Culture & Criticism Since 2003
In 2000, I weighed upwards of 260 pounds. My total cholesterol was 265. My triglycerides hovered around 500. Glucose in the neighborhood of 110. In sum, the general consensus was that I was heading for a mid-40s heart attack and myriad lipid-controlling medications were being prescribed to help forestall the inevitable.
But I hesitated. At the time, I was only in my 30s, and I didn’t want to be tethered to multiple medicines at such a young age; nor did I want to subject my body to the effects of chemicals that often cause long-term damage to both the kidneys and liver. In turn, I decided to make modifications to my diet and develop a real exercise regimen to reverse the perilous course on which I had embarked.
My doctors told me that, statistically, I was in for an up-hill climb; apparently, few patients are able to make the necessary long-term adjustments that restore health. But I wasn’t deterred. I had been a writer for more than 3 decades. And the cornerstone of writing is mental discipline. Thus, I decided that if I could apply some of the same focus that’s helped me to write an average of 3,000 words a day for the last 30 years, I could put my body on a stable platform.
And here’s what I did:
Like it or not, I had to make major changes to the way I was eating. I immediately cut out cheese, butter and 95% of the red meat I was consuming. I also waved good-bye to soda pop in the rear-view mirror and trimmed my egg in-take to about 2 per week. I cut the five slices of bread I was eating a day down to 3 slices – insuring it was either wheat or multi-grain. To replace the beef that I’d chowed on for years, I turned to chicken, sliced turkey, nut butter and multiple servings of salmon per week. I also added one avocado a day to the menu, while relying on olive oil and spices to flavor and season dishes. In addition to the avocados (avocados, olive oil and nuts provide good, artery-protecting fats), I started eating more fruit – berries and melons, bananas, apples, figs, oranges – the best of what’s in season.
But carbohydrates remain a constant battle. What I’ve done is to shoot for a daily allotment of between 225 and 325 grams of carbs per day (according to the Institute of Medicine, both adults and children should consume 45-65% of their total calories in the form of carbohydrates. To calculate this number, multiply your total daily calories by the percentage of carbs you are eating, and then divide it by 4. This will give you your target number of carbs in grams).
In terms of fats, vegetable oils are considered good fats, while saturated fats are considered bad fats. An easy way to remember what to eat is to note that saturated fats(things like butter and cheese) remain solid at room temperature, while vegetable oils(things like olive oil and canola oil) remain liquid at room temperature. Moreover, these liquid-fat items are essentially good for you.
“From a cardiac standpoint, it’s essential to eat a well-balanced diet heavy in fruits and vegetables and proteins like fish and white-meat chicken,” notes San Francisco cardiologist Steven Blumlein, who serves as the Director of the out-patient cardiac laboratory at the Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation. “Also, a marked reduction in junk foods and refined sugars is advisable. It’s my belief that refined sugars and high carbohydrate intake are the two biggest evils in the American diet. People need to be aware of what they’re eating and avoid these things as much as possible.”
Personally, I have been able to curb cravings for starchy foods like pasta and rice by regularly including them on the menu, and then holding them to one serving. Another good trick I’ve used is reducing bread intake on days pasta is the entree. Subtle dietary tweaks like this allow you to eat normally without stripping your plate of the things you enjoy. The key to it all is in exercising control over portion size. As for snacks, I go to a handful of tree nuts or a granola bar, remaining cognizant of both the sugar and caloric content for between meal indulgences. To mix it up on the snack tray, I sometimes throw in a yogurt or plain cream of wheat with a few bitter-sweet chocolate chips sprinkled in as a sweetener.
“The key to making any diet work is finding out what you can live with,” stresses Blumlein. “It comes down to finding a diet that you can live with for the rest of your life. What I tell my patients is that they need to make an initial 10% change and maintain it for three months, then gradually move forward from that. For example, if you eat beef five times a week, cut it back to three times per week. Maintain that for 3 months, then gradually make additional cut backs. Many times, it comes down to pure psychology. Psychologically, you need to set yourself up for success, not failure.”
The real key to making the change for me has been in not writing the routine in stone. Instead of telling myself that I will never eat from the forbidden side of the list again in this lifetime, I chose never to deny myself anything. If I feel like eating a croissant or piece of birthday cake, I do. But instead of also packing on additional bad stuff that day, I cut something else out to try and keep my daily caloric intake balanced around 2,000. And by not denying cravings, the idea of a hardship is not formulated; thus, binge eating impulses don’t gain momentum. Basically, I’ve been able to change my diet by incorporating the process into my lifestyle, always asking the same simple question before I sit down to eat: What is this meal really doing to me long-term?
Back in 2000, I was in terrible shape. Over-weight, with the typical breathlessness that comes with a sedentary routine. So when I started on the exercise wheel, I could only do one mile maximum. However, over the course of the next 48 months (as I continued to retool my diet) I was gradually able to increase the distance of the walk by .5 miles every 3 months. I chose to make modest incremental increases so as to not overwhelm myself. And slowly over time my stamina increased substantially. Suddenly, I could easy go 2+ miles. And then 2.5+. And then 4!
“My patients often tell me they don’t have time to exercise,” says Blumlein, “and I always tell them they have to start with baby steps. And the way to do it is to learn to make time: Look at your schedule honestly and then replace a non-essential activity with exercise. Make exercise a priority. And over time, you will find that as you become more fit and healthy, your over-all enjoyment of life will increase because you will begin to fully experience what you are doing.”
As I became more vital, I started to split exercise time over the course of the whole day – with a 1 hour morning walk and 1 hour early evening walk, modifying work schedules to make exercise a priority. Additionally, I made other modifications: I chose walking over driving on short errand runs, using the daily grind as a means to increase activity times and endurance. Well over 10 years has passed, and I now walk around 40+ miles a week (confirming distances and times with a pocket pedometer).
Just look around you: People in wheelchairs. Young people with canes in doctor offices. Some with amputated limbs caused by complications from diabetes mellitus or vascular disease. The effects of illness are truly staggering – on the economic infrastructure in terms of instance premiums and lost work as billions of dollars are spent to treat incurable diseases. But also in terms of personal time as countless hours are wasted at hospitals doing tests while the quality of life disappears for people too sick to move. Nonetheless, for those who can reverse the spiral, the debt to society and self can be paid back. Obviously, it’s in your best interest to stay as healthy as possible, and the onus is on you to achieve the goal. Doctors are there to give direction and to treat the aftermath of illness. But ultimately it’s your body. And ultimately it’s your job to maintain its care.
Still, you must understand there is no quick solution and the path is far from easy. In reality, it’s a slow tedious process that requires daily vigilance and a hard-line commitment to detail. Basically, you have to want to make a lifestyle change and you must understand why you’re doing it. In the end, it can’t be because some doctor reads you the riot act for being 50 pounds over -weight. Instead, the change has to come because you have meaningful reasons for wanting to keep yourself in a fully-functional state.
Most everyone agrees that the American healthcare system is in disarray and that the government cannot keep paying the costs to keep it going indefinitely. Yet, it’s simply not enough to agree that there’s an impossible problem here. Rather, it’s time to start looking to ourselves to launch the correction: Healthy people need fewer physician consultations and diagnostic assessments while placing less of a burden on what is now a completely crippled system. As my personal story shows, a reversal can be achieved if you’re truly willing to do the work.
Insofar as books, these titles mark worthy resources that can help to put you on the right track in terms of launching an effective and meaningful dietary change:
This treatise, by Dr. Thomas Michaud, details how one can engage in run-based exercise without causing injury to the intricate construction of the legs and feet. The reference differs greatly from most other manuals on the subject by-way of the inclusion of a well-developed chapter on the biomechanics of walking and running. In turn, this material allows the reader to understand the process of exercise before actually launching into action. Additionally, discussion of gait; force absorption; treatment of injury; and proper stretching protocols coalesce to build a book that ultimately speaks to both the experienced runner and the weekend novice with equal precision.
In The Get Healthy, Go Vegan Cookbook, Dr. Barnard (founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) has created an essential cookbook that outlines how to use a vegan diet to forestall the insidious reach of type-2 diabetes. The book grew from a two-year study that documented how a vegan-based diet can stabilize blood glucose levels. In addition, the study-findings also revealed that this diet model can assist in weight loss while helping to control cholesterol levels. Get Healthy features 125 recipes spotlighting dishes that eschew all animal products; in turn, they are naturally low in fat. Sample menus and anecdotal stories from real people augment the text, allowing the reader to not only see what to eat but to simultaneously learn why the process is so important. Even though the vegan approach might not be right for everybody, there are a multitude of crossover possibilities; for example, chicken or fish can easily be integrated into some of these entrees by individuals who want to moderate fat intake without transitioning to a completely new way of life. The book is recommended because of Dr. Barnard’s two-fold message: 1) Diet profoundly influences myriad disease processes; and 2) For those who learn to control what they eat, illness can be stabilized, and in many cases, reversed.
As I note in my column, diabetes is a problem of international concern and one of the leading causes of death world-wide. And the numbers of individuals afflicted only keeps growing, a phenomenon due in part to our blind reliance on processed foods and refined sugars. Most astoundingly, even marginally elevated blood sugars (a condition formally known as pre-diabetes) can, over time, spark a heart attack or stroke. Nonetheless, as Dr. Mosley notes, the outcome is not always this bleak for those willing to make a change in their diet. Here, Dr. Mosley (a one-time diabetic who is also a science journalist for the BBC in London) presents a relatively simple 8-week dietary regimen that can reverse the diabetic spiral and return blood sugar values to safe levels, thus alleviating the need for medical intervention. The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet offers readers a step-by-step diet plan together with sample recipes and a primer on the science that supports the program. Ultimately, this is an indispensable reference not only for diabetics, but for middle-aged people at the precipice who want to avoid a date with an insulin needle.
Readers should note that the workout program outlined in this book is recommended only for those who demonstrate an optimal level of physical fitness (it is certainly not appropriate for someone with my level of physical fitness, nor will it be appropriate to the level of those just starting to integrate an exercise regimen into a weight loss program during middle age). Nonetheless, I decided to spotlight this title in the resource section of this article because of the message it conveys – that being: when a balance between mind, spirit and body is achieved, the individual reaches a true acceptance of self that provides both peace and serenity. In Kokoro Yoga, Divine (a former Naval Seal) presents an in depth exploration of a physical training curriculum meant to test both the mental and physical attributes of the participant. Even though the program was originally designed for special operations soldiers, Divine artfully shows how it can be adapted to those outside the military. Topics of coverage include how to get the best full-body workout through body-weight training; how to increase flexibility while building lean muscle mass; and how to fulfill your spiritual needs via physical and mental toughness. Even if you’re not yet fit enough to partake in the exercises, much can still be gained from Divine’s counsel.
Sweets In the Raw (releases in September 2016), is a truly revolutionary addition to the canon of food literature – a cookbook comprised of no-bake dessert recipes that call for only natural sweeteners while eschewing any connection to refined sugars, gluten, dairy and artificial syrups (these ingredients that greatly increase the risk for diabetes and heart disease). Sweets In the Raw was written by Laura Marquis, a health and fitness expert who operates a fitness studio in San Diego, and it truly breaks new ground, proving that it’s really possible to indulge in healthy food. If you ask 10 random folks on the street what the greatest impediment to dieting is, the majority would no doubt answer that it’s giving up dessert. No matter what any doctor says, most people love sweets, learning at an early age that the cherry on top of any meal is found in the decadent cake or pie that ends the event. In sum, a lot of dieters fall flat and fail because they can’t kick their sweet tooth. And that’s just the point of Sweets In the Raw, as Marquis teaches the reader how to employ an array of natural ingredients to build dessert options that aren’t necessarily bad for the body. The other notable element to Marquis’ cookbook is that you don’t have to be an honors graduate from a five-star culinary academy to pull off these recipes; instead, simple and clearly honed instructions guide the reader through each tier of the process. Must-try pieces include the Orange Zest Brownie Bites; Apple Crumble; and Espresso Truffles. Go to naturallyhealthydesserts.com for more information.