How the Bears Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Primal Lifestyle

It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!

This Primal Blueprint Real Life Story was submitted a few months ago during the annual 30-Day Challenge.

There are two thoughts I clearly remember having in my lifetime:

  • I am overweight, but I no longer care about how I look and I am fine with being this way for the rest of my life.
  • My husband is likely to die of a heart attack sometime soon and there is nothing I can do about it.

I was 26 when I had these thoughts. I was heavier than I had ever been, depressed and totally inactive. My husband was obese, unhappy with his job and completely complacent. We hadn’t always been this way, but we were resigned to living this way for the rest of our lives.

My downward slide had started nine months before when I had started a new teaching job at a highly competitive high school in downtown Boise, Idaho. I had left my friends, my students and my runners – I had coached cross country and track my first three years of teaching – for the challenge of teaching Advanced Placement English at the best high school in the state, which was a mile from my home. Although Boise High is a great place to work, the first year at any new job is challenging and lonely; this loneliness was compounded by giving up coaching and, with it, running.

My husband, Phil, was working as a technical recruiter, ten hours a day, in a chair, on the phone. We both came home exhausted, with no energy to do anything but watch television and eat easy to make, processed foods. We had fast food several times a week and were carb junkies – it wasn’t out of the ordinary for us to eat a large pot of spaghetti and an entire loaf of French bread in one sitting. I had always enjoyed shopping, but now my primary goal when doing so was to cover up. I was 5’7”, a size 13 and 161 pounds. My husband was 5’10”, with a 42” waist and weighed 308 pounds. I loved him so much and feared for his health, but knew I could never say anything to him about it. When this challenge came up, we talked about each writing our own stories, but quickly realized that our Primal Success Stories are inseparable. This is our story.

Growing Up

I have been a runner my entire life. I started running in 4th grade and ran consistently, both cross country and track, throughout high school. My family is naturally skinny and when I was younger I never worried about my weight. I come from a family of eight children and our meals generally consisted of whatever could be made easily and in large quantities: spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, lasagna or items off the “dollar menu” at fast food restaurants. In high school I never thought about my weight or health, but regularly carb-loaded in preparation for races. In college I quit running, but never changed my eating habits. I worked nights at a restaurant and would often stop at Jack in the Box at 11:00 at night on my way home for a meal. I ate the standard college fare: hot pockets, microwave dinners, cookies. My senior year of college I found myself weighing 150 pounds and unhappy so I took up running again. This began a series of up and down weight swings over the next four years.

My husband has struggled with his weight his entire life. He was a latch-key kid and often fed himself after school. Although an only child, he had a single mother and not a lot of money, so he often ate the way I did growing up. He loved the double quarter pounder with cheese and Pepsi. He was a heavy kid in high school, but well liked because he was kind and very funny. He also worked in a restaurant in college and often ate late and continued his love of cheeseburgers, never really thinking too hard about being healthy or fit since he had been heavy his entire life. We began dating in the fall of 2004 and over the next several years were each other’s best friend and worst enemy when it came to food.

Summer of 2007: Wedding and Honeymoon

In the summer of 2007, after living together for two years, we got married. We had experienced ups and downs as far as weight loss during that time, but when we were married neither of us was happy with our weight. My size 10 dress, which I had altered two months before with the hopes of fitting in comfortably, was tight and I ended the night with bruises on my ribs from the pressure.

We spent our honeymoon in Jamaica and I remember being uncomfortable in my swimsuit and thinking that it didn’t matter if I liked the way I looked in pictures as long as I enjoyed myself. This began my complacency and acceptance of our physical shape. I accepted that I would probably never again be happy with how I looked and that Phil may never be healthy. In the years we lived together we had tried running, Atkins and South Beach, with one very successful run with the latter, but had always regained any weight we lost within six months.

Spring of 2009: Resigned and Apathetic

In the spring of 2009 as the school year ended, I realized how unhappy I was with the way I looked and felt. I was 161 pounds, depressed and lonely and determined to make a change. Immediately after my seniors graduated and the stress was lifted, I began running again. I had always looked at running as the key to being physically fit and healthy, so I assumed it was the answer this time as well. I remember feeling exhausted and tired in a way I had never felt before. And I did lose some weight. I ran regularly over the next three months, and distinctly remember the day I realized I didn’t feel the weight pulling down on me and when I no longer had raw spots where my thighs rubbed together as I ran. I had dropped 10 pounds and was feeling great. Despite this lifestyle shift for me, Phil and I still did not talk about his always increasing weight. He also had hereditary high blood pressure and frequent, incapacitating gout flare-ups.

Fall of 2009: Overstressed Motivated Runner

So, despite an extremely busy fall teaching full time and going to school half time to work on my master’s degree, I kept up running at least four times a week. Although I felt pretty good, I did not lose any more weight. Phil’s situation remained stagnant during this time and he had the worst year yet at his job. The economy was horrible and, since he was on 100% commissions and worked with job placement in the San Francisco bay area, he was essentially bringing home zero income. He was frustrated and unhappy, but saw no way out.

January 2010: Time for a Change

In the winter of 2009, we picked up a copy of Food Rules by Michael Pollan. We both read through the book in a couple of days, and, one day in December, Phil mentioned off-hand that he was ready to make a change. He said we would begin following the five easy rules in Pollan’s book, not as a New Year’s resolution (he hates crap like that), but as a lifestyle change. We weighed in on January 1st, me at 151 pounds (I had remained there without change even though I was running regularly) and him at 308 pounds. I was thrilled that he was ready to make a change and that he had found the motivation and determination to do so. He also made a job change very soon after to one which offered much more financial security in still uncertain economic times.

Fall 2010: Progress and Marathon

And we both made progress. We shopped on the outside of the grocery store, at more meat and vegetables and almost no processed foods; I was driven because Phil was. Every time I thought about putting something I wasn’t supposed to eat in my mouth, I thought about Phil, even if he wasn’t there. We had an agreement to eat well all the time and somehow I could do it for him when I couldn’t do it for myself.

I was determined to run a marathon, a lifetime goal of mine, so I began training that summer and still believed that running was the key to weight loss. I had reached my goal-weight of 135 pounds, but was surprised to find that, even though I was running 50+ miles per week, I did not lose any more weight or gain any muscle mass. I was skinny, but not strong and started to think a great deal about how my diet was factoring in. I was, however, addicted to chronic cardio and fearful of ever giving it up. I ran my marathon in October of 2010 and immediately began training for a half-marathon coming up early the next year. Phil had dropped down to 250 pounds and everywhere he went people we knew commented on his incredible weight loss. He joined a gym in September of that year and started going five times a week to run on the treadmill. He hit a wall that fall, though, and, despite carefully counting calories, he was stuck at 250 pounds for several months.

January 2011: The Primal Lifestyle Begins

Phil has always been interested in science so as he progressively got healthier, he became more and more interested in the science of weight loss and health. By the winter of 2010 he had started reading and researching all he could find about health and fitness. In the course of his research he came across a link to a site called Mark’s Daily Apple and took full advantage of the information he found there. He also started reading Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat (And What to Do About It), and gradually began changing his views and understanding of conventional weight loss beliefs. We had tried so many things, including calorie counting, the Zone diet (which was inspired by listening to the Cut the Fat Podcasts) and were fatigued by the work involved in counting calories. Phil wondered about why obesity was such a recent thing and why people from hundreds of years ago weren’t as fat as we are now when they wouldn’t have known anything about calories in/calories out. I had long suspected there was something wrong with that model based on my experience with running. Phil was intrigued by how great Mark looked and how happy he was and was excited by the possibility of adding butter and bacon back into our lives. So he looked for anything and everything he could find about the Paleo lifestyle. We bought cookbooks and listened to Robb Wolf, Latest in Paleo, Jimmy Moore and any other Paleo podcast he could find. We were eating bacon for breakfast, more than 2 dozen eggs a week and Phil was dropping pounds every week. I was still running, training for my half marathon, but Phil had transitioned to lifting free weights and running intervals a couple of times a week.

We started hiking and spending time in the sun and by May of 2011 Phil was down to 210 pounds, five pounds away from his goal weight and the least he had ever weighed. My full switch to the Primal Lifestyle came in April of 2011. During training for my half-marathon I suffered a stress fracture and was forced to give up running for eight weeks. During the recovery time I started doing basic strength workouts as a substitute for my Chronic Cardio and felt pretty good. When I was completely healed Phil began trying to convince me to join the gym with him and start lifting heavy things. I finally relented and the Bears were officially 100% Primal. We started going to the gym together four times a week, making an effort to walk in the sun and began playing hide and go seek with our dogs in the house and around the yard. We felt stronger, happier and better about ourselves, which, in turn, made all aspects of our relationship better.

Summer 2011: We Are Backpackers! (and Fully Primal)

In May of 2011, again in his off-hand way, Phil suggested we take up backpacking. We were intrigued by the prospect of carrying all we needed on our backs and hseeing beautiful, isolated lakes and views. For the last year or so Phil’s family had been trying to convince us to purchase a pop-up trailer for camping, but we went in the complete opposite direction. We hit REI for a weekend sale and purchased packs, a tent, cooking supplies and sleeping bags. We felt strong and confident and were ready to venture into the beautiful Idaho wilderness.

We had gone from carb-eating couch potatoes to self-sufficient hikers and minimalist Paleo chefs. In July of this year, we dragged another couple along on an 18 mile trip in beautiful Hells Canyon around the Seven Devils mountains; we climbed over and under downed trees in burn areas with 40 pound packs, eating Paleo the whole way. I was amazed at Phil’s strength and endurance; it was like he was a completely different person from the husband I had known just a year and a half before. He was sailing along at under 200 pounds and never complained throughout the incredibly physically challenging trip. We were backpackers!

Fall 2011: Beginning the 30 Day Challenge

So, here we are. Just two weeks ago Phil went in for his bi-annual checkup and he got his full blood-work done and asked her to send him the results. His cholesterol is 145, his triglycerides are 24, he hasn’t had a gout flare-up in a year and a half, he weighs 192.5 pounds and his risk for heart attack, based on his CRP, has gone from 5.7 (above 3.0 is high risk for a heart attack) in January of this year to 1.5 (1.0 to 3.0 is average risk and below 1.0 is low risk) as of August 23, 2011. He is fit, healthy, and won’t die of a heart attack any time soon – and he has muscles! I often half-jokingly tell people that I feel like I have accidentally made a great investment: He has always been the funniest and kindest person I know, and my best friend, and now he is incredibly attractive, healthy and fit.

We lift weights together four times a week, hike, play and experiment with Primal recipes. I feel strong and healthy, and even have some muscles myself ?. Amusing side note: our German Shepherd/Golden Retriever mix has always suffered from intestinal issues, but when Zamzows recently came out with a grain-free dog food we quickly switched to it; he too is benefiting from the Primal lifestyle and feeling just as great as we do.

When this 30 day challenge came up we were so excited because we are living our lives this way daily and saw it as an opportunity to engage with others who were doing the same and to share the success we have had. We recently recruited Phil’s aunt and uncle to the Primal lifestyle and in only a month they have enjoyed its benefits. They are also doing the 30 day challenge with us.

Recently a long time friend of ours who we had lost contact with ran into Phil downtown and didn’t even recognize him. We had to laugh at the encounter, but realized when we thought about it that, in many ways, we don’t even recognize ourselves. We have fully embraced this lifestyle and are so excited to continue it through the rest of our lives – and to recruit anyone and everyone we can.

Update: 12/23/11

Winter 2011:  Resisting Temptation and Lifting Heavy Things (Including Ourselves)

We successfully completed the 30 Day Challenge and enjoyed participating in many of the contests along the way.  We have continued lifting weights and have started focusing on even more Primal movements. One of the most significant goals we set for ourselves was to be able to do chin-ups and pull-ups, to be able to lift our own bodies. A year ago when I was in prime running shape I tried to do a simple rockclimb a foot off the ground and was frustrated to find that I couldn’t hold myself up with my arms. I thought I was “in shape,” but I wasn’t really Primal strong. So, we started working towards this goal over the summer and, as of mid-November, I can do several chin-ups and Phil can do pull-ups. I am still working towards a pull-up, but try every time we go to the gym. As of yesterday, I could just peek my eyes up over the edge. We are also working through the many temptations that surround us all during the holiday season and cold months. We have found the cold weather a motivator for trying out new soup recipes and particularly enjoy Mark’s “Cream” of Broccoli Soup. We are looking forward to the new year as another opportunity to refresh and set new goals for our health and fitness.

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