The Pendulum (and Why I Broke Up With Low Carb)

February 23rd, 2014 | Posted by Alison Spath in Weight Loss

(Just a heads up, this post is 2842 words long.)

Healthy living is a journey.  (Shocking, I know.)

Your Plan
photo credit: The Internet

This image is such a great reminder that progress toward any goal or habit change you’re working on is not going to be linear.  You’re not a failure when you hit some bumps along the way and are not getting it exactly right.  Ups and downs are totally normal and to be expected, we just have to keep on keepin’ on.

I put this post together because I’ve made some big steps forward in my personal journey over the past year and a half here.  Yes, I’m thinking about the time period from the the end of 2012 through the present day, early 2014.  I have some concepts and thoughts I’m eager to share in the hopes that it might help even one person out there.  The longer I’ve blogged, the more I’ve come to see that my specific story is not what’s important, but I want to share another piece of my journey for anyone who can relate to some of the things I’ve been working on, experienced and struggled with, and how I’m traversing the ups and downs of my own reality.

Where I’ve Been

There are plenty of aspects of “healthy living” that I do not struggle with.  (I give this disclaimer because I’m paranoid that by sharing what I DO struggle with, I’m going to look like I have no place writing a healthy living blog… insecurity at its finest!)  I have no problem finding the motivation and dedication to stay active and fit.  I also have no trouble choosing, eating and enjoying healthy food.  As a former soda drinker, candy addict and Taco Bell Patron, I honestly have no taste or interest in fast food, junk food and all sorts of unhealthy, processed foods I use to eat all the time.  I promise I am not trying to brag or sound self-righteous, I simply want you to know that it is absolutely possible to completely lose your taste for anything and everything among the miles of garbage foods that line our store shelves, the foods that are designed to be deliciously addictive but wreak havoc on our bodies and do nothing for our physique.  It’s not easy, but it’s also not impossible.  (My answer to losing your taste for these foods is to learn what they do to your body – once you truly know and feel the difference, no willpower is needed to cut them out of your diet.)

What I DO struggle with is keeping the last 10 – 15 lbs from my 35 lb weight loss (years ago) off for good.  I’ve kept 20 of those lost pounds off thanks to some significant habit changes, but I’ve lost and regained the same 10 (15) lbs oncetwicethrice since 2009.  Yes, there was a pregnancy in there and one of those times losing it as a part of post-partum weight loss, but even the weight I lost at the end of 2012 slowly and surely crept back on as I fell back into some old habits (i.e., eating too much dang almond butter) and I tried to figure out how to remain at my happy weight without counting or (noticeably) restricting calories (diets do not work!) while also finding my sweet spot with exercise.

I feel like I owe you this post because of this one where I sang the praises of a low carb diet.  At that time I truly believed it was my solution and final answer in my struggle to lose my 10 (*ahem* 15) vanity pounds because I was having some luck with it, but it was actually only one piece of the puzzle.  While I still firmly believe a lower carb approach to eating is important (when compared to the Standard American Diet) I’ve come to see that I (personally) need more carbs than I had been eating for a while to support my activity level and lifestyle.

And this is really the bottom line: we each need to find the right macro-nutrient ratios that are right for our own unique biochemistry and activity levels – trusting my instincts with my carb intake is proving to work better than trying so hard (as outlined in my low carb post.)

Low Carb Trials

I spent all of 2013 trying to find a way to lose my vanity pounds once and for all.  I thought going Paleo might be the answer.  I thought going low carb was the answer.   I thought cutting back on my cardio and running was the answer.  And while in many ways these things helped – they weren’t my final answer.  I’m not sorry for any of the things I learned about and tried last year, I feel like I have a much better understanding about nutrition and the role that certain foods play in our health.  The Primal/Paleo/Very Low Carb approach to eating has showed me how feelings of hunger and cravings can be effected by too many carbs and the role they play on blood sugar, insulin and how foods leave us feeling.  Despite all those changes I made to my diet and macronutrient ratios I tried (i.e., low carb/high fat) I would feel good, but I still was not seeing the results I was looking for in the weight loss department.  I also eventually came to see that severe carb restriction was just that – restriction, and if you know anything about restricting calories or certain foods, it often sets you up for a period of overeating down the road.  That definitely doesn’t help when weight loss is your goal!

I thought going Paleo/low carb was going to help me from feeling hungry between meals or leave me feeling fuller, longer.  I thought cutting back on my carbs was going to be the magic pill that would allow me to reach my weight loss goals.  So whenever I felt “hungry”, I thought that I should “listen to my body” and eat.  Between all various Paleo and low carb books I read last year, I also re-read Intuitive Eating and know it’s important to “Honor Your Hunger” – so if I felt hungry, I would eat!  The problem though was that the hunger I was feeling wasn’t always physiological hunger – sometimes it was egoic hunger or limbic hunger.  I’ve come to see that whenever I felt like “a bottomless pit”, really what I was feeling was often resistance to doing something I didn’t want to do (just something as simple and tedious as housework) or feeling bored with the present moment, over scheduled or unsatisfied with some aspect of my life.

I know I’m certainly not the only one who has an emotional attachment to food, I think a lot of diets or weight loss attempts fail because most of them don’t address emotional eating.  I appreciate everything I learned last year about the Paleo and low carb approaches to eating, but ultimately, these approaches were just one part of my quest to free myself from something that had nothing to do with food itself.  I finally came to see that I had more work to do with my relationship with food and how I cope with stress, boredom and the ups and downs of every day life.  This is to explain why I’m eating more carbs again – I’m basically back to my “whole foods” approach to eating.  It’s what comes easiest and feels the most normal to me.  I’m still mindful that I don’t go nuts with carbs and could still be considered “low carb” when compared to the Standard American Diet, but I’m no longer limiting carbs to any degree.  Basically, I’m eating more fruit again, some rice, beans, quinoa, oats and Ezekiel bread because the solution I’ve been looking for has less to do with carbs and more to do with some inner awareness.

The Pendulum

Over the years and all the wacky things I’ve tried in regards to anything (food related or not), I’ve come to notice The Pendulum.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s still A Thing.  If you (I) do something to either extreme, from restriction to indulgence (like cutting calories or carbs or exercising a lot) – the pendulum is eventually going to swing back with equal energy in the opposite direction.  (And when I explained this thought to my physics loving husband, he pointed out that the pendulum is moving the fastest when it’s at the bottom of it’s swing – so basically, you’re at “normal” for the shortest amount of time!)  So if you severely restrict calories or carbs, don’t be surprised if you encounter a period of eventual overeating or binging.  (Research proves this!)  And if you do any physical activity to an extreme, I would watch for a period of time where you’re forced into inactivity – either because of injury, adrenal fatigue or even resentment.

My two takeaways here: go ahead and pull back on your pendulum, experimenting and trying new things (for better or for worse!) is how we learn and grow.  But be mindful of how far back you pull the pendulum, because it’s going to swing back with equal, opposite energy and it might knock you on your rear end.

Still, I’m not going to discourage anyone from trying anything that might be considered extreme by some – from going low carb or giving Paleo a try.  Trust your instincts and don’t do anything that seems especially stupid – but there’s a lot of opportunity for learning when you do some reasonable self-experimentation and eliminate certain foods, even if it’s only temporary.  Many people do well on a low carb diets, even if what ends up happening is that you become more mindful of your carb intake after you’ve gone very low carb for a while.  Lots of folks feel better when they go completely grain free and stop eating gluten and come to see they have a gluten allergy or intolerance they didn’t even know they had!  I can absolutely feel the difference when I’ve been eating too many grains or sugar - playing around with Paleo, avoiding grains and limiting carbs has allowed me to find my own tolerance with these foods – so I’m not sorry for any of it.  The only thing I am sorry for is perhaps misleading anyone with some of the things I’ve written in the past because at the time I truly believed THIS! IS! IT! When really it wasn’t *IT* – it was just a part of my journey.  I know I’ve given this disclaimer a million times before, but please always remember that I am not an expert.  I’m just another human trying to find my way in this messed up world of food that we live in, wanting to feel good and be healthy, while also wanting to easily fit into my favorite pair of jeans.

Where I Am Right Now

Even though I’ve been working on this for years now, I was finally honest enough with myself to see that I had more work to do to get to the bottom of my emotional attachment to food.  Intermittent Fasting has helped.  Yoga and meditation have really helped.   Yoga specifically has taught me to slow down and get better at paying attention to what’s going on inside, to recognize the difference when I’m trying to comfort my egoic mind with food as opposed to nourishing myself.   (I believe yoga can help with weight loss in two ways: asana builds muscle, but the mediation that is a part of each practice helps cultivate inner awareness and has allowed me to get better at recognizing when I am using food the wrong way!)  Yoga teacher training and all the yoga practice that has come with it has been an important, marked part of my journey.  (I do plan to share more about teaching training at some point.)

I’m working on a more generic post right now that’s got a working title of “12 Reasons You’re Not Losing Weight Even Though You’re Eating Healthy” (because this was basically my question for all of 2013!) that is based on the things I did that got me back to my happy weight.  But in the interest of specifics today, here is exactly what I did:

First, I went back to my whole foods approach to eating.  I stopped trying so hard to be low carb and just ate whatever sounded good to me at meal time.  (“Eating What You Want” and “Making Peace With Food” are two Intuitive Eating rules.)  Still plenty of healthy fats, a reasonable amount of protein and more carbs if I wanted them, mostly those I listed above.  But also things like pizza with friends, the occasional bagel or ice cream with the family, or pasta at a restaurant.  (Yes, I’ve read and appreciate everything Dr. Perlmutter says in Grain Brain, I’m currently satisfied to keep highly processed grains out of my normal, every day life, but do still sometimes enjoy these foods when I feel like it.)

From there, thanks largely in part to my yoga practice and this book (yes another book about eating) I’ve been able get hold on my “healthy” (but still high calorie) comfort foods and comfort eating.  (Namely, dark chocolate and stupid almond butter!)

I had to go back to eating three meals a day and waiting to eat until I felt true, stomach rumbling hunger before eating a meal.  No more rummaging through the fridge or cupboards for something “healthy and low carb” because I *thought* I was hungry, *thought* I should eat and “honor my hunger”, *thought* that being low carb was enough and meant I could eat whenever I felt the urge.  I had to recognize that sometimes the hunger I was feeling was more about resistance to some tedious task I didn’t want to do, some story I was telling myself in my head, relief from the stress of being somewhere with three kids (being outnumbered is no joke) and needing “something” to help me unwind or relax.

I had to start sitting down at every. single. meal. and eat without any distraction (beyond the distraction of my dining companions, that is.)  No eating in front of the computer or a book or magazine.  No nibbling while standing up and milling about my kitchen.  What it’s time to eat, prepare an actual meal or snack, sit down and just eat.  The psychological satisfaction that comes with this step has made a huge difference in my phantom hunger.

I had to SLOW DOWN during meals (I’ve been treating every meal like a yoga practice!)  Setting my fork down between bites, noticing my breath, staying present.  Eating slowly is a tip that people give all the time, but one that really works if you actually do it!

I’ve also gone back to doing more cardio and running again.  I never stopping running completely, but there was a period of time that I felt that little to no cardio was what I needed to solve my sometimes “bottomless pit” hunger… and now I realize that’s not the case.  I’m still running LESS than I have in years past, but I’m also not using running or cardio as a means to burn calories and instead doing it for the pure enjoyment and health benefits of moving my body.  The days of long cardio workouts are still gone.  I’m currently enjoying two to three cardio-ish workouts a week, usually 25 – 35 minutes, depending on how much time I have and what the weather is like.  I practice yoga every day with very little exception.  Honestly, I’m just doing whatever feels easy and good – sometimes pushing myself feels good, but that’s ME (and if that’s not you, that’s OK!  You do not have to run to be fit and healthy.)

Finally, I’ve let go of the numbers.  I’m not after “10 or 15 pounds” of weight loss anymore, I’m focusing on how I feel – as cliche as that might sound.  Yes, I still care about vanity pounds and the way that I look, but I’m no longer focused on a number, and I’m also getting better at recognizing that my outward appearance is not who I am inside. I haven’t been on the scale in months and GASP!  The world is still turning!  I don’t know what I weigh today, but I know my jeans fit better, I feel lighter on my feet and most importantly, more at peace with food than I have in quite a while.

If you made it this far, allow me to say thank you.  Writing this post has been therapeutic as I put my thoughts together and in order.  I’m sharing this for people to read in the hopes that it might give even one of you some insight into your own journey toward health and wellness, and at the very least, to know that you aren’t alone when it comes to inner struggle with food, eating and finding a healthy balance with exercise and fitness.  Good luck to us all we make our way through this obstacle course called life.


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15 Responses

  • The graphic says it all! :) I truly believe there are no “magic answers” and what works for a while may not work forever. Personally, having a history of emotional eating, I know that I’ll always have to be aware of how emotions affect my eating. And as I’m getting older, things keep changing, too…

    I, too, have been reading a lot about low carb and Paleo and am pretty low carb (but I do eat more fruit and some non-gluten grains that “Paleo people” wouldn’t eat). I never “officially” declared myself low carb or anything else however because I wanted to have the freedom to eat some more carbs when I felt I needed to. Being low(er) carb has been working for me, but especially when reading a lot of Paleo blogs, etc. I need to keep reminding myself that it’s okay to do what works for me at this point!

    I’m glad you are doing what’s right for you at this point in your journey! :) So often we get stuck in a certain “program” and refuse to admit that it just isn’t working. Looking forward to the post about yoga teacher training! :)

    • Blogs can be a blessing and a curse! It’s easy to get wrapped up in somebody else’s “rules” they have for themselves. And you are so right, just because something is working today doesn’t mean it’s going to work forever… it’s good to be reminded to stay open minded and flexible when working to find your ideal approach to eating for health.

  • Katheryn says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It’s helpful and interesting to read what you’ve tried and what has worked for you. I definitely agree that setting and keeping your goals is like a pendulum and that everything in life is individual. It’s helpful to read others’ experiences. It can give us motivation and ideas about what to try, but in the end we all need to go on our own journey to find what works for us.

    Thanks for sharing your journey!

  • jen says:

    I’ve been following you awhile, even when I didn’t want to (is there anything harder to follow/understand than a foodie when you’re not a foodie?) I totally get the pendulum thing.. in my case I’ve come to hate it so much, I am powerless against it. Well maybe that’s not true maybe I just suck ;) There’s a lot of self loathing in there… a lot of things outside people couldn’t possibly understand or maybe they don’t want to admit it? If only fat people would stop eating, right? Simple. ;) And I definitely see that I’m “hungry” when something isn’t right. I’ve learned in recent months to sit and think about what’s bothering me. Sometimes something’s bugging me that I didn’t even know was that bad. Or I’ll be eating and chewing my nails and then realize that Tom’s going away… I think this is a learned response because, okay, big deal, he’s planning to come BACK. ;) My new MO is to go clean something.. if I’m still hungry after that we’ll talk. More often than not I end up cleaning the whole house and it was rarely as big of a deal as I’d been dreading. If only I could *always* remember to do this?

    • Have you ever heard of The Curse of Knowledge? Basically, when you know something, you forget that other people don’t know what you know! (I must have The Curse of Foodie Knowledge.)

      People who use food to cope wear their coping mechanism… you can’t as easily see when someone shops and overindulges at stores to deal with feelings, debt doesn’t effect the way our clothes fit! Simply sitting with those uncomfortable feelings and not acting on them is such an important step. It’s not easy, but it’s a start.

  • Rebecca says:

    Hmm, everything in moderation, eat and move mindfully, listen to your body AND your heart, accept yourself — your looks, your feelings, your crazy thoughts — without acting on them, it’s not about reaching a goal but how you live the journey, it’s okay to eat chocolate? Yes, I’m totally down with all of that. Thanks for sharing what has been on your heart and mind over the last two years and sharing your journey of connecting deeply with your whole self. May you inspire others to do the same! <3

  • Julia says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve struggled so much with trying low carb, and failing, then feeling the pendulum swing the other day and, oh my gosh where did all the cookies go? Haha. It’s all about figuring out what works for you. I finally realized the low-carb, paleo approach doesn’t work for me because it’s too meat-heavy. I am (and was) vegetarian before I got it stuck in my head that being low-carb was “the answer” to everything, and I drove myself crazy trying to make it work. I’m glad to hear that you’ve come to a more peaceful place with food, and I think it’s so awesome that you’ve just embraced all the different parts of your journey. I can’t wait to hear about yoga teacher training!

    • “Where did all the cookies go?” hahah!

      I totally agree on the meat heavy part, I’m glad to be eating meat again – but I don’t need SO MUCH of it, and dang it, I missed beans, lentils and oats! Thanks for sharing Julia, it’s always nice to compare notes with fellow self-experimenters. :)

  • Oh Alison, I really needed this post. Like you, I have dabbled in low carb–sometimes VERY low carb–for years. I am much heavier than you, and the pounds on my frame are far from the vanity variety. I lost 30 pounds in 2010 on an extremely low carb diet, and in the years since, I have been as much as 50 pounds heavier than the lowest weight I reached back in 2010. The thing I, at this point I would just love to get back to the starting weight before my 2010 diet. Unfortunately for me, the pendulum has knocked me on my ass countless times. Recently, I did my first Whole 30. I lost about 10 pounds and felt great, hopeful that I was finally going to succeed in achieving some significant weight loss. Well, I’m pretty sure I gained it all back within the first week, and I didn’t even think I went all that crazy with food. And I’m now about five pounds heavier than when I started the Whole 30, even though I still eat lower carb in general and am very active. I just don’t know anywhere. But like you, I have been playing around with adding back things like oatmeal and quinoa. I think I’ve been so caught up in wanting to live my beliefs, because I truly do believe lower carb is better and wheat is not my friend, that I’ve forgotten that restriction is still restriction, even if it’s for a noble and scientific cause. And restriction always catches up with me, sometimes extremely quickly. And maybe for now, I need to eat oatmeal for breakfast and continue working out and just aim for a bit more balance all around. I think I need to be honest with myself that, for me, low carb has turned into an “all or nothing” mindset, and lately it’s been a lot more on the nothing side.

    • Lauren, I TOTALLY get it… I too wanted to believe low carb was the answer, the books and blogs had me so convinced, it makes so much sense! But I’ve also come to understand that our carb intake needs to reflect our activity levels, and if you are very active, then adding some carbs back might not be a bad idea. And 100 – 150 g of carbs is still very different than 300+ grams! You can still be low-ish carbs with some gluten free carbs… oats, rice, quinoa, sweet potato, fruit. Check out this recent Robb Wolf blog post on the exact subject.

      Females, Carbohydrates, And Hormones

      Also, I highly HIGHLY recommend the book I mentioned in the post (that I called “this book”) Skinny Thinking. The title makes me cringe, but the content is incredible! I plan to write about it specifically at some point because it helped me in ways I never expected. (I picked up at the library on a whim because I saw it on the new shelf and the chapter “Eating When You’re Not Hungry” was enough to get me to take it home to read further… I am SO glad I did!)

      Big, big hugs to you Lauren. Thank you for sharing your story here, I have a lot of faith that your weight loss goals are within your reach!

  • Jen says:

    Thanks!!!! I have recently come to the same conclusions and I am much happier.

  • andrea says:

    have you read “women, food and god” yet? it’s not about god. it’s about your life.