Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. The advice below is based on my own experience as well as significant research, but this is not official medical advice. If you are genuinely concerned about your health and/or diet, please rely on your physician’s advice.
Earlier this year, I needed a change. My wife and I were getting divorced. I was drinking too much. I was overweight and didn’t have the motivation to do much of anything.
The first step was getting healthy, and my cousin challenged me to do the Whole 30, a diet that heavily restricts what you can eat: no bread, no sugar, no alcohol, no soy, no rice, no corn, no dairy—only fruits and vegetables (including potatoes), healthy oils (like coconut, olive, vegetable, avocado, etc.), meat, and nuts (but no peanuts).
Seeing the success she’d had on the diet, I decided to give it a try.
In fact, it worked incredibly well. And even though the proponents of the diet say it’s not primarily intended for weight loss, I lost a ton of weight. I went from 325 pounds to 300 in about four months. Not only that, but I felt better. My vision was clearer, my asthma improved, my GERD went away, I had more energy, etc.
Of course, maybe that’s just what happens when you lose a bunch of weight and stop drinking, but about the same time I stumbled onto Tim Ferriss’ podcast and came across the ketogenic diet.
What is the Ketogenic Diet?
It’s best explained in Tim’s interviews with Dom D’Agostino, but basically, the ketogenic diet is a high fat, low carb diet. The concept is this: ordinarily, our bodies burn sugar—or glycogen—for energy. However, when the body runs out of glycogen, it starts to burn fat by creating ketones, which are water soluble fat molecules. By eating a diet that severely limits carbohydrates and to some extent, protein, we can prompt our body to burn ketones instead of glycogen, including some of the body fat we’ve already stored.
One way to think about this is fasting—after 24-48 hours of not eating, the body will naturally enter a state of ketosis, because we’ve burned up all of our stored glycogen and the body has only fat available to use for energy (if you’re curious as to why this happens, be sure to read the last piece on Evolutionary Theory and the Toba Catastrophe).
To bring this full circle, what I realized is that while on the Whole 30, I was inadvertently putting my body into ketosis a lot more often, because the diet severely restricts the number of carbs you can eat, which necessarily meant increasing fat and protein intake.
So it explained the fat loss, but it also explained why I felt better on so many levels.
The reason: high carb diets cause a lot of inflammation. It’s kind of a vicious cycle:
1) We eat a carb heavy meal—say a sandwich.
2) As our body breaks down the sandwich, our blood sugar spikes, because now all the sudden we’ve got a bunch of excess energy as our body burns through those carbs.
3) This prompts the to body produce insulin, which reduces blood sugar.
4) As our blood sugar drops, we crash—you know: that low energy, tired feeling people tend to get in the afternoons? That’s a sugar crash. And then:
5) We start to feel hungry again—often intensely hungry—because our blood sugar has plummeted, which often causes people to binge with a big meal. And then the cycle repeats.
In other words, a high carb diet causes a lot of sudden changes in the body’s chemistry, and as a result, a fair amount of low grade inflammation, a state that’s associated with many chronic diseases, including cancer, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and others.
On the flip side, diets that are high in healthy fats are shown to drastically decrease inflammation. Scientists haven’t pinned down exactly why, and I’m not sure it matters too much to the ordinary person, but basically, the way the body processes and then uses fats just doesn’t cause problems the way eating carbs does. In addition, it appears that many kinds of fats have protective effects on our tissues: brain, heart, muscles, liver, etc.
Of course, the ketogenic diet has it’s detractors.
One point many make is that it’s just a hell of a lot of fat to eat, and fat intake has historically been shown to cause certain problems, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Others point to the potential loss of certain kinds of nutrients and minerals as a result of cutting out carbohydrates, especially fruits and starchy vegetables. Some dieticians, including Bonnie Taub-Dix, have warned that people with heart disease or diabetes should especially stay away.
Ironically, Dr. D’Agostino would point out that when put on a keto diet, many diabetics see their symptoms significantly decrease as their blood sugar stabilizes—some even see their diabetic symptoms subside entirely.
The heart disease aspect is another matter. Here the ketogenic diet is a little problematic because one of the markers for heart disease is elevated triglycerides in the blood stream. Triglycerides are fats. Now on the one hand, it’s hard to imagine that one can go around eating tons of fat every day for years and years and not have that increase our triglyceride levels; but on the other, we have to remember that the macronutrient makeup of the food we eat doesn’t necessarily translate into those macronutrients directly assimilating into the body.
A good example here is eggs. At one point it was believed eggs were horribly unhealthy because as everyone knows, eggs have a ton of cholesterol, and the conventional thinking was that if you eat a bunch of cholesterol, your cholesterol levels will increase. Ultimately, however, researchers have found that this isn’t the case—that in fact, eggs are one of the more healthy foods one can eat, and that consuming a lot of them isn’t linked to a marked or problematic increase in cholesterol.
But to answer the question about heart disease, a recent study using obese human subjects (not rats, which is an absurd way to study what a diet would do in humans) showed that a long term ketogenic diet, “decreased the level of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and blood glucose.” In other words, exactly what you’d want to do in order to avoid heart disease.
Is This Good?
The answer here is a fairly straightforward “yes” with a few caveats. The caveats are these: a Keto diet may not be good for everyone, and the best way to check if it’s right for you is to see how your blood work looks after a couple months on the diet and by consulting your doctor. If you get wacky numbers that are unhealthy, obviously, you should probably stop and do something else.
Overall, however, the Keto diet appears to have many very real and beneficial qualities. In most people, it reduces inflammation, decreases blood glucose levels, and lowers cholesterol and triglycerides. But besides that it’s an awesome way to lose weight, look and feel better.
Using the Whole 30, I went from 325 to 300 in about 4 months. When I transitioned to Keto, I went from 300 to 280 in 2 months. So, given that the more weight you lose the more difficult it is to lose weight, the Keto diet is pretty exceptional when it comes to shedding the lbs.
Additionally, my thought processes are clearer, I’m tired less often, and I’ve fasted for up to 48 hours without feeling any real dip in energy. Skeptics might say that’s just because I’ve lost a bunch of weight and am now healthier, but it’s also important to point out that the ketogenic diet allowed me to lose that weight, so to that I say, “neener, neener, neener…” you know the rest.
General Diet Advice
OK, putting the Keto diet aside, scientific studies, the medical community, and modern nutritionists are pretty much in agreement on a few basic guidelines for a healthy diet:
1) Eat a lot of fruit and vegetables—especially vegetables—especially leafy green ones. Be careful here not to eat fruit in excess, as it's quite high in sugar and can spike your blood sugar levels just like a piece of bread would. A good idea is to consume your fruit alongside fat and/or protein, which buffers the glycemic effect of the fructose.
2) Eat a good balance of fat and protein.
a. On this point people will quibble about lean protein vs. fatty protein, but to me the most important thing is how the animal was raised. Was it fed a bunch of chemicals in a cage, or did it roam around doing what it would normally do until meeting its untimely end? For example, I’d rather eat a hamburger with 20% fat content made from organic, grass-fed, pasture raised beef than a lean breast of a chicken that was raised in a tiny cage and fed genetically modified corn.
b. Fish, nuts, and eggs are some of the healthiest ways to get protein, as they are high in micro nutrients, like omega 3 fatty acids and various minerals, which are good for your heart. A note here: when it comes to eating fish, stay away from farmed fish. Not only is it terrible for the environment, but there’s also mounting evidence to suggest farmed fish doesn’t contain nearly as many of those lovely micronutrients we get from wild fish.
c. Opt for healthier, plant based fats over animal fats and dairy. Avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, etc. Although it should be noted that butter from grass fed cows is actually being found to be just fine, despite all the bad talk we hear about butter. One thing to be aware of here: dairy messes with some people’s systems (like mine), so try to be cognizant of what you’re eating and how it affects your body. As with everything, we’re all a little different.
3) Cut out carbohydrates as much as possible. One of Michael Pollan’s rules is: “the whiter your bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” In other words, the less refined sugar and white flour you eat, the better. Refined sugar is about the worst possible thing you can eat, because your body burns it unbelievably quickly, causing your blood sugar to spike, and then works on turning the rest of it into fat to store on those pesky love handles.
4) Limit alcohol consumption. This is a hard one for me, because I love a good craft beer or glass of red wine, but in large quantities, alcohol decreases our metabolism, increases inflammation, and is a big source of empty calories. One of the reasons I was able to lose so much weight this year is simply due to severely cutting down on the amount of alcohol I consumed.
5) Have an idea of how much you’re eating in terms of calories. The most basic diet advice out there is: calories in vs. calories burned. If you burn more calories per day than you take in, you’ll lose weight. If you take in more, you’ll gain weight. It’s that simple. The cool thing I noticed about doing the Whole 30 and Keto diets is that I just wasn’t that hungry and therefore didn’t eat as much.
6) Occasionally, fasting is good. It’s up to you how much you want to fast and for how long, but fasting helps the body reset, cleanse itself, and was a natural part of the human life cycle for most of our history. Going 24, 36, even up to 48 hours without eating is, on occasion, very good for you. The only caveat I’d add here is to consult your physician and/or work yourself into it. Tim Ferriss fasts for at least five days straight, four times a year—but he’s trained his body to be OK with that. A good way to start might simply be to wake up one day and not eat anything until dinner—that’s a 24 hour fast, assuming you ate around the same time the day before, and unless you have a particular medical issue (like, hypoglycemia), you’ll be just fine.
7) Allow yourself to cheat every once in a while. After all, what’s the point of living and looking great and being fit if you can’t enjoy yourself? Going to a friend’s wedding? Have some drinks, eat the potatoes au gratin, scarf down a big slice of wedding cake. A few cheats here and there won’t matter in the long run, as long as you’re careful about what you eat most of the time.
Here’s a link to Tim Ferriss’ slow carb diet, which is pretty much along the lines of what I’ve described above, but a little more prescriptive.
Evolution and the Toba Catastrophe Theory
So why is it humans do better on a diet of mostly plants, natural fats, and proteins? Well, for the most part, because that’s how we evolved.
Agriculture was only developed in the fertile crescent (modern day Iraq, Syria, Iran, etc.) around 10-12,000 years ago. So humans have only been consuming grains and breads for a short time span relative to our evolutionary history.
Before this, as we know, most human societies were small tribes of hunter-gatherers, and ate whatever they could find or kill: edible plants, roots, berries, fruit (when it was in season), and whatever animals they had access to, ranging from snails and mollusks up to larger game like elephants and elk, or in prehistoric times, mammoth and other megafauna. If they came across grains they certainly would’ve eaten them, but primitive human societies simply didn’t have much access to things like wheat, oats, and barley, and even then, it would’ve been like fruit, only when in season.
This is also the reason there’s nothing wrong with fasting, which forces the body into ketosis—it’s a natural part of our evolution. It’s hard to imagine now, but for most of human history, large numbers of people regularly died of starvation; there were simply many times when there just wasn’t enough food to eat.
Some scientists also theorize that humanity went through an intense bottleneck called Toba Catastrophe Theory.
It goes something like this: around 75,000 years ago, a volcano in Indonesia (Toba) had a massive explosion—one of the largest in world history—and as a result of all the ash and dust thrown into the atmosphere, global temperatures suddenly dropped 2-3 degrees Celsius.
Those who subscribe to the Toba theory believe this caused many plant and animal species to die off suddenly, many of which served as food sources for early humans. In order to survive, humans went to the coasts of Southern Africa, where they ate a diet heavy in sea life, including mollusks, muscles, and clams, but also larger animals like seals, whales, and whatever fish they could catch. During this time, it’s thought that the total human population may have dropped to around 40,000 individuals or fewer, or what scientists call an evolutionary bottleneck—meaning those who survived had to have certain specific qualities, in this case being able to adapt to a low calorie diet comprised primarily of shellfish and animal fat.
Recent studies have cast doubt as to how accurate this theory is, but it’s an interesting idea, and I bring it up here simply to point out that how we got here matters, and that Toba or no, humans evolved to eat meat, fruit, nuts, and vegetables/plants, not breads and refined sugars.
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