Monday, January 05, 2015

Ten Years : Seven : Twenty Percent Off

My GP and I considered AA as an option when I stopped drinking in January 2005, but decided to hold it in reserve should my resolve start to waver. I didn’t need it, but did read a lot about the movement over the following months, and one thing which prompted a smile of recognition was learning that there’s always a plentiful supply of biscuits on hand at meetings.
At the time I stopped, we lived opposite an incredibly-handy late-night deli-cum-convenience store that stocked plenty of flapjacks, yoghurt coated fruit and nuts, and two-for-one offers on giant bars of chocolate. That spring, I became a familiar face at the counter, often following my evening meal with a spontaneous street dessert. I’d be taking a mug of drinking chocolate to bed with me later as well. I reasoned that I deserved to spoil myself - I’d stepped away from the most harmful indulgence, after all, and I actually put on weight. This is quite common in recent ex-drinkers. Having spent a lifetime of evenings chucking down booze, our bodies are used to a very quick fix of easy-to-digest carbohydrate, and the accompanying elevated blood sugar is part of the habit-forming reward.
For much of the next decade, I had a pluralistic relationship with being overweight. Part of me was attached to it – here was a vice, an imperfection, that I was allowing myself to maintain, and my self-satisfaction at sobering up had bought me an all-you-can-eat pass.
Another part of me was sensitive about it, though. Somewhere within me, I knew that I was making marathon running a lot harder by carrying excess weight with me. When a podiatrist, assessing me for yet another set of orthotic insoles to prevent damage to my joints, boldly described my problem as inevitable because I was overweight, I felt stung and humiliated. However, the comment that eventually spurred me to action came from my mother, as adherents to Doctor Freud will not be surprised to hear. She sat on this for an entire weekend when I was visiting her, and only as she kissed me goodbye on the doorstep, finally got off her chest that she thought I had a bit of, you know, a pot belly. Ouch.
I already knew intellectually what I had to do. I’d read enough to know that “eat less and exercise more” is an unhelpful oversimplification. If you haven’t read enough to know this, then read The Diet Trap by Doctor John Briffa, and if you have a job, read his A Great Day At The Office, and if you’re a man, read Waist Disposal.
What I’ve learned from Doctor Briffa is that eating fat doesn’t make you fat. What makes you fat is elevated blood sugar. This raises your insulin levels, and that in turn makes the mobile fat that would otherwise pass out of you get fixed in your fat cells making you fatter. And that’s it.
The way to lose weight is to stop disrupting your blood sugar, so that you keep insulin at bay. And it really is just as simple as that.
How do you avoid disrupting your blood sugar? Eat smaller meals (but more of them, if you feel like it), and don’t eat food with a high glycemic load. If you eat natural, unprocessed, unrefined food, you will be fine. It's the processed foods with unnaturally high glycemic loafs that are the problem.
I did it in stages, hitting the high priority problems first. So, no more sugary fizzy drinks, and no more fruit juice either (these require almost no digestion and smack up your blood sugar horrifically). And no more sweeties, chocolate, cake, or biscuits, either. I noticed the difference at once and started to lose weight immediately. I can date the starting point of my shrinking to when I read Iain Banks’ final, posthumous novel, The Quarry, because his protagonist, like me, had a terrible relationship with his father, Asperger’s Syndrome, and weighed over 100kg, a figure he found mathematically pleasing. I was 102.5kg at the time, and on dipping below 100kg vowed never to return.
I noticed that dropping the refined sugar stopped me from craving it any more. I genuinely don’t miss these foods or feel deprived. That broken circle sounded very familiar indeed to me.
I wanted to lose even more weight so I followed more of Doctor Briffa’s advice. It was here here that my ingrained beliefs about healthy eating were turned on their head. I had been brought up to believe that fried and fatty food was bad for you and that bread, wholegrain cereals, pasta and rice were holy, untouchable, middle-class manna. Nothing exemplifies my shift more than breakfast. I moved from sugary granola with low-fat (this almost always means “with added sugar”) fruit yoghurt, to muesli with skimmed milk, to porridge, and then to bacon and eggs. The bacon and eggs disrupts my blood sugar least. It stops me feeling hungry for longest. It might contain more calories than the cereals, but it makes me less fat, because my body has no interest whatsoever in the calorific value of what I eat. It is only interested in the glycemic load.
I no longer eat any kind of cereal. (That’s the crops in the fields, by the way, not just the products in boxes in the kitchen cupboard.) So that’s bread, pasta and rice out, and I don’t eat potatoes either. I have taught myself to cook and eat fish and eggs which barely featured in my diet before. I don’t feel I’m excluding anything I miss. I have a rich and varied diet and can eat out almost anywhere. Well, almost anywhere – there is virtually nothing solid on sale in Starbucks, say, that does not violate the consumer’s blood glucose.
I’ve now lost over 20kg. (That’s over three stone in people units.) At the gym recently, I picked up 20kg in weights and found it hard to believe that I’d run seven marathons carrying this. No wonder I got faster in 2014.
I’m not telling this story to solicit congratulation, or to create a narrative that having beaten the booze I have mastered abstinence as a non-specific relocatable skill. Really, I’m not. No, really.
No, I’m telling it because my experience has taught me that there’s an unavoidable similarity between many people’s inability to cope with alcohol and their problems with modern food. Neither occurs in anything like their processed potency in nature, but both are widely available and heavily marketed to us. They offer an instant hit of habit-forming reward. Not all of us can cope with this and we become addicted. Lots in modern life is like this – alcohol, processed food and even porn all offer consumers highly-concentrated hits that stimulate the reward centres which evolved to keep us alive and healthy and pass on our genes, but returning to these highly-concentrated extracts instead of their natural sources has the exact opposite effect.
I think there is a general problem that industrializing what we put into ourselves can take the human animal to an environment it can’t reliably adapt to. Alcoholism, obesity, and even anxiety could be viewed as just specific cases of this broader, and growing effect.
That’s what it feels like to me, anyway. It would seem that I’m just an old-fashioned kind of guy.

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