IT’S ALL IN THE GUT
As the paramedics lifted the gurney into the back of the ambulance I stole a glance at the bright summer sky, thinking it might be the last time I saw it. Ever.
Happily, it wasn’t. And I’m sharing my story here not as an expert, but as a warning. Many fields of science have come a long way, even in my lifetime, but dietary science is really in its infancy. And we’re all guinea pigs.
So much of the information we consume about food health is anecdotal. Fads come and go: eat no meat, eat mostly meat, don’t eat fats, eat more fats, cholesterol is bad, wait some of it is good, eat lots of small meals, only eat in a six hour period… If you’ve clicked on this story, you’ve probably been there.
A couple of generations ago, if you were lean it probably meant you didn’t have much money. A bit of excess flesh showed that you were comfortably well-off. These days many people are on the hunt for the quick fix, the one food or diet that will give them a lean body and a non-existent tummy for the least amount of effort.
When my doctor handed me a print out of a ‘no carb’ diet (recommended to her by a cardiologist), I thought for a moment that the debate about keto had been put to bed. After all, it was coming straight from a cardiologist.
I’m not going to share my biometrics here but suffice to say at nearly 54 years old, my middle-agedness has seen me hovering around the bottom line of ‘over-weight’ on the BMI chart. (Questions are being raised about the Body Mass Index. It’s been used since the 70s, but is inaccurate for certain ethnic groups, certain age groups and even athletes. It also doesn’t distinguish fat mass from muscle mass. But that’s another story…) I am naturally curvaceous, and even at my fittest, teaching fourteen yoga classes per week, my muscles have never looked ‘ripped’.
I can walk long distances comfortably. I do weights. Ride a stationary bike. Do yoga regularly.
I don’t eat junk food. (Seriously. I have never visited the golden arches.) I lean towards vegetarian. I eat lots of vegetables and cook almost all my own food.
This story unfolded from my annual check-up.
With my cholesterol up a bit, my doctor thought I should give the ‘no carbs’ diet a go. I slowly processed the suggestion. No potatoes, no root vegetables, no potatoes, no pasta, no rice, no flour, no apples, no potatoes…!
For how long? I asked, nervously.
You’ll get used to it, she said with a bitter smile.
The idea that different people might do better on different foods is supported by more recent research suggesting that there is no such thing as a single healthy diet that works for everyone. Instead, our individual genetics, habits and gut microbiomes may all influence how our bodies deal with the nutrients in our diet.
I’m a good guinea pig. If it wasn’t so brutal on my body, I could hire myself out to pharmacists. Want to know if something will have side effects? I’m your woman. Allopathic or alternative medicines, doesn’t matter to me. If there’s a side effect, I’ll find it.
I’m also persistent. I’ll stick at something if I think it might do me good in the end…
So when ‘keto flu’ struck, I kept going. I had every symptom (and some), but pushed on through.
Around week 3, I thought I’d stabilised. I had adjusted, made dietary ‘swaps’, and was keeping an eye on my calorie intake. That last point was important because I simply didn’t feel hungry. I was sick of cauliflower, but I thought I was through the worst of the transition.
Then I became stupid. You can take me as literally as you like on that one. I lost the ability to think creatively. Not such a big deal for some people maybe, but as a screenwriter — a collaborator, brainstormer, and writing partner — this was catastrophic. I was effectively useless.
My stamina dropped. I chose less stairs. Then no stairs. I could barely lift the garage roller-door.
Heart palpitations kicked in. Breathlessness. Dizziness.
I was going to bed before my step-kids.
By week 6, I was ready to march (albeit with diminished strength) back to my doctor and say ‘this is not working’. I had preliminary blood tests and made an appointment.
I was barely awake when the doctor’s surgery rang. The receptionist said ‘something’ — she couldn’t be specific — wasn’t right in my blood and they thought I should go to hospital. I felt okay, and said I was due to see my doctor that morning anyway.
I made it to the appointment. Things moved pretty fast after that. My doctor calmly freaked about my sky-high blood pressure and heart rate. There was a cardiac enzyme in my blood. An indicator of heart damage. The nurses at the clinic attached monitors, stuck a drip in my arm, and called the ambulance.
The worst thing thus far is the lack of answers.
Not quite one week on from my hospital visit, I still have tachycardia. My stamina is slowly returning. The cardiac enzyme has returned to normal levels. The cardiologist denied any possibility between the diet and the ‘coincidental’ event.
Then a friend sent me this New Scientist article (quoted above). Low-carb diets: An easy way to lose weight or recipe for heart attack?
The article raised even more questions for me. Low-carb diets are extremely effective for some people — kids with epilepsy, insulin resistance, athletes — but extremely bad for some people. And it’s not clear who shouldn’t do it. The more people doing this diet, the more ‘hyper-responders’ are appearing.
And then there are even bigger questions. What if high cholesterol isn’t even a problem? Where are the keto studies done on perimenopausal women? Why do we think writing off an entire food group couldn’t have some negative effects?
Lying in my hospital bed, rigged up to various monitors, I had the best cheese sandwich in my life. And then, later, at home, hello potatoes…aloo gobi — delicious, even with the cauliflower!
Like an old computer, my brain started to re-boot. I’m slowly recovering.
Maybe it was a coincidence. A helluva coincidence.
It’s taken me nearly half a century to trust my gut. It says ‘no’ to no carbs.
What does yours say?