And Why I Love Books
There are lots of forms of communication that are very useful. A news article or opinion piece related to current events is a great way to provide a crucial update to a situation that the reader is already very familiar with. A song is a great vehicle for introducing people to recent or historical events they've never heard of before, in a way that, crucially, can reach them emotionally. The particular strength of the form known as the book is that, if done well, it's substantial enough that the reader can actually learn new concepts and then learn more about them, to the point where you can actually develop new knowledge, new skills, new ways of understanding the world -- beyond the superficial level of understanding that only longer-form methods of communication such as books or ongoing courses of study can provide.
Sometimes the most useful knowledge that we can get out of a book involves the unlearning of what we thought we knew, in the process of developing a new understanding. I have had this experience recently in terms of my understanding of many aspects of the history of the Americas in reading the book, 1491. In terms of understanding other aspects of history and the world around me today, many other books have been absolutely essential in making any sense of this planetary mess.
But it's not just about history and politics, when it comes to the usefulness of knowledge, and specifically the knowledge that can be transferred in the form of a book. It's about everything -- possibly without exception.
We humans don't tend to read much about some of the most important things, I've noticed, unless it's forced upon us. For example, in Denmark, anybody who has gone to school has learned something about raising emotionally healthy children. This is part of the curriculum. But outside of Scandinavia, by my very unscientific observation I would say that the majority of parents have never read a full-length book on the subject of parenting, from cover to cover. They're doing what is easily one of the most important things they'll ever do in their lives -- raising a child -- and yet they have never read a book about it.
I'm the same way. I read lots about my main areas of interest (history, politics, music) but not much about anything else, unless somehow forced to by circumstances or the need to know something that I knew I needed to know, but didn't.
At the age of 19 or so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first book I read in order to learn about something I had not learned about in school or from any other useful source til then was about sex. I was sexually active for the first time, and the advice I had gotten from pornographic magazines about not ejaculating prematurely wasn't working. I was browsing a New Age book store with my dad one day when I came across Mantak Chia's book, Cultivating Male Sexuality. I devoured it, began practicing his mental and physical exercises, and voila, within a year or so I had learned that the male orgasm is a voluntary and optional thing in the course of sexual relations, and certainly nothing that needs to happen involuntarily at any stage. I had learned a new skill from a book, for the first time in my life, and it was a very empowering experience.
Later in life I learned through struggling with a variety of relationships with relatives, friends, lovers, exes, and my own children, at different points I developed new skills as a parent and as an actively-listening communicator. The most useful book on communication and parenting and self-understanding (all inextricably related subjects) that I read was Naomi Aldort's Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.
I'll note here that on the subject of parenting and nonviolent communication I read many books. In the best of them, there's loads of overlap. You'll find many of the same messages in Aldort's book that you'll find, for example, in another book I read called Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child or in Marshall Rosenberg's now classic book, Nonviolent Communication.
So after reading a book about sex as a teenager and books about communication and relationships in my early forties (which I wish I had read as a teenager, too), at the age of 51 I got around to reading my first book on the subject of eating.
Eating is easily as basic and important a phenomenon in the lives of humans and other living creatures as sex or communication. I had read books about the dangers of genetic modification, the perniciousness of the fast food industry, the evils of factory farming, and other such subjects related to food. But I hadn't read anything about how to eat well.
David Reads A Book
In retrospect, I thought I already knew how to eat well, but I just wasn't doing it right because I lacked the discipline or couldn't be bothered. But I was wrong. Although I was raised eating supposedly healthy food in a health-conscious, largely vegetarian family environment growing up, and although I have spent most of my life hanging around organic farmers and people obsessed with permaculture, windmills and shit (literally), I was clueless, and I'm sure most of my friends are, too.
The book I read is called the Plant Paradox. I have looked at other books that contain a lot of similar or identical dietary advice, so I do not here want to uphold the heart surgeon who wrote the book, Dr Steven Gundry, as the only person with such advice who you should read. It may be that, as with conscientious parenting books, there's lots of overlap between Dr Gundry's book and many others which I haven't read. I suspect that the tribalism that you can find in various "self-help" circles around which philosophy is best has a lot to do with which books different people happen to have read. (Similar, I suspect, to tribalism between different varieties of Marxists or Christians who have actually never read each other's books, but only the books put forward by their own political or religious tendencies -- including the bits in their books where the books of the other tendencies are denounced as blasphemous for one reason or another.)
Because there is so much advice out there, and because some of it is more than a little contradictory, I thought that at least for the people out there who know me, it could be useful for you to hear a little about my own journey with food and weight, and the bits of the Plant Paradox that I applied to my life that seem to be the most useful factors.
I don't want to fat-shame anybody, and I don't want to come across as the guy with all the answers -- I'm not. Making people feel bad or bullying people because of how they look is a terrible thing. And there are many reasons why people are different sizes -- physical, emotional, medical, etc. When I talk about my experience, it is only my experience. I had my own reasons for my behavior, which may or may not be related to you or yours.
I really only read the book because my daughter, Leila, instructed me to. She had read it, it clearly had had a huge impact on her, and she wanted me to read it. I read it, initially, because what she thinks and feels is important to me, and I want to know about it, whatever it is, for the sake of our connection to each other, among other reasons. In retrospect, I was ridiculously resistant to reading the book, and I'm pretty sure there is no one on Earth who could have gotten me to read a book about dieting if it hadn't been Leila. It's entirely possible that I owe her my life.
Living In Denial
I'm 51 and I'm pretty sure I now weigh less than I've weighed in my entire adult life. I'm still at the high end of what the National Institutes of Health define as "normal." Most people in the US, Mexico, the UK and many other societies today are defined by the NIH's Body Mass Index as "overweight" or "obese" (BMI calculator here). For most of my adult life I have been within the category defined as "overweight." Mostly I was on the lower end of the overweight scale. Last March, I was on the higher end of the scale, just shy of the NIH definition for "obese."
These definitions are not based on what is typical. If they were, then overweight would be considered "normal." The definitions are medical. They use BMI to understand the impact of our weight on our health. So for example, regardless of what's typical in society, people who are even slightly into the NIH's "overweight" category are as much as three times more likely to develop certain cancers. Having a certain BMI is one of the warning signs that you're more likely to develop various forms of cancer. Obviously there are lots of other factors involved with getting cancer, but being overweight is definitely one of them.
In my entire adult life I have been told by one nurse, one doctor and one daughter that I was overweight and should lose weight to be healthy. Far, far more often if the subject came up in conversation I have been told by well-meaning friends, relatives and acquaintances that I'm not overweight. All that time, however, I was overweight, according to the very important medical definition of the term, with all the health consequences that it entails.
I attribute this behavior on the part of the vast majority of people in my life to people wanting to be sensitive, not hurt my feelings or make me feel ashamed. I did feel ashamed, anyway. Every time I have looked in the mirror throughout my thirties and forties I have thought, "I really need to do something about that." Every time I have bought clothing or put on clothing, I have thought about how to wear it in such a way that best hides my belly.
By last March, as I approached obesity, it had become impossible to hide my belly by draping my ever-growing shirts and trousers the right way. I maintained a sense of humor throughout, joking to my pregnant wife that Carhart should market their "relaxed" shirt sizes as "Maternity Clothes for Men." (That advertising campaign would probably not take off, however.)
When I think about how I have felt about my body for my entire adult life, and I look around me as I travel throughout the US, the UK and other countries, I see other people who feel the same way I have always felt. I see people of all genders trying to hide their bodies, trying to re-frame them with clothing draped the right ways, in order to hide the fat which they are ashamed to be living with. I see people, like me, who feel inadequate, who can't run without feeling like each step is another jarring crash to the ground. I see people who I know are statistically very, very unlikely to live long lives. People who are obese die 5-20 years younger than people with a "normal" BMI, according to NIH statistics.
I know much more about what it's like to be an overweight man than what it's like to be another kind of overweight person. As a man, wearing more or less the kinds of clothes most men wear, it's pretty easy to look relatively thin until you are approaching actual obesity. In other words, if you see someone with clothing on and they look overweight, they are probably beyond overweight, they are obese, and their lives are at great physical risk. If they are middle-aged, they're likely to be dying pretty soon, probably before they reach the age of 70, and their last decades on Earth will involve lots of other physical ailments related to their weight, as well as emotional ailments related to how they feel about their weight, along with the many emotional consequences of the physical weight itself.
I understand why people repeatedly told me things like "you're not fat." I appreciate the sentiment behind these lies. In retrospect, however, they were probably very unhelpful for me, and while I would never want to make someone feel bad about their appearance, I, for one, am no longer going to say things like that to people just to be nice. This is a serious health issue that shouldn't be swept under the rug just because it's uncomfortable for us to think about and talk about.
Relearning How to Eat
Although the author tried so many methods of maintaining my interest in reading his book in the early chapters of it, I'm sure I would have put it down and never picked it up again if I hadn't told Leila I'd read it. The reason was that it was immediately challenging so many of the things I thought I knew about eating. But my own implementation of his advice shows me, at least, how right he was.
I'm not only lighter than I've ever been as an adult, but I have much more energy, and I no longer suffer from something which I wasn't even aware I suffered from before, which Dr Gundry calls "brain fog." For me, brain fog was a normal part of every day, which I thought was just part of what everybody went through, which often led to me taking an afternoon nap. I rarely take afternoon naps anymore, and I generally feel very well-rested after seven hours of sleep, whereas before this year I always needed 8 hours to feel really refreshed the next day.
My understanding of the chemistry involved with all this stuff is very limited, but it's good enough to have learned how to eat at this point. Basically, the premise here is we have digestive systems very much like apes, and if we want to be healthy humans we are best off eating the way healthy apes do. And if we want to gain weight like farm animals do, we should eat like farm animals. Which is what most of us do, whether we're vegetarians, vegans or omnivores.
What do we feed farm animals that we want to fatten up for the slaughter? Grain, mostly corn (in the US). It makes them sick, because they're not designed to eat the stuff, so we then give them antibiotics to wash the corn down with. And what do we mostly eat? The same stuff, but in the form of bread, cereal, etc. We have to cut out all of that junk. Which means that the vast majority of the food on supermarket shelves is off-limits.
Overcoming Sugar Addiction
Learning not to eat grain, for the most part, is a big part of what's been working so well for me in terms of weight loss, energy and increased mental acuity. Another huge part of the equation has been learning not to eat fruit.
Fruit is designed by the plant world to make you want to eat it. The reason fruit wants to be eaten is because it can spread its DNA that way and reproduce. You're part of that equation with fruit, as with other plants. It wants to be eaten when it's ripe, so when it's not ripe it can be toxic to eat. Once it's ripe, it's very enticing to eat because it's usually a bright color and it's loaded with sugar. In the wild, in most of the world most animals will only have the opportunity to eat fruit for part of the year, when it's ripe and in season, during the summer. Having access to ripe fruit in summer helps them gain enough weight to make it through the coming winter.
If we only ate fruit when it's ripe and in season for a few weeks each summer it wouldn't be a problem, but everybody I know has access to ripe fruit all year round these days. When I complained to friends and medical professionals that I had a problem with sugar addiction in the past, I was often told to eat fruit instead, when I crave things like ice cream or chocolate.
These people were giving me really, really bad advice. Sugar, it turns out, whether it's in fruit or in ice cream, is addictive. It doesn't matter what kind of sugar it is -- it's all addictive in the same way, triggering the same addict responses. You eat fruit, you want more sugar, and your desire for more sugar isn't a desire for more fruit, it's a desire for any kind of sugar. And when you eat more, you'll want still more. Sugar is an addictive drug, and so are pears and bananas. You don't need to eat them at all. I stopped eating fruit, and I've never felt better. I no longer crave sugar. I eat small amounts of sugar (fruit sugar, honey, maple syrup for the most part, contained in some processed foods I still eat such as grainless granola or paleo snacks), but not enough to set off the addictive cycle I was constantly falling victim to from the time I was a baby until last year.
I should say, it's not that I no longer think eating sugar would taste good. It's not that I have no interest in sugar. I just don't crave it the way I used to. In other words, it turns out that I do have self-discipline, and I'm not the undisciplined person that I eventually made myself out to be in my own mind. I was addicted, and the addiction was more powerful than my self-discipline much of the time. The fruit was keeping me addicted, so eventually I'd fall off the wagon and start eating ice cream again. No more. Now it's easy, with the physical addiction out of the way, in my case.
So What Do You Eat?
When you more or less stop eating grain (and also carb-based vegetables such as potatoes), most fruit (with the notable exception of avocados), and certain other toxic foods that we shouldn't be eating such as beans, peanuts and eggplants, what's left are all the rest of the vegetables in existence, along with nuts, fish and insects. Most of us don't eat insects, even though they're full of nutrients and protein. Many of us are vegetarians or vegans, but that's not a problem, you can get all the things you get from animal protein from other sources. The main thing is cutting out grain and fruit (and of course almost all processed foods that contain grain or processed sugar), and then eating what's left -- mainly green vegetables.
How does that work? Normal breakfasts are out -- no pancakes, toast, hot or cold cereal made of grains. Normal lunches are out -- no sandwiches, no bowls of rice with stuff on top. Normal dinners are out -- no potatoes next to your meat.
You have to stop thinking about all that. Stop thinking about what you and other people normally eat, and reinvent your diet. It's important not to eat too much protein, according to Dr Gundry, so he differentiates his orientation from the paleo diet that way. I have found personally that I lose weight faster when I really limit the intake of nuts and animal protein, and mainly focus on eating green vegetables. I also find I'm a lot less hungry than I used to be, I eat much less overall, and when I get hungry, I don't get tired unless I don't eat for several hours after becoming hungry. These effects are all consequences of eating this way.
In the morning I typically eat about a cup of grainless granola with unsweetened hemp or almond milk. For lunch I eat a large bowl of salad, consisting mostly of kale, spinach, rocket, avocados, artichoke hearts, olives, etc., along with a limited amount of things like salmon, anchovies, or other forms of protein. If I'm on my own and not trying to make my diet interesting for the sake of other people, I'll often have the same thing for dinner -- another salad. If I'm hungry in between meals, which often happens, I either ignore the hunger and suffer no negative consequences from doing that, or I eat an avocado, a small serving of olives or some pistachios.
Eating On the Road, Exercise and Other Habits
Many people (including me) say it's harder to eat well when traveling. This is obviously true. When you live somewhere, you know where to buy the food you want to eat, and you have a stove and a refrigerator at home, generally. However, I find it's easy to eat on the road anywhere that I go. In small towns in the US or the UK -- both countries with terrible health problems related to terrible diets that most people have -- finding a salad in a restaurant can be impossible.
But in your travels you will come across supermarkets. Even if you come across a supermarket in rural Yorkshire or Wyoming where there are no prepared salads to buy, and you don't want to bother buying spinach and finding a bowl somewhere and making your own salad, there are still options. Think about it -- what would you be doing if left to your own devices in a town like that? You'd eat fish and chips, or if you're lucky enough to be in a town with a good Indian restaurant, you'll eat a pile of rice with stuff on it. Both basically deadly options for your weight loss program. But at the supermarket you can at least find a jar of pickled artichoke hearts, a jar of olives, or a bag of pistachios. Any of those things are far better for you than the curry or the fish and chips, and any of those things, by themselves, can be an entire, inexpensive meal. Not ideal -- not like an organic salad made of fresh greens -- but it'll do.
One of the "on the road" habits I have long had is basically the same thing I do when I'm home, which is getting hungry late at night. I've heard many people say that this is their main downfall when it comes to losing weight. What I've found as far as that tendency goes is when you get hungry late at night, eat a little something, as long as it's something on the list of good things to eat (Dr Gundry's "yes list" in the case of the Plant Paradox book). Don't order a meal somewhere and don't sit down with the intention of eating what we think of as a meal. As with breakfast, I find a cup of nuts is often all I need, and if I stop there, I feel great. If I keep eating a plate full of food, I'll feel sick. It's largely about the intention you begin with when you sit down with food. Are you trying to satiate your pangs of hunger or are you trying to get full? Never eat to get full, never feel like you need to "finish your plate." (And never, ever tell a child to do that, unless you're trying to raise someone who will grow up to associate eating with guilt and other negative emotions.)
I've been told over the decades by many different people that if I want to lose weight I need to work up a sweat regularly, get regular cardiovascular exercise. I have been told many times that the fact that I walk briskly at least an hour every day is not good enough. All these people who have told me these things were woefully misinformed, and have only served to discourage me all of these years. If you are an athletic person and you're very fit because you get lots of cardiovascular exercise, please don't tell people that they need to exercise like you do in order to be fit. They don't.
You don't need to exercise much to lose weight. I am getting no more exercise than I have ever gotten in my adult life. I'm exercising the same amount as I always have, or less. I like walking, so I take walks regularly. It's true that I'm not a couch potato, and I'm not recommending that you be one. But you don't need to take up jogging or anything like that. You just need to stop eating the same food that you would feed to your pigs if you were trying to fatten them up for the slaughter.
Dr Gundry, and many other authors I've heard about or heard interviewed on radio shows and such, emphasizes how once you're habituated to his diet, you can eat as much as you want of the foods on the "yes list" as long as you avoid the foods on his "no list." Perhaps this is true, or becomes true after a while.
I'm certainly not there yet. I have definitely experienced how much easier it is to eat and live a happy and healthy life by eating the right foods and not eating the wrong ones. But it seems to me that a certain level of self-discipline is required to do this or just about anything else. The idea that we can continue to be undisciplined and still be OK is very popular, for very understandable reasons. My conclusion on this is that there's a big grain of truth to the idea that for the most part it's about relearning how to eat, and that the hardest part in the process is the first few weeks. But I think the idea that you eventually don't need self-discipline is probably not true. You just need less of it. But we all have self-discipline, and I don't think too much of it is required to radically change how you eat, except at the beginning -- but definitely some of that is required.
I would liken it to the process of learning how to play a musical instrument, actually. Anyone who has taught anyone to play an instrument can tell you that most people drop out in the first six months. That is, if you're going to become discouraged, it's most likely to happen at the beginning, before you are able to reap the rewards of your hard work. At the beginning, nothing you do sounds very good, so you don't get the positive feedback from your instrument for the hard work you're putting in. After a few months, you're able to keep your instrument in tune and occasionally make noises on it that are pleasing to the ear. This positive feedback makes you want to put in more work. Even though it requires self-discipline to practice, it also becomes fun.
By the same token, at first you're eating differently and there are no dramatic changes -- you don't suddenly get thin, or suddenly have lots more energy, or suddenly do anything. It's a process, and it starts slow. After a while, though, you feel lighter, more energetic, and, if you're like me, you have positive thoughts when you look in the mirror, rather than negative ones. These things all tend to make the down sides of eating well seem irrelevant after a bit.
I wrote this in the hope that some of my many overweight and obese friends, fans and acquaintances may be inspired by my words to rethink how they eat. I wrote this because my friends, fans and acquaintances are literally dying. I can list a number of friends of mine who died young as a result of health consequences generally associated with obesity. I know many other people who are undoubtedly going to die much younger than they should, if they don't do something about their unhealthy weight problem.
I hesitated in writing this because I don't want to brag or seem like I think I'm superior to anyone else now that I've overcome this health problem, and because I don't want to be accused of fat-shaming. But Houston, we've got a problem (and Houston has the biggest problem of anywhere, now that I mention it). And if your problem is like mine, then we also have a solution.
I also hesitated to write this because I have absolutely no interest in getting into in-depth discussions about the differences between one dieting book and another. I'm always interested in feedback to things I write, but if you're going to tell me that Dr Gundry is a fraud because he sells vitamins or whatever, don't bother. I know he sells vitamins, and I don't care. I take vitamins, too, and I think they're helpful, but just because the dude sells vitamins and is otherwise trying to monetize his knowledge of nutrition and make a living in a capitalist society does not bother me in itself, and if it bothers you, I'm not interested! OK, I'll stop there.