In Defense of the Diet
I’m on a low-carb diet. That’s kind of a misleading term. We’re all on some kind of diet whether we’re trying to lose weight or not. However, “I’ve altered my nutritional regimen with an eye towards lowering my body-fat percentage” doesn’t make for a strong opening line; it also makes me sound like a pretentious ass (which I am, but there’s no need to advertise it). I don’t particularly need to lose weight – at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, give or take, I was in fairly good shape for an American when I started this thing a month ago – I want to lose weight, for reasons that will become clear.
I have a genetic disorder known as Fabry’s Disease. Affecting about one in 40,000 people, it inhibits the production of the enzyme responsible for the breakup of the membranes of dead blood cells. Without it, the material from which the membrane is made accumulates in the body, progressively hampering circulation and the ability to sweat. Until the Food and Drug Administration approved a synthetic enzyme treatment in 2004, I was unable to exercise without running a fever and sparking an episode, this during my adolescence when I should have been building musculature and a metabolism. When I became able to sweat (which I’m still not crazy about, but it beats the alternative) I resolved to make full use of the rapidly narrowing window of time to reverse 15 years of atrophy and get in the best shape I possibly could.
I have ample reason for doing so. Besides the normal health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle, Fabry’s patients have an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks as early as their forties – our average lifespan without treatments was 55. Further, I didn’t like the fact that I got winded easily or that I got tired so early in the evening. While I don’t intend to have kids of my own anytime soon (if ever, as I would not wish this condition on my worst enemy, let alone my child) my nieces and nephews possess that boundless energy of children under 10 years old, and it’s no fun for them when I have to stop playing to wheeze for a minute or two. And I love working out. I love the endorphin rush and the feeling of satisfaction and the good mood that stays with me the rest of the day.
That said, I readily cop to the fact that there’s more than a hint of vanity in all this. I’ve never had a particularly impressive body, and now that I’m in relatively good shape for my age and history, I want to see how far I can go with it. I’d like to run a marathon or at least a 5K someday, but my ultimate goal is to be at a bluegrass festival, and in my head it goes something like this:
Performer (onstage): “Well shucks folks, we was gonna play a hootenanny for y’all, but brother Clem done broke his washboard.”
Me (stepping forward, lifting up shirt): “Perhaps I can be of assistance!” (sunbeam shines down on my abs, a choir of angels is heard)
Thus, I’ll have saved the bluegrass festival, all because of my washboard abs.
Insane fantasies aside, I also feel like I need to raise our collective stock just a bit. As I said before, I was in fairly good shape, for an American. A Center for Disease Control study released in November 2007 indicated that 34 percent of Americans, about one in three, are obese. Not just overweight, obese. That is just embarrassing, not only as a waddling symbol of our gluttony and excess in a world where people starve to death on a daily basis, but as an indirect result of our revolting economic disparities. People working 60 hours a week just to make the rent don’t have time to hit the gym or prepare healthy meals for themselves or their families. When time as a commodity is in such short supply, fast food, with all its detrimental effects, becomes a necessity and exercise an impossibility.
My other insane fantasy involves a world where everyone is in the best shape their genetics allow, where everyone has a six-pack. Shallow? Perhaps, but I recognize that we live in a shallow world and that, human biology being what it is and sexual attraction being more reflex than choice, people are often attracted to the transitorily physical while ignoring the lasting personality traits, resulting in bad relationships. Rather than tilt at the standard-of-beauty windmill, it seems more sensible to aspire towards it, especially when it leads to longevity, increased sexual fulfillment and lower health care costs. If everyone were fit, wouldn’t the body become less of a factor and the mind more of one? Wouldn’t people have to cultivate their personalities in order to stand out once a hot body was no longer a rarity? How much heartbreak could be spared if people had a wider choice of compatible, compelling personalities that were housed in physically attractive bodies, as well as being more physically attractive themselves? How much more interesting would we all be as a result?
And ultimately it’s the carbohydrates that are to blame for this dearth of choice in potential partners. The rise in obesity over the last few decades has gone hand in chubby hand with a dramatic rise in carbohydrate consumption. Now there are good carbs (whole grains, fruits) and bad carbs (refined grains, starches, added sugars) but unless you exercise intensely, you’re not going to burn them off. I’d been eating mostly good carbs, good fats and ample protein and going to the gym every day for three years now and I still couldn’t shake the paunch in my midsection, up until a month ago that is.
The theory of this diet (called the TNT Diet for “targeted nutrition tactics,”) is that your body stores carbohydrates as glycogen in your muscles. When your muscles are “full” it starts storing it as fat instead. If you keep your glycogen levels low, you start burning fat for energy. After a month of low-carb, high-fat eating, you begin re-introducing them at certain times, such as before and after you work out, when your metabolism is at its peak, and all day one day a week
It’s working. I’m down 15 pounds, to 16 percent body fat. Those abs, while not quite hootenanny-ready, are beginning to show. Starting this Saturday I can have carbohydrates again. I’m already planning my meals for that day: apples, clementines, turkey sandwiches on whole wheat bread, pita chips and hummus, oatmeal-and-berry protein smoothies, all the good stuff I used to eat.
And pizza. Mmmm… pizza.
To comment on this story, e-mail Dave Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.