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A month without bacon because my genes said so

Engadget Engadget 19/07/2016 Daniel Cooper

If you've ever stumbled across the more inspirational corner of Instagram, you'll find plenty of images pertaining to motivation. After all, very few of us are physically incapable of at least trying to be athletic, but not everyone will haul enough ass to actually make it happen. I've made a career of using technology to lose weight, although never quite reaching my target. I put that down to a crippling lack of motivation, but for the first time in my adult life, I've spent the last three weeks eating salads as a component of every meal. Why? Because I'd really rather not get Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or cancer if I can avoid it.

A few weeks back, I had my DNA tested by DNAFit, a startup that analyzes your genetic makeup to improve your health and wellbeing. It's primarily designed for elite athletes looking to slice a few extra milliseconds from their sprint times, as well as weekend warriors who've already bought some fancy sneakers. But maybe what I really needed to help me lose weight is professional-level diet counseling from a former Olympic athlete. It was worth a go, because at this point, the only option available to me after this is finding a way to get on Extreme Makeover: Ass Vacuuming Edition.

The results were deeply upsetting, mostly because it turned out that the fundamentals of my diet were all the things I shouldn't be eating. It's not even as if I live on a diet of non-stop junk food and sugary drinks either. My body can't synthesize a big stack of chemicals necessary for healthy living, and so I have to supplement it with diet and pills. Even worse, I was advised to reduce my servings of smoked, fried and grilled meat to two portions a week, at most. Then there was the fact that bacon, the greatest foodstuff of them all, was now off the menu, essentially forever.

My task was made easier because DNAFit supplied me with a 43-page meal plan prepared by a pair of PhD students at Liverpool's John Moores university. This low-carbohydrate plan was designed to cover a 12-week diet, with each meal packing the correct quantities of macro and micronutrients that my body doesn't produce for itself. If there was an issue with this plan, it was that it was a shade too bougie for a regular slob like me. It didn't help either that I'd rather die tomorrow than eat smoked salmon and cream cheese as a lunchtime snack.

I may be a picky eater, but I'm also a resilient one, and I'm perfectly content to eat the same meal over again if I like it. That proved to be a boon, because some of the meals in the planner I didn't just like -- I considered them treats. Homemade chicken fajitas were on the menu, and I happily packed in extra wilted cabbage and other veggies to make them even healthier. Same goes for lamb meatballs, a meal that I looked forward to, but never had on a regular basis -- so long as they weren't smoked or grilled. In fact, most of my meals have included some meat (cooked without charring) alongside a big pile of salad on one side and a single piece of toasted pita bread on the other.

I've had to learn how to embrace salad -- salad! -- as a key component of my daily diet. And it wasn't as hard as I expected. For lunch I'll have a small salad containing shredded carrot, cucumber, sweet pointed pepper and pomodorino tomato. At dinnertime, I'll make the same again, adding fistfuls of fresh spinach leaves and massaged baby kale to bulk it out, drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The addition of cruciferous greens to my diet in massive quantities was a key tentpole of DNAFit's advice, since I have a deleted GSTM1 gene. That, in plain English, means that my body has never, and can never, produce enzymes to deal with carcinogens. Any time something cancer-causing hits my insides, it's given a red carpet welcome. That isn't good.

On the bright side, I have low sensitivity to fat and salt, not to mention I'm free to drink as much milk as I care to, which is excellent news. But there's always a kick in the gut, and for me it was a highly elevated risk of coeliac disease: up from 1 in 100 to 1 in 35 -- although it's not a definite medical diagnosis. That means that I need to cut down the amount of gluten in my diet, which kinda negates all of the time I've spent learning how to make fresh bread by hand.

One issue that a lot of recovering overeaters have is that it's hard to find a sense of chemical joy in absence. After all, our brains are used to that endorphin rush that comes from stuffing our bodies full of crap. We're also conditioned to tolerate that churning, gnawing sensation in our stomachs when we've gone too heavy on dinner and dessert. But when the bulk of your food is coming from plant matter, all of that goes, in favor of... nothing.

It takes a few days before the positives become obvious. Bending down to pick up a baby bath full of water no longer causes me to break a sweat. I'm suddenly a little clearer-headed. Writing is easier and I'm making fewer spelling mistakes, not to mention I'm sleeping better too. My weight hasn't dropped substantially, though -- at least not according to my scale. But my jeans are a lot more comfortable than they were a few weeks ago.

I've also not stuck to the diet as slavishly as perhaps I should; one Sunday was spent eating two big meals with friends, one after the other. I regretted that the following day as I felt woozy from the influx of carbohydrates that I realized I shouldn't have eaten. But lapses will always happen, and so long as I'm working towards better habits, then I don't feel too bad.

My initial foray into "nutrigenetic" testing meant that I got to sit down with DNAFit's Craig Pickering, who knows a thing or two about motivation. He was a world-class sprinter who, on the cusp of going to the 2012 London Olympics as a gold medal prospect. But, just months before the main event, his back gave out and required surgery to correct, rinsing his chances of representing his country. For most people, that would have been that, but not for Pickering. When his back was healed, he retrained as a bobsledder in the hopes of participating in the 2014 winter games. But again, just as he was starting to make waves, his back gave out. This time his career was over.

So I asked him, what tips could he give me to ensure that I would also be able to remain motivated? It came down to two things: balance, and social engineering. First, rather than giving himself "bans" for certain foods, he merely resolves to have them fewer times a week. Second, it's about keeping temptation at bay. So, rather than walking home from work past a McDonald's, he picks a different route. There's no bulk-buying of bingeable foods in his refrigerator to force him to keep to good habits. But he has no specific restrictions either.

So what motivates me? I think, in honesty, it's not about being thinner, healthier and happier. I've tried that -- the idea that I'd somehow become handsome and attractive and more confident if I just put down the bag of chips. It didn't work. But the motivation to change, for me, came in stark black and white: My body is broken and I need to fix it -- fast. That sense of youthful invulnerability that we all have has left me, replaced with an inconvenient truth. Which just reminds me about how many good things I have to live for, even if it does mean having to eat shitloads of kale.

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