Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Travels Of The Thin One

My journey in search of health takes me through the jungle of nutrition advice where the going gets thick with much conflicting information, some startling revelations and a surprising food choice to mitigate global warming.

The Skinny Diabetic Paradigm

The reaction to my diagnosis as a pre-diabetic struck my friends as puzzling. How could I, a paragon of fitness and healthy living, have succumbed to a condition associated with poor diet and obesity? The novelty of being a thin diabetic was entertaining, but not entirely unusual. The two diabetic women I knew, outfitted with insulin pumps and diagnosed at a young age, were both fit and thin. One was my sparring partner in karate class.

Here in the States a poor diet is associated with sodas and hamburgers, fast food and poverty. I loved a good hamburger on occasion and the fries with it, but I never drank sodas, only water. No, my diet was the highly regarded low fat diet of the thin and elite, "mostly plants" to quote Michael Pollan. 

I had not been concerned with our protein intake, but when Catherine was advised by her doctors to lay on the protein in order to survive surgery and various other treatments for her cancer diagnosis, we could see that our diet fell short of the required 57 to 70 grams a day, especially our vegetarian diet which got us by on 45 grams a day.

A return to a vegetarian diet was our first response to Catherine's diagnosis. Two learned men in our lives, a doctor and an economist, recommended we watch Forks Over Knives and read The China Study. Catherine had been berating herself for all the rich food she had been eating over the last year, along with all the wine pairings and after dinner port that she and her brother so enjoyed at our bi-weekly dinners out. After watching Forks Over Knives we were convinced that salvation lay in a diet of vegetables and legumes. The carton of organic, cage free, Omega 3 enriched eggs languished in our fridge until I had to throw them in the compost. 

Next In Line

On her second day of chemotherapy treatment Catherine befriended the man in the next chair who had cancer of the kidneys. He was so upbeat he infused the room with the positive chatter of a life coach as he rooted for his chemotherapy drugs to heal him. His wife was with him. When I heard that she too had undergone chemotherapy for her colon cancer the year before, it put me on notice. 

"We're completive that way," he joked. 

"There's no relationship between our cancers," said the wife to reassure us. How do you know? I wondered. Presumably they lived in the same house and shared the same lifestyle.

In the past we had adopted a vegetarian diet after watching a movie about factory farmed animals. As a Buddhist Catherine also did not want to harm sentient beings. Our Buddhist community served vegetarian meals at retreats and potlucks. I also believed that eating lower on the food chain would help world hunger and the environment. It was one of the original "50 Ways To Save The Earth". 

I had been a convert to "Diet For A Small Planet" since 1990. The author, Frances Moore Lappe, was one of my heroes. That her organization, Food First, no longer advocated eating low on the food chain, but now embraced grass fed beef and local foods had somehow escaped me. Our meal plan included burritos once a week using fake meat—the soy and wheat based vegetarian product. There were also fake sausages. The rest was vegetables in soups and casseroles. A diet high in carbohydrates.

The Diet Makeover

When I cracked open my first book on diabetes, four months into Catherine's cancer treatment, I became convinced that it was our high carbohydrate diet that had brought us down this road to these diseases of civilization. And that I was next in line for a cancer diagnosis. One report showed that a high number of cancer patients were also glucose intolerant as I was. I saw my diagnosis of pre-diabetes as a nudge from the universe to rectify both of our diets. 

Most cancer survivors do take a hard look at their lifestyle and especially their eating habits. A high number of breast cancer survivors go the route of the detoxifying, "clean eating", alkaline diet made popular by "crazy sexy cancer" diva, Kris Carr, a model turned glam, cancer-preneur with books, movies and diet advice. 

If you already believe that the low fat diet is the cornerstone of health (as most people do), then it makes sense that a diet of organic fruits and vegetables (and vitamins and supplements) is even better. And so easy when all you have to do is make a shake. It was the direction Catherine wanted to take especially because fruits and vegetables were her favorite food.

Detoxing was okay for a week or two, but would lead to insulin resistance, I told her. After all, if you pulverize fruits and vegetables into a shake you make what was a perfectly good carbohydrate that the body took time to digest, and broke it down directly into sugar. Exactly what I was trying to avoid. I knew Catherine had issues with insulin resistance too; she had already been in and out of the pre-diabetes status herself not too long ago and her father had just begun insulin injections for diabetes (should there be a genetic disposition involved; both my parents had blood sugar issues too).

Wrong Oil, Right Oil

When my chiropractor first told me he suspected that polyunsaturated vegetable oils were the cause of many chronic diseases and that it was healthier to cook with lard and palm oil, I thought he was on glue. When my own research led me to the same conclusion, he told me about coconut oil. I then noticed all the coconut oil that had suddenly appeared at Whole Foods and found a variety of brands to choose from, solid and snow white in their jars. 

What a delightful oil to cook with. And eat by the spoonful! I made a grass-fed beef chili with it. Bacon lard was equally satisfying. Olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, was still okay if not oxidized by too high heat.

Saturated fats never go rancid. They are solid at room temperature because their molecular structure is fully saturated with hydrogen. Polyunsaturated fats are not, their un-partnered bonds have unstable electrons. These electrons can wander off to join other molecules resulting in free radicals. Free radicals are created in the body with the digestion of these cooked oils. Free radicals can cause cancerous mutations and damage tissue. Antioxidants help combat free radicals. 

We got the antioxidant part right, thus the consumption of green tea every time cancer is mentioned, but no one had mentioned that the cause of free radicals was associated with polyunsaturated fats. Trans fats and hydrogenated oils were poison. Yes, we got that, but we still see vegetable oils as natural and beyond reproof. After all, low fat anything was good for you. We had been indoctrinated for over 30 years to believe this was so. 

The Lipid Hypothesis

Plenty of studies had been done to attempt to prove that lowering your cholesterol by lowering your intake of saturated fat and red meat was the key to preventing heart disease, cancer and the like. This is what is known as the Lipid Hypothesis. None of these studies were conclusive. In fact low cholesterol was associated with increased risk of cancer especially in women (although women were rarely studied). 

Cholesterol is needed to patch up the damage done by free radicals, which is why it clings to the walls of the arteries where damage has been done. Thus at first observation, cholesterol appears to be the culprit in heart disease, but the appearance of cholesterol is akin to paramedics appearing at the scene of an accident. This was the science offered for refuting the Lipid Hypothesis.

In 1984 a "consensus development" conference was held to decide what was actually the truth since no studies had proven anything definitive. A panel of 14 experts were handpicked to review the studies; all but three were already predisposed to the Lipid Hypothesis as was the researcher who picked them. They issued a statement that the Lipid Hypothesis was correct (based on two tenths of one percent of improved mortality in one study). For the next 25 years any study that showed the opposite was largely ignored because, after all, the issue had been decided. Which is why most people, including our doctors, believe it to be true. 

Nutrition gurus continue to write books that base their recommendations on the Lipid Hypothesis, heartily denouncing saturated fat, especially animal fat, as the devil incarnate. The prevailing wisdom welcomes these rants, but I no longer believed these fit or fat gurus. The body needed saturated fats to repair itself, I learned, and specifically animal fat to absorb vitamins and provide Vitamin D and A and B12. That much we know. Both Catherine and I were low on Vitamin D, especially Catherine who was now taking prescription level doses of it. A recent study just came out that associates the cancer cluster in Marin County to deficiency of Vitamin D. All those fit elite with their sunblock and low fat diet gurus perhaps.

Catherine saw one on Dr. Oz, whose book she wanted to check out. Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman. I picked it up at the library, spent half an hour with it and told her it was just another pro-vegetarian agenda denouncing saturated fats. My extreme attitude was beginning to make her nervous. When was this obsession going to be over, she wanted to know. She preferred to be a vegetarian, had been one as a child too, out of empathy for the cows that surrounded her childhood home. It was a moral issue she reminded me.

Brain Food

Unlike fat diabetics, I had no public oppression to go along with any diet that left me hungry and indifferent about food. I needed serious feedings. My new research was not only nurturing my body, but also gave my brain something to chew on. Both had been hungry for a while. The rich food was not easy to eat. It did not make me feel light and energetic. It made me want to sit for a while at the table and digest (much like the reading I'd been doing). It took time to eat, but then I was good for hours on end instead of two or three. And I no longer needed a nap in the afternoon. My hypoglycemia cured in one fell swoop. 

I found a DVD to explain this research to Catherine. I had to buy it because, unlike the 13 copies of Forks Over Knives in our library system, it was not yet available; it was too new. Called The Search For The Perfect Human Diet, it featured Weston Price, a dentist, who traveled the world in 1939 photographing indigenous people of exemplary health who ate traditional foods with their straight white teeth. The film also showed the results of diet on evolution. Once homo sapiens started eating animal meat they grew a bigger brain. Once we started growing crops and eating predominantly carbohydrates, our skulls got too small for a full set of teeth. Contrary to what I was told, wisdom teeth were not extracted because they were superfluous like the appendix. We were simply devolving.

Catherine was not sold on my nutrition campaign. The conflicting information left her dumbfounded; she didn't know what to eat. 

You're too thin, she added. Friends who hadn't seen me in a while also commented that I had gotten too thin. They could feel my ribs under their hands when they hugged me. Not only did I need more holes in my belt, but my underwear needed a belt. My ears looked bigger as my face got thinner. Since I no longer ate potatoes or bread and very little rice and pasta because of my too high blood sugars, my weight had dropped a few more pounds to rest at just under 100. I hadn't weighed this little since high school. I didn't weigh much more than that in my twenties, but I was so sure I was meant to be ten pounds heavier as I had been over the last 20 years, that I gave away my black leather, custom tailored, motorcycle pants from 1984.

As instructed by her doctors, Catherine was fattening up for her final chemo regime, known among cancer patients as the Red Death because it made your sweat red and your tears red as well as making you nauseous. She wanted to know if there was going to be food she could eat during that time. She did not think she would be able to eat meat (especially not exotic meats like bison or lamb. The furrier the pelt the less she felt comfortable eating it, I noted.) I assured her that I would run out and get anything she felt like eating whether it was mac and cheese or fried rice. Meanwhile I stashed grass-fed beef hotdogs in the freezer. Hold the nitrites.


At the end of September, I left Catherine in the care of her brother and took my thin self to Chicago for a conference with my fellow organizers. I packed trail mix, a can of sardines and two cupcake frittatas with sausage and bell pepper that I had baked the night of my flight out. I felt great to be traveling again, trundling my luggage down the sidewalk of The Magnificent Mile as commuters were coming in to work. Chicago was enjoying stunning weather, just cool enough to keep from breaking a sweat.

In the weeks after I dropped the carbs from my diet, I felt my head clear and my memory improve. I could think so much more clearly as I surveyed the terrain of my many thoughts. I wondered if I could still consider myself ADD. Probably not, I realized as I found myself at the wrong Hilton hotel. I called a friend who had arrived the day before and was alerted to my mistake then jumped on a bus to arrive at the right hotel in time for a second breakfast. My colleagues and I walked to The Yolk where I ordered a bacon, avocado and three cheese frittata topped with salsa and sour cream. Hold the potatoes and toast. 

Better Living Through Science

"You only need to go to Europe to know it's not true," said my conference roommate Kim, about the Lipid Hypothesis. Her mother was German. The German diet was notoriously heavy yet no one in Germany is fat, she told me. Europe is also the home of the Slow Food movement and the preservation of traditional foods. I'm not sure Americans have a traditional food culture. It has science and industry.

Chicago had a museum of science and industry. I set out to visit it. It was huge. Part exploratorium for kids, part warehouse for space vehicles, trains, planes and a submarine, a showcase of American industrial and military power. In the section called Farm Tech, the miracles of industrial agriculture were displayed with a comforting, retro design. 

Our food comes from all over the globe, isn't that great? Look at what we feed our cows! Around the room photographs and text mentioned local foods and organic farming, but a John Deere combine  dwarfed it all. Set up to simulate the experience of harvesting a typical corn field, it plowed into a film clip projected on a screen to show movement down a field; a sound system in the cab offered an accompanying midwestern farmer's patter.

It was all very friendly, but off in a corner there was one display that was downright eery. It was staged to be an ordinary kitchen. In every cupboard and on every shelf were products made from soy. From the cleaning products under the sink, to the paint on the walls to the food in the cupboards and fridge. All soy. On the wall a world map showing that the US was the biggest grower of soy beans. Like the final scene in a sci-fi horror film, I had the sudden revelation that our food supply had been unmasked like the cannibalism in Soylent Green. (Funny that this 1973 movie has soy in the title.) Real food replaced by a non food. That Big Ag had such a stake in soy production made me suspicious. 

A few days later, I would come across a passage in a book by a recovering vegan, that revealed the dangers of soy. How had I never heard of these dangers? I double checked the information on the internet and got a Dr. Mercola article listing the same warnings. Soy was not only an estrogen mimicker, but it interfered with the functioning of the thyroid. And there was the troubling part about how soy has phytates in it that prevent the body from absorbing essential minerals and a Trypsin inhibitor that prevented the body from digesting protein. Talk about a food that was working against nourishment. And I'm not even going to mention the unknown dangers of GMO soy.

(Fermented soy such as in Miso soup and Tempeh prepared in the traditional manner was okay. Our Asian ancestors knew what they were doing; they only ate tofu when they were starving. In Thailand, however, I had never seen it.) 

I immediately persuaded Catherine to stop using soy milk and she told me about the story of a friend whose 8 year old had started growing breasts because of drinking soy milk every day. (I had occasionally used soy milk on my cereal, then opted for rice milk which only added to my high starch pre-diabetic inducing diet. So I switched to almond milk.) After checking ingredient labels for everything in our kitchen, it was true, nearly every processed food had soy in it. Every bread baked in soy oil, every chocolate bar contained an emulsifier made from soy, nearly every mayonnaise made with soy oil. It was like having x-ray eyes into the food supply. I knew too, that growing soy was hard on the soil; a monocrop that was degrading the land and sucking up water from rivers for irrigation. Soon more land would have to be cleared of natural habitat, to grow more fake food.

The Weston Price soy alert page mentioned that Oprah, a big drinker of soy milk, had now blown out her thyroid. If the two were indeed connected, how ironic that the woman who fought so hard to preserve her right to tell the world she would never eat a hamburger, would harm herself with a much more dangerous food choice. 


That same week I attended a film being shown by the Transition Town movement in Palo Alto. Called First Millimeter: Healing The Earth, it convinced me that grass fed beef would save the planet. 

In the drought ridden landscape of California, cattle helps to cultivate and fertilize the land, making it more able to hold rainwater, which would in turn allow more vegetation to grow and more beef to be raised thus more profit for the ranch. When land was abandoned or had too few cattle on it, it just sat there drying out which led to erosion and loss of top soil resulting in degraded land. This was happening wherever dry grasslands existed including Australia, Africa, New Mexico and Mexico. 

A new method of managing cattle was not only bringing the land back to health faster in all these parts of the world, but the increased vegetation was sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. 

Here's how it worked. Plants grow, pulling carbon dioxide out of the air as plants are wont to do, and sending it into the growth of the plant and most notably the roots. Cattle eat half the plant and the roots die back as well, leaving compost in the soil. The cattle also tread dried up vegetation into the soil along with their manure. The plant grows back and the cycle is repeated. Eventually perennial grasses return. As long as the cattle came back at the right time and no sooner and at the right density of hoofs per acre, the land could produce an inch of topsoil a year with the bonus of removing CO2 from the warming planet at a rate that had the potential of cooling the planet completely. It was brilliant.  

Sallie Calhoun, a rancher and chair of Holistic Management International was on hand to answer questions. The only investment was additional fencing and more laying of pipes for water troughs for the cattle, plus training for the ranchers. The entrepreneurial component would take it forward once ranchers were willing to try it. 

I was elated. My life had come full circle. I could eat grass fed beef and stop global warming at the same time. I was betting my next blood work on it. It was the only way I would find out. 

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