If you are an avid follower of Maine politics, you may recognize my “before” photo.
At the start of his first term, I was the portly and far-too prominent spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage. Down almost 150 pounds since leaving the glare of the State House spotlight four years ago, I have turned to mankind’s first meal plan to become nearly half the man I used to be.
I have spent most of my adult life fighting and losing the battle of the bulge. Most mornings since college I would start the day beginning or trying to maintain a deprivation diet. Without fail these attempts to starve myself slim failed within hours, days or weeks.
As I passed my 40th birthday in 2011, the constant snacking, indulgences and binges pushed my weight to 340 pounds and expanded my waist to 54-inches. The father to three young boys, obesity promised to take years off my life and prevent me from being the active father I dreamed of being.
It was not a lack of willpower or laziness that fueled my food consumption and doomed my deprivation diets. I exercised regularly, lost 30 or more pounds several times in my life and dropped 100 pounds in my 20s. But none of those successes could be sustained because of my sugar addiction.
Three years ago I freed myself from food jail and put myself on a path to a complete physical transformation by adopting the “Paleo” lifestyle. I am not qualified to offer medical or nutritional advice, but I hope my experience and pictures inspire others who feel trapped by food to ask questions and maybe find some answers of their own.
Genetics and the prevalence of carbohydrates in my diet had severely diminished my body’s capacity to metabolize fat for energy. I carried well over 200 days worth of caloric energy on my body yet felt like I was starving to death if I went more than a few hours without feasting on carbohydrates. Passing on a basket of bread was the metabolic equivalent of a life and death decision for me.
For those of you who can easily metabolize fat for fuel, pass on your cravings and limit your portions through a little self-discipline, consider life at the bottom of a swimming pool. No matter how determined you are to stay underwater, your need for oxygen and your primal survival instincts will eventually have you clawing for the surface and a fresh breath of air.
Adopting the Paleo lifestyle got me off the bottom of the pool forever, restoring my ability to burn fat for fuel and giving me complete control over what and when I eat. Far more than a diet, I know I will adhere to the Paleo lifestyle for the rest of what I am convinced will be a long, lean and healthy life.
Here are the basics and some places you can go to learn more.
Over the course of the 2.5 million years of the Paleolithic Era, the brutal forces of natural selection bestowed in our ancestors the genetic and metabolic capacity to survive and thrive as hunters and gathers. Our prehistoric ancestors lived active, physical lives and consumed whole, natural foods that could be hunted, fished, scavenged or gathered from the land and sea.
In the 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture, carbohydrates, a macronutrient that was extremely scarce for the vast majority of human existence, has been mass produced and processed to the point where it dominates the typical American diet.
But ten millennia are but a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, and many of us are genetically unequipped to metabolize all that processed sugar.
Being “Paleo” means making nutritional, exercise and lifestyle choices that adhere to environmental realities our Paleolithic ancestors adapted to over millions of years of evolution.
While it may sound primitive, it mostly involves gathering food along the outside walls of the grocery store. As long as I remember my debit card, I never have to wield a spear.
It took a few weeks to adjust to a diet dominated by lean protein, fruits and vegetables and to shake the carb dependence, but I soon reacquired the ability to use fat for fuel. I now live my life completely free from food cravings.
To the extent that I occasionally have a sugary treat like an ice cream, the indulgence is seldom, smaller and part of a social event like a night out with my boys.
A couple unexpected benefits of being a free-from-food-jail fat burner are how long I can fast between meals and how much better whole, natural foods taste. For millions of years the signal to eat was hunger rather than scheduled meal times throughout the day. When food was scarce, fat was metabolized to provide the energy needed to hunt or gather the next meal.
My weight loss is nothing more than self-imposed scarcity combined with the natural capacity we all have to effortlessly utilize fat for fuel when processed sugar is not clogging our metabolic pathways.
While nutrition and setting aside sugar is most important, Paleo practitioners also find ways to engage in activity that approximates what life was like before cars, couches and office chairs. I like to pick things up and put them down.
Our ancestors lifted, sprinted, walked and recovered daily to provide for their basic needs and escape the perils of primitive life. I use barbells and high-intensity circuits to approximate the kill-or-be-killed physicality of life in the wilderness a million years ago. It is sometimes loud and never graceful, but a week after my 43rd birthday I deadlifted 475 pounds without the aid of supplementation.
You do not have to aspire to a 500-pound deadlift to be healthy, but your body needs regular, intense activity to be at its best.
When people credit me for my remarkable transformation, I am quick to credit two Marks I have never met for providing me with the tools and understanding I needed to start down the Paleo path to a longer, stronger and healthier life.
Mark Rippetoe is a strength coach from Texas and the author of “Starting Strength,” the best resource available on how the big barbell lifts, when properly programmed, are the best exercises in existence for gaining life-improving and sustaining physical strength. It may no longer be true that only the strong survive, but why chance it?
Mark Sisson maintains a blog dedicated to the Paleo lifestyle at www.MarksDailyApple.com. His science-based blog posts and books opened my eyes to the ways modern life is incongruent with the rugged, natural existence in which our genomes evolved. Keep in mind you do not have to be a free-range, organic Paleo-purist to get results.
10,000 years ago, and for millions of years before that, every human being on the planet was Paleo. If you have struggled with food choice and obesity, consider that how human life began may just be how you should live yours.
Dan Demeritt directs public affairs for the University of Maine System.