From Cake To Steak? My Health & Diet Journey.
I have never been one to skip dessert- ever. I am too young to actually recall these events, but my parents have many times regaled me with the story of when I first tried ice cream as a very small child. The story goes that upon having this new taste experience, my toddler’s brain experienced some kind of sensory overload (in retrospect, this is almost certainly due to the massive amounts of sugar I was consuming for the first time). From that moment on, I, like many if not most American children, had a weakness for desserts of almost any kind.
Of course, I had my favorite treats, and those that I preferred less. Sour candy, such as Gummi worms, were at the bottom of the list as far as my young self was concerned, though if put in front of me I would still have them- on a certain level, sugar is sugar; no matter in what packaging it comes with, it retains its addictive power nonetheless. Ice cream remained a mainstay- vanilla was originally my favorite flavor, then chocolate, cookies and cream becoming staples. As an adult my eye would invariably be drawn to try the outlandish and exotic flavors increasingly found in gourmet urban ice cream shops, though the aforementioned basics remained my ice cream flavors of choice.
It was baked goods, however, that surpassed even ice cream as the primary object of my dessert affections. When it came to cookies, my preference was for shortbread (ideally frosted) or chocolate chip- but crispy or crunchy, not soft and chewy. Cupcakes and cake fell of course into this category. One bakery in my childhood San Francisco neighborhood hit the mark outstandingly well for both of these.
Their buttermilk cupcakes with vanilla cream frosting, called “Sno Caps,” were a delightful treat, but nothing could compare to their most decadent dessert of all- the Black Magic. This was a dark chocolate layer cake, thick and rich, moist when fresh from the bakery but drying after being kept in the refrigerator- although its richness and sweetness kept it delicious even then. This dessert featured prominently at significant family occasions such as birthdays, holidays, or even “middle of August cake day” (aka my father treating my sister, and by extension me, to a Black Magic after a misadventure related to soccer practice pickup).
Unsurprisingly, I was somewhat chubby as a child, although not excessively so, especially for an American boy of my generation. In later middle and high school, I began taking sports and exercise more seriously- running on our home treadmill daily when not attending practice for tennis, my sport of choice. During an interlude where we lived in a house near San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, I would run uphill to that landmark regularly. During all of this my consumption of desserts continued apace even as I became in better and better shape.
This gave me an impression that I shared with many Americans of all ages- for whatever its imperfections, my diet could continue as it was thanks to my exercise habits. In hindsight, I might have noticed that the shift in my daily breakfast menu away from Ego waffles with a generous helping of white sugar to somewhat healthier fare was likely as key a contributor to my slimming down as a teenager as my exercise habits, if not more so.
In many ways, I was fortunate in how healthy I was as a child. I lacked some of the potentially debilitating chronic conditions found in many children of my generation- although I , atypically, never cared much for peanut butter itself, I counted my blessings that I did not have to carry around an epinephrine pen to counter potential anaphylactic shock derived from accidentally ingesting peanuts, the way more than one of my childhood friends did.
I was, however, not without my issues, including numerous allergies of my own to grass, pollen, dust mites, animals and more- though not, I believed at the time, any allergies to food. In my early high school years I first began to struggle with the skin condition of eczema, which rendered the skin underneath my elbows, knees, and face (particularly underneath the eyes) into a perpetually red and irritated state.
The solution to at least treating this problem seemed at first to be simple, but then would have to escalate further and further as the years went by. As a high school aged teenager, simple over the counter hydrocortisone ointment would be enough to address the issue whenever it flared up, but in retrospect, my body clearly developed a resistance to it as time went on- but this only became apparent when I moved into the next phase of my life- the college years.
Although going off to college meant access to less high quality desserts, my sweet tooth made do perfectly fine with the offerings available at Tufts University. Although it was no Black Magic, the Tufts dining hall offered ice cream with nearly every topping imaginable (although my favorites were always Oreo pieces and sprinkles), as well as a vanilla cream cake that made itself an adaptable substitute. On the non-dessert front, pizza for multiple meals a day was a recurring phenomenon, and late night orders from “Wings Over Somerville” also were a regular ocurrence.
Although, at least in my first two years of college, I did not gain noticeable weight- after all, I was still exercising regularly as well as participating in club tennis, and I was at the age where, as the saying goes “you can eat rubber and your system will deal with it”- I nonetheless immediately encountered health problems in my new environment.
Maybe it was not diet alone- the stress of being alone for the first time likely played a key role, if not the predominant one. But in the winter of my freshman year, I suffered easily the worst eczema symptoms I ever had in my life to date, and over the counter hydrocortisone was no help at all.
At the campus health center, I was prescribed corticosteroids for the first time- this would become a recurring prescription for me over the course of my college years, even though my eczema never quite flared up that badly again while I was at Tufts, I would continue to get my corticosteroid prescription refilled, and that seemed to be doing the trick for any minor episodes I might have.
I was dimly aware, more and more so over time, of the long term negative side effects of corticosteroids, but it was something that was easy for me to put out of my mind. After all, I wasn’t experiencing any of these side effects in any way that I noticed (although in retrospect, I was certainly developing a low-level dependency on these steroids). And if I didn’t notice anything bad happening, what was the harm?
As I began my professional career, working as an assistant in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, my dessert habit continued unabated. The vast sprawl of Los Angeles left open endless possibilities for new desserts to be discovered- in the abscence of a cake of the caliber of Black Magic, donut shops became my go to destination, and Los Angeles had many high quality ones to choose from.
There was one in particular, whose name escapes me (although I do remember it went out of business several years ago)- that had several incredibly appealing offerings, particularly a creation by the name of “Curried Brown Sugar.” During this time in my life, I was under more stress than I had ever been before in my life; multiple fictional portrayals of the Hollywood assistant life are at least somewhat true to life- and although my case was far from the worst, I felt the strain of it on a nightly basis.
I had smoked marijuana recreationally in college, but it was during my assistant life that it became more than recreation and, in my own mind, it became a coping mechanism and a dependency. I felt absolutely compelled to get high on a nightly basis to deal with the stress I encurred each day, otherwise getting to sleep would be an utter impossibility. Of course, with marijuana smoking came the “munchies,” and late night orders of donuts or other snacks became a more and more frequent part of my “de stressing routine.”
The stress would always come again the next morning, and, eventually, another eczema breakout came along with it. This one was harsher and more intense than the worst I had in college- coincidentally, it happened the same year as HBO released the miniseries The Night Of, starring John Turturro as a criminal defense attorney who suffers from crippling eczema himself.
Watching that series, which premiered shortly after my symptoms had abated due to using even more potent corticosteroids, was a mix of cathartic and painful. Although in my conscious mind this thought did not occur to me, beneath the surface I know now that I held a deep-seated fear that if my issues persisted, as I grew older I would be reduced to the pitiable state that Turturro’s character found himself in.
But with the worst of my symptoms gone, I could persist yet again and carry on living the way I had been, and eating that way as well. During a period of a few months living with my parents in Denver, I partially followed their way of eating, which comes from the book The Plant Paradox by Dr. Sean Gundry. In his book, Gundry writes about the deleterious effect that lectins, found in many vegetables commonly believed to be “healthy,” such as legumes, can have on the human gut, with numerous potential negative consequences for health. He calls for a diet that, while leaning more towards plants than animal foods, eliminates the consumption of lectins.
My weight and skin improved somewhat, however, during the day I would constantly venture out into the city of Denver for snacks, including but not limited to donuts, cookies and other treats, that were not strictly “compliant” with this way of eating.
Yet again, I was able to rationalize this in my own mind. After all, I was seeing some positive results in spite of my “cheating,” was I not? I kept up this rationalization for approximately the next two years, as I moved back to San Francisco in the spring of 2018 and have lived here ever since. The first July that I spent back in the city, I celebrated my birthday with- of course- a Black Magic cake.
This all seemed like a perfectly sustainable state of affairs, until 2020 radically altered my life, much as it has done for nearly every human being on the face of this earth. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that my new job would become a work from home operation less than two weeks after I had first set foot in my employer’s new offices. Within a few weeks, the health of my skin took a radical downturn. I turned once again to corticosteroids, first topicals and then the oral steroid prednisone. These initially had a positive effect, but as soon I was weaned off the prednisone (the doctor’s prescription called for a three week regimen, gradually tapering off) my symptoms returned with a vengeance.
These symptoms were worse than even my Los Angeles episode- my face, arms, legs, and torso were fiery red and a source of constant irritation. In addition, I could not stop itching my scalp, to the point where I would be constantly peeling off reddened flakes of my own skin. I would go to sleep (never soundly thanks to my irritation) and would wake up with identical flakes covering my pillow.
My initial thought was that the carpeting at home gathered too much dust, and that this was the culprit. I began to vacuum more regularly. But I did turn to diet as an idea to remedy my symptoms as well. At lunch, instead of a sandwich with cheese and cold cuts (a local neighborhood cheese shop supplied a tasty version of this), I turned to a green smoothie from the local Jamba Juice. It did not help, something I should have known had I researched how dubiously healthy and loaded with sugar Jamba Juice smoothies are.
Clearly, the solutions that had served me in the past would no longer. So it was that I was desperate for any kind of relief when my father suggested that I see the neurotherapist who had helped both him and my uncle (who has been gluten free for over a decade) with their health problems, I readily agreed.
When I first went to see this specialist, he had hardly taken a single look at me before he told me, in no uncertain terms, what the source of all my issues was. I had a severe genetic sensitivity not only to gluten (which my uncle had told he might say) but also to dairy, specifically the version of the protein casein found in cow’s milk. I would have to immediately and permanently eliminate these elements from my diet.
After having me submit blood, urine and stool tests to confirm these sensitivities, we also discovered I had a lesser sensitivity to eggs and soy. The qualifier with eggs specifically was that I could have eggs in baked goods, as baking would denature the elements in eggs that I reacted negatively to. Also, in time my egg sensitivity would abate altogether and I would be able to reintroduce them into my way of eating, to an extent. Compared to the “mortal sins” of gluten and dairy, eggs and soy were merely “venial sins,” as my new doctor put it.
The day I first saw my new doctor was when I fully understood the price I would need to pay to regain my health, and to avert what would surely be even worse problems as I continue to get older. Black Magic and many of my other favorite desserts are as loaded with as much gluten and dairy as it is humanly possible to fit into a food product. But as I reflected later that day, I realized that that was a small price to pay compared to the discomfort that I was suffering.
Since that June 2020 day, gluten and dairy have been completely absent from my diet. My recovery began slowly, but accelerated over a two week long sojourn in Lake Tahoe with my parents, where I was once again eating meals roughly based on their Plant Paradox inspired diet- this time without any donut detours. However, I knew on multiple levels that, as much as I was being helped by this, I would need something different- and further- than that to fully serve my own health.
My blood test results showed that I was deficient in several key elements, including triglyceride proteins, testosterone, HDL cholesterol, and others. To address this issue, my doctor recommended to me that I increase my consumption of animal foods, specifically red meat. When I returned to San Francisco from my Lake Tahoe trip, I did exactly this, putting my newly acquired gas grill (a birthday present from my grandmother) to good use.
My skin continued to improve almost every day, as my diet shifted to become more animal food heavy combined with some plants- although desserts still remained a factor. After all, there are now many gluten and dairy free dessert products to choose from- certain varieties of dark chocolate now my new favorites, as well as coconut milk ice cream. The problem is, for the most part, these products still contain ample amounts of sugar.
Even before my major changes to my way of eating last year, I was aware of the carnivore diet. I have always enjoyed meats, with a childhood favorite non-dessert food being the skirt steak tacos that my family’s babysitter, Adela, would make. A family dinner trip to Bob’s Steak and Chop House in downtown San Francisco was always welcome as far as I was concerned.
However, eliminating everything else besides animal foods seemed like an impossibility for me- the main reason being that I would have to be giving up on my beloved desserts in order to do so. Even after embarking on my new, post-gluten-and-dairy way of eating, it seemed like a bridge too far.
However, I began to more seriously research the topic in depth, looking into doctors such as Paul Saladino who advocated for an animal-based diet. Saladino defends red meat against the commonly advanced idea that it has adverse effects on human health. In a conversation with The Plant Paradox’s Dr. Sean Gundry, he outlines the fact that he is essentially taking the idea Gundry develops of some “health foods” being harmful due to the presence of lectins, an anti-nutrient developed as a defense mechanism against predators (herbivores in the case of plants).
Saladino and others make the point that lectins are only one of the many types of anti-nutrients found in plant foods- another common anti nutrient is oxalate. Oxalates are anti nutrients found in foods such as spinach and almonds that are among the healthiest, most fashionable foods- Sally Norton, MPH (Master of Public Health), a former vegetarian (although not a strict carnivore at all times), is one of the foremost voices seeking to bring awareness to the negative health outcomes of oxalates.
Animal foods, by contrast, offer a wide range of nutrients- especially protein, of course, but also fat, in their most bio available forms- they argue, humans can most readily absorb these nutrients when consuming animal foods. In effect, the carnivore diet take the principles outlined by the ketogenic diet (where, in brief, one eliminates carbs in order for the body to burn fat for energy instead) but adds the principle of being animal based. Years before, I had seen the benefits of keto firsthand when one of my roommates in Los Angeles lost over sixty pounds on keto.
This diet is controversial for many reasons, in part because it flies in the face of conventional nutritional wisdom- are not plants the healthiest food there is? What is refreshing about animal based advocates is that (for the most part) they freely admit that some people can be very healthy while including plants as a part of their diet. However, they do defend this way of eating against some of the most common claims that it will negatively effect health.
One of the most common of these criticisms is that it deprives the body of fiber, allegedly necessary for digestion. Paul Mason is an Australian doctor who has presented evidence that this is not the case- according to a study he cites, subjects who consumed no fiber still had regular daily bowel movements. Although this is merely anecdotal, I can vouch for the fact that I have not experienced any constipation whatsoever since my own experiment with an animal based diet.
My health had already radically improved compared to the many people who started on an animal-based way of eating in order to recover from various conditions, often auto-immune diseases. I had already undergone a great deal of weight loss, but on an animal-based way of eating I found it easy to avoid temporary (slight) increases, likely due to not consuming sugar. My skin had already had its most dramatic improvements, but the first month of going animal-based did reduce the slight irritations that I would still occasionally be feeling.
Even beyond physical health benefits, my eating changes have shown me that I have a discipline and perserverance that I did not even fathom I had before. When it comes to gluten and dairy in particular, keeping them out of my life is now so natural I don’t even have to think about it. This is something I hope to apply to other aspects of my life moving forward.
My experiment with animal based eating has been a success, but I do not think that I have consumed my last non-animal food by any means. What I find so refreshing about almost all animal food advocates I have encountered on this journey of mine is that they tend to be non-dogmatic- unlike how vegans demonize animal food consumption, they do not demonize plants- the common refrain seems to be that if it does not cause you problems, you should happily eat it.
Their overall philosophy seems to be that what works best for the individual in question is what should be done, eschewing a one size fits all approach. Some carnivores do very well on a diet simply of beef, others (and I put myself in this category) enjoy a variety of animal foods (although the key constant is to ensure that sufficient fat is consumed).
I do still think desserts will remain a part of my life, but what I have discovered is how to maintain the pleasure I derive from eating them in a way that will not compromise my health. Even carnivores have their own ways of making dessert, as this list of recipes will show.
I do not think that this is the conclusion of my eating journey, and, indeed, being strictly carnivore has not been the end of the journey for some animal food advocates, even as they stress that they still believe in a primarily animal based way of eating, and I do believe that I will continue to center animal foods in my diet, while allowing myself to still enjoy gluten/dairy free dessert.
Over the past year, I have established principles for the well being of my health that will define how I eat for the rest of my life. But that does not mean I won’t find ways to fit dessert into my life too. For example, I would take the above linked “carnivore cake” recipe and use goat milk or butter instead of cow’s milk. I might even top the cake with a non-dairy chocolate frosting. It won’t be the same as Black Magic, but considering all that I have achieved in my health journey, it will be much, much more than worthwhile.