This article from Joshua Becker of The Minimalists landed in my Inbox this week. It made me smile, because I certainly am a person who, when problem solving, frequently considers adding something rather than subtracting something.
The way this shows up in my life is not with stuff, but with the demands I place on myself. My default response to low energy, not feeling well, emotional or physical pain, frustration, and feeling discouraged is to drive myself harder, do more, move faster.
I could write for the rest of my life on all the ways this does not work, but I’ll spare you.
Yet it continues to be my unconscious default in every case.
A case in point is my exercise routine. I’ve begun working with a personal trainer.
I haven’t been able to exercise regularly until the last three or four years because of my autoimmune disease. When I finally fixed my inflammatory problems with a carnivore diet, I discovered I could participate in regular exercise and stretching without throwing my muscles into spasm. I bought some weights and put together a couple of workouts.
The combination of repetitions, weights, and stretching I’ve been using has occasionally made me sore but not triggered a catastrophic inflammatory response in my body, as long as I don’t eat plants or sugar. However, I began to get bored with my routines, and I didn’t always feel like spending an hour getting through them. I discover I also wasn’t very even in the muscle groups I was working and stretching. Who knew?
A personal trainer knew!
My trainer is well aware of my propensity to push myself too hard, a trait we share, so she is developing new routines for me, briefer, more balanced, and without so much weight. I started following her guidance a couple of weeks ago, but I felt guilty about it. If working for 20-30 minutes is good, working for an hour must be much better. If working with 3-lb hand weights is good, working with 5 lbs must be better, along with ankle weights.
My trainer gave me several new stretches and asked me to spend more time with them, but stretching is surely not as good as lots of reps and weight. Holding a stretch for 30 seconds eats up a lot of time I should be spending working harder, right?
I followed her advice about everything, curious but also convinced I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough.
Then I read about additive vs. subtractive problem solving, and smiled to myself. Less weight. Shorter, more evenly balanced workout routines. A few targeted slow stretches, which I’ve begun doing throughout the day, as I’m chronically tense and stretching reminds me to slow down, breathe, and be kind to myself.
What I discover is I feel better. I have more fun exercising. It’s easier to face a 20-30 minute session than an hour-long one.
Instead of using exercise as one more way to push myself too far, following the expertise of a personal trainer has transformed it into self-care. Real self-care. Loving self-care. More effective, more appropriate self-care.
It feels strange. Too easy. Too gentle.
Working smarter rather than harder has always been an idea I don’t quite trust. It makes intellectual sense, and I would encourage anyone I care about to consider it, but when I think about applying it to myself it feels like a cop-out. I expect myself to work smart and hard.
Whatever our challenges, from our most personal to our most public, it appears we naturally think of additive solutions. This tendency certainly benefits a consumerist culture. How would our power change if we taught ourselves to consider subtraction as well as addition when managing problems and challenges?
At 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning, we park in the dark, empty parking lot and use a combination keypad to enter the building and a key to unlock the door to the pool, re-locking it behind us. We turn on lights, computers and automatic doors. We run a shower in the men’s and women’s locker rooms, as the hot water takes several minutes to reach them and the early swimmers complain of cold showers. We check the temperatures and chemicals in the pools. We peel off our winter layers and put on suits, shorts, emergency fanny packs and whistles. We check the day’s schedule. All the while, a rising chorus of voices and laughter comes from outside the still-locked door where the early water aerobics class gathers, as though it’s noon and not O-dark-thirty on a cold November morning. The aerobics teacher gets her music ready and checks the wireless headset. This class is large, so she will teach from the pool deck rather than the water.
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At 7:00 we unlock the door and they stream in, laughing and talking, tousled heads of grey, white and improbable shades of blonde and brown. Not one of them is under 55. This morning the entire class consists of women. They disappear into the locker room, where the mirth and talk continue as they change and shower. I gather up a rescue tube and get comfortable in the lifeguard chair.
Descending the steps into the pool, the women tease one another and complain about the cold water. Many wear glasses, though they’ve removed their hearing aids. Many wear earrings. A couple of them dispense kickboards, foam buoys and floating foam noodles from plastic laundry baskets on shelves at poolside.
On this morning I count 17 in the class. We know one of them had a birthday over the weekend. The instructor gives her a blue plastic tiara and matching wand from the Dollar Store while we all sing “Happy Birthday.” She’s informed the tiara must stay on her head during the class. She presses it firmly onto her grey hair, laughing.
The instructor cues the music. I jiggle the dial on the wireless speaker, which never seems to work properly, and the class begins with the announcement of a Beatles soundtrack. “Hard Day’s Night” starts the warm-up to a 45-minute water aerobics workout.
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Music is so evocative. I can’t hear The Beatles without thinking of my brother, who owned and played all their albums when we were growing up. These women are a decade older than I am, and they greet each song with delight. They know every word. They bob up and down, kicking, twisting, using the kickboards and buoys for resistance and strengthening in the water. Most are generous-bodied and their bosoms bounce within the confines of their modestly cut suits. I see lime green, pink and black. I see loosened skin and wrinkled cleavage, pink scalp and cellulite while “Revolution” fills the brightly lit, echoing space.
The instructor guides the class from one set of movements to another. They stand in place. They travel back and forth across the pool. They lift, bend and stretch in a circle. We all sing together. They inform each other, soulfully, “I want to hold your hand.” The water churns with their efforts. “Got to get you into my life!” they shout at one another with hilarious passion.
As I watch, I try to imagine these well-ripened, glorious women as teenagers. I imagine them hearing “Good Day Sunshine” for the first time on radios, records and jukeboxes in diners, in cars and at parties. They were all young once, pretty, idealistic and probably as foolish as most young women are. They had homework and crushes on teachers. They had families and friends and gossiped. The Beatles were part of the soundtrack of their lives. Now, decades later, what old memories, thoughts and feelings do these familiar songs unlock? What stories do they recall, what pleasures, what griefs and disappointments when they hear “All My Loving?”
The very last song is “Yellow Submarine.” By now even I am breathless with laughter. Impossible to hear this music without moving to it, even if confined in a sitting position. The instructor is incapable with mirth. It doesn’t matter. The class guides itself, arms high in the air over their heads, red-faced, panting, dancing in the water. They turn, bump ample hips with one another, gesture flamboyantly, and we all sing at the top of our voices until the music stops and the class ends.
Knowing the routine, the class puts all the equipment away tidily in the sudden quiet. They pull the lane lines back into place and hook them up. They exit the lap pool and move to the 93-degree therapy pool, where they break into groups and chat, some in the shallow end and others floating peacefully in the deep end. The birthday girl is still wearing her blue plastic tiara. Now the talk is more subdued than it was before the class. I hear a discussion about snow shovels, snow blowers, and the performance of various men, hired and otherwise, with these tools. I hear talk of families, grandchildren and plans for the holidays. A group in a corner carries on a low-voiced discussion interspersed with much bawdy laughter. It’s not hard to imagine what they’re talking about. I smile in sympathy. Local news and politics are dealt with, along with the weather, the state of the roads, church gossip, local holiday activities and fund raisers.
It’s just 8:00 on a Monday morning. These women represent part of the backbone of the community. Seasoned, experienced, humorous and wise in the ways of the world, they know exactly who they are and what they’re made of. They’ve loved and lost, worked, raised families, volunteered, suffered grief, illness and injury. They’re outspoken, earthy and unapologetic. They know how to connect with others. They know how to play and laugh. They are kind and compassionate without being sentimental. They know how to love life.
Monday morning we all lived in a yellow submarine for an hour, and proclaimed it joyfully at the top of our voices.
I posted three times about diet and food in 2017. You can find them here, here and here. They are among my most-read posts, and I’ve had enough comments and reads to encourage me to update my experience a year later. I still read everything I see regarding food, nutrition and diet, and I’m still learning what choices give me optimal health and following new science and data.
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For the record, I’m 54 years old, officially in menopause now, 5 feet 8 inches tall and a steady 140 lbs. I do a minimum of two hours of sweat-producing Tai Chi a week, swim laps for 45-60 minutes without stopping weekly, and walk energetically up and down a steep hill with my partner (about 50 minutes) five days a week. This walk is also sweat-producing. I dance occasionally and take shorter walks and snowshoe excursions several times a week. I go up and down steep flights of stairs all day long, shovel snow and help hump hardwood (heavy!) firewood into the barn. My blood pressure and pulse are both low, and my BMI is exactly where it’s supposed to be. I see a dentist and eye doctor regularly and a medical doctor rarely. I take no prescription medications and I don’t drink or smoke. I sleep 8-9 hours a night.
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In the summer of 2016, as I was slowly eating fewer and fewer plants and more and more meat and animal fats, I had trouble with hair loss. It occurred about six months into my transition to a very low-carb, high-fat diet. As you can imagine, it gave me pause. My hair is one of my few vanities (it misbehaves so gloriously!) and the women in my family have thick, healthy hair. I freaked out.
My first thought was thyroid. I was previously diagnosed as hypothyroid, but I had quit taking my medication when I moved to Maine in 2015 and had no further symptoms. I went to a doctor and had blood drawn. My thyroid levels were normal. Good news, but it didn’t explain my hair loss. At that particular time I was under a great deal of family stress, and the doctor assured me my hair loss was a stress reaction combined with menopause. I wasn’t much comforted, but I couldn’t find another explanation and he was undisturbed, so I decided to give it some time and see what happened.
The stress in my personal life resolved and after three or four weeks so did the hair loss. I didn’t think any more about it until recently, when my partner, who also eats low-carb, high-fat, told me he’d come across a blog post about temporary hair loss being a side effect of transitioning to a ketogenic diet, and it generally occurs around six months into the diet. Hair loss explained. It’s worth noting that since then, my hair is thicker, wilder and curlier than ever, and it grows fast. I need a cut at least every five weeks.
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In my old life, when I was eating a mostly plant-based diet, I really struggled with constipation. I took fiber supplements and ate loads of fiber-rich foods every day, but it seemed like the more fiber I took, the more trouble I had. I also had a lot of bloating and water retention, which was discouraging. I felt fat, and at the same time I felt depleted.
One of my biggest concerns about trying a low-carb diet was the issue of fiber. Everything I’d ever read told me unequivocally that it’s necessary to eat fiber to maintain a healthy GI tract, and cutting out plant-based food seemed to be going in the opposite direction.
What I discovered was that I still struggled with constipation, but it didn’t get worse. I was surprised, but I still wanted to fix the problem. I did a lot of reading on blogs about eating low or zero carb, and found constipation was a concern for many people. Everything I read pointed to focusing on micronutrients, especially when transitioning to low-carb, high-fat eating. I read a lot about electrolytes: salt, magnesium, calcium and potassium. My plant-based diet was low-salt (I was careful about salt and rarely added it when cooking and baking) and high in magnesium and potassium. My understanding was that salt is very bad for us, and causes high blood pressure, water retention and a myriad of other problems. Further reading informed me salt is a necessary nutrient, and I realized I was getting well below the recommended levels of salt, potassium and magnesium in my diet of meat and fat.
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I began to supplement magnesium and potassium, and I stopped restricting salt (which I’ve always loved). I also began making sure I drink at least 3 liters of water a day, more when it’s hot and humid. The other thing I read about consistently, and this was the hardest for me, was that one needs to eat at least a pound of meat a day, and many people aim for two. That’s a lot of meat!
When I implemented all this, my constipation went away. My blood pressure and water retention did not increase with increased salt. I never have bloating. If I have trouble now, it’s because I’ve been too sedentary, not drinking or eating enough, or I forgot my usual supplements.
When I began eating low-carb, high-fat, I also started having severe leg and foot cramps, which I’d never had before. They weren’t like my chronic pain and spasm, but in the middle of the night, without warning, my calf or foot would cramp, waking me in a hurry and making me writhe for a few seconds before it relaxed. I was concerned this was a sign that eating this way was as insane and unhealthy as most people say it is and I was starving my body of what it needed, but this, too, turned out to be a function of imbalanced electrolytes and under hydration. I haven’t had any kind of cramp since last year.
In retrospect, I wonder if both my chronic pain and spasm and my constipation had a lot to do with imbalanced electrolytes all along. It may be I’ve been chronically sodium deficient. I also believe I’ve been chronically under hydrated for most of my life. I have to really pay attention in order to get three plus liters of water a day, and I lived in Colorado, which is terribly dry, before I came to Maine. Obviously, staying well hydrated is essential to healthy bowel habits.
Another problem I had was debilitating migraine headaches that lasted for at least 24 hours and made it impossible to function. Photophobia, phonophobia, neuralgia and pounding pain had me in a dark room with an ice pack. For two or three years I had them once a month, right at the full moon. As I started eating meat and fat and reducing carbs, they gradually diminished in intensity, frequency and length. I’ve had one so far this year, and I was able to function all the way through it, albeit with discomfort.
So what, exactly, does my current diet look like?
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I eat three thick slices of bacon and two sausage links with four to five buttered eggs every morning. It’s always delicious and I’m not even close to bored eating it daily. I also drink my first liter of water in unsweetened green tea and just plain water with breakfast. Every other day I put a spoonful of fresh farm cream cheese with garlic and herbs on the eggs. We usually eat before 8:00 a.m.
I don’t think about food again until around 3:00 p.m. I write for three or four hours, exercise, do housework, run errands, etc. I usually drink a couple more cups of herbal tea and I drink at least another liter of water. Sometime mid afternoon I’ll feel hungry. My partner makes a beef stew to die for, but we don’t always have that. We always have ground beef, however, and last fall we saved money and bought half a locally-raised cow, butchered and packaged to our specifications. The meat is grass-fed and very lean. I’m sure this is what most people want, but we find it too lean. Because of that, I make a burger patty or crumble and cook the beef in the frying pan from breakfast in order to take advantage of the bacon and sausage fat. The lean ground beef soaks up the fat pretty well, especially if I just crumble and cook it, which takes about 2 minutes. I aim to cook at least 3/4 of a pound of burger.
I find this extremely filling and satisfying. I drink a lot of water with it. Now and then I spoon garlic and herb farm cheese on top. If I’m really starving or feel extra depleted, I bake a half a sweet potato or white potato, anoint it with lots of butter and fresh farm sour cream. I don’t eat any kind of carb without eating fat and meat first.
I also buy unsweetened, full-fat farm yoghurt, and sometimes after my afternoon meal I’ll eat a couple big spoonfuls of that. When there is beef stew, I occasionally like to have a half a thin slice of locally baked wheat bread, liberally buttered, with the gravy. I love ice cream, and about once a week I eat a small bowl of hard ice cream, but only after a good meal of meat and fat. If we buy ice cream in town, I get a child’s serving in a bowl. Cones are just empty carbs, and they make me hurt. My partner likes banana bread, and he occasionally bakes a very low-sugar version. Sometimes I’ll eat a half a thin slice, thickly buttered, as a treat after my afternoon meal.
I have a tendency to react badly to nuts, but I love peanut butter, and we buy nothing-added-but-salt peanut butter from East Wind in bulk. Once a week I eat a spoonful of that on a small square of buttered bread.
Oddly, I’ve discovered eating one spoonful of ice cream a day causes far more problems than having a small serving once a week. For me, there seems to be a cumulative effect in terms of carbs. Now and then I splurge on a carb, just for fun, and if I’ve eaten meat and fat first I can get away with it without too many consequences. If I squirt a little catsup on my burger three days in a row, though, I’m going to start to have pain that limits my activity level and sleep. Commercial catsup, for some stupid reason, is sweetened.
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Since I last wrote about food, I’ve done a lot of reading on permaculture, holistic food production, and land management. Please see my Resource page for links. What I’ve learned is that monocropping is biocide. Large-scale animal production can be equally catastrophic for the land and environment. What we know now is that a healthy complex system (i.e., Planet Earth, left undisturbed) contains an essential mix of plants, fungi, microorganisms, insects and animals. Earth is evolved for such communities, and we will destroy the planet if we don’t figure out how to emulate, nurture, protect and participate in such systems. All life will starve to death.
The most extraordinary thing about eating this way, and the hardest part to communicate to someone who doesn’t, is the level of hunger satisfaction. Previously, I was always snacking. A piece of fruit, a couple of pieces of toast, a salad, a smoothie. I was always hungry, and I was always ashamed of it. My shame caused me to withhold food from myself, which only made my cravings worse. My weight, mood and energy fluctuated wildly. My sleep was bad. I had constant pain. I was always thinking about food, one way or another.
It’s hard to express how different it is to eat a big breakfast and walk away feeling really satisfied and full until six or seven hours later. No craving. No shame. No snacking. No sense of deprivation. No counting calories or weighing portions. Then, another big meal, the evening routine and bedtime, satisfied and satiated. When I’m hungry, I eat. I don’t care what time it is or what else is going on. When I’m full, I stop eating. That’s it.
Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash
The same level of satisfaction applies to drinking water. We drink filtered water from our old hand-dug well, and I never thought just plain water could give me so much pleasure. You couldn’t pay me to drink soda or sweet tea or any of the things I used to drink. When I’m thirsty, I want water, lovely, fresh, cool, clean water. I’m never bored with it. I never want anything else. It satisfies me in a way that’s so deep it’s almost sensual.
I never feel deprived.
It’s worth noting that the absolutely most satisfying meat is beef. I eat some chicken and, occasionally, turkey, but I have to eat two or three times as much in order to get the same level of satiation, and those meats are less fatty than beef. Pork is good because it’s high-fat, and we hope to be able to buy a half a pig in the future from local farmers.
Sometimes, if I’ve been working unusually hard physically or am unusually emotionally upset, I’ll need a fast snack. In this case, hard-boiled eggs are portable, quick and healthy. Every couple of months I buy a plain ham, unsweetened, smoked, or otherwise manipulated, as fatty as I can find. I thin slice it and pack it into small baggies, which I throw in the freezer until wanted. This provides a quick, high-fat, high-salt, tasty snack I can eat on the run or in a hurry. If I’m going to visit a friend and have a cup of tea or a chat, I eat a little ham so I can have a cracker or cookie with my friend without paying for it in pain.
We have the great good fortune to be able to buy food from a farm. I no longer buy commercial milk, cheese, yoghurt, sour cream or eggs. Nothing compares to food that hasn’t left the farm until you take it home. It puts money back into the local community, fosters small-scale farmers who are working holistically with animals and plants (and they work day and night, let me assure you), and it allows me to know exactly where my food is coming from and how it’s being handled. It’s also fresh and far more delicious than anything available in the grocery store.
I’ve seen blogs and posts from people who claim to have tried a low or zero-carb, high-fat diet and say it “doesn’t work.” I’m not sure what “doesn’t work” means, exactly, but I always long to ask a lot of nosey questions. First, what was the goal? Why did they try it? Secondly, how long did they stick to it? Thirdly, did they really commit to it? Did they suspend their soda habit, stop sweetening their coffee and ditch the “healthy” granola bars? Did they eat meat and animal fat and drink water and nothing else? Lastly, do they smoke tobacco or drink? All alcohol is carbs. Do they take any prescription drugs or use recreational drugs?
Another thing I’ve heard is that eating this way is unmanageable socially. I don’t buy that. If you’re trying to change the way you eat in order to feel better and improve your health and your buddies at the bar give you a bad time for refusing nachos and cheese fries, grow a pair and tell them to back off! Better yet, get them to join you! Do a two-week challenge and bet on who will lose the most weight. True friends will support friends in maintaining health. If you can pack a sandwich for lunch, you can pack fatty ham, hard boiled eggs, and a container of full-fat unsweetened yoghurt. If your only option is fast food, buy a couple of burgers and ditch the buns and condiments. If you want to eat this way, you can. Nobody cares. Nobody’s really paying attention. They’re too busy with their own food preoccupations! Pot luck? Take a tray of cold cuts or deviled eggs. We go out to eat a couple of times a week and enjoy eggs and sausage, meatloaf, pot roast and chopped sirloin. Hold the bread, hold the side salad!
Eating in this way has transformed my life and my health. Shopping is easy, infrequent and fast. Every ten days or so I visit my friend’s farm, buy eight dozen eggs, cheese, sour cream and/or yoghurt (according to need), chat and exchange a hug. I spend a half hour in the kitchen making breakfast, doing dishes, giving the cat fresh water, looking out the windows, watching the birds and thinking about the day ahead. My afternoon meal is either already made (stew) or takes two or three minutes to cook in the breakfast frying pain. I don’t meal plan. We know exactly what we need to budget to eat well. I don’t need a lot of gear and gadgets or cupboard space. The refrigerator is not overflowing with who-knows-what leftovers and outdated food. Our collection of plastic Tupperware containers is virtually unused (which is good, because there are mice in that particular cupboard!). We don’t produce much trash, because we don’t buy cans, bags and boxes. We recycle all our egg cartons, plastic and aluminum. We compost egg shells, tea bags, coffee grounds, and any small amount of vegetable matter. Meat and bacon grease is also perfectly suitable for compost, managed properly. We know farmers who have buried a whole dead goat in the center of their compost pile with no smell and no problem.
I don’t diet. I eat food — joyously, effortlessly, with great satisfaction and pleasure. I drink water with a deep sense of gratitude that I have clean water to drink. I feel healthy, happy, energetic and filled with vitality. My body is my friend and ally, and I think it’s miraculously lovely.
Diet is a personal choice. I suspect different bodies have different requirements. Some people can’t eat eggs or dairy. Some are particularly sensitive to the herbicides in our grains. I also suspect that a lot of the current mainstream information and advice about food is skewed and misleading. I encourage everyone to research for themselves. A sampling of the links I’ve provided in these posts and on my Resource page may provide you with new information and data. Ultimately, the choice is yours, and yours alone. If you’re happy with your physical and mental health, your relationship to food and your body, and you have no need to take over-the-counter or prescription medication, you obviously have figured out what works for you. If not, it’s important to understand you’re not alone and not everyone (not even all doctors) is in agreement about diet.
As for me, I will never go back to a plant-based diet, chronic pain and spasm, constipation, migraines, hypothyroidism, anxiety and depression, insomnia and weight problems. I’m a carnivore, and I eat meat and animal fat with great relish.
It’s the first week of the new year, and many of us are pausing to look back over our shoulders at where we’ve been the last twelve months and then turning to survey the path before us, at least as much of the path as we can see. The Internet is awash with lists of how to make new year resolutions as well as lists of why we shouldn’t make new year resolutions. Advertising for buying our way to a new persona is frenzied.
As usual, I’m out of step. I’ve read a couple of great pieces this week, one about the limits of willpower and a list of 13 things to give up for success. I’ve read and re-read them, thought about them, and discussed the first article extensively with my partner. Normally when material like this catches my interest it develops into a blog post, but this week nothing is happening.
Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash
All I can think about is simplicity.
Lists are great. I used to be a champion list maker. They guided my whole life during a lot of complicated years.
Now? Not so much.
I have really simplified.
But the thing about simplifying is how complicated it is.
For example, more than a year ago I stopped shaving. But that’s not where it started. It started with me deciding I was no longer going to please people. But that’s not exactly where it started, either. Part of it started when I decided to allow myself to be everything I am and nothing I’m not.
If I hadn’t given up on pleasing others and limiting myself, I never would have stopped shaving. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do so. Interrupting this lifelong habit never made it onto a list, though it would have been easy to cross off. One decision and it was over.
Making a list of behaviors to discard is wildly misleading, because it doesn’t address what underlies our inappropriate and ineffective behaviors, and that’s where all the ongoing and time-consuming work is.
Pleasing others and making myself small are two lifelong, deeply entrenched habits, and I work every day to make different choices. It’s not easy. I’m not perfect. (Another deeply entrenched habit – perfectionism!) Any distress or inattention results in automatic reversion to my old habits. I don’t expect to ever be able to cross ‘stop pleasing others’ and ‘stop making yourself small’ off a list.
On the other hand, working to change and challenge these two big things allows a whole cascade of smaller habits to loosen and fall away, the kinds of habits that are reasonable to put in a list. Pleasing others and making myself small create an immensely complicated set of actions.
Anyway, one day it occurred to me to ask myself why I shaved.
Answer: Because everyone does. It’s a social rule that women shave their body hair. Hairy legs are unattractive.
The everything-I-am and nothing-I’m-not me: Oh, yeah?
The not-pleasing-other-people me: I don’t think hairy legs are unattractive. All my lovers have had hairy legs. I didn’t mind. In fact, I like body hair. It adds texture and sensation, especially in erogenous zones. I refuse to accept that male hairy legs and armpits are acceptable and female hairy legs and armpits are ugly. That’s ridiculous.
So I stopped shaving.
No more razors or shaving cream to buy and throw away. No more rashes, nicks or razor burn. Less hot water, less time in the shower. Bonus: In wringing humidity and hot weather, the hair on my legs and under my arms helps me cool more effectively. Another bonus: No more microcuts in my armpits. I worry less about health concerns regarding deodorant. A third bonus: Hairs provide sensory information. If a tick is crawling on me, it stirs the hairs on my body and alerts me to its presence.
I still wear shorts and skirts. I swim every week. My partner appears to be able to deal with a woman in a natural woman’s body without fainting with horror. In fact, I don’t think he even really noticed.
Shaving is just one of many examples of things that can be crossed off lists, but before we can get to those, we have to deal with the big stuff, and that’s hard, ongoing work. The big stuff drives the little stuff. Want to get more exercise? Work on keeping your word to yourself. Want to lose weight? Excavate your relationship with food and redefine it (which means change your life and purge your kitchen).
Simplicity is frequently the end result of complex effort.
On the other hand, some of us have a genius for making simple steps unbelievably complex.
Take exercise, for example. Do you want to exercise more? Really? Then set down the device you’re reading this on, put on clothes appropriate for whatever is outside and (here’s the hard part) walk. You don’t need a dog, a buddy, your mate, special clothes, neon shoes, a Fitbit, a step counter, a timer, a gym membership or a piece of expensive equipment. You don’t need earbuds or entertainment.
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
Now you’re getting exercise. Do it every day and you’re getting more exercise.
It’s simple. Nike got it right. Just do it.
If it feels more complex than this, it’s not the exercise that’s the problem, it’s some belief or pattern (often deeply buried and unconscious) that’s sabotaging our efforts. And that’s complex!
It’s been very cold here in Maine, as it has in many other parts of the nation. We had heavy snow on Christmas Day. After my daily stint of three or four hours of writing, I wanted a walk, so I layered up and went out into the storm.
Unbroken fresh snow underfoot. One set of tire tracks going up the hill. The chill kiss of wet flakes against the little bit of exposed skin on my face. Wind, and the sound of the trees groaning and creaking and the snow hitting my hood. The sound of my own breath, which condensed on the scarf wrapped around my face, crusting it with ice. My steady footsteps squeaking up the hill. Everything grey and white and shadow.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Christmas Day, and nothing but swirling snow and breathing, walking, the warmth and vitality of my own life. So simple. So peaceful. So starkly beautiful, and nothing to do but inhabit my body and the day.
In these days, fully in the grasp of winter, life is reduced to the wood stove, hot meals, my daily exercise and my writing practice. At 4:30 p.m. it’s dark. Storm and gale, wind chill and subzero temperatures limit our ability to drive. We delve into our piles of books. The cat snuggles with us on the couch. If the power goes out, we light candles and I’m not displeased. At night, the house pops and cracks, groaning in the cold and the wind. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my feet up and a blanket around my shoulders, I doze off as I’m reading The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. This kind of extreme cold is very simplifying. Eat. Stay warm.
Simplifying my life has made me happier, healthier and more productive. It’s also been frustrating, slow, unpredictable, unexpected, terrifying and painful. It has not looked like an orderly list on a fresh sheet of paper written with my favorite pen. It would be nice if it were that easy, wouldn’t it? Lose weight. Check. Get more exercise. Check. Spend more time with family and friends. Check. Get more sleep. Check.
Those are all worthy goals, and perfectly attainable, but not by writing a list or making new year resolutions. Changing behavior is a great deal more complicated than that, and creating a life of simplicity is an enormous undertaking.
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?
Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash
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.
Photo by Helena Yankovska on Unsplash
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.
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 Resourcespage for links to diet and nutrition information.