Bonus: Laura Dolson – About.com’s Guide to Low Carb Diets


Jonathan: Hey, everyone Jonathan Bailor here, so happy to bring you another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast, and today’s show is definitely going to be a good one because we have a woman, and a prolific writer for one of the most widely read websites in the world about.com. Not just any member of the about.com editorial staff, but the guide to low-carb diets on about.com, a woman who has been writing, and doing personal experimentation with a carbohydrate restriction or just being selective about the carbohydrate she puts in her body. I kind of hate that we call it a diet she is just picking the best stuff. Her name is Laura Dolson, Laura welcome to the show.

Laura: Well thanks Jonathan it’s great to be here.

Jonathan: Laura, just to get us started one of the things that really attracted me to you, and wanted to have you on the show is I feel like a lot of Smarter Science of Slim listeners will gain a lot from hearing your story from a personal side. Both your successes and as well as challenges with taking a more deliberate approach to the types of carbohydrates you are eating. Can you just take us all the way back and tell us the story.

Laura: I am 58 years old, so that’s quite far back that we are talking about.

Jonathan: We got some time. No, I am just kidding.

Laura: Basically, I was always interested in fitness and health. I was a physical therapist in my first career incarnation, but I always had a weight problem, so I was always struggling with it, and trying to figure out what were the best ways to deal with it. I came of age just at the Ancel Keys, “Let’s all eat low fat,” which unfortunately for me was the opposite of what my body really needed, but I didn’t know that at that time. I went on many different diets and did the typical, losing weight, and gaining it back. Then I went through a period where – I’d read the obesity literature, and I saw how ineffective diets were, so I just stopped dieting. I did a lot of mindful eating kind of approaches, and different kinds of methods to try to figure out why I overate. I sat in support groups for years where we tried to figure out why we ate those donuts kind of thing. Through the years I just kept gaining weight no matter whether I dieted or whether I didn’t diet I gained weight, and I kept trying to do – I was a vegetarian for 12 years. I was a big advocate of the healthy whole grain, and the low fat.

Jonathan: We all were at one point, so don’t feel bad.

Laura: I was reading what everyone was saying to eat, and I kept trying to do that, and for some reason it didn’t really connect that, “Oh maybe the problem wasn’t me maybe the problem was that what they were suggesting wasn’t right for me.” Then a friend of mine in the mid ‘90s went on a low-carb diet, and it was actually the carbohydrate addict diet which is – I don’t think anybody even knows about that one anymore, but it had been really helpful to her. I just read her the riot act, and told her how unhealthy that was you should not do that.

She said, “Look you are a science person go, and look find the studies show me why this is so unhealthy.” I lived in San Diego at that time, and went to the medical library at UC San Diego for three days looking up all the nutrition studies, all about low fat, which I was sure was going to show how healthy it was, and carbohydrate restriction, and how bad that was going to be. I came out of it saying “Oh, my gosh there is nothing to show that eating low fat is healthier, nothing.”

I just found nothing and instead indeed carbohydrate restriction was really showing some promise. I went on my – what I would call my first low-carb diet I think about 1976, and that was kind of a zone type diet, so it was a moderate carb, but it really helped me I lost a lot of weight, I felt better, I lost a fair amount of weight, felt a lot better. Then figured out that part of the reason I felt a lot better was that I was gluten-intolerant. A friend of mine who is a pediatrician said, “Wait a minute what were you eating? What were your symptoms? Oh, my gosh I bet you have got celiac disease or your gluten intolerant.” It turned out to be true, so then I thought that was my problem.

Then I started eating carbs again just non-gluten carbs, guess what everything just went back the way it was? I regained the weight, and all my symptoms that I was having reappeared. I reached a point I guess around 2000 that I just said, “Okay, this is just ridiculous.” I was in the middle of menopause, and I was miserable from that and I was pre-diabetic, and I was gaining weight, and I can’t seem to stop it. I finally did this kind of program on myself where I spent a few months very carefully monitoring everything I ate and changing it. Like, for these two weeks I wouldn’t eat dairy. I just went through all kinds of different kind of permutations of eating, and really charted my symptoms, my weight, and everything. Finally after two or three months said, “Wow, I feel a lot better” and I realized, “Oh I am on the protein power diet, Okay, good.” Then I really became firmly convinced that, that was the right way for me to eat, and then got very interested in learning more, reading more, and then started writing from there. I had already done some health writing before that mostly about cancer, but I turned my attention at that point to nutrition, particularly carbohydrate reduction.

Jonathan: Laura can you dig a little bit into, so after literally decades of trial and error it sounds like you found a way of eating that is not a diet. I mean you are doing it for over 10 years now it’s just the way you eat. What are the characteristics? What is your typical day look like? What is your typical carbohydrate intake? Is it really like a low-carb or is it more just like specific carb? What are your thoughts?

Laura: It’s low carb I eat a lot of vegetables the vast majority of my carbs comes from vegetables. I am a big believer in that I go in jags, but for a long time I have been having a piece of my flax meal toast for breakfast with eggs, and I eat actually a fairly high fiber diet. I don’t eat any grains; I don’t eat any added sugar at all of course. I eat a little bit of fruit, a little of berries, but not a whole lot of fruit. It is just mostly protein, vegetables, some nuts, a little bit of fruit, some seeds.

Jonathan: Sounds like you’ve just gone SANE. That’s what it sounds like.

Laura: I do some dairy, so I’m not a non – I didn’t find that that was helpful to me when I was doing my experiments with that. So, yeah I’ll eat some Cheezers, butter, whatever.

Jonathan: Laura are you looking at between 50, and 75 grams of carbohydrate per day or are you are talking like low carb – I stay under, so I’m under 40 grams, always in the state of ketosis?

Laura: Just because of the amount of vegetables I eat I am usually a little bit above that 40, I’m probably in the 40 to 60 range.

Jonathan: What have you actually seen is the long-term results both, in terms of your health, and in terms of your energy levels, and also your body composition?

Laura: My body composition is the bad news I’m still definitely very overweight. The good news about my weight is it is stable I lost the kind of proverbial 10 percent of my body weight, and I gained a little bit of it back. Then it has been absolutely the same for 10 years, so year in, year out I can depend on summer clothes are going to fit. To me that’s a success story for me because I was [inaudible 09:58], but it is kind of a taboo subject Jonathan I think.

Certainly the diet books are not going to lead you to believe this result could be positive. People don’t want to hear that, “Oh, this diet will just make me less fat.” It is just not good news to most people. On the other hand there is a lot of individual variation in what happens to people, and I think probably the older you get, and you get past menopause – I don’t know all the ends, and outs of why some people seem to take more weight off than others, but the health’s benefits for me have been fabulous.

Not only do I feel a lot better, my concentration, my energy level all of that, but my pre-diabetes hasn’t progressed which everybody said it would. All the doctors said, “Oh you would be diabetic right now if you weren’t low-carb.” Really, blood lipids are great my blood pressure is great, and all of those kinds of markers are really healthy. I saw an endocrinologist who said, “You are doing great he said” my life expectancy was as good as anybody else’s. To me that’s a huge success story, but when people look at me they don’t think I am a success story.

Jonathan: Laura I think you hit the nail on the head, and it breaks my heart because getting back to your story, you said a phrase which your certainly not the only person who said this. In fact when I was speaking with Gary Taubes he said the same thing, “Where I have always had a weight problem.” There are people and it is not an opinion, this is now pretty much established in the scientific literature that 40 to 75 percent of our body composition has a heavy, heavy, heavy genetic predisposition. If you take an individual who is genetically predisposed to carrying more fat on their body, you age them many decades, and you take them through menopause – they are still incredibly healthy. They are not on the cover of any magazine, but that’s not everyone’s goal, and they are happy, they are not hungry, they are healthy, and especially in our culture I consider that a raging success.

Laura: Well thank you.

Jonathan: I mean seriously Laura I think that’s part of the problem is that sometimes – like let’s be and correct me if I am wrong, but you are at this point – I would imagine since you have done this for nearly a decade you are not struggling with it. You wake up you eat you go about your life like eating, and do correct me if I am wrong. Eating is not something you are really worried about, and focus a lot of attention on. Would that be fair?

Laura: Right, oh yes this is just the way I eat. When I am hungry I eat something, and then I am not hungry.

Jonathan: The reason I draw that distinction out is because for someone who is naturally heavier to be in an unnatural state, AKA to be quote on quote, “skinny” is probably going to require them to do a bunch of unnatural things.

Laura: You know I’m really glad you said that because I have the same impression. When I see people that are operating at what I think is probably below the weight their body wants to be it takes a tremendous amount of effort I mean really –

Jonathan: Absolutely.

Laura: A full-time job for them they are exercising many hours a day. They are obsessed with what they eat I mean really they need to be like not working full time.

Jonathan: Laura you’re exactly – I mean why that is? It is because they are battling against their basic biology. Their biology says, “I think you should have this body composition,” and it is a fulltime job just like if you want to, think of it almost as making your body have the ability to run unnaturally fast. You can do that, and if you have a genetic predisposition to be fast it will be a lot easier, but even if you don’t have a genetic predisposition to be fast, you can do that, but you are going to have to sleep more, you are going to have to change your diet. Anytime you try to take your body out of its normal homeostatic range man, that’s a 24×7, 365 jobs, right there.

Laura: Right, yes, and I have known people like that. If that’s the way they want to spend their energy, okay, but I have a lot of other things I want to spend my energy on.

Jonathan: Absolutely and to be clear if your health is in place, and your self-esteem is in place, and your energy levels are in place, and you are enjoying life – I feel sometimes that we conflate being skinny with the emotion that we think skinny will give to us. If you are in the state of serenity with your body and with your lifestyle, which it sounds like you are, and you are healthy because health isn’t subjective; it’s not good to be diabetic. That’s not good we should try to not be diabetic, but if you have achieved that state of serenity with your appearance, and you are healthy you have achieved that which most people think they have to spend 20 hours a week on or else they can’t feel that way, so that’s good for you, right?

Laura: Well thanks I do feel that way, but I have sometimes a little bit of difficulty putting that message out.

Jonathan: Absolutely.

Laura: Because nobody wants to hear it basically, but when I do from time to time I get a good response, so I am actually thinking of writing more about this because there are a lot of people in my situation.

Jonathan: Oh, absolutely, and Laura I can’t even – I mean it truly is I think – Gary uses the funny analogy of trying to make like a bulldog versus a dachshund, “You aren’t ever going to ever run a bulldog enough to turn it into a dachshund.” It is just a different genetic makeup of that type of dog versus a different type of dog. There are tall people, short people, and there are endomorphs, meso-morphs, ecto-morphs, like that is not controversial. Those three body types have been established medical standards for quite some time now.

To tell an endomorph for folks who aren’t familiar with that an endomorph is someone who is naturally heavier – meso-morph is in the middle, and ectomorph is someone who is a little bit lankier. Telling an endomorph that they can become an ectomorph is false it is a full-time job, and even then an endomorph will not become an ectomorph. They will be constantly battling their body’s desire to keep them at a heavier weight day in and day out.

Laura: I think this is true and I think there is another thing too and that is that as people have gone through their lives eating the wrong stuff, it could be that we are epigenetically flipping switches that are more likely to – even if we start it out may be a little bit thinner. I can’t really categorize it, but somebody who is now for 30 years has been eating the wrong way, and now they found the right way to eat, they have lost some weight, but they may never go back to where they were.

I went to the Ancestral Health Symposium not this past year, but the year before when it was in LA, and there was a real difference between the low-carb people that were there who tended to be middle aged, older, fatter, and the kind of the Paleo people who are young, athletic, and running around. Some of the Paleo people commented on that, and I think they said, “Well low-carb that looks like it makes you fat.” When in truth I think people tend to come to the Paleo movement young, and hopefully they never will have the problems that those of us who have eaten the wrong way for a long time have come to, and then we have to kind of come to low-carb or Paleo or whatever later in life. I know people that have lost a lot of weight and kept it off low-carb, and I know an awful lot of people who haven’t. I don’t think that like, we were just talking about, and I don’t think that is a fault of low-carb or a fault of them it’s just whatever has happened in their body in those 30 years has just made it more difficult.

Jonathan: Laura, your intuition is spot-on. We talked about the set-point weight, and the weight of the body is trying to maintain. One of the reasons I get, so amped up about the consumption, and distribution especially to children of processed starches, and sweets is like Coca-Cola will have us, lead us to believe it is only 140 calories. What these edible products do to us is better characterized like what cigarette smoking does to our respiratory system these foods do to our metabolic system; meaning they are causing irreparable damage, and that is not controversial. Let me give one example we cannot get rid of fat cells it is impossible. Once you have a fat cell it always exists on your body, you can dehydrate it, but it is always there. Do you think it is easier or harder for someone who has more fat cells to gain weight than someone who has less fat cells?

Laura: Right.

Jonathan: Right, you are spot-on that if you lived through the Wonder Bread era. If you lived through the Ancel Keys era, sadly that’s like living through the madman era for smoking, it kind of stinks. The good news is we do have this prescription called carbohydrate restriction which can elicit some damage control to the systems you need to propagate your life which is really great. This is not a death sentence, but it also might not mean we are able to get on the cover of any magazines anytime soon. At least not fitness magazines certainly plenty of other magazines, but may be not fitness magazines.

Laura: Right, exactly.

Jonathan: Laura the other key thing that you mentioned which I think is so important. The Ancestral Health Symposium story is a fascinating one where I do think there is whatever lifestyle one chooses to follow that is secondary or that is primary. The low-carb lifestyle you are following is secondary; it is not a focus of yours. If an individual is Paleo, and their entire life is predicated around finding certain qualities of foods, and doing Cross-Fit five days a week, etc. If that person put that amount of effort into really any kind of dietary program they would probably get fantastic results. The question is which strategy provides the most results for every given level of effort. What do you think?

Laura: Wow, let me try to make sure I understand what you are asking. You are saying, “Paleo is not just a way of eating it is obviously a lifestyle” and you’re saying, “It takes so much effort for people to figure out what you eat, and do all the exercise and sleeping I mean there is a lot to it that is really great.”

Jonathan: No, no, no, and let me…

Laura: I don’t want to make it sound negative at all.

Jonathan: I don’t mean to cut you off, but my message was definitely not anything negative of Paleo. Forget about Paleo just like take, I don’t care, vegetarianism. If you take any form of eating like take person A, and they have diet approach A, and they are dedicating 20 hours a week to that. You take person B, and they have diet approach B, and they are dedicating two hours a week to it. There are two factors varying there not just the type of diet they are eating.

Laura: Absolutely, and the other thing that goes along with that is once you go from eating a junky diet to eating a healthy diet – although people might disagree with some aspects of what that healthy diet is you’re most of the way there without going to a lot of the time consuming detail.

Jonathan: Exactly, yeah there is definitely an 80:20; you will eliminate edible products from your food. We are not suffering from diabesity epidemic because people are eating too many potatoes. It’s the edible products and garbage, and certainly some people are probably better off staying away from the potatoes, but people ate potatoes long before we had 40 million children under the age of five who are overweight, right?

Laura: Right, not just the amount of processed food that is being eaten, but coming out lately with Michael Moss book and so forth, the amount of care, and attention that has been plowed into making sure that people want to keep eating that stuff is part of a big piece of a problem I think. If it was just like the thing about potatoes just the potato, it has not been coded with the exact right combination of chemicals to make you want to keep eating it.

Jonathan: Absolutely, even deeper than that Laura that spot-on is a lot of people don’t realize that for example, an apple that you buy at the conventional grocery store compared to like an apple you would pick up a tree in some forest in some remote land. People like Dr. William Davis book Wheat Belly is flying off the shelves, and it is phenomenal. It is great because it basically says, “Yes people want to say well in biblical times people ate wheat, and they didn’t have all these problems.” They were not eating the same wheat we are eating today. They are two different foods literally if you look at the fructose content in the typical apple you would buy at a grocery store, and the fructose content of an apple of our Paleolithic ancestors, they are different foods. One has been engineered over generations to be sweeter and higher in fructose and so, we are getting it from all angles.

Laura: Even going back, you don’t even to go back that far. A few years ago I went back and looked at charts from the 1950s, and the difference between the amount of sugar in a cantaloupe in 1950, and in 2000 was significantly more in 2000. They have just breeding them a lot recently even to be sweeter and sweeter of course is the big goal.

Jonathan: It gets so tough Laura I think because you will have individuals who given that – let’s call it like second layer of food engineering where you are eating a food, you are not eating an edible product. The food has been bastardized in some way, so you have individuals who are like, “Okay I am going to start eating more food.” They do things like have a snack which is a big banana, BIG banana, so there is 35 grams of sugar right there, and they have some peanut butter because they are like peanut butter is good for me, but it is the kind that you typically buy that has a bunch of trans-fats in it, but they are like, “Oh it is peanut butter, so it is natural.”

Laura: And sugar!

Jonathan: And sugar, right? Then that doesn’t work at all, so they are like, “Forget this I’m just going to go back to my Twinkies, and Holes.” It is almost like you need that level deeper almost which is certainly not easy, but when you find that like you have, and your are able to find what I like to call nutritional, and psychological serenity, because at this point your are healthy, your are happy, you are not hungry, you are not worried about it. In some ways Laura you’ve got a leg up on me because I am worried about what I look like. I am like, “Oh man I am coming out with this other book, I have to look good or no one is going to buy my book” I am just kidding.

Laura: I don’t in my daily life have any self-consciousness, but it is true that when I meet a bunch of people who have a different expectation of what I am going to look like I do get a little like, “Oh, boy here we go.”

Jonathan: Laura, I think we may have hit on something here you could be the champion of it, it is almost like a survivor movement. I don’t mean to get too mushy, but individuals who maybe survived a disease, or something like that. In some ways those recommendations we were given for a couple of decades was a pretty plague-like disease, and not only did you survive it, but now you are thriving in spite of it. I mean let’s get a ribbon for that hell I think so.

Laura: Well you have a very positive outlook on it and I really appreciate it because I would like to spread that idea because I think it is true for, so many people. The real tragedy for me is I see people giving up because they say, “It didn’t work” because it didn’t bring them to the way they expected to get to. That just breaks my heart because they were getting, so many benefits, but they give up on the whole thing. I would love to do something to educate people, so that they would stick with what they have found to be healthy for them regardless of the way they end up at.

Jonathan: Absolutely, do please listeners if you yourself or anyone you know please do not sacrifice unquestionable internal benefits, because they may not manifest themselves externally the way the media would have us believe they should, because that’s a baby with the bathwater if I have ever seen it.

Laura: Yeah I totally agree.

Jonathan: Well Laura I feel like, “Oh my gosh we have been talking for quite some…” We are going to have you back on the show I feel like we could talk for quite some time. I really, really appreciate you sharing your story, and really opening up the book of Laura Dolson with us today it was a wonderful story I enjoyed it very much.

Laura: I am glad and thanks, so much for having me I’m really glad to do it.

Jonathan: Well thank you, and folks if you want to learn more about Laura she is not hard to find. Like I said she is THE low-carb guide on one of the world’s leading websites, about.com, and her name again is L-A-U-R-A D-O-L-S-O-N, so just type in Laura Dolson at about.com, and I am sure your favorite search engine will get you where you need to be. Laura thanks, so much for joining us today.

Laura: Thank you Jonathan it’s been great.

Jonathan: Everyone I hope you enjoyed our conversation. Remember this week and every week after; eat more and exercise less, but do that smarter.

[Audio ends 30:00]

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Laura Dolson. Laura is About.com’s Guide to Low Carb Diets, is a health and food writer, and develops low-carb and gluten-free recipes for home cooks. She’s been developing health and education Web sites for over 10 years. She was a writer and cancer support provider at Mediconsult.com, and has taught health and nutrition classes at a junior high charter school in California. She has been focusing on low-carb and low-glycemic eating for over a decade — investigating the emerging science related to low-carb eating, writing articles to help people change their diets, and developing healthy menus and recipes.

Laura has an B.S in physical therapy from the University of Vermont, an M.A. in clinical psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego, and several years of doctoral work in clinical psychology, part of which involved research in online communication…and is here to help us take a more SANE approach to carbs as well as a more SANE approach to the results we can expect from doing so.