Feb 04

So You Want to Eat Like a Happy Philosopher…

Food.

Our lives are centered on food. Most of us eat three meals a day, often with additional snacks. Much of our social interaction revolves around it. Think of all the times you interact with friends and family and how much involves food and drink. Food may seem like a tangential topic to the subject of happiness but it is critically important. Our physical well-being cannot be easily separated from our spiritual and emotional well-being, believe me I have tried. When we feel like crap it is just hard to be happy. Maybe outliers like Buddhist monks or Viktor Frankl can pull this off but for average people like me it is almost impossible.

Food is a very complicated science, and one that is difficult to study. It is very hard to design good randomized controlled trials that a statistically significant number of people will adhere to, so for the most part we are stuck using observational studies, epidemiological data and natural experiments, which have their limits. That being said, there are important lessons to be learned and concepts to be pondered.

Let me start with my story about food.

I pretty much ate like crap for most of my life, not really paying attention to things like quality, nutrition, etc. I never had problems with obesity, I could eat what I wanted, and I did. I figured a calorie was a calorie and as long as I wasn’t sick I was doing just fine. I didn’t really consider that the way I felt was related to what I ate. Turns out I was very wrong.

At some point a few years ago I started doing a lot of reading about self-experimentation with diet, exercise, sleep etc. I blame thank Tim Ferris for this. Anyways, I latched onto the Paleo diet, which seemed to make sense to my scientific mind from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. It was all the rage, and how could millions of random people talking about it on the internet be wrong?

I stood up at dinner one night and declared I was starting a new diet experiment; which was met with the usual eye rolls and mild teasing that most of my crazy ideas invoke. I had no real game plan other than to make some paleo breakfast bars, buy some coconut oil and pick around the refrigerator and cupboards for things on the list of non-restricted food. How hard can this be anyways?

Famous last words.

The first two weeks I gained a very healthy respect for what drug addicts must experience going through withdrawal. As there were very few simple carbs laying around the house that were paleo friendly I went through soul crushing sugar withdrawal.

I vividly remember eating a few strawberries one day about a week into my diet and almost passed out in a dopamine induced pleasure coma. Those were without a doubt the best fucking strawberries I’ve ever had in my life!

strawberries

About two weeks into my diet something changed. I no longer felt the sugar craving. Food tasted better. Hunger went away. I stopped snacking. I felt fantastic! My energy levels went up and I was sold.

Now, there was a side effect to this diet that I didn’t consider…

Weight loss.

Most people wouldn’t really consider this a ‘side effect’ so much as a desired outcome. Many people use paleo and other low carbohydrate diets to lose weight. This isn’t a problem if you are average or obese. This is a big problem if you start with a BMI of 19. After about 3 months on the diet I lost most of what little subcutaneous and abdominal fat I had. It was awesome! I could see abdominal muscles only visible on body builders and 10 year old boys.

What was not so cool was after I ran out of fat to burn my body decided to start burning muscle, and after a week or two I now had the physique of a 10 year old boy (and probably the strength of one too!). The muscles of my upper chest, glutes and thighs melted away with surprising speed.

After consulting with my physician who checked to make sure I didn’t have some contributing factor like rampant hyperthyroidism or cancer I made a few tweaks to my diet with the only  tool I knew how to use to gain some of my weight back – ice cream. Yes, that’s right, ice cream. Glorious…glorious…ice cream.

ice-cream-1081324_960_720

 

Take away ideas.

Overall, the paleo diet was a short term failure for me, but a long term success. I did actually make lasting substantial changes to my diet after my ice cream binging was over. I remained gluten free (well, actually just severely gluten reduced: no wheat pasta, no wheat containing pastries or bread. I still drink the occasional beer!). I cut back on dairy. I have tried to avoid adding sugar to things. I lost the taste for sweetener in my coffee. I changed my carbohydrate intake to predominantly potatoes and rice and other non-gluten containing grains.

There were lasting benefits to this modified diet, some quite unexpected.

 

  • My gastrointestinal system just felt‘better’. Things were more settled, I was less bloated after meals, and interestingly no more symptoms of acid reflux.
  • I almost never get headaches anymore. My once bi-weekly headaches are at most once or twice a year now and much less severe.
  • My seasonal allergies all but disappeared. No more nasal sprays or antihistamines.
  • I had noticeably more sustained energy throughout the day, without food cravings between meals.
  • I  developed a discipline and focus on eating healthier and learned to pay attention to how different foods make me feel.
  • It may be my imagination but I feel like I get fewer viral upper respiratory infections.
  • My skin and hair look and feel healthier.

 

I know the science behind all this stuff is still in the discovery phase, but I would encourage you to start making changes and experimenting in your own life to discover what makes you feel good. It takes years for diet information to be assimilated by the traditional medical community and society at large. After all, there are still health providers who think restricting fat is the way to lose weight and that a calorie is a calorie. There are people who think non-celiac gluten intolerance is a made up disease.

Food is the number one medication you put in your body. It has powerful endocrine, neuropsychiatric and metabolic effects. What we choose to eat is the cause of much chronic disease including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Feeling miserable and living unhealthy is also expensive, both in terms of medical costs and opportunity cost – after all it is hard to get that promotion at work or put in the time to further your education when you are not feeling your best. Some studies have also shown that overweight people may earn less than their average weight counterparts and are interviewed less frequently for jobs. This may not be fair, but it is reality.

So how does a happy philosopher proceed?

 

  1. Start simple. Eat meat, vegetables, healthy oils and fats, nuts and fruits. Don’t consume foods you know you are allergic too even if they fall in these categories (Duh). Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D which are sometimes deficient with this degree of strictness. Follow for 6 weeks and document how your body feels.

  2. Add back food categories and see if your body tolerates it. I like dairy and legumes and I’m not convinced of their evilness like many hard-core paleo dieters. My body tolerates them and I eat them sparingly. Add one item at a time and observe it for a week or so.

  3. Eliminate or severely restrict gluten, sugar and any beverage that isn’t water, coffee or tea. No sweeteners.

  4. Avoid processed foods.

  5. If you are going to eat animals, try and find ones that eat the food they are designed to eat. Don’t eat cows that are fed gummy bears or fish that eat corn. This isn’t right. Avoid animals fed antibiotics. Healthy meats are more expensive so buy less of them and eat more vegetables and healthy fats. Eggs are awesome!

  6. Genetically modified crops with pesticide genes spliced in to their DNA scare me – and they should scare you too. I avoid them when practical. Organic produce is probably better but organic sugar is not healthier than non-organic kale! Food you grow yourself is probably the best.

  7. Better is the enemy of good. Keep working at it and journal your findings. Progress is not linear. Understand there will be setbacks. As you develop an eating philosophy around health and feeling great it will eventually cease to be a struggle. When you associate healthy foods with feeling great the cravings will become less.

  8. Do not become an evangelist. 99.9% of people don’t give a shit about your diet and preaching to them will just make them angry. When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When someone asks you from a place of genuine curiosity and is seeking knowledge this is the time to share with them.

That’s enough for now. As with anything posted on a random blog with a smiley face as an avatar, don’t accept everything as fact. I’m telling you what worked for me. Do your own research. Check with your doctor if you have other medical conditions or take prescription medications before you radically change your diet.

Photos: Pixabay and me.


Tell me your experience with dietary experimentation in the comments below. What worked best? What was a complete disaster? Do you love ice cream as much as I do?

17 comments

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  1. I’ve been reading about (and experimenting with) the paleo diet for 5+ years. I find the science behind it woefully unconvincing, but I do know that when I practice it, it works for me. In fact, I’ve been thinking I ought to get back to some sort of paleo-ish food program. (I never do it 100%. Thus “paleo-ish”.) And the gluten stuff is WAY over-blown. Fewer than 1% of the population has any gluten sensitivity. Gluten doesn’t bug me (but dairy is another story!).

    For me, the big problems are sugary foods and, especially, alcohol. I crave sweet things. I like beer and wine and whisky. None of these are good for my gut — or the rest of my body. Alcohol really messes with my sleep!

    Three years ago, I was in great shape, the best shape of my life. Today I’m out of shape. That’s partly due to lack of exercise, but it’s primarily because of a poor diet. Time to turn things around!

  2. JD,

    Thanks for your comments. Paleo has become a religion to some and I completely agree with modifying it to make it easy to adhere to while at the same time maximizing health.

    I will differ though on gluten. After reading mountains of information on the topic I am convinced it is not a great thing to consume. The problem is in the details of these studies, and differentiating between celiac disease, non celiac gluten sensitivity, and general pro-inflammatory effects that are likely universal to some degree with gluten consumption. What concerns me the most are the associations with neurological disease like dementia. Again, the studies are small and very difficult to design to have great statistical power, but taken in total they concern me. Celiac disease is between 0.5-2% depending on the study you look at. NCGS is probably 5-10 times higher. Another confounding factor is people that go gluten free often get rid of other things from their diet, so it it the gluten? FODMAPs? Other proteins? Pesticides?

    Who knows…I’m steering clear of gluten until the dust settles. I do miss fresh bread though…and doughnuts (sigh).

    We are just beginning to understand this stuff. A good resource is this site (and book: Grain Brain) written by a neurologist. Lots of links to primary articles. http://www.drperlmutter.com/learn/faq/

    Actually for maximum health and longevity it looks like some combination of ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting is the way to go, but that looks so miserable I think I may just accept the shorter life span. 😉

    Good luck on your diet, come back and tell us what worked for you!

  3. I’ve been experimenting with a new diet the last 2 weeks. It’s called eating less and watching the portion sizes and the late night snacking. We already do a good job of cooking from scratch and using mostly whole ingredients. Since starting this new healthy eating kick, I’ve noticed a general improvement in gastrointestinal tract performance from top to bottom (get it, haha!).

    The formula so far is simple and not that punishing: Eat when hungry, but just a little unless it’s meal time. Eat more healthy stuff, less junky stuff. Drink a big gulp of water before meal time.

    So far it’s not a serious diminution in quality of life in terms of not eating what I want (even though OMG I love to eat), yet I feel better which is a big boost to QoL.

    1. Simple is best, and I definitely do better when there are fewer rules to the game. Good luck 🙂

    • Frank on July 8, 2016 at 7:22 am
    • Reply

    I am not convinced on the science behind the paleo diet. I also think the gluten sensitivity thing is a trendy fad. Check out TED talk with Christina Warriner: debunking the paleo diet.

    1. The science behind most diet research is murky. Much of it is flawed (including mainstream thinking over the past 30-40 years), but there is one thing which seems to be certain: The standard American diet (sad) is not good for our health. The paleo ‘diet’ (it is more a framework than a diet) discourages processed food, refined carbohydrates and sugars while encouraging more vegetables, healthy fats and nutrient dense foods. Going paleo will improve the health of most people compared to what they are currently eating.

      Regarding gluten sensitivity: I thought gluten sensitivity was bullshit, until I actually did the experiment on myself. Now, is it due to gluten, FODMAPS, pesticides, etc…who knows. All I know it that myself and many other skeptical people I know feel much better when we don’t eat gluten. I think everyone owes it to themselves to experiment with elimination diets especially if they suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms, headaches or any chronic inflammatory or autoimmune diseases. There is no downside to eliminating gluten from your diet for a few months and seeing what happens.

  4. There is also something to be learned from “Longevity Villages” and “Blue Zones”–the thing they have in common is eating whole foods they mostly grow themselves & not fast-foods.

    We eat all organic & grass-fed because it tastes better and we feel better. Just like so many have said, we spend more now on food, but we spend far, far less on medical bills so we are much further ahead in finances. We don’t eat fast food any more at all; when I drive by a burger-joint the smell now nauseates me, where I used to have to make myself drive past & not stop–yes, your taste does change after a while.

    Gluten makes us extremely ill, so we don’t eat gluten-grains nor oats nor quinoa because we have the same reaction. There are plenty of non-gluten grains that can be made into breads, crackers, cakes, pancakes & waffles, etc, and you can buy them at health-food stores or easily make them yourself. Thank goodness we can have grits & eggs for breakfast! You can find cookbooks sometimes on ebay that were written in the late 1800’s, WWI, the great depression, and WWII that have recipes for all kinds of grains other than wheat.

    We eat & cook with dairy. We eat legumes but soak them first the way our grandparents and great-grandparents always did, and they all lived into their 90’s and 100’s. As a matter of fact, we have pulled out their old cookbooks and pass their recipes around, we feel better than ever and are more active than ever.

    Thanks for this post, and stating that what is right for one may not be right for another, and we should beware making blanket statements about anything for everyone. Just found you through “Physician on Fire”, by the way. Will be following you on Feedly.

    1. Thanks for the comment Glenda. There is so much conflicting information on food and nutrition science, and so much we don’t yet understand. I’m convinced experimentation is important as long as you are getting adequate macro and micro nutrients. It sounds like you have done this in your life with great results. It’s amazing how much I could equate food with my well-being once I just started paying attention. Welcome to the blog 🙂

    • S.G. on September 23, 2016 at 9:21 am
    • Reply

    Are you aware of FODMAPs and the newest theories around them? My daughter has been having some gut trouble and I have been talking to various doctors about what could be causing them. Rather than reactions to proteins (like gluten) it is a theory based around the chemical decomposition (i.e. digestion) of short carbohydrates. Essentially the bacteria in your gut are out of whack (either temporarily due to illness/medication or naturally for you) and break them down differently, for example into hydrogen instead of methane. This causes bloating, gas, etc.

    Why I think you might be interested is lactose and fructen (major starch in wheat) are both FODMAPs, so a lot of people who think they have a dairy or gluten sensitivities actually don’t. They have an intolerance to the carbohydrates. From what you described it sounds like this may be your problem as well. In this case you might be able to tolerate gluten without a problem. It might also be why you can handle some dairy if that mostly means hard cheeses or other dairy that is lower in lactose.

    I’m still working through all of these for us, but I have eliminated the four most common allergens (wheat, eggs, soy, and dairy) from our diet and have been trying to stay low FODMAP and we will be moving into a reintroduction phase shortly. Soon I am planning to make some oat flour bread with baking gluten which has very little starch in it to see if we maintain stability.

    1. Yes, FODMAPs and other substances may cause problems for people irrespective of gluten sensitivity. The new research about gut microbiome is really exciting, but still very new. There is so much more we don’t know. It’s an amazing dynamic balance between intestinal permeability, inflammation and immune response. It’s absolutely incredible to me that it works so well most of the time! There is a good argument for not simply isolating gluten, but to go on a low FODMAP diet and then reintroduce to try and figure out what is causing symptoms. Thanks for the comment.

    • Ron Cameron on August 1, 2017 at 1:17 pm
    • Reply

    I’m a big fan of simple, and Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules” is a 30 minute read and as simple as it comes. It boils down to: “Eat (real) food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” That one rule alone helps avoid whatever current fads are occurring and has information usable for absolutely everyone.

    “99.9% of people don’t give a shit about your diet”. That 99.9% statistic is 100% true 🙂

    1. Agree. I like his approach.

    • Derek on August 22, 2017 at 10:40 am
    • Reply

    Just curious, have you experimented with a whole foods, plant-based diet yet? If not, I think you should give it a try. I did paleo for a few years and felt great. Then I went whole foods, plant-based and I feel even better.

    My diet is something in between Dr. Mark Hyman’s paleo-vegan diet and Dr. Joel Furhman’s “eat to live” diet.

    Try it out… you never know how you might feel. Maybe even your back pain will get better by eating more anti-inflammatory foods 🙂

    1. I have not done the experiment, but at some point it is probably worth trying. It would be tough for me to give up meat and diary though (although I did stop drinking milk)

    • Alphonsus on October 6, 2017 at 6:24 pm
    • Reply

    Your next step is to search for Dr. John McDougall on Youtube.

    • Alphonsus on October 6, 2017 at 6:25 pm
    • Reply

    And watch the Forks Over Knives documentary and explore the FOK website.

    • Alphonsus on October 6, 2017 at 6:26 pm
    • Reply

    And read Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s book entitled Whole.

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