Sunday, August 17, 2014

The long swim back

In 2012, my life changed.

Getting lost

I had really let my health go during my university studies, and put on a significant amount of weight. I think it started with a mild depression which in turn set off a downward spiral of self-destructive behavior, I did everything wrong in terms of eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping, and exercise.

I'd like to compare putting on a lot of weight like swimming in the ocean and getting caught in a current that takes you really far off shore. Eventually you realize that you're probably not going to make it back, and the only thing you'll accomplish by even trying is to drown tired and sore. So you stop even trying to get back. That's where things really go down hill.

As a result of this, in 2011, I was a wreck. I weighed 140 kg (that's 310 lbs for the metrically challenged). I was constantly tired. I was constantly hungry. I had the blood pressure of a 70 year old, and elevated cholesterol. I was 25 years old and seriously questioned whether I'd live to see 30.

I had done some futile efforts at regaining my health before, without much success. Usually I succumbed to my constant hunger. If I did lose weight, I rapidly regained what I'd lost.


In the early weeks of January 2012, while perusing reddit, I learned about a guy who had lost a lot of weight with something called a ketogenic diet. It even had its own subreddit, /r/keto. In short, the diet dictates strict carbohydrate limitation, moderate protein intake, and the rest of your energy in fat. After a couple of days, your glycogen stores run dry and your body starts to produce ketones, an alternative fuel that has some advantages for people with a messed up metabolism. /r/keto has an excellent FAQ if anyone is interested in learning more.

I have a background in science, so I was a bit skeptical at first, as it sort of looked like the usual pseudoscientific hokum people conjure up in order to sell books. To my surprise, this wasn't Keto, it was just keto. Having followed the money and gotten nowhere, I decided to look into the science. I must admit, in my blind naivete I had assumed nutrition was rigorous like any other modern science. This turned out to be very wrong. I was shocked and terrified by the quality of some of the studies that laid the foundation of most modern dietary guidelines. Nutritional science is improving, but the pace is glacial. Scientific paradigm shifts are frustratingly slow for a reason, it's a defense mechanism against poorly developed theories.

There was enough reasonable doubt for me to decide to do an experiment (that is, after all what scientists do). After all, it's not like I really had anything to lose in terms of health. It worked. Unlike other diets I've tried, keto didn't leave me constantly hungry. It didn't leave me constantly tired--if anything, after a month or so, I was more energetic than I had been in years. The diet also bestowed upon me a mental clarity I hadn't experienced in years.

Note that there is pseudoscience and snake-oil peddlers peripherally attached to keto. You also see the occasional crackpot conspiracy theories about the evil mustache-twisting villains of mainstream nutrition. This is unfortunate to have to wade through, but the diet itself is solid enough.

I weigh 94 kg today (210 lbs), that's "normal" BMI for someone of my tall stature. I'm about 2/3 the man I was. I've gone off the diet a couple of times, including a large portion of 2013, but progress has been steady and in the right direction. My cholesterol is way below reference, and my blood pressure is down to 125/85--normal.  As I've lost weight and gained mobility and energy, I've been able to exercise a lot more as well. Mostly LISS and biking.

In short, I am healthy again. I attached some comparison pictures at the end of this post.

Changing priorities

I blasted through most of my adult life with a self-destructive devil-may-care attitude, burning the candle at both ends like there was no tomorrow. This left me in a very miserable state, and my health in shambles. The long way back has taught me many lessons about the value of taking care of my body.

Today, I always cook my own meals, usually from scratch. I barely drink. I don't smoke. I never snack.

Recently, I've started prioritizing sleep more. 8 hours a night is sacred. For as long as I can remember, I used to stay up too late, undersleep, and be a wreck all day long. Usually I'd crash on the weekends and sleep 11-12 hours. Actually consistently getting the sleep you need changes everything. The mental clarity alone is worth it.

Appendix A: Pictures

2011. 140 kg. 3XL shirt. Needing a haircut.
2014. 94 kg. L shirt. Needing a haircut. And a shave.

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