The often-heard comments when someone says they're eating HFLC include "your kidneys will explode", "Atkins was really bad for him (Mr. Atkins)", "You'll have a heart attack", "You can't be athletic doing that; you need carbs" and more.
I would like to put some perspective on this. Yes, this is anecdote; it's a sample size of one with no double-blind, of course -- that is, my personal experience.
Some background: Somewhat over five years ago I essentially went hard-core Atkins-induction coupled with "Couch-to-5k." At the time I was unable to run one half mile without stopping, climbing a few sets of stairs was work, even summer lawn mowing was a strenuous exercise -- while the heat was certainly not helpful, neither was exercise tolerance. I was "nominally healthy" in that I was not diabetic, but my body mass had risen from about 155 in High School to right around 210, plus or minus a couple. I had several times undertaken fairly severe exercise regimes, including hour-long daily stints on a stationary recumbent bike I purchased, in an attempt to lose weight, along with a low-fat, "eat plants" diet -- without success. I could drop 10lbs without much trouble, but no more, I was ravenously hungry all the time, and as soon as I cut back on the exercise the weight came right back on and stayed.
I'm absolutely certain that I was insulin resistant even though my blood glucose was normal -- I'd get the "hangries" if I attempted to not eat in the morning immediately on waking, and was often hungry for something by mid-afternoon after eating a carb-laden (and low-fat) lunch. If there was a bag full of M&Ms in front of me and I had one, the entire bag would be gone within a couple of hours. The same for a tin full of cookies. A loaf of home-made bread (I have a bread-maker) would be lucky to make two days; the first big, thick slice would get consumed and I'd want two more an hour later.
In short despite my outward metabolic signs being ok, but being overweight (not obese) I know exactly where I was headed -- for both obesity and diabetes. I'm sure of it.
So in early 2011 I decided I'd had enough -- that the conventional wisdom was either wrong or I was simply going to be consigned due to bad genetics to get older, fatter, and sicker. The latter is what we have all been sold and I was determined to not simply give up.
Since that was the consensus, I saw no harm in trying something else -- after all, the odds were that I would not make it worse, at least not quickly, and when it comes to things like heart attacks and strokes they take years to develop, weeks or months.
So I went full-on, zero-carb Atkins induction, bought a pair of Nike running shoes and a Garmin 305 with a heart rate strap to track my exercise.
I'm not going to tell you that this was an easy path, at least at first. I modified the Couch-to-5k thing (you can look it up online) in only one way -- the very last segment of each work-out I ran as hard and fast I could. At the start this was maybe an eighth to a quarter of a mile, but it would grow to a half-mile later. Other than that I pretty-much followed the program.
I could not run a half-mile when I started. Not even close.
I felt like I'd been hit by a bus every.... single... day.
But I kept with it, both on the food and running. After the first two weeks I added back green vegetables, but otherwise ate zero carbohydrate -- and that included alcohol. Instead of three times a week I tried for five, and got up at 0500 every day to do it because living in Florida it's hot, even in May.
In the first week, five pounds disappeared. I knew this would happen and probably be (mostly) water. The next week and pretty-much every week thereafter, however, another one or two came off.
About two months later I ran a full 3.1 miles for the first time, without slowing to a walk or stopping. It was not easy, but I did it, and by now it was the middle of June.
Eight months later, roughly that Thanksgiving, I was down to about 160.
I looked at the Garmin stats. I had lost 50 lbs, which is about 175,000 calories. Running is about 120 calories a mile, according to a heart-rate adjusted GPS machine, and I had run roughly 500 miles at that point, or 60,000 calories worth.
Only one third of the body mass I lost was due to exercise. That's a numerical fact; the rest was lost due to changing what I ate.
I slowly lost about another 5 lbs; my body weight now fluctuates around 155, +/- 5, assuming I'm reasonably good.
And there it has stayed for the last five years -- whether I'm training for a half-marathon, the Wicked Triple (three races in two days of close to a marathon distance in total), hiking part of the AT, sitting on my ass enjoying a vacation or whatever else I might be doing. My exertion levels have literally been all over the map, yet my body mass has not.
What has remained constant, more or less, is my adherence to the consumption of food things (and not consuming others!) that I have laid out many times -- you can read that list right here.
Now here's what's changed long-term when it comes to my person and my health that I haven't talked about much:
- Since I was a child I have had horrid problems with seasonal allergies to the point of being nearly useless twice a year for a month or so. No amount of medication, OTC or prescription, has ever successfully controlled this completely. Benedryl works but knocks me flat on my ass, and anything containing pseudoephedrine makes me feel extremely uncomfortable -- I'm one of the people who just can't use any decongestant containing that substance. I was basically forced to remain indoors, in an air-conditioned space, for two months out of the year and maintain a high-quality pollen filter in my car's airhandler -- or else. I also avoided travel to woodsy and other flowery areas during the times they were in bloom for obvious reasons. Slowly, over the last couple of years, my seasonal allergies irrespective of where I am in the country have almost completely disappeared. They're not completely gone; I still suffer from some congestion for short periods of time, but it's much better than it was. Last spring I hiked a piece of the AT through the spring bloom, complete with thousands of bees pollinating the flowers, and had exactly zero trouble. Five years ago that would have been unthinkable. This appears to be correlated with....
- My general inflammation level has, I believe, dropped quite a bit. I had always had "on and off" acne problems, even as an adult. As a teen it was bad, but it never went completely away -- until I got rid of the carbs. The same is true of skin issues; I always had them on and off, especially in the winter when the air is dry. Again, completely gone the first winter and they have stayed gone since. Gee, I wonder what's going on in my coronary arteries? Betcha it's not bad things but no, I'm not paying a couple of grand to get CT+contrast scanned to find out for sure. (The one exception: perfumes in laundry detergents will still "get" me, so I have to watch out for that.)
- I have no adverse blood glucose reaction to sugar intake. I have, a couple of times in the last year, "challenged" my body with heavy sugar intake just to see what happens; typically with a large dose of milk chocolate or heavily sugar-laden confections like donuts. I've not been able to drive my blood glucose over 110 with such a challenge despite intentionally trying. I don't know if I could actually drive my blood sugar to anywhere near 140 today (the upper boundary of what they call the "normal" reaction to such a test) if I literally sat and ate a bag of sugar. Note that while I was never diabetic I'm very sure my metabolism was compromised. For those who wonder if your metabolic systems can heal over time if you stop insulting them, the answer appears to be "Yes."
- I don't like sugar any more. Things with a lot of sugar in them taste like crap. Raw white sugar now has a smell to it that I associate with being "medicinal" and is not at all pleasant. It sort of smells like poison, in fact -- hmmmm.... maybe it is?
- I have no "hangries" -- ever -- or carb-cravings. I often have no desire to eat anything before roughly lunchtime; I'll get up in the morning and am simply not hungry. This means that if I eat something around lunch, and then around dinner, I'm effectively fasting 18 hours out of every day. It's not because I'm trying, it's because I'm not hungry.
- If I do work out a lot my appetite goes up. If I don't it goes down. I don't have to think about it, count calories, make efforts to restrict my consumption of food or anything like that. It's simply this: If I'm hungry I eat. If I'm not I don't. Oh, and since I'm not gorging myself on hangries my capacity for food has shrunk. Yes, it appears my stomach is smaller, in that I get full faster -- and it empties slower too. An interesting observation that I cannot correlate with fact, but I sure can with how I feel if I try to stuff myself for some reason.
- My exercise tolerance has gone up massively. The other day I worked on wrecking out part of my gazebo floor (it needs replaced) which involved using a Wonder Bar, saw and moving sand (via shovel and yard cart) that had accumulated under them and then mowed most of the back yard -- in 90ish degree weather with 85%+ humidity. It was hotter than Hell, but other than needing to stop and get a drink a couple of times it wasn't all that bad. I would have heat-stroked out trying this a few years ago -- literally. Likewise I might go run a 5k tonight, and while the sun will be down it won't be any cooler. Yes, it will be hotter than hell, but I'm not concerned about not being able to do it. This I attribute to the exercise, not the diet. But, with an extra 50lbs I suspect I wouldn't be able to move my additional mass irrespective of my cardio condition anywhere near as well as I can today.
- I am far faster running now than I ever was -- including in High School! I was never able to break the 9 minute mile barrier on a 3 mile run, with my "typical" time being around 30 minutes. My PR now is 7:00 flat on a timed 5k race and 7:49 on a half-marathon. This isn't a singular result either; my kid, who ran one season with the HS cross-country team, has half-way adopted my way of eating over the last six months -- and not only has her appearance improved she has also taken more than two minutes a mile from her time, breaking the 10 minute/mile threshold for the first time in the last couple of weeks. Don't tell me you can't perform athletically on a low-carb diet -- that's a damned lie.
I'm not going to tell you this was all easy, because it wasn't up front. Yes, carb-cravings are real. A week or so back while in a group having a conversation that turned to food I remarked that I do not, as a rule, eat carbs -- my carb intake is for the most part beer, and only a couple a day maximum. A nurse who was there proceeded to say that "Atkins causes kidney disease" and further that she "has cravings for carbs and thus needs them." Both are false; first, Atkins is high fat, not high protein. It is true that high protein diets can cause kidney problems but that's not Atkins; that's doing it wrong! Second, meth causes cravings too, but that doesn't mean you need meth -- it means you're addicted to it! Carbs are the same deal; when challenged as to the specific nutrients that you need that are in carbs, of course, she had no answer. That would be because there aren't any; the amount of carbohydrate you actually require in your diet is zero. I gave up; oh, she was complaining about having big snoring problems too (gee, I wondered, if you lost some weight what might happen to that........) This, however, is illustrative of the attitude of many in the so-called "health business"; their 4 hours of class at some point was not only insufficient most of what was in there is flat out wrong and even when taking this path might help alleviate a person problem they're experiencing they won't try it!
Here's my view, more than five years into this: I've seen exactly zero bad effects from adopting this lifestyle, and multiple good ones. My indicators of metabolic health have improved, my exercise tolerance is up massively, I am more able to perform athletically today than I was when I was 17 despite being three times as old, I have zero glucose tolerance trouble evident when challenged, I am never "hangry", I do not crave carbs and in fact find things with sugar in them "too" sweet yet I count no calories or make other conscious attempt to control my food intake and my body mass is approximately what it was 35 years ago and hasn't moved more than a few pounds in either direction for the last five years. The only exception was when I was in a relationship, eating far too many carbs (and knew it) and five more pounds went on -- literally as soon as I cut that crap out they disappeared within a couple of weeks.
Why would I change what I'm doing now, when for the last five years it has worked -- effortlessly -- to not only halt what was an obvious and visible (albeit slow) decrease my personal vitality and health that many would simply attribute to old age, but almost-completely reversed it -- and in many cases my health and physical abilities now exceed those of my teen years!
Yes, I'm a data set of one.
Now tell me why would you not run your own experiment.
I'm all ears.