Sunday, May 3, 2015

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Saturday, May 2, 2015


I have a feeling that this post is going to be salty.

So what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say SALT. I wouldn’t blame you if you think I am talking about Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt in the move SALT.

Salt is also that whitish crystal powder we put in our foods and you got to be careful with that thing, right? After all, the conventional wisdom will have us believe that high salt intake is behind heart attacks, hyper tension and high blood pressure. Well, read on.

This salt may be even better than Himalayan sea salt

Before we get into what is salt really, let’s take a historical digression. Nearly every society that has ever existed has had salt as part of its cuisine. Animals lick salty rocks and deposits and we followed the paths created by these animals and we humans settled close to these salt deposits. Salt has always been one of the most sought after commodities in the world, up until very recently.
Or consider these popular quotes which are part of our modern lexicon:
“Are you worth your salt?”
“Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”
Most worthy amongst us are called “salt of the earth”.
Culture and history aside, at a personal level it’s undeniable that an otherwise boring soup or bone broth is rejuvenated with a pinch of salt. It starts to taste better. Notice how we crave salty food if we haven’t had it in a while. It’s an essential tool in the cooking trade.
So how did salt get such a bad rep anyways? 
There were couple of studies done in 70s and 80s and one of them showed how giving 500 g of salt to rats killed them and the legend grew. We can also kill a rat or a human by giving them too much water. We know people who have died in ‘who can have the most water’ competitions. So always remember that it’s the dose which makes the poison. Another reason for salt’s fall from the grace is excessive amount of sodium in our modern processed foods and very little of balancing minerals like potassium. So something needs to be fixed and as usual it’s far easier to put the blame on something like salt (or saturated fat).
Let’s look at the Himalayan sea salt sitting in front of me which looks something like this
Himalayan rock sea salt
First you will notice that it’s pink-ish and not the dead white kind you may be used to. This actually looks like it was part of a salt rock formation. On the wrapper I am informed that this kind of “Pink rock salt is a natural source of over 84 minerals and trace elements including Iodine, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc, Silica and Selenium.”
Let’s check out the typical analysis of this rock salt. Of 1000g, 388gm is sodium and 598 gm is chloride. Then you have 3.6g of sulphur, 1.7g of potassium, 1.45g of calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper and so on and so forth.  
This is the sodium-salt connection and why sodium is loosely thought of as salt in the bag of chippies or Coke. It begs the question: Are sodium and chloride vital to us?
Here are some of benefits of sodium and I quote this from (When Mark has already done the research, it just makes sense to quote one of the Masters)

•Supports the nervous system – both sodium and chloride (also known as sodium chloride, or salt) are necessary for the firing of neurons.

•Regulates blood pressure – keeps it from going too low or (usually) too high.
•Helps maintain acid-base balance and blood volume.
•Supports the function of the adrenal glands which produce dozens of vital hormones, including the stress and sex hormones.
Institute of Medicine recommends 1500mg (around 4g of salt) of sodium for a healthy adult.
Let’s talk about chloride and digestion. As you eat your food and it reaches your gut, your body generates HCL (hydrochloric acid) to create an acidic environment in which enzymes can work to break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates and kill pathogens in our food (how very clever). We are talking about pH levels as low as 1 or 2, which is highly acidic. Now chloride ions in the salt help with generation of HCL. If your stomach can’t generate enough of this acid then you can’t basically extract nutrition out of the food you just ate or kill the bad guys (pathogens) in your food.
I should put in a note here about antacids – to give you acid reflux relief, they supress the creation of  HCL. I speak from person experience when I tell you that be afraid of them and use them extremely rarely. Most of us due to less than optimal diets and excessive use of anti-biotic don’t make enough acid in the first place and so our digestion is poor to begin with. On top of that, conventional wisdom tells us that if you feel an acid reflux you should take an antacid!! We are making a bad situation worse by doing that. It’s like putting water on the fire that is cooking your food. You could eat the best food in the world but if you can’t generate enough acid to digest it, it wouldn’t mean much. Worse, long term use of antacid will prevent the absorption of Vitamin B12 and so you could end up in a very dangerous territory. You have been warned.
I know the ad on TV tells you to follow up your Mexican lunch with an antacid but that’s not normal. If the tacos and nachos are giving you an acid reflux, prudent course of action would be to fix the underlying issue with your digestion and keep off the tacos for a bit.
Time for a bit of biochemistry geek out. If that’s not your thing or you are a bit heartless, skip this paragraph.
There is a phenomenon happening at cellular level called sodium potassium pump. I have tried to capture the essence of it in this photo. What’s shown below is portion of a cell and the pinkie below is a protein channel.

Step 0: You have 3 sodium ions that get sucked into the protein channel and attach themselves to the protein channel. At the bottom right corner you can see an ATP molecule creeping up.
Step 1: One of the phosphate from the ATP is going to provide energy to change the shape of the protein channel and the bottom will close and it will open up from the top.
Step 2: The sodium ions are release outside of the cells and now the protein channel has high affinity for potassium ions.
Step 3: Two potassium ions now get pulled into the protein channel and phosphate ion is still bound to the protein channel. This will again cause a change in the shape of the channel.
Step 4: Once the shape reverts to as it was in Step 0, the phosphate ion is release. Eventually potassium ions will be release and we will be back to Step 0.
Rinse and repeat.
The most important point that I would like you to takeaway from this is: This phenomenon is super critical for our nervous system and we actually know about it and it relies on sodium potassium. What will happen if sodium potassium levels go out of whack? How will that affect this pumping, what will that do to your nervous system? And this is just one of the phenomenon we know about. There are perhaps 100s of other events happening that we don’t even know about. So it’s a bit silly to just say that sodium or salt is bad.
I should also talk about how salt came to my rescue 6 months ago. Unfortunately the topic is not as sexy as talking about skinny jeans and six pack abs.  It’s about pooping. A good poop in the morning is one of the best starts you can get to the day right? It tells you that stuff is moving through the pipes ok and you don’t have toxic stuff sitting in you for 3 days. Invaluable.

Now 6-9 months into my whole foods diet, I started experiencing mild constipation. This was in spite of me eating plenty of plants and salad in both my meals, so fibre was not the issue. I also tried increasing my water intake and that would help some days but not the other. What was really going on was that my whole foods diet is a low carbohydrate diet. Vegetables don’t contribute all that much by way of calories and I also eat very little of processed and sugary food that trigger insulin spikes. Because my insulin is relatively low most of the time, my kidney was dumping sodium and body was shedding excess water. Now like I have already mentioned earlier, sodium is a key electrolyte and low sodium can induce side-effects like light headedness, fatigue, headaches and even constipation. And so I started adding a bit of salt to my water throughout the day and just like that I went back to being awesome in the loo again. I drink normal amount of water and I don’t really buy the ‘we must drink 8 glasses of water everyday’ nonsense. I respect my thirst instincts and so drink appropriate amounts.
 Recently I have also learnt that salt in the morning provides adrenal relief – you get up and your body needs to generate cortisol and enough blood pressure to wake you up from your sleep. Salt helps with generation of adrenal hormone cortisol.  As far as I am concerned, salt is a superstar.

After a  big workout or a long run, you don't need the Gatorade crap or drink excessive amounts of water to hydrate yourself. Moderate amount of water with salt will do the trick.
So you are not a bad person if you like to use some salt, ok?  We are hard wired to seek out salt.
Salt is ubiquitous in the modern processed diet and it’s estimated that Americans consume 10gms of salt per day. However most of it is from the processed food and only the remaining 20% is from discretionary use, like adding it to your food when you cook it. And it’s reasonable to extrapolate that this is true not just for Americans. We are getting too much sodium from processed foods like bread, pasta, noodles, chips and fast foods and little of other minerals so things get out of balance. You wouldn’t think but even sweet tasting 12 ounce Coke has 40mg of sodium in it. Adding Himalayan sea salt to the meal you are cooking at home is nothing like having sodium from the Coke or other processed foods.
Our Palaeolithic diets were low in sodium and you could argue that we don’t need that all that much sodium or salt. But bear in mind that Palaeolithic diets were also high in potassium rich plants. Now we are at an exactly opposite situation with very high sodium and very low potassium (and that’s true for most nutrient minerals) in our diets. So potassium:sodium ratio may be important and that itself may just be an indicator of a healthy diet.  I think it’s downright silly to pin the blame on sodium or salt.
There have been numerous studies in recent times showing the exact opposite – low salt is related with overall increase in mortality. Look at this recent article in nytimes:
1. Use Himalayan natural sea salt and avoid the dead white processed kind.
2. If you are convinced that salt is not the enemy and have upped your salt intake, follow it up with the blood pressure test and don’t just take my word for it.  My last test was normal and I plan to get another test done sometime in next 6 months.
3. Balance salt in your diet with potassium.  Good sources of potassium are green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes (what else do you expect from this superhero starch), potatoes, avocadoes, bananas.
As always, the solution is really simple and it lies in eating whole foods, real foods. Body is infinitely intelligent and when you have a genius working for you, you don’t micro manage their work. Just give it the right input and you will get the right output.



Saturday, April 25, 2015

Food marketing deception

As I was crossing the underground railway pass to get to work, this advertisement for Coke Life caught my eye. This bottle has green colour instead of the iconic Coke red and it promises 33% less sugar and in fact it uses natural sweetness of stevia. I mean, it could be a health drink for all you know, just look at it.

Coke Life...if it's green it must be healthy?

What if I told you it's nothing but regular Coke with a little less sugar. It's basically

I decided to compare regular Coke with Coke Life. Here is a chart showing nutritional information (lack of nutrition I should say) in 330 ml of each.

Classic Coke vs Coke Life

Several important points to note:
1. By default the website shows information for 100 ml. Now seriously, who drinks just 100 ml of Coke?  It doesn’t work like that. So let's be really honest here and let's look at the amount of sugar in a can of Coke or 330 ml. 

2. Regular Coke has 35g of carbs and all of it is sugar. Life Coke has 24.1 g of sugar and 6.9 g of carbs. That’s a bit interesting. So are we talking about an overall carbohydrate load of 31 g? Either ways, we have 35 g vs 24 g sugar and then some 6 g of carbs. This is apparently not sugar but then I cannot imagine this being fibre carbs. So basically instead of getting diabetes by Coke binging  in 10 years, now you can get it in 12 years. 

3. Let’s compare their ingredient list.

So if you cut through the noise, they are the same, cut from the same cloth. Both are equally bad (or equally good some would argue).

So you got to look past the shiny green colour, the low sugar message, the promise of natural sweetness. If it’s sweet, it’s sweet. Period. Especially when it’s this processed. Natural sweetness of stevia or for that matter from any natural source will have the same metabolic effect on your body as the garden variety table sugar. Excessive use of both will make you insulin resistant. Raw honey on the other hand is a different animal altogether and is an enzyme rich food with hundreds of nutrients and minerals.

Coke Zero or Diet Coke should be avoided like a plague. There was a time when I would enjoy a can of Diet Coke each night as I would watch Seinfeld but I digress. The promise of sweetness with actually 0 calories means you will bend the laws of biology and hose yourself with artificial sweeteners - research is showing these are carcinogenic and have a terrible impact on your gut microbiome. I thought I would never say this but if you have to have Coke, just have the regular one and let you body deal with sweetness in a form that it can at least understand.

Few other deceptions used by food marketers are like these

1. Low FAT: These are meant to target fat phobic people. This product is healthy because it's low FAT. Low fat processed cheese, low fat cheese, skimmed milk. They are meant to take the focus away from the fact that they could be loaded with sugar, processed carbs, cooked in refined vegetables oils (and so you are left with  damaged and denatured fat)

Low fat and a bit sea salt, must be good aye?

Whether you love FATs or hate FATs, never ever eat foods that have high fat content in their natural form and have been processed to be low fat like low fat milk or low fat cheese. These Frankenstein foods have been so messed with that they have had their natural occurring fats removed and thus are damaged goods.  The fats in it are damaged and denatured and worse have been replaced with refined and inflammatory vegetable oils. If you avoid fats in general (even in whole foods like avocadoes which I think is a mistake) and generally think of them as evil, don’t mistake low fat foods as the cure. So if you have low fat milk and especially margarine lying around in your home, dump it in the bin.

Don't let 65% less saturated fat fool you, it belongs in the bin not in your stomach.

2. Low carb or low glycaemic: They know that folks like me prefer a lower carbs (and higher fat) diet. So they try to impress us with the promise of low carb chips. It’s even got 8g of protein. Impressed yet?

Let’s dig a little deeper into the nutritional info:
It has 16 g of carbohydrates out of which 3 g is dietary fibre, 160 mg of sodium. But this is not the whole story. Let’s look at the ingredients. 

Scared yet? I don’t know if I am more alarmed about the low fat soy flour or high oleic sunflower seed oil or the white cheddar. And I bet even ingredients don’t tell the full story.
In short, low carb means eating whole foods (vegetables, fruits, fish, fowl, eggs, butter) and not this monstrosity.

3. Gluten free – Food marketers have their finger on the pulse of the market. They have caught onto the gluten free trend. I too try to remain gluten free as far as possible by avoiding gluten free grains especially wheat. It’s tempting to think of gluten-free cakes and cookies as somehow healthy. But make no mistake, junk foods are now just gluten-free junk foods. They are still processed and loaded with sugar and chemicals.
So if you have decided to go gluten free, then ditch the gluten free grains and don’t embrace the gluten free cookies and chips.

It's not junk food, it's gluten free junk food.

4. Low fat and gluten free – Imagine a food product that is gluten free and low fat. Must be good right? Well, I give you …..Coke of course.

Low fat, gluten free.....(infinite sugar)

While we are on the topic of understanding labels, I should mention an important fact about the ingredient list. Did you know that ingredients are listed in the decreasing order of weight or percentage? So the first item in the list is most abundant. Let's compare the ingredient list of 34% Green & Black milk chocolate vs 85% Green & Black dark chocolate

Notice the difference? The raw cane sugar moves from being the number one item in 34% milk chocolate to being the fourth item in 85% dark chocolate. In fact first three items are all cocoa in the 85% dark chocolate.

All said and done, avoid eating  products out of boxes, ones that come with nutrition label and energy charts on the back because they are mostly processed, artificial and so not whole foods. If you see a product with an ingredient that you can't even pronounce, avoid it like plague.

Is everything packaged bad? Well, as always use common sense and  we do have exceptions to this rule :).

We don't say no to the greatest chocolate and awesome butter here.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Many ways to think about food

I often wonder about how we relate to our food. Is it just fuel and calories? Do I have a deeper relationship with my food than just ensuring it's low carb and fat-protein heavy?

Here are a few common and not so common ways to think about the food.

1.       Calories
2.       Macronutrients
3.       How chewy is my food
4.       Colourful
5.       Whole foods vs processed foods
6.       Biological information


Calories – At the first glance, calories sounds like a great way to think about the nature of food when you get interested in health or trying to lose weight. The reason it sticks is because it’s simple and everyone appears to get it. Just read the energy chart and as long as you get X calories in a day and you can burn Y calories in a day and X < Y, you are sorted. This concept is so dumb and so incomplete on so many levels that books have been written about it. 
The reason calories-in-calories-out is dumb is because it’s just restating the first law of thermodynamics or primary school arithmetic. Consider this analogy. Bill Gates is rich because he makes more money than he spends. You see X - Y > 0. Or our team lost the match because opponents scored more points. You are restating the problem in another way without understanding or explaining “the why”. Do you see the stupidity of this system? So, calories-in-calories-out claims that if you want to lose weight, then you should spend more calories that you should eat. At the level of physics, it makes sense. You see emaciated kids who get very little or nothing to eat and they are starving and they sure look like that.  You could also argue that I will only eat 500 calories every day for next 60 days and I will lose weight. Yes, you will but this is impractical and will not work 99.9% of the time for normal people in normal circumstances. You basically won’t have normal levels of energy on a 500 calorie diet and eventually, you wouldn’t have any will power left to carry out this task. On the other hand, let’s talk about all the lean people who appear to eat well. Are they always ensuring a caloric deficit? It’s almost impossible to measure the calories flowing into the system and even harder to measure the calories you are burning. You say, look at my tread mill or fitbit device. In truth we expend most energy on a 24 hour period in activities like sitting or sleeping or basically when you think you are doing nothing, that’s your basal metabolic rate.
Leaving the dumbness aside, this concept is a bit dangerous in my opinion. It sets up a very superficial relationship with the food you eat and is quality agnostic. It doesn’t differentiate between 100 calories from sweet potato vs 100 calories from beer vs 100 calories from steak vs 100 calories from french fries. In this system, there is no difference between a meal of salad and grass fed steak vs meal from a fast food joint as long as they both are giving you 500 calories. It equates junk processed food with natural whole foods. You may want to precisely track calories if you are preparing for the upcoming summer Olympics though. It’s really hard for me to tell the calories in my spinach-avocado-berry smoothie and it doesn’t matter because it nutrient dense and made from whole foods. Calories-in-calories-out is like measuring the quality of your relationship with your spouse in terms of how many times you go out to party.
Macro nutrients – Another popular way to look at our food. Macros come from macronutrients – that is proteins, fat and carbohydrates. The focus here is fuel partitioning. So a person trying to get rid of excess body weight (fat) is recommended a high protein diet and that is why chicken breasts are so popular. We have all seen health-conscious folks having protein shakes.  You see cyclists carrying gels – basically dense and processed carb sources.  You also see schools of low carb high fat (LCHF) and of course low fat is a pretty old fad now. 2 things are still missing here. The awareness of quality of macro-nutrients and hormonal impact of macro-nutrients. If you are trying to lose excess body weight (fat), a high protein diet will work initially but not all proteins are equal and it’s also important to understand what is this high protein doing to my hormones. Does it matter which kind of protein I eat – processed Whey protein vs pastured chicken or pastured eggs? So, they tell a very important story about the nature of the food you are eating but it’s not the full picture. When you combine quality with macronutrients that’s a much better picture.

The 3 amigos. Green for fats and orange for carbs is coincidental :)
Chewy – Sounds a bit odd at first but  it’s an interesting way to think about food. How much would I need to chew the food to get the energy out of it. Saliva has your DNA and food digestive enzymes. As you chew, the food mixes with your DNA and becomes self, a part of you. Chewing also sends a signal to the gut to get ready for incoming food. It’s interesting that starchy foods tend not to be chewy – rice, kumaras\sweet potatoes (which I love just for the record). Processed high-carb foods like chips, cookies and breads require very little chewing, they just melt in your mouth. Vegetables, salads, meats, nuts and seeds definitely require ample chewing. I like to eat food I can chew.
Very chewy
Colourful – It’s impossible to look at a salad of colourful vegetables and fruits and not think of it as healthy. Everyone intuitively understands that. Colourful veggies and fruits represent richness of phytonutrients or plant chemicals. Now unlike vitamins and minerals, they are not essential to keep you alive but they are extremely important to prevent diseases. Look at carrot – you can tell by its colour that it’s rich in beta-carotene which our body can convert to Vitamin A. The redness of tomato comes from Lycopene. Look at blueberry or any berries for that matter. Sometimes I eat a piece of fruit just because it’s got a bright colour (and hopefully that’s not poison). If anything, I am a bit guilty of not making my salad colourful enough.

Whole foods – I love the concept of whole foods. Doug McGuff, the author of Body by Science was asked about what kinds of food does he eat and what he said has stayed with me. He talked about eating foods that lie in a straight line between us and the sun. So get sunlight (vitamin D). Eat plants and vegetables for the same reason. And eat animals that eats those plants. So simple. Basically you can eat all the veggies and salad, fruits, meats, nuts, seeds, eggs etc. Another way to think about whole foods is if someone from 50000 years ago recognize it as food. If you eat from a variety of whole food sources, you are eating a nutrient dense diet by default and your body, brain and cells will thrive. It’s natural food and your body exactly knows what to do with it.  You don’t really need to know the science and bio-chemistry or hormones or what goes on inside our cells or how to regenerate the mitochondria just like you don’t need to know what’s under the hood of your car. It’s like black-box testing in computer science. You put in good stuff (input) and you get the right output. Use food as medicine and exercise as preventative medicine.
 Quality matters here too and it will be wise to ensure the quality of meat you eat. Pastured eggs, pastured chicken, grass fed lamb, grass fed beef. I have no doubt that gaining optimum health on a diet of whole foods will work for 99% of the people. You can of course tweak the macro nutrients to achieve your fitness goals whether it’s gaining more muscle (up the proteins) or losing weight (high fat or low fat depending on who you believe) or managing pre-diabetes (low carb).
Yet you don’t often hear this message because nobody stands to make money off broccoli, kale and steak. Or at least not the 700% profit you can make off the chips, cookies and cereals.

Whole foods

Biological Information – I remember Arnold the Terminator talking to Tim Ferris about meditation and mindfulness. As Arnie would work on his biceps, he could feel himself in his biceps. Awesome right? That he could relate to his workout at such a deep level. So we put food into our mouth and it sustains us and hopefully we thrive and not just survive. But if you look under the covers as to what’s going on – the DNA or bio chemical information in what you put into your mouth is going to interact with your SELF DNA and eventually it will be absorbed by you. At the end of the day, all food is bio chemical information for your body. It prompts the body to behave accordingly by release right hormones and digestive enzymes to make this outside food part of us. 

If we were just heat engines, calories would suffice. We are bio chemical electro magnetic beings.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Why I don't believe in cheat meals or cheat days

Couple of days ago, the day before Good Friday to be precise a normally quiet lady at work remarked as I was preparing my typical lunch salad that she has never seen anyone eat so clean and healthy. And she’s never seen me having the occasional doughnuts or muffins.  I quote “It’s really very impressive, I have never seen anyone eat such healthy food, every single day.” I thanked her for the compliment and this post is not to toot my own horn.  2 days later it’s made me ask a bunch of questions about my lunch and food in general and I believe this enquiry will be helpful to the readers of this post. How do I manage to eat clean and nutrient-dense lunch every day? For that matter, how do I manage to eat clean nearly all the time? Less than 2 years ago, I used to love high-sugar processes foods and junk-foods. There is something that has definitely shifted?

Let’s talk about my typical office lunch which invariably gets health approval from all and sundry. If I could get a cent for every time I heard the world ‘healthy’ to describe my lunch.

So as the photo suggests, it’s typically mixed salad leaves, some colourful vegetables like purple cabbage, carrot, a big avocado. If I want a bit more colour, I will put half a beetroot. Sometimes I put goat milk feta.  So the foundation of salad is plants based. On this I will add meat of some sort: canned wild caught salmon or canned sardines or organic chicken livers or lamb curry or wild goat or steak cut into pieces. I will sprinkle some sunflower seeds and pumpkin kernels and maybe a spoon of MCT oil – this is my dressing. I absolutely don’t use any commercial salad dressing. So, all in all, I am getting a lot of plants and proteins and fat into the first of my 2 meals of the day. More importantly, I am getting a lot of live enzymes. Everyone intuitively knows this is a healthy meal (well, some may frown upon the meat), yet most find it very hard to eat this even once a week let alone every single day.

How have I managed to be so consistent day in and day out with my lunch? It’s not the tastiest lunch in the world you know. It also takes a bit of time to eat it unlike a sandwich or a scone or a quiche which passes off as lunch these days. Is it just my will power? Is it just that I feel awesome about how the food makes me feel and so I keep eating the same way? That’s a bit chicken and egg.

One of the secrets to my success with eating healthily has been has been my dislike for the concept of “cheat days”. I don’t think of my meal as something I only need to do for 5 days a week and then for 2 days of the week, anything goes in the name of lunch. Of course I crave variety and I almost never have salad again in the night. The weekend lunches again are a bit different from the 5 weekday lunches, but they are again whole food based as well. I don’t cheat over the weekends or I don’t treat the whole day as a cheat day. ‘Cheat days’ is a slippery slope. Human beings have a tendency to get away with as much as they can. If we can get away with less sleep, we will keep doing it. If we can get away with eating ice cream every night without any apparent health impact, we will keep doing it. In fact, before you know it, you will start doing it twice a week and worse. In my opinion, ‘Cheat days’ takes the control away from you and eventually weakens your will power overtime. It may sound a bit subtle but it breeds the notion that what you day 5 days a week is a bit different from what you do other 2 days of the week.

So, what’s the alternative? What are we supposed to do?

I am definitely an 80/20 guy. In food terms it could mean that you eat well 80% of the time and 20% of the time, you cut yourself some slack. My 80/20 is more like 95/5. The important point is that I don’t considering eating less than optimal cheating or failure. It is what it is. I am aware of the choice I am making and I understand the impact of my choice. Orange cake with cream on the side or kumara fries are two of my weaknesses. I don’t indulge in them 95% of the time but when we are out by the waterfront and it’s a clear day, I find myself ordering a slice of orange cake. I am aware of the consequences – it’s going to raise my blood sugar, turn of fat burning, I am getting some gluten too. But like I have often said and I don’t know who to credit for this quote ‘Eat the most restrictive diet you can enjoy, not the most restrictive diet you can tolerate.’  So eat the damn slice of cake or pizza and get done with it and don’t look back or worry about it. Here is another trick I have learnt – often we only need one quarter or half of what you are pining to eat to get over the craving. You don’t need to eat the entire pizza or entire doughnut – you will find that half or even quarter of doughnut would get you over the sugar crave or the junk-food delight.

To cake or not to cake? If a little slice will help you eat the salad...

 Food is not just about nutrient density. Sure it fuels our body and brain and provides vitality to our cells. But we have also have emotional and spiritual connection to the food we eat. There is a reason why some foods are called comfort foods. Foods your mother made lovingly for you as a child.  It’s also important to be at peace with the food you are eating. I could give you the best grass fed steak in the world, but if it’s odd with your world view and you don’t want to consume meat, what good is it?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Maasai – What I have learnt from them about paleo and human dieting

I was watching a show called Wildest Africa couple of weeks ago and the episode 3 show cases – Ngorongoro (pronounced as “goron goro”). Ngorongoro conservation area covers 8,292 sq kilometres out of which 100 square miles is occupied by a crater, no kidding. By the time I was done watching this episode, I was in awe of Maasai people that occupy this region and it made me ask a much bigger question about our relationship with food and why humans have been so successful as a species. So bear with me for a few minutes and you will see that what we eat and how we live is an integral part of the environment we live in. Perhaps we need to look at a bit more than a cut and dry way of looking at food as dictated by some diets. Eating only raw fruits and vegetables or eat only fats and proteins may sound like just an imposition on what really should constitute a diet on which you can thrive.
Ngorongoro is a very unique place and one of highlights is Ngorongoro crater. From Wikipedia “The crater, which formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed on itself two to three million years ago, is 610 metres (2,000 feet) deep and its floor covers 260 square kilometres (100 square miles).” So basically it’s a big hole and because of its unique geography, parts of it are forest, parts are open grassland and parts bush land dotted with trees. Words don’t do justice, here is a photo from Wikipedia.

Ngorongoro crater

Maasai who occupy a big area between Kenya and Tanzania, share Ngorongoro with big game animals.  You know, lions, cheetahs, bulls, rhinos, elephants.  Maasai are interestingly herders. They have herds of cattle and goats and you can imagine the relationship between these carnivore animals especially the lions and Maasai. Lions would love to eat their goat and Maasai will have none of it. So Maasai fiercely protect their herd and what I can tell you is that when Maasai men have the spear in their hands, lions have learnt to keep their distance from them.
Maasai and their herd

The rite of passage (used to be) for a young boy to become a man was to kill a lion by himself using nothing but a spear! Even if that sounds like a bit of hyperbole, these guys have been tested for their physical fitness and their strength were considered to be of ‘Olympian’ level. Young men often jump high like this to showcase their strength and agility.

Jumping high, showcasing their strength

400 Maasai men had their blood work done and none of them showed any sign of inflammation or modern chronic diseases like diabetes 2, cardio vascular or coronary issues. In fact, Maasai aren’t any different from other modern hunter-gatherer tribes in this aspect. None of them seem to suffer from diseases of civilisation and they all eat varying ratio of macro-nutrients. Let's talk about Maasai diet. A lot of region Maasai occupy is arid and it's pretty amazing how they manage to thrive so well on seemingly so little. Remember they are herders and they have relied heavily on their herd to meet their food and nutritional requirements. Raw milk, raw meat and raw blood. They even mix and blood and milk. Yep, you heard that right. This is what used to be the bulk of their diet. So as you can see, they get plenty of fat and proteins in their diet.

Which also brings me to the point that humans are obligated omnivores and this is a big reason why we have been so successful as a species. Wherever we have lived and whatever environment has offered, we have adapted to that and thrived on it. Humans haven’t insisted on eating only grass and vegetables and fruits (notice we don’t exactly have 4-cylinder stomach like cows) or being exclusive carnivores. If push comes to shove, we can live for long times as exclusive herbivores or exclusive carnivores. Now imagine a group of scientists walking up to Maasai and telling them that they have it all wrong. They should actually only be eating vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and absolutely no animals fat and proteins. Or they should be on a low-carb diet - that is eat high fat and moderate protein and they may want to take it easy on tubers.  If I ever get a chance to spend time with Maasai I will just shut up and watch and learn from them.

Having said that, I don’t mean to say that we should eat whatever we want. In fact, you and I live a lifestyle that is nothing like Maasai. That is fortunate and unfortunate. We live in a made up environment which provides us with unlimited variety of foods – whole foods, junk foods, processed foods, toxic foods. We are encouraged by corporations to take the short cut and eat whatever takes the shortest time.  Maasai have lately incorporated Maize in their diet and they appear to be doing fine. But I absolutely don’t intend to start eating grains again. If you can live like Maasai, you can eat like Maasai. We on the other hand have to be careful about what we put in our mouths and what we do with our bodies. If you don’t think you are thriving, have a good look at your diet, sleep, stress and physical activity levels. For me, I have come to realize that I am thriving on a diet of whole foods – lots of plants – salads and vegetables, moderate high-quality meat, nuts and seeds. I like to eat as much whole foods as I can enjoy and no more. High quality dark chocolate, high quality and slightly processed oils and coffee also have a place in my diet. And ‘thriving’ is not an abstract concept or just a feeling. You can get the blood work done and know for sure that your bio markers confirm the awesome feeling. 

If you have specific issues you need to work with, LowCarbHighFat (LCHF) or high fat vegan or low fat is what you may need. I think it’s a big mistake to think that everybody in the world should convert to paleo or veganism or what have you. Basically eat from a list of foods and no more or no less. That doesn’t make sense because had we been like that, human species would have been extinct long ago.