In the spiritual life, we are pitted against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Its warfare and our opponents manifest in many ways, some more obvious than others. One doesn’t have to scan television, or music on the radio, very far to encounter anti-Christian or anti-Christ messages there. It screams, “Hey, don’t follow Christ – live a life of excess.” This manifests itself in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most obvious of these invasions involves lust, challenging the custody of our eyes and minds. In American society, however, there’s another just as insidious, yet very obvious battle 60% of Americans fight obesity. I am among those Americans who wear their lost battles on the outside for all to see. Anyone can look at me and easily see my weakness. Sometimes, there is a physiological reason why someone is fat, but I think we can say with a fair amount of confidence that it mostly has to do with poor self-discipline, poor food choices which tend to accumulate and snowball over the course of years. I believe there to be a spiritual component to this battle, related to the deadly sin of gluttony and physical sloth. In this essay, I’ll explore these themes – and discuss some of the battles I have personally faced in this physical and spiritual arena.
So What’s It Like to be Fat?
A priest whom I have known from Facebook once asked me to write about obesity and what it was like to live with this condition. Candidly, he said that most people probably don’t know what it’s like to bear this burden and fight these battles. So, I’ll tell you a little of what it has been like. When I was in high school, I thought I was heavy – but in retrospect, looking back at the photographs of myself, I really wasn’t. I wasn’t athletic, but I most certainly wasn’t obese at that time. I do remember making an effort to improve my physical health through running and swimming and lifting weights in my parents’ basement. Then I went to college. As a freshman, I suppose I fell into that trap of gaining the “freshman fifteen.” For those of you that haven’t heard of this, it’s the fifteen or so pounds that many students (who live on campus) gain when they’re suddenly responsible for feeding themselves. All-you-can-eat buffet style dorm food, late night pizzas, and trips to Taco Bell eventually take their toll. I gained that fifteen pounds, and probably more – and by the time I graduated I was considerably heavier than I was when I entered 4 years before.
I had aspirations to continue my education. My plans for being a doctor had fallen through, mostly due to my own lack of self-discipline (a pattern) and I hadn’t any aspirations for a graduate degree in my field (biology). So, I ended up working on campus in the security department in order to gain the tuition benefit. During a period of four years, I piled on more weight. In retrospect, this was primarily because I was in a sitting position (a clerk), dealing with high-stress situations, working late hours, and of course eating lots of greasy fast food which the other employees were always bringing back to the office. By the time I left this job, I was considerably heavier.
Over the course of another decade, I held several more positions at the University, gained and lost weight, but had effectively gotten on the (un)merry-go-round of suffering that is a part of being morbidly obese. I don’t call this suffering frivolously. Let me give you an idea of some of the things a large person encounters in their life. Clothes are more expensive, and not available from regular stores. I had to order my $60 pants (always black chinos) from big and tall retailers online. Clothes also more frequently rip and tear. Chairs with arms are problematic. I still can’t fit into guest chairs in offices or waiting rooms. I can’t go to the ball game or theatre, without arranging for an “ADA” seat. I have to purchase two seats if I want to fly anywhere. I am always limited in how far I can walk, and in the active life that a man with a young family should have. That’s really my biggest regret. Among other detriments, I can’t just buy any car – it has to be a big car with lots of seat width. Being obese gives a terrible first impression. People stare, assume you’re lazy and make mean comments. I have been blessed with many kind managers in my career, but I am sure that being of an extra-large size is a career limiter in many respects. In the spiritual sense, this becomes sinful in my opinion because it’s a waste of time, resources, and my God-given talents. At least that’s how it seems to me.
The Problem Gets Worse
Around my mid 30’s chronic health conditions, in addition to the physical limitations, started to become a problem. The first issue I had was with blood pressure. As a manager in a high stress IT job, I started to have nosebleeds after contentious meetings. Eventually, one evening at home, I had a nosebleed that would not stop and required a trip to the Emergency Department. As it turned out my blood pressure had risen to 239 / 124 – a deadly level (especially that bottom number which is the constant pressure in one’s arteries). Fortunately, a blood vessel in the back of my sinuses had burst allowing the pressure (which must have been even higher) to reduce. The doctor in the ER told me that I very well could have lost my life that night, except for the nosebleed. Sadly, all of this was witnessed by my daughter and my wife – both of whom were at home scared out of their wits. Mea maxima culpa.
Other health problems that have arisen since that time include pre-diabetes, stage 2 chronic kidney disease, fatty liver (which I have reversed), high cholesterol and triglycerides, sleep apnea, asthma, and atrial fibrillation. All of these conditions are known as co-morbidities because they can work together to kill a person if a complication in any one of them arises. All of these require special medical care, regular trips to specialists, and thousands of wasted dollars in copays and pharmaceuticals. Currently, due to diet (which I discuss below), most of these have been reversed or are under control.
Why Does He Put Up With It?
By now many of the readership are wondering: Why in the world does this guy put up with this situation year after year? Why doesn’t he do something? He clearly understands this is serious and potentially sinful? That’s a great question – one that I have asked myself a million times. It’s an easy and pat answer to say – well, it’s the way God made me or I just lack self-discipline. The reality of the matter is that this isn’t the way God made me, nor what He calls me to be. There may be contributing factors in my nature: getting lost in the moment or lost in my thoughts. But there are sinful proclivities too: allowing myself to be distracted by frivolous, worldly things and indulging myself (with food). Perhaps I have what is called an “addictive personality.” In self-reflection, I don’t think I have focused enough on what is really important: God and my family. Instead, it seems, that I have focused on myself or on elective activities that neither promote God nor develop my family. Selfish concupiscence has born a harvest of more self-centeredness. Alas, all things can be accomplished through Christ, by those who love Him. In the times where I have been most successful in battling the beast of obesity, I have been most focused on God and my family and less focused on all the other distractions in life. There is a connection between the spiritual and physical that in my opinion cannot be denied. Mass, prayer and Eucharistic Adoration – especially with my family are the answer, and something I aspire to do more of.
The Keto Diet
About two years ago, I was honored to participate in the first annual St. Joseph Radio Catholic Man of the Year event in St. Louis, MO. I was humbled to be nominated by my parish for the event and reluctantly accepted the great honor of being nominated. (This year’s dinner is coming up, so if you’re in St. Louis, Missouri or Orange County, California– be sure to nominate someone from your parish! This event is entirely to promote Catholic men, a favorite cause of mine, and not a fund-raiser.) Soon thereafter I was contacted by a wonderful doctor who was a part of the group that reviewed the nominees and picked the ultimate winner. The doctor, Helen Gelhot, MD, offered to help me with my weight problem. One of the tools we decided to use is something called the Ketogenic (‘Keto’) diet.
The Keto diet is a lot like the Atkins diet (which I had been on previously and had great success), but this diet involves eating foods which are high fat, adequate protein, and low carb. Like Atkins, the diet puts the body into a state of ‘ketosis,’ which means that instead of the body’s cells being fueled by glucose, it switches to a secondary pathway in the Krebs Cycle which uses ketone bodies. Ketone bodies are produced naturally by the liver in the absence of glucose. The diet was developed over 100 years ago, and then reintroduced in the 1920’s and more recently as a way to treat children with epilepsy who cannot tolerate medications. In fact, historically, Dr. Salisbury was thinking along these lines when he developed the Salisbury Steak to treat a host of brain ailments.
In any case, I have been on this diet for the past 18 months or so. In fact, I view it more as a lifestyle change. So far I have lost about 30 pounds. Some of the side effects of the diet include an increase in mental acuity (loss of brain fog) and a decrease in inflammation and pain in the joints. Because the diet involves higher fat, one feels more satiated. This means that a meal will tend to be more satisfying and one will be prone to keep going on the diet. The food selections, even minus the bread and regular sweets, are amazing. I have learned recipes that include “Fat Head Pizza,” and “Ultimate Mexican Casserole.” I eat lots of eggs, bacon, and sausage. Due to the availability of sweeteners based on Stevia and Erythritol (a more tolerable sugar alcohol) I have even been able to make fudge “Fat Bombs.” I used that term in the title to get your attention. So what are Fat Bombs? Fat Bombs in the keto diet community are little morsels – either sweet or savory – which increase the fat count in your diet (important for keeping the ketosis going) without a lot of extra protein (too much can turn to sugar) and carbs (mine are limited to 12g and 20 g per day). It’s always a special treat to drop a couple of “Fat Bombs” on my fat self at the end of the day – and still keep the weight loss going.
Of course, no lifestyle change is easy, but this one (in combination with a focus on the spiritual) seems to be the answer for me. My goal, of course, is to avoid bariatric surgery, and in reality, this is my last stop before I go there. If anyone is interested in this diet, I highly recommend watching the YouTube video, “Butter Made My Pants Fall Off.” Please keep me in your prayers, as I do all of you who seek God and his Truth. St. Mary of Victories, Pray for Us.