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You Want to Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer

Posted Feb 23 2012 11:38pm

It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here . I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!

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“You want to eat like a hunter-gatherer.” These eight words marked the beginning of a new life for me.  These eight words set into motion a change that would ultimately not only result in me achieving optimum health and fitness, they would greatly improve my relationships and day-to-day family life. I feel compelled to detail this journey in an effort to help others who, like me, were trapped by conventional wisdom into thinking they were making the right decisions for their health. This is for those of us who were convinced by advertising and marketing that we needed more of that essential “whole grain goodness”. Food has become an ongoing story in our house. Here is mine.

When I was in my early adult years and engaged to be married, I struggled with a chronic sinusitis condition that resulted in frequent use of antibiotics. So much so that I ultimately needed sinus surgery, and was concerned about my ability to go on my honeymoon without needing or having access to an antibiotic. I saw a specialist in addition to my family physician, and was taking two different allergy medications, year round, and ultimately advancing to the need for an inhaler and a daily antacid. One of the allergy medicines caused a dry-eye condition resulting in the addition of re-wetting drops to the menu of pharmaceuticals I was not able to live without. I was also battling facial acne. I was tied to my medications and weighed down by these chronic ailments.

At one point I had my blood tested by my family physician for allergies. The test results identified an allergy to white ash trees (where are they?) and a “slight” allergy to wheat and peanuts. Wheat and peanuts? Don’t people with this allergy have serious anaphylactic reactions to consuming them? I certainly had never experienced that. My family physician advised me that consuming those foods was probably contributing to my sinusitis and that it wasn’t necessarily something I would sense an immediate reaction to. Ok, so in other words, no big deal to continue eating them if they are not causing me any real trouble. Or were they?

In addition to these conditions, I also believed I was suffering from hypoglycemia, commonly referred to as “low blood sugar”. My mom and sister both seemed to experience similar symptoms and the idea that this was a hereditary condition made sense. For myself, I began to notice I could not go more than a few hours without food, or I would run the risk of feeling shaky and light headed, and not be able to think clearly. This feeling would be remedied by gaining access to any readily available food item – often these consisted of candy options in the checkout line at the grocery store. M&M’s and the like became the saving grace.

In talking to my family physician about the instability of my blood sugar, his recommendation was to eat small, frequent meals, and to eat more protein. Well, ok, but what does eating “more protein” look like? I could never make practical sense of the recommendation. What was interesting about the blood sugar problem for me was that I never tested positive for the condition during glucose tolerance testing. How could this be? Surely I was experiencing all the symptoms, according to the internet. Both my mom and sister had the same symptoms as well.

In the final weeks of my second pregnancy, my blood sugar tested high and the recommendation from my obstetrician was to avoid carbohydrates. Hmmm.  Ok, I am game and willing, motivated by my baby’s health to make any changes necessary. I go to the grocery store with open eyes, reading labels and trying to make the best decisions.  Should I still have Cheerios for breakfast? Plain rather than HoneyNut? I only found this more confusing and frustrating. I didn’t find a single commercially available item that didn’t have carbohydrates on the label.

I gained a total of 50 pounds with my second pregnancy. Admittedly, some of that is attributable to the idea that I was pregnant and that was my excuse to eat whatever I wanted. But some of it was also the paranoia I developed around drops in blood sugar.  I learned to eat frequently to avoid those symptoms, but I was consumed by this problematic routine as well.  It became difficult to get through a day without worrying about my blood sugar and I was fearful of becoming diabetic.

My husband and I went about our business being good parents however, I was not happy with myself both physically and emotionally, and had unsuccessfully attempted a few traditional weight loss methods.  I had a number of friends who had seemed to do well on Weight Watchers and so I decided to join online. The low-fat emphasis didn’t seem to work well with my blood sugar instability and I found myself consumed by the counting of points and food journaling that was suggested by the program. I became frustrated by dead ends with no results. I remained confident, however, I could not be the only person with this weight/blood sugar problem. I am a professional, a smart and educated person. I am determined I can figure this out, but why should this be so difficult?

I was about to consider Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem when the Discovery Health channel was airing their show the National Body Challenge – which I interpreted as their version of The Biggest Loser.  The show had a website that offered exercise and dieting information after creating a free account. They also offered a free 7-day pass to a local gym. Interesting. I belonged to the gym many years ago and had let my membership expire. Could I start going to a gym again? I wondered if I would know what to do once in the gym to effect meaningful change. I could see others on their obligatory treadmills not loosing an inch and even gaining at times. I wondered if I would I be able to make the time for a gym between work and family and certainly knew I didn’t have time to waste on treadmills and the like.

All it took was one click on the weblink on the National Body Challenge website and a representative from the gym was calling my house to schedule an appointment to visit. Once in the gym, a representative met with me to convince my why joining the gym that day, and forgoing the 7-day pass, was a better deal and reviewed the options available to me through the National Body Challenge special. While I recognize these attempts as the sales tactics they were, the representative said something to me that really connected. She asked about my outside commitments with caring for family, etc., and asked who would take care of them if I were unable to myself? If my health failed, who would care for my family? Her question made me realize that I needed to take the time to do this. I needed to get into the gym in a meaningful way and not feel guilty for taking time from my family to do it.

But part of my National Body Challenge benefits was a single session with a personal trainer. “You want to eat like a hunter-gatherer”, he said when I asked if he could prescribe a diet that worked well for “low blood sugar”. Like a what? Gordon was, by luck, the trainer assigned to me for an initial work out session. He took me through a challenging work out that was largely based on lifting weights. He said he could help me achieve my goal if I wanted to come back and work with him, which meant purchasing sessions through the gym. I had seen the light! I knew that this was the answer and that this could not fail.

I started dieting and training in January of 2008 after graduating from graduate school with a PhD in educational psychology. I weighed 180 lbs. and my BMI was 37%. Gordon gave me a written schedule of what foods to eat and how often to eat them. He had started me on a low-carbohydrate diet consisting of lean meats, sprouted grains, brown rice, nuts and nut butters. It was a drastic change from the processed foods I had become used to consuming. After all, I had studied behavioral psychology and was board certified in my specialization. If I couldn’t change my own behavior, how effective was I going to be at helping others change theirs? This had implications for my confidence in my profession as well.

I did this on my own. I didn’t know anyone else following this diet, or any low-carbohydrate diet for that matter at the time (I had friends that had also tried South Beach off and on for a while with similar short-term results to Weight Watchers). It was an initial adjustment but once getting a feel for the diet and food prep, following it became routine. During this time, my allergy symptoms seemed to improve and I decided to try not taking the medications. Following that, I also discontinued the antacid I had been taking for 10 years. While this was promising, after losing 35 pounds I seemed to plateau and had stopped losing.

Naturally I went to Gordon with my plateau problem. He then suggested a protein/fat diet and provided a similar “to do” list with food prep and eating.  This diet eliminated the grains completely and focused on lean meats and healthy fats. I was motivated to achieve optimum health and dutifully followed the diet for 6 weeks. After going through additional symptoms of the “low carb flu”, where your body attempts to convince you it needs carbohydrates from sugar and grains but is really an addiction withdrawal, I did then achieve my weight loss goal (and ultimately 17% BMI!).

By now I had a new addiction, my new-found strength from lifting weights and the intensity of my training sessions with Gordon, and at the end of the 6 weeks was faced with what to do with my diet. Go back to the low-carb version? Re-introduce the grains? Seemed reasonable at the time. Renew the sessions and continue training? I was in love with the results I had achieved (a side benefit was winning a “biggest loser” contest we had a work) but I wasn’t sure I could replicate the intensity on my own. I was willing to give up a house cleaning service in exchange for renewed training sessions. I was also continuing to do great medication free.

The following year we started receiving Men’s Journal magazine (a magazine dedicated to men’s health and fitness), which I suspected was the result of an unsolicited promotion. I was flipping through the magazine when I came across an advertisement for something claiming to be a “diet for athletes”. I could possibly be considered an athlete at this point, couldn’t I? Certainly based on the intensity of my training sessions it was worth a look.

The diet was Loren Cordain’s Paleo Diet for Athletes . The article was brief, but intrigued, I quickly did a Google search to learn more. The information on the website outlined the philosophy of eating foods humans were genetically determined to eat, which meant the elimination of grains. Holy cow! I was practically here – already doing this to a large extent.

I continued reading as much as possible, first finding the site Mark’s Daily Apple and purchasing Mark’s book ( The Primal Blueprint ) and cookbook . I found his site and books to be easy to read and follow, and the cookbook a necessity for knowing which foods to eat and for recipe ideas. At this time, my husband Scott (who was in the vitamin business before becoming an elementary school teacher and who had read Life Extension) became dissatisfied with his own physical health and decided to also join the gym. Yeah! In the beginning he attempted to go “low-carb” but was still eating granola, oats, sugar-laden yogurt, and a few other processed foods. As a result, he wasn’t losing the weight he had hoped. My only feedback to him was, “You are still eating grains and dairy”. It was at that point that he got on board and committed to a grain-less and limited dairy existence. He is down 25 lbs. and has developed an amazing physique at age 48 (could he be looking better than I do?). On the same page, we can now focus on encouraging our children to limit their grains and sugar and make healthier food choices.

I remain working with Gordon (now in private business!), and read the daily Primal and paleo blogs to continue learning as much as I can about food and other potential environmental contributors to health problems. I have watched family and friends die from cancer. I know people with diabetes and heart disease. I look around in public and see most people carrying too much weight around their mid section. As a society, we aren’t informed about the foods we eat. We don’t understand about the role of fats in human health, the right fats to consume, the inflammatory effects of processed grains, etc. We eat blindly, wanting momentary pleasures, without concern for what our bodies biologically want or need.

Many of my friends think I deprive myself because I don’t eat sweets or because I eat healthy all the time. It is hard to imagine all the wonderful food I have “found” since waking up to what nature has to offer. Healthy fats, spices, vegetables, grass-fed and organic meats, and wild seafood are incredibly satisfying. I no longer have allergies, acid reflux, or low blood sugar. I’ve learned to cook real food (rarely eat out) and willingly and routinely answer questions via text, email, and Facebook from friends and family who are trying to make healthier choices. If I can impact one decision, it is worth the effort. I don’t miss any parts of the old diet or lifestyle and certainly have no regrets, only thankfulness for the resources, opportunity, and knowledge bestowed upon me.

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