Editor’s Note: This is the final of four articles that provide a first-person account of a man’s attempt to get back to a healthier lifestyle after retiring from the U.S. Army in 2013.
Nearly 14 years ago, I was floored with some unexpected news.
“You have high cholesterol and borderline high blood pressure,” a health specialist told me.
I had taken part in the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy’s first-ever formal health and fitness assessments conducted in 2007. Their idea was that the health of commissioned officers’ attending the Army War College was of critical concern, so why not also make it a critical concern for master sergeants and sergeants major preparing to become their senior enlisted advisors?
Because I worked on staff at the academy, I was fortunate to be asked to participate. At just over 200 pounds as an active duty senior noncommissioned officer, I considered myself to be very fit and healthy. I was in good physical shape — accustomed to maxing the Army Physical Fitness Test each year. I usually ate well, and I didn’t smoke any cigarettes or drink much alcohol.
Overall, I would have given my health rating at least a B+. I was not prepared for the realization that my health outlook was far worse.
The realization led me adjust my diet. The Army Physical Fitness Research Institute, which administered the assessments, recommended a balanced diet of higher numbers of starches, grains, fruits and vegetables and lower numbers of animal and vegetable proteins, dairy products and sweetened beverages. The institute also urged participants to cut out heavy meals at dinner or afterward.
My diet had been, in effect, upside down. I regularly enjoyed a heavy dinner and a snack or three afterward. I often skipped breakfast altogether. So statins at that time became my only lifeline.
Statins are prescription drugs that doctors use to reduce artery clogging fats in the blood. Those fats are what we typically call triglycerides and cholesterol. According to medical research, not all cholesterol is bad. Much of it is actually good, depending on the number of high and low density lipoproteins we produce. All my numbers, though, were trending the wrong direction: my low density lipoproteins, or LDLs, were high, and my HDLs were low. The only number in the green column was my glucose — barely.
The statin worked well, almost too well.
Three months after I started taking it, a doctor told me my overall cholesterol number had dropped from 265 to 118. In his words, “You can go back to eating whatever you want. Go enjoy that big juicy burger again!”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I grew up eating meat.
There was never a question about whether my family ate meat in the 1960s and 70s; it was never rejected by us or virtually any other family back then. Meat could have been considered a staple in the United States. I can remember eating a lot of meat and potatoes as a kid. Granted, I also ate plenty of vegetables. I loved a lot of foods with few exceptions.
This included dairy products.
What’s a potato without butter, and maybe some sour cream and grated cheese? Who can pass up a cold glass of white milk when eating a warm, gooey brownie? Who doesn’t love ice cream? And cheese — don’t get me started. I love me some dairy.
So imagine my response four months ago when my wife — an on-again, off-again vegetarian for years — suggested that for three months I retire meat and dairy products from my diet. I laughed nervously: “Not a chance.”
Yet, for the last two years I have tried virtually every popular diet and their variations with little to no real success in my painful pursuit to lose weight. As if adding insult to injury, my cholesterol numbers have remained locked in place since I dumped the statin years ago.
In 2008, I said I would never go back on a statin, even if a doctor told me to. That’s because when I started on the statin in 2007, I began having other complications after about six months; difficulties like heartburn and acid reflux. This led to other medicines to combat the complications, which led to other complications, which led to other medications.
By the time I stopped taking the statin a year later, I was on about five other medications.
Fast-forward to 2017: I arrived at Fort Knox in September, all 226 pounds of me. A few months later, I agreed to have my cholesterol checked, again. The numbers were basically back where they had been in 2007, and everybody was concerned for me — my wife, my kids, the doctor. I decided something needed to change, but I doubled down on my refusal to go back on a statin.
My wife Gail suggested changing my diet.
Each diet has an element of restriction to it. Whether you are restricting foods or the volume of foods, something will be left by the wayside in a diet. Those restrictions have led me to failure, and each time I fall away, I run headlong back to meat and dairy products. Who wouldn’t? I mean burgers, pizzas, yogurt, brie and Gouda cheeses, grilled chicken; BACON! They’re all so delicious!
It was the constant and consistent failures which led me to the Fort Knox Army Wellness Center in 2018. By the time I walked in the door at the center, I had somehow managed to shed about 12 pounds, but I was still in danger of gaining it all back; and the cholesterol numbers continued to eat at me.
After the Army Wellness Center staff tested me, then counseled and encouraged me to focus on diet and exercise, they also offered some valuable advice about the importance of sleep, resilience techniques to reduce stress, and staying fit. And they talked about food.
I listened, somewhat. I suppose I just wasn’t ready to fully listen at that time. Blame it on ignorance. I was a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool American. Give me some meat. And dairy.
By June of this year, I was finally ready to listen. So my wife again suggested a diet; this time one that claimed to reduce dangerous cholesterol, remove weight, and even reverse diabetes. I thought to myself, “How absurd! So you’re telling me food can do what these medicines basically can’t?”
Known as “whole foods, plant-based,” the diet is a very simple concept. Cut out meats, dairy products and cooking oils — simple only in concept because there is a difficult mental and cultural element to it that can take some time to work through. However, when you accept what rewards you get compared with what you give up, this diet becomes easier than the others.
If done right, you can kiss calorie counting goodbye. Gone also is the fear of overeating. Vanished is the notion that you have to use shock tricks to continue losing weight when your body hits a plateau. Whole foods plant-based, while not a catchy name, is not considered a diet as much as a lifestyle change that encourages you to eat with confidence until you are satisfied.
In my opinion, the best variation of the diet is what Dr. John McDougall calls the 50/50 plate. According to McDougall, who invented the plate, you fill up half your plate with low-starch vegetables like greens, broccoli, celery and cauliflower to name a few. The other half gets filled with a starch: potatoes, rice or beans.
Everybody who promotes this diet in documentaries and video sites says the same thing: “Don’t worry about calories. Just eat until you’re full.”
Who says that, in any diet plan, ever? Eat until you are satisfied? That’s crazy talk. Right? But I figured if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. All in.
Hovering at about 215 pounds in June, I decided to test this idea out for myself. First, I would have my cholesterol checked before starting the diet.
As expected, the numbers remained fixed. It was like I stepped back in time 14 years. My overall cholesterol number was 254; triglycerides were at 274 and 165 for LDL – similar to the 2007 test, albeit a little better in some areas while a lot worse in triglycerides.
I determined that I would also try to exercise during the diet, which turned out to be a big failure for me in the end. No matter; the diet was the most crucial piece of this — if what the experts said was true.
So I ate until I was satisfied — just like they told me to do. I even often ate four times a day in the beginning. Yeah, I ate like a pig, but I followed the diet. They said to eat until you felt full, right? I was determined to know for myself if this was just another trendy diet, complete with the hype.
I was prepared for disappointment; I expected it, in fact. My health numbers have hardly changed with anything I’ve tried, except for that one year I was on a statin. And even then, only the overall number really changed. The other numbers barely moved.
Yep, I was prepared to drown my sorrows at the end of three months in a big plate of bacon and a tall glass of milk while using my final results as a napkin. I was also prepared to get back on a statin at the request of my family and doctor. I was wrong.
When the numbers came back last week, my cholesterol had dropped to 180 — that’s 74 points. My triglycerides dropped to 163 — they plummeted 111 points to an all-time low. LDL dropped to 119. In 2007, it was 197.
The only three numbers that went the wrong direction, according to my doctor, were those that measure kidney function. She asked, “Have you been drinking water?” I admitted to her that I had not pretty much during the entire three months.
There were other changes, as well.
The food I ate never made me exhausted afterward. Often in the past, when I ate meat during lunch, I felt lethargic and groggy afterward. Not with this diet. I actually feel more energized and alert after lunch.
As if that wasn’t enough, I got on the scales earlier this week and blinked at the number staring back at me — 198.6 pounds. I haven’t been below 200 since around 2005, when I deployed to Iraq. Amazingly, I dropped the weight this time while eating way too much food based upon what other diets claim.
Even more amazing, earlier this month Gail pulled the hair on the front of her scalp back and said, “Look at my hair!”
I looked at it but couldn’t see what she was talking about at first. A typical guy, I said, “What am I looking at?”
Gail has long hair, and she keeps it all one length. When she pulled down a strand long enough to be bangs, she exclaimed, “That’s new hair growth!”
Then she looked at me — “You have it, too!” A layer of peach fuzz covered the top of my head, visible enough to be noticed as hair. Usually I look bald, even when I let the sparse fuzz grow on my head.
My intestinal issues have cleared up, and my heartburn and reflux are gone. My thinking is clearer and more focused. I even sleep more restful at night, needing fewer hours of sleep to function the next day.
There’s no magic pill with this diet, no special process, no gimmicks, no amazing supplements or any subscriptions to buy: just quality, wholesome fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains.
I still love meat and dairy products, but I love the way I feel much more. I bound up and down stairs without getting winded. I can bend over and tie my shoes without groaning. Mind you, I’m certainly not advocating for a full abolition of meat and dairy products; I plan on enjoying them very sparingly, especially with the holidays coming.
However, I am finally learning to align myself with much of what the Army Wellness Center told me in 2018, and what the Army Physical Fitness Research Institute revealed 11 years prior — words that are finally beginning to sink in: “Eat quality low- and no-processed foods. Learn to regulate your stress levels. Get plenty of restful sleep. Exercise vigorously daily. Enjoy life.”
Start simple. Eat the right foods, and the rest will follow.
For more on Eric Pilgrim’s journey to lose weight and live healthy over the past two years, read these articles:
Heart of the matter: Part 1 – Fat guy is determined to ‘lose weight, feel great’ again: https://www.army.mil/article/214159/heart_of_the_matter_part_1_holidays_wont_dampen_fat_guys_determination_to_lose_weight_feel_gr
Heart of the matter: Part 2 — Fat guy learns the simplest health plan remains the best: https://www.army.mil/article/214516/heart_of_the_matter_part_2_fat_guy_learns_the_simplest_health_plan_remains_the_best
Heart of the matter: Part 3 — Fat guy ‘geeks out’ with Wellness Center educator over health: https://www.army.mil/article/215293/heart_of_the_matter_part_3_fat_guy_geeks_out_with_wellness_center_educator_over_health
|Date Posted:||11.02.2020 14:46|
|Location:||FORT KNOX, KY, US|
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