Tag Archives: diet

Let me tell you why I am a reformed Paleo & exercise guy

10 Mar

It was about 10 years ago when I found myself living in a very stressful period of my life. My work was tough and the company I worked for was new and unlikely to ever pay me what I thought I deserved, the demands of a new project manager were over the top and it was clear he didn’t have a clue about how to adequately manage a software development team, and of course because he was new he was “asserting” himself quite strongly to make his mark and secure his position within the company. I was starting to wonder if moving to the new job was a mistake, and to make matters worse, my home life offered me no respite because my wife at the time (now thankfully a long and nearly lost ex) was doing her best to fight over every little thing, where all I wanted to do was rest and spend time with my kids and to de-stress from a hard day at work, so in the end I actually believed that I was going to work in order to de-stress from my home situation instead!!

The thing about stress and in particular with long term stress is the effect it has on your metabolic processes. Your liver for example can start to play up, and you’ll see indicators of stress in your blood work, but that’s IF you can be bothered to see your doctor to get a blood test. For me though, the real kick in the guts at the time was less about liver function, and more about the news that I had very high levels of cholesterol, with a total count somewhere in the vicinity of 13 mmol/L where it would have been better to have seen it well below 5. At the time my dad (then aged 56) had recently undergone surgery to have a stent inserted into one of the arteries of his heart. His cholesterol was at a less unhealthy 8-9 at the time, so you can imagine my concern as a young 30-something faced with the possibility of things like angina, stents, coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, and all of those other nasty situations that can arise when your cholesterol is messed up!!

I made a lot of changes to my diet which mainly involved cutting out what I thought must be excesses of fatty red meats such as lamb and beef, I cut out all pork, and limited my intake of chicken. I read all of the ingredients on the oil bottles, and went for the least fat and trans fats in particular. A lot less effort was made to improve my exercise, and unfortunately I found my carb intake getting higher as I tried to replace all of the protein I was missing with other foods. Even so, by about this time in 2011 I had managed to slowly claw my total cholesterol down to a high yet less scary 6. While my HDL cholesterol was low, at 1.1, it was still considered acceptable, however my triglyceride was high at 2.2, and my LDL cholesterol was also high at 3.9.

There was a problem with this approach to food however. Lower protein with higher carbs meant that my weight started to grow out of control, and no amount of exercise seemed to prevent this. What made things worse was that the more I exercised, the more I found I needed to eat, and without a good source of protein I felt like I was hungry all of the time. I didn’t really understand how to exercise either, so the other problem that I had was that I kept getting recurring injuries in my back, knees, elbows, shoulders, and feet, and so I would find myself at rest more often, and physically active only when the injuries seemed to have resolved. So in short I got fat, but surely I should have been happy that my cholesterol was at a less dangerous high, right? Well… no. I was fat, uncomfortable with my own body and my body image, and it seems I was eating my way into malnutrition and what felt like starvation.

At about September of last year, my wife was browsing randomly at some on-line coupon site, and found a guy selling 6 weeks of his boot camp program for about $20 per person, and when she told me about it, I said to here that we should do it. I knew that I needed some help getting my fitness kick-started again, and perhaps this guy might be able to show me where I had gone wrong in my training. So Through November and a bit of December, we attended the boot camp. The workouts were hard, I was the oldest and fattest guy there for the first couple of weeks, and after that I was simply the oldest guy there. I was also the least fit person.

In my first session, I found that I couldn’t physically push myself to complete the exercise set out for us to do (I was in the easy group). I felt nauseated, but even pushing myself physically, willing myself to keep going no matter what, I reached a physical limitation early where I simply couldn’t move my muscles any further beyond the pain and the muscle shakes. By the end of the week, I had attended only 3 sessions, and I felt completely wasted. My back gave out on me, and I needed to rest it up for about a week because I didn’t understand at the time where the back pain was coming from and why, and yet a strange thing happened during the rest of the boot camp. Not only did I find myself getting stronger, I found myself wanting to do better.

I also started to learn more about recovery, and somehow my injuries started to slowly go away and my efforts at the boot camp became easier to handle. The only thing that was failing me was that I was still struggling with a really messed up diet, feeling hungry all the time, and craving things like biscuits and chocolate. It seemed that the harder I worked out the more of a sugar junkie I became, and the weight loss seemed to be a very slow thing given all of the physical activity I was getting. Cutting out all of the sweets and the better exercise did have a very positive effect, because for the first time in a long while my cholesterol levels dropped below 5. The problem however was that my HDL levels had fallen below the recommended minimum, while my LDL’s and Triglycerides still remained too high.

It felt so disheartening to see all of that effort only to find that my body chemistry was still a mess, I was always hungry, getting paranoid about food, and found trying to figure out how to exercise and eat such a complicated mess that it made me wonder both what it was that all of the leaner people knew that I didn’t, and whether there was enough time in the day for all of the exercise that it seemed I would need in order to become and maintain a leaner person. So I did what any modern day person does when searching for answers in life. I went seeking answers from that mighty “oracle” that we call the Internet!!

Cover of "The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and...

Cover via Amazon

At about mid December, I came across the idea of the palaeolithic diet. The webpage that mentioned Paleo was a little… to say “odd” is doing it a kindness… but for all it’s strange over the top new-age-ish evangelical vibe, it had a few statements that kind of flipped a switch in my brain. Something seemed a little odd, yet the root concept seemed to make a lot of sense. So I dug around, found out all I could about the Paleo diet, read Loren Cordain’s book, and by the end of December realised that I was going to try doing it. I’d give this Paleo lark a 30-day trial to see whether it lives up to the hype, and then see how it goes.

I’ve blogged several times about how well the Paleo diet has worked for me, but what I haven’t been able to show to you so far is some real science to back up the claims, and whether the stuff that I feel and that I now believe is real, or simply a lot of empty words on your computer screen. So I went to see my doctor and had a full blood work-up done. Samples were taken recently on the 1st of March, and I got the results back yesterday. Everything came back listed as Normal !!!

In only two months of an easy to managed healthy diet, and with a bare minimum of exercise, I have cured all of the abnormalities in my blood, apart from a slightly elevated bilirubin which is consistent with hereditary Gilbert’s Syndrome (which means my liver behaves funny but that’s normal for me and most people of Mediterranean descent). I also found out that my total cholesterol is now only 3.9, my LDLs are safely normal at 2.2, triglycerides are fractionally above the desired range at 1.6, and my HDLs are now right on the minimum at 1.0. So all of that effort I made to avoid animal fats according to the long-held knowledge that the medical community had been telling us really was the wrong thing to do and was very unhealthy for me. What I should have done instead was get rid of excess hidden sugars, eat those lean meats (including the red meats I had been avoiding) and ingest only healthy fats to get my cholesterol back on track.

I now feel confident that my cholesterol will be much healthier when I go in for a check-up at the beginning of next year. I am 100% convinced that I have proven that the Paleo/SANE approach to healthy diet is the best way to recover from health problems relating to diet and that it is also crucial to recovery after exercise. Yes, I know that I am only 1 person with one set of results and that this is hardly a peer-reviewed scientific study. Frankly I don’t care whether or not if you would draw the same conclusions that I have. I know what I feel, and what it has taken for me to reach this point. The reality is that I am the healthiest I have ever been, and I am getting healthier and stronger every single day.

I have a system that works, I can show the world how well it works, and I’ve been documenting my journey here to offer some empirical evidence that it works. It’s relatively straight forward and doesn’t require a herculean effort to achieve. So why aren’t more people doing this? Why is it that the world seems to be convinced that only Brand X supplements, Brand Y fitness tools, and Brand Z diet systems are the only way to go? I have a feeling that the problem is in the message of “eat healthy and exercise”. It’s just too glib, even if completely true, and has been said so many times that it’s now easy to ignore the underlying message. It really does seem too easy that you can deal with all of the cravings, eat as much as you want, exercise as much or as little as you want, and still be completely healthy. It goes against everything that the medical, pharmaceutical, diet, and fitness industries have been telling us for the last 20-30 years, and it just seems too good to be true.

The real issue though, is that a Paleo/SANE diet is sustainable activity. It’s not something that you need to work at. It doesn’t require special attention to “cheat days”, weighing and measuring food, counting calories, understanding the finer complexities of food labelling, abstinence, denial, obsession, or any other thing that makes the simple act of eating food so difficult to manage or understand in a modern world. Most people who go on a diet fail to achieve their goals, and most dietary changes where there are difficult to manage restrictions, and complex systems of measurement are abandoned as soon as a goal is reached. Inevitably most diet’s are fads that fail to deliver long term sustainable results, and make the dieter feel like a failure when goals aren’t reached when it is a failure of the dieting system itself that sees poor results and a high rate of abandonment.

Likewise exercise need not be overcomplicated, and should be able to be easily incorporated into the daily activities of your life. You don’t need to go to a gym and do an hour of cardio every other day to maintain your health and fitness, and you don’t need to attend every single fitness class, or to become an expert on the use of all of those complicated fitness machines. Do those things because they interest you, or because you want to, but not because you feel like you are supposed to. Instead, move some furniture, do some gardening, paint a fence or a house, chase the kids/dog around the park, go for a hike and climb over a boulder just for the hell of it. Everyday activities that will keep you fit and will match the effort you are making in the kitchen.

So why am I a reformed Paleo and exercise guy? Because it’s simple to do, and it’s easy to sustain as a lifestyle rather than as a task. Perhaps most importantly however is that compared to everything else that I have tried over the years, its because I KNOW that this works, and I now have a healthy body to prove it.

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Fitness Journey – Day 58 Progress

28 Feb

Well it’s been a very eventful month in terms of my health and well-being. I have achieved several of my goals and this has left me feeling extremely pleased with myself. So first, the data, then I’ll tick off all of my achievements for the month.

So which goals have I reached?

  • I have permanently reduced my resting heart rate to my first target of 58 beats per minute. This is a huge thing for me, because the lower my heart rate at rest, the less oxygen my body needs and therefore the longer I can potentially stay underwater on a single air tank when I go diving.
  • My waist to hip ratio has passed my first two targets of 0.92 and 0.89. This is a really good indicator that I have lowered my overall risk of cardiac and coronary diseases to a bare minimum. My next target of 0.85 will virtually eliminate any risk (statistically speaking) of a heart attack or stroke as I head into my 50’s and 60’s.
  • I am now permanently off my anti-anxiety medication!!
  • I now no longer crave sweets/desserts, soft drinks, or any foods containing either dairy or grains.
  • I am now exercising to a regular training schedule… mostly

What else have I achieved?

  • In the two months since I started to take measurements, I have reduced my body fat from 28.2% to 19.72%, which is only 1.72% away from my first goal.
  • I am stronger over all
    • lifting greater weight, having tripled my dumbbell weights, doubled my bench press weights, and moved on to my thickest resistance bands in order to get an effective workout.
    • I am now only 2 push-ups from my target of 30 in the 60-second test.
    • I have increased my plank time from 1 minute to 2 minutes and 41 seconds, which is only 19 seconds short of my first 3 minute target.
    • I started measuring a Wall Sit Test, which has increased by 30 seconds to 3 minutes 8 seconds in only 2 weeks.
    • I can push myself in my workouts to perform with greater effort and for a longer period of time, and I no longer give up on my exercise when it gets tough, pushing myself until I am forced due to failure of my muscles to respond.

Where do I need to improve?

  • I am still not strict enough with myself to ensure I spend enough time stretching after my workouts. This is particularly noticeable this month as I have some lower back pain and a tilt in my pelvis due to tightness in the hip flexors on my right hand side. While I am being more careful to do a dynamic warm up and dynamic stretching before workouts, the recovery exercise will ensure I recover much more quickly and with less risk of injury at my next session.
  • My nutrition is so much improved, and yet I have eaten much less fruit this month, and I have not been eating from a wide enough selection of vegetables. I’ve been considering the option of taking a multivitamin, but I’d prefer to avoid needing to do so if I can help it, so I will need to ensure I am eating a wider variety of vegetables with every meal, rather than simply having a single vegetable or two of the same types with most of my meals. Perhaps this means I should plan ahead a little better when I go shopping for the weekly groceries.
  • My workouts have increased well in intensity, but I feel I have been letting myself down a little in terms of duration. While I can see on paper and feel within myself that I am stronger and fitter, I feel as though I should be able to do more, and should be able to increase my HIIT workouts to be greater than only 4-6 minutes. I guess I’m not convinced that I will increase my stamina if I don’t start to incorporate some endurance work as well. While I have made a start more recently by doubling some of my HIIT workouts, I feel as though this is really only a beginning. My warm-up and cool-down can take up almost 25 minutes of my workout time if I wish to ensure I do things “properly”, so I will need to look more carefully at how I stage and plan the workouts themselves. This is an area where I am starting to believe that the CrossFit methodology seems to be a good fit for me, and is something I feel I need to examine more closely.
  • I still can’t complete a pull-up. What I’d like to do is to be able to complete enough of them to use them as part of a serious workout, so I think some targeted training my need to be done in order to do this. This means buying or building a pull-up station for outside the house where I will have the height to do the exercise properly.
  • I need to set a more appropriate training schedule that is both challenging, and yet allows for sufficient recovery and development over time. Clearly my efforts to date have been less than perfect and need to be improved in order to be more effective.
  • A resting heart rate of 56
  • 18% body fat by 31 March 2013
  • 16% body fat by 30 April 2013
  • 0.85 Hip to Waist ratio
  • 0.45 Waist to Height ratio
  • Perform 3 complete pull-ups in a row
  • 30 push-ups in under a minute by 14 March 2013
  • 40 push-ups in under a minute by 31 March 2013
  • 4 minute wall sit by 31 March 2013
  • 3 minute plank by 14 March 2013
  • 4 minute plank by 31 March 2013
  • 7/0 Beep Test on 02 March 2013
  • 7/5 Beep Test by 31 March 2013
  • 8/0 Beep Test by 30 April 2013
  • Run 3.8 km undulating course in 25 minutes by 31 March 2013
  • Run 3.8 km undulating course in 22 minutes by 31 May 2013
  • Run 3.8 km undulating course in 18 minutes by 31 July 2013
  • Dive continuously for 2 hours at 10 meters on a 14 litre tank of air.
  • Reduce Triglyceride count to < 1.5 mmol/L by 01 Apr 2013
  • Reduce LDL cholesterol count to < 2.5 mmol/L by 01 Apr 2013
  • Increase HDL cholesterol count to > 1.0 mmol/L by 01 Apr 2013
  • Commence Personal Training Course on 4 March 2013
  • Complete Personal Training Qualifications by 01 September 2013
  • Design an effective, flexible and randomised training program for minimal equipment to be implemented by 01 April 2013

You may have noticed that some of these goals don’t have dates. This is because I don’t know yet how to achieve those goals in a predictable way, either due to a lack of knowledge, or a lack of understanding relating to specific training. When I have learned more, I’ll be able to set some realistic yet challenging dates for these goals to target. For all of the rest, the dates are my expectations based on everything that I have learned about myself over the past 2 months.

Final Thoughts

I feel as if I’ve had a couple of big wins this month. I’ve managed to mostly take my training in hand, and I am doing all of this by myself and without the help of a trainer or a specific support group. The biggest win for me is that I am no longer medicated to manage anxiety. Diet and exercise have really helped here, and by learning to focus myself mentally to achieve my goals or to do some of the harder workouts, I have been learning to focus myself better mentally for the challenges that I face in the rest of my life. I have learned to embrace my failures and to take valuable lessons away from them, and I have learned that I am capable of anything that I put my mind to, provided I want it enough and my reasons for wanting it are strong enough to be self-motivating. I have seen an experiment in dietary improvement become a life changing lifestyle choice that has become habitual rather than forcing a diet on myself.

I’ve seen myself slowly reach a weight-loss plateau, yet the fat-loss has been consistently linear and I have seen a reciprocal muscle gain which explains the slower weight loss. This is a very good thing, and shows me a real measurable result that is in keeping with the other wins I have had in areas such as increased strength, balance, and endurance. I am as strong, perhaps stronger than I can remember myself ever being, and fitter than I have been in more than 20 years.

Nothing worth having is ever easy. The work has been hard and I’ve certainly had a few hiccups along the way, yet every failure fills me with a desire to do better, and every little win motivates me to reach higher. My self belief is stronger than it has ever been, and I find myself more focussed on what I will do rather than what I might do, because I know that I am capable of far more than I have been able to achieve to date. 2013 is off to a hell of a start for me, and I’m looking forward to every addition challenge that the rest of the year throws my way.

Should Weight Loss Really Be Your Goal?

4 Feb

I may have alluded to this in comments or a previous post, and yet I feel that it’s an important enough issue to dedicate an entire article to. My concern is that the fitness industry, diet industry, weight loss industry, and perhaps even the world in general has it’s priorities wrong when it comes to the issue of obesity and how to offer the best advice and service to people who are considered overweight or obese.

The problem as I see it is that we play the blame game, naming all sorts of reasons why obesity exists and targeting the symptoms of a health problem rather than the actual health problem itself. To be fair, I can see why this happens. We see a problem in the bowel, so we treat the problem in the bowel. We see plaque developing in arteries, so we treat the problem in the arteries, and we blame all sorts of things from diet to smoking as if any one individual thing is the cause of the problem being treated. Research likewise focusses very narrowly because it’s impossible to test every possible combination of thousands of different conditions that are merely suspected of contributing to the cause of a problem. So we end up blaming one thing or another for obesity when the reality is that the problem exists no matter what the cause, and the treatment needs to reflect the actual problem itself and how to deal with it.

While I’m on the subject of blaming, who should we blame for the obesity epidemic? To start with, the diet and weight loss companies are to blame because they are all focussed so heavily on their products and their “weight loss is king” attitude, that they don’t provide anyone with a realistic approach to regaining their health. The food industry is to blame because it will use any cheap and unhealthy thing it can get its hands on in order to maximise its profit on the food it produces, bulking up foods using inferior and cheaper product in much the same way as drug dealers cut baking powder into cocaine. Governments are to blame for inventing “food pyramids” and “plates” that focus more on protecting the interests of the food industries rather than on the realities of each individual’s specific health needs. Schools are to blame for teaching children based on faulty and improperly researched information fed to them by the governments and food companies, and parents are to blame for not knowing any better, but only because they learned all of their unhealthy habits from school, or simply because fast, junk, and heavily processed foods are all that are available or affordable to them, thus perpetuating the problem to future generations. I’ll also blame the fitness & health professionals, TV shows and others who themselves blame weight as being the problem that needs to be solved, when it isn’t weight they should be focussing on at all.

Weight is something that I feel is the most abused and misunderstood health measurement. At some point in history, someone decided to look at a whole bunch of people, grouped them and build a statistical picture based on observed averages, so that if you were a certain height you’re expected to have a certain weight to be considered healthy. Never mind that there are all sorts of other factors besides weight that contribute to a person’s relative state of health! If you are obese, you are expected to lose weight, and if you are severely underweight you are simply expected to gain weight. The problem with using weight as a determining factor of the state of a person’s health is that weight itself is simply a measure of the state of a person’s entire body mass at a given point in time, and doesn’t take into account that person’s body composition. Are the bones thicker, thinner, hollow or dense? How much muscle, and how much fat and water is there? Weight doesn’t distinguish between any of these other factors, it just sums them all up together and assumes that everyone’s body composition will be the same, when the reality is that even amongst an entirely healthy population, there will be a great deal of variation in the composition of each individual’s body.

Now I’m not writing yet another “Don’t rely on BMI” article here. What I have to say goes much deeper than simply choosing one flawed system of measure for another. What I want to highlight is the emotional impact of weight, and the social stigma that seems to be attached to it. Even worse perhaps is the political correctness that I believe has contributed to the maligning of “weight” and its misrepresentation as a specific health problem. The BMI chart is a good example of what I mean when I mention political correctness. In adults, there are a series of Obese categories once you get past the overweight range, yet for children you would never say obese, you would simply say overweight. This is to avoid labelling children as being obese so that the child doesn’t develop a poor body image and the poor psychological state that goes with it. There it is again, we say people can be Overweight making weight the focus of the problem when weight itself isn’t the problem at all

So what is a better way to view obesity if not using weight as a measure? How about undoing political correctness and simply using the word “FAT”. Yes, there, I said it. It’s all about FAT. In particular, the relative amount of body fat compared to the composition of the rest of a person’s body.  Fat is the problem, not weight. You can’t be overweight if you don’t have excesses of body fat. Rather than saying that I have been overweight, I prefer to say that I have too much body fat. At my worst I had over 35% body fat, and with very little muscle mass. Even though I may have been considered technically only a little overweight at the time, the real problem was that I was unfit, had poor muscle conditioning, and I carried too much body fat for healthy metabolic functioning. Basically, I was Fat. Not overweight, just simply fat!

We need a certain amount of body fat, which is generally termed essential body fat. For men this is around 2-5%, and for women around 10-13%. For a good athletic build, you would normally expect to see about 6-13% body fat in men, and around 14-20% in women. So what about people who have nearly no body fat and who are considered dangerously underweight? I think a similar definition applies, in that it isn’t the weight that is the problem. When body fat reserves are depleted the body cannibalises muscle tissues in order to remain alive. When muscle conditioning becomes poor, and is accompanied by weakness, and tendon and joint pain, it isn’t weight that is the issue, but all of the things that have resulted in a body becoming gaunt and weak that are the problem, and not weight itself.

The myth that weight is an issue isn’t helped by all of these weight loss journey shows on the TV. Yes, I’m talking about shows like The Biggest Loser, and Extreme Makeover, and all of those other shows that make the result on a scale the ultimate goal of the obese people that the trainers are trying to help.  Now please don’t assume I am criticising the trainers themselves, or the people who appear on these shows. I think that they do a marvellous job of transforming the lives of the people on these shows, yet the goal always seems to be to lose weight, and the numbers are all about the kilos and pounds of overall body weight. When small gains or losses are made, you hear emotional speeches about the diet and exercise, and while I agree that these are contributing factors, there are other factors that aren’t discussed or taken into account because it probably wouldn’t make good television.

When you are training hard, yes you are burning fat, and when you’re diet restricts your calories, your body will turn to its fat reserves. What seems to be forgotten however is that while you train your muscles and feed your body protein, the muscles use the protein to repair and build, and so you end up gaining weight that might have been burned off the fat reserves, yet added as muscle, and you need that muscle mass in order to effectively burn off more of the excess fat. When you are hydrating your body properly, you will use more water in your body tissues, and all of this will be reflected on a scale simply as weight, with no explanation to you as to why the weight is fluctuating and seems to go down more slowly than you would like. Replacing body fat with muscle is a good thing, yet is forgotten when the expectations are purely focussed on the scale. For those who are doing their journey on their own and who might not really understand why they can’t get the great results that they see on the TV, it can be soul crushing, and all because their expectations are set unrealistically high and based on the fairy stories that the world of television spins. Oh, and don’t forget all of home gym machine/contraption companies that show you how you will only get great results with their uber-expensive device, and by results they all seem to be focussed on losing weight and the perfect bikini bodies.  You know their advertising:

“I lost 130 pounds using the ab-destroyer max 4001, and now I feel confident taking my shirt off!!”

Seriously?!!

As I mentioned earlier, the priorities are totally wrong. We should not be so fixated on weight. Seriously, put away your bathroom scale, and only bring it out if you are using the value to help you calculate something specific that is of value to you. Instead, focus on your ability to do something meaningful to you. Look at strength and stamina as a measure of your success. If excess body fat is causing health problems or leaves you with a poor body image, do something about the excess fat, and not your weight.

Aim for a healthy body fat percentage of somewhere between 14% and 22%, and find out what it is about your diet that causes your body to store so much fat. If you are too gaunt, look again to the diet and exercise to determine where you can improve to both increase your body fat percentage and your muscle conditioning. Set realistic targets that don’t rely on a single flawed piece of information that can’t possibly tell you whether you are healthy or not, and accept that the reality is that changes will take a long time to apply, and your end goal is more important than the successes or failures that you will encounter along the way.

For me, I’ll no longer be showing how much weight I lose. I’ll be focussing only on waist and hip size, body fat percentage, and the outcome of my fitness tests. I’m setting all of my goals based on achievable targets for these measurements only, and my journey will end only when I feel I have satisfied myself, not by reaching these targets, but when I feel I have learned enough while achieving them.

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