Everything begins before you actually get started. Part of this is practical, of course, like assembling tools or doing research. In the case of dietary change it would mean knowing what your goals are and having some kind of plan to meet them. For exercise you’ll need the right gear and some knowledge of your activity. For other things it might not be so straight forward.
Not that long ago when I was talking about my plans and hopes a friend asked me why I wasn’t yet doing the things I was talking about. Certainly part of me wanted to react defensively and there was a wee twinge of fear that I’m all talk and wasn’t ever going to get where I’m going, but I resisted those. The honest answer was actually quite straightforward and much more empowering.
When I talk about my journey of weight loss, it’s tempting to start the story in April 2013 when the actual weight loss began, as shown in my weight loss graph below. My weight loss is a very steep slope for a pretty long time before things got more complicated again, as you can see.
It is tempting when talking about my success to show only the loss between early 2013 and late 2014, but that would be a lie. The things that I’ve been wrestling with since that point in 2014 will be discussed later, but the part I want to draw your attention to now is the bit of the graph before April 2013.
The thing is: while I began eating LCHF then in practice, it didn’t really start there at all. The peak and trough in 2012 were the result of a too-brief stint on the Atkins diet, the most well known low carb diet of all, though I still wasn’t tracking my food intake and was only cutting the obvious carbs. It was also during 2012 that my dad started on keto and shared with me what he was learning about the science behind it. I was interested and I knew it was only a matter of time before I went low carb again. While my weight was rising to it’s highest level, most weeks I was telling myself that I would start the next week, giving myself the perfect excuse to eat even more of the things I knew I needed to stop eating. It didn’t stick, but I was moving toward this big change even though I had nothing to show for it yet. If anything, objectively things were looking even worse.
In her podcast Magic Lessons that came out just before the release of her book Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert said that for her the first act of starting a new writing project was to organise her spice drawer – something that seems totally unrelated to writing but is still part of the process of beginning her commitment to a new project. For me, maybe it even goes back to the end of 2011 when I bought the scale these measurements were taken with, even though it was another year and a half before I really made the lifestyle changes I was building up to.
So in that conversation not long ago when my friend asked me why I wasn’t yet doing the things I was planning to do, I picked up my phone, pulled up that graph and pointed to the part before April 2013. I may not have had any results to show yet, but I was already in progress – incubating, building my resolve, making my plans, and getting ready to take the plunge.
I didn’t just wake up one day and everything had changed. I had to get there in my own way, on my own time, and I was moving toward my success even when things seemed to be getting worse.
I think this is true for all of us with most things. Sometimes we won’t need to do much “beginning before we begin” but sometimes we will. Sometimes our “pre-beginning” will be straight forward, like making meal plans or buying fitness equipment or joining a gym (something I still haven’t done) and sometimes it will be hidden, preparing ourselves mentally and emotionally, doing research and deciding to commit to something. We won’t get where we want to go until we make the commitment and do the thing, whatever it is, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t moving toward it, even if it doesn’t always seem like it.
LCHF stands for Low Carb, High Fat (and Moderate Protein).
What that means is that I eat mostly meat and vegetables with butter and cream.
Why? Because this diet is very helpful for a range of health conditions and can also be used for weight loss. In my case: I feel better, have more energy, am less hungry, have more stable mood, really enjoy my food AND I’ve lost 60lbs (27.3kg, 4 stone 4 lbs).
That’s a gross oversimplification, of course. The reasons for doing this and the science behind it are in some ways simple, and in other ways complicated.
There are lots of terms for this way of eating: LCHF, Keto, Ketogenic diet and the near cousins: Paleo and Primal. These are diets that differ from the Standard American Diet (SAD) in a couple of key ways. (It’s really the Standard Western Diet which is quickly becoming the Standard World Diet but the acronym SAD is painfully perfect, don’t you think?) LCHF tends to be my favourite term because it’s the simplest descriptor and requires the least explanation in terms of what it is that I eat: low carb, high fat (and moderate protein). The Ketogenic Diet (or “keto” for short) is another way of describing the diet based on the science of how it works, which I’m sure I’ll be discussing at length. The Paleo and Primal cousins tend to be more generous on the carb front and aren’t usually ketogenic, but they still advocate fewer carbs than the SAD and focus on food quality in ways we can all benefit from: more real food, less processed junk.
Want to know more?: Start here.
When we study something in a research setting, we choose something that we hope will represent a larger group of that thing. If you want to know something about all roses, you study some roses. If you want to know something about people, you study some people. The group being studied is called the sample – it’s a sample of the larger group you want to know about. The size of this sample is called “n” in research studies. If you want to know something with a high degree of certainty you need big carefully designed studies with very large samples – big “n” values. These studies can help us identify what is most true for most people most of the time.
The problem is: these studies don’t tell you anything about the individual. The biggest, best, and most perfectly designed and executed studies tell us nothing about what will work for you or me or any single individual.
When this comes up I always think of this chart:
Don’t worry about what diets they’re comparing, that’s not the most important thing we’re seeing here. What’s most important is that the three columns in each of those graphs represent three different diets and each line represents one person who tried each of the three diets. None of those lines is level and none of them are the same. You can average the data and come up with one diet that is “better” but for some of those people it won’t be better. For some people, the “best on average” diet will be definitely worse than the “worst on average.” It’s such an obvious thing to say: “people are different so the perfect diet must vary from person to person” and yet the dietary advice we’re given is pretty much exactly the same for everybody all the time. A little bit different for kids and pregnant and lactating women, a bit less for women generally than men, but otherwise pretty much all the same for everybody (every body) all the time.
Isn’t that crazy? We all know people who can eat more than we could dream of and will still bemoan their inability to gain weight. And we all know people who feel like they put on weight just by thinking about food. It’s crazy to think that the prevailing dietary advice for those two people would be basically the same.
The “low fat” Standard American Diet that I grew up on was making me fat and sick and miserable. After a lot of research and some preparation, it was time for my own experiment to find something that would work better for me, since what I had been doing clearly wasn’t working well at all. I started my own experiment on myself. I think this is the only way to approach our health: as our own experiment with an n of 1.
Sarah is a North Carolina native who eats LCHF, lifts heavy things, and rides her Brompton in Glasgow, Scotland. Wherever you find her, she'll probably be geeking out about some aspect of health and wellbeing.