Weight control has been a problem for me from as far back as I can remember, and I'm no stranger to diets - you name them, I've tried them over the years! The only diet that has proved successful for me (at least, until May 2011 - see later update) has been low carbohydrate. I first tried this in the 1980s, with significant success. However, there was much less evidence then to demonstrate its safety than there is now, and there were certainly no support organisations as there are now to provide motivation and practical advice to low carbers.
These factors caused me to return to low calorie/low fat dieting, with disastrous results. I was the classic yo-yo dieter, losing a few pounds by restricting myself to 700 to 1000 calories a day, then putting the weight back on with 'interest' when inevitably I was unable to sustain such a meagre existence for more than a few months at a time.
Twenty years later and considerably heavier despite constantly being on a diet, I decided it was time to find out how things had moved on in the world of medical and nutritional research. I was happy to find that many of the alleged dangers of low carb diets had been shown to be scientifically groundless. And I was even happier when I discovered that low carbing was now being hailed as more healthy than the low calorie/low fat/high carbohydrate diet currently in vogue. It seems that a significant proportion of the general population, perhaps the majority even, may be metabolically unable to handle carbohydrate foods in the form and quantity which make up our diet today. In fact, researchers and clinicians at the forefront of research into carbohydrate metabolism have gathered enough evidence over the last decades to give them the confidence to claim that, rather than fat, carbohydrate is the real villain - not only in obesity, but in diabetes and heart disease too.
This discovery coincided with the publication of an updated version of the low carbohydrate diet I had followed in the 1980s, the Atkins Diet. The intervening years of research and improved understanding of the subject had resulted in a diet that was more 'do-able', and this, together with the more credible scientific evidence of its safety, was enough for me. I bought the book, started the diet in January 2000, shed my surplus weight of three-and-a-half stone (49 pounds) - and have never felt better. The weight just melted off over the next year, despite the fact that my daily calorie consumption had substantially increased. Much of the excess weight was already gone by the summer of 2000, and family and friends who knew how much I'd struggled with my weight problem for so many years simply couldn't believe it.
Going low carb has transformed my life. Quite apart from the spectacular weight loss, I've lost the carbohydrate cravings I was always fighting against, the constant hunger pangs and the lack of energy. Better still, my confidence and self-esteem have rocketed. Being able to demonstrate that losing weight is not a simple matter of reducing calories or eating less makes me feel I've got my own back at last on all those in the past who doomed me to failure by serving me up with this advice and then blamed my inability to fit the theory on lack of willpower and/or 'emotional eating'.
I don't feel deprived any longer, either, because there are so many really satisfying, delicious, and even downright sinful foods you can have on low carb. It doesn't bother me as it once did to have to say no to puddings, cakes and chocolates because not only can I have low carb versions of them, but there are also plenty of other foods I can have instead which would have been forbidden when counting calories. One surprise is that I've completely lost my sweet tooth. I now find 'normal' chocolate, cakes and desserts disagreeably sweet. If anyone had told me pre-2000 that I would lose my taste for ordinary chocolate, I would never have believed them!
One other thing that has resulted from my switch to a low carb way of eating is that I've started baking again. Years ago I counted it amongst my hobbies but I gave it up when I realised that I was just making things harder for myself by having newly baked biscuits and cakes around to tempt me. But having discovered that low carb substitutes exist for many ingredients, I became an avid experimenter in the kitchen. Not for me a life consisting solely of plain-cooked meat, fish, cheese or eggs, green vegetables, and salad - my new way of eating had to have enough interest in it to keep me on it for life!
So I discovered how to make low carb sauces, pies, quiches, pizza, risotto, bread, cakes, biscuits, desserts, ice cream, yoghurt and so on. Family and friends who sampled my efforts were pleasantly surprised at how good they tasted compared to the 'normal' versions. However it quickly became apparent that I would need to organise the many scraps of paper on which I had scribbled my trial recipes and the inevitable carbohydrate calculations. I also realised that my accumulated knowledge might be useful to others. New or potential low carbers are often discouraged by what they mistakenly believe is a very plain and uninteresting diet, and by the need to change to a different way of thinking in the kitchen. So it was that the Low Carb is Easy website and the The Low Carb is Easy Cookbook came into being.
I don't actually count my carbs every day any more, but my tolerance level is somewhere between 25 and 40 grams. This is enough to allow me plenty of veggies and salads alongside my protein foods and 'good' fats, low carb 'porridge' for breakfast and a daily serving of yoghurt, ice cream or other dessert, whilst still having some of my quota left over for the occasional bread, pastry or sauce and the odd treat such as chocolate, shortbread, flapjacks and even chocolate eclairs. (All my special low carb versions, of course.)
The only challenge is that eating away from home is still difficult, because most food manufacturers and catering establishments, if indeed they provide 'healthy eating' options, focus on low calorie/low fat. Unfortunately these usually equate to 'fat content removed and replaced by sugar or other refined carbs', so I avoid these automatically.
Four years later - an update
Well, all was well for a couple of years, until I started to gain weight again. I thought maybe it was 'carb creep', but checking my carb intake confirmed this was not the case. I checked my calorie intake as well, to see if that could be the answer. But too many calories certainly wasn't the problem. So back to my books and papers I went.
It was then that I started to truly appreciate just how many more factors besides carb or calorie intake are involved when you are trying to lose weight. It seemed that there were a number of possible reasons why I had started gaining weight again. Depressed metabolic rate and low thyroid were top of the list of suspects, together with food allergies, candida, toxic load and nutrient deficiencies. From my research, I began to piece together how these problems all relate to one another. I also began to understand why tackling just one or two in isolation would not get my body back into the healthy balance that is needed before weight loss can occur.
So, one by one, I tackled the potential weight loss saboteurs that my research had identified. The most difficult to tackle was my hypothyroidism. I had been diagnosed a year before (finally, after probably having been mildly hypothyroid for all my adult life) but despite medication I was still suffering from hypothyroid symptoms such as poor digestion, lack of energy and inability to lose weight.
Eventually I came across a group of thyroid specialists who maintained that some hypothyroids need more and possibly different hormone replacement from the usual thyroxine ('T4') before they become free of symptoms. To cut a long story short, I turned out to be one of these people. I am now being prescribed a different thyroid hormone (liothyronine or 'T3'), and at last my weight seems to be moving downwards once again.
By this time, of course, I had collected hundreds of scraps of information and research papers and my library of reference books had grown prodigiously. As with the recipes I had developed earlier, I realized that the knowledge I had gathered would be useful to other people for whom diets were not working. I knew that such information was not readily available, because I had searched the Internet for it exhaustively. Sure, there were many books and articles on specific aspects. But there was nothing that covered all the factors in a comprehensive way and made scientific sense of a seemingly disparate collection of theories and clinical experiences by looking at them on a biochemical and hormonal level.
So I embarked upon the mammoth task of transforming my notes and papers into a book which would explain all these factors that can prevent you from losing weight. "Why Can't I Lose Weight - The Real Reasons Diets Fail And What To Do About It" was the result of my work and is now available from a new sister site to Low Carb is Easy.com called Diet Plateau.com.
Another 7 years later - another update
And now for the next instalment of my weight problem story (August 2011)!
Unfortunately, sorting my thyroid out didn't turn out to be as straightforward as I had hoped, because my adrenals were now in poor shape. The adrenals and the thyroid work in tandem and they each act as a stressor on the other. If your adrenals are not functioning very well, thyroid medication simply stresses them more. The chronic stress I was having in my personal life over this time was doubtless also contributing to my adrenal fatigue.
Healing the adrenals can take months or even years, which has been the case for me. I had to stop my thyroid medication while I started on adrenal supplements, then resume my thyroid, gradually building the dose back up. This was not good news for my continuing weight loss, and in fact my nutritional therapist advised me I might have to let my weight go up even further while my adrenals were healing, as constantly restricting food intake is yet another stressor for them.
Being hypothyroid, I was particularly interested to learn (only recently) that it is your thyroid that plays the major part in depressing your metabolism when you diet. The way your body achieves this down-regulation of your metabolic rate is to change T3, the active thyroid hormone, into reverse T3 or 'rT3'. This very slight alteration of the T3 is enough to render it inactive. Various clinical studies have observed this effect in dieters generally, not just in dieters who happen to be hypothyroid. In other words, dieting probably makes most people temporarily mildly hypothyroid, and those already hypothyroid even more so.
This lowering of your metabolic rate is a basic survival mechanism which is advantageous if there really is a famine, but a very great disadvantage if you are simply trying to lose weight.
Anyway, I now believe this metabolic down-regulation via rT3 was becoming increasingly significant for me. So although my adrenals were gradually responding to treatment, thereby letting me raise my thyroid supplementation over time, a lot of the extra thyroid was probably simply converting into rT3, making it almost impossible for me to lose weight.
By this time, I was carrying about two-and-a-half stone (35 pounds) in surplus weight. It was at this point that I heard about the hCG Diet, which many of my fellow hypothyroids were trying with great success. The hCG Diet was invented by an English doctor called Dr ATW Simeons in the 1950s. He had remarkable success with his overweight patients by using Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG), a natural hormone produced during pregnancy which he claimed acted on the hypothalamus to mobilise fat stores in a way that low calorie diets alone could not do.
In the last few years, Dr Simeons' hCG Diet has raised new interest. Unfortunately there is a lot of conflicting and confusing information about the diet on the Internet, and it took me a couple of months of research to feel confident I had managed to work out which were the accurate sources and which were the 'me-too' sites more interested in selling hCG of reputedly dubious authenticity than providing accurate information about the diet.
What most attracted me to the hCG Diet were the following claims:
- that dieters lose an average of 3 to 5 pounds a week - far in excess of the rate I had ever lost weight at previously, despite stringent dieting.
- that it resets your set point at your new weight. (The concept of the set-point is the well-known phenomenon where, once you stop dieting, your body tries its best to pile the weight on back up to your previous weight at an accelerated rate - another facet of the famine survival mechanism.)
- that it uses the known fat-mobilising properties of hCG (Human Chorionic Gonadotrophin) to access your 'abnormal', subcutaneous fat stores rather than the much-needed 'structural' fat which protects your organs.
- that although you follow a VLCD (Very Low Calorie Diet) of only 500 calories a day in the weight-loss phase of the hCG Diet, the mobilisation and consumption of your stored fat works so effectively that your body has more than enough fuel at its disposal to enable you to go about your normal life, and without feeling hungry either.
This sounded to me another way of saying that it enabled you to do a very low calorie diet without suffering the problem of the usual post-diet depressed metabolism, or the loose, sagging skin and haggard look that often results from other VLCDs where structural fat is lost but unwanted fat deposits stubbornly refuse to budge. If the claims were true, this was BIG. It would be the most significant step-change in our understanding of the mechanisms of weight loss since the low carb revolution taught us about the crucial part blood sugar and insulin levels play in weight control.
I was also encouraged by the fact that, unlike most low calorie diets, the hCG Diet bans starches and sugars on its strict, weight-loss phase, and brings the 'good carbohydrates' back gradually during the 'stabilisation' phase - but only to your individual level of tolerance to them. In other words, Dr Simeons recognised that for many people, the blood sugar and insulin effects that carbohydrate foods produce are critical factors in causing their weight problems in the first place.
I already knew that I had little tolerance to carbs, so using the hCG Diet to access my 'locked' fat stores and re-set my set point, then maintaining my new weight by continuing my low carb way of eating seemed ideal for me. And when both my nutritional therapist and my thyroid doctor recommended the diet to me, I vowed to try it.
So how did the hCG diet work for me? Here are my results:
I did two 'Rounds' of the Diet, because I needed to lose more than the maximum number of pounds you are allowed to lose per Round. In the VLCD fat-loss phase of Round 1 (4 weeks) I lost 17 pounds. I then kept my weight stable in the 'stabilisation' phase for 8 weeks with my usual low carb way of eating before starting Round 2, losing a further 18 pounds (five-and-a-half weeks of VLCD this time). So my total loss over the entire 4 month period (of which only nine-and-a-half weeks were actual VLCD and weight-loss weeks) was 35 pounds - bang on target!
In terms of the claims that Dr Simeons made about the hCG Diet, the signs are good. In the VLCD fat-loss phases I lost much more weight than I lost years ago when I tried VLCDs that did not use hCG. I also lost more than could be expected if you use the standard calculation that each pound of weight loss requires a deficit of around 3500 calories. In the stabilisation phase of Round 1 I noticed that I could eat many more calories than would be expected at my new lower weight. People tell me I am remarkably unscraggy for such an amount of weight lost in such a short space of time.
What we don't have yet is recent scientific evidence to back up the theory behind the hCG diet. However, trials are now being done in Australia and elsewhere so hopefully evidence will become available soon. In the meantime, I and many others are certainly convinced on a personal level that there is something here that would not have occurred just by doing a VLCD.
So here I am in September 2011, having finally found with the hCG Diet a way of circumventing the survival mechanisms that have been thwarting my weight loss attempts. Now back to my usual low carb way of eating, my current task is to stabilise at my new weight, re-setting my set point, and then to gradually bring back the more carby foods if I can tolerate them. If Dr Simeons' claims are correct, this should be easier than with previous diets. Only time will tell. Watch this space!
Low Carb is Easy.com and Good Diet Good Health.com