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 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.