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Dean Esmay
From failure on conventional high-carb, low-fat diet to low-carb, high-protein, no-problem.

Dean is host and moderator of the PALEODIET listgroup, and coordinator
of several other internet lists including LOWCARB.

Copyright © 1997 by Dean Esmay. All rights reserved.
Contact author for permission to republish.

I HAVE LONG HAD what I feel to be undiagnosed hypoglycemia. All the symptoms were there for many years. I have also been struggling with my weight for many years. My wife was diagnosed years ago as a "borderline diabetic" (fasting blood glucose of over 150) and has had chronic, lifelong weight problems and fluctuating energy problems worse than my own.

I spent a few years as a dedicated low-fat dieter. Yet there was a problem. I suffered from constantly fluctuating energy levels, moodiness, heart palpitations, racing pulse, very low HDL cholesterol, and moderately elevated triglycerides. All this despite watching my calories within reason, strictly limiting fat intake just like I read everywhere was supposed to be healthy, and exercising both aerobically and with weights on an almost daily basis. I lost about 20 pounds on such a program, but slowly, over time, watched it creep back on, despite continuing to rigorously limit my fat intake and continuing exercise.

After meeting my wife, we tried harder and harder to stick to the low-fat paradigm and to exercise. We both suffered severe energy fluctuations from this. When this alone didn't work, we switched to a near-vegan vegetarian lifestyle, limiting intake of refined sugars to very low levels and subsisting mostly on brown rice, beans, mushrooms, fresh fruits and vegetables, occasional nuts, pita bread, small amounts of hummus, and small amounts of fat-free cheeses or an occasional bit of peanut butter now and then.

We made sure to get about 45 grams daily of protein (which we were told is all anyone should need by health experts), we ate no more than 20 or 30 grams a day of fat, no animal fat, and no animal protein (or animal products of any kind) at all except for the small amounts of cheese. On occasion we would "splurge" with the hummus and allow ourselves up to 40 or 50 grams of fat in one day, but most days it was no more than 20 grams, and some days substantially less than that. We also did our best to limit our calorie intake, eating only when hungry and trying hard not to overeat.

In one month on such a regimen, I gained five pounds, and my poor wife Rosemary gained twenty. Rosemary was also having problems with fainting spells. I couldn't sleep. My heart palpitations and racing pulse were worse than ever. I was not only hungry most of the time, but almost every night I would wake from a sound sleep with a gnawing, almost painful hunger. We would both try hard not to overeat, but we both were so ravenously HUNGRY all the time, it was nearly impossible to stop eating without constantly being miserable and spending every minute trying not to think about food.

Every day we would go through long periods of dragging in which we had almost no energy. We would often need naps during the day. We tried to convince ourselves that it was "natural" to need a nap during the middle of the day just to keep functioning, that feeling so tired was just a part of life.

So, to this point, after the years of struggling with conventional advice about low-fat, low-cholesterol eating being the healthiest way to go (and finding nothing but failure), I had finally turned to an almost completely strict vegetarian diet for the answers, only to find that not only was it not the promised land, it actually made both my wife and I considerably worse.

Something interesting I'd like to note is that frequently, when I talk to a nutritionist (professional or self-appointed) about how low-fat diets in general and/or vegetarianism failed me miserably, I get a lecture about how it's important that dietary changes be a part of a "lifestyle change."

When I note that I was already exercising regularly, it is suggested that I needed more (as if 90 minutes per day, 5-6 days per week, were not enough!) or that I did not restrict calories properly. This point I always find most amusing, as I'm always told either that I was restricting them too much and thus putting my body in "starvation mode," or I was undisciplined and simply should have restricted calories more. In truth I was eating at least 3 quarts of cooked brown rice daily, several cups of beans, and considerable amounts of fruits, fruit juices, fresh salads, fresh nuts, and so on. Thus, "starvation mode" was a myth--I was eating like a horse. And despite the fact that I was eating like a horse, I was never satiated. I was ravenous almost all day, every day, and was so screamingly hungry most of the time it interfered with my sleep and with functioning normally.

To the last point it is sometimes smirkingly or smugly suggested that I just needed a "little willpower" or some "commitment." To which I can only say, what does "willpower" have to do with constantly being in pain? Do you accuse someone with a toothache of not having "willpower" enough to ignore it? Do you accuse someone who is feeling profoundly nauseated of not having enough "willpower" when they throw up? I was bloody well HUNGRY. I was not depressed, "using food as a reward," or "eating for comfort" or "entertainment." I was gut-wrenchingly hungry, dammit, an acute physical sensation I could ignore about the same way I could ignore having a cigarette put out in my hand. Could I do it? Yes. But why should I? And if eating thousands of calories on my "healthy, natural" vegetarian diet left me so screamingly hungry, how much worse would it have been if I had tried restricting to small portions?

Well, a month or so in the promised land of near-vegan vegetarianism told me and my wife that this was not going to work for us. After months of experimenting we found something that did, a high-fat, high-protein diet as described by the likes of Michael and Mary Eades (in their book Protein Power) and Robert Atkins (in his book The New Diet Revolution).

Now, I do not advocate that everyone follow these diets. To the contrary, I think everyone should do their best to find out what works for them. However, within weeks on a diet loaded with lots and lots of meat, as well as eggs and some good natural cheeses (not the low-fat or fat-free kind, either):

I lost weight without hunger. I had more energy than I had had in many years. My cholesterol and triglycerides massively improved. My heart palpitations vanished. I stopped getting tired in the middle of the day. I slept better, and needed less sleep in general. I just plain felt better than I had in many years.

My wife had similar results. As a bonus, her blood sugars were normal, her chronic anemia vanished, and she permanently stopped having fainting spells.

The tendency may be to dismiss our experiences, especially the bit about heart palpitations and energy levels. Some people will claim that this is all psychological. To which I can only ask, if it's all psychological, why didn't we have the same psychological benefits from low-fat dieting? We were promised that if we stuck to a diet low in fat, low in protein, and high in complex carbohydrates, we would feel better, look better, lose weight easily and without hunger, and have more energy. I was a True Believer in this for years, but it never happened. When I switched to a mostly-vegan diet, I was also told I'd feel better, have more energy, would lose weight easily and without hunger, and so on. Again, it didn't happen. I truly wanted to believe those diets would help me, but they didn't.

I later got hooked up on the internet with a number of other people who were using different forms of diets like mine, with similar results. I talked to literally dozens of people who had problems with bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other problems who very clearly were much healthier after switching to a diet radically non-vegetarian. (I'll always remember the guy who said to me, "Ornish really messed me up!") And I grew quite angry as, over time, I encountered literally hundreds of others who told similar stories of how sick they were as vegetarians, or on other standard variations of the supposedly "only true healthy diet."

A lot of people, including many doctors, seem to have forgotten the basic value of empirical science. It doesn't matter that some studies have suggested that, for example, red meat will screw up your cholesterol. If one patient can eat a diet loaded with steak and his cholesterol gets better, then there's no justification for claiming this will raise his cholesterol. If on top of that by all medical tests he is clearly fine, and if he says he feels better, then for him that diet is the right answer regardless of how anyone else does eating the same way. Any doctor who cannot acknowledge this as a fundamental truth frankly does not deserve a medical license, and any normal person who can't acknowledge this needs a common-sense transplant.

I have absolutely no argument with people who say they feel better and are measurably healthier eating a vegetarian diet. Hell, I have no problem with anyone who eats nothing but Pop Tarts and beer all day so long as by all medical tests he's perfectly healthy and he says he feels good. Individual experiences are not "anecdotal" if they've taken the time to get the medical tests and can show empirically that they, personally, are healthy. I definitely am. So is my wife. So are hundreds of other people I know. And it's high time the world at large acknowledges that there is no dietary panacea, no "perfect" diet that fits everybody perfectly all the time.

In the world of nutrition, there are not as many hard and fast rules as most people (including doctors and professional nutritionists) like to think. For example, read an article I wrote not long ago called The World's Biggest Fad Diet--it may surprise you. But don't take what you read there as gospel; it's just an example to show you that what you think may be indisputable about a healthy diet isn't so indisputable after all. Remember always to read as much as you can, and most importantly, to think for yourself as much as you can. And in finding a diet, remember that finding something healthy that you can stick to for life IS the goal you should have--but in your journey to find that diet for yourself, you should remember that the goal is always to find the diet that WORKS FOR YOU, not to find a way to force yourself into anyone's One True Paradigm (including mine).

Good luck in your personal search for health.

--Dean Esmay, Westland, Michigan, 1 December 1997

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