Weighty Issues Part 1 – Yes, I Was Fat!

I have found that new people I meet are very surprised to discover that I used to be obese. I have been told in conversations “Oh you wouldn’t understand, I can see you’ve never been overweight” and so on. Perhaps the story would be different if they could see my excess loose belly skin that hangs down unattractively when I bend over, but these conversations have not occurred in bikini appropriate environments. Fully clothed, I guess that my now lean frame gives no clues to suggest that I was a very heavy child, a large teen and an obese adult up until only a few years ago. Now is the time to set the record straight. Yes, below is the proof that I’ve had a lifetime of being ‘fat’. And I want to talk about why I suffered obesity, why ‘one size fits all’ diets don’t work, why each individual needs to find the key to unlock what makes their unique body tick, and what has worked for me.

baby

I was not born fat, but as I started to walk and talk my mother noticed that something was very wrong. I was an early developer but often didn’t want to walk. I told her I felt ‘heavy’. I was retaining water and showed symptoms of illness. Doctors tested me for various allergies but the final diagnosis was Nephrotic Syndrome; a serious kidney disease. The treatment for Nephrotic Syndrome was a steroid medication. Undoubtably, without it I would have died, but this drug added even more weight to my bloated, water logged body and stunted my growth, making me a very chubby kid.

toddler fatchild fatI was finally pronounced clear of Nephrotic Syndrome after entering permanent remission around the age of ten. A few years of good health, and swimming at a representative level, brought my size down to only a little ‘overweight’ but once I quit swimming I started to pack on fat.

teen fatThroughout my teens I could not understand why I kept putting on more and more weight despite loving physical activity. I looked at the junk other kids ate and questioned why they were thin and I was fat despite my balanced diet. I played hockey and golf several times a week, always enthusiastically took part in phys ed and joined every representative sporting team I could but I was always overweight. Looking back now I understand that whilst my diet perfectly conformed with the prescribed ‘food pyramid’ of the 80’s and 90’s, what I was eating wasn’t right for MY slow metabolism and MY disease scarred body in general. With parents of European extraction, my diet was high in processed carbohydrates (cereals, bread and pasta). We ate junk food only on special occasions but ate significant portions of carbs and animal protein late in the day.

During my Uni years, stress and depression combined with long days balancing personal issues, work and study, a reduction in physical activity and an increase in poor eating habits (going long periods without food and then binging on chocolate, and eating out more often) all contributed to further weight gain and I maxed out at my heaviest.

In the workforce, I looked at my thin colleagues and their bags of chips and blocks of chocolate and wondered what the hell was wrong with me? I resigned myself to the notion that ‘I just can’t eat like that’ but on weekends I would devour a single serve apple pie before hockey, under the honest belief that these were reasonably healthy and that I needed the fuel, and would, once a week or so, knock back half a Cadbury family block in one sitting. I didn’t understand that even if you eat well most of the time, you cannot exercise off bad dietary habits when it comes to weight loss. Dropping body fat is far more dependent on diet than on exercise.

As I started my own business I became too busy to eat and would survive on a bowl of cereal or two slices of toast for breakfast and then nothing until a large dinner. Even when I didn’t eat all day I still didn’t lose weight. I hated my body because I didn’t understand it and I didn’t like the way it made me feel physically and emotionally. Activity was always painful, I still felt heavy and I’d had a lifetime of bullying and rude remarks.

adult fat I complained, to anyone that would listen, how I just could not seem to lose weight! People would often note how little they saw me eat and how small my appetite seemed to be.  Caring friends tried to encourage me to eat more regularly but I was committed to the notion that the less I ate, the more weight I would surely eventually lose! I worked out hard at martial arts, and at the gym. I’d volunteer to play back to back games of hockey on the same day. And still I wasn’t thin. I wasn’t even average. I was STILL overweight.

Then one day I was telling a friend about my constant digestive issues and bloat and she said to me “It sounds like you might be gluten intolerant?”. I had never heard of such a thing and when she explained it to me I dismissed it as a form of hypochondria. Then, a week later, another friend said to me “You don’t eat much but you do eat quite a lot of bread and pasta at home, I bet you couldn’t go two weeks without processed carbohydrates”. He showed me an E-book called ‘Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle’ and I took up the challenge of removing all processed carbs and replacing these with higher protein and vegetable consumption, just to prove to him that there was actually something wrong with me and I that I honestly could NOT lose weight! On this ‘diet’ (I use the term loosely as it’s not really so much a ‘diet’ as a way of life) my carbohydrate needs were met by rice, fruit and starchy veggies. I am not much of a red meat eater so my protein sources were eggs, fish and chicken. I was well aware that I was becoming progressively more and more lactose intolerant so I also gave up all dairy. Salads and steamed vegetables became my staples and I took the book’s advice to eat 5-6 small meals a day.  I used Calorie King and then MyFitnessPal to log all my food and exercise and I stuck to 1200-1400 calories a day. Within two weeks of making these changes I had lost 4kg! I was utterly astounded…

Prior to reading ‘Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle’ I was very poorly informed about nutrition. I was very much a foodie and thought I knew generally what was healthy versus unhealthy but I was a victim of distorted public information.

In school we were taught that several serves of dairy daily were crucial for our calcium needs and that grains should form the base of our nutritional pyramid, that protein should be limited, that fruit and veggies were all equal, eggs would give you high cholesterol and that fat was bad and would kill you. I knew nothing of calories and body fat measurements. I was also in denial about my own personal habits – I was a severe emotional eater and would frequently eat too little or too much, bouncing around between deprivation and excess with little understanding of portion sizes.

I adopted my new mindset and way of life stringently as it made me feel powerful and finally in control of my body instead of it controlling me. I was excited to be losing weight and starting to actually feel really fit and healthy for the first time in my life. It wasn’t easy but the kilos kept melting off. My appetite for food consumption was replaced by a voracious appetite for nutritional knowledge and I started to read everything I could find. The idea that eating frequently throughout the day would speed up metabolism and ward off the body’s fat storing starvation response made logical sense to me now it had been explained.  Without gluten/processed carbs I stopped looking like I had a pregnant belly and I eventually dropped refined sugar from my diet as well. No longer did I struggle to keep my eyes open around 2-4pm every afternoon or to get out of bed before 8am each morning. My skin became clear of pimples, my moods became balanced, I stopped contracting every cold and flu that came along and my outlook was optimistic. The constant yeast infections that had plagued me became less and less recurrent until they finally disappeared completely.

An average day looked generally along the lines of:

Meal 1: Banana or Blueberry Protein pancake or eggs/fish/chicken (100grams) with 1/2 cup rice

Meal 2: Salad/Veggies and Chicken or Fish (70-100grams) with 1/2 cup rice or starchy Veggies

Meal 3: As above

Meal 4: Piece of fruit and/or 30grams nuts or fruit and protein ball

Meal 5: Salad/Veggies and 100grams Chicken or Fish

Eating this way I lost about 20kg off my 153cm frame over a period of about 18months. I undertook a ‘cutting’ diet to enter a body sculpting photo competition. I had dropped from a size 14-16 to a size 6. I threw out all my clothes and brought new ones. I discovered my abs and felt truly sexy, attractive and proud of my body for the first time in my life.

adult cut

The push to ‘cut’ for the body sculpting competition had tipped my emotional balance though and it came at a cost. I had become obsessive about tracking my calories and nutrients and terrified of regaining weight and going back to being fat and feeling terrible. I was very hard on myself when I struggled to push my weight and body fat percentage even lower and  ongoing hunger made me grumpy, emotional, unfocused and difficult to get along with. I had also been diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease and was wrestling with the knowledge that keeping my protein intake at 100-120grams a day was not advisable. I was afraid of carbs and did not know what to replace the extra protein calories with. The control that had brought me such joy was now turning into an unhealthy obsession and even my friendships started to suffer. It was an argument with my best friend, about my behaviour, that yet again prompted me to change.

I increased my carbohydrate intake, reduced my protein intake to 70grams a day and allowed myself to regain 2kg. I stopped counting calories and nutrients. I gave up pursuing body sculpting as a form of competitive physical activity and I ate by feel, based upon habit and my nutritional knowledge. My mood and relationships improved and my weight held fairly steady. I had also grown sick of chicken as a daily staple and became increasingly more interested in vegetarianism. I tried introducing more legumes, mushrooms and quinoa as alternative sources of protein and whilst these were occasionally ok, most times they caused me bloating and gas. Tofu proved to be acceptable to my digestive system but I could not live on that alone. My quest to understand how to obtain sufficient protein from plant sources then led me to discover the raw vegan ‘diet’. This seemed ideal – the proponents purported to be gaining sufficient protein, iron and nutrients from their diets, they raved about being able to eat as much food as they liked, whenever they liked (this appealed to my emotional attachment to food),  it avoids cruelty to animals (I love animals), it was generally gluten and refined sugar free, the food looked so colourful and delicious, and the idea of not having to cook certainly appealed to my time poor mind! So I stocked up on nuts, dates, coconut, honey, fruit and veggies, bought a spirallizer, dropped nearly all rice meals from my diet, and went about trying to convert to being a raw vegan.

Most of my information on the raw vegan movement came from blogs and I hoped that eventually I’d be able to go 100% raw vegan, or at least 100% vegetarian, as I loved the joy and optimism expressed by the authors I was reading and interacting with. It felt so free and easy to think I would stay lean without having to worry about calories and nutrients and I was saving animals and the environment! I had started a heavy training load as a triathlete but I read that there were definitely many highly successful vegetarian and vegan athletes around, so such a diet should prove no impediment to my performance.

I went in for Endometriosis surgery having just started this new veggie lifestyle and was confident that my post surgery downtime from physical activity would not result in any weight gain if I just stuck with 5-6 meals a day of raw vegan food the vast majority of the time. Unfortunately I was wrong. The post surgery bloat didn’t go away as the weeks and months went by. My weight and fluid retention was steadily on the increase even as I returned to my training load. My body was not returning to lean but rather my muscle seemed to be disappearing only to be replaced with a ‘soft’ and flabby aesthetic. I was tired and emotional again and tried to counteract this with an addiction to the high energy sweetness of dates, honey and molasses. Instead of using massive quantities of bananas like many raw vegans (I was afraid of the high potassium’s effect on my kidneys) I was using nuts as a constant go to ‘filler’ whilst trying to push through daily digestive discomfort resulting from the consumption of huge amounts of raw cruciferous vegetables and large quantities of fruit. I was constantly hungry and so constantly eating, believing this to be the way to go with raw vegan and being necessary to support my triathlon training load. I was obsessed with food and never worried I was eating too much but rather assumed that my weight gain was a result of ‘detoxing’ and again not eating enough.

I started tracking my calories and nutrients again in an effort to contain my distress at the negative way my body was going. I set a reduced target of 1500 calories a day. Still gaining weight and still reading the stories of female raw vegans and triathletes eating 2000 calories + each day so I increased my target back up to 1800 calories a day and allowed myself the freedom to exceed this on heavy training days. Eating raw vegan was fun and exciting – I loved the colour, flavour and freshness of my meals; but more and more foods were starting to upset my digestion. It just wasn’t working for me personally. My weight kept increasing and it clearly wasn’t muscle I was packing on.

Eventually I gave in and reintroduced eggs, fish, tofu, rice and cooked veggies back into my days. My energy levels improved and became more balanced and I was less hungry but my body wasn’t happy with this stint of experimentation that it had been through. Running out of ideas I sought the advice of a dietician; Chantelle from Bites Health Clinic. I gave her a list of all the foods that were upsetting my system (the list was getting longer by the day), a week of food and exercise diary entries and the following priorities:

1) To lose the extra 4.5kg I had gained since surgery

2) To find out how to appropriately fuel and hydrate for my level of exercise and triathlon events

3) To manage my sodium levels more effectively as I was suffering massive salt cravings post-work outs as a result of avoiding all salt in the hopes of protecting my kidneys.

The list of digestion upsetting foods I gave Chantelle included:

– Wheat/gluten

– Xylitol, Malitol sweeteners etc

– Dairy – Cooked or raw Cauliflower, raw/undercooked or BBQ onion, cooked or raw cabbage, cooked or raw Brussels sprouts, raw broccoli, raw mushrooms

– Lentils and chickpeas

– Beans depending on serving size

– Apples and various other fruits depending upon serving size

– Under-ripe fruit

– Fermented foods like Kombucha, Saurkraut etc

– Sports drinks and some sports gels and jelly lollies

Chantelle’s response to this list was to tell me that there is a name for this list of foods. They are what is called High FODMAP foods and this classification results from studies, by Monash University,  into Irritable Bowel Syndrome. FODMAP stands for FermentableOligo-Di-Mono-saccharides And Polyols“; short chain carbohydrates and alcohols that are poorly absorbed by the small intestine. FODMAP sensitivity can cause bloating and gas, fluid retention, weight gain/inability to lose weight, constipation and/or diarhea as well as antagonising a host of auto-immune responses. Yep, I could tick most of those boxes!

So, a plan of attack was made. We would tackle the 4.5kg I wanted to lose, and the digestive issues, with a meal plan. This meal plan was to constitute the baseline setting for a High FODMAPS elimination ‘diet’ (experiment). Daily, for three weeks I was to eat ONLY set portions of rice, fish and/or tofu, oranges, banana, strawberries and nuts in limited quantities, calcium fortified rice and/or almond milk, and veggies from the low FODMAP list. This was to be supplemented, according to my training needs, with pre-determined quantities of low fructose, gluten free sports gels or rice cakes with certain sweet or salty spreads to be eaten during exercise beyond the first hour.

A typical day (without supplementation) looked like:

Meal 1: 1 cup boiled rice with 1/2 cup almond or rice milk plus 1/2 cup orange

Meal 2: 15grams mixed nuts, 2 cups salad, 1 hard boiled egg or serve of protein powder

Meal 3: 2/3 cup rice, 2 cups salad, 80grams fish/tofu

Meal 4: 1 Hard boiled egg and 2 cups lettuce

Meal 5: 1/3 cup rice, 90grams fish/tofu, 2 cups salad/veggies

Optional Meal 6: 1/2 cup frozen banana ‘ice cream’ plus 1/2 cup strawberries

For a total of 1000-1300 calories.

You will notice that this diet is not dissimilar to that of my ‘Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle’ days albeit being at a lower protein level (a renal dietician advised me to stick to about 70grams per day), less animal proteins and with a different timing distribution of fruit.

In my first week of this baseline elimination I lost almost 3kg and my body pretty instantly transformed. No one loses fat that fast so it was clearly water weight and this assumption is further supported by the visual evidence of a reduction in bloat and water retention. The way I was eating previously was definitely causing me to retain fluid. I now look and feel lean, strong and healthy again!

As I write this I am in the second week of establishing the baseline diet. Once the three weeks of this are up we will re-introduce one of the high FODMAP groups of food at a time, returning to the baseline in between. I will take note of what happens to my weight and how I look and feel and hopefully we will discover which of the FODMAPS specifically it is that causes me problems. This could be anywhere from one group to all of them. We shall see!

Once we find out I will then know what to limit and/or avoid particularly prior to competing or training. I will hopefully have a prescription for continually keeping my weight in check whilst still enjoying balanced meals. My preference is that this be a blended gluten, dairy and refined sugar free vegetarian and Japanese style diet of veggies, rice, nuts and seeds, fruit, fish, tofu and eggs as that is certainly the food I generally feel my best on.

I will keep you updated with a continuation of this story… In the meantime though, here are my tips for improving your diet:

– There is no ‘one size fits all’ diet that will keep every person lean, fit and healthy. Those who ‘prescribe’ diets to others, insist their way of eating is the best way, or make claims that such and such diet will guarantee weightloss are dangerously denying or ignoring the fact that some people have, or have previously had, health conditions that have changed their body irreversibly, and that some people have allergies and intolerances that may well mean certain diets are not suitable for them. See your doctor and/or Dietician before embarking upon any new diet but once you know your guidelines try different methods with an open mind. Stick to each approach 100% whilst experimenting for at least 4 weeks and pay attention to what happens. You may well stumble upon the diet that is right for you

– Only try diets/approaches that you can honestly see yourself being able to sustain as a way of life for many years to come. If a diet seems like fad, involves the use of tablets/meal replacements or supplements, or seems unhealthily extreme, don’t do it as you’ll only end up regaining the weight, and often even more, later

– The only rules of thumb that can be applied to everyone are that portion size and total intake must suit your unique body, what you eat must also suit your digestion and nutrient needs, food combinations and meal timing do matter and again responses are individual (good patterns should be established through controlled trial and error or through consulting a good dietician)

– If you can tell all the ingredients in a food just by looking at it (rather than at the ingredients list) then it is probably better for you ie. avoid processed and packaged food and eat natural whole foods instead

– Try to avoid shopping in grocery stores and turn to green grocers, butchers, markets, fishmongers etc instead. The aisles of grocery stores are full of products that are NOT food; so over-processed that they bear no semblance to the raw ingredients from which they were made and with huge amounts of added sugar, salt and preservatives that your body just does not need. Buying from smaller specialist stores means you’ll usually get fresher, better quality, tastier produce frequently as cheap or cheaper than the major grocery chains (in Australia at least) AND you’ll be supporting local small businesses

– Drop refined sugar and check your salt intake

– Learn to cook for yourself and have fun! Everyone can make the time to cook/prepare nutritious and delicious food. Remember that a lot of the best foods require very little preparation and no cooking at all

– Carbs, fats and protein are all needed in the right proportions. There is such a thing as carb sensitivity and if you are a such a person then you may like to pay attention to what types of carbs you eat, how much and when. Seek the advice of a qualified dietician

– Short term ‘Diets’ are terrible for you whether they restrict carbohydrates or fat or whatever for a period of time. People always put weight back on, and quite often even more than they had prior to commencing the ‘diet’. Look not to quick fixes but rather to long term eating plans tailored to your body as it changes throughout your life. Change your way of thinking, way of eating and your attitudes and make this your normal

– The worst things for my body are sugar and dairy and this is not uncommon. Listen to your body when you eat different foods and take note to avoid that which doesn’t do you any favours. There are ALWAYS alternatives

– Everyone CAN lose weight if they keep an open mind, positive attitude and truly commit to seeing the process through not as a ‘diet’ but as a new and wonderful way of life

To be continued…

Please feel free to ask any questions or tell your weight stories below. I’d love to hear them!  

© morethanpkd.com | 2014

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