“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ....” Leo Tolstoy, opening line of “Anna Karenina.”
In the happy world of successful weight maintainers, as in happy families, there are a whole lot of similarities to be observed. The more I talk with people who are staying at goal, the more I notice the same themes repeating.
What’s the same about all good weight maintainers? From my point of view:
They are focused as much on general health and vitality as on weight.
They eat a very “clean” diet (mostly basic plant and lean animal foods).
They exercise avidly.
They continue to maintain an intellectual interest in their bodies. They read, research and experiment.
They eat sparingly.
They have made deep, not superficial, changes to their eating habits.
They are warriors; doggedly refusing to be knocked off course.
Given these similarities, each of us has an individual twist on maintenance. I want to hear them all. So, let me be the first to share. Even as a physician specializing in weight loss, I have not been immune to the fattening effects of aging in America. For many years, I thought I was one of the blessed. And I guess in some ways I was. I ate Mallomars by the boxful, entire cheesecakes at a sitting and endless mounds of Chicken McNuggets and Egg McMuffins without gaining a pound. During those years, I felt immortal, even though I had been seated at the kitchen table when my thin-as-a-rail father had a heart attack during lunch when he was just 50 years old. You’d think that would have changed my bad-eating ways. But it didn’t. Now I am horrified to think of the years of abuse my brain and arteries suffered from all the high sugar, grease, trans fats and additives I inhaled during those days. I only pray that I’ve reversed most of the damage by now.
The luckiest day of my life might have been the day that I woke up, noticed my blubbery thighs and hit the scale. I literally shrieked when three separate weighings insisted on informing me that I had become 30 pounds fatter than I had always been previously. I had gained this weight despite being a dedicated aerobic exerciser who took intense, high impact classes 5 to 6 days per week. So much for the theory that exercise alone can create weight loss.
I realize that for many of you reading this, my paltry 30 extra pounds seem like nothing at all. But the weight journey is tough on all comers, whether they have to lose 15 pounds or 150. It took me about five years to lose 20 pounds of that 30. I never returned to that pristine, original size. The process took so long simply because I kept regaining what I’d taken off. As I’ve always said, it is regain and not weight loss that is the problem for most Americans, and I was no exception.
During those up and down years, I became incredibly frustrated. It seemed that I was eating much less than I ever had before yet I would put the weight right back on. Like many in the 1990s, I had been taken in by low-fat rhetoric. As long as I didn’t eat fat, I figured, I should be fine. This led me to Entenmann’s fat-free chocolate chip cookies and lunches composed of a half a loaf of bread and a diet soda. I then tried going in the exact opposite direction by doing Atkins, but by the end of a day or two my mouth would feel coated with fat and I’d be nauseous and feel disgusted. I pondered this. It didn’t seem right to be eating something as unnatural as a diet of bacon rinds and steak. That thought led to another. Hmmmmm. What should the human body be eating??
It was as if the proverbial light bulb lit right above my head. So simple. So obvious. Animals have diets designed by nature and they don’t do well when we tamper with them. I thought about this for awhile. My dog Toby, for example, was chronically overweight. He was designed to eat meat and bones but most dog foods were full of cereal. Poor guy! He wasn’t built to use cereal and so it stuck to him like an overstuffed parka. Hey, wait a minute!! Maybe I was designed to eat the foods that my ancient ancestors ate for millions of years. That diet would be lean animal products and things like fruits and vegetables. Instead, I was eating a diet jammed full of starches and sugars. Like Toby, those grains and sugars were fattening me up like a calf on the feedlot. Why? Maybe because my body wasn’t designed to eat that stuff.
In my book, I write extensively about the diet I started to put together in my mind that day, what I have since come to call the Primarian diet. Primarian simply means a diet of foods that could have been eaten before the advent of agriculture.
Humans started growing food on purpose a mere 10,000 years ago. But humans and their ancestors have been around for approximately 2.5 million years longer than that – an endless time that did not include much exposure to grain, starchy roots, beans or sugar. Ten thousand years is a mere drop in the bucket for us, yet that’s how long ago we learned to grow wheat, rice, oats, corn and other grains.
Sugar is even newer than that and is missing from our ancient diet except in the form of fruit and occasional honey. Our bodies, like those of giraffes, elephants, wolves and countless other living creatures, learned to adapt to the world’s food supply and that period of adaptation occurred in ancient times. Systems for eating the meats, fish, seafood, vegetables, fruits, eggs, nuts and berries that were available back then were perfected through endless generations. Systems for processing grain, big starchy roots (like potatoes), beans and sugar, on the other hand, were designed to be used very rarely. These systems are small and easily overcome.
Now: combine the glut of starch and sugar in our SAD diet with the weak systems we possess for processing them. Instead of using these fuels efficiently, we turn them into fat and store them. After we’ve blown up like fatty balloons, we continue to put fat in other creative places such as around and inside our organs. Our livers fill up with fat like the livers of geese being force fed to make foie gras.
After the light bulb lit, I decided to try eating anciently. I cut out all grains and grain-based products (flour, cereal, breads, etc..), all potatoes and most beans. I vastly cut back on sugar. I lost all of my weight. Into the huge wholes created in my diet, I inserted lots of vegetables, fruits, lean meats, fish and poultry and some low fat dairy. (If you are very clever, you may have already figured out that animal milk is not Primarian. Ancient people did not have domesticated animals. However, low-fat dairy has not impacted my weight, so I’ve added it in.) This is the diet that works for me and which, along with vigorous exercise at least five days a week, keeps me within a five-pound range of goal. Over the past five years, I have figured out some add-backs, but they aren’t many. I’m still very strict, particularly about the starches and potatoes. It’s like being a vegetarian, except that I’m a Primarian. It’s working! And has been for awhile.
One thing is for sure: if you’ve been keeping weight off, you also have a plan…and a good one. Time to fess up and let us all in on it. If you are a happy maintainer (at least mostly happy, since maintenance is always an ongoing struggle), please share your maintenance plan with us. How are you doing it? We’ve added a page on this site called “It’s Working!” There is a space there for comments for you to tell us your plan and your insights. We look forward to hearing from you!