The Satisfaction Diet

Scariest words for fat people:

“To lose weight, you need to expend more calories than you consume.”

In simple English: “Starve!”

Several years ago, I lost 20 pounds in six weeks – safely, without feeling hungry, while eating delicious, filling meals. And I continued to lose until I reached my healthy weight.

I remained on the diet for 2½ years. Then Mary Ellen entered the hospital for surgery, and suddenly being slim didn’t seem very important anymore. I survived on chocolate bars from the hospital store — and that was it for my diet.

In truth, I’d grown sick of it. The problem was, I was far too strict. The author of the diet book I had followed urged people to do a strict version for only six weeks, then relax and let themselves “cheat” 10 percent of the time. My error was staying on the strict diet long past the point where my body and spirit were rebelling.

The body doesn’t thrive on monotonous, overly strict diets. At the height of the Atkins craze, I heard one runner exclaim, “I hate carbs!” I’ll bet she’s either no longer on Atkins, or she isn’t running marathons. How could she? A 10-mile run burns 1000 calories, equivalent to carbs in 16 medium-size oranges.

It’s not possible to lose weight long-term without eating a filling, well-balanced, healthy, tasty diet.

The key, of course, is how we define “healthy.” And that’s where Eat for Health, the diet that I followed for 2½ years, is brilliant.

The author, Joel Fuhrman, MD, reviewed all of the primary research on weight-loss and noticed something that everyone else had overlooked. The secret of long-term weight loss turned out to be extremely simple, and it had been staring us all in the face.

Want to know how to lose weight with jaw-dropping speed, permanently, without ever feeling hungry? Here goes:

Eating high-nutrient, high-bulk foods shuts off appetite. And it does so much better than eating unnatural amounts of fats (Atkins), carbs (Pritikin), or excruciatingly precise portions of fat, protein, and carbs (Zone).

Fuhrman blasts apart the traditional food pyramid. “Salad is the main dish,” he proclaims. Weight loss is rapid and automatic when we give the body large quantities of the nutrients it wants most, in the form of raw and lightly steamed green and yellow vegetables, tons of fruit, and moderate quantities of beans and nuts. When we do that, we feel drastically reduced desire for the foods that pack on weight: starches, saturated fat, and simple sugars.

Where do meat, milk, and eggs fit into the Eat for Health scheme? They don’t. Fuhrman recommends a vegan diet, if it suits you, but if your body doesn’t thrive on vegan fare, he says not to sweat it – just limit foods from animal sources.

Does it work for a runner? I’m in the process of returning to Eat for Health in a more sensible, sustainable manner. And I’m losing weight – steadily, though more slowly than when I was overly strict.

I’ve been vegetarian for 41 years. At times, I’ve tried “going vegan” for up to three years, but I always had to concede failure in the end — my body simply didn’t thrive on “fruit, nuts, and grass.” As a vegan, I always felt like I was running on empty — my emotional affect grew increasingly wan, and I had little get-up-and-go or enthusiasm. But the moment I returned to eating dairy and eggs, my energy and joie de vivre soared.

I’ve written about weight-loss elsewhere. What’s new, this time, is that I’m realizing just how little dairy and eggs it takes to feel whole and healthy. I’m down to two eggs the morning of a hard run or gym workout, and a small glass of milk in my recovery smoothie.

What about the saturated fat in dairy and eggs? In their book Eat Fat: Lose Fat, Mary Enig, PhD and Sally Fallon explain what science actually tells us about saturated fats. Dr. Enig was among the first food scientists to sound a warning about the health dangers of industrially processed trans-fats, a stance that got her fired from her chemical company job, and got her blackballed by the food industry.

Dr. Enig was also among the first researchers to cast doubt on the standard interpretations of long-term studies of weight and health. She and a growing number of researchers believe that trans-fats, not saturated fat and cholesterol, are the leading cause of heart disease.

Moreover, she claims that fat isn’t even be the principal culprit in obesity. Enig quotes Frank Hu, MD, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health, who says, “The exclusive focus on dietary fat has been a distraction in efforts to control obesity…. Conventional wisdom holds that the more fat you eat, the more likely you are to become obese. However, the evidence does not support the conventional wisdom.”

Dr. Hu cites 16 long-term studies that showed “no evidence that a low-fat diet is more beneficial [for weight-loss]”

Enig and Fallon describe the body’s need for saturated fats:

Sixty percent of the brain is composed of fat. Phospholipids (which contain about 50 percent saturated fats) help make up the brain cell membranes…. Saturated fats maintain cellular integrity everywhere in the body. Why? Because every cell membrane is ideally made up of about 50 percent saturated fat. When we eat too much polyunsaturated oil and not enough saturated fat (or carbohydrates that the body turns into saturated fat), our cells don’t function correctly. Those cell membrane fatty acids need to be saturated for the cell to have the necessary “stiffness” or integrity to work properly. When the cell walls do not contain enough saturated fat, they actually become “floppy” and cannot work properly.

They describe the essential roles that saturated fat plays in bones (required for effective utilization of calcium), liver, heart, lungs, kidneys, and for creating and using hormones and prostaglandins.

(Here’s an online article where Enig and Fallon summarize their views.)

Now then, what about vegan athletes like seven-time Western States 100 winner Scott Jurek, and Canadian 50K champion Brendan Brazier? Maybe their bodies easily convert carbohydrate into saturated fat. Maybe they eat lots of coconut macaroons. Whatever the mechanism, it’s clear that some bodies thrive on a 100-percent vegan diet.

So – which diet is better for a runner? The relatively low-fat Eat for Health, or the fat-celebrating Enig/Fallon Eat Fat: Lose Fat?

I can only speak from personal experience. I gave Eat Fat: Lose Fat diet a try for several weeks and found it to be nonsense. Simply put: eating moderate amounts of coconut oil, coconut milk, eggs, and cheese, I gained weight rapidly. Throughout my running career, I’ve found that one of the most reliable ways to pack on weight is to eat foods high in saturated fat.

This is simply old wisdom. Fitness guru-cum-standup comic Covert Bailey pointed out, ages ago, that three foods in particular pass directly from our mouths to our butts and guts, bypassing the GI tract entirely: starchy carbs, saturated fats, and simple sugars. I’ve found this to be irrevocably so.

In fact, Enig/Fallon pull a fast one: at one point, deep in their weight-loss narrative, apparently hoping that we aren’t paying attention, they whisper: Oh – by the way — if you eat too many calories, you may gain weight…

Well, duh.

So, must we strictly avoid saturated fats? Ditch the omelets and pizza?

Again, this is my personal experience, but – yes, I believe so. I’ve never lost weight without giving up these foods entirely for awhile, then eating only as much as my body appeared to need for metabolic purposes.

How, then, can we get enough saturated fat? I suspect there are two answers: (a) choose your parents well – i.e., inherit a body that converts carbs into saturated fats easily; or (b) eat tiny, controlled quantities.

The same may be true for starchy carbs. In Fitness Intuition, I tell how, at one point in my experiment with Eat for Health, I completely eliminated starchy carbs, hoping to lose weight very quickly. My long runs immediately turned into death marches. Finally, during a long run by the Bay, I prayed and received an intuitive insight: I needed concentrated carbs in the form of starch.  I’d been eating tons of fruit, but apparently it wasn’t enough.

Back home, I made rice pilaf from a box. After just one cup I felt completely satisfied, and within 30 minutes I was my old self.

But here’s an important point: after eating a single cup of rice, my intuition told me it was enough. But my rational mind rebelled – “That can’t be right – I’ve been running 40 miles a week for a month without starchy carbs – surely I need more than one cup!!” I went ahead and ate a second cup, and felt uncomfortably overstuffed.

Just how much carb and saturated fat do we need? Apparently, very little.

The research section of the Hammer Nutrition website does a good job of explaining the nutritional needs of athletes. An interesting finding is that attempting to replenish 100 percent of the carbohydrate, electrolytes, and fluids we lose during a run, while we’re running, is a big mistake. The Hammer people preach “replenishment, not replacement.” Thus, only 200-300 calories of carbs per hour is plenty during long runs — as opposed to the usual recommendation of 400-600 calories per hour, or more.

I find this works very well – two 100-calorie gels per hour is plenty, at my ancient-runner pace. I formerly didn’t take extra carbs at all during run-walk training outings of up to 35 miles – only plain water and electrolytes (maybe a single protein bar on hilly terrain). But I realized that running carb-free greatly extended my recovery.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about sports nutrition. In his book, Why We Run, Bernd Heinrich, a former ultrarunner, now a University of Vermont professor of biology, charts his training before he set the US 100K record. As he rapidly increased his mileage, Heinrich noticed some interesting changes:

I was surprised that although I lost about 5 pounds of weight fairly rapidly, I then soon stabilized my weight even though I ran about 20 miles per day. I never again got hungry during the run, and overall I was not eating much more than I normally did when I was not training. I was somehow getting incredibly more mileage out of the same number of calories. I suspect, therefore, that my running mechanics and possibly the cellular metabolism were becoming more efficient. That is, more energy was being converted to mechanical power and less ending up as heat.

(Heinrich did consume carbs during his runs, in the form of sugar-sweetened cranberry juice.)

How little saturated fat can we eat and perform well? Based on my experience and Heinrich’s, I’d say, surprisingly little. Salad is the main dish, followed by vast amounts of fruit, beans, and nuts — and tiny, tiny amounts of eggs, dairy, and coconut oil.

It’s not a deprivation diet. For a late lunch today, I just scarfed down a monster salad – actually, it was a meal in a salad bowl. (Here’s the recipe: spinach, Romaine, lentil sprouts, onion, steamed chopped green beans, and peas. I made a dressing in the blender with half an orange, a handful of raw organic cashews, soy sauce, and a tablespoon of Whole Foods Organic Caesar dressing.)

For an early dinner, I might have homemade chunky soup: beans, Imagine organic vegetable broth, chopped onions, peas, soy sauce, and lemon juice, with a large amount of finely chopped raw spinach thrown into the steaming-hot mix at the end.

Later, a snack of semi-thawed frozen blueberries, cherries, and pineapple with chopped banana, orange juice, stevia sweetener, and maybe a squirt of lemon juice.

For a snack anytime: an organic navel orange and a tablespoon of raw almond butter from Trader Joe. It’s now known that almonds don’t take the straight-to-butt metabolic pathway – they’re a weight-neutral food.

Two hours after my big lunch salad, I’m not feeling hungry. In fact, all of these meals and snacks are hunger-killers, because they’re packed with nutrition.

I reckon we can boil down the reasons we run to two factors: performing well and feeling great. Both require energy, and the only way we to keep our energy high, all other things equal, is by eating a well-rounded, nourishing, delicious diet. Better to have a ton of energy and lose weight less quickly. Without energy, we can’t enjoy our running or improve.

To conclude – if you want to lose weight, here’s my recommendation: get Fuhrman’s book and read it cover to cover, as he suggests. You’ll learn everything you know about the most healthy diet for training. If your goal is weight-loss, stocking your mind with thoroughly researched, reputable weight-loss wisdom will make it much easier to plunge in.

Okay, I’m looking forward to my next long run, because I’m going to cheat with pizza.

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