A subject I haven’t broached yet on this blog is the idea that hiking is great way to stay fit because it’s enjoyable and grounding in way that standing on the elliptical for an hour at the gym is not.
Notice what I didn’t say: I didn’t say that hiking was a great way to lose weight. At least, not permanently, or not at all, if you expect that by hiking miles each week you’ll magically start shedding fat.
In recent months I’ve been devouring books and research on diets and permanent fat loss. Last December, I signed myself and my daughter up for some personal training. My intention at the time was to help her get in better cardiovascular shape for hiking, and to maybe lose a few pounds myself (Ok, maybe more than a few). It was around this time that I started wondering, why is it so easy for me to maintain a higher weight than I’d like, but so difficult to maintain a weight that’s oh, 30 pounds lighter? Why can’t I reset my “set point” without starving or exercising like a maniac?
I’m certainly no stranger to regular exercise. Five years ago I was running half-marathons. Those took up a lot of time to train for, so I gave up long distance running in lieu of hiking, and while I was doing research for my book, I would hike 12-15 miles per week. I kept this up for more than a year, because even after I was finished with my research, I was leading group hikes through my MeetUp. In between hikes, I’d take long walks, jog, and work out at the gym. I love exercise and love being outside more. I was doing something active at least six days a week.
But still, I was 30 pounds overweight. So something wasn’t jiving.
I thought I was eating healthfully, and not too much. For breakfast, I’d usually have a bowl of oatmeal with almonds and soymilk, or a bowl of high-fiber, low-sugar cereal with soymilk; for lunch it was usually leftovers from dinner the night before, like some kind of meat, pasta, rice and veggie. My favorite meal for dinner was a big salad with goat cheese and glazed nuts and some crusty artisan bread. Man, I loved crusty bread from Whole Foods. I also liked nonfat frozen yogurt, and made that a favorite treat at least once or twice a week. I never ate what I considered junk food (Doritos, donuts, poptarts, sodas and fries) and eating out was usually where we could order lots of veggies or lean meats – like Tokyo Joe’s, Rubios, or Sweet Tomatoes soup and salad buffet.
Because I thought I was doing all the right things, I resigned myself to never looking and feeling my optimum. I simply did not want to spend the rest of my life obsessing about food, running 6 miles a day and feeling hungry all the time—which is what I had to do when I weighed a lot less and fit into a size 2.
One day I was at Natural Grocers and noticed a book by the check-out stand: “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes. I’m so glad I picked it up that day. I finished it two days later. That book completely rocked my world! At first, when got through most of the book and I learned the “why”, I was shocked. I said, surely THIS can’t be the answer?? It felt both too difficult to do and not necessarily new information. It sounded like Atkins, but worse – what it meant was that for my metabolism type, I had to not only give up any form of sugar, including honey and agave, I had to give up all manner of starch, including grains, corn, beans and gulp…crusty bread. Forever. Waaaaaaahhhhh!!!
I don’t like to back down from a challenge. So at the beginning of February, I gave up all sugar and starch, all fruit except berries, and ate mostly meat, eggs, cheese, non-starchy vegetables (lots of leafy greens), full fat greek yogurt, and nuts. What a paradigm shift! To go from non-fat oatmeal with nuts and soymilk in the morning to 3 eggs over a bed of spinach with some meat on the side, cooked in butter or coconut oil, no less! I couldn’t believe I could actually lose weight eating this way.
Lunches and dinners were much less challenging, but I sure did miss my pasta and bread.
After doing much reading and research (list below) I also learned why hiking alone isn’t necessarily a vehicle for fat or weight loss. I was simply unconsciously eating slightly more throughout the week to compensate for the calories I was burning while hiking. I didn’t think I was, but I was. Plus, I was eating the WRONG kind of calories – lots of—you guessed it—whole grains along with the occasional sugars and nonfat frozen yogurt.
To date, I’ve lost close to 30 pounds of fat, gained back lots of muscle with resistance training, and can now fit into a junior size 11 shorts. I feel healthier, my hair is thicker, my sleep is better and I need less of it, I’m energized all the time, my acid reflux is gone, and the best part? I don’t feel hungry between meals. In fact, I can go much longer between meals than ever before. No more grazing every 2-1/2 hours.
Now that I’ve awakened to the facts of metabolic syndrome, I’m a little angry at what my medical establishment has been pushing on me and everyone else for years. All that whole wheat bread and pasta, and all that brown rice wasn’t doing me any good. Those potatoes, too, skin or no skin, butter or no butter, weren’t doing me any good. In fact, just about anything that spikes insulin was ruining my metabolism, and it didn’t matter if it was simple or “whole grain” – it was wrong for my body.
And as for hiking and exercise? The contemplative aspect of being in nature is both grounding and mood-enhancing. The cardiovascular aspect of hoofing it up and down hills is good for your muscles, heart and lungs. There are many benefits to contemplative hiking. But weight loss isn’t necessarily one of them. It’s just one more reason we don’t need to race to the top.
Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes
Wheat Belly by William Davis, MD
The Science of Slim by Jonathan Bailor
Fathead (get it on Netflix or Hulu)
UPDATE: April 15, 2013 (One year later)
The other day someone wrote me asking what my progress has been on this low-carb way of life since a year ago. Have I kept the weight off? Have I stuck to this way of eating?
The answer is yes. I have kept the weight off and have even gained a fair amount of muscle, thanks to a steady regimen of resistance training. I have remained very healthy, my blood lipid numbers are ideal (high HDL and very low triglycerides, the lowest of my life) and my heartburn issues are non-existent. I haven’t had so much as a cold since I started this plan, but then again I hadn’t had a cold in 3 years, so I think my immune system is strong anyway.
I don’t eat grains, starchy vegetables, beans or sugars of any kind. I don’t eat soy in any form, either.
What I appreciate most about this Primal/low-carb way of eating is that I don’t feel hungry all the time, I’m not obsessing about food, and my cravings for carbs have subsided greatly. I don’t count calories. I just eat when I’m hungry and end up only eating 3 meals a day as a result, with maybe one small snack in between. My weight is rock steady now. It doesn’t matter if I go a day with a lot of exercise and not much food, or a day of overindulgence (in quantity, not junk) because of the holidays or whatever—my weight isn’t easy to budge. This is a revelation for me, because when I was on the low-calorie, low-fat diet seven years ago I was constantly hungry and couldn’t even have one indulgence meal without my weight fluctuating upwards instantly, and I felt like I was starving myself most of the time.
I really can’t go back to being mostly a vegetarian, anyway. When I was eating that way, I was ingesting a lot of starches like oatmeal, whole wheat breads and pastas, rice, potatoes and beans. I had to – how else could I get enough calories and protein? I believe that way of eating would spike my blood sugar constantly and contributed to my metabolic syndrome. Had I not gone on this low-carb lifestyle, I would have developed Type 2 diabetes for sure. It runs in my family and that means I’m pre-disposed.
I’ve learned a lot in the last 18 months, but the most eye-opening thing I’ve learned is that saturated fat in the absence of starch and carbohydrates is benign and even good for you. This is why the SAD diet (Standard American Diet) is so unhealthy. People eat fatty foods in combination with bread, noodles, cereal and french fries. THAT is what’s going to give you heart disease, because starches and sugars are inflammatory. If you’re going to eat a lot of carbs, you better also avoid saturated fat and eat low-fat in general.
Everyone is different. People come from different genealogical backgrounds. You have to find what’s right for you. I’m from northern Europe, so I can’t eat like a person born in the tropics of India or South America. My ancestors didn’t crow corn, beans or rice or eat pasta. We were meat, dairy, potato and vegetable eaters, who enjoyed fruit when it was in season (August-October), mushrooms and berries picked from the woods, and occasionally bread made from rye and un-hybridized wheat.
I think many people in our modern culture have lost track of who they are and where they come from. We are bound to our biology, whether we like it or not. We have not transcended nature, we are nature. We are animals. We are adapted to where we have evolved for thousands of years, even if we were born across the globe from our ancestors. We seem to want to deny these facts, which is one more symptom of our disconnection from nature and our denial of interconnectedness.