Saturday, March 10, 2012

Introduction: Ruminations from a long-time fitness freak, first-time nutrition freak

Hi, I'm Zack. Long-time fitness freak, first-time nutrition freak. I've never blogged before; I never felt the need to publish my thoughts to the world. But as my obsession with researching and learning about nutrition continues, I'm finding a lot of useful information tidbits, and generating ideas, that I want to share with friends, family, and anyone else. I figure a blog is the best way to do this. I think you're going to benefit from reading my blog, which is why I'm spending my time writing it.

I've played sports all my life, and at the age of 25, health and fitness remain my top priorities. Until a recent diet experiment, in which I maintained a strict paleo diet (explanation later), I thought I ate pretty healthy. Much healthier than my high school days, when I had half a key lime pie after tennis practice each day, and much healthier than college, when many of my calories were from beer and pizza.

Healthy -- as a description for eating habits -- is certainly relative. I thought I was healthy. When I had to eat fast food I chose Subway instead of McDonalds. I always tried to buy organic, and did everything else Michael Pollen told me to do. I avoided "junk food." I cooked a lot. I minimized cream, butter, and fat. I dabbled with vegetarianism here and there, because, in addition to environmental and humane reasons, I thought a vegetarian diet was healthier.

But that style of eating doesn't equate with health, especially health up to my fitness standards. Until recently, my general nutrition philosophy was, "I'm lean and in good shape, so I eat what I want. I like to eat, and I like to work out, so it works." Never mind that I rarely used leafy greens or other fresh vegetables as more than condiments, got most of my nutrition from grains, relied most weeknights on frozen tamales, and was deficient in protein. There was a large discrepancy between my exercise habits and my adherence to the standard american diet (SAD). Tony Horton, creator of P90X, makes the analogy between good exercise and poor diet as purchasing the shiny model year Ferrari, but treating it like crap and filling it up with Mexican gasoline. That was me, minus the Ferrari.

Under the above philosophy, I maintained a willful ignorance of nutrition and diet information. I steered clear of all the diets out there, and all the conflicting gurus touting ever-changing information, because there was no easy way to evaluate the claims besides becoming a human guinea pig.

Example: One year, eggs are good for you. Next year, eggs are bad for you. Then, eggs are good in moderation. Then, more than 6 eggs per week will drown your heart in fat. Carbs are a similar phenomenon.

And, besides, I didn't need to try any diet...I was in good shape. And I kept telling myself that. 

My perspective was turned on its head a few months ago when my CrossFit gym invited me to a 45-day Paleo Challenge. Eliminate sugar and processed food in the first 15 days. Then, eliminate grains and legumes. And, for the final fifteen days, get rid of dairy. The premise behind the paleo diet is that "neolithic foods," i.e. foods introduced with the advent of agriculture, have not been around long enough for the human body to adapt to them. These foods are said to have anti-nutrients that cause inflammation, obesity, digestive issues, auto-immune disorders, and other disease. After Crossfitting for a year, I was very skeptical of the paleo (or caveman) diet. I'd been taught my whole life that beans, dairy and whole grains were essential to a well-balanced diet. I did not buy the idea that you should remove these food groups simply because they only became prominent 10,000 years ago.

But I gave it a shot. I didn't sign up for the challenge, but I read The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf and went strict paleo for thirty days as an experiment. And I was miserable. I had little energy, got frequent headaches, and was often grumpy. I'm surprised my girlfriend didn't issue an ultimatum -- "either paleo or me." I imagine she was considering it.

Even worse than any girlfriend issues, my performance at the gym suffered greatly. I had no fuel in the tank to get through my workouts. Worse than even that, I was becoming a member of the growing population of CrossFit Douches. Subsets of this group are people that take any opportunity to rip their shirt off, and people that never stop talking about the paleo diet. I was both.

I tried to take solace in a couple blogs that said a "detox" occurs during the first month. I upped my calorie consumption on the advice of my coaches, and after a few weeks I did indeed begin to feel great. The mental clarity, well-being, and mood stability promised by the paleo proponents began to materialize.

But I was still dogging it in the gym. And despite the negative biological symptoms disappearing, my quality of life was still diminished. I was spending large amounts of time, effort and money planning and preparing every meal and snack. It was stressful. Although my body felt good, I found that the negatives still outweighed the positives.

Once my month ended, I quickly reintroduced my carbohydrate shake before my workouts, and I was back stronger than ever. I stopped fretting about "cheat" foods, adhering to paleo 80% of the time and feeling 95% of the benefits. And, most importantly, I finished the month with a body of nutritional knowledge and insights into the way my body works.

Currently, I'm not paleo, and I don't plan on it. I would call my diet "paleo style," or "nutrient dense," at least in comparison to my prior eating habits. I eat some grains and grain-based carbs here and there, mainly at breakfast and before and after workouts. I've discovered I'm mildly lactose intolerant, or at the very least my body runs better without dairy, so I've cut it out almost entirely. And beans, well, I eat them when I eat them, but they were never a part of my everyday regimen and still aren't. Most importantly, I've gained a lot of knowledge, and the experiment isn't over. Now that I realize, golly gee, there's actually a link between the foods I ingest and the way I feel, I'm going to continue tweaking my diet.

In finally beginning to pay attention to nutrition, I've learned -- and continue to learn -- so much. This blog is my attempt to share my newfound knowledge and insights. I hope you enjoy it.

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