Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Nutrition Debate #106: Dinner is Now Supper for Us

Cultural change is big. That’s partly because cultures are big. It’s also because it involves “change,” and we generally try to avoid that. Change involves risk…and adjustment. Of course, change can be good. So “upside” risk needs to be assessed and measured against “downside” risk. And then there’s the “deciding,” and then there’s “acting on that decision.” It’s big.

Big change is about big things like moving, changing jobs, marrying…and eating. As kids we all seemed to be “programmed” (seriously, I mean genetically programmed) to avoid change and risk in eating by refusing foods with which we were unfamiliar, particularly bitter foods. We tended to like the sweet. Is it because they were “safer” and less likely to poison us in our ancestral, primordial existence? There’s science to support that view, but that’s OT (off-topic), so back to the present.

I’m not a cultural anthropologist or sociologist, so I can only comment on what I’ve read and heard about cultural change. I can, however, compare my culture’s eating habits and cultural traditions to my own experience. Like most Americans, I grew up eating three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. We sat down for breakfast at home, took a lunch box to school, had a snack at home after school, and sat down with the family for dinner, which was generally the big meal of the day. On Sunday morning we sometimes had a special breakfast. Sunday dinner for my family was generally at the end of the day, but it was earlier if other family members came over on special occasions. Many American families had the big meal of the day on Sundays after everyone came home from church. This is the way it used to be here, just as a reference point.

I was a bachelor for many years, from age 25 (after an early divorce) to 50, during which time I didn’t cook much for myself. I was very engaged in my work, often working 10 to 12 hours a day. And over those years, I perfected some bad habits. I generally skipped both breakfast and lunch and went out to dinner at the end of an extended work day. I ate a big dinner, with lots of carbs and often with wine; then I went home and fell asleep. Is it any wonder, that over the years I gained a lot of weight, rising from 225 to peak at 375 pounds, and developed type 2 diabetes?

After remarrying, I returned to more regular eating: I ate 3 meals a day, but still ate a big dinner at the end of the day. Not much better. More calories and carbs, and on a “balanced” diet, no break for my pancreas.  No periods of fasting to let my body use its own fat for fuel. I didn’t lose weight, and my type 2 diabetes worsened. Does this sound familiar? Are you pre-diabetic? Or are you a diagnosed type 2, taking oral anti-diabetes medications, and still eating a “balanced” diet with lots of “heart healthy, whole grains and vegetables,” and avoiding all those animal-based saturated fats and cholesterol? And are you getting “sick,” i.e., are you overweight with high blood pressure and “high cholesterol” on this “healthy” diet?

Well, in 2002 everything changed for me. At the suggestion of my doctor, I started on a very-low carb diet (Atkins Induction). I later changed to Dr. Bernstein’s diet designed specifically for diabetics. But the big change was that I took control of my own health. I took responsibility for what I ate. My doctor just watched in amazement as my diabetes improved dramatically. So did my blood pressure, dropping from 130/90 to 110/70 as I lost weight. And so did my HDL cholesterol (doubling from about 40 to 83 average) and my triglycerides (dropping by two-thirds from about 150 to about 50 average. How did I do it? I changed what I ate of course, but I also changed the way I thought about eating and meals.

I ate breakfast every day, from a street vendor or a “greasy spoon” restaurant near my office. But it was just eggs and bacon along with coffee with artificial sweetener and half and half. No potatoes or bread or jam or juice, EVER. About 5 carbs. In the beginning I skipped lunch because I was NOT HUNGRY, and I was, as ever, very, very engaged at work. I began eating a can of sardines for lunch when I started on Bernstein after I retired. I love sardines. I know they’re “not for everybody” (LOL), but I could (and do), mostly eat them every day, usually 5 to 6 hours after breakfast. The reason is to keep my muscles from breaking down for energy. I want my body fat to break down, not my muscles. My lunch has zero carbs, so I can stay in the ketoadapted state that began some 4 or 5 hours after the previous night’s meal and continues.

In retirement my wife and I eat breakfast together, but not lunch. She doesn’t like sardines (to put it mildly); besides, she likes to joke, “I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch!” It’s an “oldie” but “goodie.” Then comes dinner. I think my wife feels that dinner is when she needs to nourish me, as she did with her children. She’s my caregiver. She needs to nourish me. Now we’re talking not just cultural tradition. Caregiver and nurturer are hard wired into her genes. My challenge was to convince her that the best way to do that, i.e. nurture me, was to think of “dinner” as “supper,” a small meal at the end of the day. I made this transition first, as I came to understand the way I thought my metabolism needed to work to best advantage for me. But my wife is a good student, and now she has come to think about the meal that way too.
So, we just eat a small supper every day. We shared a “petite” filet last night that she buys at Sam’s Club. It was almost too much for both of us. The side dish was a cup of boiled broccoli finished in sautéed garlic and butter. That’s all. The meal is still about 400 calories, which is larger than either breakfast or lunch, but smaller than dinner used to be. And we save a lot of money. It’s like eating “2 for 1,” or going out for dinner and taking half home in a box. We do that a lot now too.

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