25 July 2008

Healthful Eating

Part of what makes us tick emotionally is our physical state. I believe that our responses in any given moment are driven by the complicated balance of the chemistry of our bodies combined with how it interconnects through our neural network. So in a sense, we are big complicated computer programs that are constantly being recast by our experiences, learnings, and interactions.

From Pink Floyd Eclipse:

...All that you eat
And everyone you meet
All that you slight
And everyone you fight.
All that is now
All that is gone
All that's to come
and everything under the sun is in tune..."

It follows that if we want to change outcomes in our lives, we have to change either the inputs to our body, change our body, or both (because changing the inputs changes our bodies—reprograms it).

I have written about communication, the nature of love, vacation, and other issues dealing with emotions and relationships, but only recently have I delved into the physical side, specifically diet. These have proven to be my most popular writings since I started writing Emotions for Engineers about a year ago.

After a run-in with gout right before Thanksgiving in 2007, I decided I really needed to do something about my diet. I set out on my voyage of discovery. I chanced across Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories" and this lecture that he gave at Berkeley. It completely changed my views on eating and diet. Since Thanksgiving, I have lost 30 lbs of mostly fat, and for the first time in my life feel in control of my body.

Why we want so much to “be thin” troubles me. Most of us have two competing emotions—love and fear—that drive our decisions. If we want to lose weight because we want to look good for our spouses, that’s love. If we think that he or she will leave us for that ditzy young secretary if we don’t lose weight, that’s fear. Eating right because you don’t want to die is fear. Eating right because you want to be active and live long to see your grandkids is love. It can only be good if eating right and being at a healthy weight helps you feel better about yourself.

Fear is a harmful emotion that is driven by unknowns and doubts. As such, when we feel out of control concerning weight and fitness, as many do, the lack of control leads to fear, which can lead to depression, anxiety, co-dependence, and other bad things (not to mention the dark side). At the foundation of all we are, is our physical health. If you can gain some degree of control over that, the world will be better. You will have less fear in your life and allow room for love and growth.

My message is to look deep and be brutally honest with yourself. M. Scott Peck says that mental health is “Commitment to reality at any cost.” Find your motivations and if they are negative, try to recast them in a positive light.

Then take control...

Disclaimer: I have done a lot of independent study on this material and believe it to be true, safe, and effective, but I am a blogger, not a doctor. I am my own guinea pig and am not recommending anything that I have not done myself. Nonetheless, everyone is different. Your mileage may vary on this. If problems develop from any recommendations, seek professional help.

It's Not About Losing Weight--It's About Losing Fat

Weighing yourself may or may not be a good indicator of progress. Our bodies are made up of muscle, fat, water, and everything else. When most people talk about losing weight, they are hoping to lose fat. Water weight is easy. You can gain or lose five pounds in a day. But then you can't repeat it the next day. If you think you're overweight and want to shrink your muscles because you're too bulky, you are kidding yourself. Those aren't muscles—that’s the marbling making you big. Shrink the muscles and you'll be left with fat.

You want to convert your body and lifestyle into one that encourages usage of fat stores for fuel and discourages storage of fat.

So here are the two steps to a more healthy relationship with food.
1. Learn how to eat right.
2. Eat right.

Most people blow it at step one. They read the government's food pyramid, follow weight watchers, or just cut back on portions. That might work for some people, but not most. So here are some facts.

1. You do not need carbohydrates to live and thrive.
2. Fat is an excellent fuel for low intensity activity (99.9% of the day for most of us).
3. Dietary protein and some fats (essential fatty acids or EFAs) are necessary for good health.
4. To lose weight you have to ingest fewer calories than you burn. (No surprise).

So there's the education part. Now here’s what to do about it.
Eat Mindfully
Now that you know what you need, you have a basis for acting on it.
First, make sure you get plenty of protein (shoot for 1 gram per lb of desired body weight). If you weigh 150, this means at least 150 grams (600 calories) of protein. Lean meat has 7 grams of protein per ounce. [Edit: I think that for active people probably 0.5 to 1 gram is ok. If you are actually trying to lose weight, i.e. restricting calories, cheat towards the high end on protein. Finally, if you are very obese (e.g. more than 50% above your target weight), you might want to think more in terms of desired weight rather than current weight.].
Second, limit carbohydrates, but get plenty of vegetables. Eat non-starchy vegetables like greens, cabbage, and peppers. Generally stay away from grain products including corn, bread, and pasta. If you must eat grains, eat whole grains in limited amounts. Definitely stay away from anything with added sugar, including High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Limit you total grams of carbohydrate to about 50 - 100 per day (200 to 400 calories). Sadly, ironically, artificial sweeteners, although they do not hurt you from a calorie standpoint may induce an insulin response, which can slow down your metabolism or make you hungrier. If you engage in high intensity activities, you can handle higher levels of carbohydrates.
Third, make sure you get some fats, especially omega 3s (fish oil). Don't worry too much about saturated vs. unsaturated, but stay away from hydrogenated oils (trans fats). The remainder of the calories needed should come from fat and more protein. There are lots of places on the web that will help you calculate your base metabolic rate.
Fourth, eat only when you are hungry. People eat for reasons besides sustenance. Sometimes there is an emotional attachment to eating in which food is used to medicate one’s psyche. This is a type of addiction. Other times people eat because it just tastes sooooo good or they simply don’t want to waste food. If you find yourself using food for emotional support or overeating at special events, try to find a way to stop that.
Fifth, keep an eye on the scale or your measurements or some other objective measure. If you are eating as above it will be hard to gain fat. Most weight loss would be from fat. Gains would more likely be muscle than fat. If you are gaining unexpectedly, cut back on carb and fat calories. You still need a calorie deficit to lose weight. I like to look at my weight on Thursday or Friday morning because it’s right before the weekend. Keep a log or spreadsheet if you wish.
Sixth, do resistance exercises that challenge your muscles. Exercise by itself is not an effective way to lose weight for most people. You should exercise anyway. It is good for you in many ways. Resistance exercise is good for everyone. It makes you stronger and sends a chemical message to your body to maintain muscle, even as you lose weight. Lift heavy enough to challenge yourself. If you can lift a weight more than 12 times, go to a heavier weight. The word “toning” has no meaning.

Following the above, most people should be able to maintain weight. The good news is that if you do want to lose weight, most of it would be from fat, not muscle. Your body will lose its reliance on sugar as a fuel and you will start to burn fat.

Seventh, limit weight loss to what your body can support. If you want to lose weight, the amount of fat you can lose is limited by the amount of fat you carry. You can burn approximately 31 calories per pound of bodyfat (bodyfat percentage times weight, e.g. 150 lbs at 30% bodyfat is 45 pounds of fat). Restricting calories more than that will lead to loss of non-fat weight. So in the example, total calories should be no less than your daily metabolic rate minus 1395 calories). The implication is that, at 3500 calories per pound of fat, this person can lose a maximum of about 2.8 pounds per week before crossing into non-fat weight loss. As you lose fat, this loss capacity diminishes.
Eighth and last, stick to the basics until you are on the right track. Once you do that, think about more details. There is an infinite amount of information on foods and supplements that you can pursue. Grass-fed vs corn-fed beef, farmed vs wild salmon, are thermogenics (like an ephedrine-caffeine stack) ok, sodium-potassium balance, meal frequencies, food combinations, etc. These things may make a difference in the long run, but you can be overwhelmed by the details, and at the beginning these issues are probably lost in the noise for most people.

Why Does This Work?

Nobody disputes the facts in the education section. But note how little resemblance there is to the food pyramid. When people follow the food pyramid recommendations, strange things happen to the body. The excess carbohydrates (grains especially) induce an insulin response, which drives nutrients into your fat and muscle cells. After a short time you feel hungry again. Even though you may have had a big meal, your cells are starving for energy. My grandmother used to talk about foods “sticking to your ribs.” Carbs do not do that; Protein does.

The body has many compensatory mechanisms, but excess carbs throw off the homeostatic mechanisms enough to cause fat gain. It doesn’t take much. Averaging 10 calories of fat deposition per day will add a pound in a year. Until my recent weight loss effort, I had been gaining about 3 lbs per year. That is only 30 calories per day.

This low carb approach has proponents and detractors. The problem I had with the other approaches is that I would lose muscle mass and energy. My experience with low carb has been incredible. I have lost 24 lbs since Jan 1, 2008, my weight lifts have stayed the same or improved, and I have seldom felt hungry. This has been close to an automatic program for me.

Some people say that losing weight is simply willpower. I don’t believe it. With low fat-high carb diets, people set up conditions that literally starve the cells in their bodies. In this starvation lies the seed of failure. Nobody can willingly starve himself or herself indefinitely. I don’t care how much willpower you have. You can’t hold your breath to death either. There’s too much science showing that these semi-starvation diets will not work. You need to give your cells enough fuel to keep them powered with the approach outlined above, the fuel not in your diet will come mainly from the fat in your body.

Eating a lower carbohydrate diet does have some potential side effects. At times, you may deplete your body’s stores of glycogen. This is especially true if you do high intensity exercise, which needs the sugar to fuel your muscles. At these times many people feel light-headed and foggy. I get the shakes a little and get a metallic taste in my mouth. It is called ketosis. Your body will adapt to this, but many people find it uncomfortable and stop the diet. The purpose of ketosis in this plan is to convert your body from needing sugar to fuel your low intensity needs, to using fat to fuel low intensity efforts. This is what the Atkins diet does in the induction phase. Some diets have a carbohydrate refeed day to refuel muscle glycogen and help reset the body’s metabolism.

The main takeaway for you is that most people can control their physical state. It is a question of positive motivation and the knowledge of how to do it. Removing health risks will allow you to focus on higher values. That can only be good. Happy trails.

In January 2010, I updated the recommendations in this post. target="_blank" It's quite similar, but there are some insights worth considering.

Emotions For Engineers
Gary Taubes' Berkeley Lecture
Good Calories, Bad Calories Book
Lyle McDonald
Protein Power Book, Protein Power Lifeplan Book, and Blog
Cross Fit – a combination of resistance and aerobic activity – if you dare
Ketogenic Diets – Comprehensive summary of advantages
Fat Loss Troubleshooting Guide from ProjectFit.org
Recent research comparing Low Carb, Mediterranean, and Low Fat diets

The following link is to a tool that can help you measure your progress on the road to better health.


  1. finally! another post! i like this blog, but the updates are too slow.

    this topic isn't particularly interesting to me, but it is in a couple of ways. first is that you mentioned these diet entries are the most popular. i think that's a testament to our narcissism or our preoccupation with body image. yes, men are preoccupied with this too. shame.

    my second point of interest is this. why does the food pyramid look the way that it does? is this a failure of nutritionists? is the food pyramid the outcome of a political process or a scientific process?

  2. First, thanks very much for the words of encouragement.

    I'm not sure whether it's narcissism or insecurity driving our societal focus on body inage. In my mind, the most important thing is to be healthy. If you do that the body and looks will probably follow anyway.

    One analogy is a comparison of companies that focus only on the bottom line but forget to make good products vs in those that make great products, the bottom line follows.

    The food pyramid is odd to me. Grains have been in the human diet for only 10,000 ears, but they form the base of the government sanctioned food pyramid. In Good Calories, Bad Calories, Taubes covers the history of the government process of developing dietary recommendations that led to the pyramid.

    It seems to be a combination of politics and a handful of academics who were misguided, yet in key positions of influence. Prior to 1970, it seems to have been pretty widely understood that starches made people fat and led to the metabolic syndrome symptoms. Then it flipped quite abruptly.

    My personal experience with lower carb has been absolutely staggering. I realize that n = 1 doesn't prove anything, but there a lots of people just like me out there as well.

    Thanks again for your comments and kind words.

  3. Great post. If you want to see a real-life example of how changing inputs affects outputs, check out the documentary "My Big Fat Diet". In this movie, a group of Namgis (a Canadian Native American tribe) suffering from obesity and all of the attendant diseases of civilization return to their traditional diet, basically high-protein/high-fat. The overt and rapid changes in health are surprising, as individuals were able to control diabetes without medication, etc. But the other interesting aspect was the change in their emotional and social outlook. As health improved, so did their relationship with family and community. The difference was quite striking, and mirrored my own experience converting to a low-carb whole food diet.

    On another topic: I don't think the preoccupation with body image is narcissism per se. I remember seeing a series on Discovery Channel (or one of those) on the psychology of beauty, and the essential conclusion was that various visual cues that add up to "attractiveness" also signal health and reproductive fitness. For instance, there's a particular waist/hip ratio that men find attractive, largely independent of the actual size of the waist and hips.

    I believe obesity is one symptom of some underlying metabolic disorder. There may be several possible causes. The most common modern cause is probably derangement of hormonal/CNS regulatory mechanisms by repeated consumption of refined carbohydrates, with fructose identified as particularly pernicious in this regard. But there are other causes as well, mostly genetic defects (indeed, much obesity research is done on genetically modified mice and rats). So in our evolutionary past, obesity was probably a sign of genetic disease, and I suspect there is a deep psychological aversion to obesity in order to prevent reproduction of that genetic defect. Just a guess.

  4. Here's an article from the New York Times that explains a little more about how low-fat diets came to be the consensus. It appears it was the cascade effect. Basically every scientist who does not back the "known," "overwhelming," consensus is destroyed.

    They call it a reputational cascade.


  5. I do found this place interesting and helpful.
    I hope you won't mind if I'll add it to my fave sites.

  6. Thanks emjas,

    I am glad to hear it's a favorite.

    I have some interesting posts in the pipeline, so stay tuned.


  7. In answer to werouious, my research shows the food pyramid is definitely the outcome of a political process. I've written extensively about "food politics" on my site; the USDA, our industrial agriculture companies and the NIH are some of the major players in the politics of processed food.