Health, Fitness and Conventional Wisdom: Still believe White Goodman?

In July 2011 I was entering my mid-40s, worked in a very demanding job, was recovering from major ankle surgery, and I was fat for the first time.  My body also seemed to be falling into the abyss.   Perhaps by today’s standards, I would only be considered overweight.  However, at 1.80m tall and 98 kg, my body was a full 15 kgs heavier than I ever weighed and probably at least 22 kg heavier than I should have been.   Bottom line:  I felt horrible, physically and emotionally—but why?

I graduated high school weighing a very athletic 78.5 kg and had all the benefits of good genetics working for me.   Although my weight had fluctuated between 71- 83 kg most of my life after high school, it was generally a function of my sports participation at that time.  Triathlon and cycling competitions in the late 90s and early 2000s caused me to whither.

Later, a greater focus on weight training would cause me to pack on the muscle.  Yet, I was still lean and generally sporting six-pack abs for most of that time.  Well, that was my normal state until the spring 2011.  Then the wheels just seemed to fall off the wagon.  Why had this happened to me?  Did I finally have to accept that father time was catching up with me?

During most of my life, my friends would describe me as health conscious and athletic.  I ate a “balanced” diet and only consumed junk food a few times a week.  I loved all vegetables, fruit, chicken, seafood, pasta, salads, whole grain anything,  skimped on the dressings, and avoided excess fats like butter, cheese, oils, and oh the horror—chicken skin!  I also cooked most of my meals, made my own ice cream, and even brewed my own beer.

I thought that I was doing it right.

Exercise, physical activity, and sports competitions have always been mainstays in my life.  I grew up in an athletic family and eating right was simply an integral component of training.  It was part of my identity and never really a chore for me.   In my younger years I played competitive soccer in Asia and trained hard to become a respectable sprinter in high school.

Eventually, I was recruited to play NCAA Division I football and soccer, and tried competing briefly as a quasi-pro, ultra distance cyclist.   That said, the highlight of my athletic career was probably setting my football team’s vertical jump record as a freshman…and a kicker!   Perhaps Billy Hoyle really could dunk after all.

Thank you Dad for introducing me to plyometrics and the teachings of Dr. Yuri Verkoshansky in 1981!

My love of competitive sports and the outdoors ultimately led me to spend five rigorous years after college in the US Air Force—parachuting, scuba diving, kayaking, crashing dirt bikes, and carrying excessively large rucksacks in often inhumane environments.  It was my professional sport at the time, and I loved being active.

As a former athlete who was blessed with good genes, why was I having so much trouble getting back into shape in 2011?  Worse than that, why was my body starting to break down?  Why was I feeling like crap?

Looking back, the demise of my health was mostly attributed to my work at the time.   A consulting job in spring 2011 was utterly wreaking havoc on my sleep schedule and slowly sucking the life out of me, literally.

Moreover, it didn’t help that my body was still recovering from a major ankle surgery which occurred earlier that year.   The surgery had prevented me from pursuing my normal exercise routine, and I quite naturally, and mistakenly, believed that my lack of exercise was the proximal cause for my weight gain.

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No es bueno! My ankle had seen better days.

Of course, during this period of demise, I was still a die-hard evangelist of the “burn it to earn it” doctrine for maintaining ideal body composition.

Although I had previously experienced periods of short-term in activity and weight gain, I had never experienced such a dramatic degradation of my body.

In hindsight the stress hormone cortisol was clearly a contributing factor.  However, I would not fully appreciate its role in my demise until later.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was fighting a losing biochemical battle.  My perpetually sleep deprived state was hampering my weight loss because of elevated cortisol levels in my body.

And guess what?  Cortisol was doing its job—treating my body like it was in survival mode.  I was.

During this dark period of my life, my body was constantly craving sugar and salt throughout the day.  No surprise given the beating my adrenal glands were taking.  I was always eating too.  Huge bowls of breakfast cereal with low fat milk, kettle chips, whole wheat bread, pasta, rice, pizza, peanut butter pretzels, fruit, crackers, ice cream, and Costco muffins were my drugs of choice.

Vegetables and meat were still consumed, but I was really craving carbohydrates and especially sugar.  Of course,  I also craved copious quantities of caffeine in the form of high-octane Starbuck’s coffee to resurrect me from my brutal blood sugar crashes.

It was a ruthless roller coaster existence.

Fortunately for me, by the early summer my ankle was finally getting strong enough for exercise, and I had a secret “burn it to earn it” recipe for losing weight instantly.  I simply needed to average 50 km per week running or develop the stamina to ride my bike 160 km, and my excess weight would melt away.  It always had in the past.  It was like an inviolable law of physics.

Only this time, it did not work for me.  Something had changed.

Well, it sort of worked.  The exercise did improve my emotional state, and I did lose about 9 kg.  But then my weight loss simply plateaued.  No amount of increased activity seemed to matter.  My body was stuck at 89 kg, and I was still much too heavy and still not really feeling that great.   What happened to my tried and true formula for weight loss?  What a let down.

Through sheer dumb luck in August 2011, my life was about to change dramatically.  I discovered a thought provoking article on Lew Rockwell’s informative blog which highlighted a health and nutrition article by  Dr. Joseph Mercola.

Mercola’s ideas proceeded to shatter my paradigm and ultimately changed my world.  His recommendations are sometimes considered controversial by mainstream standards, and they were mostly contrary to everything I had learned growing up around the fitness community.

His ideas also made a lot of sense to me.

Because of Mercola, I eventually discovered other doctors, scientists, and health/fitness professionals who have different, and sometimes similar, views on nutrition and health:   Mark SissonGary TaubesDr. Ron RosedaleDr. Richard JohnsonDr. Robert Lustig,  Dr. Loren CordainDr. Donald Miller,  Dr. Steve GangemiDr. David PerlmutterDr. William Davis, Dr. Michael Eades, Dr. Paul Jaminet, and I could go on and on.

They had views the challenged the conventional wisdom.

Like Mercola, some of them are also considered controversial and likewise elicit the ire of conventional and, dare I say it, corporatist medicine.  Some of them are even referred to with disdain and derogatorily called quacks.  Some are also derided as snake oil (supplement) salesmen by the defenders of the status quo.

I don’t care.

They have all influenced my health and life in a truly meaningful way, much more so than the mainstream ever has.  They have made a real difference to me.  Additionally, all of them have challenged my thinking and my understanding of health, nutrition, and the human body.

Isn’t that what science is supposed to do?  Besides, I ultimately take responsibility for my own life.

As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “All truth passes through three stages.  First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed.  Third, it is embraced.”  I believe that we are on the precipice of change between phases two and three.

A lot of money is at stake in pharmaceutical and food industries, and the fight to retain control over  conventional wisdom will be vicious.   Yet, the 1980s low fat craze will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of scientific history—exactly where the 1980s belong.

Although many of Mercola’s beliefs were not mainstream at the time of my discovery, and still are not, I found most of his arguments to be logical, well-researched, and appealing to my sense of skepticism.

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Ah, coconut…Nha Trang style!

If the presence coconut oil on Walmart shelves is any indication, then these “heretical” ideas appear to be inflicting serious damage to the armor of conventional health and nutrition wisdom.   Finally!

After following Mercola’s nutritional guidance, I was stunned by the results.  My scale, which had stagnated for months, began to move almost instantly.  I lost a quarter kilo within the first day and lost a total of 1.5 kg  in my first week.   Then another 1.5 kg the following week, and continued losing weight steadily each week until reaching my goal of 75 kg.

The changes were easy, and I never felt famished and rarely ever hungry.  More importantly, I actually felt a lot better…even with my still generally inadequate sleep schedule.

At this point I was elated, stunned, and then angry.  Yes, angry!

I was angry at all the doctors, nutritionists, and fitness professionals who parroted conventional wisdom.  I was angry because I felt so much better, but had to learn about my relief from Lew Rockwell’s website, a blog dedicated to libertarian principles and Austrian economics, not health.   I was angry because after suffering for almost 40 years, my allergies virtually disappeared.  Yet, the solution was so simple.   I was angry because I would typically get two sinus infections each year that required antibiotics—and they, too, have completely disappeared.  They disappeared with a simple change of diet— no drugs, expensive visits the ENT clinic, or surgery required.

No conventional health professional ever told me that my diet was likely sabotaging my health—that my diet was causing inflammation and contributing to my allergies.    My belief in the USDA-endorsed food pyramid was the culprit, and it had been destroying me.

So how did I turn things around?

Well, although my health journey is a constant work in progress, I believe that there were a few basic changes that made a huge difference for me.  These are not individual recommendations.  I do not know what will specifically work for you.  There are likely numerous variables that regulate how we respond to dietary choices, to include individual metabolism, ancestry/ethnicity, environment, geography, age, time of year, sleep, fitness-level, etc.   This is simply what worked for me:

  • Elimination of all grains from my diet: wheat, oats, barely, rye, spelt, corn, everything.  No breading on chicken, no gravies with flour, no taco shells, no crusts, no croutons, no grains period!  I eliminated most rice and potatoes too.  I was initially going to transition gradually, but given the immediate impact of grain elimination, I was fully on-board after one week…and a believer;
  • Elimination of virtually all forms of sugar, and especially fruit sugar (fructose).  Kicking sugar took me about 2-3 days, but in can be very difficult for some.  I limited my fruit intake to no more than one serving per day until reaching my weight loss goal.   Dr. Lustig likes to say that sugar should be treated as a recreational drug.  I agree!  If you need more info on this, check out The Skinny on Obesity videos (parts 1-8) produced by the University of California;
  • Increased my healthy fat intake to about 50% of my total daily calories.  This included adding copious amounts of coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, raw nuts,  butter and cream from grass-fed/pastured cows, and free-range egg yolks to my diet.  Later, this percentage would climb to almost 70% as I reduced my carbohydrate consumption even further;
  • Avoidance of nearly all processed foods.  If it came in box or package, it was considered radioactive.  The one exception here was a high quality, grass-fed whey protein concentrate supplement for my strength training;
  • Changed jobs to reduce stress and cortisol–a critical step in fulfilling  optimal health and effortlessly maintaining my ideal bodyweight; and
  • Termination of calorie counting!  The calorie counter on your elliptical trainer is nearly meaningless. The reason for this is because macronutrients can be isocaloric, but not isometabolic.   More simply stated, a calorie is NOT a calorie.  Globo Gym’s dodgeball guru White Goodman was wrong!  (Fructose in particular is metabolized differently, but this subject deserves its own post!)

Basically, I ate real food, increased my fat consumption, and avoided grains and sugar (and foods that rapidly convert to sugar in the body).

What you have here is basically a low carbohydrate diet with an emphasis on lots of fresh vegetables, a moderate amount of high-quality protein, and LOTS of healthy fats.

I also exercised smarter, not more!  Over time, I focused primarily on strength training, functional movement training, and eliminated most cardio except for occasional high-intensity intervals on the bike or elliptical (taking less than 25 minutes to complete).  That’s basically it!

The immediate weight loss was a bit of shocker, but most stunning was how much better I felt.   I was sleeping better despite my difficult work schedule, my various skin ailments vanished, and I rarely ever felt hungry.  When I did, I certainly never felt famished.   I stopped eating breakfast because I didn’t wake up hungry, and I always had plenty of energy.

Who would of thunk it?

After three weeks of completely giving up grains and sugar, it also dawned on me that I no longer needed my allergy medicine.  My typically terrible and always pervasive allergies were seemingly non-existent.

No more Claritin.  No more sinus infections.  No more allergy induced lethargy.  That was the clincher for me.

So what’s next?

Well, for starters I can’t imagine ever going back to my old ways.  In fact, I don’t even miss them.  The cravings are gone.  The roller coaster ride is over, and I would really miss the fat now.  My salads taste so much better!  My body is fat-adapted and prefers fat as its primary fuel source.

Besides, I like weighing 74 kg and having a 12-inch drop (42 chest/30 waist), previously only obtainable during my college years.   I like that I only workout 2-3 times per weeks and that those useless hours of flittering away on the treadmill are over.  I like that have more time with friends and family, to travel, to hike, to go the beach, or to do other experiential activities.  I like that I feel better doing it.

All that said, my journey is still only just beginning.  There is so much to learn, and I have finally stopped listening to guys like White Goodman.  What about you?

-TJ

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