Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Some controversial-ish thoughts on nutrition

Please note that the thoughts are not mine. I don't HAVE thoughts on nutrition, particularly. Or rather, I do, but they're not very well-informed thoughts so it's not a topic I discuss much. I do, however, like to hear what other people have to say on the subject, especially when what they're saying is a little outside the mainstream.

Here's an example: you know that thing about not eating after 7:00 pm? Bob Garon of Synergy Kettlebell Training in Arizona doesn't agree. He argues that humans are hardwired to do most of their eating at night since for most of human history it simply hasn't been feasible for homo sapiens sapiens to do much eating during daylight hours.

It makes some sense when you think about it. Agriculture, after all, has only been around 10,000 years or so give or take a millenium. Before that we were hunters and gatherers, meaning that during the daytime we were probably too busy foraging for food to take time out to eat. Or not. I tend to think our ancestors feasibly could have brought snacks with them when they went forth from their caves on foraging expeditions. Mammoth jerky left over from the last big hunt, for instance, or dried fruits and nuts. Arguably the snackers would've had more energy to outrun sabertoothed tigers and such, making them more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation. Of course it also could've gone the other way, with the snackers too weighed down by their burden to outmaneuver the tiger. All we can really do is speculate.

(Note: to be an evolutionary success story you don't actually have to outrun the tiger. You just have to outrun your foraging buddies)

The other thing this theory fails to take into account is that evolution is ongoing, and tends to happen rather quickly once humans start modifying their environment. Take dogs, for instance. From St Bernard to chihuahua, all evolved from wolves and not that long ago, either. Most of today's breeds are no more than a few hundred years old, many much less. Genocidal maniacs aside, humans generally have not set out deliberately to modify their own species in the same way that they've bred dogs for certain characteristics, but nevertheless plenty of modifications have occurred. Lactose intolerance, for instance, is quite common in people whose ancestors didn't consume much cow's milk, but it's a good bit rarer in people from, say, Scandinavia who've been enjoying a dairy-rich diet for generations.

(Note: I think that's true, anyway. I can't remember where I read it, so it's entirely possible I just made it up, which is why you really shouldn't take anything I have to say on the subject of nutrition all that seriously.)

So, anyway, I'm not entirely persuaded that for optimum wellness we all need to be eating like cavemen, shunning foods such as grain and dairy that were not available in Paleolithic times and consuming most of our calories at night. On the other hand, if certain foods seem not to agree with you or you've not had success with the mini-meal approach, I think the way of eating advocated by Bob Garon is well worth a try.

I know conventional wisdom is that we need to be eating regularly throughout the day so that our bodies don't start burning muscle for energy, but the truth is that that isn't going to happen unless you've been fasting for a few days. In fact, there's evidence that short-term fasting results in elevated growth hormone and other physiological changes which tend to promote fat loss.

Brad Pilon, the author of Eat Stop Eat, is a big proponent of intermittent fasting for weight control. He recommends fasting for 24 hours 1-2 times per week, and not worrying too much the rest of the time. It's an approach that definitely has some appeal for people like me who sometimes forget to pack a lunch and two snacks and can't always be bothered to figure out whether they've got exactly the right ratio of carbs to protein to fat in each of their mini-meals. I'm not sure how well it'd work for someone with extreme physical goals, but for those of us who aren't competitive bodybuilders or Ironman triathletes, I think it'd be fine.

(True confession: I skip meals all the time, either because it's not convenient for me to eat or I'm not hungry. Of course I don't look like a physique competitor nor do I have the strength of a powerlifter or the endurance of a triathlete. But I'm pretty lean, respectably strong, and above average in endurance. I'm not hypertensive like my father and brother, and I'm not diabetic like my mother, my aunt and my uncle. Basically I'm living proof that above-average fitness can be achieved without eating 5 or 6 times a day, although of course if that's what you like you should stick with it.)

The other thing I like about Brad Pilon is that he isn't a fearmonger. In a recent interview with Craig Ballantyne of Turbulence Training, he commented that it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense to worry about environmental toxins in, say, non-organic meat that you've prepared on the barbecue since the danger from nitrosamines is far greater than the danger from pesticide residues and such. That's not to say that it's not a good idea to minimize one's exposure to toxins wherever possible; however when you look at the big picture a non-organic burger here or a can of diet Coke there probably isn't going to make much difference when you consider all the toxins to which we are involuntarily exposed in the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Brad Pilon's focus on the big picture makes a lot of sense to me. When my father was diagnosed with early stage renal cancer a few years back, my mother was convinced it was his habit of putting saccharin in his coffee that was to blame, but given that he's been a two-pack a day smoker for more than 50 years I kinda think we can absolve the Sweet'n'Low of blame in this case.

In fact, there's no real proof that artificial sweeteners such as saccharine, aspartame and Splenda are even all that harmful according to Body Transformation guru Joel Marion. Like Brad Pilon he indulges occasionally and claims not to be any the worse for it. According to Joel Marion a human would need to ingest 200 cans of diet soda a day before he or she would need to be concerned about the neurotoxic effects of aspartame. That's not to say that some people aren't highly sensitive to it, but people can be sensitive to all kinds of things--eggs, soy, peanuts--that are harmless to most. If you believe it bothers you, don't have it, but if you've never experienced any ill effects from diet soda or other artificially sweetened foods you're not going to improve your health to any measurable degree by giving them up, so why do it?

I think what appeals to me about what these three very different health experts preach is that in each case the underlying message seems to be: don't make it harder than it needs to be. If you want to eat at night, you can make that work for you. If you can't be bothered to eat every 2-3 hours, you may not need to. Make the best choices you can, but don't worry so much about toxins in your food or what have you. Don't give up foods you enjoy if there's no real evidence they're harmful if consumed in moderation.

To read more of what Bob Garon, Brad Pilon, and Joel Marion have to say on nutrition and wellness, check out these links: