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The Naked Truth

Author Gary Taubes has made me hungry. For truth. The Naked Truth.

I listened to a compelling interview with Taubes, a science journalist and author of the book ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories : challenging the conventional wisdom on diet, weight control and disease’ on NPR recently. You can hear that interview here.

Taubes spent a half decade researching and writing this book and he lifted my eyebrows several times on the [sometimes dubious] origins of our current thinking on the relationship of diet (ie, what and how we eat) to obesity, to weight loss, to heart disease and other conditions.

Taubes wrote this book as a scientist would: without the aim to defend or deny any dietary dogma. Rather, he let the weight of evidence guide him to his conclusions. And those conclusions poke some holes in popular thinking.

My first encounter with trying to understand human nutrition came when I rolled off the couch nearly ten years ago. My too-tight pants (Wranglers had become Stranglers) told me I was at the crossroads of fitness or fatness. Fitnessfolk told me that nutrition must play a role in my battle of the bulge if I was serious about winning it.

So off I went to meet the ‘Fat Lady.’ That was my affectionate name for Alison Rainbow , a sharp Auckland, NZ-based sports nutritionist and former champion bodybuilder. My aim was to reduce bodyfat and Ali gave me my first insight about the important relationship between protein, fat and carbohydrates. She had me compile a food diary, recording everything I ate for a week, and when we reviewed it she asked the simple question: ‘Where’s your protein, mate?’

Um, whaddya mean? I’m eating low-fat.

That’s precisely the problem. It’s all carbohydrates.

I was at  a doughy-soft 21% bodyfat. With Alison’s guidance on eating and exercising properly I cut that percentage in half in six months’ time.

Goal achieved.

I thought I had it figured out.

A few years on, author Gary Taubes has challenged me to, um, deepen my understanding.

When I worked with Alison I was training for Ironman triathlons. I believed that a calorie was a calorie. The math was simple: consume more cals than you burn and you gain weight. Go the other way and you lose. There were days when I spent several hours and a few thousand calories training – swimming, cycling and running. I got lean for sure. Hard not to.

 But I was never quite lean enough.

Gary Taubes now tells me why: I was eating too many carbohydrates.

I’ve come to realize that I have been addicted to carbs. I lovvvve baked goods. And bread. A strong exercise ethos has kept me from wearing them around my waistline.

My new insight: as the title of Taubes’ book suggests, there are ‘good’ calories and ‘bad’ calories. Essentially the key to winning the bodyweight game is understanding what foods trigger insulin release by the body and what foods don’t. Compliant diabetics are very aware of how certain foods affect their blood sugar levels and they have to eat smart. I’m discovering that we should too.

Essentially most processed carbohydrates – breads, pasta, sugary drinks, candy and baked goods – dump sugar into our bloodstream very quickly after eating. Once that happens the body has to DO something with all that excess energy. The pancreas is called and the hormone Insulin is sent onto the scene to do crowd control. I’m oversimplifying what happens at the cellular level but  insulin effectively pushes the excess energy out of the blood and into the cells as fat. Once that happens we’re hungry again in a few hours’ time. So we eat. What? More carbohydrates. They’re cheap and they’re available. The cycle continues, round and round and round. That’s how we begin to look after a while, too: round(er) and round(er) and round(er).

Mr. Taubes has inspired me to take a new look at the proportions of carbs and proteins and fats that go into my mouth. His research evidence says that the most effective nutrition program is one that has higher-than-currently-recommended proportions of protein and fat and reduced levels of carbohydrate, especially the kind of sincarbs that I really like to eat.

It's all about respecting and taming the insulin response.

 So after my own little review, I’ve begun the South Beach Diet program. I hate the ‘D’ word because to me, the word diet implies that it’s a quick-fix. Alison Rainbow taught me that to succeed at the fatfight I need to reframe my thinking, my habits and my lifestyle around eating. I’ve learned that getting it right can be one of the most satisfying aspects of daily life. Nothing feels so good as liking what I see in the mirror in the morning. It’s the naked truth, mate.

So as I write this I’m on Day 5 of the South Beach program.

The program is broken down into three phases: Phase One is a strict two-week regime of no-carbohydrates. This is hard for a guy who’s been hooked on carbs. But by Day 5 I’m amazed that I’m not hungry. I’m not even uncomfortable!  I have ample energy and I  can walk through a bakery without  a wobble.

Something weird is happening, Mr. Taubes. I’m not supposed to like this.

The principle of complete deprivation early on, I believe, is to crack the dependence on the sugar fix that all forms of simple carbohydrate give us. It’s also a chance to ‘reset’ our body’s energy systems. Thirdly, by dropping carbohydrates out of the diet for two weeks we burn up glycogen, a natural and necessary storage form of carbohydrate that also retains water in our bodies. Dump water and dump pounds. A glance at the scales in the first phase tells us that this plan is working! There is no better motivator for success than success!

In nine more days I’ll transition to Phase Two, when I begin to bring smart carbs back into the diet. The SB plan teaches us to think about the effect of what we’re eating and ‘smart carbs’ are merely carbohydrate sources that ‘burn’ slower than those made with white flour or sugar and have a muted effect on our blood sugar. Less blood sugar = less insulin released = less fat stored.

After reading through it, the plan makes good scientific sense to me and I’ll report to you how it’s going. When I started I was a pretty fit (but over-fat) 184 lbs. Yesterday, Day 4, I weighed 180. I’m aiming to get to a svelte 165. Painlessly.

Best of all, I'll be learning all the way. Read along with me and you will too. Hey, if I can do this, so can you.

Celery stick with hummus, anyone?

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