Weight management programs that go against conventional wisdom (Part 1)

Everyone knows that a healthy diet is the key to looking good, feeling good and being skinny. We have all been taught that we must eat lots of vegetables and fruit, healthy grains, and that red meat is bad and fat is even worse. And if you have a few kilos to lose, then exercise a lot and practice something known as ‘moderation’.

For many people, this works just fine. But for others, no amount of balanced dieting and treadmill running seems to do the trick. And for them, there exists a whole host of alternative plans to choose from. I will talk about some of the popular weight loss plans out there today, starting with the big daddy of them all:

1. The Atkins Diet

Dr Atkins was an overweight cardiologist who managed to normalize his weight by limiting carbohydrates and increasing his consumption of meat and fat. He published a book in 1972 and another in 2002 that became very popular but also very controversial.

This is because he basically said carbs make you fat, but saturated fats don’t, so you can eat them as much as you want with no negative effects on your health. Dietitians and doctors were outraged that a fellow colleague could promote such an irresponsible approach to weight loss, and he was ostracized by the medical community.

Science sort of agrees with him now: a diet high in protein not only makes you full, it also increases satiety, making it more natural and easy to control how much you eat. (Light read from Women’s Health and deeper stuff as to why exactly.)

The diet is pretty simple, and requires people to cut down ‘carbs’ to the bare minimum, that is, lots of vegetables and some fruit, while eating as much meat, fish, eggs and healthy fats as desired.

It is executed in 4 stages, gradually allowing the dieter to increase the amount of ‘carbs’ they eat until they find a level that lets them maintain their body weight at the desired level. You can read all about them on their official website

From the picture above, it honestly doesn’t look so bad. But humans have the capacity to turn good things into not so good: initially people took this diet as licence to gorge on processed meat. The market soon followed, with an increase in low carb ‘products’ such as bread, cookies, and everything else in between, causing even more controversy and complaints that Atkins is not a good weight loss program.

The downside

People struggle with this approach because:

  • It is very difficult to believe that you cannot eat all the things you were told were healthy- bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and anything that contains wheat
  • Your diet choices are pretty limited, and there is a lot of pressure from society to eat high carb foods.
  • Your alcohol tolearnce may suffer and the intensity of your hangovers may surprise you
  • Interpreting this as licence to eat grade A steaks at every meal rapidly becomes unsustainable
  • Obviously, some people get bored because the food choices seem limited. How many eggs can you honestly eat in one day?
  • It takes some time to forget the ‘stuffed’ feeling you associate with having eaten enough
  • If you are vegetarian, then, well you need to get super creative
  • Some people also report feeling unwell, especially in the beginning. Low-carb enthusiasts call this the ‘low carb flu’ and it usually goes away after 2 weeks or so.
  • Going back to a diet of 60% or more carbs will result in serious weight gain, so if you are in, then you are in for the long haul

The upside

  • You will lose weight and you will lose it fast, especially during the first two weeks
  • You lose water and fat and get to keep your muscle. This is a good thing
  • You don’t need to exercise (but it’s recommended)
  • You don’t need to count calories
  • It is a nutrient dense program that doesn’t require the buying of protein powders, pills and other gimmicks
  • You won’t experience the hunger swings that come with calorie counting
  • Your cravings for sugar, sweet drinks, chocolate and junk will slowly but surely all go away
  • You could get used to not eating bread and eventually realize that starches are devoid of taste anyways

 Verdict

Is it sustainable? 

This depends on individual preferences and tastes. Atkins is pretty flexible after the initial phase and is not a zero-carb diet. Also, you don’t need to buy any special stuff. You could start right away and keep on keeping on.

Is it healthy?

The jury is still out on whether or not humans need starches as an integral part of their diet, but many people think that, actually we don’t.  The emphasis on lots of vegetables, fruit and high quality protein is a solid win, but many people are suspicious of eating meat. Does it rot in our systems? Does being vegetarian save the planet? Neither here nor there.

There is also a debate about whether or not saturated fat causes heart disease. The debate is swinging in favour of the fat heads, and more specifically, understanding that you only need to avoid manufactured fats and not be scared of the good stuff.

I should say that I’m not a health expert. But I do find the controversies surrounding weight loss, health and diet very interesting, and I want to share this information in case anyone out there is interested in a dose of self experimentation…

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How to set yourself up for success (Sidestep the holiday guilt and overcompensation.)

Christmas/New Year is the only holiday that I truly love (unlike the rest, which are really just days off from routine..) There is Christmas itself, with that warm happy feeling you get, being with your friends, family and everyone is determined to outshine each other’s Christmas parties.

And then there is New Year’s when you remember all the good and the bad times from the year, and you are full of hope for the next year- you know, because this time you will be perfect and awesome and everything will be amazing.

For about 7 years straight, I would set myself a new goal: lose weight. Then I would dream about how skinny and fabulous I would be. If I did it for 7 years, you can imagine just how successful I was in this area. This year, that goal will not appear on my list. Finally.

Here are a couple of things to consider if you want to take advantage of New Year’s surging hope to set yourself up for success when it comes to weight-loss:

Health is a decision, not a goal

Leave the SMART stuff in the boardroom. Getting healthy (and losing weight) is a decision that has to be committed to. If the internet is to be believed, losing weight is pretty easy. Just go on an ice-cream diet and let that lactose intolerance take care of the rest.

The thing about losing weight is that it’s hard, and it takes time. A lot of time. You are fighting against years of habits, your own body’s resistance to shedding fat, hormone imbalances and the general shittiness that is life sometimes. (Who cares about losing weight when you can’t find a job? Or when you are fighting with your boyfriend?)

But once you decide to make your health a priority, you can begin to make adjustments that will gradually move you towards what you want to be. The other day, I attended a Christmas party. The table was loaded with chocolate and sugary desserts. If I was on diet, I might have had a few and then gone home and beaten myself up about it. But the reality is, people will keep inviting me out to eat crap with them. So I had coffee and took pictures. And if not now, then when?

Get yourself informed

Nutritional information is a mess right now. Your skinny friends will tell you to eat as much as you want and then do sit ups. You might be tempted to buy some weight loss tea.

Prophets on the internet will cry out: stop eating meat! Go vegetarian! No, meat is good for you!  Count your calories! Don’t count them, do cardio four hours a week! Don’t eat starchy foods! Eat starchy foods! Snack throughout the day! Eat only three times!

Jesus Christ. I can say that only three things are the solid truth:

1. You are what you eat: If you are overweight, you are probably eating too many calories. That’s a fact.(I spent several years convincing myself that actually it’s my genetics. It wasn’t). They could be from food, alcohol or all that other stuff we like to drink that isn’t water. Figure that shit out.

2. Exercise is good for you: My doctor informed me that exercise is not really the most important part of weight loss. And that 80% of your body composition actually comes from what you eat.

That being said, regular exercise helps in subtle ways: it releases hormones that make you feel good, helps stabilize your insulin levels, improves your circulation and a host of other things that move you closer to optimum health. But remember: unless you will spend 5 or 6 hours every week doing high intensity sprints, no way in hell are you going to ‘burn’ all the excess calories you consume.

3. Sugar is not your friend: Too much glucose in your blood can be life threatening, which is why we produce insulin, which helps your body convert excess sugar into fat. Basically, too much sugar in your diet wrecks havoc with your insulin levels, which in turn ruin your natural appetite control, which makes you eat more and more without your body stopping you.

But it doesn’t stop there: our brains respond to sugar in the same way as if we were taking drugs. (Complex explanation and easier to read one) This hormonal chaos explains why we crave chocolate, and not cabbage.

Obvious suspects like table sugar and fizzy drinks aside, there is one more enemy lurking out there: refined carbohydrates. Stripped of fibre, all that is left in flour, maize meal, pasta and bread is…yep..sugar.

The good news is, the less sugar you have in your diet, the less you crave it.

4.Get some support: I have almost no self control. I know this. In any case, it took a medical professional to sit me down and set me straight. If you can, get a partner. If not, subscribe to blogs online. My two favourite are Mark and Erika . Of course, I use my own judgement and pick and choose what information works for me..but still, information is power.

Don’t stress too much. Don’t set crazy goals and don’t beat yourself up about it. When it comes to good health, focus on the little habits. They are the ones that count.

Merry Christmas!

Going on a binge: the anatomy of self destructive behaviour

Up until recently, I used to drink a lot. Enough to be classified as a binge drinker (according to those ridiculously low thresholds set by fun killing scientists and doctors.) I did not have a drinking problem or anything, but I have enough embarrassing memories in my shame box to keep me warm for the rest of my days, and a few people out there who will never have any respect for me. Youth…

mmm, look at my problems dissolving away

mmm, look at my problems dissolving away

Like many introverts, I used alcohol to make it easier to deal with crowds and parties that seemed to be the only way to socialize and let off some steam. But like this article candidly discusses, I’m not alone. And if anything, my escapades are nothing compared to what some crazies out there get up to on the regular.

So anyway, I decided to drink less, for the extremely profound reason that I wanted to lose weight. It worked, and it worked very well.

Until I stumbled on a new problem. Binge eating.

binge

Booze was great for dealing with (and causing) unhappiness and depression. What better way to unwind after a long day than with a glass of wine? (yeah, fuck it, the whole bottle actually…)

But once I stopped this, I noticed that every once in a while, I would go off and systematically work my way through terrifying large amount of junk.  In retrospect, it’s actually quite scary. On more than one occasion,  I have methodically eaten a box of cookies, a bag of buns and other crap that I would never ever have touched in my previous life.

Why?

Binge eating is not about satisfying a craving. It’s not even about hunger. It’s not the same as over eating because you went out for dinner and you just couldn’t resist.

It’s exactly like drinking, except that instead of a hangover the next day, you have to deal with a bloated system and that sickly feeling that comes from a sugar overdose.

Even worse is that, you only have a narrow window where you decide to start eating or not. I call this the trigger moment. And it can be incredibly stupid. An annoying comment from a friend. Feelings of guilt about something that you should not have done.

Having painfully developed enough self awareness to recognize the signs, I can stop myself more often than not. But sometimes I don’t. And then the rampage begins and I literally eat everything in my path.

After this comes what I call the spiral.

alice in wonderlandAfter loading yourself with several days worth of calories, you get upset with yourself. And then, paradoxically, continue for a couple more days, because, hey everything is lost and you will never succeed at anything.

This kind of thinking is pointless and this is where all those self help books I read come in handy. This is the only thing you need to know and do if you struggle with binge eating:

Move on. Get back to your life and normal routine as if nothing ever happened. Don’t starve yourself. Don’t exercise harder. Don’t think about the damage that you have done. Don’t try and calculate how much you ate or if you will get fat again.

If you have to, think about what set you off. Really think about it. And then it’s back to business as usual.

Because life’s a bitch like that. You win some, you lose some, but you keep working till you get there.