Paragliding into Weight Loss: The Journey Begins

For reasons explained here, I’ve been slow getting around to adding all the information on low-carb and ketogenic eating that people have asked for. So some of this is old news, but I wanted to start at the beginning and provide the backstory about how I stumbled into a way of eating that resulted in weight loss of 85 pounds.

(Also, a disclaimer: I am relating my personal experience in the hope that it can help others as they create their own experiences. I am not a health professional or a doctor, and I am not trying to “sell” low-carb. It’s a permanent commitment and way of life, and it is not for everyone. If you are on any medications — especially any kind of medications for diabetes — you absolutely must consult with a doctor before you follow this way of eating because you must adjust medication to account for declining blood sugar numbers. )

I’ll cut to the chase: Since March of 2016, I’ve lost 85 pounds. My partner David has lost 75. That means that when we climb into bed there is 160 pounds less of us (a whole person! Who knew we had a ménage à trois going for all these years!).

Ironically, my initial weight loss journey started out having nothing to do with health. In March, 2016, I got an e-mail from a public relations representative from Switzerland. I was going to a travel writers’ conference in May, and they were arranging some junkets: Did I want to go paragliding. Over the Alps.

This was the motivation for me going on a diet.

“YES!!!” I wrote back, overusing my yearly allotment of capital letters and exclamation points in a single e-mail. There may even have been a smiley face involved.

In the middle of following night, I woke up, my sleeping brain having put together the fact that gravity, paragliding (i.e., an activity that involves falling from the sky), and my current weight, were probably not compatible.

Actually, I didn’t even know what my weight was: my way of dealing with tight clothes and unfortunate feedback from the mirror had been to avoid stepping on the scale. In doctors’ offices,  I’d close my eyes and ask the nurse not to tell me the number. Denial was my strategy. Stretch pants were my friends.

Denial waged war with desire. Desire won. I looked up the outfitter on the Internet and learned that the weight limit for paragliding was 220 pounds. I stepped on the scale. It is hard for me to write the number, but I’m trying to be honest, so I’ll do it.

237. 6

Naked. Before coffee.

I’m 5′ 9″ and I have broad shoulders and a strong build… but 237 (and don’t forget the point-six)???!!! It’s obese no matter what kind of mirror you look at.

The number took my breath away. How does that even happen? How, especially, does it happen to someone who hikes and skis (almost every day), who doesn’t eat sugared cereal or indulge in desserts, who shops the perimeter of the grocery store and skips the aisles, who follows guidelines to eat lots of fruit and veggies and healthy whole grains? (Let’s pause for a moment…. I’ll give you a hint: the answer is contained in the question. I’ll cover that in a subsequent post.)

Since I wasn’t planning to paraglide naked, and since I needed to account not only for clothes and shoes, but also for breakfast, coffee, and the fact that prior to going to Switzerland, I’d be on a food tour in Prague, I figured I needed to lose 27.6 pounds (give or take a tenth) to safely weigh in under the limit. I had seven weeks.

Was that even possible?

I went — where else? — to the Internet, looking for crash diets. Honestly, I didn’t care if they were banana and grapefruit or kimchi and kale; my goal was paragliding, not health. Google and Siri were glad to oblige. In short order, they pointed me in the direction of low-carb. The key benefit (as far as I was concerned): fast initial weight loss.

Low-carb forums assured me that others had lost 10, 15, even more pounds in the first two weeks, and that two pounds a week after that was possible. They also ranted about health benefits, but I skipped that part and focused on the weight loss math. It would be a close call, but maybe it could be done. I envisioned having to step on a scale in front of all my travel writing colleagues — me, Ms Big Adventure Writer — and being told I was too fat to fly. Shame was a powerful motivator.

I’d heard of low-carb, of course. In popular diet culture, it’s been around in some guise or another since I was a teenager worrying about the size of my prom dress. (The first Atkins book hit bookstore shelves in 1972.) In reality, low-carb has been around a lot longer than that — maybe even back to to caveman days. (Some writers claim that it’s the way humans evolved to eat. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll also be adding posts with reading lists for those interested. I’ll  also describe the diet in more detail. )

For now, I’ll simply say: It’s strict and it’s not for everyone, and as far as I can tell, it works but you have to stay on it forever. It’s also controversial with a lot of doctors. Not to mention the American Diabetic Association and the American Heart Association and most mainline medical websites you’ll visit. (Which is why you should read as much as you can stand, and if you are on medications, check with a doctor before doing this.)

Here’s the list of things I avoided in order to lose the weight:

  • Wheat
  • Other grains and grain-based foods (including cereal, bread, pasta, pizza, rice, oatmeal, even quinoa)
  • Potatoes
  • Sugar and almost all artificial sweeteners
  • Starchy root vegetables and winter squashes
  • Fruit juice and soda (which I never drank anyway)

In addition, there were limits on or cautions about most fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. The protocol I followed avoids as much processed food as possible and anything labeled low-fat. Cream is okay, milk is not, and skim milk or low-fat milk is especially not okay.

Red meat, fish, chicken, eggs, vegetables that grow above the ground (especially leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables), and many fats (olive oil, avocado oil,  coconut oil, butter, ghee, meat fats and fish oils) are the mainstays of this way of eating; the details depend on the expert you follow. (There’s a lot of variation here, and some overlap between Atkins, Ketogenic, South Beach, Paleo, Whole 30 and some others.)

I wrote down what I ate and drank every day, accounting for the carbs in the cream in my coffee and checking nutrition labels to hunt for hidden sugars.  I tracked carbs in the ingredients of recipes we made from scratch.  I counted minuscule quantities of blueberries and olives and nuts. I cut way back on wine.

It sounds strict, and it was, but — surprisingly — after the first few days, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. Besides, what did I have to lose (aside from a lot of weight)?

The answer: health risk factors.

The more I read, the more I realized that I’d stumbled not on a diet, but a permanent way of eating. And if I stayed on it, it would not only help me reach and maintain a normal weight, but would result in better health markers all around. My weight dropped, as promised: in the first two weeks, I lost about 15 pounds. Most of that was glycogen and water weight, but the paragliding people wouldn’t care about that. If what I was reading was true, my blood pressure and most health markers were also improving.

My partner, David, joined me on the same plan, which was a big help: I am convinced that the biggest threat to an individual’s health (particularly women) is the other people in the household. David had a bit less enthusiasm than I (among other things, he had absolutely no interest in paragliding and he sorely missed ice cream). With his addiction to diet soda (which he has since resolved), he wasn’t losing weight as fast as I was (my understanding is that most artificial sweeteners raise the body’s insulin response, which prevents weight loss.) Still, he dropped about ten pounds.

To make a long story short, the day I left for Europe, I had lost precisely 27.6 pounds. I was down to 210. For paragliding purposes, that gave me a ten-pound leeway for clothes, coffee, and any weight I might gain from food eaten during the bountiful meals of a travel writing junket.  But I found that my tastes had changed, and even when presented with the tempting breads and pastries of a high-end European dinner, I mostly avoided straying. I deeply offended a kind Czech waiter who insisted that without bread dumplings I would not have a “complete meal.” (Confession: I did eat a piece of apple strudel. I am not made of stone.)

Most importantly, I got to run off a cliff and float into the sky, fully at peace with gravity  — a thrill that was worth every single bite of pizza, pasta, and bread I had missed over the previous few weeks.

When I returned home, I was committed to staying the low-carb course. Everything was copacetic… until it wasn’t. A few weeks after my return, David had his stroke and got his diabetes diagnosis, and our world changed. Suddenly, our low-carb diet had nothing to do with getting back into smaller clothes or doing outdoor activities. Losing weight and improvising health markers was a matter (and I mean this very seriously) of life and death. David gave up the diet soda. In the hospital, he ignored the recommended diabetes menu and had omelettes for breakfast and burgers with veggies and no buns for for lunch and dinner. At home, he stuck with it. The results? You can see them in the before and after pictures below: He is now 75 pounds slimmer with normal cholesterol, normal blood pressure, and a normal, non-diabetic A1c (that is the blood test for diabetes). And my A1c marker is not merely normal, nor even optimal — it is “super-optimal.” And my blood pressure is “awesome” (the nurse’s technical term for it).

I will provide links to discussions (pro and con) of low-carb diet health in future posts.



…and after (Yes, I like that shirt!)

Meantime, a lot of people have been asking for details. I can’t cover it all in one post, so over the next few weeks I will be adding and updating information, most especially links to resources, books, and recipes, in a dedicated section of this blog. Once I get those posts up, they will be indexed. You will find the link in the menu section of this blog (it’s at the top if you are reading on your computer. If you are using a device, you’ll find the low-carb section listed in the menu drop down area).

As I said earlier, I am not trying to sell low-carb eating to anyone — but I am trying to answer the questions to people who ask and are interested. As I am not an expert, I will not give advice, but I will share what has worked for me, and point you to resources that may help you make your own decisions.

My understanding is that this way of eating works for a subset of the population whose bodies respond to carbs in a certain metabolically challenged way. If you are in that group, I hope the resources I share and my experiences will help you choose your own path through the poison-laden aisles of your neighborhood supermarket.