Eating Makes You Skinny
"Don't spoil your dinner," said every American mother since the pilgrim immigrants first set their tables. Maybe that's naive, but I doubt it's said in places where scraps of food promise just a little more life.
I learned to avoid an in-between meal scolding by ignoring my hunger, or to sneak a morsel when mom was distracted. Our religion also required us to fast once a month. Being a good son, I did what was asked and starved myself with frightening regularity. Occasionally it hurt so much I ate toothpaste.
Food caused many a battle in my home. My fit, athletic father haranguing my weight-conflicted mother (she, always beautiful). Dad ate ice cream, drank sugary sodas, helped himself to seconds and always enjoyed good muscles and a lean body. Mom was relegated to rice cakes and steamed vegetables, the fitness of youth elusive while distress and pain kept faithful company.
The truth about physical health was exemplified in that dichotomy. Do you see one person who earned the right to gluttony and one who did not? Or do you, like me, see cause and effect borne out through two specific lifestyles? One gains weight while denying themselves food, another stays lean though hedonist. One interpretation is perfect paradox, the other perfect logic, and I do not believe in literal paradoxes. There is an insane anti-logic among calorie deprivation believers, that if it doesn't work it's because you didn't do it right, even if they know you did it right. Something cannot be both true and untrue. Either it works, or it doesn't.
Once when I was twelve, ignorant to the concept of diet and exercise, I bounded up the stairs to join my family gathered in my parent’s bedroom. Before sitting down I was confronted by my father. "Nathan" he said, "you're getting fat."
I can't be the only child inappropriately shamed by their parents about weight. Dad didn't understand that early adolescent fat is preparing a body to grow into adulthood. Still, it was one of the most shameful moments of my young life. No longer proud, unable to buy a gym membership or design a diet, I tried my best not to appear fat and spent my days sucking in my young stomach.
Three years later I was six-foot four, lean, with an enormous appetite. My father now jokingly referred to me as a human garbage disposal. It wasn't unearned. After practice I would come home and boil a full package of spaghetti noodles, pouring on cold sauce to hasten the time I could shovel it in my mouth. After a nap I had an actual dinner with the family, usually more pasta or meat with a "salad," and bread. No matter how much I ate the hunger persisted, and soon every last CostCo container was emptied. I was that boy who ate plain peanut butter just to get enough calories.
Depression set in during High School. After feeling my body give up I dropped out of swimming. My homophobic upbringing convinced me the problem was emotional and spiritual. I dedicated myself to figuring out how to be happy. How to fix myself.
Though I stopped swimming, my appetite did not subside. Hunger would follow me for almost two decades. Periods of gaining unwanted fat were followed by what I considered diets. I worked out harder and ate less, and I saw results though I failed to recognize a correlation with persistent anxiety and depression.
For everyone there comes a time when the stress method of weight loss seems to stop working. That's because it stops working. At 32 I began to put on significant amounts of weight. My lifestyle of eating "healthy," and working out excessively had already taken it's toll. I was merely reaping the consequences. Depression was more severe. My insomnia escalated until suddenly I was up until 7, 8, and 9 am five or six nights a week. My body ached and my emotional life was in turmoil. I turned even harder to alcohol to cope with the pain.
I could no longer pretend I was okay. I went through five different doctors. Each would tell me I had a swollen lymph system, but with only standard tests they suggested I was fine. One doctor was enlightened enough to image my thyroid. I had five tumors. Two might be benign if they had been alone, but because of the number and one being a full centimeter in diameter, together with my swollen lymph it was likely cancer. I started thyroid medication. I got sober. I adopted a diet and supplements based on what I had been learning about human health. My lymph system deflated in a few weeks. I began to lose the weight and other symptoms eased steadily and consistently. I shirked all exercise (not like I had energy for it anyway). Specific places of pain on my body stopped hurting. My tumors and thyroid shrank. I went from a 42, to 40, to 38, to 36. My insomnia subsided. My body temperature returned to normal. My hair grew back. My skin glowed (most of the time). I began to feel at ease, physically, for the first time since I was a pre-teen.
In an age when we can build a particle accelerator and smash protons together, I am at a loss why fat and fitness have remained such nebulous concepts. How do we not understand our own bodies? But we do understand, and we have for some time. Biologists like Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Hans Selye, among others, understood the mechanisms of health, life, and stress, and their discoveries are the foundations for the few things we get right today. The mystery of cancer was basically solved over 50 years ago (it's a disorder of cellular respiration). The only problem with this information is that none of our parents know it, or practice it, and none of us are taught it. The information is there, and when put to practice I got real, easy, and lasting results for the first time in my life. I even lost weight and gained muscle during a year in which I went to the gym a mere 10 times (that's less than once a month), sitting on my ass, drinking liters of coffee.
I had believed fat was a choice. Or at least, I had been told to believe that. But anyone who has really struggled with weight will tell you intuitively that the choice model doesn't work, and it doesn't work because you don't choose fat. It chooses you. It is your body's natural and healthy response to unhealthy conditions, especially calorie deprivation and foods which cause inflammation. This is as true for fit people who can't button their favorite pants as much as it is for the obese.
A young, healthy person may utilize stress for weight loss once or twice. But each time this method wreaks havoc on the endocrine system. Under enough stress an organism perishes, and going without food is one of the hardest stresses on the body. Purposefully depriving your body of calories, especially during the morning hours of the day, triggers it to better endure the starvation next time. This means an increased propensity to store fat and smaller muscles for feeding. If you are not going to eat, what then is your body to burn as fuel? I'll tell you. It will burn itself. And it doesn't start with the fat, as you are hoping. It starts with your lean muscle. It also goes for your bones, and your internal organs. Fat is one of the last items on the list, right before your brain and heart. On the flip side, if you feed your body consistently it has no need to trigger stress hormones, and naturally begins to shed the calorically expensive fat. In my teenage years I didn't eat enough food to fuel my intense swimming practices, until after I had already worked out. Every day. My body ate my lean muscle for fuel because I didn't give it enough to fuel in the first place. I did this again as an adult, unaware that every time I exercised with low blood sugar I was slowly killing myself. I mean, seriously, what did I think my muscles were going to be eating if I was not feeding them? They don't run on morality or will power. If they did my father would look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
There is no organism on earth that thrives under calorie deprivation. A few times during my recovery I would fall back into old patterns of calorie deprivation. Subtle thoughts that refraining from that soda or that pile of mashed potatoes would net me losses on my waist. Each time I was quickly reminded of how wrong such concepts are, when my aches, insomnia, and bloating returned with vengeance. Only when I took active management to keep raised blood sugar that I saw permanent and lasting improvements in both health and appearance. I had a mistaken, subtle conviction that I was greater than the laws of my mortality. I could argue with it until death takes me. But I am not interested in the abstract or the philosophical. I wanted to be skinny, and handsome, and have energy and enjoy life again. I did it by listening to my body. Thyroid meds helped, and a lot of people do need those (if you eat and you're cold and tired you need thyroid). I did it by avoiding foods and behaviors that increase stress. I also did it by simply eating.