Sunday, January 22, 2017

An Accidental Food Renaissance - Part 3

I don't remember when I stopped lifting weights, only that it was my last ditch effort to use exercise as a weight loss tool after most other efforts failed. Build muscle... burn more calories... look great in the process... it couldn't have been simpler!

Several hundred dollars in gear later, I was only marginally muscular, I was still terribly flabby all over, and I didn't lose an ounce; on the contrary, I was already bursting past XL sizes. Calories in, calories out had failed me, but I didn't see it quite that way -- again, it was purely internalized so I saw it as something wrong with "me" rather than with such a well propagated notion of energy expenditure. At the very least I stopped exercising as I felt it was time ill-spent -- and even if I had continued it, the motivation was not there to commit to it anymore.

The heart skips never truly went away; I felt some from time to time, but they became a bit more frequent in the onset of 2014. There was also a deluge of other skin, gastro-intestinal and sleeping issues, but I never did relate them together... they were all separate byproducts of getting older, I thought. I found it harder to sleep, just as harder to wake up. I could eat a huge breakfast in the morning, and be famished by 11am. I would eat a big meal and rush to the restroom in a panic immediately after. And those heart skips... the loss of breath... I was falling apart, and I couldn't figure out why, but they took front row seat in my mind beyond just the ever-expanding waistline. My new primary care doctor in Chicago was not helpful, nor was I comfortable admitting to many of these conditions. Those I did admit to, I had the usual retort of needing to be under medication, and eating a healthy diet full of low fat plant products, whole grains and plenty of exercise, as if I didn't try this already ad nauseum for the entirety of the past decade!

In many ways I felt I was on my own, but that became an asset of sorts because in time I started to experiment in the notion of self-healing. If I couldn't trust store bought bread, for instance, then perhaps, I thought, I would bake my own! And lo and behold, I started to learn how to make my own bread! I couldn't trust commercial care products so I learned to make those too! I always believed in the therapeutic power of teas, but I started taking natural remedies more seriously. This still didn't do much to stop the weight gain -- I was creeping towards 250lbs -- but it opened my mind to new possibilities.

At some point my early search for knowledge brought me to the topic of cancer, a disease that has impacted my family in more ways than I can dare to remember, and which continues to destroy so many lives in our society today. This lead me to a very unorthodox hypothesis that cancer was caused by Candida overgrowth... Candida being this otherwise benign yeast in our gut that turns problematic after the gut turns acidic. And in this hypothesis, sugar was primarily to blame for triggering this change, and ultimately for "feeding" the candida, and by extension the cancer. The evidence didn't seem as convincing though, but it was an admirable attempt I thought... we don't really talk much about what causes a cell to become cancerous... it just seems to afflict us randomly out of nowhere like some bad lottery.

Still, the notion fascinated me and I pushed to find more alternate literature on cancer and cancer treatment, preferrably with a bit more history behind it. This lead me to nitrilosides, cyanogenic compounds found in the bitter portions of various grasses, leaves, tubers, beans, seeds and fruits. Many of these foods have LONG fallen out of favor in the US, or have always been niche products, such as choke cherries, crabapples, currants, buckwheat, mung beans, fava beans, bitter almonds, bamboo sprouts, and millet. In the 1950's nitrilosides were studied as a potential treatment for cancer via a concentrated laboratory form called "laetrile". For reasons too steeped in controversy to describe, the research on this compound in relation to cancer was shelved and banned, and any talk on the subject is almost obsessively labeled as "quackery" due to the alleged danger of the substance.

Of course, I can imagine that anything in such a high dose is likely problematic -- we can see that in orange juice which is significantly more harmful to health than eating normal oranges -- so some precaution on laetrile is warranted. But to throw the baby out with the bath water and completely forbid any cancer research on nitrolosides strikes me as irresponsible, and also curiously hypcritical given how dangerous modern cancer drugs and chemotherapy can be. But that's besides the point as I wasn't interested in some lab-created miracle cure that I would allegedly take only after I'm dying.

My MAIN takeaway was that I was fascinated by the list of nitroloside-rich foods, not just by their rarity, but also by how familiar some of these were to me from a traditional standpoint. My family has eaten watercress, quinces and black/pinto beans for decades, and we never keeled over and died from cyanide poisoning. In Mexico we've been selling and buying dried apricot, cherry and squash seeds as snacks for decades -- centuries perhaps -- and we've never dropped like flies from cyanide poisoning. During my Sparkspeople days I recall trying out buckwheat, flax and millet on separate occasions to get my fix of these exotic grains, and, again, I don't quite remember dying.

Food could be trusted, synthetics less so, and that mantra became addictive. It was clear that many of these foods fell out of favor because of our country's obsession with sweet... sure, millet was easier to grow and so was quite popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it could never be as sweet as modern corn, wheat or rice. In the 19th century there were several thousand varieties of apples, but now most supermarkets rarely carry more than half a dozen varieties, usually the last remaining survivors of a long horticultural struggle for ultimate sweetness. No one would ever dare bite into a crab apple -- and for those that try, they might find it necessary to exorcise these bitter starchy, little fruits with the help of a pie and a heapful of sugar. As if recalling the earlier candida premise, I hypothesized that the loss of traditional, nutrient-rich food crops -- in favor of cheap, sweet commodity cash crops -- potentially had something to do with our epidemic of chronic diseases.

I still didn't relate this to weight loss however -- I had given up and resigned myself to eternal obesity, so for now this was purely an academic thought experiment centered solely on health. Perhaps it was this sense of freedom, of experimentation, that stopped me from just tossing this ideas aside like all the other failed attempts at betterment, which were almost always targeting weight loss. This was something fun, interesting, fulfilling and [more importantly] delicious that I could try IMMEDIATELY! If it worked, I could could potentially safeguard myself, and possibly loved ones, from a horrible fate in the deadly grasp of this disease. And if it failed... well, at least I enjoyed a much greater variety of foods with deep rich histories. There was nothing I could lose!

And so in March of 2014, I tried a very bold experiment to jumpstart my journey into the world of traditional foods. While continuing my suspension of exercise, and changing nothing else about my diet (as far as intake of low fat foods, drinking tea and plenty of water, attempting to eat a light lunch, etc), I vowed to make three fundamental food substitutions during the course of approximately one month. For said month, all wheat products would be replaced with spelt, all corn products would be replaced with sorghum, and all rice products would be replaced with millet. Once I was done with that experiment I would slowly reincorporate the big three food crops back into my diet, but this was my way of going all-in on this thought experiment. I didn't just want to try these long-forgotten grains, I wanted to immerse myself in them and truly reap the benefits of eating what our ancestors in this country ate.


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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

An Accidental Food Renaissance - Part 2

It would be silly to say that a single momentary bit of shame would drive such a significant change in my lifestyle. There were a lot of hints dropped over the course of the years... little seeds of doubt here and there. Sometimes simple reminders like a Wii Fit weigh-in or some clothes that were getting tight. Other times there would be more serious reminders such as a terrible heart palpitation in the middle of a diner breakfast, where I would feel my heart skip for several seconds, followed by a momentary shortness of breath and then the most frightening shudder and cold sweat imaginable despite being in the middle of summer. These and more should have jolted me into action immediately, but as always... it was the ever present "one day" that postponed any kind of diet.

But at least the desire grew and grew, so perhaps "Mailroom Day" was simply the feather that broke the camel's back.

At one very normal day at work, as we were packing up for an office relocation, I came to the mailroom to get some bubble wrap and boxes. There, a friend of mine was somewhat horsing around with the package scale, a huge industrial-sized one for the kind of heavy boxes they would work with. Just for fun he suggested i get on it.

My friend was a big guy, easily over six feet tall, of average build and very jovial. As I was fully convinced I was 180-some pounds, surely this would be a shoe-in. I got on the scale, ready to show off the results of abiding by mainstream health advice, being the paragon of low fat, low glycemic foods, and healthy whole grains!



My friend cackled and promptly weighed himself... 184lbs.

"How do you weigh more than me?!", he uttered amusingly as I feigned a grin. But at the time I recall that I was seething, embarrassed, aghast, and completely disappointed with myself. After all that, I was still not only heavy but actually HEAVIER than before? The heaviest I had been in my life, at least at the time. For whatever reason, that was the catalyst that jolted me into action.

But I was still tied to the old paradigm, and I never once thought to question the efficacy of conventional dietary advice. As was often the case, I assumed that I had not been serious enough with my diet... after all, I was all about laissez-faire, counting on tacit knowledge and common sense to keep my weight in check. No calorie counting or food obsessions for me, everything in moderation. But clearly, I thought, my intuition was flawed, and I needed a bit more structure. Perhaps the calorie counters were right? Surely I was on the right track, I thought, so I just needed to try even HARDER than before!

And so after some quick research to find anything other than Weight Watchers, I found a promising alternative: I gave it a try, not expecting much, but... I fell almost instantly in love! It was like a game! I had my little scoreboard and goals... achieve x number of calories a day, ensure you don't surpass this level of fat or sodium! Eat these alternatives, look them up in this fancy database, of which it seemed it had THOUSANDS of fully-detailed entries! It talked about alien concepts such as potassium, and these suddenly started seeping into my lexicon... clearly there were things out there that we are woefully deficient in due to our modern diets, and for all its worth this would prove a valuable lesson to me later.

All in all, the over-analyst in me was in love with this crazy semi-starvation diet... it was like conventional dieting, but with a proper game plan, fictitious perks, and rewards. The first few days were amazing... I hacked and slashed my meals to death, cutting them down to their base macro/micronutrients. I wasn't eating whole wheat bread, I was eating 69 calories, 12g of carbohydrates, and, more importantly, 0g of fat and cholesterol. Mushrooms weren't mushrooms but simply a convenient source of calorie-cheap potassium, and I gorged on them. It was perhaps annoying to some friends and family, but the enthusiasm combined with its quaint conventionality made it okay, even admirable considering I also exercised more often than not, making the most of the largely-unused Wii Fit.

And for a while it did produce results, stunning results even! I got down to a pretty impressive 170lbs, albeit after a SUBSTANTIAL amount of calorie deprivation and adamant note-taking. If I would have gone a bit further, perhaps I'd be like John Nash in the Hollywood rendition of "A Beautiful Mind", decorating my walls with food journals and calorie estimations. I didn't mind that my waistline itself was hardly different, so who the heck knows where all the weight fell off from; but by GAWD the scale wouldn't lie! I was healthy! I had done it!! I finally could strut my triumph to the world!!

Well by now it's pretty clear that the opinions of others weighed a bit too heavily for me, and in fact that ended up being the downfall of this semi-starvation experiment. After a while I didn't get the kind of external validation I was looking for. I was at the end of a long-running relationship for me, and for reasons not known to me at the time, I was much more easily depressed about it. It became harder to deprive myself... and in fact, even when trying the same calorie-obsessing as before, I could no longer lose the massive number of pounds as I could earlier, my body refused to cooperate. Exercise became so much harder, I lost strength and motivation. There were no rewards, no more fun... it was just pain and agony, and I reveled in it.

It took me 1.5 years to lose the weight I did, but probably 1.5 months or less to gain it all back, with interest. Before I left for Chicago I straddled 198lbs or so,... and no matter how often I tried to restart the SparkPeople program, it fell on its face before it even began. My body couldn't do it, saw no point to it. I had achieved victory and let it slip through my fingers, and now I was back to being hideous and pathetic in my eyes, perhaps worse now that I felt more sluggish, depressed, over-sensitive and ill.

It never occurred to me that the semi-starvation diet scarred me metabolically... it was always the same excuse as with any conventional diet.

It was my fault.

I screwed up, gave up, and now I deserved whatever was coming my way. Now food was not just my enemy, it was potentially even the Grim Reaper for me. I watched helplessly as I broke past 200lbs, and, worse, had health issues gang up on me like a pack of ravenous beasts.

I could no longer afford to care about my weight, now i had to worry about just staying alive....


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