Low carb affects the whole family, and in surprising ways

Discovering Juliana’s intolerance for carbohydrates is like a string I pulled on in our family and all sorts of other interesting developments have followed.  I bought a cookbook/personal story called Eat Like a Dinosaur for the recipes.  In the prologue, the authors mention that their very young son’s marked ADD symptoms disappeared when they began to eat a Paleo diet.

My son Teddy, who is 8, does not have ADD, but he has something related called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which some people think should be called “Brain Processing Disorder.”  His brain can’t make efficient use of some of the information from his senses.  So although he has 20/20 vision, he can’t “see” a soccer ball rolling toward him well enough to be able to kick it.  His condition is qualitatively different from a kid who is “uncoordinated,” or “not very athletic;” we had to pull him out of non-competitive soccer because he just couldn’t participate in the practices or games even when he was the oldest on the team.  Now he does sports without moving objects, like Tae Kwon Do and swimming.

Teddy had other traits typical of kids with SPD, particularly being very clingy for his age and difficulty with emotional regulation.  The smallest upset could lead to a 45 minute meltdown, and he was at best grumpy in the morning, usually worse.

I wondered whether a Paleo diet would be helpful for him.  Unfortunately, my attempt at a Paleo diet for him failed utterly.  He didn’t eat much to begin with, and most of what he liked was carbohydrate.  He likes meat, but only with bread or something else starchy.  He likes chicken nuggets, but hated the paleo chicken nuggets recipe that used coconut flour.  The only vegetable he’ll eat is mini carrots–he says regular carrots make him choke, and that seems to be literally true.  He has lots of temperature and textural sensitivities.  Trying to get him to eat without any starch was a disaster.

You know the line about if they’re hungry enough they’ll eat it?  I’m sure that’s right, but I challenge you to last through several days of screaming to find out.  Teddy, in particular, can’t regulate his mood if he doesn’t eat, and the whole family pays the price.

I retrenched.  I thought if he couldn’t go full-Paleo, maybe he could tolerate a gluten-free diet.

I had also just read Wheat Belly, a fantastic book by a preventive cardiologist who uses gluten-free diets in his practice.  It contains the first explanation I’ve ever seen of why a gluten-free diet often helps kids with ADD.  In brief, modern wheat, as opposed to ancient wheat, or even wheat from 50+ years ago, has many “rogue” particles that didn’t formerly exist–the result of hybridization.  Remember amber waves of grain?  Not anymore.  Think 18 inch high easy-to-harvest-and-transport stubby stalks.   Hybridization produces compounds that didn’t exist in either of the “parent” plants.  These particles are essentially floating around in our brains, and can wreak havoc in sensitive individuals.

The gluten-free diet has been a lot more successful.  Teddy eats lower carb than he used to–he eats gluten free chicken nuggets for breakfast instead of a giant bagel with butter–but not low-carb, and not paleo.  He eats more chicken nuggets or chicken chunks in broth for lunch.  He eats taco-type hamburger meat with corn chips.  I am flexible as long as it’s gluten-free: he eats fast-food hamburgers without the bun, and wraps the meat in french fries or potato chips instead.  He no longer gets German pretzels from the German baker at our school twice a week, but instead eats more chicken nuggets or chicken chunks as soon as I pick him up after school.

And what have I noticed?  His mood in the morning is completely transformed.  He wakes up happy and ready to face the day.  For years it’s been touch and go in the morning–would I get him out the door without a meltdown?  Something kids with SPD do called therapeutic listening (TL)–digitally altered music they listen to through special headphones– had already helped a lot with his morning mood.  He listened to a special piece meant to help with emotional regulation.  Every morning as soon as he woke up I would clap those headphones on his ears and hope.  But on the gluten-free diet, he doesn’t need the mood-regulating therapeutic listening.  Now he does his regular TL in the morning.  He can still have a meltdown if he doesn’t eat and suffers a disappointment, but in general overall I think his mood is better.

He seems to realize that he feels better too.  At least five times I’ve given him something to eat and he’s asked, “does this have gluten?” and sometimes it did but not as a major ingredient and I had not thought about it.  He is now more vigilant that I am, and refuses gluten food at school or parties even if I am not with him.

A few days after I posted this originally, I had a meeting with Teddy’s teachers at school.  They commented spontaneously that they thought his engagement and concentration had improved since the beginning of school.  Certainly he’s arriving at school in a better frame of mind, since his mornings now go smoothly.


Life Without Bread

Great title, huh?  This is the English-language, updated version of the 1967 book “Leben ohne Brot.”  Published in 2000, it reviews the evidence from 40+ years of Dr. Wolfgang Lutz’s clinical practice in Germany treating patients using low carbohydrate diets.

While the specific information and extensive long-term data from Dr. Lutz’s practice is truly valuable, to me the most valuable part is the book’s calm tone.  I infer that Dr. Lutz was not subjected to the ridicule and ostracism that U.S. doctors working with low carbohydrate diets experienced in the same period (and continue to experience today).  There is none of the hysteria you encounter in the US about using low-carbohydrate diets to treat obesity in general, and obesity in children in particular.

“In Dr. Lutz’s practice, a low-carbohdyrate diet was always successful in children’s weight loss.  Weight loss in adults was more variable–that is, many were successful, but not all.  In treating more than 100 extremely overweight adolescents, not one case ended in failure.*    In patients who appeared not to respond, it was always discovered that the diet had either not been strictly followed or had been given up too soon.  Apart from very extreme cases, a normal, slender figure was achieved within a year.”

*Lutz, W.  ”Das endocrine Syndrom des adipoesen jugendlichen” Wien. Med. Wschr. (1964): 451.  (The Endocrine Syndrome of Adipose Youth).

Christian B. Allan, Ph.D and Wolfgang Lutz, M.D.; Life Without Bread, p. 140.

Before World War II, the bulk of the research work on obesity and its causes was done in Germany and Austria, and the leading hypothesis at the time was that obesity was caused not by overeating but by “lypophilia,” a defect in fat metabolism.  The underlying hormones weren’t yet isolated or understood, and much of the literature was based on clinical observations.  I am guessing that as the science became better understood, Dr. Lutz, if he even knew about the US research, was insulated from the distorted interpretations of the research that occurred in the US and that Gary Taubes documents in Chapters 21 and 22 of Good Calories, Bad Calories.  In the US, any information or research that didn’t conform to the conviction that overeating causes obesity–calories in/calories out–was discarded or ridiculed.

Therefore Dr. Lutz in 1967, and his colleague in 2000, didn’t feel the need to publish a polemic disguised as a diet book, as Dr. Robert Atkins did in 1972 with Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution.  Even as recently as 2011, Dr.s Phinney and Volek, who also co-wrote The New Atkins for a New You, wrote a one-sided review of low-carb eating plans to counteract the flood of low-fat eating plan dogma:

“Critics will correctly state that our arguments in favor of carbohydrate restriction seem one-sided and smack of advocacy. But we ask you: what is the proper response when three decades of debate about carbohydrate restriction have been largely one-sided and driven more by cultural bias than science? Someone needs to stand up and represent the alternate view and the science that supports it.”

Phinney, Stephen; Volek, Jeff (2011-07-08). The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living: An Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable . Beyond Obesity LLC. Kindle Edition.

The state of war that exists in the United States between low-fat and low-carb makes parental decisions about eating plans for our children fraught with anxiety.  There are many personal stories in the low carb community of people giving up the low carb lifestyle because of pressure to do so from the low-fat, “balanced diet” eating side of the fence, even though the individuals felt unambiguously better eating low carb.  Life Without Bread reassures me, because it tells me things are likely more harmonious in Germany, and it matter-of-factly recommends a low carb eating plan for overweight children.

Cross Fit Gyms–A low carb community

One of the first things I did after I discovered how much better Juliana felt eating low carb was to go looking for a community for her.  The path was circuitous–Jimmy Moore’s livinlavidalowcarb blog had a list of “low-carb friendly” health practitioners, and Susan Jimenez was on it.  Turns out she is a nurse practitioner, but now she’s become a cross-fit trainer at the gym she runs with her husband Saul, Mad Dawg School of Fitness.  Cross-fit gyms recommend a Paleo, or Primal eating style–basically what we would have eaten before the advent of agriculture.  In other words, no grains, sugar, dairy, and limited fruit.  The eating plan consists mostly of animal protein in various forms and vegetables.  Paleo isn’t designed to be low carb, but it ends up being low carb.

A low carb gym sounded good to me, and we went to meet them.  Susan did a functional movement screen with Juliana, something they do at Cross Fit gyms to establish baseline mobility.  Then I joined them and poured out my questions–why hadn’t anyone ever told me carbs could be the problem for Juliana?  Was there a health care practitioner who could help me navigate this new environment?  Susan said it was unlikely we would find support for a low carb eating style amongst the health care establishment.  I knew from experience that my somewhat alternative family practice–they were willing to discuss the benefits and risks of commonly administered vaccines, unlike the pediatric practice I had left when Juliana was 2–would not know anything about it.

Juliana started training with Susan.  Even though she was a teenager in a gym for adults, she felt welcome and really enjoyed it.  She had to take a break over the summer and then for soccer season.  I started training there in September, and although I have historically disliked group exercise classes, cross-fit is totally different.  It’s the exercise equivalent of low carb eating–it does not recommend exhausting cardio sessions to control weight, as most other gyms do–rather cross-fit, generally speaking, recommends duplicating the likely physical feats of our ancient ancestors.

Lengthy cardio sessions leave you depleted and a tasty target for predators.  In cross-fit you do a lot of work on mobility, everywhere (hips, shoulders, wrists, ankles etc.) so that you become more agile and less prone to injury; you sometimes lift really heavy things; and you sometimes sprint really fast.  Cross fit may make it possible for me to succeed in my life-long project to get my shoulders to stay back instead of hunch forward.

Excellent resources to learn about Paleo/Primal eating and exercise are The Primal Blueprint, by Mark Sisson, and Mark’s blog:  Mark’s Daily Apple.


Most doctors won’t be able to help an overweight child

I asked many doctors over the years to help me with Juliana’s weight.  What was going on?  What do I do?  I got no help.  Her family practice doctor, whom I loved, told me frankly that doctors had no idea what was causing the obesity epidemic among children.  She asked Juliana what her favorite vegetable was.  Juliana replied “broccoli.”  That was the extent of our nutritional counseling.  All of the doctors I consulted prescribed “watchful waiting,” what I now think of as the hope that she would “grow into her weight.”

Why does the “grow into their weight idea” persist in the face of the evidence that most overweight children will become overweight adults?  In part because it’s almost impossible to lose weight and keep it off on the Standard American Diet if you are sensitive to carbohydrates (and all of us become more sensitive over time if we continue to eat carbohydrates–this is one of the reasons people tend to gain weight as they age).  Your doctor knows how little success he or she has counseling patients to lose weight–almost none of them do.  The myth allows everyone to postpone the day of reckoning for overweight or obese children.

A friend of mine provided a perfect example of this phenomenon recently.  She took her 14 year old to the doctor for a yearly physical, and wanted the doctor to help her discuss weight management with the teen.  The teen had recently gained a lot of weight without growing taller, and was clearly becoming uncomfortable with her appearance.  But the doctor didn’t.  Instead, she said that since the teen was “only” in the 80th percentile for Body Mass Index, she wasn’t overweight, and not to worry about it.  The doctor didn’t advise doing anything, even though the teen had gone from the 42nd percentile BMI at her last checkup a year prior to 80th percentile at this checkup.  I bet the doctor was relieved that the teen hadn’t crossed the 85 percent threshold, where she would technically be considered overweight, because the doctor knows she doesn’t have any effective information to offer on how the teen can slim down.

Low carb at In and Out Burger

In and Out Burger, a favorite of my son Teddy, mostly for the chocolate shakes, has a secret low carb menu.  It’s secret because they don’t publish the choices on their regular menu.  But it’s not so secret that the choices aren’t in their computer system–they track every one of these orders.  The “protein style” burger is a cheeseburger with lettuce instead of the bun:

Wikipedia claims people started ordering this burger in the 70′s.  Who knows.  The “Flying Dutchman” is a double burger with cheese in the middle:

So if you are caught short on low carb food while out and about–stop in at In and Out Burger where they are used to people ordering burgers without the bun.