Friday, April 9, 2010

The Anatomy of a Cheat

Y'all know by now that I'm not much of a cheater.

I like my primal straight up, thanks. I'll have a bit of dairy, but that's it. No sneaks from the office candy bowl. No toast with my eggs. No rice with stir fry or tortillas with fajitas or Pepsi on the sly. I'm too in love with my leanness, strength, and energy to risk it over a mouthful of sweet or starchy poison.

And yet, once in a blue moon, I do plan a major cheat. I hate that term, by the way, because it implies that the "cheater" is committing a mortal sin or losing control, rather than making an informed choice to eat something he or she normally avoids.

There's no real harm in a very-occasional , non-primal indulgence. (Assuming you're not still working to fix a broken metabolism, in which case more caution is advisable.)

And so, as I do about three times per year, I brought home a take-and-bake pizza (half Hawaiian, half pepperoni) and a small carton of Moose Tracks. I enjoyed several slices of pizza and a bowl of ice cream, and felt, as I knew I would, like complete crap.

The ice cream in particular made me feel like I'd swallowed a bucketful of steak knives. It also exacerbated the mild sore throat with which I'd been contending all afternoon. It was tasty, though!

I drank lots of water to combat the carb-induced water retention and went to bed smiling at myself, knowing that I was experiencing exactly what I was supposed to.

The next morning, I woke up looking reasonably lean -- about normal, but slightly puffy and less visibly cut in the abs. I had some leftover pizza for breakfast, in response to which my stomach made its displeasure known. A bit more ice cream reintroduced the sore throat and mucousy sinuses, which had resolved overnight. Note to self: Do not plan cheats for days your immune system is already working overtime.

Then, I went about my day, ignoring the lactose-, lectin-, and gluten-induced discomfort that persisted for hours. Unable to train horses or do farm work due to abysmal weather (horizontal sleet, anyone?), I drove to town and poked about in the thrift stores, where I scored a 5.5' x 3' wall mirror for my home gym.

Anyway. While I was in town, I bought (primal) groceries. I wandered around Home Depot, plotting future projects. I took my time. And I didn't get hungry.

I came home. Lifted heavy for almost an hour. Set a personal best on back squats. Wrapped up in an Aussie duster and fed the livestock in a driving rainstorm. Warmed up with a mug of spearmint tea. Didn't get hungry.

By 8:00, I still hadn't eaten and reckoned there wasnt' any need to. I went to bed looking lean and feeling strong (if still a bit queasy) and pleasantly satisfied with my body's apparent ability to make the best of a nasty shock.

As I understand it, a primal-adapted body, that is, one that is insulin-sensitive and accustomed to accessing fat for fuel, can endure -- and even benefit from -- an occasional influx of carbs. Yes, yes, such influx should typically be free of gluten and added sugar. Believe me, I know.

Faced with a rush of starch and sugar, my liver arranged neat chains of glycogen molecules to be harvested at will for the satisfaction of the parts of my brain and other tissues that prefer glucose as fuel. Excess glycogen was shuttled away to my muscle cells, where insulin rang the doorbell so my sensitive insulin receptors could admit as much fuel as possible. When my liver and muscle glycogen stores were both full, all extra energy was stored in my fat cells for later use.

Thanks to my fat-adapted metabolism -- the product of months of low-carb, adequate-protein, high-fat eating -- all that stored fuel was ready and waiting to meet energy needs long after my stomach emptied. Those bolstered fat cells emptied right back out.

And, as an added bonus, I enjoyed a reboot in leptin sensitivity, which resulted in visibly-improved leanness within 48 hours post-cheat. (Basically, leptin is a hormone that encourages the burning of stored bodyfat.) Under normal circumstances, I achieve this without the nasty side effects of grain and sugar-laden dairy by consuming a bi-weekly boost of primal carbs such as sweet potatoes, winter squash, fruit, or plantains.

And oh, those side effects are nasty indeed. Three days and two 16+ hour intermittent fasts passed before I felt completely normal again. It doesn't matter whether you fall off the wagon or jump off by choice -- the ground is just as hard!

I'm glad to be back on the straight and narrow for the foreseeable future. After all, the primal straight and narrow is a pretty satisfying place:


See this fascinating thread on the MDA forum for additional detail on how the body handles carbohydrate, as well as a variety of other topics.


Mike said...

I consider a cheat either a smartly-planned version of cyclic low-carb (CLC), or a brutal reminder of why Paleo kicks so much ass, and why it's better to use every ounce of willpower to stay on that wagon.

The "feeling like complete crap" ring so true. I've especially noticed it since I passed 35.

Completely off topic, but you blog makes me want to move to the country. Not sure how I'm going to swing that one. Ha!

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Hi Mike :) Planned, paleo CLC is definitely preferable! I consider non-paleo cheats a very rare, quality-of-life decision -- and they certainly are a good reminder as well!

LOL Ahh, the country. C'mon down! It's a lot of work, but worth it.