Still Thinking (and Reading) About the Health Quest

“I remember the day I stopped worrying about eating fat. It was long before I started poring over thousands of scientific studies and conducting hundreds of interviews to write this book. Like most Americans, I was following the low-fat advice set forth by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its food pyramid, and when the Mediterranean diet was introduced in the 1990s, I added olive oil and extra servings of fish while cutting back further on red meat. In following these guidelines, I was convinced that I was doing the best I could for my heart and my waistline, since official sources have been telling us for years that the optimal diet emphasizes lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains and that the healthiest fats come from vegetable oils. Avoiding the saturated fats found in animal foods, especially, seemed like the most obvious measure a person could take for good health.

“Then, around 2000, I moved to New York City and started writing a restaurant review column for a small paper. It didn’t have a budget to pay for meals, so I usually ate whatever the chef decided to send out to me. Suddenly I was eating gigantic meals with foods I that I would have never before allowed to pass my lips: paté, beef of every cut prepared in every imaginable way, cream sauces, cream soups, foie gras—all the foods I had avoided my entire life.

“Eating these rich, earthy dishes was a revelation. I ate with abandon. And yet, bizarrely, I found myself losing weight. In fact, I soon lost the ten pounds that had dogged me for years, and my doctor told me my cholesterol numbers were fine.

“… The more I probed, the greater was my realization that all our dietary recommendations about fat—the ingredient about which our health authorities have obsessed most during the past sixty years—appeared to be not just slightly offtrack but completely wrong. Almost nothing that we commonly believe today about fats generally and saturated fats in particular appears, upon close examination, to be accurate.” (Emphasis mine.)

— journalist Nina Teicholz, in The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet © 2014 Simon & Schuster

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Following Up on the Health Quest

I haven’t meant to become an evangelist. Or an activist. I really haven’t. But when I went to see my doctor about three months ago, she noticed I’d lost weight. “Good girl!” she said. “What are you doing?”

I told her (see previous post) I’d read this book and was following the recommendations in it. I told her it was a low-carb diet. “I eat a lot of meat and green, leafy vegetables,” I said. I figured she knew the science of how this works.

Lean meat,” she said.

Her emphasis was an indication that she doesn’t know the science; she’s still buying in to the medical establishment’s emphasis on cutting fat and calories. My health insurance company sends me little newsletters full of advice to increase exercise and cut calories (the calories-in/calories-out method); this also is bad science. In Why We Get Fat, Taubes notes,

The physicians of Bruch’s era [the 1940s and ’50s] weren’t thoughtless and the doctors of today are not, either. They merely have a flawed belief system—a paradigm—that stipulates that the reason we get fat is clear and incontrovertible, as is the cure. We get fat, our physicians tell us, because we eat too much and/or move too little, and so the cure is to do the opposite. … This is what Bruch described in 1957 as the ‘prevalent American attitude that the problem [of obesity] is simply one of eating more than the body needs,’ and now it’s the prevalent attitude worldwide. … Over the years, this calories-in/calories-out paradigm of excess fat has proved to be remarkably resistant to any evidence to the contrary. Imagine a murder trial in which one credible witness after another takes the stand and testifies that the suspect was elsewhere at the time of the killing and so had an airtight alibi, and yet the jurors keep insisting that the defendant is guilty, because that’s what they believed when the trial began.

“Well,” I said, “we actually need the good fats—saturated fats—to facilitate the chemistry that creates the weight loss.” But even as I spoke I could see her losing interest. I’ve since learned that they don’t teach nutrition in med school.

Still, I’m not looking for my doctor’s approval. I continue to eat the way I do because I feel so good. From May to December, I was unmoved by carbohydrates because I felt great. Then the Christmas season arrived, I went on vacation, and, well, there were cookies. 🙂 Mostly I kept to my eating habits; I didn’t go looking for trouble. But I definitely had some cookies.

If you're going to have a cookie, there are none better in all the land than those from the Chucklet & Honey Southern Bakery, owned by my friend Chuck Hargett. Tell ’im Jamie sent you!

If you’re going to have a cookie, there are none better in all the land than those from the Chucklet & Honey Southern Bakery, founded by my friend Chuck Hargett. This is their signature cookie, but there are lots more … and they’ll make your mouth water. When you call, tell ’im Jamie sent you!

Some bodies are genetically inclined to remain lean—it’s not all the fault of carbs—but the fact is mine is a body that is genetically inclined to plumpness. I’ve been to the family reunions, kids, and I’ve seen. So you can imagine my delight when I got home and discovered I hadn’t gained weight. This convinces me further that I’m on the right path. And I got right back on it.

I’m done with this topic, now, on my little travel blog. I’m excited that I’ve lost a little weight and I feel good. I’ve got two big trips coming up this year, and I’ll go into them with some of the best health I’ve enjoyed in a long time. But I wanted to leave you with a link to an article in case your medical professionals also got through med school without any nutrition science:

20 Mainstream Nutrition Myths

If you find it intriguing, visit the author’s website. I’m a big believer in scientific evidence in plain language, and you can find it there.

Sooooo … have you got any trips planned? Stay tuned, because I’ve got some great ideas about that.

Three Events That Changed My Life

I flew to Phoenix to spend Christmas with my son and to visit several friends who live in the area. Due to the nature of the season, I think, I found myself telling this “story” more than once, and it occurs to me that it’s appropriate to wind up my consideration of the year just past with a final telling.

Camelback Mountain—and Phoenix—seen from the Desert Botanical Garden.

Camelback Mountain—and Phoenix—seen from the Desert Botanical Garden.

This title, by the way, has to do with health. I place my relationship with loved ones first on my list of priorities, but in the category of living well and comfortably—and I grew up in a household dominated by catastrophic illness (my mother), so I know a little about that—there have been three health-related events that affected me in a deep, life-living way.

Throwing Out the Drugs

I worked for more than a decade in a high-stress job at a corporation. Toward the end of my tenure there, I developed and was diagnosed with GERD. For all the television commercials about “acid reflux” that might make this condition seem common and almost routine, GERD is a serious health issue—I actually thought I was having a heart attack the first time. Treatment involved sleeping with my head elevated and a prescription for Prevacid. (And giving up coffee—the horror!) This got the situation under control, but it was a condition I thought about all the time. There were a lot of foods I couldn’t eat, and I still had several miserable episodes per year. As time passed, Prevacid became an over-the-counter drug (as did Prilosec and Nexium, the other major GERD pharmaceuticals), which meant my insurance quit paying for it. I had to take two pills per day to keep it under control, and thus had a $70/month habit.

One day I was discussing this with my massage therapist (she and I share an interest in naturopathy and holistic medicine) and she facepalmed. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this!” she said. “You should try probiotics. Just try them. They might work.”

And they did. Probiotics cost me about $15/month, and I was able to resume eating many of the foods I’d had to forgo in the past. I still had episodes, though not as frequently, and I still slept elevated. But I was off drugs. Probiotics changed my life. Now, unlike many Americans, I do not take any daily maintenance-type drugs.

Getting Good Sleep

Several years later, I visited my physician. My ankles had begun to swell at the end of the day, sometimes uncomfortably. (Ankle swelling can be caused by a lot of things, so don’t take my diagnosis as yours.)

My physician asked an odd question: “Do you snore?”

“Like a freight train,” I said. “And don’t tell me it has to do with my weight, because even when I was young and thin I snored, to the extent that no one wanted room with me on school trips. I know I’m getting old but—”

“You’re not old.” She laughed.

“Then tell me why I feel like I am 90 years old when I get up in the morning,” I said. “I used to be a morning person. I used to spring out of bed ready to go. Now I am exhausted when I get up. My best hours of the day are 11am to 3pm. I hate it.”

“We’ll test to be sure, but I think you have sleep apnea,” she said.

The sleep study was absolutely the most miserable night of my life, but in a sense, it was a huge success. Everyone has sleep apnea: it is normal for you to stop breathing 1 to 5 times per hour, but anything over 5 should be treated. Thirty times per hour is considered severe sleep apnea. But I stopped breathing 85 times per hour! No wonder I had no energy. No wonder I was tired all the time.

I was promptly fitted with a CPAP machine and literally overnight, my life changed. Most noticeably, I began to have dreams! (I never reached REM sleep before.) And I was rested and energetic—OMG!

Two other things happened. First, my acid reflux diminished significantly. I quit thinking about it (which did mean I had a couple episodes), and I began to sleep on just one pillow, like a normal person. Second, my sacroiliac dysfunction—which had been making me miserable for twenty years—also diminished significantly. I quit thinking about it too. Honestly, the value of a good night’s sleep cannot be overstated. If you snore or otherwise suspect you may have sleep apnea, get tested. It will add years to your life.

And one other interesting side note: I have for years kept track of the titles and how many books I read each year. (I love to read. And I’m an editor.) Most of my personal reading happens at bedtime—and suddenly I was reading for 30 minues, 45 minutes, an hour—instead of the miserly 15 minutes I had before. My book count has doubled. I love my Magic Sleep Machine!

Say Good-Bye to Sugar, Sugar

I still struggled with weight, though. In the spring of 2014, a long-time friend of mine recommended I read Why We Get Fat by science journalist Gary Taubes. Taubes isn’t selling a diet or diet foods—he’s only selling books. In Why We Get Fat,

Taubes argues that certain kinds of carbohydrates—not fats and not simply excess calories—have led to our current obesity epidemic. … Taubes reveals the bad nutritional science of the last century—none more damaging than the “calories-in, calories-out” model of why we get fat—and the good science that has been ignored, especially regarding insulin’s regulation of our fat tissue. He also answers key questions: Why are some people thin and others fat? What roles do exercise and genetics play in our weight? What foods should we eat or avoid?

The book made a pretty compelling case. In the third week of May, I cut my carbohydrate consumption dramatically. I gave up sugar and bread and processed foods cold turkey.

And I began to feel grrrrrrrrrreat!

My acid reflux is a thing of the past. I no longer give it any consideration; nothing I eat affects my esophagus. Gone also is my sacroiliac dysfunction—along with a lot of little aches and pains. I am never hungry—because this is not a diet. It’s a changed way of eating. I don’t have cravings.

Have I lost a dramatic amount of weight? Not yet. But I do lose weight every week, steadily, week after week. I’m confident that this will continue. From a health standpoint, I feel better every day.

If you are curious—and aren’t ready to read a book yet—watch the documentary called Fed Up. (Scroll down for the trailer.) Gary Taubes is one of the people featured in the film.

Recap

This blog is about la dolce vita—which, for me, includes travel. So don’t be alarmed: there is a travel connection to this story—and not just because I was on holiday when I thought of it as a three-part story. If you read the posts about my trips, you’ll note that I often ended up sick—with pneumonia—in a foreign country. Why? Because the airlines recycle the cabin air and people often travel in spite of being “just a little” unwell. And I—having grown up with a father who chain-smoked—am more susceptible than many to respiratory illness. I took 18 round-trip flights in 7 years from 2006 to 2012 and I got sick—often very sick—every time.

When I was researching a way to boost my immunity—perhaps I could ward off those circulating germs on the plane—I learned that all immunity starts in the gut. Improve your digestive health and your overall health will improve. Similarly, good sleep will improve your health across the board. And whether you want to lose weight or not, have a look at giving up sugar. You can thank me later. 🙂

Have a happy, healthy new year!

Lunch in Paris

I just finished reading a book I thoroughly enjoyed—Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard. It’s a little bit romance, a little bit travelogue, a little bit foodie … in other words, tailor-made for me. The American Bard (mid-twenties) met a Frenchman (also mid-twenties) at an academic conference in London, which led, eventually, to that fateful lunch in Paris.

Lunch in Paris

Toward the end of the book, Bard describes a New Year’s Eve dinner at the home of some of her French family; her parents flew in from New York for the occasion. The host had cooked sixteen separate dishes (because there were sixteen guests).

We sat down at eight p.m. and didn’t get up from the table until four thirty in the morning, except for a brief pause at midnight for champagne. It was the most spectacular meal I’ve ever eaten. Like the triumphal procession in Act II of Aida, after the spear carriers come the chariots, after the chariots the cavalry, after the cavalry the dancing girls. And just when you think the stage can’t hold another thing, they bring out the elephants.

To start, there were small salads—the thinnest slivers of red and yellow pepper, slow roasted and glistening with olive oil, and the simplest blend of carrots and golden onions, heady with the smell of cumin.

Then came the fish, its sauce simmered with saffron and tomatoes, thickened with ground almonds. I served myself the merest spoonful or two. “Elle est stratégique.” Affif winked with approval. “She knows what’s coming.” I wanted to savor every bite, even if it was a small one, nothing blurred by the rebellion of a tired palate. I plucked a toothpick out of an oblong white calamari. It was stuffed with rice and peppers, a curly violet-tipped tentacle poking out here and there.

I looked around the table. … I had been working so hard these past few years to figure out what France was about—how it operates, what makes it tick. In fact, most of what was important to the French was around this table: close family, old friends, and fabulous food. I knew I would never entirely leave my New York self behind—never stop wanting, never stop striving—but I also had my place here, among these people.*

The book has two or three recipes at the end of each chapter, and lots of interesting observations from an American, loved by a Frenchman, trying to assimilate and be accepted. If you like this type of book, I think you’ll be delighted by Lunch in Paris.

It turns out there is a Lunch in Paris website, which includes a blog with recipes and luscious photos. (Sadly, not updated in a while, but it seems Bard and her husband opened an ice cream company. They’ve been busy.) Also since the first book, they’ve moved to Provence and started a family. You can see more about this on the Facebook page. (Scaramouche has a Facebook page too.) Here I learned Bard has a new book due in April 2015: Picnic in Provence. I’m looking forward to it.

* Transcribed by me from pages 296–286 of the hardcover edition of Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes (Little, Brown, 2010).