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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