I was sitting next to Mum in Dr Mora's office - a progressive, yet dauntingly fanatical holistic medicine doctor in suburban Melbourne [Not his real name]. What Mora lacked in emotional intelligence he made up for in passion and fear-instilling intensity.
As a naive, pudgy 12 year old mummy’s boy complaining of mild lethargy, allergies and irritability I wasn’t prepared for his recommendation of the strictest of dietary regimens: no wheat, no yeast, no dairy, no sugar, no fun. Then there was the extensive daily routine of vitamins, supplements and gag-inducing Chinese herb concoctions so awful smelling that I still avoid traditional Chinese markets to this day.
And the sell? Well apparently if I didn’t stick to this sadistic routine of dietary deprivation and supplemental torture I would succumb to a lifetime of illness, obesity and misery. Talk about using the stick for motivation! (I prefer carrots).
Clearly this is not something a pre-pubescent boy with a penchant for Burger King and Kit Kats wants to hear.
In hindsight, Dr. Mora was a medical visionary - completely unorthodox. Some of his treatments bordered on quackery but his incredible success rate and devoted following made him somewhat of a cult leader. But at that time I was not willing to drink the Kool Aid.
As we drove home across the eastern suburbs in our late 1980s Volvo 240 GL I clearly remember sinking into the cheesy sheep-skin seat cover and sobbing. I felt utterly hopeless. There was no way I could abide such a strict routine at that age. I didn’t have the impetus nor the discipline.
So I put this holistic medicine experiment in the 'too hard' basket along with The Australian Boys Choir, club basketball, guitar practice and all the other things my spoilt little highness deemed unpleasant at the time.
Flash forward three years to Y2K (what an anti-climax that was!) and besides growing a foot taller and getting a pretty decent physique through my new obsession with the gym I was still eating like crap and, therefore, still feeling like crap.
My symptoms from the years prior had worsened. Generally lethargy had manifest into borderline chronic-fatigue syndrome. I would get colds constantly and always felt like sleeping after eating. My brain fog was severe and I was turning into a bad student for the first time in my life.
I’m sure raging hormones and the typical “I’m a ninth-grade know-it-all and you can all get stuffed” attitude didn’t help but physically I was not in a good place. I’d had enough. I wanted to feel healthy.
With my newfound motivation and a dash of teenage recklessness I went back to Dr. Mora. The prescription was the same - a strict anti-candida diet: no wheat, yeast, dairy, or sugar. No processed junk, lots of vegetables, meat, some rice, not too much fruit. Actually it was very similar to a Paleo diet but with more leniency on legumes and some processed carbs like yeast-free rye-sode bread and rice pasta. The Chinese herbs were still wretched.
This time I embarked on the protocol valiantly. I embraced it 100 per cent. I built it into my teenage life.
At cadet camp my rucksack would be bulging with tins of tuna and loaves of rye-soda-bread so I could avoid the sugar-and-salt laden ration pack junk. At house parties while my friends drank beers and pre-mixed spirits I’d be on the vodka, neat. No yeast, no sugar.
I stubbornly maintained this staunch discipline throughout the rest of my high school years and it did wonders for my health and performance.
I credit Dr Mora’s diet for my successes at school - both curricular and co-curricular. There is no way I would have been School Captain or made it into a prestigious double degree at Melbourne University if I’d kept eating the rubbish of my early teenage years.
Looking back, my second visit to Dr Mora was a pivotal point in my life. A game-changer. I am so grateful to be able to reflect now, more than 15 years later, on the following life lessons I learnt from adopting the crazy Dr. Mora diet.
- Forget moderation or balance, a healthy lifestyle is about discipline.
I am so sick of hearing the cop-out phrases, “everything in moderation” or eat a “balanced diet.” What the heck does “balance” mean anyway?
‘Balance’, like ‘moderation’ is an arbitrary term. It doesn't mean anything. Balance is not practical or actionable advice.
Should a person with celiac disease eat a balanced diet including "healthy whole grains"? Can an alcoholic enjoy a few beers in moderation? What a ridiculous notion.
Often it is easier to practice total abstinence than moderation. The Mora diet was very restrictive but it was easy to follow. No yeast. Easy. No added sugar. Done.
It takes discipline and willpower to cut out certain foods, especially addictive ones like sugar and wheat. But it is a lot easier to completely avoid them than try to eat them in moderation.
And while some dietitians will tell you that cutting out entire food groups is unhealthy, this is simply not true. Wheat, for example, is not serving you at all. Eliminate it completely and you will be healthier, especially if you replace it with nutrient-dense vegetables.
If, like me, you aren’t someone who can just eat one Oreo or drink one beer - you lack the 'moderation’ capability - then don’t even bother with the concept of moderation. Discipline is the only legitimate route to a healthy lifestyle.
This does not mean you can never have an Oreo or a beer, it just means that you live your life by concrete rules that you set for yourself (e.g. “I choose not to eat wheat”) rather than by some vague notion of “everything in moderation”. Then when you break a rule and eat a pizza at the NFL Fantasy draft last weekend it’s not through lack of discipline but because you chose to let loose one night and you got back to your usual routine the next day. (That was my first real pizza in about two years).
- You need to find genuine self-motivation to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
At 12 I lacked the impetus to improve my health. It took some eye-opening revelations at the age of 15 - like barely being able to make it up the stairs to class without needing to lie down - to find the internal motivation it would require to turn my health around.
Fear is often a good motivation when it manifests in your own brain and doesn’t come from someone else’s mouth. Seeing most of my older Italian relatives in Australia suffering from obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and even dementia (i.e. preventable metabolic diseases) is motivation enough for me to continue my health kick. This is far better than a Doctor telling you to eat less saturated fat to prevent heart disease - which is complete bullshit by the way.
Lifestyle intervention is no easy feat. Going from someone who hates exercise to someone who can’t wait to get to the gym takes years of emotional conditioning.
Wanting to lose 10 pounds or get a six-pack is not a genuine enough motivation for most people. Getting a gym membership or workout DVDs is certainly not.
Embarking on a diet or exercise routine without having the genuine, internal motivation to do so is like going on a low-fat, calorie restrictive diet. All the willpower in the world will not enable you to sustain it for any length of time.
So before you start and fail on yet another weight-loss diet I give you permission to take a break. Take a break and do some soul searching until you find your real motivation - a real impetus to change your life. Without this you’re setting yourself up for failure.
- Action first, questions later.
To get the most from your iPhone you don’t need to know how it works. In some sense, understanding all the internal machinations of a system will only confuse you and cloud your ability to use the system effectively.
I didn’t have a clue what Dr Mora was talking about. Why was rice pasta okay but normal pasta wasn’t? I certainly didn’t know what those herbs were all about, except perhaps for making our kitchen pantry as stinky as possible to deter me from the cereal.
It didn’t matter. I did what I was told and the positive effects were immediate and apparent and real.
Human health is incredibly complex. We still don’t understand much of it. Cancer is really just a label we slap on illnesses that we don’t fully understand. What we do know is that our mind is incredibly potent at healing our body and that placebo is real.
Some of those supplements may have been just a means to extract a few more dollars from Mum, but I took them religiously and it helped me form a habit that I perceived to be beneficial. Habits like these helped me form my lifestyle around dietary choices and discipline. A positive feedback loop was set in place.
So do whatever works and don’t question it too much. Give up wheat and you will feel better. You might choose to read the scientific literature one day to understand the role of gliadin on zonulin production and intestinal permeability but you don’t need to. Just know that it works and that if you stick to it your life will be better.
Have a little faith in the system and the positive results will enable you to build faith in yourself. In the end that’s all that matters - that you care about yourself enough to strive for constant improvement.
I am grateful to my Mum for taking me to that crazy quack, not once but twice. After high school I went off the Dr Mora diet. It had served its purpose and I had a lot of beer drinking to catch up on! But I can appreciate now that it was of pivotal importance to my health for the rest of my life. I’m so glad that I got back in that Volvo with Mum and drove across the suburbs to Dr Mora's office. I gave myself a second chance.
4. Always give yourself a second chance.
“Form a habit. Forge a lifestyle.”
The Paleo Model.
PS - If you liked this story you will probably enjoy this (actionable) guest post I did for an Adelaide gym: ‘Find your it'