BOY, YOU’RE GOING TO CARRY THAT WEIGHT (A LONG TIME)
I awoke on Ash Wednesday feeling exhausted and uncertain. My Year of Mardi Gras had run its course. What next? Should I stick around for another year and see if things finally took off or chalk it up to life experience and move on to the next adventure?
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent—a period of fasting and reflection—and these questions would dominate my soul-searching from the start, March 5th, through its end on Easter this past Sunday. During this seven weeks of calm after the storm of Mardi Gras I made progress but didn’t come to a decision.
My Year of Mardi Gras has certainly been eventful throughout all the ups and down, changing my perspective and giving me memories to carry through life. Unfortunately, it also helped me accumulate some things I didn’t want to carry any longer. Fortunately, I did manage to make some gains (or losses) in this area.
A MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON
Anyone who’s read the introductory pages to this online memoir knows that the idea for this adventure originated in the wake of a bad breakup. In past relationships I’ve stayed too long or missed the warning signs or made missteps, but that particular debacle is the only relationship I regret in its entirety.
I’d been training Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) for two years at the time and stumbled into this mistake at the height of fitness. I was about as thin as I’ve ever been and was also getting a little muscular. For the first time in my life I even felt a bit coordinated. Then came what I now refer to in honor of my favorite Pink Floyd title: A Momentary Lap of Reason.
For reasons now mysterious to me I fell for an emotional child who still ate like one. Being a recovered anorexic from her youth she couldn’t put on weight though her diet consisted almost exclusively of sugar, ketchup, and white starches. She weighed barely a hundred pounds yet ate more than I did. I’d be horrified when she’d order the loaded nachos supreme with a side of French fries. I tried to maintain some semblance of a healthy diet, and it was always good for a chuckle when the waiter would place the bacon double cheeseburger in front of me and hand her the salad, but the constant temptation was too much and over seven disastrous months I put on a good twenty pounds.
At my age seven months is a blip on the radar, but it felt longer since she couldn’t bear to be alone. By the time it was over the damage was done. I tried to get my diet back on track and focus more energy on jiu-jitsu but the extra weight had apparently signed a long-term lease and hired good attorneys.
I WANT YOU (HE’S SO HEAVY)
Then, upon moving to New Orleans without income or health insurance, I had to quit training BJJ. Though I tried to maintain a workout routine, it was difficult with a lack of weights or appropriate space. I used to run, but my ankles and knees can’t take the punishment anymore. Walking just didn’t cut it and my bike got constant flats on these atrocious roads disrupting any momentum there. Add to that the notoriously unhealthy New Orleans diet and my search for the perfect fried oyster po-boy and things were out of control.
Not that I regret any of it. It was a wild ride that culminated in one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I had an absolute blast during Mardi Gras 2014, though I got a little alarmed when (as previously noted) my hands and legs swelled up the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Out of alarm I didn’t drink that day and was fine the next, but as I later sorted through pictures for the blog I couldn’t stand to look at myself. My puffy pirate face was bloated and round. I was turning into the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Enough was enough. After a year of decadence it was time for some penance.
LOSING USING MY RELIGION
I am not dogmatically religious and certainly not Catholic, but Lent presented a golden opportunity for a fresh start. My friend Aimee had been trying for months to convince me to try an Atkins style low carb diet, and Lent is the one time you can diet in New Orleans and be met with support rather than suspicion—quitting pie disguised as religious piety! Any other time food crazed locals and tourist frazzled servers exhibit little patience for ‘wimpy,’ fussy dietary restrictions; however, during this period of devout fasting I quickly found I could request double vegetables instead of a starch or a burger without a bun and wash it down with club soda instead of beer while merely shrugging as the server grimaced. “Lent,” I’d say with an expression that begged: Whatcha gonna do? Annoyance would melt into sympathy and my wishes would be honored without further friction.
Like most everyone who’s ever tried such a diet, for years I swore I could never give up carbs. My LoR (Lapse of Reason, not Lord or the Rings…though she did have a bit of Mordor in her) began in 2011 so after nearly three years I was disgusted, frustrated, and ready to take drastic measures. I didn’t plan on following a particular approach, though. I just generally decided to ‘give up carbs,’ researching different plans as I went while trying to distill the wisdom of them all into something that would work for me. I’m not obsessive enough to count grams of carbohydrates or to stack calories. I decided to eat until I was full, just do so without fruits, grains, starchy vegetables, or honey and processed sugars.
I was skeptical from the start but knew my goal wasn’t to ‘diet’—for it’s common knowledge that diets don’t work—but change my eating habits. I’d modified my dietary habits multiple times in my life, and though I’d gradually drift I’ve never returned to things likes soda, white bread, hot dogs, or frequent fried foods (until NOLA!) so I knew change was possible. If I could wean myself from sugar and processed wheat while easing back in whole grains and fruits after Lent ran its course it would be a major victory. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to bet on the home team.
COME TOGETHER (OVER CARB FREE)
Because of my unstructured approach it took me a week or so to get the swing of it. I gave up alcohol cold turkey on Ash Wednesday, but drove Aimee up to Fort Polk where her son is stationed that afternoon and wound up eating pizza in the food court on base, so my Lent actually didn’t begin in earnest until Thursday evening. Even then it was trial and error for a while. For example, I snacked on beef jerky the first couple of days until I read the label and realized it was cured with sugar. (This was one of the major revelations of this diet—how pervasive sugar really is. I have yet to find jerky without added sugar. I’d bought yogurt thinking that would be healthy before realizing just how full of sugar it tends to be and never opened it. Pretty much, if it comes in a package it likely has sugary no matter how savory the product!)
I also had a square or two of dark chocolate that first week to ease my cravings and baked a sweet potato which I ate dry over two days. Because they are all the health rage I thought sweet potatoes were low carb but my sister told me they were lumped with white potatoes and corn. A quick Google search backed her up. Doh!
My sister had put her and her husband on a very strict low carb program so she became my confidant and guide. I’d spent Christmas with her and, though I thought her weight was fine her husband was in worse shape than I was and having serious health concerns so I was all for it. But though I’d ask for her advice, I didn’t restrict meat and vegetables like her plan dictated, for her version only allowed lean meats and limited or banished avocado, Brussel sprouts, and carrots amongst other vegetables. This seemed a bit much. No one can convince me that something as reviled as Brussel sprouts (which I happen to love) can be that bad for you! I did throw out carrots just to be safe since they are high in natural sugars and would only have Brussel sprouts occasionally; however, I knew avocadoes would be a needed rich and tasty lifeline. Billy, her husband, dropped weight much more rapidly than I, but he also ‘starved’ for a bit while I eased in.
SUGAR…OH HONEY, HONEY
There is so much conflicting information out there it was really was hard to choose what to leave in and what to leave out. The South Beach Diet apparently encourages beans/legumes and nuts but Atkins forbids them at first. I decided to abandon beans for the duration but had stocked up on nuts of all variety, for they would be my major source of snacking and grazing until I got my cravings under control and found myself able to be satiated by snacking on raw vegetables (though I still lean on them); thus, I feel certain it was the right move.
Most plans allowed you to start adding back in whole grains, beans/legumes, and certain fruits such as strawberries and blueberries after a week or two but I decided to restrict them for the duration, especially since my easing in seemed to slow the onset of that initial weight loss everyone raves about.
Although I’d eased in, I also decided to try to stick to fish and chicken as much as possible with some lean pork thrown in and try to replace foods and flavors rather than substitute. I’ve had a lifelong sugar addiction so I wanted to get past my need for constant sweetness, not pull a sleight of hand with my tongue and metabolism. I won’t use chemical sweeteners (which science is proving to be one of the worst things you can eat) though I did buy some of the natural sugar substitute, Stevia. Still, I use it only sparingly. For example, I make iced green tea in a gallon jug but have whittled down to a teaspoon of Stevia per gallon to offer just a hint of sweetness on the back of the tongue which I now, miraculously, find adequate.
Growing up sugar was always in our home. On Sunday mornings we’d have donuts and orange juice before church and I went to school with a Little Debbie in my lunchbox every day. Not that my mother wasn’t trying to feed us right. She worked forty hours a week running the lab at the public health clinic and still had a home cooked dinner on the table every day at five—something I took for granted as a child but now amazes me as an adult; however, nutritional awareness just wasn’t what it is today back then, so I grew up a sugar addict and never fully shook the habit.
I lost a lot of weight in grad school by giving up soda, sweet tea, and sugary cereals, and have always tried to limit dessert, but still I would—like nearly all Americans—consume much more sugar than recommended, particularly through all that hidden sugar in yogurt, BBQ sauce, jarred spaghetti sauce, dried cranberries, granola bars, ‘healthy’ cereals, etc.
IT’S NOT MY CROSS TO BEAR (FEELING ANYTHING BUT CROSS!)
I certainly craved sugar at first (and still do, though less frequently), but the transition wasn’t as jarring as I expected. Oddly, though, I’ve never been a huge pancake eater but would dream some nights of fluffy stacks dripping with rich syrup!?
Perhaps it was because I eased in and it took a few weeks for me to refine my plan, but while I didn’t have a huge surge of initial weight loss I also didn’t have headaches or feel completely deprived and miserable like other stories I’d heard. I didn’t have a scale at first to get my starting weight, but it didn’t feel like I’d dropped much at first. Yet when I went back to Jacksonville two weeks later Aimee said she could see it in my face. Further, she assured me that my color was better and I seemed to feel better.
This latter statement was certainly true. Long before I could see the changes in the mirror I felt the changes in my body. I thought I was going to be miserable and obsessed with food but within a week I felt so much better that I never once considered breaking my Lent. Feeling focused and energetic made the challenge a fun and invigorating rather than a cross to bear.
HAVE YOU SEEN THE LITTLE PIGGIES? (SUCH A TEMPTATION)
I swore I wasn’t going to use giving up carbs as an excuse to pig out on bacon, sausage, and pork rinds, but I did become quite carnivorous those first few weeks. My consumption gradually leveled off, though, as I began to realize metabolically what I’d long known intellectually—that sugar and other refined carbohydrates constantly stoke your appetite causing you to stay hungry and overeat. Carbs may be cheap, but I’m now convinced I’m saving money because though fresh meat and vegetables cost more, I’m eating less and wasting less. I’m also eating at home more since more often than not I’d go out to eat to satisfy some creeping craving.
At first, though, I was eating packages of pork chops, three eggs for breakfast (which I eventually cut back to two), and a pound of shrimp at a time. I was also attacking rotisserie chickens like a coyote fleeing a famine. I’d buy a whole bird at Rouses and tear it apart with my hands when I got home, finishing it off the next day. My weight loss, though, truly began (and my energy levels soared) when I was able to transition from ravenous carnivore while detoxing from simple sugars to a person able to satisfactorily snack on fresh veggies and cottage cheese.
Conquering these cravings was the first test. The greatest challenge, however, loomed around the corner before I was even two weeks into this lifestyle remodification. Forsaking alcohol for 47 days would be tough any time, particularly in New Orleans, but not only was outdoor music festival season approaching—the perfect excuse to lounge under the hot sun with a cold one—but I was about to endure St. Patrick’s Day in a city that interprets holi‘day’ to mean a week of drunken parading and celebration. St. Patrick’s Day is the drunkest holiday on the calendar, and I would be celebrating it in the drunkest city in the U.S. I wasn’t about to stay home and hide, though. I knew if I could survive five days of St. Patrick’s Day in New Orleans sober, the rest would be a cakewalk!