Meating some weighty matters . . .

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

There's an old Jewish saying of encouragement when things are going wrong: "You still have your health!"

I've always thought this to be clichéd but as I grow older, I'm finding myself a lot more appreciative of the inherent wisdom thereof. As a 50 something person, I'm a likely candidate for deteriorating vision, high blood pressure, diabetes, Alzheimer's, hardening of arteries, osteoporosis, and of course, Alzheimer's.

Last December, I with my cousin and my brother visited Chennai for a week to take in a bit of the annual Margazhi Carnatic Music Festival.

While we were there, we ate like natives – a delicious assortment of idlis, dosais, sambar, upma, idiyappam, and of course the world famous Madras coffee which competes favourably with the finest cappuccino. It was, of course, overwhelmingly vegetarian.

I put on seven kilos.

Understand that this got me to tip the scales at around 91kg, which is still a very respectable weight for my height of 180 cm. Nevertheless, it is the heaviest I've been in my life. And that got me thinking seriously about a lot of what we believe about healthy eating habits.

Conventional wisdom says that we should eschew red meat, eat only lean white meat or fish, lots of fruit, lots of vegetables, complex carbohydrates like pasta, low fat, low cholesterol etc. That was exactly what we had eaten in India, and it had left me feeling bloated and unhealthy.

So I got around to researching different styles of eating and in so doing stumbled across a book called The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. In a nutshell, Keith had been a vegan for 20 years from age 16 onward and found herself ending up with a degenerative disease of the spine.

She then began researching where conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer were prevalent and found that there were entire societies where these conditions were almost non-existent.

"The problem with proteins that come from plant sources is that they are wrapped in cellulose," she says. "We have no way to digest cellulose because we are not ruminants – we only have one stomach and we don't have that vat of bacteria that can do it for us.

"There are fat soluble nutrients that you cannot get from plants – vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K2, vitamin E – they don't exist in plant foods, and they are essential; you will die without them."

The problem with an agricultural diet, she says, is that one ends up with too much sugar. "You can call it complex carbohydrates if it makes you happy but at the end of the day, it's all just sugar. Your brain can only function at a very small range of blood glucose.

"So if you put in too much (sugar), it's a biological emergency; your pancreas has to secrete all this insulin which will grab it out of your bloodstream and stock it away into your fat cells as fast as it can; or you will die. So every time you eat one of those meals, you're demanding that your body produce that much insulin.

"There's a whole cascade of effects … that constant blood sugar roller coaster. Obvious things like diabetes and hypoglycaemia, but on into, for instance, cancer. What we do know about cancer is two things – one, that insulin provokes the growth of cancer cells; number two, what cancer eats is sugar.

"This why cancer is unknown among hunter gatherers. We all know Eskimos don't get cancer. This is why – they weren't eating agricultural foods."

This strangely made sense. So I took the fairly drastic step of immediately cutting out carbohydrates almost totally from my diet – no rice, no pasta, no bread, no sugar, no potatoes, no maize, no wheat.

Instead I began eating animal proteins and salads. I previously rarely ate red meat. Now, I began eating lots of red meat – including steaks cooked in butter, fatty chops, and sausages, bacon.

It was harder than I thought. It's almost impossible to find starch-free foods on a daily basis given that we have sandwiches, toast, breakfast cereals, chips, rice as large accompaniments to small portions of protein. Cheese omelettes now replaced buttered toast with honey for breakfast. I would eat curries without rice or rotis, mopping up the gravy with salad.

Astonishingly, I began to lose weight.

Last week, six months after I effected this lifestyle change, I subjected myself to a battery of tests from a Discovery Health nurse. My blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, heart rate, and all of the important indicators are looking perfect.

I have dropped to 80kg and appear to have stabilised at that level (which is about perfect for my body mass index). My energy levels are at the highest they have been ever. If I run up a flight of stairs, my legs get tired but I do not get out of breath.

I'm not for a second suggesting that you rush off and try this – I'm not a nutritionist and you should consult your doctor before doing anything that is likely to affect your health. I do know, however, that it's working for me.