Monday, February 9, 2009

When You'd Like to See Less Of You-A Tool For You

Have you ever noticed that many people in the world of dogs are overweight? I find this ironic considering how active most puppies and young dogs tend to be. We have a 12 year old Jack Russell who has been kept svelte through careful portion control and sprinting at flyball. He is almost as active as a puppy which just goes to show you than neither adult humans or adult dogs have to become fat as part of adulthood. So what gives? Why are there so many overweight people in the world of dogs?

Quite possibly this is just a by-product of so many people in the WORLD being overweight. Quite possibly its simply that  most people showing dogs in conformation, agility and performance events are women and women tend to struggle with their weight more than men simply because estrogen gives women extra fat, less muscle proportionally and thus lower metabolisms, (thanks X chromosomes-how we appreciate you!). I suspect a few folks have good enough relationships with their dogs that romantic relationships with adult humans don’t feel necessary. I’m not suggesting anyone has ever consciously thought I’ll neglect my husband because my dog is so cute. However, scientists have recently found that when dogs look at their owners their owners release Oxytocin the same hormone responsible for pair bonding, trust, and parent-child bonds. Petting a pet can also release endorphins. Possibly we don’t actively seek out our human partners or care as much about what they think about us when our tactile and support needs are met to an extent by our pets. Additionally I’ve observed and its well documented that marriages are often stressed by having children. Its not from a lack of caring or trying but because children demand so much attention from parents that there’s not much left to contribute to one’s spouse or partner by the end of the day. As one who has been raising canine children in the form of Jack Russells for the past 3 years I can attest nothing kills the romance like puppies with diarrhea at 3 am.  So maybe caring for the needs of dogs like caring for the needs of children forces us to put ourselves and our adult relationships lower on the priority list. Some people may realize they’ve let themselves go and just simply don’t know how to get back to being their attractive vibrant pre-baby, pre-puppy selves.

Regardless of the reasons for weight gain amongst people in the dog community, I feel compelled to address weight loss on this blog which heretofore has been maniacally dog oriented. I’m taking up this special segment of the population, dog women with weight problems, chiefly because I have so many friends in dogs with significant weight problems and many of them are prohibited from meeting their goals because they experience problems either getting around the show ring or competing in performance venues. It might not always be they can't handle the tasks physically but perhaps they don't look as good as their competition or they feel miserable the next day. If you are not a dog friend, just a friend-friend with a weight problem hopefully some of this will be informative and beneficial. Most of what I have to say is based on my own research and successful weight loss but I have a special place in my heart for my fellow dog gals and would like them all to enjoy their dogs to the fullest.   

I maintain that the vast majority of people who have weight problems would really rather not have them. Society likes to portray overweight people as lazy and immoral but its always been my experience that overweight people, women especially are completely motivated 98% of the time regarding their weight. Sure they may be demoralized when they fail to lose weight and its times like those when they head for the dog show donuts figuring one more in the grand scheme of things isn’t going to do much damage. However, generally they get back on that horse and try again and again and again. Generally, they are acutely aware of how socially and physically their weight has a negative impact and I can see and know first hand from a time when I weighed 226.5 lbs (I’m 5’4”) that I would have done anything to lose weight if I knew it would actually work.  Unfortunately, like the chimp with two sticks in the cage who doesn’t realize he could reach the donut outside the cage if only the put the two sticks together and made one big long stick, people with weight problems tend to give up in frustration when diets either don’t work or drive them mad with hunger. Most people with substantial weight problems don’t know how to lose weight.

Perhaps you’re feeling skeptical now. You think, "what dumb fat idiot doesn’t know how to lose weight? All you need to do is burn more calories than you consume and if people would just shut their mouths and get off their butts they would lose weight."  Well, actually, if you’ve been paying attention you would know I already mentioned that something else shapes our bodies beside calories. Its not just what we eat but what our HORMONES do to us that give women fat on their thighs and rears and breasts. Just starting from the basic premise that women have different fat deposits and proportions than men because of hormonal differences you can understand that its not entirely CALORIES that control our shapes.  

Once people become overweight they battle another interesting problem, HUNGER. Our physiology is such that we feel hunger when our blood sugar drops and when we feel hunger eventually we are compelled to eat lest we starve. Simple sugar can raise your blood sugar levels as we see in the famous beauty parlor scene in Steel Magnolias where type I diabetic Shelby gets frantic because she has too much insulin on board and her mother gives her juice to rapidly boost her sugar and give the insulin something to do. Most people with normal insulin control could eat nothing but sugar all day and feel ok as long as they had enough to keep their blood sugar normal and replaced their loss fluids and electrolytes. Sucking down sugar (in the form of Gatorade and glucose supplements) is essentially how ironman triatheletes get through a marathon, 3 mile swim and 50 mile bike ride (I'm guessing here about distances and don't have time to look that up so please don't spam me-really its way farther than I ever care to go and its impressive). Sugar released into the blood stream is used or stored. Insulin is the hormone that stores sugar when there’s too much sugar around. Overweight people generally have insulin resistance which means their receptors respond less well to insulin prompting their bodies to make more insulin than normal in response to eating carbohydrate laden meals. This produces a vicious cycle where people feel hungry more and eat more and are less well able to regulate blood sugar. 

There is a way to correct insulin resistance. Fat and protein have negligible effects on insulin. And our bodies can make the glucose our brains need from protein. A low carbohydrate way of eating such as the Atkins Diet or Protein Power diet can dramatically reduce the bodies need for insulin and the body’s production of insulin. When calories are reduced to below what the body needs for maintaining weight, a low carbohydrate diet which severely restricts insulin production will literally open the fat cells so people can burn fat to live off of. Burning fat for energy is how animals live through the winter where food is in short supply.

The amazing thing about fat is it curbs appetite. If you think about it, many people have starved during times of famine and war but starving people don’t typically resort to cannibalism. You might think this is just because of a social taboo but even other starving carnivorous or omnivorous mammals don’t just start killing and eating each other when times get tough (I’m pretty sure they have no such taboo). My hunch is they don’t do this because we all have a built in mechanism so that during starvation we aren’t driven out of our minds by hunger. Even if we are starving we aren’t actually all that hungry if we have muscle mass to cannibalize and our own fat to provide us with energy. Obviously starvation is a problem. Protein that makes important parts like muscle cannot be replaced without food sources of protein and during starvation we are basically eating our own muscles. But animals can and do hang in there during times of famine or shortage provided they had enough muscle and fat to start with and the situation doesn’t go on indefinitely.

What does this have to do with weight loss? Recently research suggests that low carbohydrate diets spare muscle by providing extra protein and at the same time allow people to live in a relatively hunger free state that is similar to what is experienced by people in starvation by stabilizing insulin and blood sugar and letting hunger be taken care of by fat in food as well as fat burning from our own energy stores.  Low calorie diets can do this as well but most people with insulin resistance find these diets more difficult because carbohydrate continues to raise insulin levels and keep people on a blood sugar roller coaster. Also it can be hard to maintain low calorie levels with adequate protein and fat necessary to keep muscle intact and keep hunger at bay.

It is counter intuitive to “diet” and not restrict portions but in the early days of a low carbohydrate diet the aim is to keep hunger at bay via frequent meals of adequate protein and fat and sharply curtailing carbohydrates. I know. I did this for 23 months and lost a total of 101.5 pounds. It was not easy but I can assure you if I had been driving nuts by hunger it would never have happened.

I have found many people find this story inspiring but few people believe it enough to give it a try. People are generally convinced they will “die” if they give up bread, pasta, sweets, potatoes, breakfast cereal, corn, soda, whole grains or ice cream. Unfortunately starches break down into sugars and most of these folks consume far too fat and protein to feel sated. High blood sugar is actually toxic and so many folks are exposing their nerves and vessels to a bath of toxins such that they will literally die or at least die much sooner if they keep eating bread.

Also I’ve found so many people have bad associations with low calorie “balanced” diets because on those diets they were literally starving. If you say diet they just can’t believe something as simple as holding carbohydrates low will keep hunger at bay and so they don’t even want to start. Its one of those things like getting a puppy or I suppose having a child that you can’t really imagine until you cross over into that state and are actually experiencing it. During fat burning a chemical called a ketone is product of weight loss actually boosts heart metabolism by 25% and provides much more efficient brain functioning. Many people report that being in this state, known as ketosis gives them a state of heightened mental acuity and energy. I personally never felt better than the weekend I lived a 4 day National Specialty Weekend on nothing but Ruth’ Chris Steakhouse Porterhouse steaks (what can I say they were good and fast and I could use the leftovers to bait my dogs in the ring). I’m convinced there’s no way I would have made it through the sleep deprivation of all those 8 am ring times without being in ketosis.  Ketogenic diets are even being tried for childhood epilepsy because it is believed they prevent seizure activity.

The final benefit of this diet that I think should really appeal to female dog owners is that after the first couple days in which the body uses up its glycogen stores fluid retention drops dramatically. For me this meant being able to walk again. For many months before I hit my all time high I literally couldn’t make it 1 block without grabbing for the pain killers due to pain in my shins. I stopped taking my dogs for walks and I was embarrassed about how I looked in the show ring. There’s no way I could have done flyball or any performance activity with my dogs but after 1 week steadily adhering to Atkins I walked a mile pain free. From there it was only a few months before I was running. Many other people have experienced similar improvements in their ability to walk and run because insulin and glycogen produce fluid retention and low carbohydrate diets drop water weight quickly.

I am not a medical doctor and I don’t play one on TV. This blog does not constitute medical advice just my perspective on my personal story and a boiled down plain language version of what I believe I've read on how calorie storage and weight loss on low carbohydrate diets work. For more information about low carbohydrate diets consult or and do a PubMed search for clinical trials on low carbohydrate diets. Medical science is finding that blood chemistry and weight and fat and metabolism change for the better with these ways of eating. If you seriously decide to pursue this way of eating BUY A BOOK. Seriously Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, Protein Power by Michael Eades are two excellent places to start.

Finally, as a dog trainer I know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. When I finally started my low carbohydrate approach I vowed to maintain it until I reached my goal weight no matter how long it took. Dog people often commit to getting titles on their dogs no matter how long it takes. Should you treat your body any differently than you would a promising young pup? You already  know that reinforcing a behavior leads to more of that behavior. It was the same for me with the diet. I thought losing a pound a week for two years would just be too slow. On average that is what I ended up doing. But so much weight came off at the beginning I really did not want to backslide. And buying and having new clothes as I lost weight and having people compliment me meant the process was not nearly as bad as I had feared. Every day I was more and more used to eating the way I was eating and every time I refused something while ketosis kept me from not being controlled by my hunger I got proof that I could bypass sweets and potatoes and live to tell about it making it easier the next time. Seven years after I started my weight loss journey I still have times, sometimes months at a stretch where I’m not as on top of my eating as I would like to be but on the whole I believe I have a tool that can get me and other people to a place that is healthy and happier.

We in dogs are famous for our tools be they, clickers, slickers, bait, e-collars, whistles, guns, white shirts, showleads, professional handlers, range rovers, blinds, or cute suits and practical footwear. Our tools help us meet our dog goals whether its turning out a best in show performance, a high in trial or just bringing back a duck for dinner.  I once showed a toy dog to a sporting dog judge and his words to me were “he’s lovely but I’d just like to see less of him.” I know so many of you who are so lovely and if you’d like to see less of you, I hope you consider my tale, find it inspiring and take it on faith that if the low carbohydrate diet "tool"  worked for me it can also work for you. If you don’t owe it to yourself to take the first steps, just think of your puppy dog’s eyes. You know your dog will thank you if he can be with you as long as possible even if that means seeing less of you. 

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