A New Way of Eating

An amazing thing happened yesterday. I pulled my soft shell snow pants over my leggings as I prepared for our dog walk and I snapped the two buttons closed. Then I bent over and put on my boots.

What’s so amazing about that? When I bent over to put my boots on, THE BUTTONS DIDN’T POP OPEN!!!

For several years now I’ve accepted the fact that my middle has been slowly growing. I was never sure exactly why but of course, I attributed it to my love of chocolate and wine. I’ve always put on these snow pants – for dog walks and outdoor yard duty at school – and reluctantly accepted that the buttons would not stay shut because I simply couldn’t walk around in the snow for twenty minutes sucking in my gut. I quite simply and sadly had, over the years, outgrown the waist of my snowpants.

Every winter for the past five years or so, I’ve been determined to get these buttons to stay snapped together. So I’ve downloaded My Fitness Pal again so I can count my calories again and I renew my gym membership AGAIN and start working on a plan AGAIN which includes measurements and weight. Again.

And yet. My weight and my measurements continue to creep. And it really makes no sense to me because I’m actually in better shape than I was five years ago, but I have more flab on me. (Note: I’m using five years as a metric because around 2013 was when I really started learning about fitness and health.) I’m gluten-intolerant so I rarely eat processed food and the only processed food I eat is the occasional M&M gluten-free chicken burger. I actually really love salads and hummus and Mary’s crackers and apples and all that healthy stuff. I have always followed what seemed like sound health advice by eating smaller meals more frequently so WHY DO I CONTINUE TO GET BIGGER???? Why am I not at the very least just staying the same weight? My diet and level of physical activity has not changed in five years. In fact, if anything, it’s gotten better. I can pull a 9K run out of my ass, I can hike 15 km with a 30lb backpack and we have started to buy locally grown and made, organic foods more often. Yet, in 2013, I weighed in at 146 lbs and fit into a size 8 and at the end of 2018, I weighed 162 lbs and fit into a size 12. And no, it wasn’t muscle. Unless I somehow spontaneously developed muscles in the area of my body previously reserved for love handles.

But not only have I been gaining weight. I’ve also had a slowly growing overall sense of malaise. And as annoying as the weight gain was, it was really these other symptoms that were more worrisome. Just this past fall, it reached a point where I felt that I should probably go to the doctor. That, in fact, something was wrong. But I had no idea how to describe it to the doctor so that she would be able to pinpoint what it was that was wrong.

For the past unknown number of years, I’ve suffered increasingly worsening eczema on my hands. Every year it starts earlier (this year, it was in October) and ends later (last year, it stayed with me until April). I would wake up in the middle of the night scratching my hands with the ferocity reserved for severe allergic reactions. My hands would bleed if I accidentally hit them or scratched them on something. They were burning red all the time. And it was noticeable. I kept my hands hidden because people would recoil from the ouchiness of it all and I would be slathering on the thickest hand creams you could imagine. To absolutely no avail. Every fall, the dryness and flaking would begin and my heart would break knowing I had at least six months of this.

For over a decade, I’ve had digestive issues. In the beginning, I thought I was lactose intolerant until I became so sick that I had to do an elimination diet and discovered I was actually gluten intolerant. But over the last couple of years, I’ve had unexplainable tummy troubles. Things I could not attribute to an allergen. Feeling nauseous after eating, becoming extremely tired after eating (more than simply the typical food coma), having less and less energy overall, the upset stomach I would normally get after eating gluten when I hadn’t, constipation followed by the complete opposite (this always makes me a little embarrassed to mention. I’m a staunch believer in bathroom issue privacy but I feel it necessary to mention it to understand fully what I have been facing.). Nothing really specific. Just an overall feeling of worsening yuck.

And my mood. Ugh. I have always struggled with anxiety. But through therapy and meditative practices, I’ve been able to successfully manage it. However, in the past two years, I’ve been experiencing what I believe to be mild depression. Which is new to me. I could easily attribute my darkening mood to the declining state of the world but I’m also usually a fairly upbeat person so that didn’t really make sense. The world’s troubles were starting to feel insurmountable instead of laughable.

Lastly, sleep has always been an issue. I wake many times a night and cannot get back to sleep. Which leaves me groggy and struggling the next day.

All of these things don’t sound too bad individually.  We all suffer from them to some degree at some point in our lives. What concerned me was that I could see and feel they were getting worse over time. For no discernible reason.

The Obesity Code

Then I read a book called The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung that was recommended to me by a friend. She wanted me to read it not because of any health benefits I would gain from it but because it really explained how food worked in the body and we are both really interested in that.

It’s a fascinating read whether you are looking to lose weight or not. The human body and its inner workings are obviously quite technical but you don’t need to know much about health to understand the content of this book because of Dr. Fung’s conversational way of explaining things.

I didn’t start reading this book in order to lose weight. Sure, who wouldn’t want to find some secret to shedding that annoying ten pounds that prevents the buttons on your snow pants from staying together. But truly, in the greater scheme of things, there are far greater and far worse things that could be wrong.

And honestly, I would say that the eczema was truly a far bigger issue in my life. It affected my hands to such a point that it was beginning to be a quality of life issue. Bob couldn’t hold my hands. The constant ache of dying skin and the blistering pain when I put cream on them were unbearable. And if you’ve ever experienced chronic pain, you know, there is no soul-killer out there quite like chronic pain and inflammation. And it was on my HANDS. I have to use my hands! Yet it was excruciating to pull gloves over them, for crying out loud. AND IT WAS WINTER!!

Little did I know that this book would change everything.  I started researching and found that intermittent fasting is touted by many health professionals as a way to heal a variety of different issues.  There are many other resources out there, I have since found, that explain the health benefits of daily intermittent fasting. It’s not so much a “diet” as it is just a different way of eating.

Here is my disclaimer. I am not preaching that what I learned since reading this book will change everyone’s life. I’m not advocating this way of eating for everyone. Maybe working out six days a week and caloric reduction works for you. Maybe Whole 30 or Paleo makes you feel great. Awesome. You do you. But I have had so much relief from the simple strategies outlined in this book that I know I will never go back to the way I used to eat. I am not a health professional. I am not saying that everyone should do this. I’m saying that this is a way of eating that my body really responds well to and I will continue to do this because of the improvement in many of the health issues that have been plaguing me over the years.

Daily Intermittent Fasting

I had never heard of it before. Of course I’d heard of fasting and thought that people who didn’t eat for a week or even a few days were insane. But fasting just means willingly withholding food. Liquids like water, coffee and tea (and even wine to a degree – hells yeah!) are not included in fasting. Liquids like milk and pop are.

This book talks about the need for intermittent fasting to lose weight and to reset your body’s internal “set weight” – the weight that your body wants to be. Dr. Fung explains that obesity is not just being morbidly overweight. It’s a gradual increase in body fat over time – about 3 lbs a year. Well, 3 lbs a year doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, over ten years, that’s 30 lbs. And that does sound like a lot.

Dr. Fung goes into great detail in terms of insulin use and resistance, glucose, processed foods (sugars and grains especially), cortisol (the stress hormone), and the history of our way of thinking about food (ex. eating several, smaller meals is healthier than two or three big meals; good fat vs. bad fat; etc.). If you are interested in this, I highly recommend reading the book. When I explain what I’m doing to people, based on the information in this book, I break it down into these four basic principles.

Here is my new way of eating:

I fast for at least 16 hours a day most days of the week.

This includes the time I am sleeping so it’s really not as drastic as it sounds. I eat all my necessary calories between 1 pm and 8 pm or so. I’m basically skipping breakfast. It was hard the first few days. Now it feels completely normal and natural. The book also emphasizes the need for balance. Fasting must follow feasting. There is no guilt in this way of eating. On Christmas Day and Boxing Day, I ate what I wanted when I wanted. On December 27th, I ate one massive yet healthy meal in the evening. Birthdays, weddings, celebrations… all important reasons to feast. But feasting always needs to be followed by fasting.  And if you’re going to feast, then do it right and make sure you get all your calories, nutrients and fats in.  If you’re going to fast, then really fast.  It’s how the human body has evolved to process food.  Let the body fully process the food you eat before you put more into it.

I eat until I am full.

And then I stop.  No explanation needed. It’s really that simple.

I no longer snack.

Not a single piece of cucumber. Nothing. Nada. This was actually the hardest part. We are a food culture and not in a good way. North Americans are all about the snack. Have you ever thought about how much food you have in your house that is designed specifically for snacking? Snacks that are less than 100 calories. Healthy snacks like cherry tomatoes or a handful of almonds. Cookies (oh, just one won’t hurt). I’ve had an open bag of Skinny Pop popcorn sitting in my cupboard for four weeks now. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just never a part of my meals so I have no opportunity to eat it. When I eat, I eat until I am full and consequently, I don’t feel the physical need to snack until I am ready to eat another full meal and that usually isn’t for about five or six hours. The biggest struggle with snacking is the emotional aspect of it – the happiness that comes with snacks. But if you listen to your body, you’ll realize that your body doesn’t need it. Whether the snack is a healthy one or not, just don’t do it.

I eat whole foods.

What we eat hasn’t really changed for us. I am gluten-free and can’t eat a lot of processed foods (which include most grains) anyway. I’ve also never really been big on sugar, other than chocolate. When I break my fast in the afternoon, I eat foods like cheese, nuts (when I’m not at school), Mary’s crackers, hummus, hard boiled eggs or a salad. Most of our evening meals consist of veggies and meat, with the occasional grain (Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches), potato (shepherd’s pie) or dairy (paneer). We eat hardly any processed sugars and the grains we eat are either gluten free or freshly-baked (ie. not WonderBread). We try to buy as locally as possible when we can (ex. this year we bought half a lamb from Milkhouse Farm and Dairy) to ensure the quality and freshness of the food.

Lunch. Or technically, breakfast since this is a typical way I would break my fast. It completely fills me up.

That’s it. Pretty simple actually. Yet, when I tell people about it. There are many aspects that send them into an uproar. Not eating breakfast is the big one. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” Technically, breakfast is breaking your fast so I do eat breakfast. At 1 pm. Or “How do you get all the energy you need if you are eating only in such a short period of time?” Because I put all the energy requirements my body needs into my body all at once instead of spreading it out over the day, never feeling full, always feeling kinda hungry and then feeling guilty when I snack. I know there will be a lot of skeptics.

How has it helped me?

I have been eating this way for six weeks now.

Look at that beautiful hand!

The biggest, most beautiful part of this was that my eczema has almost completely disappeared. This was something that I was not expecting. In fact, I noticed one day that my hands were soft and I mentioned it to my partner-in-crime. Could it be? Was it possible? Yes! Empirical evidence suggests that intermittent fasting can actually clear up skin inflammations. This has not been studied by health professionals explicitly but many people I’ve spoken with and have read about online have said that their skin has cleared up with intermittent fasting and eating cleaner. I could have cried with relief when I made the connection. This is the first year in so long that my hands haven’t hurt. For this alone, I will continue this way of eating.

My digestive issues have fully regulated. I have no more strange, unexplainable abdominal pains. My bathroom visits are predictable and healthy.  I’m even starting to wonder if my gluten intolerance was a symptom of my body being too overworked. When I have a few days off work, I will test this theory and eat a gluten-filled kaiser bun to see if my system actually CAN handle wheat as long as I am allowing it time to process it properly. (Not sure how that will end so I will need some time to be at home for this test.)

I sleep like the dead. Again, I didn’t really notice this until a friend mentioned that when she changed her eating habits, she slept better. It’s one of those things that you don’t really notice when it’s working properly because, well, it’s working properly. But when I started thinking back, I realized I wasn’t waking up as often throughout the night. When I did, I was falling back asleep more quickly and waking up more rested.

My mood has lightened. Is this a product of the fasting? Or because I’m sleeping better? Am I sleeping better because of the fasting? Or because of my mood? Who knows. Who cares. Yes, I still feel the world is in dire straits but I just shake my head instead of being crushed under the gravity of it.

Ta-DAAA!!

And finally – just to bring this post full circle – I didn’t gain an ounce over the Christmas holidyas and I’ve lost five pounds in January and MY SNOWPANTS NOW STAY BUTTONED!!! I haven’t modified what I eat. I still drink wine. I still eat chocolate (as a dessert). I eat massive meals. And I haven’t been to the gym in over a month. (I love the gym; I’ve just been very busy.) I do a “weigh-in” every Sunday, mostly because I’m curious and I’m down to 157 lbs. And the only thing I’m doing differently is WHEN I eat.

My relationship with food has changed in an incredibly positive way. I now look forward to my meals. I savour them. The food tastes better. I feel satiated when full instead of gross and over-stuffed. I don’t feel hungry all the time. (Now I understand that the more often you eat, the hungrier you become and it becomes a vicious cycle.) I have clear skin. I feel physically healthy. And my clothes fit me better.

It’s not really about the weight, though that is certainly a bonus. Really, it’s about feeling NORMAL again. Feeling like I’m not drowning in darkness or always having to watch what I eat for fear of getting sick. It’s about being able to wash my hands without fear that they will start bleeding. It’s really about being able to take the focus away from my body and to put it back where it belongs – on living the life I want.

Finally, let me add a couple of non-health improvements that have accompanied our new eating habits. (Well, mine really, because my partner-in-crime has been eating only one meal a day for years.) We spend less money on food. I’m not buying breakfast foods or snack foods anymore. Lunches are usually simple foods like a salad, or a hard boiled egg with cheese and an apple. When Bob makes a big dinner, we usually have enough for dinner the next night. Which means he spends less time in the kitchen. It also means we have more money to buy better quality, more sustainably grown food, which is important to us, or to do other things, like travel. We also throw out less food. The amount we threw out really bothered us. Now that we are not making three meals a day, we can more easily manage the food we have.  Another beautiful byproduct of my new lifestyle change is now having more time. I’m saving myself a lot of time in the mornings because I’m not eating breakfast or preparing a big lunch and snacks. Because my lunches tend to be smaller now, I also have more time at work to not just get things done but oh my God! To relax! Maybe go for a walk, run to the library or just sit and knit for a few minutes. And that is huge for emotional well-being in a job as demanding as teaching.

I feel like I have my life back and that is so worth skipping breakfast.


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