“You need to knock off the carbs.”
This was my doctor speaking.
“If you don’t, your health is at risk.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Your blood pressure is rising, your weight is rising, and your cholesterol is too high,” he explained, after looking at a series of test results. “Your risk of stroke, heart trouble and even Type II Diabetes is increasing.”
This was shocking – and depressing. I was in relatively good health. Not overweight – certainly not for my height. And, frankly, my cholesterol was more like borderline, rather than too high. I stay active; I walk some, ride a bike, swim, rollerblade in spring and fall, and even go to the gym occasionally. I even take the stairs instead of an elevator, if it’s a matter of five stories or less.
“I thought I was in pretty good shape,” I protested.
“You’re going in the wrong direction,” the doctor said. “You have to nip it in the bud now. If you wait, it will be that much harder to correct after it progresses.”
“Okay,” I said. “What do I have to do?”
“Like I said, ‘Knock off the carbs.’”
“How do I do that?”
“Stop eating foods with lots of carbs: Potatoes, rice, pasta, corn, bread… And anything else loaded with carbs, like beer.”
“Beer is like a bottle of carbs.”
“What about light beer?”
“A bottle of carbs, with some extra water to wash it down.”
“Bread? That includes whole grains?”
“Whole wheat pasta?”
“That pretty much disassembles the government’s ‘food pyramid’.”
“The food pyramid was constructed by the processed food industry.”
With about half of my daily intake of food now off-limits, I steered the conversation to what I could eat.
Astonishingly, the doctor ruled out padding my daily calorie intake with so-called “low-fat” or even “no fat” foods.
“The fat is usually replaced with something worse,” he said. “Carbs, chemicals, additives, and other artificial ingredients.”
Fat is not necessarily bad, I learned. (Learn the important difference between unsaturated and saturated fats here.) Carbs are the real culprit.
“What about fresh fruit? Vegetables?” I asked.
“All good. At least almost all good. Corn is good only when it is absolutely right out of the field. Otherwise, the natural sugars start to turn to starch. Starch is bad. Starch equates to carbs. Carrots are also pretty high in carbs. So are bananas, surprisingly, but these sorts of foods contain what are considered good carbs.”
What about meat?
“Most meat is okay. White meat is better than red meat.”
I stopped asking questions before I got to desserts. I didn’t want to know.
But, really, most of this I already instinctively knew. As a kid, I had lived on meat, milk, veggies and lots of fresh fruit. I was lean, lively and healthy back then.
But I began to add a lot of processed foods to my diet. My weight went up. I felt sluggish. I needed caffeine to get me going each day. I had insomnia at night, from all the cola I was drinking. Suddenly, everything I was eating seemed to contain high fructose corn syrup, enriched flour, vegetable oils, tropical oils and/or food additives with long chemical-sounding names. When ingredient labeling was mandated, I was shocked to learn what was in the glop I had been eating. (Ever read a Pringles label? Horrors!)
I tried to adjust my diet, mindful of the latest “food pyramid” baloney (as it turned out). For awhile, I was commanded to replace most of the meat in my diet with pasta. We now know that was insanity.
Anyway, the doctor asked me to try his no-carb prescription for six months. If I eliminated carbs, he said, I would be surprised how much meat, fruit and vegetables I could eat without blowing my diet.
But important components of my diet were suddenly verboten: Fritos, Oreos, french fries, toast (not to mention French Toast), pancakes, waffles, hash browns, pizza (!) – all my favorites.
I tried to stuff myself instead with large amounts of steak, fruit and the few vegetables I liked. (Nuts were a happy discovery, btw.)
The first three months, the results did not encourage me: I lost two pounds. But I missed an important trend that was beginning: I was no longer gaining weight. My blood pressure stabilized. My cholesterol level peaked, and started to inch down.
I was bummed. It seemed like I had given up too much for too little. The first couple of weeks were hard. I missed my carbs (I was surprised I had been eating so much of them!). But then I didn’t. After, say, three weeks the idea of some carb-rich foods started to make me gag. I ate a Frito. I felt gross.
So, I kept with the diet. A deal is a deal, I told the doctor.
What happened over the next three months made me a carb-hating convert. My cholesterol dropped into the “normal” range – it was down a good 30 points since I began the diet. My blood pressure was out of the danger zone. And best of all, my weight was down from 205 to 184! (My BMI was also much improved.)
“It’s really like you got 20 years younger,” my doctor said. “Congratulations. About five percent of my patients actually make it this far.”
It’s been two years since that happy day in my doctor’s office. I’ve been mostly able to stay on course, but occasionally I slip. I travel a lot; sometimes healthy foods are hard to find. Restaurants generally try to fill your plate with carbs; they’re cheap calories. Eliminate all the things that are bad for you in a diner breakfast special – you’re looking at an almost empty platter.
The wages of carb-sin are deadly. A recent 10-day trip to Italy, which included concessions to pizza, pasta and bread (They use healthier ingredients there, right? Wrong.) added back five pounds. A two-week cruise added another six – even though I existed mostly on salads, fruits, veggies and small portions of meat. That was demoralizing.
But I pick myself back up. Stop eating carbs again, and the weight starts to come off. I have more energy. I sleep better. I don’t get colds or flu.
But it can get lonely being a Dudley Doo-Right foodie.
And then some days, like today, I feel justified. I read articles like the one in The New York Times entitled, “What Really Makes Us Fat.” The answer, according to the latest study, is simple: “Carbohydrates are fattening.”
My doctor was right. He was out there ahead of most in his profession actually; the “carbs are bad” theory is controversial, and not believed by everyone.
But I’m a believer.
July 2, 2012