When high school graduated me in May 1988, I was 5-feet-10-inches tall, and weighed 125 lbs in size 28 pants. Two years later, when I left USAF Basic Training in February 1990, I was 140 pounds. I tried to gain weight through weight training and protein supplements for the next decade, but could not keep on weight at all; at most I got to 145 pounds or so and size 30 pants. The day I turned 30 I gained ten pounds and went to size 32; from 30 to 35 I got up to 160 pounds and size 34, and by January 18 (at age 39) I weighed 181.5 pounds in size 36 pants — and that size 36 was starting to feel a bit tight around the waist.
At that point I didn’t want to buy new (larger) pants again. My vanity is such that I wanted to lose the spare tire, but most exercise (especially cardio) bores me to tears, and I’m not much of a dieter. Diets are just fads anyway; the dieter will yo-yo from loss to gain, and end up less healthy overall. I especially had scoffed at the low-carb diets like the Atkins diet. It’s just common sense that if you burn more calories than you eat, regardless of the kinds of food you’re eating, and add some exercise, you should lose weight, right?
It looks like I was wrong about that. The kind of food you eat does seem matter, at least for me. It took me years to come around to this idea, and even then only after personal experience.
(For the impatient among you: I committed to a low-carb diet eating bacon, eggs, cream, steaks, and hot dogs. In doing so I went from 181.5 to 164.6 in two months with no exercise. Read on for more about how it all worked.)
Reasons and Readings
I’ll point out here that I didn’t want to lose weight for health reasons. I didn’t feel bad, my doctor hadn’t given me any warnings, nobody that I knew of was remarking on my weight, and my energy level was not noticeably diminished. The desire to lose weight was entirely about my own vanity and sense of self control.
The road to this lifestyle change started with Michael Pollan and his books, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I read “In Defense of Food” first, on a whim; I picked it up from an airport bookstore. If I had read “Omnivore” first I might not have read “Defense”, since the tone of the former is more preachy than the latter. Those two books got me thinking about where my food comes from, and about eating organic food (which I have mostly given up on).
Other reading, such as comments from Amy Alkon at advicegoddess.com and links from there to Michael Eades and Gary Taubes, convinced me (over the course of several weeks) that there might be something to a low-carb diet and weight loss.
The assertion is that weight gain is not so much about the fat you eat; instead, it’s the fat you retain. Refined carbohydrates appear to cause an increase in insulin that makes you retain fat and burn glucose for energy. Conversely, reducing carbohydrates and increasing protein and fat does not cause a similar insulin increase, so calories are not retained as fat, and you burn fat for energy instead of glucose. (Cf. Why Low Carb Diets Work.)
I decided that it couldn’t hurt to try a low-carb lifestyle for a while. If it didn’t work, it didn’t work, and I’d be no worse off. I read up on various plans and figured out that, essentially, you stop eating:
- Bananas and cashews
- Refined sugar
- High fructose corn syrup
That means no bread, no corn chips or potato chips, no rice or potatoes in any form, no tortillas or wraps, no flour, no cookies or brownies, no soft drinks, no juices, etc. There are other restrictions, but that’s mainly it.
You get to eat damn near everything else, though, and lots of it:
- whole fruits (i.e., not fruit juice, but the whole fruit)
- leafy vegetables (i.e., no roots or seeds with a few exceptions)
If it’s high in fat and or/protein, it’s approved.
There’s no calorie counting; you eat until you’re full, so that makes things real easy to keep track of.
I started easing into a low-carb diet on 18 Jan at 181.5 pounds. Contrary to my motto, I didn’t go full-bore all at once, since I wasn’t desperate to lose weight. I wanted to treat it as a lifestyle change, not a temporary diet. I continued to eat what I had in the house already, but when I ran out of prohibited foods, I didn’t buy any more of them. I did go so far as to get rid of my remaining pasta, instant potatoes, and rice right at the beginning, but I finished off the rest of my chips and drank the rest of my cokes and orange juice over the next week or so.
Everyone who knows me knows I am a man of routine, especially when it comes to morning time, so I changed my breakfast routine first. Before the low-carb approach, breakfast every day for several years had been:
- 2 eggs
- 1-2 pieces of raisin toast with butter
- 5 oz orange juice
- 12 oz coffee
When I ran out of toast, I didn’t buy more; instead, I added two pieces of bacon. When I ran out of orange juice, I substituted water. The breakfast transition took about five days.
There was one side effect I didn’t expect. One morning I finished my bacon and eggs, then got up to take a shower; when I came back to the table, I realized I had not drunk my coffee at all. I realized I didn’t really want it. As a test, I didn’t make coffee the next morning to see if I’d miss it. That was the 2nd week of February; I have not needed coffee since. (I still like coffee and drink it occasionally as a treat, but it’s not a part of my normal diet any more.)
So now, breakfast every day looks like this:
- 2 pieces of bacon
- 2 eggs scrambled with cream and cooked in the bacon fat
- Big glass of water
- No coffee, no juice, no toast
I made similar transitions for lunch and dinner. E.g., instead of fish and broccoli and rice for supper, I ate an extra piece of fish and dropped the rice (and added a quarter cup of tartar sauce). Instead of tuna salad and chips or crackers for lunch, I had just the tuna salad. Instead of steak and potatoes for dinner on the weekends, I had steak and zucchini or squash. I dropped pasta and pasta sauces entirely; previously, I’d had spaghetti for lunch or dinner 3-4 times a week. I replaced those meals with hamburgers and hot dogs (no buns) or rotisserie chicken (skin on and dripping with fat).
My real problem was desserts and chips. No bread? (Mostly) no problem. No Tostitos or Cape Cod potato chips? Big problem. At first I substituted pork rinds, then switched to mixed nuts (no cashews!), but finally I settled on a favorite: blue cheese (usually Stilton) and a square or two of 70% chocolate with a glass of Port. (Chocolate, strictly speaking, is not a low-carb food, but damned if I’m giving that up — chocolate is one of the ways God tells us He loves us.)
My alcohol consumption was mostly unchanged. I switched from beer to liquor a long time ago. I have had one drink an evening before bed for years, usually a Manhattan or a gin-and-tonic, and sometimes add a second smaller drink (usually Port) to go with dessert. Since the tonic has a high sugar content, I have replaced gin-and-tonics with Martinis.
I want to reiterate that none of these changes made me feel deprived in any way. I was eating steaks, several different kinds of cheeses, bacon, eggs and cream, leafy green vegetables with butter, cod fried in oil, rotisserie chicken, pork of all kinds, whole fruits, salads with ranch or blue cheese dressing, hot dogs and hamburgers, barbecue (this is Memphis after all) and so on. With very few exceptions (chips! CHIIIIPS!) I had no cravings or pangs.
Converting over to the low-carb diet in full took about a week, maybe ten days. Settling in to new food habits and rituals overall took about a month. I had mild headaches from carb withdrawal for the first 3-4 days; these were easily taken care of with Tylenol. I continued my habit of taking a 20-minute nap after lunch, usually around 130pm, and my normal sleep habits (into bed around 11pm, up at 7am when my four-legged alarm clock named Wendy starts pawing at my face).
I started on 18 Jan at 181.5 pounds. In the first week, I dropped a pound. In the second week I dropped three pounds. By March 19, I was down to 164.6 pounds. This worked out to a 2-3 pound loss per week for 8 weeks, eating steak and bacon and eggs and practically drinking cream and salad dressing, with no additonal exercise. My body-fat percentage dropped as well, from 22-23% or more, down to 18-19%, as measured by an electronic scale.
The weight loss followed a pattern: drop a pound one day, gain 1/2 pound the next, drop a 1/2 or 3/4 pound on the third, and no change on the fourth.
March 19 to April 19 I vacationed in Mexico, and did not observe the low-carb regimen as strictly. I did attempt to reduce my intake of carbs; for example, when served three tacos, I would take the meat from one and put in the other two. I managed to avoid eating chips and salsa with very few exceptions. I made it a point to avoid rice and potatoes, but I did indulge in refried beans and the occasional dessert of ice cream/pies/brownies/etc. I walked a lot while I was there, so that helped. I left for Mexico on Mar 19 at 164.6; I came home Apr 19 at 162.4.
Since Apr 19 I have been more attentive about carbs, and seem to have settled at 158 to 160 pounds. I’ve had to buy new pants, from a size 36 to a size 34. (I could get by in a 32 but they’re just a bit too tight.)
One nice thing about the diet is that you don’t have to buy special meals or supplements. You shop at the grocery store and eat real food, what some people call “eating around the edges of the store” (i.e., don’t buy packaged stuff in the aisles, buy meat and vegetables that are at the outside walls). You don’t even have to buy any books; there’s lots of free information on the web.
I don’t know how much of the weight loss is due to calorie reduction, as vs the reduced retention of fat. You feel fuller faster when you eat a lot of fat. As such, I may actually be taking in fewer calories than before, because I’m done eating sooner. I’d be willing to believe that’s a factor in addition to the insulin reaction. Even if that’s true, low-carb eating makes it easier to consume fewer calories, because it works with the existing feedback systems in the body to make you feel full, instead of relying on willpower to keep from eating that next piece of bread.
Finally, to all those people I scoffed at for trying low-carb diets like the Atkins approach (and you know who you are): I was wrong. It works, at least for me. Sorry to have been an ass about it.