you – you won’t be continually ‘blissed out’ when you attain that magic number on the scale. I’m not saying you won’t be filled with a sense of accomplishment, better physical health if done right, and a host of positive emotions – it’s just that these will fade into the background of your life after a time. Studies have shown that people who win the lottery, within a few years, return to more or less the same level of happiness they had when they weren’t rich. We adapt to our situations – good and bad – and while being thin might bring you all sorts of things you don’t have now, we humans have a tendency to take things for granted after a while.

Make sure you don’t postpone your happiness entirely until a certain number on the scale appears. We don’t know how much time we have left. Our expiration dates can’t be found on any label attached to us. Enjoying a meal with others when possible, when done the right way – focusing on the food with other people who know how to truly experience the pleasures of food – will bring greater happiness to every day of your life.

Should death tap you on the shoulder and tell you you’ve got only a few more moments, I guarantee you: your diet will be the last thing on your mind. Don’t give up the pleasure of good food with good company because of a ‘diet’.

Again, your brow might be furrowing as to how you follow this advice and still lose weight. It seems easier from one perspective to set a goal, sacrifice for it for a certain time, and achieve it. That’s how Americans do it.

That might work for things like passing a test or building a business, but we don’t ‘own’ or bodies in the same way as we might own a car that we’re restoring or own a business or have responsibilities to a job that we can work to excel at. Our bodies allow us to inhabit them, but they breathe on their own, the blood flows without our consent, our hearts beat to the rhythm they choose.

One thing we pretty much know about our bodies is that they are resistant to weight loss once the weight is gained. Respect this and embrace the notion of slow and gradual weight loss. I know this goes against every notion in a time-bound, deadline-obsessed culture, but your body doesn’t exist in that artificial world that lies outside of it.

So accepting this and making eating a communal event as much as can be managed involves cultivating a pleasure in good food shared with others. The secret to the power of this in an attempt to lose weight is eliminating the notion that eating alone on the couch in front of the TV is acceptable. You are replacing one with the other. Public eating is conscious eating, and conscious eating never ends up with an entire pint of Haagen-Daz disappearing while watching ‘The Biggest Loser’ along with a bag of chips now empty without you not quite remembering how it happened. Communal eating is also conscious eating with little effort. Instead of meditating on each bite of your meal alone, doing it with others occurs in an atmosphere that makes it more effortless.

Of course, if you are coming off of years of binge-eating, there’s work to be done here in terms of portion control and selectivity. Work on that rather than pursuing the goal of ‘hermit dieter’.

When eating alone, make it monotonous

You won’t be able to make every meal a communal one if you are anything like most of the people I know. In a culture obsessed with busyness, schedules conflict, things pop up, and families are separated by work, school, and separate activities. What to do then?

Well, what I am attempting to do is pursue the notion that these meals are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I don’t want to have to think about my lunch at work, which is usually alone because ‘lunchtime’ is not a certain hour in my business and tends to be the time one can squeeze in between meetings and phone calls and can land anywhere between 11am and 3pm.

What I’ve been doing is enforcing a very small and rigid set of food choices that allow me to not think about preparing a lunch. As I work in an office, I have this luxury, so this is not in any way a recommendation, just an example of what I’m doing.

I’ve narrowed down my daily eating to the following items:

  1. Coffee
  2. coconut oil
  3. Lindt 80% dark chocolate
  4. Macadamia nuts
  5. eggs
  6. Chicken broth

Now, my particular constitution allows me to go long periods without eating with no ill-effect. Perhaps I’ve been in ketosis so many times that my body finds it easy to pull from my fat stores and run on ketones to keep me humming when I haven’t eaten in more than a dozen hours. Maybe my body is like a hybrid car than can run happily on gasoline or propane. So again, this is not a recommendation – it’s just what I do.

My breakfast is always coffee and cream, providing me with a little ‘get-up-and-go’ with between 100 and 200 calories of pure fat.

Around 6 hours later, a half cup of coffee with either 2 squares of dark chocolate or coconut oil melted in it is my next feeding – another 100 to 200 calories of mostly fat.

A few times a week, anywhere from the noontime coffee break all the way to almost before I leave work, I might have a cup of chicken broth with two raw eggs broken in it and nuked for 3 minutes. Or maybe a 20 or so macadamia nuts, totaling somewhere between 200 and maybe 350 calories.

So for 12 hours of my waking day, my input is almost zero carbs, mostly fat, maybe some protein from the eggs, and a calorie intake of anywhere between 200 calories and 750 calories.

Given I’ve eaten almost no carbs, this leaves room for the family meal in the evening. While at present I’m eating anything, my intention moving forward is to continue the ritual – except to artfully cut back on the carbs. Pasta and meatballs with Italian bread? I can have a taste of the Pasta and the bread with butter, and have mostly meatballs. Pork belly with gravy, vegetable and mashed potatoes? Same thing: a taste of the potatoes and vegetable if it’s high-carb, and focus on the pork belly and gravy.

The room that I’ve left in my daily food intake for a family meal allows some decidedly un-low carb foods in small portions to enjoy while also allowing me to keep both calories and carbs within limits that still mean I’m on a ‘low carb diet’ without the appearance of being on one.

 The one prohibition

If there’s one thing I have learned in my decade of low carb, it’s that without exception, no weight loss occurs if I drink alcohol. So in an effort to make the notion of social eating work as part of a weight loss strategy, I am going to sacrifice the conviviality of social drinking. I was never much of a barfly anyway, and most of my drinking was drinks after work at home – nothing that added much to the joy of life as much as calmed the nerves after a hectic day. For many months now I’ve been adapting to not exciting my nerves unduly in the first place – the 3 pots of coffee I once drank is down to a cup and a half, so a less jangled nervous system should be able to forego the drinks I now realize I once needed to unjangle it.

Now comes the hard part

Pretty words you got there, you might say. will it work?

I dunno.

If I can navigate the shark-infested waters of carbs setting me off for an evening of overeating, if I can watch my portions, if I can make it second nature to balance on this knife edge, perhaps it can work. It sounds sane and life-affirming as a lifestyle – but can it lead to weight loss?

I suppose we’ll see.

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3 thoughts on “My Next Approach to Low Carb

  1. A very thoughtful read. I lived in Europe for 6 years with my family. We followed the dress code of Europeans not Americans. We were always “accepted”. Other Americans did not and were not. I loved eating “Lunch” as it was the main meal of the day. It’s placement in the mid point of the day suited me better than eating late. I never gained weight. Walked everywhere.

    The family meal is not so popular anymore. I read a blog where the author sets a table, flowers, chilled wine etc. Candles, conversation and a slow enjoyment of the food served. Just for two. But it serves to remind me of when I did that and not the way I eat now—- a bowl and the television. Yes, I do use a linen napkin to cradle the bowl but……… it’s not a “meal”.

    I still think the food choices of your “lunch” are not good ones but they are your choices. I find I am hungry about 2 hours after breakfast and then not at all after that. So now I go ahead and eat at 10am. Bundling up all my daily food in a few hours of the morning. If I don’t eat that second “breakfast” I am hungry all the rest of the day, no matter how much I eat. Go figure.

  2. I love this post as it is so o mindful and freeing for long term dieters. This is how weight stable non dieters eat. Dieting always put me on a fluctuating rollacoaster and in the end I always gained more than what I wanted to lose in the first place. The only thing that I lost was sanity and presence as I obsessed about adherence and trying to be more disciplined. Thank you for sharing your experience and awakening.

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