Not much action around here lately…but wait! I can explain!
It starts like it always does — with a conversation…I just don’t remember exactly when the conversation began.
Back when we lived down in Jacksonville, Florida, Jenn was teaching at Trapeze High Florida, and I was contracting during the day and playing a ton of poker evenings and weekends. Now, to be sure, most of this was “bar poker”, essentially free to play and with little cash incentive. I began playing JPA (the league) heavily just to get some live hand experience under my belt — it was great, and playing with (some of) the regulars was really fun.
But the down side was that it meant we were routinely out in the restaurants of Jacksonville almost every night of the week.
Let’s be clear about one thing: food in Jacksonville is HORRIBLE. The produce sucks: everything runs to mold within just a couple of days of buying it. That is, what little produce is available: even the farmers markets down there tended towards squash and citrus, and that was pretty much it.
But the restaurants — just AWFUL. Pretty much everything is fried within an inch of its life, getting battered and flashed and then served up with some damn mayonnaise-y thing to dip it in.
This was not good for our waistlines. I know I personally gained over 40 pounds in the brief time we were in Jax.
Jenn figured this out a lot sooner than I did, largely because it was impacting her comfort on the flying trapeze. So we tried making some adjustments — mostly, it involved just not playing poker as frequently. We tried to be more active: walking happened every once in while, but the only thing that would get us out in the heat was the promise of ice cream at the end of the walk — not exactly conducive to controlling weight. There was no hiking that was worthwhile, and we just couldn’t seem to get around the bend on some changes that would make us more active.
Somewhere along the way, Jenn happened into the notion of a Paleo “diet”. I’m using quotes around the word diet because the Paleo people will tell you this is not the verb form of diet (as in, I am dieting); rather, this is the word diet used like it is used to refer to the typical diet of a species. In this sense, the “Paleo diet” is a reference to a more primal way of choosing what we eat, selecting out the things that weren’t available to a paleolithic member of the species.
I’ve heard it described this way: assume you have a stick. You can eat whatever you can kill with that stick, knock out of a tree, or dig out of the ground. If it requires further processing in order to be digestible, then you can’t eat it.
This excludes some pretty wide swaths of food: grains, legumes, dairy and processed sugars are all right out — can’t have ’em. Seen from a 50,000 foot level, it looks kind of like the low-/no-carb or gluten-free protocols. But when you zoom in on some of those categories of exclusion, things start looking a little grim:
- Grains: this sounds easier than than one might think. No bread, flour, cereals, muffins, rolls, pastas, gravies with flour, anything thickened with corn starch, etc., etc. You’d be surprised at how much “enriched flour” makes it into things that you have no idea contains flour. And then there’s other “grains” that you might not initially consider: rice, corn (and all its derivatives), and even the supposedly healthy “whole” grains — all of these are excluded.
- Legumes: beans, soy (and all its derivatives), and (the killer for me), PEANUTS.
- Dairy: milk, cheese, butter, yogurt — all excluded.
- Processed sugars: table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, even artificial sweeteners are excluded.
- Vegetable oils: this is a special category of processed stuff that needs to be excluded.
- Alcohol: sad, but true (although there ARE Paleo-approved alcohols).
But wait! I hear you cry. Why exclude those things! Aren’t they supposed to be healthy? They’re on the Food Pyramid!
So here’s where we begin the conversation about the “Standard American Diet” (get it? SAD…)
Again, when one pulls back to the 50,000-foot level, it comes down to processing: all of the stuff that is excluded requires an enormous amount of processing in order to make it edible. Think about the things we have to do to soy to eat it. Think about all the phases flour goes through before it eventually becomes bread.
There are underlying nutrition and systemic justifications for many of the exclusions: consider the recent “boom” in gluten sensitivities. Our primary source of grains — wheat — must be milled and reduced down to “enriched flour” before it can become useful to us as food. And consider that term “enriched flour” — why does flour have to be “enriched” if it is supposedly good for us? The story behind that is fairly alarming.
As it turns out, wheat, barley and rye all contain gluten, which is generally expressed as “giving elasticity” to the foods that contain them: think about the binding proteins in bread dough before it is baked.
Consuming glutens causes the body’s immune system to express a number of antibodies: a buildup of these antibodies can create a number of sensitivities in many people, including “bloating, abdominal discomfort or pain, diarrhea, muscular disturbances and bone or joint pain” (thanks, Wikipedia!).
In a much more general sense, grains of all forms generally promote internal inflammation (bloat) and are very harsh on the upper and lower gastro-intestinal tract. Grains are implicated in damaging the small cilia within the intestines, and with putting our bodies in an “auto-immune” stance. There certainly is something to be said for the wide spectrum of auto-immune issues that seem to be arising as of late…
For me, the killers in the Paleo conversation are peanuts, dairy and SUGAR. But really, just SUGAR.
Still, when Jenn first started talking Paleo about a year and a half ago, I wasn’t opposed to eating Paleo meals, but I wasn’t at that point ready to make the full Paleo transition.
Fast forward to our move to Collingswood, and our recent retrenching of healthy lifestyles since we got married. As we have progressed through our transition, we have implicitly done a fair amount of the Paleo transition without really trying. Grains and legumes were fairly easy to eliminate (although I do truly miss peanut butter, sunflower butter has made an awesome stand-in). As Jenn has been doing most of the cooking of our shared meals, she’d been slowly finding replacements for the things that were excluded: coconut oil substituted in for vegetable oils, ghee for butter, that kind of thing. I had really shifted to a reduced-carb protocol, but still featured a lot of dairy (cheeses) in my daily intake, and fruit featured pretty strongly as well. I was also doing a lot of grazing, eating a low total number of calories, but consuming five or six mini-meals a day (and working out about 90 minutes 5-6 times a week).
Having discovered that we’d basically done 75% of the hard work already, we decided to try and make the full commitment to the Paleo lifestyle. There are a variety of approaches to doing this, all of them fairly dramatic in a few similar steps: clean out the kitchen of all excluded foods, make a meal plan and go shopping.
We decided to go with the “Whole30” 30-day challenge, in which we are supposed to eat a “super-clean” Paleo protocol for 30 days. In this approach, fruits and nuts are greatly reduced in their profile in the overall intake, with the focus being on mostly meats, some veggies, and just a few carbs. Fruits and nuts are ingredients, not courses (or full meals, like snacking). Around the same time that we began this adventure, we also found the Everyday Paleo Life Fit folks (Sarah Fragoso and Jason Seib). They also have a 21-Day Jump Start, which is a bit less militant than the “Paleo Nazis” over at the Whole30 side, but it is still pretty aggressive.
As an aside, both of these “challenge” programs are focused on getting someone started on the Paleo Lifestyle. They do it this way because IT IS HARD, and the best way to power through this is to pretty much go cold turkey.
The underlying physiological shift lies in pushing one’s metabolic flexibility. The Standard American Diet is rich in carbs and sugars that can be easily burned for energy or stored as fat. This is only one mechanism by which our metabolism provides energy for our bodies: it can also burn fat, and will also burn muscle mass (protein) under certain conditions (more on this later).
Overwhelmingly, because of the SAD, and the strong presence of carbs and sugars in our daily intake, most of us have a metabolism that is “carb-adapted”, generally defaulting to burning the available carbs for energy, and storing the excess.
This is how we get fat, because our Standard American Diet is enormously carb- and sugar-heavy.
If one eats according to the “food pyramid”, one can easily get 400-500 grams of carbs and sugars a day (if not much, MUCH more)! We typically only need 100-150 grams a day — so if our metabolisms are adjusted to be poised to use all of the available carbs for energy, then all of the excess carbs are simply stored as fats. (If you squint in just the right way, one can see the whole arc of the rise of processed foods meeting the needs of families who had both parents in the work force bolstered by high-carb/low-fat “recommendations” of the food pyramid as pretty much the perfect storm leading to our current epidemics of obesity, diabetes and auto-immune disorders — BLAME FEMINISM!)
Note that if we live in a constant excess of carbs on a day-to-day basis, then there never really is any need for the body to resort to the fat stores to provide energy. It’s pretty easy to see how this leads to an epidemic of obesity in this country…
But there are other, more pernicious aspects of the Standard American Diet, and more specifically, the Standard American Lifestyle.
Most of us don’t exercise, but those who do, seem to have seized on this notion that running (and other long forms of cardio) are the path to peak health. There are multiple bifurcations of this notion, most notably in the explosion in Crossfit programs and other High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) such as the popular P90X and Insanity programs.
And then there’s the notion of the path to health being a low-fat, calorie-restricted diet. I won’t get into the whole low-fat/heart disease debate, other than to assert that the evidence is not there to support the thesis.
But consider the typical approach to health: low-fat/high-carb/calorie-restricted diet, long forms of high-intensity exercise, and all of that shoved into a high-stress, low-sleep lifestyle.
There is much more at work here than is immediately apparent. For example, the long forms of exercise. If we think about this in an ancestral health context, there really isn’t any survival mode that involves us running for 60 minutes (or 2-3 or more hours). Nor is there a mode linked to long forms of HIIT, whether it be dynamic workouts like Crossfit/P90X or more static group sessions like Spinning classes.
All of these scenarios are interpreted by the body as UNDUE stress, which causes the expression of the hormone cortisol in our endocrine systems.
As is turns out, cortisol is a key player in a couple of contributing factors to obesity:
- Cortisol inhibits insulin: without getting deep into the science (as I’m not really qualified anyway), insulin is needed to process sugar for energy, by preventing the use of fat as an energy source (are you seeing a pattern here yet?). When we have high levels of cortisol in our systems, we are seen as “insulin resistant”. Being insulin resistant means that sugars aren’t used as energy, they are more readily stored as fats. It also means that the pancreas will produce higher levels of insulin, to deal with the general resistance caused by all of the cortisol, and as a response to the extreme levels of sugars we get as a part of the SAD. This becomes a desperately dangerous feedback loop in which the overworked pancreas is pumping out more and more insulin, that then goes about the job of removing excess sugars from the bloodstream, by storing it as fat.
- Cortisol breaks down protein for energy: this can be understood in a survival context — if something is causing you to have to run for a seriously long time, it is likely that you will use up all of your available glucose for that initial energy burst. Because you likely won’t have the opportunity to go get some more sugar in you, the body moves to a protein-consuming mode. Explicitly, this is muscle emaciation. This is what is meant when someone says “You’re not burning fat, you’re burning muscle.” We especially see the perniciousness of this in people who are a following a caloric restriction and high cardio protocol: look at most of the people standing at the starting line of a marathon. You see mostly gaunt people with roundish bellies — they’ve consumed a large amount of their muscle mass in the effort to knock out that last 10-15 pounds sitting in their bellies, still living a high-carb low-fat lifestyle, and they all think that if they can just run far enough, fast enough, they’ll burn that last little bit of belly fat away. Sadly, their physiology just won’t allow it, as more miles and speed results in more stress and more cortisol production.
And it’s not just high-intensity, long-form cardio exercise that exacerbates cortisol production. Stress and poor sleep also result in more cortisol. And more cortisol means higher insulin resistance, greater muscle emaciation, and greater fat stores resulting from available sugars and carbs.
Cortisol keeps us chunky around the midsection.
In contrast, the Paleo protocol speaks to very different approach to peak health:
- A diet rich in protein, good fats and sufficient calories
- A reduced exercise regimen, focused on low stress activities like walking, building strength by lifting heavy weights, with a very little bit of HIIT in very short bursts to improve EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption)
- Mobility & form to reduce risk of injury
Stated plainly, it looks like this:
- Eat as much as you need, mostly meats, good fats, some vegetables, fewer fruits and nuts. Watch hydration, electrolytes (salts), and some key nutrients like Vitamin D, Omega 3’s, magnesium and potassium.
- Walk as much as you want. Don’t exercise (elevated heart rate/huffing and puffing) more than 4 times a week (most folks will be fine with 3 times a week). Mostly lifting heavy weights, some sprinting — keep sprinting down to 10-15 minutes maximum.
- SLEEP! Manage stress: meditate, find strategies to explicitly reduce and shed stress.
- Stretch. A lot.
The goal in this transition is to create more “metabolic flexibility”. Most of us eating and dieting the SAD way are pretty much locked into a carb-adapted metabolism, when what we really want is to burn excess fat via a “fat-adapted” metabolism. This comes about by reducing the profile of carbs and sugars in one’s diet, reducing stress (in order to limit the amount of cortisol in our systems, both to allow insulin to do its job using all of the available glucose and to then encourage the breakdown of fats for energy), and creating protein-building demands by lifting heavy weights. Ultimately, one’s metabolism should be sufficiently flexible to be able to shift from carb-adapted to fat-adapted as needed by the available intakes (and/or using up the “fats in the pantry” — your belly, butt and thighs…).
So, how did it go?
Jenn and I started our Whole30 on July 21: we cleaned out the kitchen, built a meal plan and went shopping. We also started following the Beginning Modules for workouts over at EPLifeFit.com.
In the first ten days, we both lost a serious amount of weight, even though we were both several months into our respective diets.
In the second ten days, we both stopped losing weight, and started bouncing up and down in numbers. Sometimes, the swings made absolutely no sense at all.
In the last ten days, I started losing pretty aggressively again, but she did not.
Now, to be sure, all of the Paleo protocols pretty much insist that you chuck your scale in the garbage, as it is not a meaningful measure of health. But because we were both participating in a Fatbet, it was necessary for us to at least keep tabs on our weight. I think this ultimately proved counterproductive for our personal commitment to the Paleo lifestyle.
As for the experience itself, I have to say that I feel great. There certainly were some struggles: I do not think that I ever really got through my sugar cravings, as I was consuming more fruit and Larabars than I think would be acceptable to the Whole30/21-Day Jump Start kind of programs.
Both Jenn and I don’t really feel like we were exercising enough. A part of this was just adjusting to the new protocol. Some of it is because of the specific regime we were following, we weren’t accustomed to (and we don’t have all of the necessary equipment). And some of it is just plain old habit: it’s tough to go from working out 5-6 days a week, 90-120 minutes at a time, down to 3 workouts a week for 30 minutes at most and not feel just a little bit lazy.
There are some ongoing struggles with portion control. I think both of us enjoyed getting out from under the caloric restriction regime, but we probably got a bit too enthusiastic about the “eat as much as you want” dictum. I know personally, the caloric restriction lifestyle causes me to wolf my food (like the starving man I am). It was tough to put the brakes on that mentality when I wasn’t limited to how much I was allowed to eat. I also know that Jenn felt like she was struggling because she was essentially keeping up with me, and I am a third larger than she is, so for her to get the same number of calories as me is a recipe for disaster.
Having said all that, we’re really happy with how things have gone. I still have some exploring of the boundaries to do, and I think I still need to confront that demon sugar. Jenn doesn’t have those same concerns — I will let her speak to the things that she thinks makes sense for her to adjust (more carbs? more fruit? I’m interested in her rationale for these things, but I will leave it to her to say what she wants to say)…
Going forward, I’m sticking with the Paleo lifestyle, but I definitely am going to be paying more attention to how much I’m eating. I don’t want to fall into the caloric restriction trap, but I also think it isn’t a good idea for me to be consuming 3000-3500 (or more) calories a day. I also want to be more diligent and focused on getting through the exercise protocol, and adding things like sprints (in the HIIT sense) into our regime. And walk more. And stress less — I really need to find mechanisms for managing and reducing stress.
I still have the sugar demon, and will need to find a way to eliminate that from my life, at least for a little while, so I can see what it’s like on the other side of the cravings — unfortunately, I think that as long as my body is creating cravings for sugars and carbs, I am still fundamentally in a carb-adapted metabolism, and I am not yet achieving my real fat-adapted potential. There may be a reintroduction of certain components: dairy (especially cheese and other forms of fats), and I have to figure out whether or not I have a real sensitivity to nuts (I seem to feel bloated after eating nuts, but I am not certain that I can attach that explicitly to nuts, or just to overeating in general). All of this requires some experimentation and exploration.
And that’s the real power of the transition: that we have the tools and the awareness to run these experiments and truly evaluate what the impact is. It is definitely interesting taking responsibility and control of these things, and therein lies the actual benefit. It will be interesting to see what the future brings.
But first, I think I need a steak.