To Weigh or Not to Weigh

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You remember how I was all cool and swore not to weigh myself until April 1st? Last Sunday, I even threw away the batteries from my scale to resist the temptation. Well, to tell you the truth, I am beginning to have some serious doubts about this decision. Since I don’t want to count calories, I’ve been focusing on eating extremely clean and watching my portions. For the past few days, however, despite eating not that much throughout the day, I keep going to bed feeling extremely stuffed. Today, for instance, my last meal consisted of a tiny grilled chicken breast, a cup of broccoli and one grilled zucchini. It’s been four hours since I had it, but I am still feeling like I’ve devoured an entire elephant.

The best case scenario is that it is one of the benefits of going Paleo (perhaps, it’s keeping me fuller longer). Another possibility, however, is that I am simply underestimating my food consumption. Even though I do not worry about gaining weight with my current diet, it definitely wouldn’t be cool if I waited an entire month only to find out that I was, in fact, treating myself to way too many fruits and vegetables and hardly lost anything. As a result of these concerns, I am beginning to think that it might be a better idea to control my weight on a weakly basis for the first month, and only after that to begin gradually weaning myself off the scale…Or maybe I am just being a chicken.

Practice Makes Perfect…I Hope

The biggest challenge that stands between me and my ideal body is that I like food way too much. Who would have thought, right? Some people stuff their faces with potato chips and cookies; others can’t live without their McDonald’s value meals. I, on the other hand, seem to just like the process of chewing. It really doesn’t matter if you put a pound of carrots or a giant tiramisu cake in front of me. I will not be at peace until my plate is spotless. In fact, leaving any amount of food uneaten has always been so painful that I used to lick my plate clean when I was a kid. I don’t do the licking anymore (damn you, social norms!), but I will be lying if I say that there are no times when I still really want to.

For someone who lives in their own home, the solution to this problem is pretty simple: Don’t put on your plate more than you think you should eat. Unfortunately, I don’t have this option because I live on campus and am often stuck with whatever portion sizes someone else has deemed appropriate. If I was a true foodie, who delighted in the deliciousness of her meals, I would not want to touch half of what we are being fed with a ten foot pole. Being just a fairly uncomplicated food processing machine that I am, however, I’ve always made sure to clean my plate as long as the food tasted moderately decent…

That is until today, when I’ve finally mustered enough courage to let go of two surprisingly delicious meatballs. It was hard, but I did it, and I am proud of myself for that! I just hope that with enough practice I will stop feeling this much heartache every time I have to let go of my food.

One Last Time With Feeling

When packing my bags for America more than six years ago, I had absolutely no idea what my new life abroad would be like – with one exception: A victim of popular in my country stereotype that an average American was fat and not particularly attractive (don’t ask me why the last statement is perpetuating), I imagined that my slim frame, which measured at 115 pounds and 68 inches, and relatively pretty (according to some) face would practically guarantee me a stardom of sorts. Needless to say, this illusion did not last long as I quickly found that local population was neither less attractive nor much heavier than that in my home country – at least in places where I spent most of my time: San Francisco, NYC, and presently Los Angeles.

Ironically, less than a year after my move, it was I who was beginning to look more and more like a stereotypical average American of my imagination: Never before prone to gaining excessive amounts of weight, I was rapidly outgrowing my tightly fitting clothes and getting used to the feeling of bits of fat taking permanent residence all over my body. At the same time, my face was turning into shit as a result of a much worsened acne problem. This unfortunate transformation did not happen “magically”, and, all the way through to my new weight of 162lbs and skin plagued by pimples, I knew exactly what I was doing wrong. As well-informed about nutrition and aware of my bad behavior as I was, however, I simply could not make myself snap out of those newly acquired dangerous habits.

For almost six years, every monday, month, season, and year, I swore to start a new life – or, rather, return to my old one, in which food served the sole purpose of sustaining my existence, not providing entertainment or comfort. I made charts, hanged motivation posters all over my house, even started a weightloss channel on youtube. Every attempts to reclaim my body failed miserably, however, with me finishing a streak of good behavior with twice as prolonged period of sabotaging myself on a daily basis. To my great concern and despair, after many months of struggles, I was beginning to realize that I became an addict, who was living from one food fix to another and destroying her body in the process.

To some people, a weight of 162 pounds might seem like not much to be lamenting about, and, perhaps, they would be right. To them I say that the issue is not the number I’ve been seeing on the scale for the past year but the overall trend I am observing: For almost six years, I have been getting only bigger, up to the point that my BMI has settled just 0.4 points away from crossing into the overweight zone. Currently 25, I am not getting any younger, and the ability of my good genes to fight against my poor habits only worsens. I know that if I don’t take an immediate, long-term action, I run a risk of getting myself into a situation that will require measures much more serious than a few months of diet and exercise, not to mention the toll my new habits have been taking on my health over all these years.

One unexpected positive externality of deciding to take my skin under control has been a major diet change. Having read a book on the link between poor nutrition, over a course of a month, I’ve slowly illuminated from my menu all processed foods, sugar, dairy, grains and legumes. While my acne is still there, I’ve been very pleased to find out that being on this pretty strict diet is not a challenge at all. In fact, taking the focus off loosing weight and shifting it to improving the condition of my skin seems to have solved my huge self-control problem. Because I see acne not as a cosmetic condition but as a reflection of my overall health, eating well no longer seems just like something I need to power through until I see the results. It is a permanent commitment. Of course, extra pounds are a reflection of the overall health as well, but since I’ve never been overweight, improved health has always been only a secondary benefit of dieting.

Some of you may remember that I started this blog last Spring in a failed attempt to lose weight. I raised the white flag only a few weeks after writing my first post, having fallen off the wagon after losing about 7 pounds. The weight I lost kept coming back and going away for the rest of the year (a bunch of stretch marks on my butt will attest to it), but, in the end, I did manage to enter 2013 in a slightly improved shape, weighting 155.5 lbs. Over the last 3 weeks of eating extremely healthy, I’ve lost additional 9 pounds and feel incredible. I’ll even go as far as to say that even though I am still a little worried about going back to my old habits, I am extremely optimistic that this is the time when I finally kiss my 6-year old fatty bits good-bye. With this long intro out of the way, I invite you to join me on my 3-month journey towards a rocking body.

Week 1 - 155lbs

*This picture was taken last Spring, when I was at the same weight as about a month ago.

Where Do Pimples Come From?

Being a diligent student that I am, I feel that it is essential to educate myself on the science behind acne before attempting to develop a regiment that works for my skin. Of course, I am already familiar with the basic scenario, which, I believe, goes pretty much like this: the pore gets blocked, and depending on how lucky you’re, you end up with a blackhead, a whitehead, or a giant, obnoxious zit. This is all fine and dandy, but can anyone please tell me why exactly does it happen? After all, there are plenty of those lucky bastards whose pores never ever get clogged even though they almost completely neglect their faces. “It’s all about excessive oil production,” you might say. Ok, but what about all those people with oily faces who do not suffer from adult acne. My mom’s face, for instance, has been pretty much leaking oil for all of her life, and yet she said good-bye to her breakouts once her teenage years were over. What I am getting at is that properly functioning adult skin is not supposed to produce acne, no matter how oily it is. Period. So what gives? Why does my (and possible your) acne refuse to budge?

The Anatomy of a Pimple

I’m sure many of you have seen this diagram multiple times, but let’s go over it again. Pilosebaceous unit consists of central canal, called the follicle, and opening to the central canal, called the pore. The follicle, in turn, contains hair shaft and an oil gland, known as sebaceous gland. Technically, a pimple can form wherever there is a pilosebaceous unit on your skin, which is pretty much everywhere except for a few hairless patches, such as palms of our hands and soles of our feet. Because all of your face is covered with tiny (and at times not so tiny) hairs and has very hard working sebaceous glans, it is a perfect place for pimple infestation.

Types of Pimples

In medical jargon, zits, spots, pimples, blemishes, blackheads and whiteheads are all officially referred to as “comedones”. Comedones come in two forms: open and closed. In case of open comedones, more commonly known is blackheads, the pore remains open to the skin surface, but becomes enlarged and blocked with excessive skin oil and dead cells from inside the central canal of pilosebaceous unit. In contrast, closed comedones, known as whiteheads become blocked to the outside skin. In fact, those nasty red bumps of various sizes that are ruining your life are nothing more than closed comedones, which could have been relatively harmless whiteheads had they not got inflamed.

The Proximate Cause of Acne

The proximate causes of acne are what we’ve been hearing about for the past 40 years or so. There are four of them: 1) blockage of the pore, 2) excessive production of skin oil, 3) bacteria colonization that leads to the infection of the pimple, 4) inflammation of the pimple and surrounding tissue. Let’s look closely at each of these causes.

1. Blockage of the pore

So how does a pore get blocked in the first place? It all has to do with epithelial cells that line the central canal (follicle) within the pilosebaceous unit. Epithelial cells are formed at the basement membrane and move upward as they grow, mature, and die. As these cells are moving up to the surface of your skin, they become flatter and tougher and are eventually shed from your skin in the process known as desquamation. All in all, it takes for about 4 weeks for this process to complete.

If your skin is behaving like nature intended, this process works like a clock: new epithelial cells are born, mature, die, and eventually shed without causing any blockage. If your skin is out of whack, however, cell to cell connectors remain intact during the shedding process, which prevents dead cells from sloughing off and eventually results in a bunch of clogged pores. “Why, on earth, are my cell to cell connectors refusing to be nice to me?” you might wonder. There are at least two reasons. First is the slowdown in the rate of decomposition of the connectors. Second is the delay in programmed cell death. Both result in dead (or barely breathing) skin cells holding on to each other for dear life.

2. Excessive Production of Skin Oil

The second well-known cause of acne is overproduction of skin oil by the sebaceous glands. The primary reason why your sebaceous glands might be working overtime is that they are being stimulated by high level of male hormones androgens. In men, androgens are synthesized in the testicles, and in women they are made in the ovaries. The availability of this hormones in the blood stream is determined by a hormone produced in liver, known as sex hormone binding globuline (SHBG). There is an inverse correlation between levels of SHBG and androgens: the lower the levels of SHBG the higher the levels of androgens.

3. Bacterial Infection

Once a pilosebaceous unit gets nicely blocked by all those pesky dead skin cells that refuse to slough off, and your sebaceous gland starts pumping oil like crazy, an ideal environment has been created for bacteria colonization. The name of this bacteria is propionibacterium acnes, and usually it lives on your skin surface without causing any problems. Once they get locked up under your skin, however, they start a wild pool party, which your body does not condone. Immune system to the rescue!

4. Inflammation of the surrounding tissue

Certain substances found within the cell walls of the colonizing bacterium stimulate the immune system to produce localized pro-inflammatory hormones called cytokines. It is when your immune system gets revved up inside the pilosebaceous unit trying to kill all those little bastards under your skin that you end up with a bunch of red, fiery-hot, inflamed pimples. In fact, the more your immune system overreacts, the more cytokines it produces, so those extremely painful size of a cherry pimples you sometimes get are nothing more than a result of your immune system going completely bananas.

So here you have it, a sweet and short explanation of how all those whiteheads, blackheads, and zits are able to invade your face. This exact story is repeated on every acne-related website that tells you that the key to having a clear skin is to keep your pores open and bacteria at bay. What most of these websites seem to ignore, however, is the fact that our cell to cell connectors are not supposed to get stuck together, our sebaceous glands are not supposed to produce too much oil, and our immune system is not supposed to go crazy for no good reason. In other words, for many of us, answering the question “how” is not going to help much. What we need to know is why our skin refuses to behave. Once we have an answer to the “why” part, we can tweak the “how” part to work for each unique case.