Friday, March 15, 2013

The Low-Carb Conversion Experience

The debate about low carb diets goes on its merry way, and probably will for some time now. There was a hullaballoo about a diet study – last year, if I remember right – which purported to match low carb up against low fat diets, and it was greeted with delight by everyone who was irritated by the low carb people, because the two diets came out about with about the same results. Hah! No difference!

But when I had a look at what they actually did, it was disappointing. They hadn't done what most low carb folks would call a low carb diet at all: they'd just swapped the proportions of the macronutrients around in a standard calorie-restricted diet, which completely misses the low carbers' point. Their point is not that a calorie of carbohydrate makes you fatter than a calorie of protein. Their point is that a calorie of carbohydrate makes you hungrier than a calorie of protein: so a high carb diet leads to overeating. If you restrict the calories, you prevent that effect from appearing. Of course the low carb diet came out the same as the low fat one.

Studies comparing low carb diets with others show a small but consistent advantage in compliance; but the effect is not as big as I had thought it would be, in the first flush of my low carb enthusiasm. And the insulin resistance story is not looking nearly so clear as an evangelical Atkins-ite would expect. It's all a bit puzzling.

My own low carb experience was extraordinary. I've been overweight nearly all my life, and I've tried and failed at a number of diets. The low-carb experience was radically different. Suddenly – for the first time in my life – I was not hungry all the time. I wasn't thinking about food all the time. I could forget – forget! – to eat lunch. It was a deeply liberating experience. I thought I'd finally found it, and screw the dietitians who pointed to the kidney problems of rabbits force-fed steak. It wasn't that I even particularly wanted to be lean, by that time: what I really wanted was not to be hagridden by such an embarrassing obsession with food. And I'd found it. I was finally in a reasonable relationship with food.

Well, this went on for a couple weeks. I lost a lot of weight, and lost it quickly. I was eating all I wanted. Passing thoughts of cake and potato chips left me unmoved: I didn't even want the stuff any more.

In a couple more weeks, though, things got rocky. I started craving the forbidden carbs: craving even bread, which I'd never craved in my life before. Fruit, which was now off-limits, tantalized me. All that sugar! I managed to stay away from it, with an effort, but I wanted it. With dismay, I saw my old obsessiveness beginning to return. And I really didn't feel all that good. I was getting sick of meat: and I was worried a bit about all the nitrates I was eating.

I soldiered on, until a sale on pepperoni at my grocery store. Pre-sliced pepperoni, like they put on pizza. Cheap! Hardly a perfect food, but it would feel like an indulgence, without kicking off those insulin swings. I examined the labeling closely. (One thing you learn, following a low carb diet, is that all kinds of things are loaded with sugar these days, including, for instance, most commercial beef jerky.) This was fine. No sugar, no carbs at all. I bought a package of them, maybe two. And I went home, settled on the couch, and proceeded to eat almost the entire package. And a day or two later I did it again. There was no way to avoid understanding that I had managed to do what was supposed to be impossible: I had binged on fat and protein. What's more, I wanted to do it again.

It was a discouraging moment. I hadn't found the magic way out, after all. The insulin story just didn't account for what had just happened. Had I just been fooling myself? I couldn't believe that, either. The experience of being free of hunger, free of craving, had been too profound, too liberating.

I floundered for a while, diet-wise. Put most of the weight I had lost back on. But I kept reading and thinking. In particular, I came across Stephan Guyenet's Whole HealthSource blog, which introduced me to some of the research on palatability and satiety. I don't know of a better introduction to this whole topic than just browsing his blog posts labeled “hyperphagia.”  (Hyperphagia, for those not Greekly inclined, means “eating too much.”) The neurology of all this is fascinating, but the upshot is that eating foods that are exceptionally tasty disables the ordinary satiety mechanisms that tell us we've had enough. If this is true, then the low carb people probably got the mostly rightly answer by accident. It's not the insulin responses that drive overeating; it's the over-tasty food. The insulin responses are important – they make the overeating particularly unhealthy – but the driver is simply that our food tastes too good. It's laced with sugar, salt, and fat, and we gobble it up: our brother rats do exactly the same. It's difficult to create food that tasty without carbs, but – as my pepperoni experience demonstrates – it can be done. And if it can be done, you can rest assured that the food labs at General Mills etc. will do it. And package it, advertise it, and deliver it to you.

A lot of diet programs have recognized this for a long time, although the neurology of it was not even guessed at until recently. Weight Watchers, I recall from my stint with them long ago, spoke of “red light foods” – foods that you find that you simply can't stop eating. These will actually vary from person to person. They will also vary over time. But they're easy to identify subjectively: I just look for the things that I'll eat even if I'm not hungry, even if I'm full, even if it makes me uncomfortable. I'll eat barbeque potato chips until my stomach bulges and my hard palate is sore. I'll eat enough peanut M&Ms at a sitting to supply the calories of two or three ordinary meals. Those are the foods I have to avoid. I eat them only on special occasions, and in restricted amounts, and I DON'T have them around the house, certainly not where I can see them.

So my diet, put simply, is this: don't eat stuff that tastes too good. This may strike you as bleak and joyless, but the fact is that plain ordinary food actually tastes fine, once you're no longer blasting your taste buds with these manufactured foods. I don't really think the sum total of enjoyment I get out of food has decreased, since I started restricting the over-tasty stuff. A secondary effect of those foods – which are almost all artificial, unhealthy, over-processed things in the first place – is to blast your palate and make it indifferent to the pleasures of real, ordinary food. Once I recovered from that I found that a plain undressed salad, or a simple baked sweet potato, could taste really extraordinarily good.


Bill said...

I blame marriage. My wife puts out cookies for me!! What can I do! At work, patrons give us cookies. What can I do! I say, no, no, no, no, no - and then yes! What can I do! I'm on a downhill slope to sugar sweetened coffee. What can I do!

Dale said...

Yes, it's difficult, especially since what people are really offering is love, and to turn that down is worse than churlish, it's soul-destroying. If you can figure out a way to receive the love without receiving the cookies, I guess that's the best answer. Easier with some people than with others! Some people really really want to stand there and watch you eat them. With others you can just say, O man those cookies (which you immediately tossed in the trash) were really good!

Bill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

Regarding your theme, it's the "Bright Lights, Big City" thing, where, at the end of months being strung out on coke, at dawn after an all-nighter, the protagonist smells bread baking and his life-spinning-out-of-control resolves with this resurgence of a blander appetite.

Of course, the problem is not entirely my wife, or our library patrons. I get tired of nutrition and sometimes want to be strung-out, sleepless, dehydrated, incontinent on coffee-sugar drug. I get tired of facing food.

Dale said...

Absolutely. It's just a grind, doing the nutritional work. And we're wired for these splurges, apparently. Orangutans do it too: find themselves a treeful of ripe durians and go to town, eat themselves silly. Our trouble is that we live in a forest of perpetually ripe durians. We have to manufacture our own scarcity :-)

Lucy said...

Yes, manufacturing our own scarcity. And as you say, it's not that eating this or that won't make you fat, it's that certain foods will keep you from feeling hungry for longer; you have to do the eating less bit for yourself! As far as I see it, exercise mainly serves to distract you from eating and keep you cheerful and motivated in sticking with not eating - but that won't work if you're hating the exercise.

My problem isn't straight sugars, I like sweets but can be self-disciplined about them. Fats are nice to slather on but again I can be firm. I like tasty, and generally add too much salt, but it's really the complex carbs, starch of any kinds, which are my downfall; I can easily just stand and eat boiled rice or potatoes, only lightly salted, straight out of the colander, pasta only has to have some herbs and oil on it, or even just greens and soy sauce, and I can eat platefuls. Risotto, which I always make the mistake of thinking I can make two meals' worth of, is fatal.

Low GI stuff like butternut, cauliflower, sweet potato is a useful way to fool myself I'm eating starch when I'm not, or much less anyway, and I do like veggies fortunately. And keeping the carbs down later in the day helps, as does going a couple of days a week without wine, of course. But it's all just a matter of keeping a handle on it and checking too much increase, most losses creep back on again before long. I just do my best and am grateful I wasn't a food obsessed or obese child, as that must be an almost impossible handicap to get over.

A couple of cooks on UK TV (the Hairy Bikers) who were well lardy, recently did a weight loss series. They said go all out on flavour with herbs and spices, while watching salt and fat. They said, you can have some carb, but don't let it be the largest thing on your plate, which seems quite a good rule of thumb. They succeeded in losing weight, but they were being kept at it by the demands of the programme; they exercised and kept off alcohol. The members of the public they had on didn't seem so successful, and whether they kept/keep it off I don't know.

You probably know more about Atkins than I, but I just feel the avoidance of all but the leafiest green veg and the wateriest, berry fruits is bizarre and unhealthy, and that the consumption of huge amounts of animal protein to offset our overconsumption of other things is verging on the morally bankrupt, even if it is something like hunter gatherers might eat or have eaten.

And the people on it always seem to look a bit greasy looking and dark round the eyes, and generally confess to constipation!

Many thin people eat quite a lot of simple sugars and not too much else; they are running on empty all the time and burning quick fuel. My sister was always rather like that from infancy, (as I was always a starch fiend and a bit plump), but they aren't necessarily all that healthy on it, or longer lived.

Dale said...

Lucy, yes to all that! The only thing I really dislike about the low carber ideology was they taught me a suspicion of foods that are terrific for me, and which don't tempt me to overeat at all: to wit, fruit and tubers. I'm not going to sit down and eat six oranges, not under any circumstances. I will gorge on potatoes (or any tuber) -- but only if I put BOTH salt and butter on them. Salt is fine, unsalted butter is fine: but both -- I can practically feel the satiety mechanism short-circuiting. But everyone will have their own, and they're not even stable within one individual. That to me is the great breakthrough of understanding of "reward theory." It's a response that an individual develop towards a particular food, and in theory it can be practically anything; though in practice it's likely to be some calorie dense thing laced with a lot of salt & sugar.

Sabine said...

I have recently read some research stuff on plastics, i.e bisphenol A, which is used extensively in packaging of processed food (and other stuff) and its suggested link with obesity ( Just to add another aspect but don't let me confuse you.

I was raised on a diet consisting of "eat what's on your plate" and "you don't leave the table if you haven't finished what's on your plate", plus the usual references to starving babies in Africa. My parents were also against all "foreign food" such as soft drinks or peanut butter, ketchup and corn flakes. White bread was for sick days. Guess what I stocked up when I moved out?

It has taken me many years to learn that food and eating has to do with health and well being and not primarily with gaining or losing weight or rebelling against my parents.

The market and the industry behind weight loss (and medical research on weight loss) is huge, try to stay away from it if you can.

I think I've mentioned this before, but the best thing ever written on food and eating in my opinion is Susie Orbach's On Eating. Someone else wrote a decent blog post on it:

Enjoy your food, Mole. Enjoy dinners with friends and family. Don't let food make you miserable.

Dale said...

Oh, you know, food is making me uncomplicatedly happy right now. No misery involved so far at all, at all.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Oh, your response to Bill that they are really offering love! That is my albatross. My husband is from Spain, and we visit there for around two months every summer. Although Spain is famous for its healthy Mediterranean diet, our friends and family welcome us with offers of extra-tasty things - sausages, cheese, pastries - which it would be impossibly rude of us to turn down. Each person offering these delicacies insists that it's a special occasion, only once a year - and it is, for them, but for us it's every damn week for two months, and we end up feeling bloated and miserable. (Plus my husband has high cholesterol, which he can keep just under control with careful diet and low levels of medication, but there everyone laughs at his concern over eggs and meat.)

I know that they're offering food as love, but that's also problematic for me - if they truly loved us, they wouldn't insist that we eat damaging things. It's more the offering of food as the performance of love; they need to be seen to provide and offer. And we need to be seen to accept with gratitude and appreciation, though the truth is that it makes me angry and resentful. Sigh.

Dale said...

Yeah. I've got no good solution, dear.