The last month+ I've been doing a lot of reading, thinking, evaluating what I am doing as far as health and fitness goes, and where I want to go from here.
I actually have had so much I wanted to talk about that I just didn't know how to condense it from novel-length to blog post length. I probably can't.
I think what I should do, is go through my mental process over the last month+, so y'all are on the same page with me.
I admit that when I began on a lowcarb eating plan, I didn't have much in mind at first except "surviving." I didn't think I'd live another year (or even quarter) if I didn't do something immediately. So anything that made me able to move a little better, breathe a little better, feel a better, was what I should be doing. Lowcarb is ideal in that situation. It has such a fast water/glycol loss right off the top, that a person almost instantly has more energy, feels more limber, just what you need for finding hope for your future, finding the energy to keep-on keeping-on, finding the courage to hope that maybe something can change.
The initial weight loss following that part is probably as much lean body mass as fat, as there do seem to be limits on the speed of fat loss without lean loss, and initial lowcarb done at a high weight exceeds that by several orders of magnitude. But for most of us that is trivia: getting enough weight off fast enough that the imminent threat of keeling over is reduced, long enough to let us do something more medium-term proactive about our health, has to be the focus.
Once I began losing weight, I told myself that when I had lost 100 lbs, I would re-consider whatever I was doing, and do something about exercise. I knew that rapid weight loss, especially without major exercise, wasn't ideal. Or in the words of Richard Atkins, "Exercise is non-negotiable." But when I first began lowcarb, I could barely step up on a curb. I couldn't even stand, let alone walk, for more than 30 seconds without exhaustion and back pain. So it had to wait until I'd lost enough weight to be able to move decently.
As I neared the 100# mark, I began to be a little more aware of my body and what it could do than I used to be. On one hand, my increased energy, flexibility, and ability to MOVE, had improved my life in so many ways. On the other hand, I kept feeling that I was losing strength. One day, for 2-3 days, I would be able to do some new thing I hadn't been able to do before, such as nimbly bounce up my porch steps with no handrail, no two-feet-per-step, no groaning major effort on the top step (which is higher than the others). Then suddenly it would be so much harder, if not impossible. At first would think, "Maybe I'm a little low in protein or something," or, "Well everyone has stronger or weaker days," but protein and water didn't seem to change it. I began to feel like I was constantly encountering a two-part event: first I would lose a little more weight, feel a little better, get a little stronger; then I would get a little weaker, feel a little less energetic... though the scale would show I'd lost a little more weight. I started developing this superstition of sorts that I was losing muscle. That my rapid weight loss combined with no serious exercise to speak of, was gradually wearing away my lean body mass. I couldn't think of anything else that would explain why most all the gains I seemed to make in strength, were promptly reversed.
Just over a month ago, I increased my protein, without increase of calories or carbs. Instantly, I started gradually -- literally daily -- gaining weight. This didn't bother me really, because I felt better rather than worse, and even while this was happening, my rings were falling off my smaller hand, so I put them on the other, and then they were falling off the other hand--it was clear I was reducing. What I suspected was that I had some wasted but not fully gone muscle, which the added protein was salvaging. This contributed to my suspicion that maybe I really was losing lean body mass, and needed to do something about the exercise issue.
So I thought about it really hard. Heh. How many calories does thought burn?
Right at the 100# mark, things started changing. I wonder if part of this is subconscious, because I had such focus on that number. First, the weight loss slowed greatly and then stopped, although I had not done anything differently. I'd thought perhaps certain things I was eating (such as flax muffins) might relate, so cut them out, but it didn't seem to matter. Now, for many many years I have maintained and gained weight on only a fraction of the calories my BMR allegedly needs. So I know my body; I know it adapts quickly to some homeostasis that will maintain me, and that is my doom.
For over a month now, my weight has varied, going smoothly up and down from 380 to 400, back and forth. I am unable to see any real pattern in it that would tell me it was water, PMS, protein or whatever. For the first time since starting lowcarb, I have felt sort of removed from the scale, as if I can no longer track how I feel against the numbers it shows me. For my blog I wait until the weight settles so I feel it's consistent, then I post the new weight and an updated history of the scale. So far it hasn't settled, wandering around a 20# variance in a way that is pretty confusing.
Over the course of the last few weeks, I have weighed and measured. I currently weigh more than I did a month ago (though like I said, it varies). But here's the interesting thing: All of my measurements have continued to go down. So even though my weight has slightly increased, the size of my body has consistently been DEcreasing. For example, from January 8 to January 18, I gained four pounds. But I lost an inch on my hips, 3/4 inch on my waist, 1.5 inch on my upper thigh, 1.75 inch on my calve. (I didn't measure other parts.) So... even though it seems like I am gaining weight and that should frighten me, I'm getting smaller and that delights me. Doing both at the same time does seem a little weird, I admit.
But I think this is where body composition comes into the picture. (Meaning, how much of your body is fat vs. anything else.) I saw this photo recently (how I wish I could find it again to show you) that a woman posted, a before and after picture. She was doing weight training and cardio workouts between the time of the two pictures. In one, she is vastly thinner, firmer, stronger, obviously more healthy, very impressive. The difference on the scale? Three pounds. That's it. Because she was gaining muscle and losing fat (more back & forth than simultaneously), the scale barely changed at all. Her body certainly did though! It sort of emphasized to me that my focus on scale-weight is shortsighted. If I am losing muscle, that's nothing to be proud of. That's a bad thing, not a good thing. I should be focused on my body fat %, at least to the degree I can estimate such things, not on the scale. Losing lean mass reduces metabolism, slows weight loss, decreases energy and strength, and in general is the last thing I should want to do.
Ironically, I believe that most people who get really really fat, as I did, actually start the process with exactly this. If you don't eat enough calories, the metabolism slows down to match that. If you don't eat often enough, the body slows down metabolism to deal with perceived starvation. Without enough protein, the lean body mass decreases, further reducing metabolism. The thyroid output reduces and further slows your metabolic rate. Then, even eating the same too-small number of calories a day can cause weight gain rather than maintenance, as impossible as the numbers make that seem. Then eat your food in one meal, and you're sure to over-carb and over-calorie, storing more fat daily even if you're eating half your BMR in calories, because you can't burn it all off in one sitting. (Eating right before bed, as I did, is the worst.) Add to that stress, sleep deprivation, nutritional deficiencies, food allergens, and a variety of other issues known to impact metabolism, and weight loss/gain, and you have a perfect setup for gradually but consistently adding a LOT of weight to a body. One thing is sure: I may be no expert on weight loss, but I am certainly a master at weight gain.
So in January, I took some extra time to read a ton of archives of the lowcarber forum, and a couple others on that topic, encountering en-masse the personal stories of lowcarbers dating back years sometimes. When you read something all at once like this, you tend to be a lot more impacted by what seem to be "trends" than you would otherwise; you probably wouldn't even notice certain things otherwise, not without someone running statistics for you. But the "mega-dose" of reading a bulk of something all at once, will bring to your attention repeating elements. Some of the repeating elements were things that really bothered me; worried me, made me feel like there were some problems that were clearly common in our lowcarb world and yet, nobody really seemed to be dealing with them openly. It is as if lowcarb was this philosophy, we were all in it together, and it would be sacrilege to point out something that was a problem, even though pointing it out is no diss on LC at all!, just an observation of something that obviously needs tweaking or further consideration.
1. People regularly complained of long stalls. I don't mean long like a month. I mean long like 4-18 months. In the lowcarb world, the response amounted to what I would dryly compare to, "Just have faith." Well, I have faith in God, but I don't have faith in stalls. Lowcarb is not a religion. (Although to hear some forum discussions, you might be surprised!) As the saying I like best goes, "If what you're doing isn't working, do something else." If they were not losing weight but they were losing size or constantly feeling better, that would not really be a stall. A stall is where nothing particularly useful is happening. Why anybody would put up with this for more than a month, two at the most, without taking proactive steps to change something, is beyond me.
My cousin, a former natural bodybuilder, he and I sometimes talked about fat loss and so on, and I couldn't even imagine someone like him simply sitting around waiting for months and months for something to change. I realized that this was what it came down to. Bodybuilders wouldn't. Dieters would. It's like a different philosophy. As if dieters feel less deserving, or more sadly resigned to some fate of 'unfair and illogical body situations' so they just stoically accept this, as if it were the will of God or something. Bodybuilders don't have that kind of fatalistic crap in their mindset, and they are likely to change their approach weekly based on measurements and evaluating what didn't work the previous week -- two, at the most.
To me, it seemed like there was some inflexibility in the lowcarber world in general, like, "Lowcarb is the answer, and even when it appears the question has changed." I saw that many people went off lowcarb during long stalls, I'm sure in part because it would be damned demoralizing. But the real issue to me, beyond the lack of flexibility, beyond the rather surreal pollyanic 'faith' approach to it all, was the fact that the stalls happened AT ALL. This suggested a larger issue:
The body is marvelously adaptible. Eat fewer calories, it will reduce your metabolism to match. (It will also reduce your thyroid's T3 output, which also reduces metabolism.) Eat infrequently, it will reduce your metabolism to match. Exercise or be sedentary, it will increase or reduce your metabolism to match. So it struck me to wonder: if you eat lowcarb, will it gradually reduce your metabolism? Will the body "adapt" to lowcarb, just like it adapts to anything else? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed unreasonable to expect that it wouldn't, given it reacts and adapts to everything else we do.
2. The number of people who went off lowcarb eventually, and regained weight, seemed to be right in the same 95 percentile as every other 'diet plan'. Now, I know, sing it with me sistahs, "It's not a diet, it's an eating plan for life!" Yeah. I'm sure Weight Watchers people say the same thing. As I like to say, no eating plan works for you if you aren't on it. The reality is that for nearly everybody with rare exceptions, eating lowcarb can be a real pain in the butt, especially for people who are not used to making time and effort for cooking and planning ahead. Yet it disturbed me to think that it was apparently so difficult that the number of long term lowcarbers would seem to be so low compared to 'all the others' who had never returned, or who had returned having gained back the weight and then more.
3. Another thing that bothered me is that the weight gain was so insanely rapid for people. I mean, although my initial weight gain was fast, it took me 15 years to gain the rest of it. Most people, it takes them quite awhile to get to whatever 'high point' they've got. The weight gain when someone went off lowcarb was far more rapid than the initial, pre-lowcarb weight gain most folks had put that much on with. This again suggested to me that maybe the body was adapting to lowcarb, just like it does to low-calorie, so that the metabolism adjusted to it and when people changed their approach, the fat would just pile on.
Everything that seemed to be the biggest problems, that I noticed the most when reading tons of lowcarber journals and discussion in bulk, seemed to point to the same likely scenario: the body adapted to lowcarb, and nobody seemed to be doing anything about this, to prevent it or change or even recognize it.
4. In all the famous lowcarb books, in all the lowcarb "Philosophy," there is a heaven for good behavior. What I mean is, allegedly once you have lost whatever weight you had to lose on lowcarb, then you would gradually increase your carbs. Atkins has meals with so many carbs I'd need a week to eat them. The Drs. Eades as well. The idea was that once you didn't want to actively lose weight anymore, you could increase your carbs to anywhere from 55-150 a day, depending on the person. This sounds really good on paper. It sounds logical, like, you reduce carbs real low and lose weight, and then bring them up until you are simply maintaining. It all makes perfect sense, right?
Except in the real world that I see on the lowcarb forums, this almost never happens--at least, not to anybody who has lost a significant amount of weight. (I really don't take the small losses as an example as they don't have to lowcarb long enough for that.) First, people often take so insanely long to lose the last 20 lbs that it becomes a lifetime probject. Second, even when people reach their goals, and they are in 'maintenance', I read what they say, what they eat daily, what their issues are, and it is almost unanimous: if they spent over six months (or especially over a year) losing their weight on 30 carbs a day, that's it. If they eat more than around 30 carbs a day, they start gaining weight.
So that promised nirvana of "increasing carbs so you could eat more like normal people, or at least not stress about spices and sauces," might look good on paper, but it almost never works in real life. The reality seems to be that long-term lowcarbers' bodies adapt to the carb intake and from that point on, increasing that intake causes weight gain. So in reality, induction was not just a two week thing. It was the way people had to eat almost for life. No wonder most people can't do it indefinitely. Nobody including Atkins himself ever expected people to live on that indefinitely. But the choice becomes to do so, or to gain back the weight.
Again, it all seemed to come down to: the body adapts. People get fat in part because of that adaptation. They begin losing weight on lowcarb, but eventually, whether during the weight loss or not long after it (maybe depending on how long it takes, how rapid the loss, etc.), the adaptation factor kicks in. (The fact that many lowcarbers not only ate the same general nutrient-counts per day, but often even the same food every day, seemed to me like it would only increase the adaptation tendency.)
So what are we doing about it? I thought and thought about this. I finally decided that "logically," if the body's adapting was the trouble spot, then maybe one needed to vary the number of carbs they ate once in awhile, so the body wouldn't do that. Has anybody else ever thought of this, I wondered? Surely I can't be the first person to notice this phenomenon, no matter how utterly silent and oblivious the lowcarb world at large online seems to be!
So I went to google and I typed in "carbohydrate variation" to see what would come up.
Bingo. I got about a million bodybuilding websites and bodybuilder blog posts as a result.
So I went to about a dozen of them that looked interesting, and I read the articles, and I read the message boards. Carbohydrate variation is also known as "carb cycling." Carb cycling has a variety of approaches and plans for it, each of which have their own name or acronym. In all of them, the message was the same, though:
The body adapts to anything done consistently. Carbohydrates, calories, and fat, if eaten at the same amount consistently, will cause 'adaptation' of the body, so it no longer is 'reacting' to something like a reduction. If you do things consistently, you have to reduce further and further to get results (by results I mean "change"), until it is unhealthy, and it is reducing metabolism from the start when you do so. Eventually you will be nearly starving and still not losing weight -- or even gaining it.
Well I've been down THAT road to the tune of nearly 500lbs. I 'adapted' my body into severe obesity once already. I don't have any desire to adapt my body to yet-something-else. My poor body has enough issues to overcome without adding yet one more.
When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. When you first make a "change" in your eating plan, your body "reacts to the change." Such as: it loses weight, or it gains weight, it loses fat, or it gains muscle, or whatever follows the change you made.
Once you do that thing consistently, though, it is no longer a 'change'. The body is no longer 'reacting'. There is a limited amount of time for body 'reaction' before it adapts and finds its balance with the new approach.
So, weight loss slows down. Or even stops. Stalls. Metabolism reduces to match whatever you have reduced on the intake-side.
It doesn't seem like rocket science to me.
One of the things I discovered when reading extensively about how bodybuilders did "low carb," is that the Atkins-Eades-etc. version of lowcarb is probably a misnomer. In the larger world, about 70-120 carbs a day is considered lowcarb. 40-70/80 carbs a day is considered VERY lowcarb. So as you might imagine, those of us eating 10-40 carbs a day are "ultra" or "severely" lowcarb on that scale. I hadn't realized that the average carb intake was hundreds a day -- and hence, how "radical" my eating plan was.
I had not before considered that my eating plan was "extreme." To me, high-carb/low-fat did not work for me, so lowcarb was simply what did. I started thinking more about the overall question of lowcarb.
First, the lowcarb approach done anything but briefly (such as bodybuilders do, to lose water prior to competitions), does seem to build in the assumption that everybody on it, maybe everybody period, has some profound metabolic problem with carbohydrates. Now I always assumed I did, once I discovered lowcarb worked for me; I thought that its working for me was the proof that I did. But it turns out, it works for most people. (Not everybody.) That doesn't imply a carb metabolism problem; it's just basic biochemistry. Now sure, getting really fat can really screw up a lot of things with your body and metabolism, you can become much more sensitive to blood sugar spikes, more insulin resistant, and the overabundance of fat itself has all kinds of chemical effects that slow metabolism in more than one way. But still, that does not prove that one has some terrible, incurable carbohydrate metabolic problem.
I began wondering if maybe one reason I was so quick to accept that idea, was simply because I was fat. You see, it is obvious if someone weighs nearly 500 lbs that they have a metabolic problem; as my brother used to say, "No shit, Sherlock!" But all of this time, I have held the belief that this is something that somewhere between genetics and circumstance, fell out of the sky on me. Wasn't my fault, my doing, my responsibility. It was a curse, and I lived with it, that's all. "Anybody else with this kind of metabolism would be the same way."
Well I got thinking a lot more about this, and doing a lot of soul searching. Eventually, I had to conclude that I have been a bit lazy and a bit too quick to accept an excuse. When I look back on my life, particularly my initial massive weight gain in my early 20's, what I see is that I did just about every imaginable thing that a person could do to gain weight. I ate once a day. I ate right before bed. I ate carbs due to hunger. I ate insufficient protein. I was incredibly sedentary -- busy as hell but all in sit-down things. I was massively stressed out. I was chronically sleep deprived. I was nutritionally deficient. In short, I did every single thing that a person needs to do, to gain weight. Lots of it. Fast. And to reduce metabolism. Fast. And to doom my future metabolism to something pretty dysfunctional. Fast. And it worked.
But if my metabolism is currently less than ideal, it is not because I am helpless to some metabolic disorder. I created my own metabolic disorder. In ignorance, true. Under the influence of a system that keeps telling people to eat less to lose weight, true. But so what. The point is, just because the high-carb/low-fat typical medical approach, which probably works for a few people but fails dismally for me, is not workable for weight loss in my case, and just because severe-lowcarb IS workable for weight loss in my case, doesn't mean there is nothing in between.
Severe exclusion of any major nutrient-source doesn't really seem that reasonable when you back off the LC belief system for awhile. Reduction, sure! Even low amounts, sure. But when it reaches the zone that everyone on earth but the few in that clique considers "extreme," maybe it's time to take a fresh look at things, without the near-religious bias of "my way is the right way!" woven into it. It may be right, or at least ok, but does that mean it's the *only* way?
When I further considered the issue of body adaptation, I realized that if you start very low carb, there isn't far to go. If one is to have any kind of a cycling plan that goes sometimes lower and sometimes higher -- by significant enough amounts to matter, mind you -- you would have to start at a somewhat higher level, so you were in the middle to begin with.
Of course, the problem with the 'near-eternal induction' level plan that most severely obese people are on, just due to the amount of weight they have to lose, is that it effectively resets what your body is adapted to. To begin with, we probably could have eaten 60 carbs a day, mostly in veggies and some dairy, and "gradually" gone into a mild ketogenic state, and lost body fat instead of body fat + lean mass. Now, however, eat more than 35 carbs a day, and I fall out of ketosis, because my body is used to eating 20-30 carbs a day on average.
So, if I had known all this to begin with, I might have begun the eating plan differently. But I didn't. Yet, I do not regret the last four months at all.
But now I believe that:
1. I think I have been eating too few calories. I think this is part of what is behind my lean body mass loss. People say, "You have to eat at least 1200 calories!" Could we please, as a whole lowcarb field, get a clue? People who are 300# or more need to eat MORE than that. MUCH more. They take advice just like others do and when the advice says something like that, they buy it. They need more. And this means that, unless you eat a cow and two chickens a day, they are going to need to eat a few more carbs as well, to make it more easily possible. Severely overweight people who are not already over-adapted to severely lowcarb, are going to go ketogenic usually at higher carb counts than thin people anyway, so this shouldn't be a big deal. If someone still wants to do a hard induction, fine, but it really should be limited to two weeks. I would no longer recommend to people that they 'stay on induction until their weight is lost'. It's going to take years to lose the weight when you start hundreds of pounds into obesity, staying on induction all that time isn't even healthy, not only because the body's going to adapt to that severe lack of carbs--something none of the carb experts ever talk about but I see literally *everywhere* so I consider this a rather fundamental flaw in the presentation of this eating plan--but because the carb count doesn't allow enough sheer food and different foods (for nutrient variance) (and no, vitamins aren't a replacement for food except for very brief periods where there is little option).
2. I think I have been eating too seldom. The body does not, cannot, store protein, though it can store most other things. About 3 hours after you have eaten, whatever protein you ingested is gone, digested. The body constantly needs protein. So every time you eat farther apart than three hours, let's say it is 5 hours between your meals, your body just spent two hours feeding off your lean body mass. Even when you sleep it does this. I believe eating literally every 3 hours, like bodybuilders do, would have a huge benefit to everyone but especially to the severely obese, because it would help them eat as much as they needed to per day (it isn't easy), and it pretty much kills hunger even when one is not in ketosis, and because in my observation, a lot of severely overweight people have more of a problem with NOT eating enough (and then later, being driven by the body's starvation response to binge) than eating too often.
3. I think I have been eating too few carbs. I know, the experts say that "zero carb is fine because nobody needs carbohydrates." I shudder when I see the effect this has on people who really work out hard but are still trying to live on 10-20 carbs a day to do it, because their body adapted to that during their weight loss. I will not argue that on some grander physiological perspective, nobody "needs" carbs "since you can live off your own body." (People doing weight training should not *want* to live off their own bodies -- particularly at the weight training point when the muscle is screaming for nutrients -- does it help to break down muscle (or starve it) to feed muscle?!) I only question whether it is necessary. I do not live in a cave, I live in Oklahoma, and trying to be "severely" lowcarb in America is like trying to be Amish in New York. It's possible, but it's almost ridiculous how much trouble it is. Can I do it if I must? Certainly. Must I? It is that I'm not sure about. I got the idea that because a severe eating approach worked, that must be what I needed. I think that is a leap to conclusion not supported by any real evidence. It is entirely possible that a more balanced eating plan, which as a side effect would make long-term staying on it and social-integration a whole lot easier, might work just as well for me. Would I lose 100# in four months? No. But I don't believe more than 1/3 that at the most was actual "fat" (vs. water, glycol and lean mass) anyway, so that really shouldn't matter, since I don't want to be losing any more of that if I can help it.
So after a great deal of thought and evaluation, after considering a variety of other eating plans that involved carb cycling, and even calorie and/or fat cycling as well, after reading several plans that I thought were well thought out (such as 'burnthefat.com' -- although I am not against dietary fat especially saturated fat like the author is, aside from that I generally think his approach is very well thought out) -- I finally decided that, just like my original low carb plan that I made up myself, now, I am going to go on my own eating and fitness plan.
It took a lot of reading, thinking and tweaking before I came up with something. I started with something that was geared to 'repair metabolism', with nutrient ratios and so on. It was such a pain in the butt to try and get counts right for with food that I finally threw up my hands and decided to take a different approach entirely. I will post my new eating plan -- which I have not begun, though I was supposed to begin last week! -- as the next blog post.
As a last note, most of the research there is about lowcarb, is not super long term -- I mean, it's not severely obese people on induction or near-induction level carbs for long periods being looked at. I believe some of the issues I've talked about here, like the need for variation in carb intake to prevent body adaptation, simply don't get run into with the average study. Maybe this is why there isn't more about it in the common literature. I mean it's all over health and fitness authors who include moderate to low carb, but I don't even remember seeing it in the ultra-low carb authors' books. This isn't anything new, or novel (at all). It's just not normally an issue in the lowcarb world, and maybe part of that is because most people are trying to lose 20-60 pounds, not 350.