Monday, July 13, 2009

Blogging my weight loss journey

I tried to pick the most horrifying sentiment/sentence (sentimence?) possible for my first entry and I think I've done a pretty good job. One of the big trends in the weight loss world now is to refuse to call your diet what it is. I've seen it described as a "lifestyle," "a transformation program" and even a "nutritional regime" which sounds like something that might be ousted by a caloric junta. The most annoying pseudonym for "diet" is "weight loss journey." When combined with the word "blogging" this should be your signal to run a mile.

Now that you've run your mile, I want you to consider that any scheme to reduce, rearrange or increase calories is a diet. Any promise to eliminate certain kinds of foods is a diet. Any caloric adjustment in combination with planned exercise is a diet. To give some simple examples, running for your life from a tiger, would be one of the few kinds of exercise that would not be labeled with the dreaded "d-word" however if you took your pet tiger out for a jog to make up for eating a pepperoni pizza, then you are on a diet. If you have a bag of those pre-cut baby carrots or a container of lowfat cottage cheese in your fridge right now, you are on a diet. If you have an opinion about the merits of an elliptical trainer versus a treadmill you are on a diet. If you choose sugar free soda because it "tastes better to you" you have been on diets so long that your pleasure receptors are broken and you possibly need more help than even the greatest novelist of all time can offer.

A lot of people are blogging about their diets. Among the millions of boring and unhelpful voices, I've read many entertaining and helpful blogs on this topic, so you might be wondering what I could possibly have to contribute to this already noisy, and over-crowded conversation? What could reading a detailed list of what I ate for lunch today, possibly add to your life?

To answer that question, I will tell you about how I started this particular weight loss journey. I did my first diet ever in 2002, a month before I got married. I now consider myself extremely fortunate that at age 32, I had managed to avoid dieting my entire life. I was about to get married and perhaps out of terror of photographs preserved for eternity of less than ideal "me," I embarked on the inevitable narcissistic, pre-wedding "lose fourteen pounds in two weeks "e diet." For a not so small fee I downloaded a two-week meal plan that was 1200 calories of steamed veggies, brown rice and skinless chicken breasts. After two weeks without beer, sugar or bread, I was really crabby. I had lost a little over half the promised weight, (most of which was probably water from the greatly reduced carbohydrate intake) despite feeling ravenously hungry and deprived almost every day of the diet. After the wedding I gained back all the weight plus a few pounds just to say "thanks for playing." What I should have concluded from this fiasco that all diets are scams and rip-offs and that my failure was not a failure of willpower, but a failure of the entire idea of caloric restriction. But it would be seven painful more years of Weight Watchers, Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle, The Real Time Transformation Program and even a few weeks of the horror that is Fit Pregnancy before I finally came to that conclusion. Even after all of that, I still could not figure it out on my own. This is where Jane Austen finally enters the picture. Sort of.

Last year I took up runningas part of a diet. While I eventually dumped the diet, I did enjoy running. I completed a half marathon and planned to train this year for a full marathon in the fall. Over the winter, I ran a bit here and there, ate whatever I darn well pleased and gained about 15 pounds. I decided this spring that if I was going to drag my body over a mountain trail for 26 miles, I'd better make sure there was a bit less of it going along for the ride. I began an intensive diet, counting every calorie, tapering every carb, balancing my macro nutrient ratios or "mac rat nuts" as I affectionately referred to them and exercising like a maniac. I was running 20 miles per week, lifting weights four times a week and doing ab exercises in the few spare moments of downtime, that I have in my busy day of working full-time, raising a toddler, cooking all these crazy dinners for my diet and writing my movie blog. Somewhere in there I might have had a husband or something, I'm not sure.

After about a month of this nonsense, I was sick. My allergies were worse than they've ever been in my life, I couldn't run, keep up with my kid or even get to work some days. I'd wake up in the middle of the night for no reason, though I've never had a problem with insomnia and about the only time I felt good was a small window of time about a half an hour after my workout. My doctor prescribed new and scary medicine for my allergies and I began searching online for ways to try to regulate my health problems with diet. I was convinced that the way I was feeling was not merely a bad year for pollen counts, but that something with this new intense diet was encouraging my collapse.

I found many potential problems with my new "lifestyle." The first culprit was the caloric restriction. Our bodies have evolved as machines for equilibrium. They automatically balance what we take in or don't take in. All organisms do because they like everything else in the universe must obey the laws of thermodynamics. When you take in few calories, you loose fat for a while. Hooray, the diet is working, you think and you just dig in your heels and assume that you've found the magical solution to your fat problem. Yet everyone who has ever dieted for more than a week or two will describe to you a plateau, or a point where their body has adjusted to its caloric intake and refuses to shed any more weight. The reason for this isn't that your body can suddenly function better on 1200, 1500, 1800 calories or whatever. It has adjusted its metabolic rate. In other words it processes the food you are eating more slowly, converts fat to energy more slowly and doesn't give you a whole lot of surplus energy for playing kick ball with your toddler. This is really the opposite of the direction you want to go, but most diets offer you a solution of eating a few more calories, eating less of one macro nutrient ratio like carbohydrate, or exercising just that little bit more to break the plateau. Sometimes these solutions succeed temporarily but eventually you will plateau again and again until you quit. Then when you begin eating your normal caloric intake and your body with its new found slow metabolism happily packs all the weight you lost back on. Though I did not feel hungry during my diet thanks to eating a lot of meat every 3 hours, I was feeling the effects of starvation in my reduced energy.

The next culprit was exercise. Exercise to exhaustion encourages the use of your adrenal glands. These glands are wonderful little makers of super energy to save us from sprinting tigers and the like. The drug they produce effects your entire body chemistry, which includes of course your metabolism and the way you process and store the food you consume. A little adrenaline once in a while is good for you, but you shouldn't be living off of it day in and day out. You may have heard about the "runner's high" and you may have felt the effects of feeling energized after exercise yourself. The problem is that as a species we didn't evolve to use our adrenal glands in this way. Anthropologist believe that as hunters and gatherers which we were for millennia before developing agriculture, &tc, we had up to 90% of the day for leisure. The vast majority of our ancient ancestors' day was spent weaving a nice new mat for the cave, or playing wist with sabre tooth tigers. (What is it with me and tigers today?) These must have been some seriously relaxed people. Old folks living in Florida leisure complexes have hell bent schedules in comparison. In our modern, stressful lives we are using adrenaline as crutch drug whose negative side effect is metabolic ruin (thanks to super diet blogger Matt Stone for that phrase). This explains why when I stopped running consistently last fall, my body packed on the pound like crazy. It also explains my messed up sleep schedule and why my energy with my new diet was erratic and poor.

The third culprit was processed food. Though my diet espoused the virtues of "eating clean" avoiding processed foods, white flour and sugar, the constant demand for lean protein led to the encouragement of lots of low fat dairy products and processed protein isolates like whey and soy powder which were some how magically exempt from the "eating clean" rule. In my reading on allergies, I frequently saw warnings that dairy products can exacerbate allergies, because many people have difficulty processing dairy and the unprocessed protein in their body is treated as an allergen by the immune system. I thought that I was only getting three servings of dairy a day, something which never bothered me to this extreme before. I discovered that low fat dairy products are often supplemented with powdered skim milk (listed as "milk solids" on packaging, if its listed at all) in order to give them more body. Powdered milk is made through a high temperature process that creates a product that many people simply can not absorb. Same goes for the whey and soy isolates. My body may have just viewed them as unusable garbage to be gotten rid of, the same way it views a harmless pollen spore. When figuring in all the extra dairy I was getting, I was eating at least six servings a day, sometimes more. When I eliminated lowfat dairy from my diet, my allergies improved within a few days. I haven'te taken my medication in a month and have only had one sinus headache. (As opposed to the continuous sinus headache I had for the month of May).

At this point I was mad at diets. Diets had made me suffer, haven't worked (I weigh five pounds more today than I did when I started that first pre-wedding crash diet) and have nearly wrecked my health. So naturally, I decided to go out and start a new one to make everyone else miserable. No that's not what happened. As I began reading about nutrition and allergies I stumbled onto the website for the Weston Price Foundation. I was marginally familiar with these dietary principals from some writing I did for our food co-op newsletter a few years back about the FDA wanting to restrict aged raw milk cheeses, like parmesan reggiano. One of the principal tennents of the organization is that pasteurization is a scourge on our society which kills the benifitial enzymes in our milk that allow us to resist disease and, of course, digest milk. Their campaign for Real Milk (i.e. raw milk) has been successful in helping many people connect with sources for raw milk and over come supposed "lactose intolerance" which is so wide-spread in our society.

WPF also have a radical stance on saturated fat in that they believe (and they have a convincing amount of scientific and medical evidence to back up the belief) that it has been unfairly blamed by the medical community (with ample encouragement by the food processing industry) for heart disease and obesity. They are against processed food, particularly the demon, sugar and encourage people to revive the old arts of sprouting and soaking grains, fermenting condiments instead of preserving them in sugar and salt and in general eating like your great, great grandmother might have. They put a book called "nourishing traditions" which combines a summary of the scientific research supporting their conclusions, a cookbook and an interesting philosophy which attempts to mimic the way our ancestors ate in a pre-industrial agrarian society before the rise of modern diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. While I began to read this book with interest, I also maintained, a healthy skepticism-- after all they were telling me the exact opposite of every almost all of the dietary advice I've ever been given. I took Nourishing Traditions with a giant grain of sea salt hand harvested in Britanny with a wooden rake.

What appealed to me about Pricean principals, besides the slightly cultist and wacko vibe they give off is that they were all about getting back to a diet that predates modern society. It was like dieting with a time machine. Unlike the paleo diet, WPAers don't ask you to go about insisting that you stop cooking your food. You can go back too far in time. "Hey check out this new precambrian diet. All I can eat is trilobytes. Guess I'm going to loose a lot of weight on that since they're extinct. " In a sense, by reviving these lost cooking techniques (like making bread without a packet of yeast) they ask you to go back before the industrial revolution. So I began to slowly attempt to adopt these principals to see if they could improve my health any. In doing so I stumbled across Matt Stone's wonderful blog, where he documents all the crazy self-experiemens that he's done in dieting, while promoting his own diet, The High Everything Diet which is designed to heal your metabolism and let you stop dieting forever. In the midst of all this internet stumbling I also was looking for a recipe to use up a big piece of beef which I'd been given and came across "The Complete Housewife" by Elizabeth Styles, the most popular 18th century cookbook. I was familiar with this book as it as often quoted by people writing about the era of Jane Austen as it was the principal cook book of her day.

Thus the Jane Austen diet was born, part attempt to adhere to Weston Price Principals, part wacko diet self-experiment, and part homage to my favorite author. On this blog, I will describe my attempt to eat as much as possible from the maxim "What would Jane Eat" all the while sharing my discoveries. I'm not going to ask anyone to download anything for any amount of money, restrict a single food group or to replace their elliptical trainer with hikes down muddy country lanes. I will do it and tell you what happens. It's going to be like those guys who try to see how much milk they can drink without throwing up on Youtube, only with Jane Austen and stuff.


  1. Kudos to you, Jenny, for starting this blog, and being so forthright. I think you're right about it all, and it sounds like you are on the right track to feeling good and healthy in a sustainable way.

    Good luck!!!!

  2. Thanks for stopping by Arnie. There'll be jane Austen in the next post, I promise!