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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.

What is “Healthy”?

29 Jan

I had in interesting exchange with another blogger recently that has prompted me to rethink what it really means to be “Healthy”. I’ll write about that in a moment, but first I should acknowledge this person who has been through a great trial in her life – and still is as a matter of fact. While I felt I needed to reach out with some encouragement and to be supportive of her, she’s likewise become big inspiration to me both by putting up a fight to change her own life for the better even though the road is often rocky for her, and also because her comment to me reminded me once again to change the way I look at myself, which allows me to see her situation from another – perhaps better – perspective than I had previously.

I’ve said it before that you change the way you see yourself in order to change the way you’ll see the world, so I want to thank this person for indirectly reminding me of this, and for inspiring me to work harder not only to improve myself, but also to improve my perceptions of others. I won’t name you now just in case you’d rather remain anonymous, but I really hope you’ll realise who you are, and if you want me to add a pointer from here to your blog, please contact me and I’ll update this post.

So what does Healthy mean and more importantly what does it mean to be Healthy?

I’m asking this question in this way because I feel there is a vast chasm between the definition of health in terms of the science Vs the actuality of an individual’s state of health. Which is my fancy and overly intellectualised way of say that I think were doing it wrong and we need to rethink our priorities a little.

Like most people, I spent the majority of my life before now trusting that the doctors and research scientists know what they are doing and have mapped out a list of medical rules that define what a healthy person looks like. I’ve trusted the healthy food advice that has been pushed at us through pyramids, plates, and all those other catchy ways that healthy living has been advertised to us for decades. It’s only recently that I have stopped to really think about this stuff, and to go against the standard advice that the health and medical communities have bombarded us with to really ask myself

“If the experts have got it all correct, why isn’t it working for me or for the millions of other people out there struggling with health problems?”

Something that I seem to have forgotten over the years, is that whatever you may think about science, no matter how carefully it is examined, tested, and peer reviewed – which means the scientists argue about it and don’t actually prove anything,  most science is still about making a best guess based on what you think you know, and trying to apply statistical models that support those guesses – which scientists prefer to call theories because it makes their guesses sound more “science-y”. The problem though is that science takes an even lesser priority when politics and economics enters the picture, so much so that it is big industries that drive policy creation more than either wisdom or science, and a universally uninformed population majority simply goes along with what governments, food and drug industries tell us is good for us, even though the science as imperfect as it is has been telling us for years that the way we understand diet and health is essentially wrong.

In terms of deciding what healthy is it’s all about our priorities. Governments don’t have an answer and if they did they wouldn’t tell you to avoid political backlash from industry. Doctors don’t have any answers beyond what industry scientists tell them. Researchers don’t have a complete answer, because whatever they do often raises more questions, and their research often focuses on relatively narrow areas of study with relatively large margins for error, and often again based on assumptions derived from older unchallenged assumptions. In effect, nobody today really knows what healthy is in  a modern world, whereas anyone living 2000 years ago would have simply stated that being healthy meant not feeling sick!

Perhaps this is where our real problem lies. We try to apply so much science and pseudo-“science”, continually questioning the wisdom of old while trying to fit our studies into a framework driven more by industry than by pure scientific pursuit of the truth, and in doing so we overcomplicate a simple definition that should be relatively straight forward. We’re so busy listening to others tell us how or what we “should” be, that we’ve stopped listening to our bodies telling us what we are and what we need. So if we do listen instead to our bodies, what is it that our bodies are trying to tell us about being healthy?

The body knows nothing about Weight, BMI, Fitness Testing, or any of that other stuff. Our bodies don’t grow fatter or thinner because someone tells us we should look like other people or should fit into trendy clothes. We don’t get 6-pack abs or muscled arms simply because it looks desirable or fits a stereotype. All of this sort of stuff is purely about vanity – Yes, I do mean to include weight, test results, BMI’s and so on – and there isn’t a single thing that vanity will give you in terms of health and fitness, but there is a whole lot that vanity will take away from you.

So what is the simplest definition that you can apply to describe what it is to be healthy? In a nutshell…:

 Being healthy is the absence of everything that makes you feel unhealthy.

What I mean by this is that your own body will tell you that there is something out of balance. Something that would suggest that your body isn’t at it’s best in terms of it’s state of health. Any condition that doesn’t feel right, that feels negative in some way to you is a symptom of your body trying to tell you that you are not enjoying perfect health, and every illness or condition that further develops is your body’s failure to maintain it’s healthy balance. Here are some examples of symptoms of imperfect health:

  1. Always being thirsty, hungry or getting cravings
  2. Regular nausea, headaches, sweating, bad breath
  3. Difficulty falling asleep, maintaining sleep, restless sleep & insomnia
  4. Falling ill several times each year for no apparent reason
  5. Bowel and stomach problems
  6. Lethargy that has nothing to do with sleep
  7. Weakness, sore joints, muscles or tendons that has nothing to do with exercise
  8. Restlessness, anxiety, ongoing depression
  9. Shortness of breath
  10. An inability to do things physically that you you feel you should be able to do
  11. Discomfort when you attempt to do simple physical things
  12. Difficulty concentrating
  13. Random cramps, spasms and pains, back pain and sciatica
  14. Dry, cracked, oily, spotty skin

Yes, I could go on and list every condition that I can think of, and yes I realise that much of this can be mental as well physical. My point is that when you feel unhealthy, you probably are unhealthy. Have you noticed though that I have not mentioned anything about weight, or fat, or muscle size, or looks? That’s because all of these things vary so much from person to person that it’s impossible to say for certain whether you would be healthy weighing more or less than the statistical average, or whether you would be healthy with a body fat percentage of 15% or 30%. If these things don’t result in a host of other symptoms that make you feel unhealthy, then isn’t just possible you’re actually in a healthy state?

I realise that I have perhaps oversimplified the point greatly, and that many will argue about things like blood sugar levels, and cholesterols, blood pressures, heart rates and all sorts of other things that don’t show up without good science and medicine, and yes I will agree with you up to a point. Consider this however, how likely are you to visit a doctor if you don’t feel that there is something out of balance in your body? How likely are you to visit a doctor if you are feeling healthy and well all of the time? It’s only when our gut instincts tells us something is wrong at best, or at worst if we ignore all of the symptoms and collapse somewhere, that we bother to get doctors involved in our health at all.

So what I hope you’ll take away from all of this is that it’s really up to you to decide what is best for you in terms of what it means to be healthy. Pay attention to what is happening in your body and don’t ignore the little things that will tell you if you are NOT at optimal health. If you see lot’s of little symptoms regularly appearing, you’re obviously doing it wrong and need to try something else. Whatever it is that you do choose to do, don’t do it simply to fit yourself into the expectations of others, do it because it makes you feel strong, capable, and everything positive that you feel when you know that there isn’t a thing wrong with the way your body is working for you. And remember, the sexy/fat/skinny stereotypes will no longer apply if you learn what it is that is truly healthy for you.

4 weeks = MASSIVE improvement

28 Jan

It’s officially day 28 of both this blog, the new year, and the documenting of my self improvement journey. While I’ve planned to do all of my tests and measurements in a couple of days time, I decided that 3 days won’t make much of a difference to photos, so I took my second set of progress photos today. Yeah, OK, so I was all excited about seeing the changes for myself and I took the photos as soon as I got out of bed this morning, with pillow hair and rumpled looking and all of that. Look past that though and see the differences between the two photo sets.

The improvement after only 4 weeks has really blown me away. You can see this for yourself if you take a sneak peek at my Fitness Progress page (which can also be found when you hover your mouse over my “Who is this guy?” link at the top of this page, and click on the Fitness Progress menu item that appears). Considering how little serious effort I’ve made in terms of exercise, the changes have been astonishing. When I say that I’ve worked my butt off in the past trying to lose weight, including trying to fix diet as well as hard exercise, I’m not kidding that the effort was seriously put in and yet was ultimately wasted because I’d make such little gain physically, always retaining too much body fat even though I wasn’t eating sweets or any other junk food, sticking to the healthy food pyramid/plate ideal and clearly ending up with too many carbs, even though I thought I’d cut all of the crap out.

I think however that my little life experiment over the last 4 weeks has proven just how effective getting the diet right is, and that not only is diet everything when it comes to sustainable loss of excess body fat/weight, but it really is about avoiding processed foods, and in particular anything containing cane sugar and cereal grains. While I am certainly eating more fruit and vegetables these days, I’ve also become a little paranoid about food additives and the ingredients listed on the labels. So much so that if I even suspect a product is harbouring any sugar or grain product in it, it instantly gets written off as junk food.

This is a course of action that is seriously working for me where nothing else ever has before, and while I’ve never been particularly obese, I’ve long struggled to keep my weight in check over such a long time, that it’s a huge relief to be able to simply relax and not obsess over things, and find the improvements occurring naturally, without any serious intervention on my part. Even better, I’ve been eating cake and chocolate, but because it’s all made (by me) out of the same food that I’ve been eating anyway – and also because I haven’t been going crazy with it – I’m still getting a great result.

So I’ll do my tests in a couple of days as planned and I’ll update the info on my progress page as soon as they are done. I’ve also organised to get some blood tests done in a week or so to see how I’m handling sugars and cholesterols, and I’ll put up the results as soon as I get them. In the mean time, with my back feeling a lot better, I’ll be stepping it up with my fitness training and it will be interesting to see what effect will be when I take another set of photos next month.

As embarrassing as it feels to put my photos up here, I hope that I can use them as a real life example to show to others including my future clients. I want to be able to show that it isn’t all about hard work or trading the pain for the gain, or any of that other “tough love” stuff you hear so often. It’s about making a few small yet critical changes to your life, and reaping the rewards that will come simply from getting your head straight, focussing your priorities, eating the right diet as a habit rather than a quick fix, and from being just a little more active each day. But more than that it’s about making a choice for yourself, believing in the decision you’ve made and why you made it, and in believing in yourself enough to follow that decision through… permanently.

Seriously, I’m nobody particularly special or knowledgeable, and I don’t have all of the answers. I’m learning as I go, and I’ll continue to have failures and setbacks along the way. The thing is, if someone like me can personally achieve so much in such a short amount of time, then imagine how much more you will be able to achieve as part of your own personal life journey!

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