Or…How I Beat Candida and Incidentally Lost 60 Pounds
As a manly man, it’s a bit shameful to admit you count anything, let alone something as vain as carbs or calories. In reality, a manly man has many layers. On the surface, it’s important to pretend you can’t count anything. You face what comes, whether it’s the next beer or the next opponent, without worrying about long-term issues like being outnumbered or running out of beer. Under that surface, a manly man is highly intelligent, of course, and understands exactly what’s going on — it’s only for honour’s sake that he doesn’t allow himself to access that information.
Still, even a manly man eats. And that eating includes choices. As the author of The Ugly, I tried for a long time to keep my body as close to that of Muzhduk’s as I could. I was unable to reach 300 lbs, but so long as I was over 260, with enough muscle to perform parlour tricks like lifting Honda Civics, I was happy.
Then something happened that dropped me down to 205. I lost most of my body fat while retaining all my lean muscle mass. To my chagrin, I can now count eight individual muscles in my abdomen. The good news is I haven’t lost strength. The bad news is that now I look, well, thin.
But the other day, someone asked me how I lost so much weight without losing muscle. And I realized that some people might actually want to be thin. Well, as a writer, if you spend over a hundred hours researching something, eventually you’re going to write about it. Nevertheless, I would like to stress that this diet was purely accidental, and that even if the writer side of my brain now knows about things like insulin-mediated increases in tissue glucose uptake, hormones like leptin and ghrelin, and so on, the manly man side blames it on the grass roof.
I went through a rainy season in Ubud, Bali, with an old grass roof that had ten leaks. I counted. Buckets everywhere, books moulded through like I was one of those hard-core mycolatrists who have personal relationships with their psilocybin and can name, by the nature of their trip, exactly which book of the bible their ‘shrooms had been grown on. My clothes were unwearable unless they’d just come from the laundry, and I eventually discovered that the bottom half of my mattress was purpler than the prose in an MFA class, completely consumed by mold.
At the same time, my standard dinner at the time was two large pizzas (from Pizza Bagus) and one lasagne, followed by a litre of ice-cream and three beers. Meanwhile our neighbour was collecting plastic from 12 hotels and burning it next door, directly upwind.
Between the weakened immune system from the constant yellow haze of dioxin gas, the fungal invasion, and my sky-high blood sugar, the mushrooms decided that my blood would make a nice bungalow. Unhappy bubbles grew all over my skin, staring on my shins and finally finding a comfortable niche in the dark spaces around my upper thighs.
My first response was to sit naked from the waist down all day with a fan under my desk, blowing on my moist parts. But it was too late. The candida had already rooted in my blood, and drying out my skin was not enough. Sporanox, an antifungal with bold all-caps warnings about occasionally causing liver failure within a week of use and congestive heart failure otherwise, was not enough. Coconut oil, praised as a miracle antifungal was not miracle enough, though rubbing it on myself before bed was interesting since the other thing about Bali is that ants swarm any food within minutes and my bed was on the floor. Pots and pots of dark, bitter, Chinese herbs every day were not enough. Garlic, pau d’arco root bark, resveratrol, reishi, oregano, cinnamon, and a dozen herbs were not enough. Doctor’s orders to take only cold showers evoked nostalgic memories of childhood, but seemed a joke as a treatment of mushrooms given that I was living in a sauna. Clotrimazole, Terbinafine Hydrochloride, Ketoconazole, Isoconazole, Fluconazole, Salicylic acid, Disalicylic acid, gentian violet, and a long list of antifungals the names of which I’ve forgotten were not enough. And then finally I got this email from a friend: “See you in Hell! Look forward to an eternity of birdseed, twigs and tempe.”
He was right. As long as I had sugar in my blood, I was feeding the candida. I had to stop all foods that lead to glucose spikes in my blood. I had to starve the bastards out. And of the three macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs), carbohydrates cause by far the greatest and fastest blood sugar spike. So, without having any interest in losing weight, I found myself on a near-ketogenic low-carb diet. I, Atkins. Meat with every meal, daily fish, low-carb veggies (any edible leaf I could find, and a few inedible ones), with the occasional cheat of berries once I got to North America. Except for right after a workout, when the rules are different, my only other source of carbs was plain yoghurt and kefir, since the probiotics in there more then compensate for the lactose carbs.
(After a workout you’ve depleted your blood glycogen, and if you don’t eat some carbs your body will catabolize muscle. The flip side, however, is that at this point your body will fight the candida for this sugar, so the harm in terms of the candida infection of eating carbs after a heavy lifting session is minimal. If you don’t have candida, the best thing to drink at this point is milk, which combines carbs and protein in a much better combination than the fanciest post-workout protein drinks. With candida, this is a good time to have that yoghurt and maybe a piece of fruit for the sake of the other nutrients that you’re missing otherwise.)
The effect of my low-carb diet on the candida was remarkable. I quickly went from 300 bubbles to 10, but if I cheated even a little bit, say I ate a bunch of grapes or drank a beer at any time other than post-workout, then dozens would re-appear. Once I got to Canada I had doctors tell me men don’t get systemic candida infections. Because men in Canada don’t live in tropical rainforests. But over the course of four months I inadvertently repeated the carb test a dozen times — each time I cheated, the bubbles came back.
I was drinking cold-pressed coconut oil from the bottle multiple times per day, with hundreds of calories per shot. I was also drinking fish oil daily, which I always do, because it’s the closest thing to a magic pill that exists in the world of nutrition. So I was getting massive quantities of fat each day, as much meat and leafy veggies as I could eat, and the candida retreated. But I also found myself losing weight.
Worried that I’d start losing muscle, I kept increasing my protein intake. As Lyle McDonald writes:
“Now, in the early days of nutritional science, researchers did a lot of work trying to determine things like whether or not carbohydrates or dietary fats were more protein sparing (e.g. did their intake prevent the loss of protein) but eventually someone had the bright idea to just test eating more dietary protein. In what should not have been a surprise, the most protein sparing nutrient turned out to be…dietary protein. That is, providing sufficient dietary protein on a diet was truly the key to limiting (or preventing) the loss of body protein during fat loss.
There are, mind you, many other reasons to eat more dietary protein on a fat loss diet. Another huge benefit is that, of all three macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates, dietary fats), protein is the most filling. That is, it tends to blunt appetite/hunger (the distinction is not important here) the most.
Additionally, research (primarily by a researcher named Layman) has shown that, in contrast to carbohydrate, increasing dietary protein tends to keep blood glucose more stable while dieting. This is important as falling blood sugar can trigger hunger and specifically carbohydrate cravings.”
Now, this was good. Stuffing yourself is far more manly than attempting to deny yourself, and if what you’re overeating is meat, so much the better. So I stuffed myself with protein and fats from fish and coconut oils, and found that all that protein really did blunt appetite. So much so that I was losing weight at an absurdly fast pace. I wanted to slow down the weight loss, but I simply didn’t want to eat more. No self-denial involved.
Lyle recommends a protein intake of 1.5 g/lb (3.3 g/kg) of lean body weight. But again, that brings in counting, which is for accountants. Much easier to just eat as much lean protein as you can, together with nice oily fish, fish oil, and coconut oil. At some point, you’ll start to crave green veggies to cut the meat.
I’m at the extreme carnivore end of the spectrum: my favourite food is steak tartare, I ate my steak raw even in Indonesia, I even like my chicken bloody. Before this, if I went a day without meat I’d start twitching from withdrawal. As a teenager, I considered celery to be the closest thing a natural plant could be to evil, since it took up more calories to eat than it gave. And yet after a few weeks of straight protein, I was craving celery. Now I go through a large box of mixed greens with every meal.
And throughout, I kept losing weight.
I then opened a new front against the candida by shifting to intermittent fasting (IF). This forced the candida to starve 18 hours out of every 24. I knew people with candida who went on long fasts to starve it out of their system, but long fasts are deadly to muscle. Just as bad, they slow the metabolism and wreak havoc with your hormones and blood sugar. And those juice fasts are like a sugar IV direct to the ‘shrooms. But IF is short enough that it preserves muscle mass and actually increases the metabolism as our evolutionary adaptation gives us a kick in the butt to find food. Eighteen hours without food does no harm to body (it does a net good, but I’ll save this for another post), but the candida lives on a different time frame. Eighteen hours is a lifetime for the little buggers.
It took a week or two for my ghrelin (hunger hormone) to adjust to the new schedule, but after that it became easy. Between 10 PM and waking I fasted, from waking until 2PM I drank my regular two liters of coffee (coffee suppresses appetite and helps with mental clarity) with a tiny amount of fat free milk (it’s a good idea to always break the rules a little, no matter what they are) and nothing else, and then between 2 PM and 10 PM stuffed as much protein, fat and veggies into my face as I could. Coincidentally, after the ghrelin adapted, this did wonders for my concentration. The moment I eat I lose some mental horsepower, and this gave me between 8 AM and 2 PM of uninterrupted clarity and efficiency.
But now my eating was limited by both time and macronutrient. Protein has a higher thermogenic effect than carbs, it’s inefficient in that you burn 20% to 25% of the calories just in digesting it (compared to 3% for carbs), but most of all, a lean cut of meat simply doesn’t have as many calories as pizza, beer, or ice-cream. Add to that the time limitation of an eight-hour window, and assuming you’re physically active it becomes hard to eat enough calories.
Because, at the end of the day, the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you take in. That’s a fact. Low-carb advocates sometimes lose this intermediate truth by talking about good calories and bad calories. But from a practical results-oriented perspective, shifting to eating only protein, fats, and veggies works in the sense that I eat as many calories as I want, without counting anything, and am relentlessly losing weight. So even if the good-calorie-bad-calorie logic most people use to justify their low- or no-carb diets is wrong, in the end, the approach works.
Lyle’s response to me on this point was “for many people, ad-lib low carb diets DO lead to extra food intake. And once people have gotten the nonsensical idea that ‘calories don’t count’, they refuse to accept that they do. So even if FOR YOU end result is the same, for many, not understanding the mechanism still causes problems. Lowcarb diets reduce food intake which causes weight loss. Except when they don’t. Which is often And that’s when the problems start.”
That’s a fair theoretical point. But I have a hard time imagining anyone who can eat more meat in one sitting than I. And even with an attitude of “if it’s not worth doing to excess it’s not worth doing at all” I simply get full before my calorie intake matches my calorie expenditure.
This isn’t a magic pill. For those who want to use this as a weight loss tool, it requires two things: (1) education about how the human body works, how hunger and glucose and insulin and the rest are all interrelated — and for that sort of knowledge, there is no better source than Lyle; and (2) restraint that is intelligently targeted to allow for excess in other dimensions of the diet — by cutting out certain foods (carbs) I can create the space to eat as much as I want of the others. By fasting 18 hours a day, I again create space to eat as much as I want during the other eight. By exercising like a madman, I give myself a two to three hour post-workout window during which eating a few carbs isn’t going to either add to my fat or feed my mushrooms.
This isn’t a diet for accountants. It’s a diet for extremists, hedons, and those who believe there’s a fundamental difference between balance and moderation. It’s harder to balance two extremes — say, two elephants on a sea saw compared to two bunny rabbits — but it is possible. And it’s far more interesting than living in the middle, counting every calorie.
As for me, as soon as I kick this candida I’m going back to carbs — I miss beer and bread too much. But this experiment has taught me a way to lose weight that works, a knowledge that I’ll save for the day insurance companies convince lawmakers to pass laws about fitting within certain body-mass-index ranges the way they’ve convinced them to pass laws about seatbelts, helmets and let’s not go there…
Update: Candida free for a couple of years now. The good news is once you shake it and keep it shook for a year or so, it doesn’t seem to come back (assuming you don’t go crazy on the sugar). In the meantime, however, as a result of this post I’ve had dozens of readers contact me. Several recommended this candida treatment. I haven’t tried it myself — just passing on the good word of others.