Category Archives: Thoughts and Musings

Conventional Wisdom: How Your “Healthy” Habits May Be Harming Your Health

 

Fresh vegetables are important components of a...

Fresh vegetables are important components of a healthy diet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

There are people in the world who don’t care about their health or what they put in their bodies. That’s fine, and that will always be the case; anyone is welcome to choose what they want to be apathetic about. What makes me really sad, however, is seeing the other type of people: the people who really care, who want to be healthy, and yet can’t seem to make it happen. I spent many years of my life like that: doing most of what my doctor and my health teacher were telling me to do, with no effect. There were many reasons for this, including a disordered and emotional relationship with food, but even when I started doing EVERYTHING “right,” I still wasn’t getting healthy.

This isn’t just about my experience, though. Speaking with my friends and acquaintances I see frequent examples of people doing what they have been told is “healthy” and not seeing any resulting changes in their overall health. I attribute this primarily to the fact that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to a healthy lifestyle but that most people don’t know what the other options are: it’s what conventional wisdom says or nothing. The following, then, is a list of four “healthy habits” that I have found are the most commonly misunderstood or are simply wrong. This is not to say that all of these habits are wrong for all people: only that if your efforts to get healthy are failing or coming up short, these may be good places to start tweaking. Most of these are habits with which I have personal experience and which I have seen tremendous benefit in changing.

Eating “low-fat,” “low-calorie” foodsConventional wisdom tells us that in order to lose weight and/or get healthy, it is necessary to eat fewer calories and less fat. However valid or invalid this advice is can be argued at another time; what is important about this recommendation is that it has, over the course of the last few decades, led to an explosion of the “low-fat” “low-cal” food production market. Grocery stores have been flooded with low-fat cheeses and reduced-calorie fruit juice drinks, and people will choose those products over their higher-calorie, higher-fat alternatives because they are wanting to make healthy choices. In order to make those products lower fat, however, the food production companies have to highly process those foods: replacing fats with artificial and processed foods whose direct effects on the human body are unclear.

This same problem applies to other dietary recommendations like “low-carb,” “organic” and, in the last few years, “gluten-free.” As companies realize the marketing potential of any new health craze, they seek to exploit it by putting health labels on processed foods. These processed foods, however — no matter what their labels — have been linked to a multitude of health issues including fat loss resistance.

Alternatives: The primary alternative to this habit is JUST EAT REAL FOOD. No matter what dietary philosophy you ascribe to, eating real food as opposed to processed will almost definitely improve your health since your body is designed to process and absorb real food, not the stuff created in a factory.

Running (or other moderate-to-high-intensity cardio): To anyone who regularly participates in long distance or long duration cardiovascular activity, the suggestion that running might be harmful to one’s health seems blasphemous. Running, in particular, has a sort of cult-like status in North American society: people who run get competitive and almost monomaniacal about their chosen form of exercise (just walk into The Running Room sometime and you’ll see what I mean). It seems to be frequently assumed that those who run marathons are at the peak of health. This assumption, however, is often incorrect.

Cardiovascular activity puts a lot of stress on the body. This stress can be beneficial sometimes in short durations (all exercise is a stressor), but hours and hours of this stress each week can be harmful to the body, especially in the long term. Evolutionarily, the human body has been built to run in some situations (while hunting or outrunning a predator, for instance); however, those situations would historically have been occasional, very high stress situations in which the most important thing for the body would be to prioritize running. In that moment, other bodily functions, such as good digestion, would not have been nearly as important. Taking a cue from this evolutionary model, it seems unlikely that most people’s bodies have adapted to run long distances without sacrificing some other elements of health. So, if you are on the treadmill for an hour a day or frequently training for marathons or 10K races, it is possible that you are damaging other aspects of your health without meaning to.

To read more about this, I recommend looking at Mark’s Daily Apple: Mark Sisson, a former professional marathoner, has written extensively about the dangers of what he calls “chronic cardio.” Also, John Kiefer has written an excellent article about the link between running (specifically in women) and thyroid health; the article has 80 scientific references, if you’re interested in doing even more in-depth research.

Alternatives: If you really love running (or other cardio activities), ask yourself if you are doing it for health or because it is your sport. If it is a sport to you, maybe you will decide that you are willing to sacrifice some element of health to improve your performance. If you are doing it to get healthy, however, (like I was) it might be a good idea to start reducing the cardio. Try walking, yoga, weightlifting, and/or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to see if those would work better for you.

Eating “healthy whole grains”: This is probably the “healthy habit” over which there has been the most debate in recent months and years. Books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain are hitting the bestseller lists every week, and more and more people are beginning to try eliminating gluten and sometimes other grains from their diets. However, “healthy whole grains” is still a common term to hear thrown around and an especially common term to see on processed food products in the grocery store. Cereals full of sugar are marketed as healthy with the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s “Health Check” prominently displayed on the boxes. Fat, calories, and salt are all demonized in the grocery store, but sugar and grains (which are converted into sugar in the body) are encouraged as part of a “balanced diet.”

Alternatives: Instead of eating cereal and other grain products, opt for vegetables that will provide many more nutrients per calorie than “healthy whole grains”.

Not eating meat/Becoming vegetarian: Before you jump down my throat for including this item in my list, please hear me out. I am not saying that everyone has to eat meat. As I have said before, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to diet, and probably there are some people who do better without meat. There are also those who, for moral, ethical, or religious reasons, have opted not to eat meat, regardless of any effects it may have on their health. What I am talking about here is the general assumption that seems to have permeated society that eating meat (or specifically red meat) is universally unhealthy. Off the top of my head, I can count at least six conversations I’ve had in the last two months with people who have proudly told me that they have dramatically reduced the amount of meat they are eating in order to “get healthy.”

There are several problems related to a refusal to eat meat, such as nutrient and protein deficiencies. Some people who are consciously aware of these potential deficiencies design their diets and supplement regimens to compensate. However, people who have a more anomalous and abstract idea about the health benefits of going meat-free often accidentally reduce meat without compensating with sufficient alternative protein sources or vitamins. This can inadvertently lead to many health issues related to nutrient deficiency.

The bigger issue with the assumption that meat-less diets are healthier than those containing animal protein is that people seem to take that to mean that anything vegetarian or vegan is automatically also healthier. This is similar thinking to the “low-fat,” “low-cal,” “gluten-free” processed foods discussed above: you can still easily find vegetarian junk food, and a junk food diet, no matter how much or how little meat it contains, will never be healthy.

Alternatives: If you do choose to eat little or no meat, I highly recommend taking a close look at what you are eating and trying to optimize it with real food, soaked and sprouted legumes and grains, and high-quality fats. Take a look at these useful recommendations based on the diets of traditional cultures. If, however, you find that your health is not optimal with so little meat, take a look at the articles assembled here to consider how meat (especially well-raised meat) can be successfully incorporated into a healthy diet.

Personal Hurdles: Weight Fluctuations

I admire people who don’t own scales. I admire people who don’t know what they weigh.

I am not one of those people. I own a scale and I know exactly what I weigh. In fact, after so many years of obsessing over the number on the scale, I can now look in the mirror and accurately estimate my weight (within 1 lb). Even if I got rid of my scale tomorrow, I’d still know exactly how much I weigh.

Weight has been an important measurement for me since middle school. Like many (if not most) people in our society, I saw weight as being the most significant indicator of health. Thin people were healthy; fat people were not. Obesity was the cause of health issues (heart disease, diabetes, joint pain, etc.).

I have since realized that my assumptions here were false. Sure, obesity is often correlated with health issues, but it is false to assume that those who have a low BMI are automatically healthier. Being a “healthy” weight does not guarantee health; thin people are also plagued by IBS, infertility, cancers, autoimmune conditions, and all manner of other issues (including type 2 diabetes which many people I encounter seem to think is related to weight alone). Obesity may be correlated with ill health, but it is very unlikely to be the root cause.

I saw this first hand. From when I was 19 to when I was 20, I lost more than 60 lbs (from a BMI of 34 to one of 23). I had gone from obese to “normal” in a year, but my health hadn’t really improved. My asthma was better, yes, but not gone, and during the course of the year I’d developed a circulation condition called Raynaud’s Disease. On top of that, my knees had started to hurt (just a little) when I exercised — at the ripe old age of 20. These are relatively minor health issues, so I brushed them off as irrelevant and pushed on to reach my weight loss goals. Looking back, however, I realize that this should have clued me into the fact that 60 lbs were not the only thing standing between me and health.

As I write this today I am approximately 140 lbs. It’s about 10 lbs heavier than my lightest weight and about 5 lbs heavier than the weight at which I feel most healthy. I’m still not able to say I don’t care about these numbers. There’s a voice in my head telling me that if I just lost those 10 (or maybe 15) lbs, that my thighs/calves/stomach/arms will look better. That voice still pushes me to lose that weight in any way possible. I can’t tell you that voice doesn’t exist, but I can tell you that I no longer listen to it. What I am able to say today is that I no longer think of weight as the sole marker of my health, and my goal is not to lose weight but to become optimally healthy.

Maybe in the future I’ll put on muscle and look smaller, even at the same weight, or maybe I’ll put on both weight and muscle, or maybe I’ll stay exactly the same size and weight I am right now. I don’t know how my body will change in the future, but I do know that I will continue to ignore that voice in my head and one day (maybe soon) I’ll throw out that scale entirely.

Getting Lost In the Science: How the Health Industry Is Leaving People Behind

Awhile ago, I read a blog post by Kevin Geary on The Rebooted Body whose title read, “The Health and Fitness Industry Is Dead. (And that Includes You, Paleo).” My first thought on seeing that title was that it would be another off-the-mark criticism (like Paleofantasy or Sally Fallon’s arguments in the WAPF newsletter) of this lifestyle I’ve chosen to adopt. What I found, however, was an incredibly insightful critique with which I almost entirely agree.

In the article, Geary attacks what he terms “high fact diets” — the sort we’ve all been exposed to from all different angles. Everywhere you look in the health and fitness industry, people are throwing “facts” at you. Someone is always trying to tell you what your macronutrient ratio should look like or how long you should exercise and at what intensity. One person might cite a study about how red wine prevents cancer and then another person might cite a study about how any alcohol at all leads to nutrient deficiency. It can get confusing and — more importantly — it can hinder people’s progress towards health.

Focused on facts, facts, and more facts, the proponents of real food diets like Paleo, Primal, Weston A. Price, Clean Eating, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), Perfect Health, and even Raw Food and Vegan get caught up nitpicking about issues of carb and protein sourcing and whether agave nectar is a legitimate form of sweetener. They get so caught up in this that they forget about all the people out there still stuck in an endless cycle of yo-yo dieting and poor health. As Geary states, “This [paleo] revolution failed because it got lost in the science — it got lost correcting the record of mainstream medicine and forgot about developing a way to help people who are alone in the trenches, bruised and muddy from years of trying and failing.”

Now, being a nutrition nerd, I personally love learning about the science behind food choices, but even I confess to being frequently overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. And let’s face it: even if we were somehow able to find the perfect formula that would give everyone in the world perfect health, there would still be people who wouldn’t follow it. Why? Because issues of food choice and fitness are a lot less dependent on facts and information than on psychology. “The new revolution is about the psychology of success,” asserts Geary.

I’m happy to say that this fact has already been recognized in many areas of the paleo community. Bloggers like Stefani Ruper from Paleo for Women, Stacy Toth from Paleo Parents, George Bryant from Civilized Caveman Cooking Creations, Sarah Ballantyne from The Paleo Mom, and Jason Seib from Everyday Paleo have all been talking about issues of psychological motivation, disordered eating, and body image, among others. More people, however, need to join in.

This is an important issue for me because one of the major reasons that I have fully adopted a paleo lifestyle is that it helped (and is continuing to help) me work through a lot of psychological and emotional issues associated with both food and exercise. By talking about these issues, by focusing on psychology rather than nitpick-y facts (like whether or not to eat rice), real food diets like Paleo and many others can affect people’s lives in bigger ways than through health and fitness alone. As Geary states, “[T]he information alone isn’t helping people: it stands no chance when confronting the enemies of addiction, dependency, low self worth, unhealthy body image, low confidence, depression, anxiety, and learned helplessness. It can’t correct the consequences of physical, mental, and emotional abuse, which in varying degrees is far more pervasive than anyone wants to admit.”

It clearly won’t be easy, and there isn’t just one way to address this issue, but what is clear is that it needs to addressed. We need to stop getting lost in the science and reach out to real people who are dealing with issues much bigger than whether or not potatoes are “paleo”.

 

(To read more about this, take a look at the original article on rebootedbody.com/health-fitness-dead, buy Jason Seib’s book The Paleo Coach, and check out The Paleo View and EP Lifestyle and Fitness podcasts).

Everything in Moderation?: How an Elimination Diet Could Change Your Life

When it comes to food and nutrition, the conventional mantra is “everything in moderation.” A cupcake is OK, as long as you’re not having one every day. The occasional trip to McDonald’s isn’t going to do much damage; it’s only “Super Size Me” quantities that will cause you problems. As great a message as “moderation” is for many things — exercise, for instance — there are certain things in life in which moderation is not key. What I am talking about here are foods to which the body is intolerant: when your body can’t handle a certain type of food, the key isn’t moderation — the key is elimination.

While this may seem like a matter of course (why would you eat a food that your body doesn’t tolerate?) in real life, practical situations, it can seem a lot more complex. Perhaps the most prevalent example of this at the moment is gluten. By now most people have at least heard of this “gluten-free fad” that’s becoming more and more popular in Western society. Gluten-free options are available at many restaurants, and gluten-free sections have been added to most supermarket bakeries. Aware as they may be of this phenomenon, however, most people are still unaware of how prevalent an issue gluten is for our society. Even if they recognize that it is necessary for those with Celiac Disease to avoid gluten, they do not know that CD is only one of the many forms of gluten intolerance out there.

For the many people in the world with gluten intolerance, moderation is most certainly not the key. As most people who are gluten intolerant will tell you, even a small bit of gluten (some flour added to gravy, for example), can cause a huge variety of issues including stomach pain, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, mood irregularities, skin rashes, and even sore joints. Moderation in this means feeling sick only sometimes instead of all of the time. Why would someone choose this if they had the option to feel good all the time?

Some people may argue that I’m not giving the whole story here. They may point out that many people don’t have any symptoms of gluten intolerance until after they eliminate it for a while. While they continue to eat gluten in moderation, they are completely fine. Someone put this argument to me just this morning, in fact. I was talking with a woman (let’s call her Amy) whose partner has recently eliminated gluten to relieve the symptoms of his Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He has been having enormous success with it: his symptoms have markedly improved. Amy remarked, however, that she has been reluctant to similarly eliminate wheat because a friend of hers who went gluten-free solely to support a spouse discovered (when she tried to reintroduce gluten) that she was now intolerant to it as well. Amy stated that she didn’t want to eliminate gluten in case it caused her to become gluten intolerant.

The problem with this argument is that elimination diets don’t actually work that way. You do not become intolerant to a food by eliminating it. When you eat a food that your body doesn’t tolerate, your body tries to protect itself by producing antibodies. Sometimes those antibodies don’t work well enough and you get symptoms of intolerance, and sometimes they work too well and start attacking other things too (as in the case of some – or all – autoimmune diseases), but either way, your body is reacting. When you then eliminate that food for a while, your body lets go of some of its natural defences against the damage that food is causing to you, and, therefore, when you reintroduce it, your reaction to the food is much more violent than it was before. This does not mean you have developed an intolerance: it means you have identified one. If Amy truly can tolerate gluten, going gluten-free will not affect her ability to digest it “in moderation.” For someone who is intolerant, however, continuing to consume gluten — even in moderation — will continue to cause problems, whether immediately or over the long term. In these cases, the best course of action to avoid short-term discomfort and long-term health issues is to eliminate it entirely.

While gluten may be a prominent example given the recent popularity of “going gluten-free” and the wealth of new information coming to light about the prevalence of gluten intolerance in our society, this by no means only applies to gluten. There are some foods that are more likely to cause intolerances (see my post on the Paleo Template for more information), any food is capable of causing a reaction. I, for instance, have discovered that I do not tolerate eggs or nuts: both send me running quickly to the washroom :S That reaction is a clear sign that there is something in those foods which is causing damage to my body, and I see no reason to subject myself to that for the sake of “everything in moderation.”

By eliminating that one key thing (or many), you may find relief from any number of symptoms that you may have brushed past (like mood swings, PMS, digestive issues, etc.). At the end of the day, what you choose to eat is up to you, but please do be aware that “everything in moderation” could be causing you some serious issues.

Toilet Troubles and Taboo Topics

In North American society in general today it is considered inappropriate to discuss what one sees in the toilet; what happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom. Some people enjoy toilet humour, sure – along with fart jokes and other crude bits of comedy – but when it comes to honest, legitimate discussion about what goes on in that washroom stall, society as a whole remains tight-lipped, and any deviance from that is generally met by giggles and a chorus of “ew! gross!”

Of course I can see how this may have come about. We are generally conditioned to think of any sort of bodily functions as “gross.” Is this the legacy of some sort of ascetic, puritanical hatred of the corporeal body? The valuation of the mind (and/or soul) over the animal nature of the physical self? The sort of distance and disregard with which we tend to treat our bodily functions indicates that, consciously or not, we (as intellectual beings) are somehow divorced from our bodies and what they are doing.

The fact is, however, that what happens in the toilet is a very important part of every person’s life. We all spend a not insignificant period of time in the washroom everyday. It is a completely natural thing, and, more importantly, it is directly affected by decisions we make in the rest of our lives. Some aspects of this have begun to be more widely discussed (i.e. your hydration level can be seen in the colour of your urine), but for the most part this is still a taboo subject, especially in relation to bowel movements.

The problem, however, with this disregard or distaste for the discussion of bodily functions is when something goes wrong. Theoretically we all know we can talk to our doctor when something goes wrong, and presumably we do when it’s something like pain or there’s blood in anything. But what about when everything’s “normal” but your normal is wrong?

toilet

Maybe you’re wondering how anyone could think their BMs were fine when they actually weren’t. Well, think about it: the only time in most people’s lives when anyone other than themselves is aware of the shape/size/frequency of their bowel movements is in the first years of life, from birth to potty training. Once we can go on our own, we’re pretty much left to our own devices and our own estimations of what’s “normal.” Without being comfortable to speak about it, even among close friends and family, how would that change?

Bottom line, though there is a large and growing percentage of our society’s population with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestion-related diseases. There are many causes and many possible solutions, but two things are key to being able to access those solutions: diagnosis (either formal or informal) and discussion (having access to information about treatment options through doctors, nutritionists, reliable websites, word of mouth, etc.).

In order to do this, we need to start getting used to toilet talk. We need to break this taboo and really get to know what “ideal” in this case might mean.

I’ve linked here to the Mark’s Daily Apple article “In Search of a Good Poop” as a good guide to what ideal bowel movements should look like. I also recommend the book Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfillippo, which not only has an excellent section on what may cause certain types of non-ideal BM, but also recommendations on foods and/or supplements which may be helpful.