Sunday, April 10, 2011

why I cut the carbs

The last few months have seen a fairly major transformation in what I eat, with pretty amazing results.  For the last ~20 years my diet has been mostly vegetarian + seafood, and my weight has been very steady, between 160 and 170.  I have always been a major sugar fiend, with my college-age penchant for Skittles morphing into a significant chocolate habit in the last few years.  My exercise habits have always been hit-and-miss, until the last year when I became much more regular in my workouts, which at this point I am doing 6-7 times a week.  Despite this substantial increase in my exercise frequency, I didn't really see any changes in my body composition.  I felt better, but the fat around my belly just wouldn't go away.

My first step on the road to a new diet was my personal trainer's suggestion that I increase the protein in my diet, after I complained to her that all of my work in the gym was not showing results on my body. As I began to change my diet to include more protein, I also discovered Gary Taubes for the first time, and read Why We Get Fat followed by Good Calories, Bad Calories.  Taubes is a writer for Science magazine who has spent the last few years digging into the science of weight loss, and his books are pretty startling because they call into question nearly everything that we think we know about what is good for us.  In short, he argues persuasively that there is no scientific evidence for the common belief that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are the causes of heart disease, and he also provides a clear physiological explanation for why carbohydrates are the thing that make us fat, as opposed to the "calories in, calories out" idea that most of us have (I certainly did).  In addition, he points out evidence that carbs not only make us fat, but also may contribute to other "diseases of civilization".  Most interestingly, he discusses work that I had not been aware of that links Alzheimer's disease to insulin, which is driven by carbohydrate intake.

The Taubes books really pushed me to rethink what I eat, and I decided to take the plunge and cut carbs from my diet as completely as possible.  I've been pretty successful at this, and the results have been pretty amazing.   I am down to 150 pounds since cutting carbs from my diet, which is pretty impressive given that my weight has never fluctuated more than about 5 pounds from my long-term average of 165, despite pretty radical changes in caloric intake across the years.  I can see the difference too; the fat around my belly is noticeably reduced, as well as in other places around my body.

Perhaps the biggest change for me was starting to eat meat.  I still don't eat much meat, and when I do I try to make sure that it was produced as naturally and ethically as possible, but nonetheless I am now eating meat several times a week (mostly bacon or proscuitto), as well as eating eggs almost every day.  I was very curious to see how this affected my cholesterol numbers when I went for my annual checkup this year, a few months into the new diet.  The results were pretty astounding:

Total cholesterol:  234 (2010) to 199 (2011)
LDL: 147 (2010) to 121 (2011)
HDL: 57 (2010) to 65 (2011)
Triglycerides: 148 (2010) to 64 (2011)

Obviously it's hard to know how much of this to attribute to diet and how much to other factors such as exercise, but these are the best numbers I've ever seen in my life, after years of being a vegetarian. I also don't put too much stock in these numbers; as Taubes points out in his books, the science connecting cholesterol levels to heart disease is pretty weak, except at the extremes.  However, my triglycerides, which are probably much more important, are clearly off-the-charts better after years of being right at the borderline of too high.

I'll write more soon about the interesting experience of deleting some seriously addictive foods from one's diet.