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!
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…
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.
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?
- 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.
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.
Eliminate or severely restrict gluten, sugar and any beverage that isn’t water, coffee or tea. No sweeteners.
Avoid processed foods.
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!
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.
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.
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.