Well Shut My Mouth

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As far back as I can remember, I haven’t wanted to eat breakfast in the morning. My lack of appetite drove Mom nuts. She and Dad kept telling me breakfast was the most important meal of the day, while she tried hot and cold cereals on me, jelly omelets, raw egg milkshakes (sweetened with Nestle Quik or Hershey syrup). She bought the Instant Breakfast packages when they appeared on store shelves, and later on frozen waffles and flavored yogurt. Nothing worked.

I liked pancakes, waffles, French toast. But not in the morning. I didn’t disagree with what my parents said – I believed an early breakfast was important, I bought the idea that it goosed one’s metabolism, I understood that skinny people and successful dieters ate breakfast – and I tried, countless times, to make food part of my morning routine. But it never took. I’m 67 years old, and I still don’t get hungry until I’ve been awake at least three hours.

I’ve had most of my lifetime to come up with reasons for avoiding breakfast. First to my parents: they harped on me as long as I lived with them, and afterwards made critical comments when I had kids (who did eat in the morning, but not because I cooked anything for them). Even as a grownup, it’s been awkward when I travel; I am never in the mood for the ubiquitous American Sunday brunch. As I took to telling friends after the inevitable sequence of “You don’t eat breakfast? You should eat breakfast,” I’m like a big cat. Eating makes me sleepy. I hunt best when I’m hungry. Really: my natural pattern is to eat no breakfast, take in a light lunch, and then chow down for dinner and after dinner. Really.

Recently I learned that there’s nothing wrong with my natural appetite pattern. I’ve been engaging in intermittent fasting. That turns out to be good.

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Two years ago, I read a book that showed me I’d been thoroughly misinformed about nutrition all my life. It was exciting. I like to learn, and reading Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise made me feel like a child at a guru’s knee: my mind was wiped of all it knew before and was clean and ready to be furnished with information.

So began a cascade of reading and of diet modification. It’s been an incredible twenty-two months. I know much more than when I started, and I’m eager to acquire additional understanding. Incidentally, and it almost is incidental although it’s wanted and appreciated, I now weigh thirty pounds less.

My purpose in typing this is to describe my experience. My qualifications to compose this are scant. I have no schooling in the subject. I hold no degrees in any scientific field. I have never been employed in the health or diet industry.

But I was educated in science and math. I was a lab assistant to my high school chemistry teacher and I tutored a college co-ed in chemistry at the same time. At home and in school, I learned to use scientific method to answer questions. My accidental career involves applying algebra. I just happened to become so fascinated with photosynthesis in high school that I committed the basic formula to memory. I was also into genetics and memorized the components and structure of DNA. These two idiosyncracies, as well as early exposure to Rachel Carson and Darwin, led me to view life through a rational, skeptical, organic lens. It happened that my eighth grade science project involved playing tic-tac-toe with a “system” that learned not to lose; so I had hands-on experience with how “designed” an unplanned outcome can appear, after a sufficient number of rounds where only the winner gets to play the next set.

In addition to the qualifications listed in the above paragraph, I became a mini-adult at age five (traumatic hospital experience), and I have a good memory. I can draw on 62 years of experience in which to frame the ideas I’m about to describe.

Finally, when my best friend and former college roommate was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 1985, we fell naturally into our old student roles: she focused on the emotional aspects of living with an autoimmune condition, and I read the science. I still have the Biermann and Toohey books; I still belong to the American Diabetes Association. Without intention, I have acquired an understanding of blood sugar metabolism and the basics of some endocrinology.

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I started dieting in 1964. I was 14. I must have been ovulating, because my diary indicates I finally got my first period two weeks after starting my first diet. Connection?

I acquired a pocket book of calories. I may still have that mini-book somewhere in my shelves. I didn’t ask my mother for advice on how to lose weight; I was a scientist so I went about it rationally. I understood that weight meant an excess of calories in or an insufficiency of calories out. After all, a calorie is a calorie. I tried to limit my intake to 1,000 a day (hard to do: lean burger patties and water-sauteed veggies). I became adept at estimating calories. I added some calisthenics. And I steadily gained weight.

I continued to acquire information. I came to understand that the dietary problem is fat. I embraced heart-healthy carbs and reduced- or low-fat products. I was still eating meat then, but I discarded poultry skins and avoided fat. The only part of eggs I liked were the yolks, so I cut eggs from my diet.

I read Covert Bailey’s books. He made sense to me. His comments about exercise are still good, but his dietary ideas were as dry and unattractive as his skin tone in the author photo. This was when my kids were young; poor things, who had to put up with all those fruit-juice-flavored “dessert” experiments, and the trauma of spaghetti squash.

Want some numbers? I’m about 5’6″ in height (or was, till I started shrinking) and as a young woman I weighed 140 to 150 and longed to see a number below 130. By my thirties (after having the kids), my range was 150 to 180. I managed to get the number down to around 140 in 2006, but that was after a year of holding the calorie line, exercising daily, and dealing with a herniated disk that put me on three months of oxycodone which was a very effective appetite suppressor for me. Yes I lost weight, but my diet was still sugary and starchy. I reserved calories for my evening gourmet cookie or chocolate. I enjoyed my new look and I maintained it for almost a year, but then the regain started. It wasn’t much – looking back, just an average of three to four pounds a year, just a little shift in range, you know? – but that meant I was back up to 170 in mid-2015.

When I forsook sugar.

I must have been ready for it, because it wasn’t difficult. I was prepared for a couple of weeks of adjustment, but after a few days of loose shit, I normalized. I was reading Fat Chance by Lustig then, soon to start Yudkin’s Pure, White & Deadly. Both books are inspiring and acted as spurs in my flight from sucrose.

The three books already mentioned, plus anything by Gary Taubes, Jason Fung, and Amy Berger, are great resources, and their authors do a much better job of the subject than I can here. So I’ll make a long story short.

Teicholz convinced me that I can’t trust the party line of American nutrition about what’s good and bad. Fat, salt, and cholesterol have gotten bad raps. But near the end of her book, while wondering what the culprit is, I started to see it. Not exactly sugar. Insulin. I had a head start. I’d been involved with insulin, academically anyway, since Lisa started using it in 1985. I’d been reading “Forecast” (the magazine of the American Diabetes Association) while the reports from the DCCT came in. I didn’t closely study it, but I knew the DCCT was the best and longest study into what causes complications from diabetes. I remembered that there was a correlation between the amount of insulin injected and the incidence of complications. Along the way, I came to understand that insulin is a powerful hormone, associated with (among other things) depression and suicidal ideation.

So I gave up added sugar, but my real focus was an attempt to keep my serum insulin levels as low as possible (that and to give my digestion no shortcuts: no smoothies or juices or other predigested nutrients, lots of nuts and seeds and dirt).

Within two weeks of ditching sugar, I started to lose my appetite for flour products. The open-faced egg salad sandwich was tasty, but what I enjoyed was the egg salad and not the bread. Pasta started tasting mushy to me. So did mashed potatoes, rice, even crackers. Except for the occasional burrito and some pizza once or twice a month, I moved away from bread products. Except for excellent cheesecake, I lost my desire for desserts.

Weight came off, but not fast. I dropped five pounds in the first four days, and then another five during the three months I ran my sugar-free experiment. A ten pound loss in three months is not impressive. 160.

At the end of the three months, it was easy to decide to continue. I wasn’t missing sugar or the ten pounds. I felt stronger. Looking at my log, I see it took another almost six months to drop another five pounds. I weighed 155 in late March 2016. And another six months for the next five (150 in September). The next five came off by early November but then there was bobbling around: that 145 went back up to 150 by March 2017 and then has been sliding down to 140 since.

Wait! (Weight?) That’s like ten pounds in the last two months. Looking closer, I see 143 in mid-February, and 142 in late March, so that 150 was a temporary pop. The trend has been steadily downward, and it seems to be increasing lately, because I’m focusing on (living without) snacks.

After the books I’ve listed above, I read Big Fat Lies by Gillespie, and Grain Brain by Perlmutter. Both good, but not as informative as what came before and what soon followed: Why We Are Fat and Good Calories Bad Calories, by Taubes, The Alzheimer’s Antidote by Berger, The Obesity Code by Fung, and now Taubes’s The Case Against Sugar.

Learning has progressed. The zinger came at the end of the Fung book. As he says, we pay all this attention to what we eat, but not to when. He made me realize that our species evolved to cycle between fed and fasting states. After we eat, we devote a lot of energy to digestion. When we are not digesting, that energy is spent in maintenance, disposal, upkeep, growth. We should not snack. If possible, I should limit my hours of eating so I extend my overnight fasting. Maybe I should try longer fasts. Now that I’m off sugar, I don’t get ravenous. I experience hunger, but it’s not obnoxious or urgent. I’m sure I could now go a day without food and not get the headache or chills I used to experience when I tried Yom Kippur.

So my game plan is to keep my insulin levels as low as possible. Insulin makes me feel hungry and store fat. I will keep my blood sugar from surging and calling on that insulin, by avoiding sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods. But blood sugar only has some effect on insulin levels. I will also manage stress by continuing to exercise daily. I will respect circadian rhythms by trying to get good sleep when it’s dark outside. I will give my body plenty of unfed times, between meals and from dinner to when I break the next day’s fast.

Taubes says tooth decay is the first sign of high sugar and the first clue about insulin resistance. Wow. When Mom took me to the dentist for the first time, I had cavities. I think I was eight and the fillings were five, but it’s possible I’m reversing those numbers. Even two cavities would have been noteworthy.

I remember dreams about candy when I was little. A visit to my friend’s grandparent’s newsstand, where she and I got to eat whatever candy we wanted, was like a jaunt to heaven. I must have started then on the road to insulin resistance and metabolic derangement. Probably only the exercise modulated the bad effects: that and my fortuitous tendency to skip breakfast. I had blood work done last December. I specifically asked for the glycosylated hemoglobin (A1c) test. I expected to test at the low end of normal. Not so. I didn’t get the number result in the doctor’s phone message, but “a little high, but not worthy of any action” was a surprise. I shake my head to imagine what it would be if I hadn’t changed my diet.

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