It’s fun to experiment. And it can be very interesting and informative when you experiment on yourself. One of the easiest and perhaps most productive areas in which to conduct personal investigations is in the realm of dietary intake. Through trial and error, and a little good science, you can learn what foods really work (or don’t) for you. Done strategically, you can even improve your health and performance quite effectively. This is an update on some dietary experiments that I have recently undertaken, or that have been ongoing.
It seems like I’ve always got some kind of experiment going on at any given time. With my Science Project Series books, I’ve applied and tested a number of conventional and non-traditional health and performance practices. In Project Full Circle Squared, I manipulated training and recovery methods to break 60 seconds in the 400-meter run as a 52 year-old. In Project 9.10.17, I messed around with ketogenic diets, macronutrient ratios, body composition, and metabolic states. With Project JACKED, I worked with 30+ willing subjects to collaborate in designing and testing a comprehensive weight loss, fitness, health enhancement and metabolic reset program. Last summer I had a goal of training to race a fast (for me) mile, but injury forced me to turn that into an investigation of how fast I could go without actually training very much at all.
But perhaps what intrigues me most is how diet can impact health and performance. In this missive, I’m going to attempt to describe some of the dietary experiments I’ve conducted, and share my personal results. I don’t have all the answers about a perfect diet, but I’ve learned some things about how certain foods affect my own physiology. And I’ve come up with a lot of questions as well. My goal is to offer you an opportunity to reflect on my findings and possibly test out some questions of your own. Indeed, we should all be our own guinea pigs or lab rats in the n=1 experiment known as LIFE.
Before we look at specific food folly, let’s acknowledge some of the challenges of the personal dietary experiment. Whenever you are testing something, you have to try your best to keep all other factors relatively constant, so as to be able to try to attribute any outcome to the one variable (diet) you are attempting to isolate. This means that dietary experiments work best in the context of consistency with sleep, stress, training, relationships, etc. Any time lots of things are changing concurrently, it gets very difficult to identify the degree to which any specific factor is affecting an outcome. And we have to find some measures that are reliable. A mix of objective markers (blood tests, body composition, performance output, etc.) with subjective indicators (energy, enthusiasm, appetite, attitude, etc.) must be evaluated. Also, we need repeatability. Testing a hypothesis multiple times and getting similar results is necessary for any dietary application to hold merit.
Food is many things and it can be both poison and powerful medicine. This is perhaps the reason each of us should consider which foods support our best health, performance and longevity. Every condition is multifactorial, but in most cases if you don’t look, feel, and perform at your best, there is a high probability that your diet isn’t optimal. If you have acne, skin rashes, gut disturbances, low energy, muscle stiffness, joint aches, excess body fat, poor moods, depression, disease…something is not right. This absolutely involves movement, stress, light management, relationships, environmental toxins, sleep, and many other things. But it would be fair to state that your diet is probably not working optimally for you. An experiment may be in order with the power lever of life known as food. We all have the potential to be healthier and higher-performing when we accept this fact, stop denying it, and embrace the mix of science and wisdom. If you are not at your best, your diet is probably not ideal, and you just might want to make yourself a lab rat in the name of health.
One of the more peculiar factors about diets is their tendency to morph into cult-like entities. In this case, a particular style of food consumption ends up being named after a person such as Dr. Robert Atkins, a time in history like the Paleolithic Era, a specific metabolic effect as in Ketogenic, or a class of food with examples being Carnivorous or Raw Food Vegan. These terms are often useful and descriptive but the tendency is for the dietary approach to evolve into a lifestyle and in some cases dare I say a religion. This isn’t always positive and I’m not sure it’s generally necessary.
As many readers will recognize, I call my approach to eating the Planet-Based Diet, or PBD. While the name seems like a sarcastic play on the term “plant-based” (it is), in all seriousness it is my descriptor for a natural, healthy, whole-foods diet that includes both animal and plant products. PBD food resembles its earthly origins and does not look like processed food-like substances from a space mission. It shows concern for the environment, respect for people, plants, and animals, and is ultimately deeply nourishing. The PBD is consistent with our genes and it’s what the human, or TLB, machine runs on best. The PBD is based on the Just Eat Real Food, or JERF, principle. The PBD is the nutritional anchor of my work and writing, and it’s an easy to understand and simple to use concept. That’s it, in a nutshell, depending upon how you feel about consuming nuts.
One of my earliest experiments was more of an intervention and it happened almost a decade ago. I’d always been fit and athletic but in my late 40’s I found myself not as healthy as I knew I should be, and wanted to be. I had become insulin resistant, gained a few pounds, and was borderline hypertensive and pre-diabetic (Type 2). This wake-up call led me to clean up my diet and essentially get rid of the dessert foods to which I had been addicted all my life. I always ate a fairly healthy diet but I had a real sweet tooth. Every meal usually had a treat, such as a sticky bun following my omelette at breakfast, a few cookies after lunch, and cake, pie, or ice cream at the end of the otherwise nutritious dinner. Pretty much every day, for 40 years. Because I had always been athletic, I’d been led to believe you could just burn anything you consumed without consequence. The sports nutrition industry supported this position and marketed all sorts of junk-food products with “athletic nutrition” labels. I pounded them all.
And much to my dismay, my health began to deteriorate. My clinical experience in working with thousands of folks is that you can get away with throwing garbage at your metabolism for about 30 years before s**t starts to break down. I got an extra decade out of that situation, probably partially due to genetics and also to the benefits of regular training, which can temporarily offset metabolic dysregulation in many of us. Alas, the innocence and the decadence of CAKE (can actually kill everyone) occurred to me. Despite their delicious nature, all those delightful goodies contain (almost entirely) the Evil Triad — refined sugars, processed grains, and seed oils (bad enough alone but in cakes they are usually also hydrogenated). So I pretty much kicked the habit cold turkey, and in just a few months my health was restored and my weight normalized…without really doing anything else.
Except one thing. I cut my training in half times three. What I mean is I did half as much training, at half the intensity, about half as often. I had realized that my motivation was exceeding my recovery abilities (also related to the junk food), and doing less training for several months aided in the reduction of chronic inflammatory states. This was also when I started really seeing phenomenal results with clients in not just weight loss, but performance enhancement, due to the realization that the fork was mightier than the running shoe or dumbbell (although these still have value) in the pursuit of ideal body composition.
With garbage food (those two words really do not belong together) out of my diet, my macronutrient ratios naturally took a shift. Carbohydrates were mainly coming from plant sources so total (net) carbs went down as healthy dietary fat (from nature not manufacturing plants) climbed up a bit. Protein stayed about the same. By default my diet became low-carb/healthy fat (LCHF) and I began to enjoy the wonder of becoming metabolically fat-adapted. My metabolism switched over from being very carb-dependent to being able to use, and prefer, fat for fuel. This could be ingested dietary fat or stored body fat. It was quite liberating to be free of all the cravings and crashes.
Honestly, metabolic fat-adaptation really just means having a healthy, naturally-functioning metabolism that is consistent with our genetics. When we look at the three major macronutrients of fat, protein, and carbohydrate, each has unique properties. Protein is mainly a building block for various parts of the body, and it is not really a metabolically-efficient or desired source of energy. Carbs provide fuel for the red blood cells and parts of the brain, and are also used in high output or “high octane” circumstances, but keep in mind we can make our own carbs and it’s not entirely essential to ingest them (perhaps more on this another time). The fat-adapted, or perhaps we should use what is currently the more popular term — metabolically flexible — body can easily use either carbs (primarily glucose) or fatty acids (from triglycerides) for fuel. Let’s put it this way…a carb-dependent metabolism can only burn glucose and can’t utilize fat. But a flexible metabolism can burn either. We have a dual-fuel system by brilliant evolutionary design. It’s just necessary to restrict carb intake enough to upregulate or turn back on our fat-burning enzymes, hormones, and cellular machinery. For most of us, this process only requires a few weeks, to a few months, at most.
Next I started experimenting with all the various interpretations of the Paleo Diet that were becoming popular. I did this for two reasons. One, I had begun to study ancestral biology and medical anthropology a bit, and I liked the premises upon with the Paleo diet was based. It made sense to eat in accordance with the genome. Two, I was enamored with the books and websites which were popping up and showing all these colorful, delectable platters. I enjoyed exploring different versions of Paleo dining. There were several takeaways for me during this phase. I experimented with various nuts, seeds, and fruits, as this was part of most protocols. In the end I found that I did better when I kept these foods very low to moderate in consumption. Mainly it just drove my carb intake higher than my previously-wrecked metabolism preferred. I also embraced the abolition of all grains from my diet. I’d had DNA and gut testing that supported this move. I’d also used a blood glucose monitor to test my response to most grains, and they tended to spike me to pre-diabetic levels in most cases. Lastly, I further embraced nose-to-tail animal consumption for optimal nutrition. This was something I had always done, but based on my experiments, and study of nutritional biochemistry, I now consume liver and bone broth on a more frequent basis.
Then came the ketogenic experiments, particularly as part of Project 9.10.17. In reality, we were all (ancestral humans that is) keto before it was modern and cool to say “I’m keto.” While debate and controversy rages on whether primitive man existed on low carb/high fat diets, one thing is certain…early man had the occasional famine to go with his feasting. The human can get into a ketogenic state either through prolonged fasting (several days) or very restricted carbohydrate intake. Either way, in relation to fatty acid metabolism, the liver will make ketones (beta-hydroxybutyrate is the one most commonly measured in the blood) which can be used as fuel in much of the body including a significant portion of the brain. There are numerous health and longevity benefits associated with ketogenic states. It seems that this may be most natural or beneficial if cyclical. In other words, optimal health occurs when our periods of nutritional ketosis are interspersed with intervals of “re-feeding” when macronutrient considerations are less stringent. Regardless of the evolving science, I noticed that cyclic ketogenic states enhanced my mental clarity and overall feelings of well-being. The major lesson for me was that carbs really had to be limited to a few servings of non-starchy veggies (broccoli, for example) to go along with my fish, eggs, and meat — in order for my blood ketone monitor to register a state of definitive ketosis. Some ketogenic diets advocate a strong limit on protein and an extreme emphasis on fat intake. I have found that I don’t need to do this to get in ketosis most of the time, as long as I minimize carbs.
Fasting is an ancient tradition and a centerpiece of most religions and cultures worldwide. As opposed to unplanned famine, this is the regular practice of food restriction. Fasting has been shown to enhance immune function, and to assist with the cellular cleanup process known as autophagy. These are among a few of the many health and longevity-enhancing benefits of fasting. There are a variety of methodologies for fasting. I’ve tried most of them. The most strict, which is the multi-day water-only fast, is perhaps the most extreme. I’ve been doing one of these fasts each year for several years, with a duration of 3-5 days. Frankly, the 3-day version is fairly easy but I’ve found 5 days to be challenging. You really need to plan your fast for a very quiet time in life, with lots of rest, and little training, travel, or stress. This is probably one reason why many cultures schedule their fasts around meditation retreats.
Other forms of fasting include the concept of intermittent fasting, or time-restricted feeding. This is basically the practice of consuming all of one’s food each day during a compressed window of time. These mini-fasts are shown to be quite effective at getting most of the benefits of the extended water fasts, without the potential negatives. Research supports health improvement with a 12/12 feed/fast cycle, and results are greater when the eating window is shrunk to 4-6 hours. I personally use a 10-hour window for eating on most days, but when I want to shred bodyfat I will reduce that to 6-7 (and eat about the same amount of food). Some folks use a one-meal-a-day (OMAD) approach and this would equal a 1/23 sequence.
There is also a calorie-restricted/protein-sparing, or fasting-mimicking dietary approach. Newer research indicates that these approaches can induce many of the same benefits of extended fasts, and they tend to provide some safeguard against the loss of lean body (muscle, bone, organ) mass.
The message with all the fasting interventions is that we are by nature designed to experience periods of not eating, or at least reduced food intake. This is programmed into our genetics and has beneficial effects. The constant feeding pattern of modern life and the Standard American Diet (SAD) is antithetical to this genetic wiring. In a sense, all these fasting interventions didn’t have cute names, they were just a part of life. They happened automatically. We didn’t have to eat clinically because our natural existence provided a mix of feasting and fasting (although probably not always ideal — but the human is a durable beast). I try to find a balance between the fed and fasted state and I find that such a blend gives me my best energy and recovery.
Vegetable intake is an interesting one. We’ve always been told to eat our veggies, that they were good for us, and that you probably couldn’t eat too many. I did the “eat the rainbow” kick, in which I really tried to get all the colorful produce I could (10 cups per day) into my system. That never seemed to sit right with my gut no matter how selective or progressive I made that consumption. Ironically, extremely high veggie intake drove up my inflammation markers (high sensitivity C-reactive protein, homocysteine, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, etc.) whereas moderate amounts did not. This could possibly be related to lectin and phytate (two known classes of antinutrient and autoimmune provokers in plants) overload, or the supplanting of omega-3 fatty acids from excessive plants and not enough animal products, or any other number of potential reasons. 2-4 cups per day seems about right for me. I like the color, taste, and texture that produce adds to my plate, but I’ve found my ideal amount.
Fiber. I’m not convinced we need as much of it as some would suggest. In fact, I’m not sure we even need it at all. Before you call me crazy, let’s look at a few points. Much of the research supporting fiber consumption, for everything from intestinal motility to cancer prevention to cardiovascular health, is based on sketchy associative data. Dietary fiber can be broken down (couldn’t resist) into two classes: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is the gooey type found in plant matter that absorbs water to a great degree. Insoluble fiber is primarily cellulose (plant cell walls, sawdust, etc.) that is largely indigestible, passes through the small intestines, and resides in the large intestine (colon) where it ferments (humans have limited hindgut fermentation capacities compared to other primates) and “feeds our gut bugs.” Those gut bugs are the 100 trillion or so microbes (bacteria, yeast, fungi) that inhabit our bodies and exist symbiotically with us, participating in a number of cell-signaling and manufacturing processes. I’ll discuss fiber in the context of two topics: constipation and microbiome proliferation.
When considering the rate or duration of processing in the alimentary canal, constipation would be deemed to be a very slow rate or excessively long duration between ingestion and passing of food. Constipation describes an inefficiency which ultimately impairs regularity and is associated with discomfort. It is in the context of the Standard American Diet where constipation becomes a concern. The highly processed food of the SAD is usually implicated in most cases of constipation. Eating fresh, whole, natural, minimally processed foods (the ancestral diet or PBD) has generally been shown to normalize digestion and regularity (assuming the diet has been personalized appropriately).
But take a mixture of flour, sugar, and oil, in varying ratios (crackers, cookies, pasta with commercial sauce, etc.), and you get a product that when liquefied turns into a slurry-like white or beige paste. This is very similar to the recipe for making Plaster of Paris that is often used in a school art class. That sticky goo coats everything and hardens into a brick-like substance. Now envision a mix of energy bars, bread, soda, and chips in your gut. That plaster packs into your digestive tract and virtually forms a glue plug, slowing the whole works down to a crawl. Now, this is where you need fiber. When you eat a diet of glue-plug forming paste, you need fiber to add “bulk” to your GI tract, swell with water, and bang on that glue plug like a hammer until it forces the whole shebang to the desired outcome. Obviously you should do your own experiments here, and I’ll stay on the safe side of TMI, but when I eat healthy, nutrient-dense, natural food, I have optimal GI function and no need for a high-fiber diet. You can even score your restroom performance with the Bristol Stool Scale should you care to do so. The scale is quite graphic and helps to explain how infrequent pellet deposition is just as bad as 5-times daily paint-sprayer explosions, should you glance in the rearview mirror! Neither is an indicator of gut, or overall health.
Now let’s take a look at what is currently one of the hottest topics in the health scene: the gut microbiome and its relationship to diet. It is well understood that we humans are host to a plethora of microorganisms, and that there is a complex and symbiotic relationship in existence. However, the nuances of this relationship are far from completely understood at this time. My feeling is that both scientific research and popular opinion got a little excited over the last decade on this topic. Based on microbiome analysis of several equatorial hunter-gatherer populations (who are healthy and long-living for what are probably many reasons, not just diet), it became a general assumption that most humans should possess microbiota that resembles these groups. It quickly became conventional wisdom that we need to have similar gut profiles (bacterial strains) across populations, and that we need to eat a high volume of prebiotic fiber and resistant starch to support these microbes. Is it just me or does seem like a leap of faith? If the human is the alpha creature on earth, should we eat to support our microbiome or is it designed to adapt and respond to our genetically-linked historical food sources?
Assuming we don’t eat SAD, processed, garbage (which has been shown to cause proliferation of undesirable bacterial strains), matching up our fiber volume with specific hunter-gatherers might be a practice worth examining more closely. The populations studied have existed for millenia eating a subsistence diet that contained high volumes of fibrous tubers and additional plant matter, among other things. Over many generations, these populations have developed a gut profile that enhances their ability to digest and extract nutrition from these food sources. With an open mind, I tried to embrace this line of thinking (and eating) and I experimented with gradually introducing and building up a high volume of fibrous plant matter in my diet. What I found was that, even though I performed this practice over several months, on several occasions, over several years, my body was not receptive to the intervention. My inflammation markers went up, I had significant gut distress, and after several tries I abandoned the pursuit. My genome is entirely northwestern European and Scandinavian, and I have many generations of adaptation to an entirely different dietary makeup, and probably gut microbiome population, than people of equatorial ancestry (at least over the past 20,000 years, recognizing that we all started out in Africa).
Holy S**T! I talked about that s**t for quite a while. This diatribe is getting longer than I had originally intended. I’m going to stop here, call this Part 1 of 2 (or more), and return with additional topics and experiments. I want to share information about protein, fat, carbs, training, dairy, cholesterol, supplements, and several other areas. My goal is to share and report but also to give you some ideas that you can explore to make your diet more personally appropriate and healthy. Thanks so much for reading and see you soon!