[Editor’s Note: Currently, Ben is trying to share his experiences with all the veterans out there to show that the Keto Diet can be used to aid recovery from PTSD as well as managing all that chronic pain from the injuries sustained during their service. In an effort to shine a light on his efforts and share his journey, he is planning to run one ultra-marathon a month in 2018 using Fat For Fuel (low carb/no carb). We plan to support him (via this blog) as much as possible on this journey in the hope that he reaches and helps many, many veterans along the way. Check at the end of this post for updates on his journey]
How it Began
When I transitioned out of the Army in 2009, I had to learn that it was ok to go see a doctor; and when you saw them, you could actually tell them that something hurt. You need to understand that when you are in the military, particularly in a combat arms type of position, going to see a doctor is never really an option. It is a culture that you become a part of, where people who go seek medical attention are labeled as weak; so you can imagine that in an all-male, high-testosterone environment, seeing a doctor is taboo and you avoid it at all costs. You learn to self-diagnose and self-treat. For a lot of us, it was Motrin [to deal with the chronic pain]. I would take Motrin 800’s by the handful; we called them “Ranger Candy”. I spent almost six years in the Army and during my time in, I amassed a decent list of injuries; broken wrist(s) nine times, broken foot three times, both clavicles broken, four broken ribs, two herniated discs and countless stress fractures, broken fingers, sprains, strains, tears, etc. I also can’t forget the partial hip replacement and bi-lateral tinnitus. As a grunt, the treatment for these issues was to drink water and drive on…with the help of Motrin of course. After I had transitioned out of the Army, it took me a little while to grasp the concept of going to see a doctor for help.
For as long as I can remember, when the weather would change and get cold, every joint in my body would ache. I would have pain in my wrist constantly, which my doctor told me was arthritis, and then I started to get the same pain in my hip. So, I went back to school in 2009 and finished a bachelor’s and master’s degree in kinesiology. I worked in research and rehab with a wide variety of patients as well as working in sports performance and coaching. As I settled down and started a family, I transitioned into my career in engineering…a desk job. This was a new endeavor for me because I had never worked in an office before and I wasn’t familiar with that setting. It was very foreign to me. So I became less and less active. My pain continued and began to increase proportionately with the weight that I was gaining.
I was hitting a very low point. It would take me at least a half an hour to get out of bed. I would try different “diets” and I would start exercise programs, everything from Beachbody programs to CrossFit. I would be able to go strong for a month, maybe two, but would eventually stop because of an injury, pain or scheduling. The only thing I really would do consistently was yoga, which would help a little, but with having a family with young kids became hard to balance time with them and time to find a class. I pretty much ate whatever I wanted in the Army and could manage it because of the amount of activity that I was doing and I felt that same thing would apply to my life now. I would push myself, get results, and then back slide, for one reason or another. By continuing to take my Motrin would work through the pain.
I hit rock bottom. At almost four hundred pounds, I was having chest pain, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I have helped people learn to walk again, helped people lose weight and achieve their personal goals; worked and coached collegiate and professional athletes to help them achieve their goals. There isn’t a fitness, nutrition or wellness certification out there I don’t hold and I even taught classes for those organizations…but I couldn’t fix myself. So, I just gave up.
Fat For Fuel
I remember the next day after I accepted defeat and I saw a comedian interviewed on Conan in a YouTube clip. So, like most rational, busy people at work, I searched for more videos with this comedian and watched him on a podcast. That podcast sparked my interest so I downloaded more episodes. On one of those episodes was a person talking about a “keto” diet. I was already a little familiar with it as a means of treatment for epilepsy and cancer, but I didn’t know or understand the ins and outs of it. It peaked my curiosity because this person was a researcher and not a person trying to sell something. I continued down this “rabbit hole” for the next month or so, just listening to other podcasts with people discussing the ketogenic diet, as well as low-carb, high-fat diets. I also began going through PubMed and researching on my own. Everything that I was finding and hearing was telling me something contrary to what I was taught in school, but the science made sense to me. So after a month and a half, I just decided that I was going to try this out and see what happens. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, I just did it. My wife, who is a nurse, started to become suspicious about what I was doing because I was, in essence, eating at least a pound of bacon a day, a half dozen eggs, an avocado, and cooking everything in butter. She would tell me that I was going to have a heart attack and everything along those lines and rightfully so, I was not healthy and I was over-weight.
I found switching to a “keto” diet to be easy from a consumption standpoint, but it was less easy to explain (at first) socially. I began to lose weight rather quickly and I felt better. What was amazing to me was how easily I could get out of bed. By the third month of doing this, I could get out of bed immediately after I woke up. I noticed that I didn’t have to hobble around like an old man, but I could actually get out of bed, change and start my day. Exercise began again, slowly, and scaled, but I was starting again. I also started to run on the treadmill and I use the term ‘run’ very loosely; it was more like a trot. This might not seem significant, but when I had to have my hip surgery, the doctor told me that I would never be able to run again and that I would always have chronic pain. A few years later, a doctor at the VA told me that I would always be in pain, after administering a cortisol injection. So there I was, on the treadmill….trotting…and it didn’t hurt (my joints, at least).
After eleven months of embracing a low-carb, high-fat diet, I have lost over 120 lbs and more importantly, I am not in pain. It is winter in Detroit and my joints aren’t aching for the first time that I can remember. I do have to report that I have taken Motrin a couple of times, but that is only because I have begun training for ultra-races [running] and my weekly mileage is starting to get up around 100 miles.
I used to eschew personal testimonies for hard data and research, but I purposefully haven’t included it in this piece. There is a surprising amount of research available on PubMed that explores the ketogenic diet, pain, and inflammation, but I did not try “Keto” because I wanted to use it therapeutically. I tried a ketogenic diet because I had created an echo chamber full of people and resources that were reputable and experienced; who slowly convinced me to give it a shot because nothing had worked for me long-term in the past. Losing weight was my initial hope, but it has been a life changing experience. No longer waking up in pain or experiencing chronic pain was just another by-product of embracing a low-carb-high-fat diet.
Over the last decade, I have amassed a great deal of education, certification, and training in health and fitness, but have never really felt like I have had a platform to share that because of my size and weight. I now feel like I have the platform because of my change. Also, having passed through the VA medical system and the revolving door of prescription pain management. I have watched my fellow vets go through it as well. Health not improving, prescription pain management, and feeling alienated and without hope. I can tell them about research and data about ketogenic diets and chronic pain, but that will largely have no impact. However, if I can share with them my journey, experiences, and successes than that will resonate. It already has on a small scale and my hope is to reach a broader audience of people who are experiencing that same struggle that I went through and show them that change is easier than they realize.
[Editor’s Note: Ben’s concerns about the weather for his first race were justified. They were expecting temperatures in the single digits (Fahrenheit) but at the start it was minus one (-1). Read about his experience here.]
[Ben Davis: Army Vet – Blog Contributor]