Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Gift of Fitness

One of my favorite things to listen to is the sound of my father's voice. I have listened to it so long, so intently, over the years that we are as alike in the cadence of our speech as in physical appearance.

I have gained more from his words than the rhythm of language. I've gained knowledge as well, much of it neatly encapsulated in remembered turns of phrase that I imagine he doesn't recall having spoken all those years ago.

"Money is choices" is one quote that stuck with me. Simple. Obvious, once you notice it. Ringing with the force of truth. And, I have come to realize, quite as applicable to fitness as it is to finance.

I once read that fitness is the difference between the most you can do and the least you can do. I like to keep that difference big. Huge. Broad enough to swing me from deep sleep to the oars of a raft sweeping into Crystal Rapid on the Colorado, to the back of a horse forty miles into a mountain race, to the summit of Pike's Peak with bare arms outstretched above the snow.

Fitness, like money, is bought with work. Time. Commitment. Effort. Often we enjoy it, but sometimes we don't. Sometimes, it is just plain hard. The barbell is heavy, the hill is steep, the road is long.

But look what we get in exchange! The embrace of life, my friends. Choices, and the strength to pursue them all.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Halfway House: Acceptable Recipes for Partly-Primal Living?

My roommate is overweight.

Okay, obese.

Last week, he informed me that he has gained 24 pounds in the past 6 months – and that was from a starting point of at least 20 pounds over his ideal weight. He’s ready to get rid of it.

But there’s a catch: He’s not ready to get rid of his favorite foods – which, like most of our favorites, are those addictive, sugary, bready carbs.

He’s watched the primal lifestyle work its magic on me, but going primal seems like too big a change. "Isn’t there some kind of compromise?" he asked.

I told him I’d give it some thought.

Indeed, something I’ve wondered about for a long time is whether a person does more harm or good by switching from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to a partly primal diet.

On one hand, Mark Sisson and others promote the so-called 80/20 rule; that is, 80% compliance with 20% flexibility for what some people call “cheats” and others call “staying sane.” There’s plenty of anecdote out there indicating that people do indeed experience significant improvements in health and body composition while enjoying a lot of breathing room in a generally primal(ish) eating plan.

But then there’s the other side. In their excellent book Protein Power, the Drs. Eades point out that the consumption of carbohydrate with other macronutrients (protein and fat), actually causes a greater insulin spike than the consumption of carbohydrate alone. If that is true, we have to ask ourselves whether I’d be doing my roomie a disservice by recommending that he increase fat and protein unless he is willing to let go of the carbs. After all, I’d hate to encourage further insulin resistance and fat storage by encouraging the consumption of high-fat AND high-carb meals that will raise blood sugar, necessitating an insulin release that promptly shuttles energy from both the carbs and the fat straight into those expanding fat cells without passing Go or collecting $200.

So what’s the answer?

Perhaps it is most practical to go back to the anecdotal evidence. A friend of mine recently cut back on grains and sugars – didn’t even remove them entirely! – and saw an impressive drop in blood pressure over the course of just a few weeks. Ironman recalls how, when he first started exploring primal, he cut out pasta and bread (but not all grains) and dropped ten pounds in two weeks – ten pounds, mind you, that had hovered around his middle despite years of extensive endurance athletics. The stories are varied and countless, but almost all indicate reasonable (and sometimes impressive) results from partial compliance.

So. If my roomie wants to consider 80/20, how might that look? I can think of a few options:

1. Calculate by number of meals. Say we figure on 3 meals per day, 7 days per week. That’s 21 meals per week. 20% of that equals 4.2 meals. So, he could eat 17 primal meals and 4 whatever-he-wants meals every week. Sounds reasonable. But, it doesn’t figure in impromptu passes by the office candy bowl, the temptation of ice cream with a late-night movie, that afternoon Mountain Dew habit…all of which cut pretty deeply into that 20%, leaving little wiggle room for actual meals.

2. Calculate by number of calories. My roomie is a pretty big guy, but not very active. For the sake of argument, let’s give him 2,200 calories per day. (Yes, I know it’s not all about calories, but about the hormonal impact of foods on energy usage. More on that later.) 2,200 calories per day x 7 days per week = 15,400 calories per week. 20% works out to 3,080 calories. That equals one Domino's pizza and a few bottles of soda. No more wiggle for the rest of the week. Of course, there’s the option of spreading it out a bit more, say over a few servings of pasta, a couple bowls of raisin bran, a some chocolate chip cookie dough, and a package of Jiffy cornbread mix. Livable? Depends who you are.

(Incidentally, for those who comprise their 20% of borderline primal goodies instead of SAD selections, 3,080 calories equals roughly four sweet potatoes, two bars of 85% chocolate, 6 ounces of aged Gouda, and a nightly glass of pinot noir.)

3. Forget the calculations. Of course, my roomie could choose to scrap the math altogether and shoot for 80% compliance without counting or tracking. For most people, this method will be the easiest to stomach – but I fear it will also be the least effective, mostly because people don’t usually have a good sense of how small 20% really is when you crowd it with big-ticket items like French fries and Milk Duds. Perhaps he could minimize the damage by trying for 100% on weekdays and complete freedom on weekends. More than a few bodybuilders and such swear by that kind of program.

…which leads me to a point that was called out during a recent discussion on the reader forums at Mark’s Daily Apple:

Fat + carbs + full glycogen stores = triglyceride factory (poor health and fat gain).

Fat + carbs + empty glycogen stores = glycogen storage (good health and potential for fat loss).

Duh. That’s pretty basic, but it’s easy to forget when we start thinking all about diet (which is, after all, the larger part of the leanness and health equation) and none about physical activity. If my roomie will drain his muscle and liver glycogen stores with, say, a couple heavy-lifting and a couple HIIT sessions per week, he’ll see much faster progress despite 20+% non-compliance on the nutrition side.

(But let’s not fall back on the old calories-in, calories-out theory of fat loss! Read this entertaining post by Tom Naughton for a more accurate accounting of what matters in terms of calorie intake and expenditure.)

Here’s another, important thought that came out of the forum discussion on being partly primal: It depends what part you choose. Pouring heavy cream on your Froot Loops because “fat is good!” won’t help you. Choosing to ditch sugar (even while holding onto grains, for now) will reap results. For many people – and I suspect my roomie is among them – the baby-steps approach will prove more manageable than the cold-turkey method I prefer. Every step away from the SAD will get you further down the right road.

There’s more than one way to skin a sabre tooth tiger.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Making Tracks

I am a nerd.

I carry books everywhere, complete with "to research further" lists for bookmarks. I set aside Trivial Pursuit cards as reminders to look up more information after the game. I use spreadsheets for everything from calculating my annual hay order to plotting my endurance horses' conditioning schedules...for the whole year.

So, no one will be surprised to learn that I like to track my food intake.

One of the beautiful things about primal (or un-weighed/unmeasured paleo) eating is that, in the vast majority of cases, there's no need to chart every bite of food that goes down the hatch. Most of us can simply commit to eating only certain types of foods, paying reasonable attention to quantities of particularly calorie-dense choices like nuts, and forget the tedium of counting carbs and calories and all the rest.

But as I said, I'm a nerd. Obsessive, some would say. I actually enjoy plugging my meals into Fitday or My Fitness Pal, tweaking selections and quantities to get just the right macronutrient balance day after day, maintaining accuracy down to the last almond. I like poring over the resultant charts and graphs, noting trends in the data, comparing my intake and performance and looking for ways to improve.

That all sounds useful, right? And it is. To a point.

After which it becomes unproductive.

Or even destructive.

You see, my problem with a paint-by-numbers approach to eating is that I begin planning meals around the necessity of filling in particular categories:

Let's see...I'll need more fat tomorrow...better add an avocado to my breakfast salad. Oops! That bumped my carbs too high. Okay, so I'll nix the carrot from the roasted mixed veggies at dinner. What about protein? Hmm, looking good, but a touch on the high side. Better cut that leftover pork roast down from six ounces to four...but then I'll get hungry. I have room for more fat, though, so how about I add a shot of coconut milk? Yes, that's better...but it inched the carbs back up a shade...

Not a good way to practice listening to one's own body. Not a good way to live on the least-best quantites.

Ah, what's this? I have another 200 calories available. Dark chocolate sounds lovely, now that I mention it...

Certainly not a good way to let intermittent fasting happen -- which is exactly what did happen the day after I decided to suppress my inner nerd and resume eating by feel: I ate dinner at 7:30 p.m. Went to bed. Woke up, fed the horses, drove to the office, hurried to a meeting, drank some coffee, felt energetic and bright, carried on working right up until 12:30, when I broke my 17-hour fast with a bowl of leftover red-hot chicken, vegetable, and coconut curry.



I quit tracking because I realized that I was using the practice to control my intake rather than to learn from it -- and as a result, the intake was controlling me. Yes, it was fun and interesting, but it was neither productive nor beneficial.

I don't mean to say that tracking has no place in primal living, at least for the nerds among us. I found it useful when I first went primal because I needed to learn the carb content of the foods I eat most often. Fine. It became useful again when I got curious about the macronutrient rations to which eating "by feel" had led me. Fine.

Tracking lost its usefulness when it told me what to eat, rather than me telling it what I ate. The time had come to let it go.

Will I ever track again? Sure. When I have a good reason to. But when I've learned what I need to know, I'll make tracks for the "log out" button posthaste.

Now, y'all better be prepared to remind me I said that.