Picture: Me in front of a gigantic bowl of salad
“Since the foods Americans consume are so calorie-rich, we have all been trying to diet by eating smaller portions of low-nutrient foods. We not only have to suffer hunger but also wind up with perverted cravings because we are nutrient-deficient to boot.” ― Joel Fuhrman, Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss
Most of my life I was not concerned with my weight. In high school, I had a body that my older self would grow to envy. I had abs, my chest muscles were well-defined, even earning me the nickname “Man-Boobs” from my high school friends. During this time, I ate whatever I wanted, mainly in-line with the standard American diet and I continued looking “healthy” well into my 20’s. I did not pay that much attention to my weight, what I was eating, or my health. When I reached my late 20’s (27 to be exact) I noticed for the first time an increase in my weight. One day, during my second year of my MBA, I looked in the mirror and thought, “Wow, I look a lot fatter than I used to look”. Gone were the abs and well-defined chest muscles, my “Man-Boobs” had grown bigger, but less firm and more jiggly. I did not know it at the time, but I would not see my abs again for another 14 years. I’m not sure how long I’d been this heavy.
I’m also not sure what happened, maybe my metabolism slowed down. My best guess is that it was due to all the free food that was readily available on campus at the various company sponsored events. I viewed these events as a contest to see how many free sandwiches, pizza, etc I could eat and by my account, I was winning the contest.
In my early 30’s, I started dieting to lose weight. My goals were not health related, I just wanted to look better. I did not feel good about my body – I longed to see my abs again – I wanted to get my body, and my swagger, back. My first few attempts at diets were based on counting and restricting my calories while eating what I usually ate (aka the standard American diet). I kept track of my calories by googling the calorie counts for various foods & plugging the amounts into a google spreadsheet where I summed up my daily calorie count. At around four to six weeks into these diets, I would invariably quit because I felt terrible. I hated tracking my calories and I was hungry. Once I stopped, I would promptly gain back all the weight.
At a party with some old friends I had met during my MBA, I was lamenting my failed attempts at dieting and how fat I had become. They shared similar stories and a few of us decided to try a dieting contest to see who could lose 30 pounds the fastest. Given my competitive nature, I was optimistic about my chances. Once the contest began, I promptly shifted my diet into eating only cucumbers and celery and hammering out 45 minutes of cardio on an elliptical machine every day. In just over six weeks, I lost 30 lbs and won the contest. I felt supremely satisfied with my ability to lose weight, but I was even prouder that I beat everyone else and won the competition.
Immediately after winning, I stopped the “cucumber/celery” diet because I realized that there was absolutely no reason to eat only cucumbers and celery all day unless you are in a weight loss competition. Once I went back to my usual diet, I quickly gained back all the weight, and a little more. In a nutshell, all my diets followed this simple 6-step program:
- Step 1: Start new diet
- Step 2: Lose weight
- Step 3: Realize new diet is not sustainable
- Step 4: Stop new diet, revert back to old diet
- Step 5: Gain all the weight back, and usually more
- Step 6: Feel terrible about myself (including any hope I had to ever see my abs again or get my swagger back)
Late in my 30’s, I became interested in my health. My interest was sparked mainly from a few realizations I had after having kids:
- Kids have a LOT of energy
- Playing with kids takes a lot of energy
- I REALLY want to have the energy to play with my kids
- I REALLY, REALLY want to have the energy (and be alive) to play with my grandkids
- In order to be able to actively play with my grandkids, I would have to live AND have enough energy well into my late 80’s / early 90’s
- The average lifespan of the American male is 74.5
- I need to do something different than the “Average American Male” if I expect a different outcome
A few of these realizations really threw me off. I thought “If I don’t have enough energy at 37 to play with my own kids, how am I going to live and have enough energy in my 80’s/90’s to play with my grandkids?” I decided to start exploring and see if I could somehow make this aspiration into something I at least had a 50/50 shot at attaining. I first met with my primary care doctor to ask for help. He referred me to a RD (Registered Dietician), where I shared my goal of increasing my chances of living more quality years of life. I also shared that I had a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. She promptly put me on the following treatment plan:
- Lose weight (I’m 5’10” and was around 200-210 pounds at the time)
- Adopt a high protein diet of “lean protein” (fish, chicken, egg whites) to accomplish #1
Over the next six months, I followed the RDs dietary recommendations, all the while asking her for proof that this diet would increase my quality years of life. After six months on the “lean protein” diet, I had a cholesterol test done. The test showed that my total cholesterol had increased to 254 (total) and 182 (LDL). My first thought was “There’s no way I’m going to live to my 90’s with cholesterol that high and a family history of heart disease”. Given the negative impact on my cholesterol and her inability to provide proof that this diet would lead to better health outcomes, I decided to part ways with my RD. Moreover, I became wary of dieting in general. This experience made me realize that being overly focused on trying to lose weight could have a negative impact on my longevity.
After this experience, I did not know where to turn so I Googled “Top Books on Nutrition”. I came across The China Study, which I bought and started reading. This started the next phase of my journey wherein I started following a whole foods, plant-based diet. When I was able to strictly follow whole foods plant-based, I saw great results. Namely, after the first three weeks, my total cholesterol was 146, LDL – 96. In addition, I found a significant boost in my energy levels and mood, yet, something was missing. After three weeks I started oscillating between eating strictly whole foods plant-based (WFPB) and eating a more significant portion of my calories from processed foods. It did not help that I was actively avoiding all things related to my weight or feelings about my body. This avoidance led to some suboptimal behaviors including: never weighing myself, avoiding looking in the mirror, and anytime I felt self conscious about my weight making myself feel better by eating A LOT of organic, 80% plus dark chocolate.
At the age of 39, results from my annual physical forced me to confront what I had been avoiding. In June 2021, after a 20 month hiatus due to COVID, I went to my first doctor’s visit. During the visit, I stepped on a scale for the first time in over two years. When I looked down, it read 221 lbs. This was the heaviest I could ever recall being and my first thought was “I guess my tactic of never weighing myself isn’t working”. Shortly after this visit, my bloodwork came back and I got another slap in the face when I looked at my Hemoglobin A1c (h1ac) levels: Estimated Average Glucose of 5.7 / 117 MG/DL respectively and a big red exclamation point next to the Test Result in MyChart that said “The result is abnormal”. I googled this and learned that I was a prediabetic. A few days later, I went to see my primary care doctor to seek advice on treating my pre-diabetes and avoiding Type 2 Diabetes. At the start of the visit, he said he was surprised that I came in and was inquiring about this because:
- My h1ac is right on the edge, if I’d been 5.6 I wouldn’t be considered a prediabetic.
- Most people in America eventually get diabetes, so it is not something I should worry about.
As he was talking, I outwardly did my best to seem interested and be a “good patient”, activelynodding my head, maintaining good eye contact, and making engaged noises like “yes” and “uh-huh”. Inwardly, I was thinking “Most people in America get diabetes….really? Is that supposed to be a convincing argument? I can’t believe I took time out of my workday to come here.” Once he finished, I shared that I was still worried about getting Type 2 Diabetes and I would like to know if there was anything I could be doing to avoid this outcome. Once pressed, he shared that I did not yet qualify for pharmaceuticals but if I wanted to take action before he put me on a pill, I should:
- Eliminate all carbs from my diet (including whole grains & fruit)
- Increase intake of “lean animal protein” (fish, chicken, eggs)
- Exercise more to lose weight
Given my previous experience, I was wary of pursuing the “lean (animal) protein” diet, so, I got back home and found the chapter on diabetes in The China Study. In it, I found a chart which linked animal protein intake to diabetes. After seeing this chart and based on my prior experience, I decided to forego my primary care doctor’s recommendation to go on the “lean (animal) protein” diet. At this point, I felt entirely lost, sad, and VERY frustrated. My goal of losing weight, avoiding diabetes, and improving my overall health and longevity seemed insurmountable. Although I knew what the solution was (whole foods, plant-based diet), I did not feel like I had what I needed to stick to this diet. As I was halfway through my favorite organic chocolate bar, I thought “maybe the doctor was right, perhaps I should just stop worrying about trying to prevent the inevitable — getting Type 2 Diabetes”.
In August 2022, at the age of 40 and for the first time in my life, I FINALLY met with a doctor who was well-versed in nutrition. During this visit, he recommended Dr. Fuhrman’s books. He also spoke about the interplay of health and nutrition in a way that made me feel energized. I left his office feeling optimistic that I had finally found someone who could help me achieve my goals. When I got home, I did a quick search and decided to order “The End of Heart Disease”, given my family history. As I was reading this book, I began to get more and more energized, and I began to make changes that would eventually lead to a complete overhaul of my, and eventually my family’s, diet. The “End of Heart Disease” aligned with previous books I had been reading, advocating for a whole foods, plant-based diet. More than that, it provided real success stories and a practical approach that made me feel like I could do this. There were a few concepts that stuck with me and became foundational to my dietary overhaul:
- Visceral (Body) Fat – I started to internalize the concept that visceral fat, and being overweight, was increasing my risk of a variety of diseases and negatively impacting my health. Before reading this book, I had not heard of the word “visceral fat”; after reading this book, I realized that I had a lot of it and I needed to do something to reduce it.
- Health = Nutrients / Calories – This formula instantly resonated with me. Essentially, my takeaway is the more nutrients per calorie I ingest, the healthier I will be.
- ANDI Scoring Guide – As indicated on his website, ANDI scores “let you quickly see which foods are the most health-promoting and nutrient dense.” This is the tool I use to support me on my hunt for the most nutrient dense foods to eat.
- Processed foods are bad – Although I had read about and tried to adopt a whole foods, plant based diet for almost three years before reading Fuhrman’s book, I still consumed a fair amount of processed foods. Right before I started my Nutritarian diet, I was eating around three to five bagels per week and three to four bowls of processed cereal. In my defense, the bagels were from the best bakery in town that I had frequented as a child, and they were delicious; also to my defense, the processed cereal was marketed as “organic” and uses “real cane sugar” which I thought must mean it is healthy. After reading Dr. Fuhrman’s book, something clicked and I stopped eating processed foods – including the delicious bagels and organic / non-GMO processed cereal.
- Reconcile weight loss and health – Most importantly, Dr. Fuhrman’s books helped me to realize that my goals of losing weight and being healthier / living longer were not at odds, rather I just had not found the right diet. With a Nutritarian diet I could accomplish both goals. (Note – “Nutritarian” is a term coined by Dr. Fuhrman — more details here) Since starting my Nutritarian diet, the results have been promising enough that I have decided to share them. Over the first four months, I have lost 44 lbs. Below is both a brief description of each diet along with a comparison of my health information:
- Lean (Animal) Protein – With this diet, ~25-50% of my meal plate was filled with lean animal protein (e.g., fish, chicken, eggs). The rest of my plate was usually a mix of vegetables and whole grains. Example breakfast: eggs and spinach. Example lunch: chicken, vegetables, whole grain pasta. Example dinner: grilled salmon, frozen peas, brown rice.
- Vegan – My vegan diet oscillated between being strictly whole foods, plant based and a mix of whole foods and processed foods. I also ate as much as I wanted, snacked often, and ate at restaurants ~1-2 times/week. Example breakfast and snack: Nut and Honey Coconut Granola, Example lunch: Whole wheat pasta with Rao’s Pasta Sauce, Example Dinner: Garlicky Broccoli Cashew Tofu with Brown Rice, Late Night Snack: Organic Chocolate Cereal, Organic Chocolate Bar.
- Nutritarian – My focus during this diet has been on eating primarily high nutrient foods for the majority of my calories. I’d estimate my diet is roughly the following: 50% calories from vegetables, 20% from beans, 20% from fruit, 10% from nuts/seeds. I had one to two snacks per day of fruit or vegetables. My main meal times were at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. I was not super strict about the meal times, but I was pretty strict about eating high-nutrient, whole, plant based foods. See “My Nutritarian diet details” section for more information.
My Health Information with Various Dietary Patterns
|Total Cholesterol (mg/dL)
As shown in the chart above, I have seen significant progress on both my weight and my cholesterol since adopting a Nutritarian diet. Most importantly, this diet makes me feel great! The reason I started the Nutritarian diet was that I wanted to live longer (e.g., avoid diabetes / heart disease). The reason I have stuck with it is because it has significantly improved my quality of life. I HAVE SO MUCH MORE ENERGY and my mood has improved as well!!!!!! I find myself playing and dancing with my kids so much more, their laughter at my gyrations during our “dance-offs” fills the room and my heart with joy. I love my daily walks with my son and daughter where we enjoy nature and I get to engage on conversational topics important to a six and a five-year-old. I also used to get tired around 8 p.m. and would go to bed at this time. Now, I am up (typically cleaning or cooking), with energy and without being tired, well until 10 p.m. The extra two hours of productive energy that I have gotten at night is AMAZING!!!!
After my 11 year journey with dieting/weight loss, I do not feel lost anymore. I can happily say that I have found a diet that works for me. For anyone reading this who has struggled with dieting/weight loss, I would encourage you to take Dr. Fuhrman’s Nutritarian diet for a spin for 21 days. I firmly believe that a Nutritarian diet will work for many people. In addition to weight loss, this diet also has the added benefits of helping increase longevity through avoiding common chronic illnesses (e.g., preventing heart disease, strokes, cancer, diabetes, etc). If you do decide to try out the Nutritarian diet, I’d recommend keeping a journal of hunger/mood/energy levels/weight/etc. At the end of 21 days, look back at your journal and decide if it’s worth continuing.
Be sure to check out Part 2 of my journey to see EXACTLY how I did it!