Garrett (garote) wrote,
Garrett
garote

Long-winded talk about food

On Pokingthingswithsticks, my sister asked:
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the amounts of fats your body is wanting with all that exercise. All the reading I’ve been doing lately really touts lowering starch and grains (wheat) and increasing the fats (even over protein – except when doing lots of exercise like you when you should have lots of protein). Apparently fats can easily be turned into carbs for the body’s use, and we need far more that we think of certian fats to keep brains happy, etc. Whatcha think?
This inspired me to make a long-winded response, which I repost here:



I think this sort of food balancing is complicated, because there are several totally different - but very valid - ways to approach it. At different times I've vacillated between the approaches.

One approach is to try to research what is actually going on inside our bodies. The digestive system, the nervous system, allergic reactions, insulin response, circadian rhythm, vitamin use, blah blah. This is daunting and endless. New research appears every day, and it seems like every popular writer has a piece of the system to advocate for, as the weathervane around which our diets should be oriented. I recently read some yokel in a forum, claiming that all gluten "increases a chemical called Zonulin in the digestive system", causing "leaky gut" in humans, which eventually kills us all.

Oh the horror.

Another approach is to try and figure out what was eaten by "our ancestors", and eat that, based on the assumption that we evolved to thrive on it. I bet you'd agree with me that way too much of the "research" on this topic amounts to socio-politlcal axe-grinding and extrapolation. Do we consider apes hanging about on African plains as our ancestors, or the Mesopotamian farmers of twelve thousand years ago? Or do we point at the Native Americans of the far north, who went their entire lives without eating a single piece of fruit, a single slice of bread, or a single vegetable? Each could take us in a totally different direction. Do we consider the modern cow the equivalent of the ancient ... whatever it was ... that the tribesmen kept 12000 years ago in Egypt, despite the massive planned and unplanned genetic drift? Of course not. What about the hundred varieties of corn that Native Americans from the middle of the continent slowly accumulated, and built their food systems around? Were they all on totally the wrong track?

And yet another approach is to take our immediate environment and just run experiments. What feels good to eat, long and short term? What doesn't? What seems to make us apathetic and sad, what seems to make us active and strong? What can we go out and try, that we don't usually eat? What do our friends recommend? What did our parents settle on, and raise us eating?

All I know for sure is:
1. The research and the experiment never ends.
2. If you don't do it, you might be missing something important.

But, now to get more specific. You asked what I think about discouraging starch and grains, and increasing fats.

That's appealing for a few reasons:

1. It overlaps with the "Mediterranean" diet, and the Atkins diet. Both are recently popular.
2. We all know high-quality fats are important for the brain and skin.
3. We're all edgy about weight gain, and have settled on "carbs" as the culprit, (relative to our parents' generation, which settled on "fat").

One of the things I remember Atkins touting was the practice of forcing the body into Ketosis, basically by covering all its nutrient and protein needs but starving it for calories, so that the liver is compelled to call for the burning of fat. That description is probably heavy-handed compared to what actually went on inside the bodies of the diets' adherents, but even so, it got results. Lots of people dropped weight, because they were able to remain satiated and thereby stick to the dietary change.

That was cool and all but I remember thinking, at the time, "this feels suspiciously like your basic starvation diet, just without the feeling of starving".

After I read all about that, I got into the vegan thing, very majorly. Then I added eggs into an otherwise meat and dairy-free diet, and that seemed to be my perfect system. I crammed myself full of low-starch vegetables and oil, and got my protein from soy, wheat-gluten, and eggs. I worked my ass off at Apple, got into bicycling, and felt healthy. Unfortunately, at the same time, I developed a habit of "emotional eating", and consumed donuts and cake and fresh-baked challah. I wanted calories and my brain found a way to fit them in.

(It could have been worse - a co-worker of mine at Apple went full-time, after a year of part-time, and the added stress caused him to rapidly gain over 40 pounds. His desk became a graveyard of vending-machine snacks and soda cans. He didn't appear to notice - too busy working.)

While I was doing the vegan thing, I became aware of the notion of "good carbs" and "bad carbs", where the "bad carbs" were refined sugars and wheats and the products made with them, and "good carbs" were unrefined or whole-grain, like brown sugar and blackstrap molasses and whole-wheat toast. The distinction is based on two things: How much of the original nutrients remain, and how rapidly the body absorbs the food (a.k.a. the "glycemic index"). So apparently the trick is to avoid refined things that cause an insulin spike. Your edict to minimize all starch and grains certainly covers this territory - but perhaps a bit too thoroughly.

After that I learned about the power of genetic history, when La discovered that she had fructose malabsorption. That was tricky because it was a structural condition of her digestive system, so she and I could eat the exact same thing and it would affect her body differently. In essence, the problem was with a certain sugar molecule. All fruit and sweeteners are made from three or four simple sugars, each with a similar glycemic index, but ONE of them would give her indigestion and even depression, and the others did no such thing. It was even trickier than that - since almost all fruits contained some level of fructose, La had to make sure she ate something with proportional sucrose in it, which effectively "balanced" the digestive process and prevented the reaction. So it was not only a lesson in genetics, but a lesson in the importance of combining foods.

Most vexing. Where, in the ancient ruins, and the neolithic trash middens, is the signal that La should never ever eat apples or pears, but as many oranges as she wants? And just her - not me?

Anyway, about a year ago I quit the vegan diet and began eating meat - mostly fish, then other things. I did so because I was getting really sick with a dysfunctional thyroid, and losing weight rapidly - 30 pounds in a few months - and was eating everything I could, desperately trying to reverse it. After 7 years of a virtually vegan diet, feeling fine, and fielding apocalyptic warnings from Mom and strangers about it, what really did mess up my health was the emotional HELL I went through in the first six months of 2010.

Find that in a diet book. "Want to lose weight? Sabotage your personal life! Abracadabra."

An aside: You know what doctors prescribed in the 1960's for weight loss? Amphetamines (Benzedrine)! How's that for a direct approach! WHACK.

So, from that ordeal I learned that my weight and physiology had a strong mental component. It sounds obvious when stated plainly, but I had only really considered it in one direction before. That is, I knew that if I ate crap, I would feel bad. But this was proof that the feedback loop went the other way, too. When my mind was upset, it manifested in my body. And not just in temporary changes, but in permanent ones. Because here's what's really freaky: Stress and other physiological conditions can cause our bodies to express different genes. ... Or produce antibodies to previously innocent proteins. You can go from having a rock-solid thyroid gland to an overactive or hair-trigger one, and it will stay that way. You can go from eating wheat every day of your life to having an apocalyptic immunological meltdown from a single sandwich.

The reasons for this are fascinating. Put very simply, the cells in our body do not just contain a single copy of our genome, but a bunch of little snippets of it, all floating around inside, instructing other mechanisms what to do. Different external stimuli will cause the aggregation of snippets to change, and that is a major mechanism in how the body works. Plus, that mixture is preserved as a cell splits into two. (This mechanism is how, for example, a liver cell turns into two liver cells.) So yeah, your genome remains the same from birth onward, and whatever you do during your lifetime you still pass the same genome to your children ... but during your lifetime, all kinds of changes can be wrought by altering that pool of snippets floating around inside each cell. Changes that can affect you for years and years.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say with all this, is, I no longer have any confidence in a particular diet as a panacea. I don't think I will ever stop having to adapt what I eat in pursuit of improved health. Before my bike trip started, I ate piles of dark chocolate and piles of french fries. Now I eat piles of dark chocolate and no french fries. On day 4 I remember staring at a menu and thinking to myself, "I should avoid all these carbs because my body needs to focus on muscle restoration from yesterday." On day 5 I remember thinking, "I should drink this soda or my liver is going to bottom out on glycogen two hours from now and I'll be exhausted and stuck 20 miles outside of town." Now I'm sitting here in the motel room on Day 6, thinking, "It's 3pm and all I've had to eat, all day, is two pieces of chocolate and some peanuts. Why am I not hungry?"
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