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diet experiments

Six months ago I went on a paleo diet. I wish I'd been blogging about it the whole time, because now there's so much stuff built up that every time I try to write about it I get bogged down and give up. The diet (by which I mean "approach to nutrition" as opposed to "ill fated crash-weight-loss plan") is easy to describe in essence, basically "eat food, not too much, mostly plants and animals." It's usually a high-fat, moderate-protein diet and includes both ketogenic (low-carbohydrate) and moderate-carbohydrate variants.

There's also an emphasis on avoiding many foods that humans are believed not to tolerate well, chiefly grains and legumes. The "paleolithic" part of the diet doesn't refer to simple-minded historical reenactment. It's just a reminder that many of our beliefs about a "balanced" or "natural" diet date back to the beginning of agriculture, which 1) is a negligibly short time, evolutionarily speaking, and 2) came out of a desire to maximize caloric output per acre of land, not to optimize human health. I mean, when a nutritionist says you should get half your calories from whole grains, they're making the very strange assertion that the healthiest fuel for our bodies is something that, just 20,000 years ago, no human had ever eaten except in very small, seasonal quantities.

Marlene Zuk and other trendy anti-paleo writers like to point to teeny microevolutionary changes that look like adaptations to an agriculgural diet, but it's a big leap from extra copies of a few carbohydrate metabolism genes to assuming the kind of wholesale biochemical rearrangement that would need to have happened for us to be really adapted to starch-based agriculture.

I could say a lot more about what paleo involves, what I've learned from the community, and the wide variety of beliefs I've encountered, ranging from solidly research-based to abject superstition and bro-science. But the part of the story I should really be telling is what happened to me: I screwed up.

When I went on this diet, I intended to work out and put on some weight. But my persistent joint problems intervened and I had to drop the strength training plans. Instead I gradually started losing weight, which I clearly didn't need to do. I increased my daily calories by about 10% above what I'd been eating before changing my diet, and then by another 10%, but somehow I still kept losing. By the time I decided there was something seriously wrong, I was at my lowest weight in a decade, and it was clear from looking at me that a lot of it had come out of muscle. I am now officially too skinny.

Looking back, I think I understand what happened. One of the things you want to do on a paleo diet is become fat-adapted, meaning that your body preferentially burns fat for fuel. The main advantage is smoother blood sugar regulation and less chance of developing insulin resistance. It's also handy because even lean people have plenty of bodyfat to tide them over between meals, whereas non-adapted people are reliant on the body's very limited stores of glycogen, after which they start to get hypoglycemic and cranky.

So, I dropped my carb intake from about 50% to about 25% of daily calories and started eating a lot more fat. The problem is, I never became highly fat-adapted. I have some specific thoughts about why, but the upshot is that I ended up getting those panicky, emotionally labile low-blood-sugar feelings at least once, almost every day. Those feelings are, I later learned, a sign that the body is engaging in gluconeogenesis, producing the glucose it needs from stored protein. And your body's store of protein is... your muscles. Everyone breaks down and builds up a bit of muscle tissue over the course of the day, but I was doing it much too frequently.

I've got some more ideas for dietary experiments that I want to try, but right now priority #1 is putting on another 10 pounds. I don't even care whether it's muscle, water, or pure abdominal fat; I just need some buffer before I screw with anything else. So I've increased my calories yet again, gone up on carbs, and set a goal of eating every few hours and making sure I stay on top of my blood sugar.

This is strange and intensely anxiety-provoking. But I guess that's good.

Incidentally, I hope this doesn't discourage anyone else from trying a higher-fat + lower-carb diet. I think the evidence for them is quite strong, and if you get the blood sugar problem it's not hard to fix: Eat some damn fruit. I was just excessively stubborn and didn't stop to think about what was going on.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 2nd, 2013 06:01 pm (UTC)
wow, interesting.

i'm tending toward the belief that healthy eating varies a lot by individual and has a lot to do with heredity. i know the diet on which i feel the best makes some of my friends feel like absolute crap. (my baby is made of 65% dairy products, i think. this seems to strike even people who don't have any dairy sensitivities as weird and excessive.)

we are now a wonderfully pluralistic society, but the down side of that seems to be that group eating has become very difficult! unintended consequences.
Sep. 2nd, 2013 06:20 pm (UTC)
It amazes me that we don't encourage people to experiment with diet more. The political/scientific nutritional axis still seems to be stuck on the idea that there's a single diet that's best for everybody, and most of the prominent contrarians just claim that it's a different single diet. Pretty much the only thing everyone can agree on is that refined sugar sucks.
Sep. 2nd, 2013 06:25 pm (UTC)
And there is not even broad agreement that refined sugar is *the worst* thing, right? There seem to be plenty of people who think that white bread is worse than sugar, and plenty of people who think that a burger and fries is worse than sugar.
Sep. 2nd, 2013 06:51 pm (UTC)
It's true, there are people who think there are worse things than refined sugar. But I don't think that anyone thinks it's okay (except for Coca-Cola executives, who will go on thinking that until the leaked memos show up).
Sep. 2nd, 2013 06:23 pm (UTC)
Wow, this is exactly the kind of writing I dreamed of seeing by getting you back on LJ with me :) So the gluconeogenesis thing, do you think that's what...well...what *I* experience when I fast? I get emotionally labile and I also start having an incredibly hard time making decisions. On the other hand, the feeling I get when I eat, say, hard candy seems like a more much straightforward blood sugar spike.
Sep. 2nd, 2013 06:42 pm (UTC)
There's definitely a stress hormone increase associated with hypoglycemia, and also with gluconeogenesis. I'm not sure if the subjective experience is proof that muscle breakdown is occurring, or just associated with it. But it's definitely not the same as a blood sugar spike; I think protein breakdown tends to lead to pretty well-moderated blood sugar levels. Some people even moderate their blood sugar by eating an extremely low-carb+high-protein diet and producing the glucose they need from dietary protein. That's very wasteful, though (you're basically feeding starch to cows, eating the cows, and then throwing away all the unique cow proteins and turning them back into starch).
Sep. 2nd, 2013 06:36 pm (UTC)
Increase coconut oil or free range butter, sweet potatoes, fruit, nuts. Forget the not too much part ...paleo people eat.
Sep. 2nd, 2013 06:44 pm (UTC)
Re: suggestion
Yep, I'm eating all that stuff. Especially sweet potatoes. So many sweet potatoes. I've switched to Japanese yams for a while in order to avoid turning orange, like I did back in college when I had a that really bad carrot habit.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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