catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 17 :: 2010.09.24 — 2010.10.07


The weight of the West

I began the cleanse not because I wanted to lose weight, but because I wanted to rid my digestive system of extra yeast and toxins.  Weight loss was not something I even considered.  I have always had a fast metabolism and never worry about my weight.  But I did have digestive problems that remained unsolved, and so I wanted to see a natural nutritionist for some advice.  What I gained was a lot more. 

The culprit ended up being Candida, commonly known as yeast.  Little did I know that an overgrowth of yeast can cause all sorts of problems ranging from stomach cramps to hormone imbalance and weakened immune systems.  The fix?  The dreaded yeast cleanse, which I somehow convinced my husband to do with me.

We were given three sheets: the green sheet (Okay Foods), the orange sheet (Limit Foods) and the forbidden red sheet (Avoid at all costs!).  The green sheet was the shortest, which we were to live off of for the next few weeks.  It consisted mainly of organic meat, vegetables, eggs, nuts and a few non-starchy beans.  Anything with yeast was off limits, including wheat, gluten, sugar and dairy.  No rice, no bread, no starchy vegetables like potatoes, beets or yams.  Nothing fermented and not even any fruit, except for avocados, lemons and limes.  For beverages, water and herbal teas.  Definitely no coffee, alcohol or pop, all of which we were told are non-foods of zero nutritional value.

Our diet consisted of lots of protein and very few, if any, carbohydrates.  It’s not that yeast is bad, we were told, but an overgrowth of yeast floods your system and your body can’t get rid of the extra growth.  Yeast feeds off of sugar and a diet, such as our Western diet, overloaded with sugar causes an overgrowth of yeast.  The cleanse would not only flush out extra yeast, but also the many toxins stored in our bodies from chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides from food, water and environmental factors.

This sounded good.  At least this cleanse allowed us to eat actual food.  What did not sound so good were the side effects. 

“The first few days are the worst,” our nutritionist told us.  “You’ll have headaches and feel overall achy and flu-like as the toxins make their way out of storage and pass through your body to find their way out of your system.  But after two weeks you should be feeling great!” 

My husband and I looked at each other tentatively.  Flu-like symptoms? 

We dived in the next week.  Our first mistake was not gathering the right kinds of foods before starting the cleanse.  We found ourselves wandering around in grocery stores searching for organic asparagus and Brazil nuts, both of us irritable and with major headaches.

After days of feeling lightheaded, dizzy and achy, I realized that what was not told to us is that we would lose weight and feel hungry — all of the time.  We ate more meat in those two weeks than we had cooked for ourselves in the entire previous year.  We ate nuts, seeds and veggies and gallons of hummus.  We ate constantly whether we felt good or not, and yet we still lost weight and constantly felt hungry. 

I lost so much weight my pants were literally falling off, and I had already been at a healthy weight.  I felt like a stick to the point where it actually began to scare me.  With the lack of bread and carbohydrates my body seemed to be wasting away, almost eating itself. 

Eventually we went back to our nutritionist and after confessing my fears, she assured me that weight loss was normal.  “No one has ever done the cleanse and not lost weight,” she told me.  This was normal, and yet it did not feel normal to my body. 

And major weight loss in a short period of time is not normal.  It is a shock to your system.  It’s not normal to lose 10 pounds in only two weeks.  But at the same time, it’s also not normal — or to use a different word, natural — to have accumulated so much yeast and toxins from our diet that we force our bodies into a brutal cleanse. 

The Western diet, with all of its processed foods, is such a relatively new phenomenon that we are only just beginning to discover how it really affects our health and bodies.  Michael Pollan writes about this in his book In Defense of Food, which I read during the cleanse.  Pollan cites the rise of industrialism in our food system as the unnatural link that birthed highly processed foods and refined grains, chemicals to raise plants and animals in monocultures, cheap calories of sugar and fat and the reduction of the Western diet to a few stable crops: wheat, corn and soy. 

As North Americans, we carry around the consequences of our industrialized food system: extra weight, which can lead to further complications.  In the West, we now suffer from higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.  Many of us don’t realize how many preservatives and sugars are added to our food during processing, and how much of this we consume in our diets on a daily basis. 

I was not aware of what was really in my food until we began checking ingredient labels as part of the cleanse.  According to the red sheet we were to avoid sugar in any form.  Under the category of “sweeteners,” there were 18 listed.  Apart from the obvious sugar, brown sugar and artificial sweeteners, basically any ingredient ending in “ose” was also off-limits and composed of sugar, including fructose and glucose, which are found in foods as common as ketchup.  While walking through aisles looking for anything we could eat, it quickly became apparent that sugar and preservatives are in almost every processed food item, the most common being high fructose corn syrup. 

Through the cleanse, we also gained a greater awareness of the amount of pesticides and fertilizers used to grow many of the fruit and vegetables we eat.  As I experienced headaches and loss of weight, my body rid itself of years of stored toxins.  I realized that even when I think I’m observing a healthy diet with lots of fruits and veggies, I could actually be taking in tons of extra “weight” in chemicals.  Part of this weight is broken down and released and part stored which can potentially grow into cancerous tumors that feed off the excessive sugar in our diets.   

Unlike the weight lost at the beginning of the cleanse, this awareness of what is in our diet is something that cannot be shed or lost, no matter what it might cost us.  And for me and my husband, it is costing us time.  Months after the cleanse, I now spend twice as much time at the grocery store, walking through the produce section searching for organic vegetables and fruits.  And if I can’t find them, I go to other places like the farmer’s market.  In the grocery store aisle, I flip over bags and boxes to read every single ingredient before I make my choice, determining which product has the least number of ingredients and other preservatives.   

And of course it costs us financially, as well.  With the amount of processed food cheaply and readily available, organic healthy eating becomes an intentional lifestyle choice.  And for us it was a choice that cost us a lot more room in our wallets than we had originally intended.  When we were forced to buy all organic food during the cleanse, we were also forced to rearrange our budget.  Because we did not have extra money lying around for grass-fed meat and organic avocados, it was a change that forced us to accommodate it, like letting out the waist of a favorite pair of pants to accommodate those extra pounds. Eventually you adjust to whatever choice you make, but it is about choice.  The average American now spends less than 10% of their income on food, compared to the 17.5% we spent in 1960, and the 14.9% and 17.1% the Italians, French and Spanish spend on their food today, who also benefit from healthier diets*. 

The saying is true: we are what we eat.  And if I am putting into my body things that don’t belong and were never intended to be there — chemicals, preservatives, antibiotics and hormones, artificial flavors instead of whole foods — then it won’t be long before I will also face the weight of that choice.  Our bodies are strong, but they can only handle so much.  Our bodily systems can get overloaded, just like any other natural system that backs up and malfunctions. 

Instead of always seeing food as the enemy and having to diet, detox or cleanse, my family has come to realize that a life centered around clean, whole foods in a positive way is a much more natural way to live.  Although there is a cost, spending time and money gathering food, preparing it, and enjoying it together makes for a happier, healthier life — a life made lighter by less worry.

*See Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, pg. 187 for factual reference.

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