A New Diet Revolution
The first time I realised how effective a change of diet could be for improving my health I was in my mid-twenties and a recovering near-vegan (I still ate eggs). I knew a lot about calories because my parents were both overweight. I knew that some forms of dairy food made my respiratory allergies worse. I knew that sugar was bad for your teeth, and that it made you put on weight, and, thanks to a wonderful man called Dr. Atkins, I already knew that eating fat didn’t make you fat. This was back in the 1980s. I read his “New Diet Revolution” from cover to cover, so I also knew that some children with severe epilepsy had responded really well to a diet of pure fat. Pure fat! It didn’t sound that appealing at the time. Please note that in this article ‘diet’ means what you eat, I am only tangentially talking about losing weight, although I did sometimes lose, and sometimes regain, weight.
I am writing this because every week I meet someone who might benefit from a change of diet, but who…
…has no idea where to start…
…and has no idea what advice it is safe to listen to––so many people have so much faith in their own doctor that they are very easily put off trying something perfectly sensible and clearly safe (avoiding refined grains/drinking more water/eliminating wheat gluten) because some other doctor, just as qualified––often more so because they have immersed themselves in an area of research that is well outside the standard training for general medical practitioners––has been labelled a “quack”.
Recently when presenting with slightly raised blood pressure (151/90) my GP tried to scare me into taking medication that would only (possibly) ameliorate my symptoms, with zero effect on the underlying cause, and to scare me out of doing any exercise at all. I am not exaggerating; her emphasis of the possibility of my experiencing a stroke in bed led to many fretful nights of phantom symptoms. Fortunately I am as aware of the Nocebo Effect as I am of the Placebo Effect, and in time the fears she triggered in me faded away.
On The Brink Of A New Paradigm?
Modern societies are heavily committed to a paradigm of illness that focusses on treatment rather than cure, on medication rather than lifestyle change, and that promulgates such a confused narrative about how our immune system works that there is almost no recognition that acute* symptoms are evidence of our healing process booting up, or that chronic symptoms are the result of accumulating imbalances in our vital bodily functions, and are thus important indicators of where we might need to adjust our behaviour if we are to bring ourselves back into a healthy state of balance.
*This has taken me a long time to write, and there was no Covid-19 to worry about when I started it. ‘Acute’ is used here in contrast to ‘chronic’, I am not using it to mean ‘severe’. Acute would be the swelling that happens when you sprain an ankle, chronic would be still having pain in that ankle 6 months later.
Our astonishing self-healing human bio-system consists of many interdependent processes that are constantly shifting and adjusting in order to maintain a dynamic and responsive state of healthy equilibrium. This system generates the signals we refer to as symptoms in order to stimulate and encourage our conscious and active collaboration in our own well-being. Resilience is the ability to rebound from illness back into wellness at a reasonable rate, and our rate of recovery from an infection or an injury is a useful indicator of how healthy we are.
Eating My Way Back To Health, One “Quack” At A Time
I am not a dietician. I do not pretend to be a nutritionist. What I am is a 59 year old woman who has changed her life for the better by changing what she ingests. I know I can continue to refine the adjustments I am making, and thus positively influence my own health, for the rest of my life. I am not a natural “true believer” so I am free to respond to any new evidence that comes my way, whether it pops up unexpectedly on my screen, or I go searching for it. I have decided to take responsibility for my own health, and to do what it takes to be well, and to continue to do what is necessary to maintain and improve my own health for the foreseeable future. Sometimes, as suggested by Gabor Maté, this feels like a ‘subversive act’.
It may seem to you that your nutritional health is none of my business, and, although I heartily agree, nevertheless the current narrative around what we should be eating is so misleading I cannot happily stand by without at least adding my own voice to the huge amount of evidence – both scientific and anecdotal – that is already available out there, once you begin to look.
My early positive experience with a low carbohydrate diet was liberating, because it taught me that good advice could be depicted as exactly the opposite by:
i. self-proclaimed experts (both with, and without, concealed vested interests), and…
ii. the mainstream media.
I know that if I had waited for the right advice for my various health issues to come from my own doctors then my condition would have continued to deteriorate – it is easy to see the evidence for this in the declining health of my colleagues, students, clients, friends, and family.
I know that what I have learned from listening to ‘heretics’ and ‘quacks’ – many of whom are highly-qualified, experienced medical practitioners who are frustrated with a health system that is not benefitting their patients – is helping me keep
…my weight down
…my respiratory allergies and dietary sensitivities at bay
…my fibromyalgia pains at ever lessening levels.
My chronic fatigue is steadily retreating, and I am confident that the way I eat is enabling me to lower my risk of degenerating health in old age, just as my Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement practice is also doing.
Trial And Error
I am going to start at the beginning, because it is all rather complicated, and I think the organic way my knowledge has grown has been both advantageous and disadvantageous––I am confident about what works for me now, after 30+ years, but perhaps, in hindsight, I could have reached this stage somewhat sooner.
I have experienced a great many persistent symptoms for most of my life, chronic symptoms of the sort that are not easily resolved, and thus are usually “managed” with daily medications. Multiple viral infections (several each year), often triggering respiratory infections (all the ‘-itises’-tonsils, pharynx, sinuses, trachea, bronchus); allergies (dust, pollen), sensitivities (foods, moulds, household chemicals, perfumes, exhaust fumes), aching muscles and joints, painful periods (which morphed into fibroids) and acne (“hormonal issues”), digestive problems, fungal infections, low stamina––and much of this began before I was diagnosed with asthma at 18 years old.
If you are knowledgable about the more internal manifestations of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome you will easily see evidence of my Joint Hypermobility, but when I was a kid no one was really looking for explanations for my sort of health – in fact the assumption is still that people like me are probably hypchondriacs. Now I know about my hypermobile structure, I can add my pronated “flat” feet, my “growing pains” (treated very effectively with Fynnon Salt), and the physical awkwardness of dyspraxia, i.e. clumsy, poorly coordinated and prone to injury, to my more standard list of symptoms. “Psychological” symptoms were also present, but not as well-recognised as they are now; social awkwardness and anxiety, mild but persistent depression, and perfectionism/obsessiveness––or “uptightness”, and “Type A” behaviour, to revive some old-fashioned terms from my youth.
I had a strongly analytical focus, with lots of questions to ask, and opinions to share, but I struggled to speak up in any group setting. As they say hindsight is 20-20 vision, and it is easy now to see how well I fit into the female version of Asperger’s, always trying very hard to appear to be coping better than I actually was with all the complexities of teenage social interaction. Constantly uncomfortable and out of place, or “Nerdy, Shy, & Socially Inappropriate” as Cynthia Kim describes it in one of the many books now available by and for us ‘Aspie Girls’, so at last we can read all about ourselves and feel part of a recognised neuro-tribe.
Alcohol was the first really effective form of self-medication I discovered, although marijuana and cigarettes soon followed. Marijuana preceded cigarettes; while I am pleased to see it being recognised as the boon it has always been for some people with chronic conditions to manage, for me it was a gateway drug to tobacco, and smoking was a really tough habit to break – giving up sugar is easy in comparison.
I mention the psychological side of things because when you find the diet that suits you best you will feel better in every way; physically, spiritually, emotionally – humans are a complex system and that is how systems work; when you make an adjustment that shifts any one element in a positive direction then other elements will also improve; three kinds of wellness for the price of one.
Food As Medicine
Diet-wise we are living in exciting times – medically trained heretics everywhere are forming communities and spreading the word online. It has become much harder to suppress a new approach that works, because, while there is still a lot of knee-jerk “debunking” going on, there are also more and more of us who know that something supposedly stupid/dangerous/unscientific works really well for alleviating our symptoms, and not just in the short term, but for our continuing better health.
As a life long left-winger I am also glad to hear so many health commentators stand up and say without mincing words how very thoroughly Capitalism is poisoning our health systems. Profits before people every time. This isn’t new of course. Dr John Yudkin had his career destroyed for speaking up about sugar in his book Pure, White, and Deadly, back in the 1970s; Dr Atkins continues to be libelled even now, decades after his death. Heretical doctors such as Dr Gary Fettke and Dr Tim Noakes are both fresh from winning legal battles with those who attempted to silence them. These pioneering doctors are supported by dogged investigative journalists; Geoffrey Cannon wrote about vested interests interfering with UK government policy in The Food Scandal way back in 1984, just as writers like Nina Teicholz, and Gary Taubes are doing now.
Here are some of the MDs speaking up for vital changes to the dietary guidelines: Dr Zoë Harcombe, Dr Aseem Malhotra in the UK, Dr Georgia Ede and Dr Robert Lustig in the US, and the aforementioned Dr Noakes in South Africa, and Dr Fettke in Australia.
The pernicious distorting effect of the profit motive is ongoing, and it matters even more now, because the people who want to distract us away from rejecting the addictive substances they are pushing on the world’s populations are still running the show. It is STILL sugar that is destroying our health, not saturated fats, but now the involvement of fossil fuel industries and religious ideologies in our dietary health are generating enormous amounts of misinformation and propaganda, backed by extremely well-funded vested interests. All of these pioneering whistleblowers are involved in challenging the stranglehold Big Pharma and industrial agriculture have on the interplay between food and health. There are many business organisations benefitting from the way our culture downplays the potential for reversing chronic illness through changing our diet – the people who want us to keep eating the processed foods are natural allies of the people who want us to keep taking the medications. To steal an elegant phrase from a comprehensive article on the history of the human diet by George Henderson, “…As usual, it’s hard to separate the roles played by idealism and cynicism in the story”.
Diet For [Depleting] A Small Planet [Even Further]
My family had always been eco-conscious. 24 years or so of age, idealistic, and full of the enthusiasm of youth, I was easily convinced to become a vegetarian after reading that book, only to be told by a friendly biochemist that people with respiratory allergies should avoid dairy, as it tends to generate more mucous in the system. I was disconcerted, as, after reading DFASP, I was planning to live on bread and cheese for the rest of my life. I read up on allergies a bit, and decided the logical thing was the elimination approach.
Elimination – testing yourself for free
It is simple, the logic is near faultless, and anyone can do it. If you think you might be sensitive and reacting to some kind of food, then stop eating it for a while, so that when you are ready to you can test yourself by reintroducing a sample amount into your diet, and observing your reaction.*
For me that meant no liquid dairy or cheese for five days (butter, being almost completely fat, is usually not as much of a problem). On the sixth day I had a small amount of single cream, and my sinuses went crazy. Clearly being a vegetarian was going to be more limiting than I thought. As natural-born Brightonian I was un-phased; I read up on Macrobiotic eating, and started doing most of my shopping in Infinity Foods. For the first time in my life I was eating a very high percentage of high fibre, low quality, plant-based proteins. For the first time in my life I had a great deal of intestinal gas to deal with. As a dutiful and determined sort of person I kept on going, sustained by the belief I was helping to save the planet.
A lot of the foods I generally avoid emerged out of these early self-observations: milky coffee made me feel queasy, but black coffee was fine; tea gave me dry sensation in throat, I began to suspect that I was reacting to tannins; by my mid-20s half a bottle of red wine was enough bring on all the symptoms of a cold, then I learn that some red wines also contain tannins.
*The FODMAP approach for IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is based on a contemporary version of this sensible strategy. (FODMAPs is a self-healing process I have not explored deeply, but it did give me some dietary clues, such as why on earth I was getting so much gut pain after eating small amounts of apple).
People with collagen-related structural deficiencies might not want to live on beans…
So my big tip for people with my sort of health is that having iffy digestion and eating lots of beans and brown rice do not make a good mix. I had wind – terrible wind – in my memory it was the first time I had ever been troubled with belching; now I was belching all the time. In case you don’t know, Macrobiotics is a vegan diet, carefully balancing the two main forms of vegetable protein to replace animal protein, which is too “yang” and avoiding refined sugar and fruit as they are too”yin”. Minimal salt, minimal fat, and – rather oddly – minimal water. I cheated. I still ate eggs and butter, but not very much (and I probably still had sugary treats, after all the plan was to save the planet, not deprive myself of all pleasure). When I finally unlearned the water thing I realised I had been dehydrated for years.
After a few years on this near-vegan diet I developed 24 hour nausea. I more or less stopped eating – fasting being the natural way to clear up digestive problems – but I continued to feel queasy all the time. After about a week with no improvement I went to the doctor, who told me I was developing an ulcer, gave me a sickly pink concoction to drink, and strongly encouraged me to drink milk.
I did not see worsening my respiratory symptoms as an effective solution, so I went back to the health shop to look at the books. It seemed quite likely that an Anti-Candida diet* would be worth a try, and it was. That was my first experience of a low carb diet; no refined sugar, no vinegar, wine or beer. I was relieved to be eating meat again, but only fish and chicken. After six months I was slimmer, my digestion was better, however I was sick of brown rice, and all I wanted to eat was sausages and chips, preferably every day, for the foreseeable future.
At this stage I didn’t commit to low carb. I felt well on it, and I had more energy and better stamina than in my teenage years, but I was still addicted to bread, and potatoes, and cake, and wine, and fitting in; I was young, I was slim, I was singing in pubs and at wedding parties, there was plenty of free food and alcohol, I was back to smoking after a six year break – I still had a great deal more to learn about self-care….
Experimenting on yourself – a fine scientific tradition…
I did not think it was wicked to eat animals, but I had fallen for the Macrobiotic narrative, hence my commitment to brown rice and the focus on low fat meats. I tried out other dietary regimes around this time. I was still seeking natural solutions to my various symptoms, and experimenting with advice from books, and natural health practitioners of various sorts. I found the idea behind Food-Combining unconvincing (hard to believe in the dangers of mixing proteins and carbs when egg and chips were so delicious, and fish and rice so traditional).
I quickly abandoned my attempt at a Raw Food diet when – after a mere two weeks – I started to dread the thought of eating anything at all. I found the Eat Right For Your [blood] Type diet, and light began to dawn (albeit I now realise backed up by somewhat shaky scientific “evidence”). Dr D’Adamo had observed that O blood types started to develop ulcers if they attempted to go without meat in their diet. He was my first source of ideas around eating like a hunter-gatherer (now usually called ‘Paleo’). With very few exceptions the diet he was recommending included a lot of my favourite foods. My ulcer near-miss seemed like the clincher, and his diet became the one I was cheating on for many years.
*[…an aside: I have just realised as I write this that of course no-one is talking about anti-candida diets now that they want sell us all pro- and pre-biotics instead. I read an article claiming that supplementing with ‘prebiotics’ was vital for improving gut health. I was very up on probiotics (natural-born Brightonian – I knew someone who was making them in their kitchen in the 90s), but what were ‘prebiotics’? After a very determined search online it became clear that prebiotics were actually just vegetables, which can be ingested in many delicious recipes and therefore do not need to come in an expensive pill-based format. I am a veteran of all this bollocks now; I always look to see what is being marketed when considering my options. It doesn’t necessarily negate the advice I am getting, but it may well modify it somewhat.
Getting To Where I Am Now
Most of my life from my 30s onwards I have been in an ongoing state of bargaining between my hedonistic nature and my improving health. Because I felt better whenever I found the right dietary shift, I would often spend long periods of time being strict with myself about some element of my diet, only to drift back to my standard low-carb-lite way of eating.
It is obvious to me that sugar is addictive in all its forms, whether refined, whole-grain, fruit-related, or fermented into alcohol, and that the most effective way to make big changes is one small step at a time, with big allowances for inevitable back-sliding, and lots of kindness to yourself. I also know that the less sweet flavour you eat, the less you want. It was the big secret behind the success of the first really well-publicised ketogenic diet – two weeks on Atkins and suddenly veg tastes really sugary.
I am pretty sure most people do not need to be as strict as I am now, BUT I am also sure that anyone with a chronic condition will benefit from taking the time to really explore the various low carb options available, to see if making a dietary change might make their life easier.
So these are not recommendations, I am not allowed to do that, and I understand the reasons why. These are very much “further reading”. There are a lot of medical professionals with a symptom list similar to mine (or worse) who are sharing their own dietary discoveries with their patients, and helping them to reverse conditions considered to be only manageable with medications. This is particularly true of Type 2 Diabetes, and chronic Immune System Disorders. The medications available to people like me always come with side-effects that lead to more deterioration in life quality the longer you have to take them, but they are always prescribed with the implication that that is the only option.
It shocks me that even as simple a step as avoiding dairy is still controversial advice for asthmatics. It shocks me that my doctor would rather frighten me into taking drugs for high blood pressure than support my plan to improve my health with diet and exercise (I didn’t mention meditation, that was obviously going to be a waste of my breath). I will leave it up to you to google blood pressure medication side-effects, if you are curious. These lists of “side effects” (or “effects” as more honest labelling would admit) are always very similar. This is totally unsurprising, as our bio-system only has a finite number of ways to manage the toxins we ingest, and immune responses are pretty much the same. Another thing that shocks me is the unquestioning way subtle differences in chronic immune conditions get to have a whole new name and diagnosis – but of course how else can we keep increasing the market for new drugs if we don’t have new illnesses to treat?
This is a great way to get started; it offers many of the benefits of ketogenic dieting, and is very flexible for anyone who is either already on a restricted diet, or who is very wary of giving up specific foods. I started using this strategy immediately after seeing a BBC Horizon programme on the subject, because it sounded like it might be a way to lower my chronic inflammation (self-diagnosed) and lessen the fibromyalgia-type pains I was still experiencing after the majority of my Chronic Fatigue symptoms had receded – and indeed, I began to feel the benefit straight away. Plus, like the presenter Dr Michael Moseley, I was interested in losing my excess abdominal fat, as that is often a precursor to metabolic health issues such as Type 2 Diabetes. At the time I knew full well that I should be eating few carbohydrates, but I could not generate the enthusiasm to tolerate much in the way of self-denial. Intermittent fasting helped me to feel well enough to face up to the bigger changes I needed to make. For some people this very easy version of fasting can be enough to make a big difference on its own – you still get to eat 5-600 calories on your fasting days, and combined with ketogenic eating, you won’t even necessarily feel hungry. This is highly recommended, particularly if all you need to do is lose a bit of weight.
If you are happier with calorie-counting than I am, and prefer to eat plenty of vegetables, Dr Mosely is great resource. This programme – Eat, Fast, Live Longer – is still a great introduction to the process.
If, like me, you really like fasting – I took to it like a duck to water, and felt better very quickly – Dr Jason Fung is another great source of information, and with his approach there is no need to count calories, he also explains how fasting for longer periods does not cause muscle wastage.
Fasting came easily to me; I have been pretty low carb for a long time so I did not have to get over any major cravings or wildly-fluctuating blood sugar levels, plus I usually didn’t eat in the morning and had (mostly) trained myself out of snacking (apart from my serious addiction to ready salted crisps).
I love the freedom I have gained from intermittent fasting; I had no idea how much of my attention was focussed on my next meal until I lost my fear of hunger. Just as previously when I finally succeeded in giving up smoking, and I would be amazed as a friend was lighting up yet another cigarette, I now notice how many of my friends are so focussed on their food, and how much of it is high in carbohydrate and very low in nutritional value, which essentially means they will be hungry again very soon.
This is a huge area, with lots of variations in style, and an enormous amount of valuable material to explore. To simplify I will recommend two sources of information. Dr Stephen Phinney is a great resource for the science supporting this form of low carb eating and there are plenty of his lectures available on Youtube. As an older athlete he is a great advert for his own regime.
The Diet Doctor YouTube podcast channel is very comprehensive, Dr Bret Scher generally interviews other medical professionals with clinical experience of using diet to heal. Dr Scher is very balanced in his views, so this podcast is a great way to check out these nutritional experts from a sensible and practical perspective.
This interview is particularly relevant to our ‘discussion’, as my determination to finish this epic article is even more driven by the potential mental health benefits of low carb eating, than by the physical ones. Dr Georgia Ede begins by exploring the relationship between mood disorders and poor diet, and then – even more importantly – she moves on to the implications of a diet low in saturated fat for the risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. I work with the nervous system and it is very worrying to me that the plant-based diet we are currently being encouraged to adopt for both ecological and idealogical reasons is one that is very likely to both increase the number of dementia sufferers overall, and bring forward the average age at which this deterioration of the brain and nervous system begins.
This is a more recent variation on the ketogenic diet that is often helpful for people with what are sometimes categorised as modern illnesses, as the focus is on foods that were easily available and commonly eaten before the agricultural revolution, and thus does not include dairy produce. As an example of what I mean by ‘modern’ illnesses, the first documented case of hay fever was in 1870. The prevalence of respiratory allergies is increasing everywhere; when I was given my first asthma inhaler (Ventolin) in 1979 at the age of 18 I had never seen one, let alone seen anyone else use one, before that moment.
I will not include a detailed comparison of Paleo and Keto here, there is plenty of material online for you to check out if you are interested. I have been doing this for so long I can usually find something that contradicts my experience in most commentary; Stephen Phinney is great on Keto and very negative about fasting; the various systems and individuals vary enormously re the types and amounts of vegetables they recommend, and you will be fascinated to discover that many nutritional experts think you may not need to eat any fibre at all!
Many ketogenic diets lean heavily on plant foods that turn out to contain one of the most insidious plant toxins out there; in large enough amounts they can kill, in smaller amounts the human biosystem stores them away wherever they can do the least damage.
Oxalates are my newest discovery. I have known about these painful crystalline substances for over 40 years because I have an old friend who suffers from kidney stones, and because I read a book about eating an anti-inflammatory diet to cure arthritis way back in the 80s – a book that recommended a diet so strict I have only recently noticed that is has become the system I am now fully committed to. I am not in the unfortunate position of having to give up lots of foods I love; most of the foods you are advised to avoid on a low oxalate diet are foods I actively dislike. I had been forcing myself to eat spinach so it was a joy to discover that it wasn’t good for me after all, ditto beetroot and kale. I have been avoiding rhubarb, tea, okra, and sweet potatoes for years. Sadly though I had to face up to giving up potatoes, my last remaining high carb treat (apart from port). I surprised myself, it was much easier than I thought it would be.
The rise of plant-based diets has led to an enormous increase in the amount of oxalate people are ingesting, thanks to green smoothies and the popularity of sweet potatoes and beetroot, some people are even downing huge quantities of celery juice in the mistaken belief that it is doing them good. Meanwhile it isn’t just plant-based vegan diets that put you at risk of eating too much oxalate, some people who have started on the path to wellness by switching to a Paleo diet have hugely increased their intake of nuts, particularly high-oxalate almonds in the form of milk and flour substitutes. Many of the medical professionals who are campaigning for more accurate and honest recognition of the value of animal products in the diet are ex-vegans undoing the damage they have done to themselves – yet this nutritionally deficient diet is being touted in much of our media as the way to save our planet. If we cannot find a way to challenge this dangerous experiment in human and soil health we have actually entered the age of the Eloi as discussed in the George Henderson article I mentioned above. The Eloi and the Morlocks have been popping into my head a lot lately, so I was delighted to see them woven into the discussion in such an interesting way.
I am aware that if you have made it this far you have given me a lot of your time; I assure you it will be worth your while to do your own investigating and experimenting. I know you will easily find lots of sources insisting that a plant-based diet is safe and healthy. Those of us who know this isn’t true from personal experience are everywhere, and we are all happy to talk about it – we have screwed up our own health so you don’t have to. The maths is clear; you cannot cut animal fat out of your diet without increasing your sugar intake. Giving up sugar in all forms is certainly not easy, but the benefits, both short term and long term, are enormous.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am certainly not a saint, particularly when it comes to alcohol; I am no longer a comfort eater, but I have yet to conquer my love of wine and whiskey. Perversely I choose to believe that this is a good thing; the improvements in my own health are a positive example of what can be achieved without any need to be perfect all the time. I think I am probably close to the end of my long discovery phase and can now stay focussed on sticking to the dietary restrictions I know I am benefitting from, and practising saying no to that second glass of wine…
I have written all this because I am saddened every day by how much reversible ill health I see around me. I am self-employed, so no paid sick leave for me, and not a lot of spare cash to pay for therapeutic support – learning to heal myself was a necessity as well as a fascinating journey.
– and, just so you know, I am always happy to talk about this – indeed, I find it all absolutely fascinating and sometimes do not stop talking about it when I should be keeping my mouth shut.
I have mentioned a lot of sources but kept the links to a minimum – I plan to follow up with article with a selection of some of the clearest and most useful online material I have found. As soon as part two is posted I will add a link here.