Zealotry in Nutrition

Reading Rob Wolf’s recently published brilliant book Wired to Eat, I was immediately struck by the remark he made at the beginning. It touched on the theme that bothered me for a while. Here is a quote, and see if it sounds true to you as well:

Perhaps even more frustrating, however, was the tendency for folks who actually followed the Paleo diet to turn the general concepts into quasi-religious doctrine. Folks newly converted to Paleo tended to be quite dogmatic in the insistence that this was “the one true way” to eat. Often, these devotees had reversed serious health problems with this way of eating, so their enthusiasm was understandable, but not many people enjoy the company of or the message from someone who comes across as a holier-than-thou diet zealot.

“Context matters” is an important concept in many regards. I see too many discussions where this or that observation is being applied indiscriminately, as if we were machines with uniform reactions. Such blanket approach results in unnecessary and even potentially harmful restrictions or recommendations that wouldn’t do much good. I am, as you well know, all for low carb and fasting, but zealotry isn’t helpful. Let’s look into some of those typical exchanges.

“Don’t eat X! This will put you out of ketosis!” – without any discussion of whether ketosis is even necessary for everyone all the time. Is it? Do we all have to limit our carb intake to 20 g a day? Is fruit evil and to be banished from our lives? That really depends. To quote Prof. Tim Noakes, Idiot’s Guide to LCHF and Banting:

It depends how insulin resistant you are and how much exercise you do. If you are completely insulin sensitive (that is, you tolerate carbohydrates well, have low fasting blood glucose, insulin and triglyceride concentrations, low small LDL particle numbers; low HbA1c; high HDL-cholesterol concentrations; and absence of fatty liver) and exercise regularly a few hours a week, then it is can be safe to ingest up to 200g carb per day, or at least until your HbA1c rises above 5.5% . That’ll be time to start reducing the carbs.

On the other hand, if you are profoundly insulin resistant with type 2 diabetes, morbidly obese, or with heart disease, cancer or dementia, you’ll probably do best on a very low-carb  diet of about 25 grams carbs per day.

So there. For the most of us, there is no need to consider fruit evil. No real food is, at least not for everyone. It’s quantity, individual intolerances, and other distinctions that make it healthy or harmful.

Protein is insulinogenic!” – and folks start cutting out protein without giving a context to the notion. Yes, some of the protein you eat will turn into glucose – on demand, when there are no carbohydrates available and some glucose is needed for your brain (ketones satisfy most of its need but not all). Is it a bad thing? Absolutely not, it’s out natural fail-safe mechanism, protecting us when there are no carbohydrates available (dead of the winter in ancient times, for instance). And if you don’t supply protein for that, where do you think your liver is going to get it to feed your brain? By breaking down protein in your muscles, where else. The point is not in adding protein above reasonable, but rather in not seeing it as an enemy and trying to minimize it as much as possible. Sure, you don’t want to go overboard with it, but that can be said for anything. Which takes us to the next one:

Need to eat high fat!” – and suddenly everyone seeks ways to squeeze in their diet as much fat as possible and then some. Fatty meat, bacon, eggs, butter – no problem, I am down with that. Coconut oil, sure. But do you really need to add butter to your coffee, eat sticks of butter (think I am joking?), and have fat bombs in your freezer, adding them to your daily ration with no limit, just because “fat doesn’t trigger an insulin response, thus it’s a punishment-free food?” Guess what: calories only don’t matter up to a point. With that, on to the next point.

Calories don’t matter!” – and I see someone listing 4,000 calories worth food for the day, confidently pronouncing that as long as it’s not carbs, it will be just fine and won’t hinder the weight loss effort. Because we know that body adjusts its metabolism to burn the excess, right? Well, yes, but… that pesky “but” that always seems to be right around the corner in nutritional debates. There is a limit to that elasticity. If you eat in an excess day in day out, all that energy still has to go somewhere. Your body increases the temperature a bit, speeds up heart rate and breathing, makes you move and fidget more – but this ability to deal with excess is not without limits. At some point, those calories will be put in the storage as fat. If you stop eating more than needed, your body will sigh in relief and get rid of those stores and you will return to your set weight point – but weren’t you trying to LOSE weight, not to restore it after gaining?

Eat till satiated” – great concept but… does it work for someone with a broken metabolism, hooked on carbs? No, they feel hungry even when they had enough calories. It takes considerable time to reconnect with your body, repair that sense of being full. It’s a hormonal thing; the balance of hormones regulating hunger and satiety (ghrelin, leptin, peptin YY, and a few more) allows you to feel that moment correctly, and after years of a bad diet your hormones are anything but balanced.

Fast more, fast longer. 3 days. No, 5 days!” – as an answer to anything, especially alarming when provided to folks new to this in response to difficulties with their first fasting attempts. Why more and why longer? Why not start with the mild forms, shorter fasts, pseudo-fasts? Maybe those will be enough to solve their problem – such gentle protocol as 5:2 certainly was enough for me and many others. Very forgiving 16:8 protocol works miracles for a lot of folks, and it’s very easy to turn it into 17:5, 20:4 etc. when you are ready. And if you discover you need stronger measures, why not ease into longer fasts instead of torturing yourself at once? Do you need a result or do you need heroic effort and bragging rights? Then there is one more angle to all this: do we even know enough about various fasting protocols’ effect at this point? For instance: Is there a chance that longer fasts scare our body into a defensive state so it regains the lost weight after the fast is over, while gentle steady short fasts open the way to a steady weight loss? Are there people for whom longer fasts work and those for whom shorter ones are more effective? I don’t know the answer, but is there anyone who does? Don’t forget, this entire approach is not well researched yet. Fortunately, it gets more and more attention do hopefully this situation is going to change. Meanwhile, we are better off testing various protocols, carefully checking our individual reactions, and assembling our personalized way of eating (or not eating).

If you ever fall off a wagon and catch yourself thinking “I hate myself, I am so weak, I am ashamed of myself” – you are doing it wrong. If you ever think “I’ve broken the rules, I will punish myself for that by a longer fast” – gosh, no. Fasting should never be a punishment! It can and should be a pleasant experience. Don’t believe me? Read more about that here. Think of it this way: will you want to fast ever again if you start perceiving it as a punishment?

 There is a sprint and there is a marathon. You didn’t gain all that weight in one week, neither will you lose it that quickly. Hormonal balance doesn’t change in days. Think of the mechanics of insulin resistance, for example: over the years, elevated levels of insulin cause our cells to start rejecting its effort, so more insulin is secreted to overcome that defense, more resistance is generated in response… slow process developing for years. Now that you start eating right, the same spiral starts working in reverse – less insulin is secreted, resistance can be lowered, even less insulin is needed, etc. Doesn’t sound like immediate healing, right?  Can, and does, take a long time. For this endeavor to be sustainable and successful, it must be enjoyable. We can tolerate being miserable only for so long. My position on this is “No pain? Good!”

Aside from particular dietary approach, there is also the angle on which we touched earlier: we are different. Some things don’t work for some people while doing wonders for others. Attempt to line everyone up for the same plate content is doomed. Let me show you an example, using my dinner a few days ago and looking at it from the point of view of a few popular diets. Here is what was on the menu:

  • Pork shoulder wrapped in bacon and cooked on High in a slow cooker for 5 hours.
  • Salad with broccoli, spinach, pumpkin seeds, crushed almonds, shredded coconut, and raisins, sprinkled with Parmesan and dressed with a mix of apple cider vinegar, unrefined olive oil, and kefir.
  • Buckwheat-chickpea bread with butter.
  • Half of orange.
  • Tea

Let’s see. Vegetarian faints after reading the first line. Do I do better with ketogenic folks? Not really, raisins and orange wouldn’t pass muster. Paleo? Not a chance – milk products and legumes wouldn’t make it to their plate. Low-fat folks wouldn’t say hello to me after seeing that layer of butter on my bread. Low-carb ones might have given me a pass providing I promise not to touch anything carbohydrate-ish for the rest of the day, but if I mentioned that I had a square of chocolate that same day and some berries with breakfast, this is where we would likely part our ways too. As you can see, my dinner would pretty much put me in a camp of my own – it doesn’t fit into any dogma. Yet guess what: it works for me very well. I don’t view my menu as falling off any particular wagon; this is my normal way of eating. It took a good while to work it out, to test my reactions, to find the right balance of nutrients and to train my body to deal with some of them, while cutting out those it refused to make peace with. That’s the process we need to go through instead of trying to match some theoretical profile and be needlessly rigid about it. Common sense and science beat religious fervor any day.

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4 thoughts on “Zealotry in Nutrition

  1. This is a great post. It is so important that our way of eating does not become our new religion. We should not assume that what works for one person is right/necessary for another. The quote from Prof. Noakes is spot on. We can probably all agree that processed, sugary garbage is not real food and should not be eaten by anyone.

    • Absolutely. Engineered concoctions are safe to banish so to speak 🙂

      It’s this dogmatic “This works for me, so it must work for you, and if it doesn’t – you are doing something wrong” that gives me a pause. We’ve been obedient lemmings on our way into the low fat abyss; hopefully we can be a tad more thoughtful on our way out.

  2. Brilliant! And, just what I needed to hear when I am becoming so frustrated that nothing is happening on the weight loss front, but! I have more energy, no aches & pains, no digestive upsets and lower bp & a1c, so something is happening. It’s just taking me a longer time to heal hormonally, but I was beyond broken when I started. Thanks for the advice on being gentle & not making things a punishment…right time for me to hear that! So happy you came up in my suggested follows on Twitter. Can’t wait to share you with my Keto Sweeties FB group! Thanks!

    • This sounds quite to me right and very encouraging. Badly damaged metabolism can’t be fixed at once; hormonal changes take time. What you describe sounds like real signs of a real improvement. Think of it in terms of internal changes:

      – more energy? What should happen to enable that? Well, your body becomes more efficient at using fuel – instead of demanding new carbs, in absence of those it found new fuel source. There are not so many of those, right? Glycogen and fat (roughly speaking), and heightened energy levels indicate that your body started using them.
      – lower A1C? Lower BP? And all that without adding medications or increasing dosage? If that’s not a sign of healing in process, I don’t know what is.

      And on and on. Keep up good work!

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