Carbs are ruining your brain

I just downloaded Grain Brain on iBooks today. It’s a potentially game changing book by a prominent board-certified neurologist, David Perlmutter, who also happens to be a Fellow of the American College of Nutrition.

The basic point of the book: carbohydrates are toxic for your brain. Seriously. Even so-called healthy whole grains and most fruit.

He’s even got traditionally conventional low-fat/whole grain-touting Dr. Oz turning around on this. Here’s Perlmutter on Oz’s show discussing how carbohydrate consumption may be a key culprit in the rise of Alzheimer’s.

Conventional wisdom has been stubborn, but I’m seeing more mainstream acceptance recently of the merits of a low-carb/high-fat diet. Usually, it’s related to fighting obesity and diabetes. This focus on brain health, though, is startling and may make for a double-whammy that begins to change our culture’s attachment to the old, failed emphasis on cutting fat and eating more whole grains.

I know just reading the first few pages of this book has me recommitting to a low-carb approach. Both my brain and my waistline will thank me.

Grain Brain cover

Sugar: tasty, tasty poison

This video (h/t Diet Doctor blog) makes a very compelling case that we’ve been misled about the roots of the obesity epidemic:

Sugar and processed carbohydrates are the culprits. Demonizing dietary fat turns out to have been a mistake, though the conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to be catching up with the science quite yet.

I know, I know. Sugar tastes good. But, it has no redeeming qualities otherwise. It’s poison…tasty, tasty poison.

Up until just over four years ago I didn’t give much thought to cutting back on sugar. I drank Cokes and sweet tea and enjoyed the heck out of desserts. Vending machines were my friends.

Then, I changed my diet completely, drastically cutting back on processed foods and carbs and making sugar a rare treat. I switched to unsweetened tea gradually, going from half sweet to just a splash of sweet to all unsweetened. And I got used to it. I completely dropped soft drinks. I quit making dessert a regular expectation. I discovered the delight of super dark chocolate, which is comparatively low in sugar. A little taste of 85 percent dark chocolate became a sensory pleasure each night and satisfied my sweet tooth.

And I lost 20 pounds within a few months of making these changes and have kept the weight off for more than four years, all while actually increasing my consumption of saturated fat. Eggs for breakfast almost every morning. Plenty of butter. Coconut oil as my cooking oil of choice. Bacon. And more bacon…

Sounds delicious, but dangerous, right? At least it does according to conventional wisdom. But I just had my annual physical last week, and my lipid profile put me in the “below average risk” for heart disease. My doctor told me to keep on doing what I’ve been doing.

I’m worried that I’ve already missed the boat with my kids, though. Their sugar love is strong, and they can’t imagine happiness without it. Maybe we can focus on one area at a time, like eliminating sugary drinks for them first before moving on to the harder stuff, like candy and cookies.

It’s worth making the effort to cut the sugar you consume. The obvious sugar is, well, obvious. It’s the sneaky stuff, like the added sugar the food industry puts in almost every food-like substance that comes in a box or jar or can, that is just unfair. I avoid products that have health claims, like “Low Fat”, on the label. It’s likely that sugar was added to make up for how bad it tastes once they removed the fat. Skip that stuff and just get real food.

You’ll miss sugar at first, but your health will be a lot sweeter without it.

Peter Attia: Rethinking healthy eating

Peter Attia is a surgeon who struggled with being overweight even though he was active and fit. But he was eating a conventionally approved low-fat diet which was high in refined grains and carbohydrates. Once he flipped his diet to high-fat/low-carb, he dropped forty pounds. Now he has devoted his career to discovering answers to the most challenging questions about how to live a healthy life and spreading that knowledge to give others better lives.

This moving TED Talk tells a bit about his journey, but it focuses primarily on the probability that our assumed understanding of the roots of the obesity epidemic are completely wrong.

Astonishing facts from Dr. Attia’s web site:

  • 34% of Americans are obese and two thirds are overweight.  This represents more than a 200% increase from 1970.

  • Over 8% of Americans are diabetic, and if you include those undiagnosed, an additional 26% of Americans are pre-diabetic.  This represents more than a 400% increase from 1970.

  • Every 7 seconds someone in the world dies from a diabetic complication (this is not a typo).

  • Diabetes is also the leading cause of stroke, blindness, kidney failure requiring transplantation, all amputations combined, and many other medical problems.

  • According to McKinsey & Company, reducing the U.S. obesity rate to 15% (that of 1970) would save approximately $150 billion per year in Medicare spending alone, and close to $500 billion per year in overall U.S. healthcare spending.

  • A recent study in Obesity estimates that by 2030, 50% of Americans will be obese and 79% will be overweight.

  • The U.S. spends over $2.7 trillion per year on healthcare – nearly 19% of our GDP, and more than any other country.  Even if no other aspect of our spending increases in the next 20 years, the cost of healthcare alone will bankrupt us as a country.

As I’m being more mindful of what I eat this summer, Dr. Attia’s perspective just strengthens my resolve.

Cook your own food

I enjoy cooking. After I transformed my diet, I began caring a lot more about how our food is prepared. So, I’ve become the primary cook in our house, mostly to my wife’s delight. She still does the baking. The precision and linear nature of baking appeals to her, and I love the improvisation and intuitive approach of cooking. We are a good match.

My mom could whip up a great dinner almost effortlessly, putting a hearty home made meal on the table without much planning. I took for granted that everyone’s home was regularly filled with the aromas of home cooked meals. I realize now that most people do not cook. I suppose it seems hard or mysterious or just not worth the effort. But I’ve found it to be simple and satisfying.

It is nice to know exactly what you are eating and that is was prepared by a human you know and love and not by a corporation. You will eat healthier if you cook for yourself. The unhealthiest food is hard to make on your own. Deep frying? Hard. Twinkies? Give that a go in your kitchen. You want some cookies? Baking a batch from scratch takes a lot more time and effort than opening a pack of Oreos and will make eating cookies a rare splurge instead of a daily treat. Ice cream? Homemade is such a delight, but also not something you would do every day.

“Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself. People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought. It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.” –Michael Pollan

Yes, cooking is healthier, but it also can be a joyful, soul-satisfying daily task. I don’t often have much to show for a day’s work at the office. The output is hard to see, hard to measure, as it is for most of us today. Working with ideas and people has its merits, but working with your hands and making something tangible is primally satisfying. So, instead of seeing cooking as a chore when I get home, I get excited to make something, to use sharp knives and fresh ingredients and make a meal that delights and satisfies. I don’t even mind cleaning up after the meal.

I don’t do anything too complicated. I’m no chef, and you don’t have to go to culinary school to make good food. It’s so easy to sautee a pork chop in a skillet and lay some fresh green beans in a sheet pan for roasting. A whole roast chicken coming out of the oven on a cold winter night is a sensory pleasure that takes very little skill or effort. Baked sweet potato fries with coconut oil… so good and so simple to make.

If you’re not cooking at all now, just try cooking one or two dinners a week to get started. And, instead of cereal or a bagel for breakfast, try scrambling some eggs. It only takes a couple of minutes more to have a hot breakfast.

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My treasured cutting board

You just need a decent knife and some basic tools to get started. When you go to the grocery store, shop the perimeter of the store, where the fresh produce and meat are, and avoid the center aisles which are filled mostly with packaged, processed foods. Search online for recipe ideas. Ask your family and friends for favorite recipes. Watch cooking shows. I’ve learned a lot from watching America’s Test Kitchen, especially. Here are some great tips from Becoming Minimalist on how to enjoy cooking.

The more you cook, the better you’ll get at it and the more your friends and family who don’t cook will think you’re some sort of fantastic culinary wizard.

Cook your own food, for your health and for your happiness. Enjoy the making as well as the eating.

Primal summer

I’m an older dad. My first child was born when I was forty. Being a dad is the most important role in my life. I need to live a long time and stay healthy for my daughters and my much-younger-than-me wife. I want to be at full speed for races in the yard and tag and piggyback rides. I need to be able to pick my kids up and carry them for a few more years. And I want to be around to my see girls grow into women and be fully there for them for as long as possible.

Four-and-a-half years ago, I weighed thirty pounds more than I do now. I was just under 200 pounds. For a 5’9″ guy, that’s not good. In January of 2009, probably having made yet another New Year’s resolution to get healthy, I stumbled across a web site that changed my life: Mark’s Daily Apple.

This very fit looking Californian with impressive surfer-dude hair laid out a compelling case for a whole new way (a very old way, actually) to eat and live. The human species has been around for possibly two million years, but we’ve only been eating processed foods and copious amounts of added sugar for a mere century. And agriculture is only about 10,000-12,000 years old, so even grains were not a regular part of the human diet for the vast, vast majority of our existence.

The original humans were hunter-gatherers. And if we eat more like hunter-gatherers instead of the zoo humans we have become we are more likely to have optimal health.

This immediately made sense as I read it. After years of trying to eat better with nothing to show for it, just this shift in perspective about how we are wired as humans changed everything for me. I immediately dropped pasta and bread and soft drinks and sweet tea from my diet. It was easier than I expected. Within a couple of months, and without even exercising, I had lost twenty pounds. My weight continued to drop effortlessly and leveled off in the 160’s and stayed there while I was only about 75 percent strict with this primal way of eating.

Recently, though, that 75 percent commitment has drifted down to closer to 50 percent. And my pants have gotten a little tighter. Not awesome. So, this summer I am going primal. 100 percent. (Well, I’m going to allow some deviations for Sunday lunches when my kids like to go out for fun food. If I’m 100 percent awesome six days a week, I won’t feel bad about a weekly Sunday lunch splurge.)

This means my meals will consist of real foods – meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts and good fats like olive oil and coconut oil. Hunter-gatherer food. I will avoid grains and vegetable oils (they’re bad) and added sugar* and processed, packaged food in general.

I’ve scheduled my annual physical with my doctor for August 15, two months from now. There’s nothing quite like a publicly announced deadline to focus my attention.

Interestingly, I was worried after my first year of primal eating that my doctor would not approve of my new lifestyle, even with the weight loss, if my cholesterol was crazy. I was eating eggs for breakfast every morning and plenty of meat and butter each week. Conventional wisdom says that stuff will kill you. However, at the first physical after my primal transformation my good cholesterol was better than it had ever been. My doctor let me know that total cholesterol is not a helpful number. The HDL/LDL ratio is what’s important, and my new way of eating had now put me into the lowest risk category for heart disease. Saturated fat for the win!

Good health is everything if you don’t have it. Your health is easy to take for granted, especially when you’re young and bulletproof. All else in life – relationships, work, play – are diminished, though, when your health is diminished.

I have control over what I put in my mouth. I get to decide to be healthy, to act and think like a vigorous, strong, healthy human, just like our ancestors. I’m going to use my primal summer to reestablish good eating habits, get moving and get outside more often, and be a more fully authentic, better version of myself by the time the season begins to wane.

*Sugar is poison. Tasty, tasty poison.