It just blows my mind how little we know about our bodies and how to keep them healthy. Most people I talk to aren't happy with the state of their bodies. They either feel like they're too fat, or too skinny, or some other complex. And it's not just feelings -- many people, especially on the Western diet, are too fat. And in fact, are clinically obese but don't know it. That described me for a decade. I was literally on the verge of metabolic syndrome and didn't even know it. That's incredible: I was putting my self at double the risk of coronary disease, diabetes and a slew of other diseases and I didn't even realize it. I see that same benign neglect of the body in most people around me. There's a general dissatisfaction of their bodies, but very little action taken to improve it, and I think it's because most people are a combination of confused as to what the best path forward is, and reluctant to make big changes without being sure they're making the right ones.
So while I don't necessarily have answers, I can offer a plan to help you begin your journey to figure it out, and the good news is, it's a very simple plan and so easy to follow that I guarantee this will work for you like it has for me. (Or "Your money back!" so to speak) You just have to decide you want to try. Here it is, step by step.
Step 1 in DROdio's "Achieve Your Body Goals" Plan: Adjust Your Attitude (Seriously.)
The very first thing you have to do is decide to take control of your body's fate, and not to let yourself feel like a victim. You are not a passenger along for the ride. You are driving. You have to believe that you impact the outcome with your actions, because you can, and you will. I have. For over a decade I felt like a helpless passenger. As my metabolism slowed down, I'd continue to put on the pounds and couldn't figure out how to stop it. I started hating the scale; hating that I was becoming someone other than who I knew I really was. It wasn't until I took this first step that I was able to take control. You have to really want to do this.
Step 2 in DROdio's "Achieve Your Body Goals" Plan: Mindfully Prioritize Your Actions
Like Gandhi said, "Actions express priorities." Part of adjusting your attitude includes adjusting your priorities. To put it simply, you have to put your body first for a little while in your life. Not forever, but for long enough to change your habits and find a 'new normal'. This means you put your body over your work, over your family, over everything. I'll explain how below, but if you're not ready to prioritize your goals with actions, then you're not ready to improve. Every day we're each becoming fitter or fatter. There is no middle ground. And worse, life's default state is to become fatter and less healthy. You have to put in work to achieve the opposite result.
Step 3 in DROdio's "Achieve Your Body Goals" Plan: Create a Goal and Figure Out How You'll Measure It
Have you decided you're ready to take control of your body, and to put actions behind that desire? The next step is to imagine an ideal you. What outcome do you want to achieve? For me initially it was a body weight goal, but I pretty quickly switched to a body fat percentage goal. I want to be no more than 20% body fat. For a male my age, that's top of the healthy range. In order to create this goal, I first had to understand my baseline. You can only improve what you can measure. I bought this body fat scale, which calculates weight and body fat. It's not stupendously accurate, but it's served as a great directional guide. Now I had the data to see how I was progressing on a daily basis. (Once I started getting serious aobut this stuff, I realized my baseline was 34.7% body fat. Wowza. I had lots of work to do!)
Step 4 in DROdio's "Achieve Your Body Goals" Plan: Embrace Experimentation and Timeboxing
This is the really key step. There's so much conflicting literature (which I'll dive into below) that it paralyzes most people even if they can get through the three steps above. I hate how the scientific community changes its mind every couple decades. We're just coming out of a 'fat phobia' generation where we've been using artificial sweeteners, margarine vs. butter, and sugars to reduce the amount of fat we consume. If you look at Western (and especially American) waistlines it's pretty clear this approach isn't working. Many nutritionists recommend eating many small meals daily, while more recent research extolls the benefits of fasting, including intermittent fasting. It's hart to know what to believe.
This is the only answer: You have to decide you are going to experiment for yourself to see what drives results for you. Here's the best way to do that:
1) Create a framework for experimentation. I would recommend you break your experiments up into one month chunks. You can do anything for a month, right? Whatever actions you decide to take, do them for at least 30 days and evaluate how it's affecting you. Remember in step #2 above you decided to prioritize your body over everything else. That comes into play here. For example, let's say you decide you are going to try a 5:2 fast for 30 days. This means that in every 7 day period, you skip meals on 2 of those days non-consecutively. In order for this experiment to really work, you can't do 5:2 "except on the nights that I have a work dinner." Or "except on the nights that I have guests in town." You have to prioritize this 30 day experiment above all else. This is your body we're talking about -- the thing that keeps you alive and in this world. It's worth a month of your prioritization. Maybe you decide to only do one 30 day experiment every three months. That gives you two months off between each experiment. You can run four experiments a year this way. Prioritize those precious months to find a new normal that you can benefit from for the rest of your life.
2) Decide on your first experiment. I have some more specific advice about that below. Nothing replaces just jumping in and trying it. Start your first experiment today.
3) Decide in advance how you will measure the success or failure of your experiment. Are you going to be tracking some metric like body weight or body fat? Do you want to get baseline blood labwork done so you can track things like triglyceride levels, HDL, LDL, blood pressure? Decide in advance what will constitute success in your first experiment. An example might be something like "I want to lose 1% body fat within the next 30 days."
Step 4 in DROdio's "Achieve Your Body Goals" Plan:
Rinse and repeat until you find a set of experiments that a) are effective for you and b) are sustainable. Here's what this process has looked like for me:
As I wrote here, I was turning 40 and scared enough by the way my body was degrading that I was ready to do something drastic about it. I've run the following experiments that are both diet and exercise-related:
- 5:2 Intermittent fasting: Fasting two non-consecutive days of every seven
- 4:3 Intermittent fasting: Same as above, but fasting three non-consecutive days per week. You can find my fasting blogs here
- Ketogenic Dieting: Staying in state called "ketosis," by eating a high fat, low carb diet, which I dig into here
- - Rowing 1 million meters in 8 months
- - Doing CrossFit three times weekly
I've gotten to the point where I really enjoy experimenting to see what the effects are, because for the first time in my life, it gives me control. It proves to me that I can move the needle; that I am in fact driving, that I can affect the outcome.
The challenge is that while I've found things that work incredibly well for me (like fasting), as I've gone down the health rabbit hole, I've ended up with more questions than answers. I'm going to dig into those below by layout the things I know to be true, think to be true, and am not sure about, and how all of this is driving my future experimentation.
WHAT I BELIEVE TO BE TRUE ABOUT HEALTH:
The healthier I am today, the longer and richer a life I will lead overall.
Inflammation = cellular destruction. "Chronic inflammation has been associated with many medical and psychiatric disorders, including cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, cancer, autoimmune diseases, schizophrenia and depression" - Nutrients v.5(3) 2013
Insulin must be controlled. The human body secretes insulin in response to the consumption of carbohydrates and protein in order to regulate blood sugar. This process, in turn, drives the body to store fat.
Fasting is healthful for a number of reasons, backed up by strong science. "Researchers at Yale School of Medicine have found that a compound produced by the body when dieting or fasting can block a part of the immune system involved in several inflammatory disorders such as type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. - YaleNews... The ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) "is a metabolite produced by the body in response to fasting, high-intensity exercise, caloric restriction, or consumption of the low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet"
The ketogenic diet may lower chronic inflammation in the body: "Our findings suggest that the anti-inflammatory effects of caloric restriction or ketogenic diets may be linked to BHB-mediated inhibition of the NLRP3 inflammasome." - NatMed 3/15 (What are "inflammasomes"? They are "key signalling platforms that... activate the highly pro-inflammatory cytokines," so, inflammasomes = causes of inflammation in the body). NLRP3 (a type of inflammasome) specifically "is associated with complex diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, gout, and multiple sclerosis... Blocking NLRP3 represents a promising therapeutic approach to complex diseases" ...and the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) may inhibit them.
Refined carbohydrates with high glycemic indexes are bad: In Good Calories, Bad Calories, "Taubes elaborates by examining evidence of the effects of carbohydrates on tribes with a "traditional" diet high in meat or fat and low in carbohydrates. He finds that the introduction of refined carbohydrates in the diets in these cultures resulted in increased prominence of diseases of civilization like obesity and heart disease." ... "Taubes contends that carbohydrates, specifically refined carbohydrates like white flour, sugar, and starches, contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments. Taubes posits a causal link between carbohydrates and cancer, as well." Related: Bread is carbs; most bread is bad. Wheat bread has the same glycemic index as white bread. 100% grain whole wheat bread's glycemic index is 30% lower. (Often people eat wheat bread thinking it's 100% grain bread.)
WHAT I'M NOT SURE ABOUT HEALTH:
Is a 100% ketogenic really good or really bad for you -- or neither?There's conflicting evidence. On the one hand there is research that shows that a diet high in animal fats and proteins combined with low carbohydrate intake (aka the classic Atkins diet) creates a higher mortality rate: ... but on the other hand there is newer research showing the exact opposite: "People who avoid carbohydrates and eat more fat, even saturated fat, lose more body fat and have fewer cardiovascular risks than people who follow the low-fat diet that health authorities have favored for decades, a major new study shows." - NY Times article 9/14, referencing this study funded by NIH: ... and that the act of being in ketosis (which occurs when you restrict carbohydrates) can protect the body from certain types of glucose-dependent cancers, delay the onset of dimentia, and reduce chronic inflammation.
My Next Experiment:
I've been eating ketogenic since November, and have enjoyed it. And I believe there may be some significant health benefits to staying in ketosis. My take-away from my three month ketogenic diet experiment has left me with more questions than answer, which is an indication to me that I want to keep experimenting. I might come back to a 100% ketogenic diet in the future, or I might do it for shorter periods of time in the future. I'm not sure yet.
What I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that fasting has been life changing for me. I've gone from a 38 waist to 32. From XL to M shirts (skipping over L entirely). From 245 lbs to 185 lbs. I'm going to keep fasting for the foreseeable future, and I'm going to stay on a 4:3 fast until I hit my 20% body fat goal.
My wife Sue has been incredibly supportive as I've experimented. She's cooked some delicious keto foods, including keto bread, keto ice cream, and other keto deliciousness. Since I have very poor food willpower (part of the reason fasting is so good for me is it's binary: I'm either eating, or not, which greatly reduces the cognitive overhead for me), we're going to try the following experiment for a while to see how it goes:
- No breads, pastas, noodles or other carb-rich foods on "regular" days
- No food with high sugar or added sugars (includes yogurts, juices) on "regular days"
- A de-emphasis on meat on "regular days" with the exception of high Omega 3 fatty protein (certain types of fish)
- OK to break the rules occasionally on "indulgent" days -- but when we do so, we do it together to make it something special for us as a couple. This might mean we eat out at our favorite french restaurant once in a while.
- A focus on whole, unprocessed foods and an aversion to processed foods
- A focus on low glycemic carbs like beans, lentils, colored yams, berries
- A focus on nuts, high fat fruits and vegetables like avocados (technically a fruit!)
This pattern of eating is similar to the one espoused by National Geographic Explorer Dan Buettner in "Blue Zones," which identified holistic lifestyles of populations that have long lifespans, which also includes strong social interactions and regular amounts of exercise. Here are some great blog posts written on the topic:
- Blue Zones: What the Longest-Lived People Eat (Hint: It’s Not Steak Dinners)
- Eating To Break 100: Longevity Diet Tips From The Blue Zones
- The Island Where People Forget to Die
- Excerpt: 'The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest'
I hope you'll join me by beginning your own journey of experimentation!
The picture above is of a keto-friendly "five dollar toast" that Sue made. It was as delicious as it looks!