Monday, March 2, 2015

When a Plant Based Diet Just Isn't Enough

A few weeks ago, in my vegetables for breakfast post, I mentioned the fact that I have been experimenting with dropping whole grain flours and all sugars (except for the occasional date in a dressing or sauce) out of my diet. I said that it was a story for another day, and that day has come.

This is going to be a very long blog post, so if you are interested, I recommend that you get comfortable!

First a review of my recent dieting history and inspiration for starting the Healthy Girl's Kitchen blog. Five years ago, a college roommate of mine asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. I was thirty nine years old and I had recently had my third child. I had a long history of yo-yo dieting, with many successful weight loss journeys, all to be followed up by weight gain horrors. I made up my mind that I would NOT be the fat bridesmaid, and I went back to a national weight loss program that had worked for me many times in the past (if you consider working to mean losing the weight and gaining it all back).

The program worked again, because I was hell bent on weighing and measuring my food, tracking it all and staying within my allotted calories. I made a lot of really nice friends in that program who I miss to this day. The camaraderie was amazing.

Shortly after I entered those meeting rooms again, one member had mentioned to me an online support group for people who follow all different diet plans. It's called PEERtrainer and it was in that support group that I first heard of a whole food plant based diet. The idea appealed to me immediately. First, from an ethical perspective, because I had been a vegetarian for ethical reasons for eleven years. But second, from a health standpoint, learning about the negative impact of processed food, dairy and meat on our bodies suddenly and forcefully hit home for me. So while I was on the "counting and measuring" program, over the course of a few months I was really BOTH on the counting plan AND on a whole foods plant based plan.

I was also lucky enough to happen upon a book and program called The Beck Diet Solution. It's basically cognitive therapy for people who want to lose weight, and the changes in my thought patterns from doing this work were radical. I began to think like a naturally thin person for the first time in my life. I stopped beating myself up over eating food that was off my plan, amongst many other healthy habits.

The combination of the three things worked magic for me, and over the course of a relatively short period of time, I lost 50 pounds. More weight than I had ever hoped to lose.

I was officially on maintenance, and I was officially burned the f out on weighing, counting, and tracking my food. I read the promises of a whole food plant based diet and I believed that if I just stuck to those foods, that I would be able to maintain this fifty pound weight loss. I needed that to be true, because I was so tired of planning and counting my food and all that went along with it. I was like a wild stallion and I wanted to be free. Not free to eat anything and everything, but free to eat until I felt full and satisfied (while losing the 50 pounds on the eat-anything-you-want-but-count-calories plan, I was hungry pretty much most of the time). And free to feed my cravings for sugary sweet foods.

That was a big thing for me. Sweet food. Desserts. So many books and blogs out there with the promise that if you just eat all of your food raw, you can eat sugary, fatty, raw desserts every day and be thin, thin, thin like this beautiful blogger.

I tried that. It didn't work for me.

It didn't work for me to the tune of 15 pounds.

So I bagged the raw food diet and focused my efforts on a different plant based plan. One with delicious comfort foods and whole grain flours. A plan that works for so many people, just not me.

What the hell was wrong with me?

Fifteen more pounds, back.

And then the promise that if I just ate enough of these particular vegetables each day with some nuts, but limit the amount of starches that I consumed, that this would be my magic formula. For some reason, this didn't work for me either, no matter how much I tried to be perfect! Not only did I not lose weight, I gained weight. Not because the plan doesn't work for a lot of people, it just doesn't work for me! I ended up craving sugar as badly as ever, not being able to walk by some junk food on the kitchen table at work and not grab some. And the table at work is oven covered in junk food. And the weight slowly came back.

Those last twenty pounds. All. Back.

I was fat again. Officially.

None of my clothes fit. All of the money that I had spent on beautiful new clothes when I had lost the fifty pounds, wasted. I bought all new clothes, again.

(Please understand that this is not a criticism or a condemnation of other plant based diets. I firmly believe that each one has an important place in this space, and simply because one didn't work for me, doesn't mean it is not a perfectly amazing plan for someone else, or even for someone temporarily while they are transitioning away from a SAD diet. A Vegan comfort food plan is particularly important in those circumstances.)

Then Chef AJ came to stay with me in my home. We had been acquaintances from the Internet, and she was coming to Cleveland for a gig. I can't remember the exact details of it all, but I think when she first came, she had lost a considerable amount of weight. AJ told me that she had gone to TrueNorth and had experimented with leaving nuts out of her whole food plant based diet. She encouraged me to try it too. I thought she was nuts. Why? Because nuts are not my "thing." Why would nuts be causing me to gain weight?

And AJ came to visit a second time, and this time she was even thinner, and she told me that she had started to eat one pound of vegetables for breakfast each day and that her unwanted weight just kept falling off. She informed me that she ate potatoes and brown rice as well, beans and fruit too. But no nuts. That was a really big problem food for her.

So I ignored her, because like I said, nuts are not my thing, and I hunkered down with the plan I was on. I committed to ONLY eating out of the cookbook for the plan and blogging my review of every recipe in the book. I thought FOR SURE this was going to work. How could it not?

And my cravings for sugar grew and grew and grew.

And something about what Chef AJ was telling me made me think that there was more to her story for me than just losing the nuts. But I didn't know what that was, I couldn't put my finger on it yet.

But at the end of April 2014, I threw my hands up in the air and begged the universe for mercy. How could I, a person so dedicated to the principles of a whole food plant based diet, just keep getting fatter and fatter and fatter? What the heck was wrong with me? I was ashamed, embarrassed and very down.

I called AJ and I told her that I was done with every other version of a plant based diet that I had ever tried. I was not giving up on a plant based diet, but I needed to know everything about how she ate and I needed to follow it exactly. I hired her as my coach and over the course of many months, I pieced together all of the information that I learned from AJ, along with about 75 compliant recipes that appealed to me, into my own "Chef AJ's Ultimate Weight Loss" book. I printed it out and put it all into a notebook. I cooked only from those recipes and I logged my food every day and e-mailed it to AJ.

I began losing weight.

Shortly after beginning my work with Chef AJ, I was out one night at a work function with my husband. I stupidly imagined that there would be something at the event for me to eat, and I was wrong. So I walked a few blocks to one of the few Vegan restaurants in Cleveland and had dinner out by myself for one of the only times in my life (is it just me or does this make you really uncomfortable too?). I did my best ordering off of the menu, but as you know, Vegan restaurants often have absolutely no oil-free and processed food free offerings. I ordered a veggie burger and asked for a whole wheat bun and thought it would be a nice treat for myself that evening.

I sent AJ my food log and I got a phone call shortly after.

"I cannot coach you if you are going to eat ANY flour or any sugar, EVER. I will be done as your coach. It would be like me trying to sponsor someone in AA who is still drinking!"

I was thinking, "What the f?" What was she talking about? It was just one whole wheat hamburger bun. I'm not sure that I was even fully aware of the fact that on AJ's plan (which is the plan from True North Health Center by Dr. Alan Goldhammer and closely resembles Dr. John McDougall's Maximum Weight Loss plan), there was a rule about absolutely no whole wheat (or really any grain, bean or nut) flour.

But I was scared, because I didn't want to lose AJ as my coach. It was the FIRST time in the three-and-a-half years that I was on a plant based diet that I actually began to lose weight instead of gain it. It was slow and steady weight loss and I was really, really ecstatic about that.

I promised her that I wouldn't eat any sugar, including zero calorie sweetenters like stevia, and sugar alcohols like erythritol, which go through the same refining processes as drugs and alcohol. Nor would I eat any flour, which ended up including oat flour that you grind yourself from rolled oats. For a total of six months I was on a great path.

For the first time in years I could clearly see that my brain chemistry was deeply effected by the food I ate. Vegetables? Of course these are great. But potatoes and unprocessed whole grains? I was scared of those for so many years because one smart doctor that I trusted said that eating too much of them would cause me weight gain. But what I saw when I began incorporating more and more potatoes and unprocessed whole grain into my diet, and eliminating all refined flours and sugars, was that not only did I lose weight, I lost my cravings for sugary foods almost 100%.

Something in my body and mind began to radically change. I was healing.

And then Halloween happened.

I have no idea why, or what stress I was under (aren't we all under a lot of stress all of the time?), but I brought Halloween candy into my house (with the idea that it was for giving out only) and on the night of Halloween I indulged in more than a few pieces. I really don't know what the hell I was thinking, but I certainly didn't fully comprehend what had been going on with my brain chemistry and my healing process. I thought I would be just fine and that I would go back onto my Chef AJ plan 100% the next day.

And mostly I did, I really can't remember now. But what I do remember is that over the course of the next eight weeks, I continued to make all of these little allowances in my diet. It was holiday time at work, and all of our best customers and vendors ship us beautiful packages of sugary, processed treats. And I was working my tail off during the day and going home to my family with no energy even to prepare a healthy meal, and everything started to crumble. I indulged in many of those "gifts" on the kitchen table at work. I made allowances about even the healthy food I was still getting in--a little oil and salt is fine in this bag of frozen vegetables because I don't have the time or energy to make food from scratch right now. I stopped weighing myself at the time, as I am someone who goes into immediate denial when I fall of the wagon.

But I knew, deep down inside, that this was just a temporary problem. I knew that the moment the holiday was over, the moment when I go on my first and only vacation for the year, that I would have the mental energy to refocus on what I knew I had to do, and refocus I did.

Beginning on December 24, 2014 I went back on "The Ultimate Weight Loss Plan with Chef AJ and John Pierre," I went back to healing my brain, and I went back to losing weight.

It's been ten months since I contacted AJ and asked her to be my coach. In that time, my body has released 25 of those 50 unwanted pounds. I am completely confident that in another 10 months, I will release the other 25 unwanted pounds. Why? Why am I so damned sure of myself this time?

Because I know the difference. The difference between a brain on crack and a brain that is healing. And flours and sugar are like crack for me. They mess with my brain and keep me craving more, more, more. They put my hunger drive into over drive. And no amount of vegetables, beans and fruit can fix a brain chemistry that is being altered by drugs. Make no mistake about it, processed flour and sugar are no different than cocaine and heroine for those that are susceptible to their effects (not everyone is, just so you know!). The starch from potatoes and brown rice? They raise my brain's serotonin naturally, are satiating in a way that no other food is, and have been essential in my weight loss. How did I learn all this super sciency stuff about hunger and cravings and brain chemistry? I started reading and watching everything that I could that AJ recommended from pioneers in food addiction like Joan Ifland, Kathleen DesMaisons and Susan Pierce Thompson. I'm so into this stuff now that I could explode with excitement!

In a nutshell, here's the formula that finally worked for me:

Whole Food Plant Based Diet (volumes of veggies, whole fruits, beans, potatoes, and unbroken whole grains

- refined carbohydrates (no flour (no pasta, bread, muffins or cakes) and no sugar)

+ vegetables (and potatoes or rice) for breakfast 

- smoothies (they give me a sugar rush and an insulin response that is not favorable to my weight loss, I can tolerate a banana soft serve or pineapple whip really occasionally) 

- nuts/seeds/avocado (simply, although healthy, these foods are too high in calories for my volumetric eating needs, activity level and metabolism)

- salt (it makes the food hyper-palatable and keeps me in a cycle of overeating)

- oil (just a darned waste of calories at 4000 calories per pound) 

= weight loss (finally!) and FREEDOM FROM FOOD ADDICTION

Which is all I ever wanted, so my work here is done. Not!

I started this blog in the hopes that I would maintain my initial 50 pound weight loss. I knew that doing this publicly was the only thing that would break me of my yo-yo dieting cycle. I never imagined how bumpy this road would be! Or how difficult. Or that I would be on paths that led me astray.

I'm just grateful that I finally found my mojo.

And if you haven't found your mojo yet, I pray that you do. It is like a freedom that I have never known. I am happy, (almost) thin and free!

I'm here for you. In any way that I can help, I am open to it. We are really on this journey together, and you have been there for me every step of the way. For that, dear blog readers, I am eternally grateful.

Thoughts? Questions? Let's talk in the comments below!

Blogging tips