A tale of two diets — How I renegotiated my relationship to food

Someone posted an article "How I Lost 100 pounds" which appeared on Lifehacker.com.  I spent some time writing stuff in the comments, but what emerged turned out to be a pretty good summary of my low-carb experience so far.  Read on if you are interested in my journey.

Two diets: low-fat vs. low-carb
My own experience: On the "low-fat portion-control" diet, I lost 20 lbs and it was quite difficult. On the very-low-carb plan, I lost 50 more pounds and it has been effortless. Now, I eat when I'm hungry, the food is great, I just avoid sugar and starch.

For me the #1 most helpful thing was recording everything I ate and watching the fat/protein/carb ratio, tuning that to where I wanted it. If you remove carbs, you need to actively seek out fats to replace it. In my case the right mix seems to be 20C/20P/60F

I found that by cutting starch and sugar, and replacing with fats, keeps me satisfied longer. I can actually eat whenever I want now. Sometimes I get distracted and skip a meal, even in that case I'm not in trouble. My blood sugar is not spiking and crashing… I've trained my body to run on fat, so if I skip a meal I just access my "strategic energy reserve" and it's fine.  Removing carbs and adding fats makes me a lot more flexible… sometimes I skip meals without even noticing, or sometimes I have a small handful of nuts and just carry on.

Taking a day off
I make sure to take one "day off" per week when I can go out, have pizza, have dessert, or whatever. Even on my "day off" I don't find that I want huge amounts of bread, rice, "grains" or any of that. A much smaller amount sustains me fine. Even with the "cheat day" my average is about 60g of carb per day (that's including fiber). So as a lifestyle change, it is one I can totally live with.

Exercise is less important than diet/balance
My experience is that exercise is secondary. I have now lost 70 pounds total without adding exercise. I want to add some, but won't be adding more than 20-30 min per day unless it's a fun activity I actually enjoy.  I think it's totally possible to get to 80% of one's goal, or even closer, without adding exercise.

Mark's Daily Apple is full of great articles about exercise, biology, body science. Mark is very big on exercise, but even he says don't overdo it… if you're doing more than 20-30 min 5x per week, you're probably just piling on more exercise to offset the carbs.

I mean, you can exercise more if you enjoy it, but I would suggest people should watch the diet and carb balance most carefully, and take a more casual approach to exercise.

I have gout, so I have had to be careful about adding lots of meat–but adding fat worked great
Now, about the gout part of it. For me the key thing was to go out and actively search for FAT to replace the carbs. Meat is a great source of both protein and fat, but I am not a bodybuilder, and not doing strength-training, so my protein needs are low… I probably get enough protein from the veggies and nuts. During the first 6 months (first 50 pounds :) I found and ate fats wherever I could: mayonnaise, olive oils, butter, cream sauces, nuts, olives, etc. I was having some lean meats, but I was pretty careful not to have more than before, so I could keep pretty safe. I avoided the typical gout foods like liver and organ meats. During the early stages, I had a lot of steamed veggies with mayonnaise, salad with full-fat dressing, and I managed to find a veggie-patty that was high in protein/fat and low in carbs (Morningstar Grillers Prime was the best one I found) and made those with a slice of cheese.

Now I am starting to change things up and I'm carefully adding more meats. At some point I'll start actually exercising and protein might be more important then. But as I'm changing some foods out and putting others in the rotation, I'm trying to keep the 60% fat, 20%carb, 20% protein balance which has worked well up to now.

In search of a more "natural" and "casual" approach
I decided that I wanted to keep track of what I was eating, but that I didn't want to limit or restrict calories.  I really wanted to find a diet which doesn't leave me hungry and constantly thinking about what I can't eat.  I want to eat like a normal person… I want to be able to eat when I'm hungry, and then not think about it the rest of the time.

And actually, that part of the plan seems to be working! At first I made a point to eat small amounts, very often, and to plan things out so I was making sure to have enough food and not starve myself. This helped to get me trained on the new program. I was reprogramming myself to feel that food would be there when I wanted it, and to not stress about it all the time.

After a few weeks, I was able to take a much more casual approach to when and how much to eat. I have started listening to my body and reacting as comes naturally. I think this worked well as a two-stage solution.  I think trying to listen to my body and trying to change the carb/fat balance at the same time would probably not have worked well.

When a calorie is not a calorie
I think "too much information" is part of the problem. There's so much advice out there, it's hard to keep it all straight. Much of the "mainstream" literature is wrong, misleading, or even dangerous. Low-fat diets are literally killing people, but low-fat messages still crowd out other messages in the media.

Yes, actually, I am eating fewer calories. And because I'm eating more fat and less carbs, I am staying satisfied longer and getting less insulin resistance.  So I think that while "A calorie is a calorie" is literally true, it is at the same time dangerous, misleading and ultimately unhelpful for people trying to lose weight.

Calories from fats and proteins are healthly, but calories from grains come with a toxic side effect. So, a properly-balanced diet is important. If "A calorie is a calorie" were actually useful advice, it wouldn't matter if you ate 1600 calories of table sugar, but I think everyone knows that is not true at all.  Carbs, fat, and protein each have certain calories, but they also have "side effects" just like any medication.  The "side effect" of too much starch and sugar is insulin resistance. If you're not sure of the difference between 100 calories of sugar and 100 calories of lean meat with cheese, ask a diabetic to explain. :)

I think that people tend to use "a calorie is a calorie" to oversimplify things and dismiss the importance of finding the right balance…  Depending on context and tone, "a calorie is a calorie" could mean:

  • It doesn't matter if you have bread, meat, butter, sugar or vegetables.  Just have less of whatever you're having.
  • If you eat too much, it's your own fault.  You just don't have willpower.
  • Losing weight is easy, so if you can't do it, you just don't want it badly enough
  • Diet and exercise are equally important.  If you can't lose weight, you are both selfish and lazy.
  • Nothing is wrong with carbs.  Carbs are just food, like any other food.

People still defend carbs and demonize fats
However I notice that the people using "a calorie is a calorie" to defend carbs don't feel the same way when you defend fats/oils.  Carbs are a "pure" food source but fats are gross.  Then they will grudgingly admit that there are good fats and bad fats, and admit that you need a tablespoon or so of "good fats" per day, but you shouldn't overdo it, because everyone knows that fat makes you fat.  (But when we were talking about carbs you said "a calorie is a calorie" — I guess it doesn't apply to fats? heh)

Fat is much-demonized, but it actually keeps your blood sugar nice and even and satisfies you for longer. Since eating way more fat and way less sugar, sure, I am eating fewer calories, but it's almost like I fell into it by accident… it's certainly not a struggle.

I also think that the hue and cry over "processed foods" is connected to the carbs-vs.-fats debate too.  I think part of the problem is that "Processed foods" are almost always made of sugar or starch. It's good business, because sugar and starch can be shipped long distances and can sit on a shelf and not spoil like protein or fat. So I certainly don't mind when some article takes the time to bash on processed foods. Processed foods ARE mostly crap, but you can get much the same craptastic food experience by eating bread, corn and fruit juice.

I think it's not coming from a factory that makes it so terrible… it's just that it's throwing off the balance of protein/fat and weighting everything in favor of carbs. That is what is literally killing people. Low-fat foods are not healthy, but it makes great business sense for the shareholders to convince us that they are.

Summary, and where to go from here
Anyway, I am glad I took the time and effort to experiment on myself.  I now have some valuable experience with low-carb, which is a great counterpoint to my life-long training in the low-fat world we created in the 1970's.  I have successfully renegotiated my relationship to food, and in doing so I have almost entirely reinvented my approach to eating.

I am not sure what will happen when I reach the weight that I want.  I don't intend to be zero-carbs forever, but I will never go back to my old 60% carb days. I am so much happier at 20% carb than I was at 60%, so even if the final landing zone is right in between those, that is OK.  After I reach the weight I want to be, I may add back 1-3 small starch/sugar servings per day… we'll see. Maybe balancing carb-calories with exercise-calories would be a good start.  I know that I don't need carbs at every meal, or even every day.  I know that if things get broken again, I can always come back here to 20% and stay as long as I need to. 

I have always felt that if I treat it as temporary, I will go back to my old habits and my old weight.  "Diets" don't work for that reason–the only "diet" that works is the one you can keep for the rest of your life.  But I am totally glad that I took the time and effort to experiment on myself and find where the low-carb limit is.

5 thoughts on “A tale of two diets — How I renegotiated my relationship to food

  1. Anonymous


    Im so proud of you.Im glad you have done somethaing about it.Very good Greg!!!
    Hope you and Michelle are doing good.
    Love, Aunt Leanne

  2. Anonymous

    I really enjoyed reading your journey, and I know you’ve come even further now. I am on the same page with you about processed foods, sugar, and following the paleo diet. I feel better than I ever did when I was eating so called normal “healthy” foods.
    I try to eat as little processed food as possible. I want to know what goes in my mouth, (with the exception of my addiction to diet root beer. I still need to break that habit. :) )

    You are an inspiration.

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