From Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul

Beating the Genes

Nobody’s family can hang out the sign, “Nothing the matter here.”

Chinese proverb

“Are you carbohydrate sensitive?” my gynecologist asked. I’d asked for thyroid tests because I’d been rapidly gaining weight. Carbohydrate sensitive? Was this something like being lactose intolerant? I liked carbs. Carbs liked me. So what? My tests came back fine, but the weight question remained unanswered. I felt there was something more here.

Fast-forward five years after that carb question. My carbohydrate knowledge amounted to what the media fed us: that thousands of people were jumping on the Atkins low-carb diet. Me? I hated diets.

At my next appointment, my 5’4” frame weighed in at a whopping 201 pounds. Chills ran down my spine, kindling an unfamiliar fear. Just a year before, my fifty-two-year-old mother died on my thirtieth birthday, and she hadn’t even been sick! Her death devastated our family. In hindsight, she harbored many health risks: obesity, untreated high blood pressure, an enlarged heart from childhood rheumatic fever, a maternal grandmother who suffered several strokes before age seventy and a maternal grandfather who had two heart bypass surgeries before age seventy.

It’s apparent now that our family was naive about these health risks that cut Mom’s life short. The doctor blamed her death on pulmonary embolism. The coroner said, “heart attack.” Regardless of the cause, multiple warning signs were present, but ignored.

I was horrified to see the scale read 201. If the above warning signs weren’t enough to scare me, diabetes ran on both sides of the family as well. I suddenly felt that I was up to bat in the ninth inning of the World Series and down in the count by two strikes. My situation weighed heavily on me, both figuratively and literally.

What were my chances of beating the odds stacked against me? After that appointment, I started viewing my life as things being IN or OUT of my control. Period. Genetics, obviously, were “out.” But if I didn’t get a handle on things in my control, I could repeat a sad history if I died young, like Mom.

What I ate was in my control, so I began analyzing meals. Monday: pasta, bread. Tuesday: meat, potatoes, rolls (gobs of butter!). Wednesday: take-out. Thursday: goulash. Friday: take-out—again.

My diet could’ve been a promo for “Carbs-R-Us.” At that moment, I decided my family would not endure heartbreak, as I had in losing Mom so soon. I vowed to cut back on pasta, potatoes, bread, sweets and inactivity.

I learned the difference between “good” and “bad” carbs, and that our bodies actually need good carbs to function correctly. I also learned that serotonin is a chemical in our brains responsible for making us happy. When serotonin levels are low, we feel unhappy. I’m not a scientist, but now I understand that high-carb foods feed the brain’s serotonin levels. As I ingested high-carb foods, I increased the levels in my brain that were low to begin with. My brain liked it and craved more. My body chemistry was actually partly to blame for my cravings!

I started making healthier choices at the grocery store. I cooked similar meals, but with healthier alternatives. I paid attention to portion sizes, often reducing them. Fruits and nuts became standard snacks instead of chocolate. And water—lots of water—replaced soda. My weight dropped significantly. Eventually I stopped eating starchy foods completely and reduced my sugar intake. It wasn’t that I couldn’t eat them, I simply didn’t want them. For the first time, it was working for me!

Nine months later, sixty pounds lighter, five sizes smaller, feeling good and looking great, I joined a fitness gym. My personal trainer taught me to lift weights three days a week and walk on the other days. And surprisingly, I loved it! Muscles appeared out of nowhere. Inches disappeared.

Empowered is now a common word in my vocabulary. I am thrilled with the way I now look and feel. The mirror, once foe, is now my friend. I like what I see. Most importantly, I like who I see. A strong, confident mother, wife and woman; a woman I’ve known all along, but didn’t have the courage to be. The proof is in the low-fat pudding.

Lisa Pemberton

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