Last week I considered several questions about the politics of food. This week I want to share a reluctant personal journey.
Before going further, I want to clarify I’m not a dietician, a nutritionist, a doctor, or qualified to give any kind of diet or medical advice, nor am I interested in doing so. I am, however, the number one expert on my life and my body.
Until the last three or four years, it never occurred to me to be baffled about why eating by all the latest advice and rules hasn’t helped me with chronic pain and some of the other issues I listed in the first post on this topic. My whole life was like that. I’ve always felt I played by all the rules and things didn’t work well in any arena. Eating well and not feeling well didn’t exactly stand out. I assumed it was because I’m broken and flawed.
On the other hand, I know from my years of medical transcription work many people out there try desperately hard to adhere to their healthcare team’s recommendations in regard to diet, exercise and medication, but they still struggle with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, pain and mental illness, to name but a few. There are cheaters, of course, but most of those patients freely confess they’re noncompliant. Are all these compliant patients, and I assume hundreds of thousands of others like them, as broken and flawed as I am?
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And what about the frequent headlines regarding young, fit, athletic, active people, including vegans and vegetarians, having heart attacks and/or dropping dead? This week it was the ‘Biggest Loser’ host and trainer, Bob Harper. According to all official guidelines, those folks should live to 100, right?
So, I ask again, what the hell is going on here?
I realize now I’m not broken and flawed, at least not more than anyone else. The problem has simply been my diet. It’s always been my diet. Eating the way we’re all supposed to eat has not, does not, and I’m convinced will not ever work for me.
Three years ago, I was introduced to the idea of a ketogenic diet. It’s gradually become more and more present in the popular press, but I’d never really heard about it. I didn’t think I had a problem with gluten, and my own homemade bread formed an enormous part of my daily intake, so low-carb eating had no appeal. The other half of ketogenic was even less appealing — eating meat and animal fat. I hated feeling worn out, used up and too skinny, but I didn’t want to be fat. Eating high fat is bad for you — everyone knows that. I’d never eaten a lot of meat and didn’t feel I had the money to start. I’ve never had a great appetite, though strangely, I was usually snacking, but meat wasn’t that appealing. When I wanted a snack, I wanted a thick slice of homemade toast with margarine and a cup of tea with honey.
I formed a relationship with a ketogenic eater, who I thought was frankly boring about diet. He was a converted vegetarian and believed his plant-based diet had given him a near-fatal heart attack. On the other hand, he was (is) smart and had done a lot of research, which I respected. Unwillingly, but curious in spite of myself, I began to look at some of the information he shared.
At the time, I was hypothyroid, on medication; suffered from constipation, insomnia, and my usual mild-to-moderate mix of anxiety and depression. All of that was a cake walk, though, compared to my problems with muscle spasm and back pain.
For most of my adult life I’ve had pain problems. At one time, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but I refused treatment, which consisted of pharmacology. I had frequent spasm in my neck, shoulders, back and hips, at least every couple of months, lasting for several days. The spasm at times made it impossible for me to sit at my desk and work, drive, and sometimes even shower. Triggers would be things like putting my foot up on the edge of the tub to put lotion on my leg, or sneezing. I walked every day, danced when I was able, worked in my garden and generally was active, but if I did any kind of exercise routine or repetitive motion I was sure to get into trouble. I couldn’t do yoga without dire consequences.
It was truly miserable, and I’d tried every modality I could think of over the years. Nothing gave me more than short-term relief. I had no hope of ever solving the problem, or even understanding what the problem was.
I knew low-carb, high-fat couldn’t possibly be the answer, because it’s not the well-rounded, well-balanced, high-fiber healthy eating I knew we need to do to stay well. I didn’t want to give myself heart disease or cancer on top of everything else. On the other hand, my friend claimed to have cured his heart disease eating keto, and he had the blood work, strength and endurance to prove it.
So I read. I read about the biochemistry of inflammation, the essential biochemical role of cholesterol in our bodies, and early studies on cholesterol and its supposed link to heart disease. I read about saturated fat. I read about studies of indigenous people and dentistry. I also read criticisms and counter-arguments to most of those studies. I read about cherry-picking data and bias. I read studies and data paid for by the sugar industry, the beef industry, the dairy industry, Big Pharma and Big Ag.
My conclusion is that it’s difficult and time consuming to get reliable scientific data that’s unbiased about food. There’s “evidence” for just about every diet being The Right Way To Eat.
Then I started reading blogs and articles written by real people who are trying to get and stay healthy and understand what their bodies need. They’re not selling anything. They’re not trying to tell everyone else what to do. They’re living in their bodies, just like me.
During all these months of research and reading, a few things really stood out. Eating keto has a profound effect on diabetes, inflammation and a host of other maladies, and there’s plenty of science to back it up. I found whole communities of people healing themselves, learning together and exchanging information about what works in their bodies, many of whom have literally transformed their health with a zero-carb diet.
Keto diet is not mainstream. It doesn’t incorporate the food pyramid. Most doctors don’t recommend it.
Does that make it invalid or (even more ridiculously) morally or ethically wrong?
In the meantime, I moved to Maine and started living with my low-carb, high-fat eating guy. Gradually, I began to eat more like him.
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I fought it every step of the way. I was like a bag of weasels when I gave up my morning (and midmorning and afternoon) tea with honey. What was tea without honey? I craved bread, homemade oatmeal, homemade scones and homemade gingersnap cookies. I was afraid to eat real butter. I decided this nonsense about vegetables and fruit was just that — nonsense, and I retained those in my diet, but I gave up bread and all grains. No flour. No rice. Goodbye amaranth, quinoa, cornmeal. No more homemade pancakes and waffles. No more buttered popcorn. I ask you, what is life without buttered popcorn?
I was feeling better. In fact, I noted I hadn’t had a back spasm since moving to Maine, an unheard-of period of time. I was also sleeping better. I had less bloating, water retention and gas.
I was disconcerted to find that I need to eat a lot. Much more than my male partner. It’s embarrassing. I discovered I had a lot of unconscious rules about Appropriate Eating For Women. I stopped worrying about keeping weight on and waited to get fat. I was eating more than I ever had before, and most of my calories were coming from animal fat.
I continued to feel better. I didn’t get fat. I’d read that fat doesn’t make you fat; carbs make you fat. I began to believe it. I felt healthy and strong and my weight was perfect. It stopped swinging up and down. I wasn’t cold all the time any more. I had more energy. My carb cravings stopped. I didn’t snack anymore. I got up, ate four or five eggs scrambled in butter on a bed of fresh spinach for breakfast, along with several strips of bacon and some fresh fruit, and then I started my day and didn’t even think about food until sometime in the afternoon, at which point I ate a ½ plus pound burger, mixed 70/30 with fat. Just the burger, mind you. Well, maybe a piece of cheese melted on top. When we were in funds, I ate a ¾ pound ribeye with lots of delicious fat.
Usually we are not in funds, however, and one day I ran out of spinach and fresh fruit at the same time. For a few days, there were only bacon and eggs for breakfast. Then we got a paycheck and I happily went and bought spinach and tangerines again.
Not spasm, but pain in all the old places — hip, low back and neck. I ached. I was stiff. I couldn’t sleep.
I was furious. I was scared. People HAVE to eat vegetables to stay healthy. They’re essential. I love fresh fruit.
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I was not going to give up fresh fruit!
Eventually, I gave up both vegetables and fruit.
As of this writing, I no longer take vitamin or herbal supplements, with the exception of magnesium, one a day, and a melatonin at bedtime. I take no prescription meds. I drink lots of water and unsweetened tea, mostly herbal and green. I’m no longer hypothyroid, proven by blood test. I’m almost never cold. I still struggle with eating enough, but if I eat more than a pound of meat a day (not counting eggs and butter), I don’t get faint or hypoglycemic. My migraines are less frequent. My weight is dead steady. I have no trouble at all with my digestion. My BMI is perfect. As long as I eat enough, I have loads of energy. I stretch, dance, swim, walk, shovel snow and lift weights with no problems. I’m not short of breath. I sleep like a rock but rarely need to nap during the day.
I haven’t had a muscle spasm now for more than two years. I haven’t had a cold or a sinus infection. My nails are supple and strong. My hair is curly and wild and thick. My skin is great.
I’ve never felt so good, and I’ve never been so healthy.
I’ve broken most rules of mainstream “healthy” eating.
This discussion of diet continues here and here. Please see my Resources page for links to diet and nutrition information.
All content on this site ©2017
except where otherwise noted
I recently read a blog post about vegan bullying.
Yep. You read that right. Vegan bullying is a thing.
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It’s time for me to write about food.
I grew up in the 60s and 70s in a middle-class family with the standard education about the food pyramid, Food Commandments from the ADA, and a mother who was very concerned and conscientious about feeding her children and animals in the best possible way. Remember Adele Davis?
In my adult life, I was never a vegan or even a vegetarian, but I did eat mostly fruit, grain and vegetables. I bought organic whenever possible. I took supplements. I baked my own bread and desserts, made my own granola, and cooked gallons of stews, soups, chili and hot cereal over the years in my crock pot for my family.
Thanks to my mom’s good sense, my lack of a sweet tooth, and my income level, soda, fast food, candy, donuts and other mass produced sweets have never been a large part of my food intake.
All my life, I’ve sincerely believed I’ve had a healthy, well balanced diet. I avoided white sugar, high-fat and junk food. I made smoothies with low-fat unsweetened yogurt. I grew my own vegetables and herbs. I’ve never been overweight. In fact, I’ve had trouble keeping weight on.
I have a family and/or personal history of rheumatoid arthritis; inflammatory bowel disease; fibromyalgia; constipation; poor circulation; restless leg syndrome; migraines; gout; chronic pain; chronic fatigue; muscle spasm; insomnia; depression; anxiety; asthma; skin and sinus problems; food, environmental and drug allergies; and hypothyroidism.
It’s interesting to note how much of this list has to do with inflammation.
The list is kind of daunting written out like that, but members of my family rarely go to the doctor or take any kind of medication. None of us are overweight. Mom and I don’t drink alcohol or smoke. A lot of the above diagnoses are nebulous and chronic rather than acute. We take vitamins, exercise, try to eat well and control our stress, and do our best with the constant presence of chronic pain and discomfort. Conventional medicine can’t do much for most of this list except prescribe pain meds, anti-depressants, anti-inflammatories, antihistamines and anti-anxiolytics.
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Stepping back and considering our current social context in America, we have millions of people suffering from obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a dozen addictions, not the least of which is the current exploding opioid dependence. Millions and millions of people are suffering with increasing anxiety and other mental health challenges, exacerbated by the current political and social climate. Weight loss programs, supplements, books and weight gurus make billions of dollars a year. We’re obsessed with food and our relationship to it.
Food production is complicated and often unethical, to say the least. Monocropping practices by Big Agriculture annihilate the land, destroying the delicate, complex web of plants, soil organisms, animals and insects. We’re exposed to artificial fertilizers, insecticides and other poisons, whether we use them or not.
Commercial animal food production practices have frequently been horrifically inhuman and unhealthy, both for the animals and for consumers.
Healthcare, to put it kindly, is in disarray. As a medical transcriptionist, I routinely transcribe medication lists that contain twelve or more prescription drugs. Exponential pharmaceutical costs are in the headlines. I myself have insurance, for the moment, through Obamacare, but it’s useless. The only insurance I can afford has a $5,000 deductible. I couldn’t deal with a $500 deductible. I never see a doctor unless it’s a dire emergency, and then I always have to fill out indigent care paperwork to get a sliding scale fee.
Adding to the confusion is the ever-present influence of money. Advertising. Food stamps. Fast food. Dating. Meeting friends for a drink or at the coffee shop. We struggle to feed our families. We debate about vending machines in schools and school lunches. We deal with food-borne illnesses. We have no money and live on beer and ramen noodles, or oatmeal, or rice and beans. We know from advertising the right food can make us beautiful, make us strong, cure our ills, provide us with happy relationships, better hair, younger and more attractive bodies, a perfect date. We should eat beef. We should eat gluten free. We should eat organic. We should eat a pizza. We should eat vegetarian. We should drink milk. We know how to eat well, but we can’t afford to. We know how to eat well, but the rest of our family won’t cooperate. We know how to eat well, but we don’t have time.
Yet all life must eat. A living body is a complex system of energy, organs, elements and chemistry, and we know a lot about how the complex system of the human body works. If we don’t feed our body well, it gets sick.
We all think we know what it means to eat well, based on learned information, our experience within our own bodies, our observations of others, and in some cases our spiritual and political beliefs. Of course, it’s hard to think clearly when in the grip of an addiction to sugar and carbs (this includes alcohol), but that counts only if we acknowledge our addiction and its power to drive our behavior, right?
We all know what a good diet is. Everyone knows. It’s merely a question of self-discipline.
If only it was that simple.
In fact, everyone doesn’t necessarily know what a good diet is, for themselves or anyone else. There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of disagreement, a lot of conflicting “science” and advice. There are a lot of social, financial and political agendas, a lot of manipulation and brainwashing, a lot of misleading and frankly false “information.”
Why is one of the most basic activities of life so complicated? Why is there so much conflicting “information?” Why are we so unhealthy? Why are we so dependent on Big Pharma? Why are people in their late 20s having heart attacks and strokes? Why is there an obesity epidemic? Why is diabetes on the rise?
When did we get to the point of vegan bullying, or any kind of food bullying, for that matter?
Finally, lest we Americans forget there are people outside America, how is it possible that famine still exists in the world when so much food is wasted and discarded every day? What social and political dynamics allow people to starve to death in Africa or anywhere else, while other populations suffer malnourishment and metabolic starvation encased in obesity?
Lastly, why is the topic of diet so inflammatory? Why do vegans and vegetarians bully meat eaters? Why is eating meat conflated with gun rights, hatred and cruelty? Why is it unacceptable to challenge our current belief systems around food?
Hard questions without simple answers. Hard questions guaranteed to outrage lot of people.
This topic to be continued here, here. and here.
Please see my Resources page for more information on food, diet, nutrition and health.
Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash
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except where otherwise noted
Last weekend I took my own advice and surrendered to the now of my life. Two big, heavy wooden doors opened like wings and I came home to dance between them.
One of my dearest friends introduced me (kicking and screaming all the way) to dance more than ten years ago.
“No,” I said, “I can’t do that.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t know how.”
But she, in her infinite female wisdom, nagged and niggled and poked and prodded until at last I agreed to try it. Once. Just to get her to shut up about it!
So I tried it and found myself there, waiting. I rarely missed a dance for years afterward. Ours was a small group of dancers, ebbing and flowing over the years, but the core group remained remarkably the same. Sometimes there were only two of us. It didn’t matter. It was a safe place, a place to be with myself in candlelight, a place to be in my body without thought, shame or responsibility. Everything happened at dance. We raged, we sobbed, we hurt, we lay on the floor. We shouted and clapped, farted, belched, giggled, played, pounded on the walls and danced until we drooled. It’s one of the few places in my life where I’ve felt I belonged.
Leaving my dance group was the most painful loss when I left my old life and came to Maine. I knew I could never replace it, but I hoped to find another place, another group, another dance.
The farmhouse I live in is more than a hundred years old and that means the ceilings are low. I don’t need a lot of room to dance by myself, but I do need to be able to move freely. I did dance a couple of times the first winter and spring I was here, but I had to make myself small so I didn’t scrape the ceiling with my hands and my heart was filled with what I’d left behind. It was so painful I didn’t want to face it again.
In Colorado we danced in a yoga studio. It was a beautiful space — clean, high ceilinged, wood floored. Perfect. Our little town was safe after dark. The studio was easily accessible, heated, had a bathroom available, and for most of us it was less than a five-minute drive to get there.
Since I’ve come to Maine I’ve searched for a local group. I’ve talked to several women about dance. Some have been intrigued, but they’re busy, or they have partners, or we don’t live very close together, or there’s no place to get together and do it. You know.
Here, the nearest town is twenty minutes away in good weather. I’m sure there are places in town we might use, but I don’t know where. Or who. Or how. I’m intimidated and overwhelmed and it seems ridiculous to try to find a suitable gathering place when there’s no dance group to use it.
So I stopped trying. Too painful. After all, now I have a partner to hang out with in the evenings. I told myself I’d keep thinking about it, look for openings, and eventually, maybe, be able to start another group. Or even find one. One day. When we had more money. If we moved somewhere else. If we had a better car that could actually deal with driving on winter nights.
But this summer there’s a lot of movement and change, not all of it comfortable. I’m learning a lot. I’m feeling a lot. Writing is good, and so is swimming, but dance accesses something deeper. I’ve known for a few weeks now I need to find a way to get back into those depths for my sake and for the sake of my loved ones.
So I decided to quit playing games with myself and figure this out.
Naturally, an old farmhouse in Maine comes equipped with a barn. Ours is a total of four stories, a typical New England nineteenth-century barn. There’s a bat colony in the top of it and it’s an apartment house for rodents. It’s constructed of gorgeous beams and posts with high ceilings and huge blocks of stone in the foundation. Windows look across the tops of the trees and over the river valley, most of them without glass now. We have six cords of hardwood stored in the driveway level and miscellaneous stuff on the top two floors. The spirit of the building is in the cellar, though, which is accessed through two huge heavy wooden doors that are permanently propped open in the back of the building. This area is mostly underground and the stone foundation can be clearly seen. There are old pens and animal stalls built by hand from the plentiful wood here; not boards, but logs and saplings, rough cut. The mowed area in front of this lower floor is not visible from house, driveway or road and is surrounded by trees.
So, I built a playlist of good music, a mix of old familiar dance tunes and some new discoveries. I swept and raked, picked up trash and got rid of some impressive spider webs. I found an old rusty tin can, filled it with dirt, and stuck incense in it. I put on a skirt and some jewelry, found a pair of light shoes I thought would work (I’ve always danced barefoot), grabbed a yoga mat to sit in the grass and stretch on and went to see what would happen.
They were all there, my dancers. It seemed to me I could almost reach out and touch them. They mingled with the ghosts of animals who once lived in this barn, long dead; generations of birds, now flown from empty nests in the rafters; and the dirty lace of old cobwebs. My feet felt clumsy and heavy in shoes and it wasn’t night, but my body remembered how to move and my brain remembered how to lie down and rest. The music swept me up, pushed me with sharp elbows and knees, shook me by the scruff of the neck, played with me and soothed me. I danced with my expectations, my stories, my fears and limitations and loss. I danced with my disappointment and grief and rage. I threw down my rigidity, refusal and denial and danced in their blood. I danced with the joy of coming back to myself.
I danced in an old barn, in a new life, but not alone. The past is still with me, the dancers I knew green and supple in my memory. The pain of change is not, after all, too great to bear. I don’t need money. I don’t need a better car. I don’t need anything that hasn’t been here all along. I don’t need to wait for anyone else or anything else. I just needed to surrender to what is now.
So this one’s for you, my dear Bobbi; for you, Jill, in all your beautiful sensitivity; for you, Rena, who taught me so much about strength, courage and being real; and for you, Pat, who brought essential balance to our group and allowed us to dance with a playful small boy.
Half a world away, you all still honor my dance with your presence.
We based our dance practice in Colorado on the work of Gabrielle Roth, and I still follow this template. Please see my resource page for links. Also, here’s a wonderful piece about the power of dance.
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