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A Beautiful Balance

10 Jan

“In medical school I had not received any significant instruction on the subject. I was not alone. Only approximately 6 percent of the graduating physicians in the United States have any training in nutrition. Medical students may take elective courses on the topic, but few actually do… the education of most physicians is disease-oriented with a heavy emphasis on pharmaceuticals — we learn about drugs and why and when to use them.” Robert Strand, M.D., Death by Prescription.

I was on an airplane late last summer while returning from a weekend jaunt of head-clearing and writing. On the second leg of my flight, I was seated next to a woman who turned out to be a liaison for a pharmaceutical company returning from a business trip. The primary purpose of her trip was to push her company’s new diabetes drug. She explained to me that the new drug she was pushing was groundbreaking because it was an inhibitor of a particular protein which extended the half-life of another drug which aided beta cell health in diabetics (beta cells are the place insulin is made).

She explained all of this using the language of he education: biochemistry and pharmacy. She also had an air of infallibility.

After she finished describing this drug, I only had one question for her: “What is the function of the protein that your new drug inhibits and what effect does that have downstream?” She looked at me with a puzzled and sheepish look and confirmed what I had been thinking all along. She had no idea.

Prior to this, we had spent close to an hour arguing about what she “knew” as a medical professional and where I was far astray regarding topics where I disagreed with the medical establishment’s conventional wisdom- which were many. But this was a turning point in our conversation because it was the opening for her to see what I had been trying to get her to understand during our conversation up to this point. She knew the biochemical mechanisms and pathways of the biological systems she studied. She knew that if you introduced this drug, the result would be the alteration of a particular pathway in a specific manner. However, what I was trying to get her to see was what I’d learned reading about and experimenting with various approaches, and eventually beating obesity, was that there is a common thread running through obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancers, and other modern illnesses and diseases.

Though our medical professionals are better equipped and more knowledgeable about the human body than at any other time in history, their main accomplishment has only been to keep a sick populace alive longer in its chronic state of illness. They have become masters of the microbiology while ignoring the “macrobiology”- I think the fact that that “macrobiology” isn’t a recognized word is indicative of how we’ve approached overall health. The point is that even though people are living longer, they are becoming sick and debilitated much earlier leading to a greatly reduced quality of life.

The reason for this is complex but at the base level I think it can be explained by the fact that our bodies are out of balance. We have strayed from our original stasis. Stasis is a Greek word that represents balance and equilibrium. There is a baseline of health and wellness that allows us to enjoy a high quality of life virtually devoid of the chronic physical pain and ailments, that have become commonplace in modern societies, well into old age- a beautiful stasis.

The common occurrence of ailments before the onset of middle age is a new phenomenon. On every level of nature there is a balance that holds each system together until an outside force upsets that balance and a period of disruption occurs until a balance is restored. It’s the way nature adapts. It’s the way we survive.

From a biological perspective, human beings in modern society are in a period of biological disruption. The rapid onset of obesity and other modern diseases are harbingers of the fact that we’re out of balance. The changes that are happening in our bodies are too rapid for natural adaptive mechanisms to take over and adapt to survive, so we end up sicker and weaker.

Even if we don’t get caught up in the speculative nature of looking too far into the past, just looking at present-day traditional cultures- those that eat and live closer to the way humans have traditionally-who are as a whole are almost always healthier and free of the modern illnesses and diseases than those of us in more modern societies. I’m not suggesting we fully adopt hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

Technology and modern society has provided us with many creature comforts that many of us don’t want to leave- nor should we. Science and technology progress have given us medicines and treatments for viral and bacterial ills that, in the past, would have killed many of us. Our lifestyles are different and many of us have permanently changed our biology in some ways where some things that have been innocuous in the past are now harmful.

Having said that, I do believe that scientific and clinical success has brought upon us an era of arrogance in the medical community where the main measurement of success is longevity with less and less focus being on quality of life. Myself and many others who eat an evolutionarily appropriate diet have taken control of our health because we perceive that the modern medical establishment has failed us. In response, we’ve taken control of our health and wellness and stopped outsourcing our overall well-being.

Our bodies aren’t like taxes you drop off at Jackson- Hewitt or the family car that we drop off at the mechanic. After battling obesity for most of my life with the health problems that usually accompany that, I began to research biology, microbiology, dietary literature, epidemiological studies and other sources trying to educate myself to better health. I discovered a lot- particularly about obesity and other modern diseases- about how diet is the main factor driving modern ailments and what foods and lifestyle choices are the most egregious offenders.

I don’t know everything, or anything close to it, but what I have learned is that we should be more proactive and educated when it comes to our health and not leaving it in the hands of the medical field, no matter how auspicious those certificates on their walls are

Suddenly Everything Has Changed…

18 Nov

When the things you’ve steeled yourself against go away, you have to then figure out what to live for again.  Andrew Sullivan

From my earliest memories, I recall being a child who was much larger than my peers.  The first memory of being on a scale was when I was seven years old. I weighed in at 107 pounds while most of my peers were 40 or 50 lbs less. That was the opening salvo of my long war with the scale. So traumatic were my yearly physicals that I remember my ages during my preteen and teen years by how much I weighed that year. Twelve years old: 216 pounds; Thirteen: 237 pounds; Fourteen: 265; Fifteen: 282; sixteen: 310. By the time I graduated from high school I topped out at about 350. The weight continued to accumulate even though all through high school I played football and lifted weights regularly.  My parents did what they were supposed to do with such a big problem on their hands. They took me to my doctor too see what was wrong. I was hoping the doctor would tell me that I had some rare disorder that could be treated with a shot or some magic pills, but after a thorough examination it was determined that I had no thyroid problems or other glaring clinical issues that would cause my weight to be unnaturally high. They then took me to a nutritionist who gave me a list of foods to eat- the infamous food pyramid was my new bible and calorie counting was supposed to be my religion- and told me to not exceed 2000 calories a day. That didn’t work out too well because I was hungry all the time, so by the time I was ready to get out of high school my parents and I were frustrated as to how to get me down to a healthy weight.

The summer before I was set to go to college the best thing possible happened to me: my hours at my summer job were cut. So to fill up the idle time, the day after graduation I decided to start running in the mornings. Every morning I would get up at 6am and go up to the neighborhood elementary school and run around the soccer field. Since I had a solid athletic background from playing football, it didn’t take long before I was running several miles a day 5 days a week and the weight melted off. In the three months from my graduation up until I started classes in the fall, I lost about 60-70 lbs from running and playing basketball. I didn’t stop once classes started and by the time my first semester was over I’d went from 350 down to 250- 100 lbs in a 6 month period. During this time, nutritionally, I was eating better than I usual(did I mention that job that cut my hours was a bakery?) but the level of activity was the driving factor. So all through college, I lifted weights, ran and ate a pretty sensible standard American diet(SAD) that kept my weight between 235-245 at about 22-24% body fat, which was decent considering I had a heavy musculature genetically and until that point carried a body fat percentage in the high-thirties.

After college, I started the typical 9-5 where I sat at a desk all day, ate carry-out for lunch and no longer had the convenient access to a gym. Within eighteen months I had ballooned back up to 320 pounds. I joined a gym near home to try to start getting my weight back down but it was different now because, at 24, it didn’t just melt off like it did when I was 18. After months fighting a war of attrition with the scale, on a recommendation from a person in passing, I gave the Atkins diet a shot. It worked great. With a bit of running and weightlifting, f60pounds melted off my frame in 3 months and I was back down to about 260 which was a much better point from which to fight a defensive battle. These were the trenches from which I battled my weight problem through the rest of my twenties.

When I got to 30, my body was beginning to break down from years of running and chronic cardio that I performed several times a week to keep the weight from getting too out of control. Around the same time, the Atkins diet didn’t work as well as it used to and I started to feel powerless to stop my waistline from expanding. In the beginning of 2010, at over 290lbs and climbing, I started searching for an answer to a simple question: How can I lose weight with minimal exercise, without being hungry and have that weight loss be sustainable over the rest of my life?

After a lot of researching, I decided to give the Mark Sisson’s version of the paleo diet a shot. Having had experience with low-carb diets prior to going paleo, it was not hard doing a low-carb version of a paleo diet. The results of making this switch was immediate and staggering. The weight loss I expected but the change is focus and mood was totally unexpected. All of a sudden, the fog was gone and everyday it seemed as if I was noticing something noticeably improved in my body- most things i didn’t even realize were not quite right. About 4 months in, I began to up my starch consumption, which I was very wary of doing coming from my low-carb background. To my surprise, I kept losing weight. Almost two years later the weight has come off and stayed off. At 34 years old, I now weigh 218 lbs@16% body fat- a weight I haven’t seen since age 12. My transformation was great but the thing that I’m most proud of is my parent’s coming on board in January. They’ve made amazing progress in the 10+ months they’ve been paleo and have adjusted to the lifestyle change better than I ever expected.

After 30 years of looking at the scale in fear, as part of my routine every morning, I weigh myself. No longer is there a sense of dread or nervousness. Just a quiet knowing that part of my life is now under control and I can spend my time concentrating on other things.