Over the years you’ve heard me say, again and again, that I’m not a “food nazi.” In this post, I will not tell you that you must never allow another kernel of wheat, or granule of sugar, or drop of vegetable oil to touch your lips. I will not tell you that gluten is evil, or that you musn’t eat carbs within 3 hours of fats, or that you’ll never miss ice cream if you eat pureed frozen bananas instead. This post isn’t really about food. I’m not going to tell you that I’m “passionate” about healthy eating, because I’m not. I am passionate about my family, and this post is about them. It’s about figuring out what’s most important, which is kind of the point of this entire blog.
I tell you this story with my husband’s permission, because I feel that this is a sensitive topic that requires it. Here, I will tell you some things that are personal and painful, but that must be said in the interest of helping even one other man or woman who is going through the same struggles.
In the fall of 2013, my husband was an unhealthy man. He was 25 pounds overweight, and working at a very stressful, sedentary job that made him anxious and miserable. He had lost his father 18 months earlier, and was having ongoing difficulties in his relationship with a close family member. This sadness, combined with the stress of his work, sent him into a downward spiral. He was very depressed, and at his check-up we learned that his blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure were high, while his testosterone was low. His estrogen level was also elevated, and his PSA (prostate specific antigen) had nearly doubled since his last check-up. It was no longer in the safe range, and this was a serious concern because my father-in-law died of prostate cancer.
Because of his family history, he had twelve prostate biopsies, and was thankfully cancer-free, but this was a wake-up call. I knew that something needed to change in our lives, but convincing him of this was not an easy task. He was not ready to face the fact that appraisal – a career that had once been so lucrative- was not paying the bills. He felt like he had failed us, and his depression became much worse. It carried over into every area of our lives, and we spent nearly 6 months in counseling. This was an extremely difficult and painful time in our marriage, and an experience I hope never to repeat.
At this time, I was not particularly healthy either. In fact, I was also carrying close to 40 pounds of extra weight, and my PCOS symptoms were at their worst. For months I’d been dealing with persistent hair growth on my chin, and I was extremely unhappy with my appearance. You will find very few photos of me taken in 2012-2014, because I avoided the camera at all costs. Any photo of me was a shock. I would find myself thinking, “Who’s that fat….oh no! It’s me!” I didn’t even recognize myself anymore. I had frequent headaches, and my asthma and eczema were the worst they had ever been. I was constantly puffing on steroid inhalers to control my persistent cough, and experimenting with different prescription steroid creams to calm the itchy rash on my elbows that would not go away. My periods were terribly erratic and excruciatingly painful, as they had been since age 13, and at my last annual visit my OB put me on Metformin in an effort to regulate my cycle.
Metformin actually did help me quite a lot, and in many ways it was a life-changing drug for me. For the first time in….ever….I wasn’t in the kitchen at 3:00 P.M., rummaging through the cabinets in search of something to eat. But no matter what I ate, I never stopped feeling hungry until I went on Metformin. Metformin made me feel…well, normal, I guess, and this prompted me to ask why? I’m not diabetic (my blood sugar has always been normal), so why did a diabetes drug help me so much? This prompted me to read everything I could get my hands on about PCOS and other endocrine disorders, and this is what I learned:
Women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) are often resistant to insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas. Food is broken down into glucose (simple sugar) during digestion, and glucose is absorbed into the blood after you eat. Insulin helps glucose enter your cells so your body can use it for energy, and if there’s not enough insulin in the body, sugar levels in the blood become higher. However, insulin resistance forces the pancreas to produce excessively high levels of insulin in order to keep blood sugar in check. This is problematic because insulin is often referred to as the “fat storage hormone.” It tells the body to store energy as fat, and this is why women with PCOS often struggle to lose weight. High levels of insulin also signal the ovaries to release more testosterone, which makes PCOS symptoms like excess facial hair so much worse.
Metformin works because it makes the body more sensitive to insulin, and decreases the amount of glucose released by the liver. But insulin is only one piece of the puzzle. Women with PCOS also have a slower metabolism, which means that they require less calories than the average woman, and disordered appetite control, which causes them to not feel full after eating. It seems unfair, but fair or not, it’s the lot I’ve been dealt, and I wanted to know what I could do about it. I was becoming rapidly aware that if my husband and I continued down the path we were on, there was a very real possibility that one or both of us could suffer serious health problems – diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, possibly even death. This would leave our children – the children we loved dearly and sacrificed so much to have – without their parents, and this thought was heartbreaking. Something had to change, and it had to change now.
I was terrified of losing my husband, and I knew that my own health was poor at best. I decided that because of my insulin resistance, it was only natural that a diet low in starches and sugars, which spike blood sugar and signal the pancreas to release more insulin (which I clearly do not need), would be the best way to go. But if I took out the carbs, what would I replace them with? I knew that it was important to get adequate protein, but too much protein can be taxing to the kidneys. I also knew that fat contributes to satiety (fullness), but like most women who grew up in the 80s and early 90s, I had a fear of fat. After all, fat would just make me fatter, right?
Wrong. Everything we were taught about fat? It was all wrong. HEALTHY fat does not make you fat! I cannot stress this enough. Healthy fat makes you feel full and satisfied, and since it doesn’t spike your blood sugar like carbs do, it doesn’t tell your pancreas to release more insulin, which tells your body to store more fat. See how that works?
Please, forget everything you were ever taught about fat. It was all garbage. Forget about the types of fat you were supposed to eat, which were supposedly “healthy.” Vegetable oils and margarine? They’re not healthy. In fact, they’re horrible for you! These oils contain very large amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are harmful in excess. They’re loaded with trans fats, which cause system-wide inflammation in the body, and actually increase your risk of cardiovascular disease! (For more detailed information, see this article, and this one).
When I set out to lose weight, I set a calorie goal of 1350 calories per day, with 50 percent coming from healthy fats. That’s right. HALF of my calories came from fat, 25% came from protein, and 25% came from carbs. This is only about 84 grams of carbohydrate, far less than the 224 grams consumed by the average American woman in a typical day. And did I get fatter? Nope. In fact, the weight started melting off, and most importantly, I always felt full. I didn’t have all that wildly circulating insulin telling me to eat more, eat more! If I had felt hungry all the time, I would’ve gotten upset and quit, and this diet would have failed just like all the others I’d tried over the years. Except it’s impossible to feel hungry when you’re eating 75 grams of healthy fat every day!
So what is healthy fat? Well, this list isn’t exhaustive, but these are the fats I eat:
1) Extra virgin coconut oil – in baking, and in my version of “bulletproof coffee” (recipe to come)
2) Refined coconut oil – for sauteeing and frying
3) Real butter. I order my butter by the case from a small dairy in California. It’s bright yellow, rich, and delicious – nothing like the snow white, tasteless butter you get at the store.
4) Extra-virgin olive oil – for salad dressings
5) Extra-light tasting olive oil – for baking
6) Sesame oil – for salad dressings and Asian dishes
7) Lots of eggs, yolks and all!
8) Tahini – sesame seed butter
9) Natural peanut butter. I’m a fan of Smuckers Natural, though you do have to stir it.
10) Cream cheese and other cheeses.
We still trim the fat from meats because we think it’s gross, and we don’t eat pork bacon or lard because we consume no pork products at all. However, many people on the LCHF (low carb, high fat) diet do eat these things, and if you like them, go for it! Fat is not your enemy!
I used MyFitnessPal to keep track of my progress, and I counted everything. Diet books that claim you don’t need to do any work to lose weight? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s bullcrap. Weight loss, like the achievement of any goal, requires effort and discipline. Many people find weight loss on a low carb diet to be fairly effortless, but if you have other health issues like PCOS, you’ll still need to count your carbs and calories in order to stay on track. It’s particularly important that you control your carbs! If you’re eating a high fat diet, you cannot also eat a high carb diet. If you do, you will gain weight very quickly.
I began my diet on 4/21/15. By my wedding anniversary on 9/26/15, I had lost a solid 30 pounds, and was able to fit into my wedding dress again, for the first time in many years.
This is what I looked like on Mother’s Day, 2012. It’s one of the photos of me that I’m most unhappy with. In fact, I cringe every time I look at it, so the fact that I’m showing it to you should tell you how important I think this is!
This is me now,
and on Mother’s Day, 2016, with my children.
Quite a change, yes? I still need to lose some more weight, but I feel a million times better!
Best of all, I no longer require any prescription medication. I don’t even take Metformin anymore because I don’t need it! For the first time in my entire life, I have a normal menstrual cycle every 30-35 days, and have for about the last 18 months. My asthma, and the eczema I’d been battling on my elbows for more than a year completely cleared up. Do you know what it’s like to not cough all the time, when a cough has been a regular part of your daily life for as long as you can remember? My children used to follow the sound of my coughing, in order to find me in stores! I didn’t understand the link between my weight loss and these two health problems until I mentioned it to my chiropractor, who is also a naturopath. He replied, “It makes sense. Your body isn’t constantly inflamed anymore from all the grains and sugar and Omega 6!”
In regard to the chin hair that frustrated me to no end – I solved that problem too! When I got my insulin under control, new hairs stopped coming in. Unfortunately, once hair follicles have been activated it’s difficult to reverse that, so I eliminated the existing hairs with a Tria Hair Removal Laser. If you’ve heard of this product and are skeptical about whether it works, I can tell you that for me, it absolutely did. It’s expensive though, and your results may vary. I got mine on a terrific sale, for less than $200. For me, it was entirely worth the expense because my self esteem was suffering badly.
My husband also noticed significant improvement in his health with these diet changes. When we drastically reduced our sugar intake, the headaches he struggled with for years practically disappeared, and he got down to a very healthy weight again. When he left appraisal and opened the shop, the physical work improved both his fitness and his mental health. When we cut out all the soy and vegetable oils, which are loaded with phytoestrogens, his estrogen level came down, his testosterone went back up, and his PSA returned to normal with no medical intervention whatsoever. We have since learned that excessive estrogen in men is linked to the development of prostate cancer, so this also makes perfect sense.
My husband and I both had elevated cholesterol. His came down to normal, and mine came down significantly. It had always been high, as high cholesterol runs in my family, but I’m now very close to being in the healthy cholesterol range. Best of all, my husband’s PSA continues to come down every year. At his check-up this month it was 2.4, the lowest it’s been in 3 years, and well within the normal range. In fact, for a man his age, this is excellent!
So, this is all good news, but you’re probably wondering, how on earth did I implement this diet when it was so drastically different from what we were used to? The answer is that I started small, with one new change per month. Most importantly, I changed my mindset. I’m here to tell you that if you’re not ready in your head, you won’t follow through. I know this from experience. But if you are ready, if you’re determined to make the changes necessary to improve your health, here are some tips:
1. You must cut out the sugar. For me, this meant no more regular baking, which was really difficult at first. It sounds simplistic, but the real change came when I successfully eliminated sugar in my coffee. For years I had been a devotee of flavored coffee creamers, and couldn’t imagine giving them up. Now I actually prefer my coffee with half and half and nothing else.
2. Find a sugar substitute that you can live with. I’m not a fan of artificial sweeteners, so I searched for a natural sweetener with a low glycemic load. Through this process, I learned that I’m allergic to stevia (if you have a ragweed allergy, you probably are too, as stevia is in the ragweed family), and that pure maple syrup is my sweetener of choice. I’m also a big fan of xylitol, which I use on the rare occasions when I bake low-carb treats. Which brings me to…
3. Don’t try to make your LCHF diet just like your old high carb diet. Once I accepted that low carb breads taste like crap (I’ve tried them all. They’re either eggy sponges or tasteless cardboard), and muffins made with almond meal are heavy and grainy, I decided that I would just rather not eat bread or muffins. This is kind of the point. A truly effective diet must be a permanent lifestyle change. So instead of longing for bread and muffins, and getting upset because I couldn’t create good, low carb versions of them, I decided to focus on eating more of the low carb foods I loved.
4. Reduce your grain consumption. I did, and I noticed that my IBS symptoms virtually disappeared. Like vegetable oils, grains also cause inflammation in the body, and they just aren’t necessary. You can get plenty of carbs and fiber from fruits and vegetables (for more information, read Wheat Belly). This was also really hard for me at first, because I’d been baking bread for my family nearly every week for more than 10 years. That’s a tough habit to break, but eventually I quit boo-hooing about it and embraced the challenge, and now it’s become the new normal. So I can’t eat a lot of bread…fine. But I can have fun coming up with new and different ways to build a sandwich. My favorites? Romaine lettuce leaves, sweet potato pancakes (from this book), and flax wraps (from this book). Now, if I eat too many grains, the eczema on my elbows flares up again (people don’t believe me, but I’m completely serious). I still eat bread on occasion, but only if it’s really good bread worth cheating for.
5. You must learn to like low carb vegetables. Lots of them. They will be a mainstay of your diet.
6. You’re going to have to cook. Americans are fat for lots of reasons, but one big one is that we eat out WAY too much. In 2015, for the first time ever, grocery spending lagged behind restaurant spending. Restaurant portions are huge, calorie dense, and you have no idea what fats or sweeteners they use. Do you often feel like crap after eating at a restaurant? Ask yourself why.
7. You must get over the notion that it costs more to eat healthy. I feed my family with the USDA’s low-cost plan as a guideline. This is just above the “thrifty” plan used to determine food stamp allotments. The difference is that their figures are for food eaten at home only. Our food budget is $250 per week for ALL food, including any restaurant meals we may have, any random sodas or coffees, everything for a family of 5, which includes 2 adults and a teenager. I track every penny, and I make this work because we don’t waste money on a lot of restaurant meals, or what I refer to as “garbage food.” I will never understand the logic of someone telling me that they can’t afford a bag of xylitol because it costs $15 (even though it lasts for 6 months), when said person drops $30, 4 times a week on restaurant meals. It’s all priorities, and sure, some healthy foods are expensive, but do you know what else is expensive? Prescription drugs. Cancer. Funerals.
8. Don’t tell me that you don’t have time to devote to your health. I care about you, so I will pull no punches – this is just another excuse, and you know it. If you need more time, you’ll just have to let go of something else that’s not as important. This is your health we’re talking about. If you don’t have your health, you have nothing.
9. Children and very active adults need more carbs. This is fine, but what they need are healthy carbs. I follow the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time I feed them the healthy stuff, and the other 20% is for things like breakfast cereal and toaster waffles.
10. You will mess up. I do…all the time. It’s okay. I live by the 80/20 rule here too, meaning that I eat healthy 80% of the time, and allow the other 20% for screw-ups and occasional cheating. This makes life a lot more fun, and it’s allowed me to maintain my weight loss for a year now. It’s okay to eat birthday cake once in awhile! Don’t be a fanatic. Extremism of any kind is unhealthy.
You’re fortunate to live in an age of unlimited information and resources. Take advantage of them! Here are some of my favorites:
Next post: What I eat, what I don’t, and a sample day of eating at our house.[print-me/]