This is Chapter 1 of a 5-part narrative where I revisit my search of optimum health through diet, and how I found it in animal foods. It’s not meant to abide to a particular group or “movement”, nor is it meant to preach.
What it does emphasize is the value of good quality meat for hormonal health and strength, and how deliberate food/calorie restriction is counter productive to happiness and fitness.
In chapter 1, I trace my eating habits from childhood to young adulthood, laying the backstory for my discovery of the ketogenic diet.
German translations provided by Anina.
The Early Years
Like any Indian family of Portuguese descent, there was never a shortage of meat in my household.
I was born in Bombay fairly skinny in the winter of ‘93; my mother and I agreed it was in large part due to the emotional stress and poor nutrition she had suffered during her pregnancy. That said, thereafter, I was fed incredibly well through my formative years in Abu Dhabi and Doha.
Sure, we had the occasional pizza, burger, fries, sweets and coke on Saturdays, birthdays and parties, but they were never encouraged. My parents always laid an emphasis on whole food with meat and eggs at the center, and some assortment of cooked vegetables, bread or rice on the side.
My mother also pretty much put her life into mine and my sister’s brunch boxes; club sandwiches, grilled cheese, French toasts – I barely recall what else, but certainly remember they were a class apart from the boxes my classmates got.
I wasn’t permitted to eat from the school canteen because of all the junk they had on offer; so yes, from the perspective of my folks who believed in feasting like kings and queens, like a little prince I did eat indeed.
A huge mug of full-fat (albeit pasteurized) milk was mandatory in the morning and evening, and I had a special affinity for full-fat cream – I’d eat up to a quarter kilo of it in a single sitting, easy. The meat we ate was always rotated; beef one day, chicken the other, mutton the next, followed by a variety of seafood.
Once a week my mother would cook purely vegetarian – to “offset the amount of meat we ate” – and I remember absolutely not looking forward to lunch or dinner on those days. What I also remember clearly, is that I’d consciously or subconsciously always go for the meat on my plate first.
I’d judge the excellence of a meal by the amount of meat it had, and what’s funny, is that I didn’t really mind it raw either. Raw meat at the supermarkets always seemed appetizing, and my mother and sister will confirm that I’d pester her to try the raw mince she would use to prepare kebabs and what not.
I grew up wholly in the middle east – the first five years in Abu Dhabi, and the next thirteen in Qatar. The food in our household then, was a fusion of Arabic, Indian, Pakistani and American. Food on a Friday or Saturday night was almost always a grilled meat platter from a local restaurant, chased with plenty of alcohol.
Eat Big to Get Big?
While I credit the meat and milk for my height, facial development and strong bone structure, the massive amount of grains, sugar and processed carbohydrates that I did eat alongside with reckless abandon meant that I was far from athletic.
Supremely chubby, I almost always needed a nap after lunch. I’d come down with a cold and flu every few weeks, and couldn’t do a single pullup or pushup till I was 16.
Bloated, gassy and sluggish after every meal, my stomach also was my weakest link – I’d often have bouts of diarrhea, stomach aches and farts loud enough to rival a freight train.
All of this was supposed to be “normal”, except for the farts. Those were hilarious.
I was also different from the other boys my age in the sense that I never took an interest in the usual array of sports; probably because I was also terrible at them.
When I hit 16, my mother decided something had to be done about my fat arse, so she had her brother-in-law (hobbyist bodybuilder who thrived on a bro diet of eggs, oats and bananas) teach me the ropes.
And that was the start; for a year I lifted weights after school, went out for a run on the weekends, and even managed to make some newbie gains; the diet wasn’t any different. In fact, I may have even restricted to get leaner, and lean (skinny fat) I did get indeed.
Naturally, I had absolutely zero awareness of the existing bro-science, let alone proper nutrition. All I knew was that I had to eat big to get big, restrict to get lean. Anyway, all this was before the pressures of exams, my first puppy love breakup and a growing frustration with the society I was in struck at the age of 17.
The Bombay Years
If there’s one thing that rivalled the meat in my home in terms of quantity, it was alcohol. And so, to cope with the angst, I chose to bathe in buckets of rum and coke on the weekends.
Couple that with heavy meals of starches (and meat of course), and I’d regained nearly all (and more) of the weight I’d managed to gain/lose with weightlifting plus calorie restriction over the past year.
I exercised very little and when I did — it would be bursts of weightlifting, running and such, that would only result in sprains and strains that required another couple weeks off. Pointless.
My skin and hair weren’t great either; the latter was prone to being dry (I could barely grow it out without frizz), and the former would get the occasional pimple in the weirdest of places — the tip of my nose, ever so often.
That said, I noticed this happen only when eating and drinking heavy; I never had a massive acne problem as such.
Then the time came for me to pick a line of study after high school, and since video games were the only thing that held my interest, I opted for a Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering – not knowing the when, why or the what of how it was supposed to help my career in games.
In 2011, my family moved back to Bombay where I began my Bachelor’s education – it was my first time outside the comforts of Doha, a culture shock, and the education was terrible. As terrible as the nutrition.
For some time I continued my poor eating habits to cope with the stress and heat of the new environment – tons of rice, bread-laden snacks from the street side, sugary drinks and beer. I mean, unless you are preparing your own food, India doesn’t really have the best natural diet.
Nearly all the food available on the street and in middle class restaurants is a deadly combination of grains, refined oils, sugar and starches. Meat? Very small portions. We were between a fixed place to stay at the time, so my mother naturally had very little time to cook; I know, I was 17, and not as independent as I should have been.
I let the stress creep into my body image; I naturally lost interest in food, ate minimally, and subsisted on a diet of coffee, cigarettes, Oreos, Pepsi and alcohol to get me through the early years of university.
(Sometimes a swig of rum or a hit of Mary Jane, which never turned out to be my thing, to help me get through the lectures).
That quickly took its toll — my skin had grown darker and my hair drier. My chest would hurt now and then, my breathing was audibly louder, my stomach would always be in discomfort from the acid buildup, and my knees were constantly hurting.
I had dropped several inches on my waist though, so I was happy. It took me two miserable years of living that way before I finally decided to use a pair of dumbbells and a bench.
I started weight training again, using routines out of a magazine, and was also walking a lot more than I ever did in my life, which meant that I dropped all the excess flab pretty quickly.
I also managed to put enough muscle on my frame to come across as athletic and fit to peers who didn’t know any better.
It wasn’t quality muscle and I certainly didn’t feel “strong”; I was also prone to slouching a lot. Meanwhile, drinking on an empty stomach had become a regular thing.
In 2013, my family moved back to Doha and I was left to hold my own. Breakfast had become par-boiled eggs with whole-grain bread, sugary cereal, coffee, a bit of fruit, and a huge shake of raw eggs, oats, protein powder and nuts.
There was no strategy; no, in fact, I was under the impression that you needed protein to grow, fat was bad, and carbs were needed to put on mass (but shouldn’t be overdone). A balanced diet, as some call it these days.
The indigestible fiber and anti-nutrients from that shake annihilated my gut, but I wasn’t paying attention. Lunch and dinner were usually prepared by a catering service we’d hired to prep my meals for me – vegetarian one day, non-vegetarian the other.
The alternating meal plan was my decision; I’d become so lost in all the madness of it all, that I’d forgotten the importance of meat. But it didn’t really matter, because even the non-vegetarian meals had barely any meat in any of them (one egg, a slice of fish, or a chicken drumstick) but plenty of grains and vegetables.
I remember haggling with the caterer for an extra boiled egg and piece of meat for the amount of money we were paying; preposterous.
My pre-workout in the evenings after lectures was a few slices of sugary store-bought rum cake with a cup of tea, and post-workout was another round of my gut destroying shake. Dinner would be accompanied with a (big) glass of wine or whiskey, and dessert would be an apple.
And the weekends? Those were the best; cold Frappuccinos and beers with friends in the evening, half a bottle of Jack Daniels when I got back at night, some fusion of the catering food and packet pasta for dinner, lots of cigarettes, then crash. God, I had no idea what I was doing.
To trick myself into believing that I was eating a dandy meal, I remember bingeing on Gordon Ramsay while munching on that terrible sludge of a Friday night meal – a tell-tale sign of mental and physical starvation.
By the age of 20-21, on the brink of my graduation, I noticed the consequences of my poor diet and excessive drinking/smoking catching up with me. Never mind the aching knees I’d had throughout the four years, but I was also:
- Deeply depressed, sometimes bipolar; I remember waking up every morning with a sense of overwhelming doom, and transitioning between feeling low and euphoric every few hours.
- In constant tremors; which wasn’t my nature. I’m naturally extroverted and confident, but I couldn’t hold a single conversation without my hand and face twitching like a man with Parkinson’s.
- Growing increasingly foggy in the head; 3-6 PM was my time of purgatory. No matter what I was doing, I would mentally crash and get so foggy, that naps and exercise were the only things that helped shake the fog off. I preferred working out in the evenings for this reason.
- Getting a bit too dependent on the alcohol to feel good; I’d graze all day, fill myself with carbs, caffeine and nicotine before an exam, and crash so bad that I’d need alcohol to pick me up after. Surprisingly, I aced quite a few semesters, topped a handful of subjects, and graduated with the cream of the university.
I looked lean and good on the outside but inside and health wise? Pretty toxic.
I graduated in 2015, and while I was a certified Computer Engineer, I was also deeply disillusioned with mainstream education and employment. Luckily in 2014 I discovered writing; I was good at it and decided to combine it with my interest in video games to drive a freelance career out of Doha for the next 3 years.
More importantly though, stepping away from the idea of normal education and work also gave me the chance to address my health issues. My brain fog had reached its peak, to the point where my productivity as a freelancer was being affected.
I was also exercising like never before; lifting weights for an hour, then doing another hour of high-intensity cardio and “fat-burning” routines. I was in okay shape, more on the skinny side, but didn’t really feel strong.
I cut down the alcohol to weekends exclusively, and quit smoking.
It was then that I began educating myself in nutrition and fitness from a bodybuilding perspective (bro-science, bulk and cut cycles, calorie counting, protein powders).
As a result, I was eating much better than ever before, especially now that I was back in Qatar, but obviously still terrible in hindsight – grilled overcooked meats, quick digesting carbs (sugar) pre and post workout, limited starch, and plenty of protein powder.
A healthy, almost “Mediterranean” diet that still wasn’t ideal.
On days I would not eat meat (through the months of Lent, my family being Catholic) I was drinking up to three protein shakes a day – and over a few months, it began to take a toll on my bladder. Frequent urination was becoming more of a problem, and I’d even begun wetting the bed in the mornings.
I dialed back the protein powder and that’s pretty much when I stumbled upon mentions of the ketogenic diet in the bodybuilding sphere; this was late 2015, much before keto had gone mainstream. I delved deeper into the science, research and anecdotal evidence on forums and podcasts.
The idea of cutting back sugar/carbs to force your body to run on fat was interesting enough, but I was more drawn to the mental benefits – no dips in energy, no brain fog, equilibrium. And that’s how it began – I started cutting out sugar, then grains, and soon enough I was eating a diet rich in animal protein and minimal vegetables (mostly a handful of leafy greens).
Much to the annoyance of the family, who were still very much children of mainstream medical advice – and taught that fat was bad, “balanced diet” was everything. But a “balanced” diet to me meant either feeling hungry all the time, or bloated – there was no in between.
They did however see that these changes were having a positive effect:
- I was no longer tired, and my mood was always UP. Constant, positive energy throughout the day, and my depression was no longer in sight. I was starting to feel content.
- My brain fog had disappeared in a week’s time.
- I shed a bunch of water weight, and my body had improved in shape. I also began putting on muscle quicker.
- Digestion was also working like a charm; I forgot what it felt like to be bloated and stuffed.
- I stopped falling ill; no colds, no flus, no coughs.
- I was also conducting my freelance activities with a clear and relaxed state of mind, despite the uncertainty of my future. Whereas before, I was always on edge.
I credit all that to the large amounts of fat I was eating – ghee (clarified butter), butter, cheeses and cream. I no longer felt the urge to drink or smoke, mainly because I was fascinated by the food I was eating. I was cooking eggs, bacon and cream cheese pancakes (all cooked in ample butter) for breakfast, eating roasted/grilled meat for lunch with cheese, and the same for dinner.
Sometimes I’d dabble in “bulletproof coffee” and prepare keto-friendly desserts for the whole family to play around.
This was all obviously working, I was feeling the best I’d ever felt in 23 years, and my trust in standard allopathic medical science, nutrition, and governmental regulations was fast fading. Especially after leaning how saturated fat was demonized in favor of sugar in the 1960s.
I dove deeper into the realm of holistic health and –
- Learned of the gut-brain connection (what you eat affects how you feel);
- Understood the effects of environmental stressors like blue light and wi-fi radiation on health, and cut out all blue/bright lights from my bedroom permanently;
- Ditched my slippers and went barefoot everywhere;
- Paid special attention to all that I was applying on my skin; detergents, soaps, shampoos, creams and deodorants – I dropped them for more natural options;
- Took contrast showers and practiced breathing techniques (Wim Hof);
- Sun gazed every morning and sat out in the sun half-naked around noon time daily.
Almost every day I tuned into podcasts by Ketogains, Primal Edge Health, High Intensity Health, Low Carb Down Under and Mark’s Daily Apple, to name a few. I was following all the latest health research, the work of Dr. Rhonda Patrick, Amy Berger’s blog, and had read The Art and Science of Low Carb Living.
All this newfound knowledge I was brimming with? I would try and impart it to the family in every conversation we had. Interestingly, I had also for the first time in my life begun questioning the religious beliefs I was imbibed with.
I dove deeper into the roots of ancient and modern religions, theology and prayer to understand what I was taught to believe in. Meanwhile, the family agreed to accept that I was in good health, only if my lipid panel showed “normal” numbers.
Okay. Although the results showed that my blood sugar was incredibly healthy (65 mg/dL, without any signs of hypoglycemia), my total cholesterol was incredibly high. Now anyone who’s pursued health long enough and done enough reading will know that the cholesterol numbers barely say anything.
Some say it’s the level of Triglycerides in your blood that matters, others say it’s the size – not the number of the LDL particles.
Mostly it’s systemic inflammation caused by refined carbohydrates and oils that lead to heart disease – the theories and research go on.
EITHER WAY, I refused to believe that because my cholesterol was higher than a number on a paper I was on the verge of a heart attack, when I was in the best mental and physical shape of my life.
To top it all, I was prescribed statins by the doctor to get down my cholesterol. Statins. To a 23-year-old.
My faith in doctors was gone, and so too in my family as opposition against my quest for alternative health grew. I was still living off them with no option to move anywhere at the time, so I was forced to succumb to their demands especially when they were the ones putting food on the table.
I refused to take the statins after a week, while my family restricted all red meat, eggs and dairy at home. There was also no way I was going back to grains or carbs; all attempts at research and trying to get the family to see my perspective was of no avail.
(I actually read through Peter Attia’s The Straight Dope on Cholesterol in a week, after work, to build up an argument against them.)
All I had to eat then was vegetables and white meat (fish and chicken); I also took up intermittent fasting, primarily to get my “cholesterol numbers down” and the family off my back. Intermittent fasting would turn out to be the one bad pill that would send me into an endless spiral of disordered eating and body dysmorphia.
Continued in Chapter 2…