If you’ll recall from the timeless post How to Be Happy, one of the steps to achieve happiness is to Be Healthy. As it happens, Poppa’s been working on just that (with occasional lapses*). One of the primary barometers of health is girth, of which most of us in the U.S. could stand to lose a little. We are obsessed with weight in this country, yet somehow we have three times the obesity rate that we had in the 1960s, and obesity has overtaken cigarette smoking as the number one killer in the U.S., killing hundreds of thousands and costing us tens of billions of dollars a year.
So how do we end this epidemic and get back on a healthy path? Here’s my One Step Program to Lose Weight:
Step One: Eat Less Carbs
That’s it, that will obviate our obsessive obeisance to obesity. This one simple step will increase personal happiness, make a happier and healthier country, and save billions in health care costs.
But is it that simple? Yes… and, of course, no. Yes, because if we all ate less carbs we would all lose weight, be happier, live longer, and be more prosperous. No, because we won’t do it. Well, at least it will take a lot of effort to put the brakes on this big, fat runaway train. To mix metaphors a little, as a society we need to figure out how to change horses in mid-stream – our Taftian horse is huffing and puffing and it’s not going to make it to the other side, so we need to get on that lean mean horse before it passes us by.
Why Less Carbs?
There’s a paradigm shift underway regarding what we eat. For a few decades, the conventional wisdom has held that a low-fat diet is the way to lose weight. The problem is, it doesn’t work. People tend to eat more calories and burn less calories on a low-fat diet, or, if they do manage to eat less calories, they generally can’t stick with it for long. On a low-fat diet, fat is generally replaced with simple carbs. Simple (high glycemic) carbs are quickly broken down in our bodies, leading to an insulin spike, which, in addition to messing with our mood and messing up our cholesterol, leads to more fat storage and more hunger. Gary Taubes, in his book Why We Get Fat, gets into the details of the problem – I’ll review this in a future post.
Most people, doctors included, are still on the wrong side of the low-fat paradigm. One problem is that there’s been a dearth of good scientific studies on effective diets. Meta-analyses of the studies that have been done, though, show that the low-fat diet is not only ineffective, but detrimental. And some more recent studies have indicated that carbs (especially simple ones) are the bad guy, not saturated fats.
We’re all born with a range of possibilities for how fat we’ll be. Some of us are more predisposed to obesity, and some of us can seemingly eat whatever we want without gaining weight. The goal is to do the best we can within our personal range. It’s pretty easy for me to gain and lose weight. I’ll get off the scale and proclaim to my wife that I lost 5 pounds in one day, and she will figuratively claw my eyes out. In addition to genetics, gut microbiota (much more on this soon), health issues, and environment play a role in how fat we are. The point is, we’ll all have different (but overwhelmingly positive) outcomes when it comes to eating less carbs.
A Study of One
So if you want to give it a rip, do a Study of One and see how it works for you. My Study of One has involved trying various diets over the past couple years. On the Primal Diet (higher fat, lower carb), I lost about 13 pounds in two months and my cholesterol numbers were very good (I have genetically high cholesterol, and I was on statins for years**). On the Mediterranean diet, it was harder for me to maintain a lower weight, and I felt hungry more often, but it also produced good cholesterol results. On the Eat-Whatever-The-Hell-I-Want diet, I managed to put on 15 pounds in a month and my cholesterol numbers were bad. I’m currently on a low glycemic diet, and I’ve stepped up the weightlifting regimen (results coming soon).
Want to try your own Study of One? Here’s what I think will give most people the best results:
- Limit your daily carb intake to under 200 g, or under 100 g*** if you want to lose weight more quickly (for comparison, the Atkins diet starts out with less than 20 g of carbs per day).
- Limit processed sugar intake to almost zero. No soda, juices, candy, or processed foods. I may have a teaspoon of honey with my decaf coffee, but that’s about it (except when I’m cheating).
- If you want to get more sophisticated with the kinds of carbs you eat, look at this chart and keep your high glycemic carbs under 100 g per day (closer to zero if you’re really pushing to lose weight). Avoid grains (especially processed), potatoes, rice, and pasta. Try to get most of your carbs from veggies and fruit.
- Eat as much fat and protein as you want. Saturated fat is good, and it helps you feel full. I eat a lot of eggs, cheese, nuts, fish, olive oil, butter, veggies, and fruit. Nuts (for me usually almonds or walnuts) are a simple snack, and eating them with or between meals helps stave off hunger and cravings.
- Be active. I generally have less ups and downs and higher energy when I’m eating less carbs. I’m more inclined to lift weights, ride my bike, or jog with the kids to school.
- Measure it. I use MyFitnessPal on my phone to track what I eat each day. By tracking what you eat, you begin to learn about what’s going into your body and how it affects you. Eventually you may have less of a need to continue tracking, since you’ll have trained yourself how to eat.
- Practice excess in moderation. In other words, cheat occasionally.
Low-carb diets are generally more sustainable than calorie restriction diets because you’re not forcing yourself to be hungry. In fact, on a low-carb diet, I rarely experience the hunger and cravings I would even on the Eat-Whatever-The-Hell-I-Want diet. But let’s not get too carried away with how easy this is supposed to be. One still needs to exercise some willpower. The problem is, carbs are fucking delicious – so, yes, I do miss eating mounds of pasta, loaves of French bread, stacks of pancakes, buckets of fries, and piles of pizza. But I am much more aware of how these things affect my body, so although I will eat an occasional bagel or other treat, I’m not as inclined to mow down whole fields of grain in one sitting.
One thing to keep in mind when working on our SELVES is to not get too wrapped up in it – we don’t want to become SELFISH. The goal of eating well is to be healthy so we can be happy so we can feel fulfilled, which means being involved in the world outside of our SELVES. It’s good to keep this in perspective, both in terms of the end (being happier, healthier, more involved citizens) and in terms of the means. Health is one factor in what we eat, but, if I may jump on my soapbox for a moment (have I been on it the whole time?), what we eat affects others as well. What are the environmental, economic, human, and animal impacts of the food we eat? These, in addition to health, are the factors we should consider when formulating a healthy diet.
So here’s the challenge. Try the low-carb diet for 30 days to see how it affects you. Track what you eat, how much you exercise, how you feel, and how much you weigh. And if you want to get more in-depth, get your cholesterol tested before and after. Send me your results – your Study of One can then become part of a Study of Many. Also, share any low-carb recipes you come up with (here’s a video of me making the kale smoothie I have for breakfast a few times a week).
*My son recently asked if I had a baby in my belly. What does he know? I’m barely showing.
**Much more on cholesterol and statins in future posts.
***These are somewhat arbitrary numbers, but they provide a baseline from which to begin your experimentation. Go lower if you want to lose more, faster.