For as long as I can remember, if I could have been granted one wish, it would have been to be a normal weight. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, when very few people were overweight, much less obese, so despite being merely chubby or mildly overweight by today’s standards, I was often the fattest of my peers. I felt trapped, cruelly judged, and my self-esteem suffered. I blamed myself for my weakness and lack of self-discipline. I just couldn’t understand what was wrong with me.
After reaching 210 lbs at 23 years old, I went on a diet that was essentially moderate carb. I lost 60 lbs over 18 months, which I kept off for about 2 years, until I became pregnant with my son. It was a difficult birth and post-partum recovery, and within a year, I had regained most of the weight I had lost.
The cycle repeated several times over the next two decades until, at the age of 37 and at my highest weight of 265 lbs (BMI 44), I was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) by a forward-thinking Reproductive Endocrinologist. He said I had extreme hyperinsulinemia, prescribed Metformin, and recommended a low carb diet “like Atkins.” He said that I wasn’t yet diabetic, not even technically pre-diabetic, but that hopefully the Metformin and low carb diet would slow down the progression to Type 2 Diabetes (T2D). That got my attention, as my mother was living with T2D at the time and died a few years later from related complications. I decided to try the Carbohydrate’s Addict diet and lost 55 pounds in a little over a year. What really stood out was that I wasn’t hungry all the time–a big change from previous diets. After about 18 months, my consistency waned. Eventually, I gained back 30 lbs, but managed to keep off the other 25 lbs for another 10+ years. Even so, 240 lbs is a difficult weight for a woman who is 5’5″. Obesity is a physical and emotional burden that cannot be understated, and it becomes even more difficult as one ages.
As I was approaching 50, I felt old before my time. I was out of shape and hadn’t been able to truly enjoy many physical activities for a very long while. It was at this time, about 6 years ago, that I connected with an amazing personal trainer, Gale Volk, who has worked with me one-on-one since that time. When I began with her, I was so demoralized by all the weight yo-yo-ing over the years that I had lost all hope that I could ever lose the excess fat and keep it off. I told Gale that I wanted to improve my flexibility, strength, and balance, but that I didn’t want her to talk to me about dieting or nutrition because I felt it wouldn’t do any good.
An interesting thing happened. As I started to see physical improvements from the training, a tiny bit of hope began to grow in me. I slowly cleaned up my eating and moved in the direction of low carb. Within two months, I had lost 10 pounds and significant inches without strictly dieting. I set a goal to lose another 30 lbs before my 50th birthday, about a year away. I continued to follow a moderate-to-low carb way of eating and reached my goal. I became much more energetic and took up activities (like cycling, kayaking, and long walks) that I hadn’t felt comfortable doing for a very long time. I took a break from focusing on weight loss, though I continued to train with Gale, and maintained my 40 pound loss for about two years until a major illness derailed me.
Two and a half years ago, I became suddenly ill with acute muscle pain and various disturbing neurological symptoms. After nearly 4 months, many tests, virtually house-bound, on pain medications and eventually steroids, my Neurologist and Rheumatologist both concluded that they couldn’t determine the cause. My Neurologist said that he thought my symptoms might be caused by a virus, but that we might never know. There was a point that I truly thought I was dying. And then, very slowly, I started to improve. At 4 months, I was clearly getting better. It was early January 2014 and I was ready to get serious about taking back my health. I had glimpsed a possible future of pain, infirmity, and early death, and I was highly motivated to change my story.
During my illness, I had regained 10 of the 40 pound loss I had been maintaining, undoubtedly due to comfort eating, inactivity, and steroids. I was still 55 pounds down from my highest weight and my blood pressure was normal, but my blood glucose was abnormal (though still not quite yet pre-diabetic), my lipids were abnormal, and my CRP (inflammation), though improved after my illness, was higher than it should be. I felt certain that these markers would become better with a tighter low carb diet and more weight loss. I didn’t have a particular goal at the time other than to start moving in the right direction.
After a month of eating moderately low carb, as I had two years before with success, I had lost only 3 pounds, much slower than in previous years. I had gone from peri-menopause to post-menopause during those years, so it appeared that I would need to up my game. I read New Atkins for a New You and decided to reduce my carbs to no more than 30 (net of fiber and sugar alcohols).
|Me just after reading Grain Brain. 75 pounds to go!|
At about the same time, I read Wheat Belly by William Davis MD. I was fascinated and was considering going wheat/gluten free, but I still wasn’t convinced to try it. Then I read Grain Brain by David Perlmutter MD and that did it for me. Dr. Perlmutter wrote about the improvements he’d seen in patients with neurological disorders after removing wheat and gluten from their diets. Having been diagnosed with an “essential” tremor of the hands when I was an early teen (which had worsened through the years), as well Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS, another neurological movement disorder), I felt it was definitely worth a try. Particularly since my father was suffering (and still is) from a devastating neurological disorder called Lewy Body Disease.
I figured that since I was already under 30 net carbs a day, I was nearly there. I needed to eliminate any remaining traces of wheat and gluten in my food and personal care products. Wow, are there a lot of hidden sources–it seems like wheat and/or gluten is in nearly every processed food (and more personal care products than you would think)! I realized that I would need to rely even less on ‘convenience’ foods than I already did. I wanted to give myself the best chance for improvement, so I was very strict. Dr. Perlmutter indicated that it can take a long time for movement disorder improvements to show, so I committed to a 6-month trial. It did take nearly six months for me to see improvement in my tremor, although my RLS improved after about 4 months.
What I didn’t expect was the resolution of other conditions that I had suffered with for so long that they were barely on my radar until they disappeared: chronic headaches, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic indigestion. I had been taking over-the-counter drugs daily for these ailments for years! In less than 6 months, it was obvious that wheat and gluten had been causing all kinds of problems for me that my doctors had not been able to address (other than recommending medications). Ironically, when I shared these improvements with my neurologist, she replied that there was no way to know for sure that the improvements were from eliminating wheat/gluten, but that I could get tested for Celiac Disease. However, that would require that I add wheat and gluten foods back to my diet for awhile in order for the test to be accurate! I told her that I didn’t need a test to tell me that my health was much improved by removing wheat/gluten from my diet. Not only was I convinced, I had already adjusted and really didn’t find the lifestyle that difficult, especially given the benefits.
It’s important for me to note that my immune system also appears to be greatly improved. As I mentioned earlier, I was a sickly child. Throughout my childhood, I had multiple bouts of pneumonia, ear infections, and seem to catch every virus that came along. As an adult, I’ve suffered so many episodes of urinary tract infections, sinus infections, and ear infections, not to mention less-frequent bronchitis. I’ve been on antibiotics nearly my entire adult life, so much so that penicillin-based drugs ceased to work for me years ago. As a result, my doctors prescribed the high-powered antiobiotic Ciprofloxin any time I had a bacterial infection. Of course, that didn’t help with viruses, which I also seemed to come down with at least every other month.
|Kayaking in Port Townsend, WA|
I don’t understand the physical mechanism that would lead to the improvement I’ve experienced, and at first I thought it may be a coincidence, but I have been wheat/gluten free for 3 years, and I have not had a viral or bacterial infection during that time. I suspect that my doctors would say that it’s a coincidence. They could be right, but I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing!
After 4 months of no more than 30 net carbs a day and being entirely wheat/gluten free for most of that time, I’d lost 16 lbs (4 lbs/month average). It was progress, albeit a little slower than I would have liked. During this time, I continued to read many books and blogs about low carb, ketogenic, and primal diets, as well as intermittent fasting. I decided to kick it up a few notches and see what would happen.
In June, I changed my eating to a ketogenic level (20 total carbs per day) and added 16:8 intermittent fasts (IF) about 4 days a week. I focused on whole foods and eliminated grains and legumes (I was virtually there already at under 20 total carbs a day). Six months later, by the end of November, I had lost an additional 36 pounds (6 lbs/month average). I continued my plan without changes, but as I got within 25 pounds of my goal weight of 135, my weight loss slowed down a bit. It took me nearly six months to lose the last 24 pounds and reach my goal (4 lbs/month average).
On May 20, 2015, the scale registered 134.9. In slightly more than 16 months, I had lost 75 pounds. From my highest weight, I had shed 130 pounds, nearly 50% of my body weight! My BMI went from 44 to 22.5, and my clothing size from a 28/30 to a 4/6.
|Sailboat racing on the Columbia River|
It’s been nearly two years since I reached my goal weight of 135, and I generally maintain a 5 lb range from 135 to 140. I find myself in a place that I’ve never been as an adult: at my goal weight with a normal BMI. I feel 10 years younger, as if I get a “do-over.” I love my new active lifestyle. And I confess that I also love looking better and wearing fun clothes. People treat me differently as a normal-weight person, which is bittersweet. It’s odd to not feel invisible to strangers much of the time.
|Hiking on Fidalgo Island|
Best of all, my blood glucose and A1C is normal. My triglycerides and HDL are dramatically improved, my CRP (inflammation level) is normal and my blood pressure better than ever. My FP doc seems a bit puzzled by the way I lost my excess fat and improved my health, but she simply says, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” As much as I enjoy being trim, the best part of my transformation has been the improvement in my health and quality of life. I don’t know how many years I have left on this earth, but I want them to be as active and disease-free as possible. I want to enjoy the years ahead with my husband and to watch my son blossom in his career and start his own family. That is what keeps me focused.
My challenge now is to continue to figure out long-term “maintenance” that works for me. So far, that translates to 20-30 effective carbs (net of fiber) per day, 18/6 intermittent fasts most days, and working out with my trainer once a week, along with physical activities that I enjoy, such as walking, bicycling, kayaking, and sailing. I will continue to tweak my tactics when I feel it’s needed. The trick, I believe, will be to remain attentive so that the twists and turns of life don’t knock me off track. Wish me luck!