Low carb diets have become increasingly popular as evidence mounts that they are more beneficial than low-fat diets. Dana Carpender has been a champion of low carb diets for years and is the author of books such as "Fat Fast Cookbook: 50 Easy Recipes to Jump Start Your Low Carb Weight Loss" and "CarbSmart Grain-Free, Sugar-Free Living Cookbook: 50 Amazing Low-Carb & Gluten-Free Recipes For Your Healthy Ketogenic Lifestyle." In an exclusive interview, she revealed her weight loss journey.
"Like most great journeys, this one took more than one step. I was a badly sugar-addicted child, stealing money from my parents’ wallets to support my habit," she says candidly.
"I also, of course, got the usual cereal for breakfast, sandwiches at lunch, potatoes or pasta or rice with dinner. I was chubby by age 8 or 9, and on Weight Watchers at 11. Interestingly, when I was young, the common wisdom was that if you wanted to lose weight you gave up potatoes, spaghetti, bread, and sweets. Even Weight Watchers strictly limited carbs back then," she recalls.
In the 1970s, Dr. Robert Atkins wrote his first book, featuring what was then regarded as a revolutionary high fat low carb ketogenic diet book. "I tried it – for a few weeks. But I was still in the “this is just until I lose weight, then I go back to eating normally” mind set," says Dana.
"Not so coincidentally, I started seeing a shrink at the age of 11," adds Dana.
But it was not until she was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) at age 52 that "many things finally made sense. Among other behavioral issues, those of us with ADD are more susceptible than the general population to addictive behaviors of all kinds. If you are reading this, and you are both obese and severely organizationally challenged, consider getting screened," suggests Dana.
After continuing to struggle with her weight in her teens, Dana achieved a turning point when, at age 19, she read "Psychodietetics, a book about the psychiatric effects of nutrition. It had a list of 47 symptoms of reactive hypoglycemia that most people would assume were caused by emotional problems. I had 40 of them. I decided to give up white sugar and white flour for 2 weeks."
But it didn't even take two weeks before she experienced the benefits. "Within three days, it was as if I had gone from living in black and white to living in color. My mood, energy level, mental clarity, all skyrocketed. There was no way I was going back to my old eating habits," Dana says.
She began reading books on nutrition by experts such as Adele Davis and Gayelord Hauser. And while many think that the low carb diet that's become increasingly popular is new, Dana points out that "back then, the nutrition gurus were in agreement: Eat plenty of protein, especially animal protein. Eat healthy fats. Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat no white flour or white sugar – and if you have a weight problem, go easy even on the unrefined carbs."
Dana followed that approach until the 1980s, when the low-fat, high carb crusade began. "All of a sudden, we were told “It’s not the potato that makes you fat, it’s the butter! Pasta is great, so long as you have it with fat-free sauce! Fat-free frozen yogurt is a healthful treat!”
And like all of us who gobbled up the fat-free Snackwell cookie kool-aid, Dana says "I wanted to believe. It was like telling an alcoholic his healthiest choice for dinner is a six-pack and a shot."
Thus she shifted to a fat-free, high-carb diet. "So for several years, it was Cheerios and skim milk for breakfast, whole wheat pasta salad with lots of vegetables, fat free mayonnaise, and just one can of water-packed tuna for dinner, baked potatoes stuffed with California Mix and fat-free cheddar cooked in the microwave at work."
And then Dana began the cycle of weight gain/exercise/weight gain. "My weight started to creep up; this, despite an active profession, massage therapy. I would exercise my weight back down, but it would inevitably come back. I also was inexplicably tired – especially from 6 to 8 at night; I’d have a crash every night during which I could barely keep my eyes open. Makes exercise harder," she adds.
"In the autumn of 1994, I was a size 14, and hoping to drop a size or two in time for my wedding in the spring. I cut back further on fat and meat, replacing it – of course – with “healthy” complex carbohydrates. I also enrolled at a local fitness center, and started doing 5 step aerobics classes per week. The result? By my May wedding I was a size 18. The energy swings were getting worse. And that summer, I spiked borderline-high blood pressure for the first time in my life.
"I was terrified. I was doing everything the pundits told me would make me slim, energetic, and healthy, and I was not only not getting better, I was getting worse.
"(I will note here, parenthetically, that many people have said to me “Oh, but you have to eat good carbs.” But at this point I hadn’t bought a loaf of white bread nor a box of white rice in 15 years. I was drinking no sugared beverages at all. I didn’t eat Oreos, or Pop Tarts, or Ho-Hos, or Pringles, or any of that garbage. I whole-grained-and-beaned my way up to 200 pounds.)
"That August, my size 18s now uncomfortably tight, I picked up a copy of Gayelord Hauser’s New Treasury Of Secrets, written in the early 1960s. Hauser asserted that obesity had nothing to do with how much one ate, but was, instead, a carbohydrate intolerance disorder. Something in my mind clicked.
"I went low carb the Tuesday after Labor Day, 1995. (I had already started cooking for a Labor Day barbecue when I made the decision, or I would have done it a few days sooner.) Three days later, my clothes were loose and my energy level and mood had sky-rocketed. When I checked my blood pressure at the drug store later that week, it was back to normal. It was clear that this was what my body had been waiting for me to do. I have never looked back.
Then a third shift happened three years ago. "While my HbA1C, the measure of average blood sugar over the previous 90 days, was an excellent 5.1, my morning, fasting blood sugar was running in the pre-diabetic range, generally around 105-110. It was driving me crazy! I demanded of my doctor, “How can I be running high blood sugar when I eat 20-30 grams of carbohydrate per day?” “Gluconeogenesis,” he answered. “Your liver is making it out of protein.”
Her doctor prescribed Metformin, followed by Victoza. "My stupid morning sugar still ran high. Then I was asked to shoot a TV pilot. I wanted to knock off a few pounds ahead of time – the television camera has a way of striking fear into the heart."
Dana had read about the concept of a Fat Fast in Dr. Atkins' "Diet Revolution." She decided to try it.
"On the Fat Fast, I lost a pound a day for 10 days, and while I was never really full, I wasn’t uncomfortable, either, thanks to the appetite suppressant effect of ketosis," says Dana.
"I was cheerful and clear-headed, and my energy level was fine; I even had a great heavy weight lifting workout one day. But most exciting was my fasting blood glucose: It was normal. Normal-normal-normal. When I ended my Fat Fast, I continued eating less protein – dropping from about 120 grams per day to 60-80 grams per day – and deliberately ramping up my fat. My fasting sugar not only stayed normal, but started to dip a bit too low. I went off medication, and haven’t had a problem since. As a result, I now aim for somewhere between 75-85% of my calories from fat."
When she changed to a different doctor last summer, Dad had baseline blood work done. The doctor "stared at the printout in slack-jawed amazement, then said, “I... I’ve never seen blood work like this before. This is something to be proud of.” Sky-high HDL, dirt-low triglycerides, liver and kidney function ideal, low measures of inflammation. And my hBA1C? As low as they measure it," she said.