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.


  1. Great post. But don't you think these could be just as much from (I presume) cutting sugar and processed carbs from your diet, as from increasing meat? Triglycerides are clearly tied to sugar intake. That has nothing to do with meat.

    I'd be curious what your results would be from a very clean, whole-foods, vegetable/bean/nuts/seeds/maybe-some-eggs based diet. i.e. limit grains and sugars, but not vegetables.

    I'd also be interested in whether you've cut foods like greens, broccoli, berries, and if so, why. Thanks for the post!

  2. @janet - I agree, it's the change in refined carbs that has likely had the biggest effect on my lipid numbers. I have not limited green vegetables or berries and also eat some occasional citrus; in fact, what I am shooting for is exactly the kind of whole-foods diet that you mention, with some meat and fish thrown in. The main effect of eating meat and eggs, I think, has been to keep me from feeling hungy.

  3. That's great to hear. I hear too many people talk about "cutting carbs" indiscriminately and including green veggies. I agree we need far less fruit than many of us eat (myself included) but I'm of the camp that some low-glycemic veggies (cucumbers, snap peas, etc) are really important. Besides as I'm sure you know, calorie for calorie, broccoli and spinach are higher in protein than sirloin steak. Hooray for photosynthesis! :) still, your overall post is very inspiring. thanks!

  4. What fortuitous timing - I've been thinking about this for a few weeks but haven't been motivated to change much about my diet. Thanks for sharing your experience, as I now have a clear example of the benefits. Somehow it helps to change behavior if you actually know someone who has done it.

  5. Hey Russ-

    This is a great post! I felt like I was reading some part of my own diary reading about your weight "issues". My average for the past 20 years has been right at 165lbs. & when I talk about struggling with weight, people think I'm crazy...

    With this, I can totally relate to the "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" part of your post. I've been trying things to trick my metabolism - mostly sprints, interval running and yoga. Nothing seems to do the trick of getting rid of my belly fat.

    Also, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease a few years ago, so my flour intake has pretty much stopped. I do still get plenty of carbs with potatoes and corn though...and ice cream...I have been on a serious "greens" kick for the past year with spinach smoothies. This alone has leveled out my cholesterol #'s significantly. My doctor wanted to put me on a pill, but when I went back in after a year of trying the greens, he didn't know what to say other than, "keep doing whatever it is you're doing..."

    I'm wondering if you'd be willing to post up a sample menu of what you eat in a week. It could be really helpful to see what you've had success with...I feel like we have a similar body type and it would be super helpful for me to have some ideas of how to implement some changes...

    Hope life is great,

    mike crawford

  6. Mike - hey, nice to hear from you! Here is a sample of what my menu looks like in an average recent week:

    breakfast: either plain yogurt (full or 2% fat) and berries or scrambled eggs and bacon
    lunch: generally a salad with either a hard-boiled egg, marinated tofu, or tuna
    afternoon snack: nuts or ThinkThin bars (these are the only non-whole food I have been eating recently - they are just too convenient!)
    dinner: some things we eat regularly:
    - whole wheat pizza cooked on the stone, very thin crust
    - vegetable "lasagna" using zucchini slices instead of pasta
    - vegetable curry with tofu (either pan-fried or baked)
    - fish, either grilled, smoked in our stovetop smoker, or blackened, with some veggies on the side
    - vegetable gratin (basically a casserole of vegetables and cheese)

    I'd be interested to hear any other dinner ideas that people have.

  7. How tall are you, Russ? One suggestion: to limit hunger, eat nuts (rather than meat). Find some that you love. My favorites are almonds (raw) and pistachios (roasted and lightly salted).

  8. @daniel: I'm just under 6'. I do eat nuts pretty often during the day, I agree that they are great to stave off hunger.

  9. My go-to quick lunch when I'm pressed for time and looking for something quick and dirty to fix out of the pantry is to cook some quinoa in the microwave (2 parts water to 1 part quinoa, put in a microwave safe casserole and nuke for 8 minutes, let sit undisturbed for another 5 min or so, and voila), then mix together quinoa, black beans, salsa, and maybe some salad greens. Lots of good fiber and protein in that. I'm also getting more into cooking tempeh lately, and have found some good recipes for curried tempeh or tempeh with peanut sauce, which could be served with some veggies and greens of quinoa. is a great source for recipes, as is the vegan dad blog (I'm vegan, but looking to cut processed carbs). thanks for this thread.