About four years ago, in mid-2013, I was a younger middle-aged man. JC and I had one child (the advantage was still ours). I was active and apparently healthy, lifting weights 3-4 times per-week, doing some sort of cardio another 2 days a week, eating a generally clean diet, but splurging when I wanted to. Except there was one problem. I was getting heavier. And less healthy. My cholesterol numbers in particular were headed the wrong direction. I had resisted taking drugs (statins) that my doctors had recommended for the last 5 years. Eighteen months before this point I finally gave in and started taking the statins, and though my cholesterol numbers started to lower, I was not well. My energy levels were in the tank. And my testosterone levels were tanking, despite a vigorous exercise routine and a low fat, multi-grain, lean protein dominant diet.
I was desperate, to be frank. I felt like my youth was escaping me and I had no idea what I could do to reverse this train that seemed to be leaving the “Health” station and heading on to “Fat, Sick, and Slowly Dying” town.
And then, I came across an article from a blog I had been reading for the past 6 years, The Art of Manliness. This particular post was written about increasing testosterone without drugs-a big selling point for me as I wasn’t wild about the idea of taking more pills to fix problems that I had a sense of having deeper causes. Within this post there was a link to another blog post (see Internet rabbit hole: enter here) titled “The Straight Dope on Cholesterol”. This 2-part series that took me less than 2 hours to read, and in that time taught me more about the role of cholesterol in human health than I had learned in 4 years of undergraduate studies as a science major, and 3 years of graduate work in the field of medicine. The author of this series, Dr. Peter Attia, wrote a larger, multi-part series on the nuts and bolts of cholesterol metabolism and it’s relation to human health and longevity on his own blog, The Eating Academy.
Armed with more information than my primary care doctor could explain or put into context, I immediately decided to do two things:
- Fire my primary care physician.
- Eat a ketogenic diet.
Brief primer: ketogenic diet= 60-80% of calories derived from fat, 10-15% from protein, 10% or less from carbohydrates. I know, it’s crazy. Hang in there, I’ll explain.
Point #2 is what brings us to the reason for this blog post today. When I switched to a ketogenic diet a funny thing happened, I had to buy new pants. Smaller pants. Like 2 inches smaller. In 3 weeks. I was 18 pounds lighter. And all the weight I lost was around my stomach and waist.
Before you run off and start eating keto to fit in those pants you haven’t worn since high school, let me finish the story.
Six months later, I was cruising along not missing bread, pasta, rice, or any other carbohydrates, as I stuffed my face with bacon, eggs, cheese, heavy cream, full-fat milk, and meat, meat, meat. I was nearly 20 lbs lighter than I was a half-year earlier, I hadn’t lost any of my strength or stamina in the gym, and my mind was razor sharp from the time I got up until the time I went to bed. I could go 16 hours without eating, then go lift heavy weights for an hour, and slam down a “Fat Shake” (8 oz. heavy cream, 8 oz. half & half, scoop of protein powder), and be good to go for another 16 hours without feeling one pang of hunger.
Yet beneath this dramatic change, was a lingering concern. My libido had left town and hadn’t left a forwarding address. I didn’t get it. I was living each day like my hair was on fire but felt flat emotionally. Depression set in. Deep, anxiety-inducing depression. The kind that people can’t talk you out of, cheer you up from.
It was time to stop playing doctor and ask for some help. To turn the ship around, I turned to the good folks at the University of Kansas Integrative Medicine Department. And I learned a few valuable lessons.
First, no matter what you think you know about yourself or how to take care of yourself, you need an objective 3rd party to help you sort through your health concerns. I say it to my patients and clients all the time: we all need a coach. You’re not objective enough or smart enough to handle everything on your own.
Second, test, test, test, and test. And then re-test. You have to have some objective data to make important decisions about your health and figure out if you’re headed the right direction. As it relates to diet, it is extremely helpful to have advanced cardiovascular, micro-nutrient, and genetic testing done to figure out exactly what the proper air/fuel mixture is to help your body perform its best. For me, when I got those tests done we found out a few key things:
- Wheat, gluten, and dairy don’t agree with me (goodbye, Fat Shake) in such a way that they actually were the cause of my tanked testosterone levels.
- I don’t metabolize certain vitamins and minerals efficiently, and in some cases, at all. Supplementing to help support my crappy genetics was actually one of the big keys to helping me feel my best.
- My risk of dementia and cardiovascular disease is somewhere between 10 to 20 times higher than a person who doesn’t have my specific genetic characteristics (in this case, I am a member of the rare ApoE 4/4 allele) .
Which brings us to our conclusion. After all the testing I switched from a true ketogenic diet to a low-carbohydrate cousin of it. And for the better part of two years, I’ve motored along pretty well. But as of late, I’ve been a little less than my best, mentally and physically speaking. I can’t tell you exactly what is off, except to tell you I’m just not as sharp as I previously have been.
And so, I’m back in ketosis. But this time, we’re being a little smarter about it. No dairy fat. More mono-unsaturated oils. More non-starchy veggies. Paying more attention to the lifestyle details: good sleep hygiene, dedicated stress-relief work every day, and (gasp!) no alcohol.
You may ask me, “Won’t you miss the fruit, the sweets, the booze?”.
And I will tell you this:
Compared to living long enough to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding, teaching my boys to be real men, and growing old with the love of my life, no food or drink holds a candle to them.
If you’re curious to hear more about this story, please feel free to e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll fill in the gaps and give you the road map I followed. And if you want to learn more about yourself before you start making dietary changes on a whim because some yahoo with a blog told you about how you could fit into your high school jeans, please get some help. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, my colleague and friend Robyn Johnson is one of the premiere integrative dietitians in the country. Click on the link, get the help you need.
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