I was inspired to do this post because a very dear friend and former roommate recently visited me, and we had several conversations about how strange it was that back when I lived with her I just found it impossible to lose weight, in spite of the “healthy” lifestyle I was living. She saw me exercising regularly, trying to follow a relatively low-fat, heart-healthy, mostly vegetarian diet–the kind of diet doctors often recommend to the overweight and obese–and still gaining weight. Now she witnessed me shoveling nuts and mayonnaise in my mouth every day and still dropping pounds.
Here are pictures of me from about four years apart. The picture of me on the right, in the blue dress, was taken just this week. The picture on the left, in the black dress and red belt, is from about four years ago. Today I want to talk about the idea that dietary fat is what makes you fat, present some evidence that this is misguided, and do a little compare and contrast with my diet, lifestyle, and weight four years ago and now.
BMI: 34.2 (obese, nearly 60 pounds overweight)
Exercise: nearly daily, at least 1 hour. This picture was taken not long after running a 10k for which I trained religiously. I also regularly did yoga, went on walks, took spinning and zumba classes, swam laps, and worked out on gym equipment.
Dietary Staples: whole-wheat bagels, whole-grain cereal, skim lactose-free milk, vanilla soymilk, nonfat fruit-flavored yogurts, tofu and soy meat substitutes, all kinds of fruits and vegetables, salads with store-bought light vinaigrette, peanut butter, whole-wheat sandwich bread, whole-wheat flour and corn tortillas, sweet potatoes, occasional (less than once a week) fish or chicken, pasta with homemade sauces or store-bought pesto, brown rice, homemade fruit smoothies, ice cream, frozen diet dinners, olive oil, vegan butter substitute, egg whites, soft cheeses, diet soda, coffee, beer, wine, cocktails.
BMI: 27.6 (about 15 pounds above ideal weight for my height) yes, that means I’ve lost 45ish pounds, which I think gives me a right to talk about some of this stuff. I’m still hoping to lose these last 15 pounds, but I want to make sure that it’s because I’m trying to lose it, not because I’m sick and my body isn’t absorbing nutrients.
Exercise: basically none. This is not by choice, but I’ve only recently been able to start walking (2 miles at a time, a few times per week). I hope to increase walking and start yoga again soon as well.
Dietary Staples: full-fat plain kefir and yogurt, all kinds of peeled fruits and cooked vegetables, lots of nuts and nut butters and flours, homemade almond and coconut milk, hard cheeses, poultry, fish and shellfish, beef, lamb, bacon, eggs, butter, coconut oil, olive oil, homemade mayonnaise, honey, lentils, homemade fruit smoothies, tea, coffee, coconut water, occasional glass of wine or cocktail, very occasional (typically less than once a week) serving of white or wild rice, oatmeal, or white bread or tortillas, dark chocolate.
It is important to note that even though we eat dairy and/or meat at most meals, we usually: a) choose grass-fed, organic meat and dairy when possible because it has a better fat profile b) limit the serving size of animal products and incorporate plenty of veggies, fruits, and nuts (we also try to have one or two vegetarian meals most weeks) and c) choose seafood, eggs, and poultry more often than beef, lamb, and pork. That is to say, we are not following an Atkins-style eat all the bacon diet. I’m also not eating coconut oil by the spoonful, btw.
Conclusions and Caveats
I am unable to say how much of the weight loss I have experienced is due to diet, how much is due to a suppressed appetite, and how much is due to my body just not absorbing nutrients as well. But, my husband is sort of the control in this experiment, and he has pretty much stayed at the same weight since starting SCD in spite of rather more frequent indulgences and generally larger portions. And, as I mentioned before, prior to being diagnosed with Crohn’s or showing any symptoms my husband and I both did lose a significant amount of weight when on the paleo diet, which is very similar to SCD.
In addition to losing weight, other indicators of my health have improved. While I was still mostly vegetarian, some bloodwork showed that I was anemic; very recent bloodwork has shown that I am not anemic anymore, even though it is a very common problem with IBD. My cholesterol is currently slightly lower than it was while a mostly vegetarian.
I’m not suggesting my weight loss can be explained by diet alone; in fact, I’m not even recommending SCD as a weight loss diet because that’s not what it is meant for. Still, the question remains, why is it that I am the thinnest I’ve been in my adult life while on a high-fat diet, and the heaviest I’ve ever been while on a low-fat, low-calorie, “heart healthy” diet? Here are my thoughts.
- Processed food is a thing of the past. SCD-legal processed food does not exist, so by default you have to make pretty much everything you will consume from scratch. Say goodbye to giving in to a frozen pizza after a hard day at work, or accidentally eating half a box of Annie’s white cheddar bunnies snack crackers because you were bored!
- A corollary to the first point: you can’t just pick something up. My husband and I do go out to eat occasionally or eat at other people’s homes, and in these situations, I try to make decent decisions based on what’s available, and enjoy my food. But, on a day-in, day-out basis, I know picking up a meal or a snack is a very bad idea for me, so I just don’t do it. Ever. This takes a whole lot of temptations out of the picture altogether.
- Food with fat in it tastes better. To make “low fat” food palatable, fat is often replaced with all kinds of sugar, sodium, and other questionable artificial flavors that are likely more harmful than the fat they are meant to replace. Just eat real food, people, even if it has butter in it.
- Fat makes meals more satiating and reduces cravings. My husband and I were both struck by the fact that, when we eat paleo or SCD style, the food we eat leaves us feeling so satisfied but not bloated. We do much better at recognizing “full” signals earlier, and when we do stop eating we feel good, not stuffed and miserable. Since the smaller amounts of carbohydrates and sugars don’t cause major spikes and crashes in blood sugar, we have fewer cravings and we feel satisfied for much longer.
- Eating real food changes your tastes. Food that I know I would have enjoyed previously now tastes a little too sweet, or a little too salty, or just plain “off.” It might not seem like it at first but you will eventually reach a point where fresh, simple, whole food tastes the best, and it is more enjoyable because you know it will make you feel good, too.
- Even WebMD, that stalwart of conventional medical advice, agrees that combining fat with other foods helps our bodies absorb nutrients better. Mostly eliminating grains and replacing them with veggies, fruits, and healthy fats from sources like fish, nuts, and plant oils means that you are getting more of the nutrients your body needs, period. And when your body is struggling with a chronic condition and not absorbing nutrients properly, this is really important. Being kind and supportive to your body means that it can do all of its jobs–including metabolizing food and putting it to good use–better.
- Your microbiome matters. Check out this article for a really good and accessible summary of the amazing scientific advances being made in the link between gut health and overall health. In short, highly processed junk food containing starches and sugars, antibiotics, and stress (among other things) can cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria and die-off of good bacteria, which is associated with inflammation in general, metabolic syndrome, weight gain, IBD, and numerous other health problems. Eating probiotic foods like fermented dairy and cultured vegetables, as well as food containing prebiotics (some whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts are good sources) can actually rapidly change the microbiome in your gut by colonizing it with more diverse, good bugs. So, this is yet another argument for eating whole, real, unprocessed food if weight loss and healing is a goal.
The bottom line, is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. I’m not advocating giving up bananas for sausage if you want to lose weight. I’m not suggesting you can cure IBD with enough kefir. And I’m not even close to saying I’ll never eat another greasy cheeseburger in my life. My point is just that I think counting calories, and especially restricting healthy fats, is not the whole answer to losing weight. Eat traditional, real, nutrient-dense foods you make you from scratch in your own kitchen 90% of the time, stop eating when you are satisfied, get plenty of rest, and exercise if you are able. I trust that more than any fad diet you can throw at me!