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The Blog of Photographer Steven Gray

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Paleo no more!

A brief interlude from my India recap.  I'm editing photos like crazy to get them ready for the blog, but I wanted to get this entry off my chest before going any further with the travelogues.

Backstory:

A little over a year ago, I was about 230 pounds.  The stress of college and multiple moves exploited all of my weaknesses for food, especially "comfort" foods like pasta and sweets.  And I had no sense of portion control.  Lasagna in the house?  Two bricks please.  M&Ms?  I would fill a soup bowl full of them after every lunch.  By my senior year of college, at the less than remarkable height of 5' 10", my neck and my chin were becoming a little too similar.  It was time for a change.

Several factors pushed me toward a decision to reverse the unhealthy trend and lose some weight:

First, I had practiced karate for five years.  It was getting harder and harder to keep up.  And my uniform size had gone up; a tangible reminder that my gut had expanded considerably.  I was teaching kids how to be healthy, but I wasn't living it out.  I felt like a hypocrite (I was).

As a further kick in the pants, a very specific quote from a teacher inspired me to action.  While on a school trip, I heard that the professor leading the trip had lost forty pounds.  One of my classmates asked him if he had more energy, and his reply stuck with me.  "Um, YES I have more energy.  My kid weighs forty pounds, it was like carrying him on my back all the time."

In that same year, I made my first mission trip to India.  There, I saw real poverty and want for the first time in my life.  Long story short, after I arrived home, my lifestyle of excess felt very ill-deserved.  I knew that if I was going to make any enduring improvements to my health and body, it would require just that: long-term lifestyle modification.

I began with a series of incremental changes in late June of 2011.  First, I stopped drinking soda, limiting myself to one or two per month when I would order a frozen Coke at a movie theater.  Second, I cultivated self control over my portion sizes.  I also quit partaking in massive desserts after every meal, and when I did have dessert, it was a glass of Ovaltine.  For fitness, I started swimming once or twice a week, in addition to my usual regimen of karate and kickboxing.  These common sense changes were easy, and startlingly effective.  The weight came off fast, and the success drove me to make more changes.  Like a skateboarder on a smooth grade, I had momentum, and I wanted to increase it.

By September, I had drastically reduced my carbohydrate and grain intake, and I had lost forty pounds.  I didn't eat chips or potatoes any more, my rice intake was limited to sushi on the weekends, and I only ate grain products when I had my weekly Subway veggie delite or a baked dessert on a special occasion.  With so much already cut out of my diet, the extremist in my decided to make one more change.

I had read Mark Sisson's The Primal Blueprint, and I knew the strong case against grain products.  Gluten, gliadin, empty carbs, systemic inflammation--there was a laundry list of grievances to be laid at the feet of wheat, and I was finally ready to accept them and act accordingly.  The Primal Blueprint advocates a return to "ancestral health," a diet based on whole foods (meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds), no legumes and absolutely zero grain products.

I went completely grainless as a thirty-day experiment, going a month entirely without bread, pasta or flour-based desserts.

The results?  I lost ten more pounds and made it through October without encountering my yearly seasonal allergies.

I was sold.  T'was a primal life for me!  Mine became a life sans wheat products, legumes and most forms of sugar.  I based my diet on animal protein, healthy fats, an absolutely irresponsible quantity of vegetables, some fruit and dark chocolate (90% cacao content or higher) as an indulgence.  Then I drifted toward a more hardcore, strict paleo point of view, cutting back on dairy and sourcing grass-fed meats.  None of these things were wrong in and of themselves, but in pursuing this lifestyle, I made a huge mistake.

Today.

Originally, I just wanted to lose some weight to look and feel better.  But I turned my diet into an obsession.  I made being "the healthy guy" my identity instead of just something I did.  I became a food nazi to the point where people apologized to me for eating sandwiches in my presence, without my having spoken at all.  I gloried in what I perceived as enlightenment and superiority.  While everyone around me continued to eat their "healthy whole grains," they were sick all winter and I wasn't.  While others yo-yoed up and down the scale on their low fat diets and bemoaned inevitable weight gain over the holidays, I lost another ten pounds over my Christmas break.

All the while, I expected some kind of social return on my obsession.  I don't know what I expected.  Applause?  A mass conversion of Pop-Tart-popping college students into svelte Crossfitters?  I don't know what kind of castle in the air kept me going, but it never materialized.  And now, the whole experience has left me hollow.

Over a year later, I'm fifty-something pounds lighter and look a lot better in a tshirt, but I still don't have a six-pack.  I don't have the bodyfat percentage I desire.  But far worse than these cosmetic details, I realized the other day that I have severely alienated people.  I made them uncomfortable with my constant yapping about how all their favorite foods were going to kill them.  I lost track of my original goal.  Instead of sticking to my original plan of getting in good shape, I drifted into pedantry and demagoguery.

Lately, several things have brought me back down to earth.

First, I started to notice how many headlines get recycled on Mark's Daily Apple.  The information is always sound, and MDA is one of the best searchable resources on the web for good nutrition information, but after a year of reading every article, it is apparent to me that there is only so much information that Mark or any other guru can give for the first time, and beyond that, any and all articles will be declarations of theory confirmation with the end goal of selling more books.  Speaking of the "paleo blogosphere," it has turned into a nasty place.  As the "paleo movement" becomes less of an underground health movement and more of an established faction among the various fitness dynasties, all the blogs look increasingly alike, and I think the authors are aware of this fact.  They all have the same interviews, they all have ebooks for sale, and the in-fighting and pettiness gets ridiculous.  As a community, I never sense support as much as judgment from the paleo crowd if my beef isn't grass-fed or my vegetables organic.

Second, I feel like sports nutrition is not taught properly by most paleo writers.  Caught up in the fervor of "defying conventional wisdom," preaching the doctrines of intermittent fasting and "eating fat to lose fat," the importance of protein is neglected.  Eating healthy, natural fats is the best way to lose weight (I'm walking proof of this), but for muscle maintenance, protein should be the highest priority.  It wasn't until I read Timothy Ferriss' book The Four-Hour Body that I was made aware of the full importance of protein--not just as a catalyst for building muscle mass, but for cutting fat instead of just losing weight.  My personal experiments in intermittent fasting suddenly felt like monumental wastes of time, because it hit me like a ton of bricks that when I was fasting sixteen hours a day to increase insulin sensitivity and production of human growth hormone, I wasn't eating enough protein during my "eating window" to obtain the results I desired.

Coming back to my food nazism, my burgeoning epiphany of my relationship ineptitude was further hammered home by J. Stanton's article "Why Are We Here, And What Are We Looking For? Food Associations And The Pitfalls Of The Search For Novelty," which ranks as one of my favorite pieces of writing that I have ever read on the internet.  As he always does, Stanton put the attitudes within the paleo movement into their proper context in his article, and recognized the fact that eating for health in a serious way, ala the paleo lifestyle, is very hard psychologically.  In the US, we grow up with PB&Js, Snickers bars and birthday cakes, and in breaking ties with these familiar foods we don't just give up the taste, we give up the feelings attached to them.  Stanton's article helped me to be totally honest with myself about the effects of my lifestyle on my relationships with other people.  Who was I trying to kid when I insist that Lindt's gourmet, 99% cacao bar is superior to a Butterfinger?  They are both delicious, simply in different ways to different people.

For those of you who were hoping to see a total recant of my principles and a video of me gnawing on a French loaf, I'm sorry to disappoint you, because despite my new attitude and grievances with the paleo blog culture, I still agree wholeheartedly with the tenets of paleo nutrition.  But I have some modifications to make in my own life.  I used my most recent trip to India to test my body's responses to different foods, and the results were interesting:

  • A plate of noodles, given to me by a host who was under the impression that Americans live on pasta and french fries, confirmed my suspicions that I have a gluten sensitivity.  It was the first time I had eaten any wheat product in almost a year, and within minutes of eating what I was given out of politeness, I experienced harsh stomach cramps and diarrhea.  Gluten problems are real, even if you don't have celiac.
  • For weight loss and weight management, there is no such thing as a "safe starch."  When consumed on a daily basis, rice and potatoes will increase your waistline as much as any other starch or grain.  I gained a lot of weight eating a rice-based Indian diet for the first few weeks of the trip, and it was very uncomfortable.
  • Natural fats and proteins are STILL the best fuel for the human body.  For the above reason (and others, see below) I requested my last host to cook me nothing but eggs and vegetables while I stayed with him.  Most of the photos in this entry are of the delicious egg scrambles he cooked for me.  On that meal plan, I lost four weeks of rice weight inside of four days.  My host even commented on the visible change in my appearance.  I might add that my food was cooked in ghee (clarified butter), and I was always given huge portions--my record was fourteen whole eggs in one day.  I don't recommend that as an everyday practice, but nevertheless the weight still fell off quickly and my muscle tone reappeared.  It is confirmed: low fat diets are, and always will be, the hard and unnatural route to weight loss.
  • Counter to what many paleo talking heads will spout, legumes are not all bad.  To avoid rice, I would sometimes fill my bowl with dal (boiled and seasoned lentils or mung beans) instead.  In the primal/paleo world, legumes are often vilified along with wheat as a source of lectins and phytates, which, long story short, can contribute to leaky gut syndrome (feces leaking into the bloodstream) after long-term consumption.  However, in my more recent readings, I have learned that an overnight soak kills 97% of the anti-nutrients in lentils.  That is acceptable.
  • Industrially processed vegetable oils are legitimately harmful.  For reasons of cost and availability, most Indian homes cook their food in mustard oil, palmseed oil or soybean oil.  These oils are filled with extremely high volumes of Omega-6 fatty acids.  When your body's ratio of n-6/n-3 are out of balance, the result is interior inflammation, which I felt in spades due to the amount of oil used in most authentic curries.  I will save you the graphic details, but sufficed to say that my nightly "green apple quickstep" was yet another reason I went on a recovery diet of eggs and veg (boiled in water or cooked in clarified butter instead of oil) late in the trip.
  • The occasional indulgence will not destroy health or weight maintenance.  On one occasion in India, I consumed somewhere between twenty-four and thirty ounces of sweet lassi (a yogurt drink) combined with fruit juice and chopped banana, inside of an hour.  Contrary to my old fears [paranoia], I did not balloon back to an unhealthy weight.  I'm not saying this was the healthiest thing to do, but at the time, my Indian host and I felt compelled to judge the merits of several competing lassi vendors.

So where does this leave me?  Well, my opinions about what makes up a truly healthy diet remain largely unmoved.  I still believe that some foods are best not consumed by humans (modern wheat, most forms of dairy, anything from McDonalds), but after a year of making myself miserable about it, I have decided to resign my position as the community food nazi.  The following list represents my new paradigm, which, like everything else, is subject to change with new data:

  • I will never budge on the subject of wheat.  I saw a shirt once that said "the road to hell is paved with gluten," and I agree wholeheartedly.  Some research has speculated that as many as a third of Americans are gluten sensitive, but are so used to the symptoms (sinus inflammation, IBS, etcetera) that they never even consider possible dietary causes.  On a broader level, I also I firmly believe that wheat and the concomitant bread and snack food industries are responsible for the epidemic of heart disease and diabetes in America.  Read any label, and the only praise you will find for "healthy whole grain" products is the fiber content.  Fiber can be obtained through vegetables, along with many other vitamins and nutrients absent in wheat.  Balanced against the problems of gluten, I maintain that there is literally no need for grains in the human diet.
  • I am incorporating legumes back into my diet, albeit judiciously.  Lentils are kind to blood sugar levels and an effective way of filling out meals while reducing grocery costs.  And with some some of my recent, post-India stomach trauma, I needed the extra fiber to restore some regularity to my GI tract.  On a more recreational and positive note, cashews are back in the mix, too.  I had the chance to eat fresh, raw, locallyg-grown cashews in India...I had forgotten how good those little buggers are!
  • Systemized intermittent fasting, ala Leangains, is overrated, and the way most people talk about it right now, it has become a fad for most people.  Unless you are already well-muscled and sub-12% bodyfat (sub-20% for women), I believe that the visible results are marginal at best.  Spontaneous meal-skipping, for weight loss or to aid in cell autophagy, on the other hand, is something I think is healthy to do once or twice a week.
  • There is only so much nutrition you can get from whole foods.  Supplementation is important.  Omega-3 (fish oil, flaxseed oil), vitamin D and acidophilus are all supplements which I take daily now.
  • Protein is the new king.  Yes, a tall smoothie of coconut milk, nuts and berries is paleo-approved, filling and healthy, but it is not the ideal lunch when you want to cut the last five pounds of fat and build new muscle, which is my goal.  I don't believe in counting calories, but I believe firmly in macronutrient ratios.
  • I will no longer call myself a devotee of the "paleo diet."  I have developed a strong dislike for the groupthink and the tendency toward confirmation bias and anecdotal arguments.  The very definition of "paleo" as a set of dietary guidelines has yet to be standardized, but every Grok and Grokette with a blog seems to think that his or her personal definition is the universal standard.  The arguments that arise out of the lack of mutually-understood terms are hilarious in the insipidity.  In the end, it doesn't matter if "paleo" means high-carb, moderate carb, low carb or ketogenic, the argument of "well, I don't think ancient man would have eaten ____" is always used too often and too lightly.

For the first time in my life, I am going to follow a structured diet.  I mentioned The Four-Hour Body earlier in this entry, and I am intrigued by the "Slow Carb Diet."  The whole first chapter on the subject is available to read for free, but what I like the most about it is that it brings me back to my original reason for changing my diet in the first place.  I wanted to cut fat and build muscle.  In my zeal to be perceived as a holistic know-it-all, I drifted away from that stated goal, and as such I never reached it.  It's time to return to my original purpose.  The Slow Carb Diet is designed out of sound nutritional principles, solid data, and is specifically designed not just for weight loss, but for reducing body fat and maintaing muscle.

The SCD approach includes a weekly "cheat day" for reasons of metabolism and social well-being.  I originally had mixed feelings about cheat days.  The old me always considered "cheating" to be a sign of weakness and inability to make lasting changes, but lately I realized that my monk-like consistency made me a social pariah in most arenas.  Taking one day off from dietary restriction not only prevents metabolic downshifting, but it gives the individual a day to be "normal" again.  Even one of my favorite paleo fitness blogs (one of few that is truly well-adjusted in its presentation of information) advocates cheat days wholeheartedly.  John Romaniello, one of the most stacked fitness coaches I've ever seen, has written extensively about using planned cheat meals effectively.  Good enough for me.  For my own first designated cheat day, I plan to indulge heavily in sushi, Nikki's Coconut Butter and perhaps a big cup of chai or creamy turmeric tea for a nightcap.  I'm looking forward to it.

So there you have it.  If you are one of the people whom I harangued in the past year for what you ate, I apologize.  It wasn't my place.  I changed my lifestyle at a time when I had little control over anything else in my life, and I allowed myself to be consumed by the idea of controlling both my own diet and that of others.  I will not pontificate any more.  If asked, I will be glad to share my experience and help other people improve their lifestyle, because I do have good advice to offer on the subject.

But!

Unless or until that happens, I am no longer the "paleo" or "primal" guy.  I'm just Steven, and I eat a certain way.

And I really, really love breakfast food.