[Lowell: here is an article I published to my personal blog back in May of 2009]
I’ve taken time away from writing for the last month to do lots of research across a range of topics. We’re still working on a clinical issue of some sort with Cailyn and I also decided I wanted a similar level of understanding with regards to exercise topics (resistance, endurance, and anaerobic types)… so I’ve been in information gathering mode and couldn’t quite get myself to flip the switch over to information distribution mode.
I want to take a few minutes to lay out my current overall approach and guidelines, as I think it’s important to help tie things together. So, here we go.
First, I’d like to quickly touch on weight loss, as this is often the most important thing people are looking for. The approach here, overall, is all about overall health and wellness (which includes weight), but weight loss is often the most important concern. The benefits of the rules below are not limited to weight loss, and in fact I consider the other benefits—long term disease prevention, mood, energy levels… overall wellness—to be far more important. But weight loss is where it all usually begins.
Also… I’m not going to talk about dietary fat or protein much here—but keep in mind that high-fat diets are great, saturated fats are healthy (and important), and dietary cholesterol is also good. Really. But I’m going to make no attempt to explain or prove that here, beyond a few brief comments in the long-term rules section. Those are all topics for other posts. This post is long enough already.
Weight Loss (and gain)
Let’s make this quick and simple. Weight gain is nearly always the result of a fatty acid metabolic disorder; it’s due to the endocrine system being thrown off. The endocrine system manages all the hormones—chemical control signals—that tell your body what do to, how much to do it, and when. The human body has all kinds of self-regulatory mechanisms that operate without conscious control. Endocrine systems are those kinds of self-regulatory mechanisms. Much like your heart beating faster when you run, and slower when you rest, you secrete more or less hormones automatically based on underlying self-regulatory feedback systems.
A common misconception is that humans evolved to try and become fat. That is to say, that food was scarce and those individuals who ate more and stored more fat (had “the thrifty gene”) were better able to survive famine and pass their genes on to the next generation. Over time, we evolved to become gluttons… and that only recently has there been enough food for everyone to actually become fat. This sounds reasonable, but it turns out this is only half the story… and without the other half it’s total hogwash. Humans evolved during famine, feast, and in between. It’s potentially true that humans who had extra fat would survive better in a famine, but the rest of the time they’d be out of luck… and less evolutionarily fit. And the most recent data shows that we did not spent most of our evolutionary history in times of famine. We’re at the top of the food chain, and hunter/gatherers were very capable of travelling long distances to find food; food also used to be more plentiful, and humans more scarce.
Also, many (including me) are surprised to discover that you can survive for a month with no food if you have just 10% body fat. A month is more than enough time for a paleolithic man to travel and find food. Put this all together, and you come to the conclusion, consistent with modern medical research, that the human body has evolved to self-regulate to a healthy and low body fat %. So if you don’t encounter things that your endocrine system hasn’t evolved to handle, then it is completely capable of self-regulating and keeping your body at a very low and healthy fat level.
What, then, throws off your endocrine system? What is it that humans haven’t evolved to cope with effectively? Well, if you look at all available data, you quickly discover that the following thing have occurred recently, from an evolutionary perspective:
- The development of agriculture and farming
- Breeding and modification of plants and animals to produce more calories with less effort (bigger potatoes, fluffier corn, larger cows that produce more milk, etc)
- Industrial processing
- Since the 1950s – low fat (and therefore high-carb) and low calorie diets, and even more recently exercise as a diet aid
All of these are new. That doesn’t by itself mean that they are bad, but it does suggest them as candidates. And with further research you find that all of them greatly contribute to the problem.
Far and away, the change with the biggest impact is the increase in consumption of starches and sugars, and especially refined and processed starches and sugars. The maize served at the first Thanksgiving looks nothing like the corn we eat today; the same goes for potatoes and all other starchy plants. Large-scale industrial white rice production has only been around since the early 1900s. For more on trends in the last 40 years, check out the Whole Health Source blog. A couple quick graphs from there:
Okay, okay, where am I going with this? Let’s cut to the chase: the increase in starches and sugars has resulted in an epidemic of insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone that promotes fat storage, via several mechanisms. So if you eat more starch and sugar, you produce more insulin, you store more fat.
And how do you fix it? Well, you have to reverse the insulin resistance first. That can take some time, depending on how resistant you are. And after you fix it? You have to make sure that you don’t do things that will send you back in the other direction and produce too much insulin again.
Most find that all you need to do to lose weight is completely cut starches, sugars, and refined carbs. That’s it. I’ve found with my friends and family that most lose three pounds a week that way—really, that’s the only change. Keep in mind, that’s anything with flour, sugar, starchy vegetables, etc.
Eventually your insulin resistance will go away, and you’ll stabilize at your healthy weight. Some individuals (like Cailyn) have other issues that need resolving, but those are far less common. Then you can move on to following the long term rules. Speaking of them…
Long Term Wellness Rules
Don’t spike your blood sugar
Don’t consume more carbs than you burn
Don’t consume foods the human body hasn’t evolved to cope with properly
Listen to your body, it knows best
Let’s break each one down in more detail.
1. Don’t spike your blood sugar
Normally, when you eat food, your blood sugar will increase slowly for the next hour to many hours, and your pancreas will secrete insulin in corresponding amounts in order to keep your blood sugar even and under control. High blood sugar causes all kinds of problems, so the body’s main goal is to clear it out and get things back to normal quickly. When the increase in blood sugar is slow, the pancreas can keep up and everything stays balanced. If you eat a snack or meal in a single sitting that causes your blood sugar to increase quickly, your pancreas can’t keep up; at first your blood glucose greatly outpaces your insulin levels, then your pancreas overshoots, and your insulin levels peak… which causes your blood sugar to crash back down below the starting (fasting) level. It’s more complicated than that, but the end result is that at first you have (effectively) a sugar high, followed by a crash from about 2 hours after eating until 4-5 hours after eating. Over time, this creates a roller-coaster like cycle that runs out of control… each time the insulin spikes, your body becomes slightly more resistant to it, so you have to make more and more. And insulin controls many things, not just the clearing of blood sugar. Eventually you’ll be making 8 to 10 times as much insulin as you would normally need for the same amount of blood sugar.
So how do you ensure you don’t cause a blood sugar spike? Simple…
- Keep the ratio of carb to fat and protein relatively low – 20% of calories from carbs or lower, per snack or meal
- And don’t consume more than tiny amounts of starches, sugars, or refined carbs (like flour)
2. Don’t consume more carbs than you burn
The human body can store as much or as little fat as necessary. It cannot, however, do the same for carbohydrates. The only way your body can store carbs is as glycogen, and an average person can store only about 500g of glycogen (or 2000 calories worth). For reference, 3500 calories is one pound of fat. When you eat carbohydrates, they are quickly digested into the blood stream, and the body does the following:
- If you are exercising, they are immediately used for fuel
- If not, if your glycogen stores aren’t full, they are stored as glycogen
- If not, then they are converted to triglycerides and stored as fat
The first means that while you are exercising it’s pretty safe to eat carbs. The rest of the time, the only way to make sure you aren’t going to store the carbs as fat is if you don’t have full glycogen stores. So how do you do that? Make sure you always burn more carb than you eat, so that your storage tanks are never full.
How do you know? Well, if you want to play it safe you can always just eat 0g of carbs, or keep your carb totals very low—50g or less, for example. However, if you want more flexibility, then the best estimate I’ve come up with is (the explanation of how I derived this would be another post):
- 50g, the minimum burned by your nervous system (and some other cell types, mainly in the kidneys and liver)
- Plus 1/2 of the amount of aerobic (or higher) exercise calories burned
This can average out over a few days, as you have a 500g glycogen buffer to work with. So if you burn 500 calories every other day with exercise, then you get 250 calories per day burned and 1/2 of that for carbs—and at 4 calories per gram, we’re looking at 31g more you can consume without increasing your glycogen store… for a total of 81g per day. More exercise, more glycogen burned, the more carbs you can eat… as long as you don’t break rule #1.
3. Don’t consume foods the human body hasn’t evolved to cope with properly
The most difficult rule, and the broadest. This one has some simple rules of thumb, but really needs a whole series of ongoing posts to capture. The basic idea is this: if it’s new (from an evolutionary standpoint) then it’s to be treated with skepticism. If you are sure that it isn’t going to mess with your endocrine system, then go ahead and eat it. If not, it’s safest to stay away.
There are a ton of surprises and gotchas here. Modern soy products, nearly all of them, are not historically accurate, are very new, and are not healthy. Nearly all traditional soy products were fermented, and today almost none are—and that’s only one of the major differences. The same sort of thing is true for modern dairy products—pasteurization and homogenization are both very recent, and not at all good. The first was necessary as a short term fix, but is in no way still necessary, and significantly damages the healthful qualities of the milk.
So caution is necessary. I’ll lay out some basic guidelines here, but for this one I cannot more strongly recommend you read at least one of the following books:
- Real Food: What to Eat and Why, by Nina Planck – a very easy read, engaging, simple… highly accessible
- Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig – guidelines about traditional foods and preparation, with lots of recipies
- The Untold Story of Milk by Ron Schmid – okay, this shouldn’t be the only one you read… but it’s a really good specific example of a single food type and how it’s changed in recent times, and why that’s not such a good thing.
Okay. So go order Real Food. Then come back here.
Welcome back. I hope you enjoy reading your new book when it arrives. In the meantime, the best advice I can give is this:
- Ask yourself: is this food produced and prepared in a way that would have been available 100, 300, 1000 years ago?
- Did my grandparents (or great grandparents) eat this? Grandma cooked with butter and cream, I promise you. Margarine and skim milk? Not so much… at least, not until she was in her 60s.
This means no modern breakfast cereals, no polished white rice, nothing with lots of added refined sugars.
It does mean lots of meat, animal products, eggs, dairy… lots of traditional fat and protein, especially from animal sources.
4. Listen to your body, it knows best
Follow #1-3, and this one is really, really easy. You can’t possibly determine exactly how much of each thing you need on a daily basis. Consuming fixed amounts of different minerals or other nutrients is a rough approximation at best. The best approach is to allow your body to do what millions of years of evolution has enabled it to do: take care of itself. Paleolithic man didn’t think too much about what he ate… he followed his instincts and inner cravings. Channel that man.
Studies have shown that your body will self regulate nutrition in this way. If you are magnesium deficient, you’ll crave foods with magnesium. If you are potassium deficient, the same. Crave red meat? You probably need more B vitamins (eat lots of red meat anyhow, it’s one of the best foods out there… choose cuts with lots of fat).
Eat when you are hungry. Stop when you are full (not stuffed… full). Drink when you are thirsty. Don’t ignore your body! It knows what it is doing.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should give in to your carb and sugar cravings. Those aren’t the result of natural cravings, they are the result of years of unnatural foods, insulin resistance, and blood sugar roller coasters. Over time, years, they will subside and you’ll be happy and far more full of energy. But for a while, the sugar and carb cravings will linger… but resist the white bread! Don’t eat those potatoes! They aren’t worth it.