Food Journal

I don't suggest that people count calories or even track with great accuracy the macronutrients they eat.  I believe if you just focus on avoiding the macronutrients that can be a problem for most of us (carbs) and eating good quality, real foods, then the rest will take care of itself.  That has worked pretty well for me in the last several years.  I don't count calories, at all.  I just watch what I eat in terms of avoiding carbohydrates and focusing on real food.

Even with that, when I was learning to eat better three years ago, and when I've talked with others about how they eat and can improve, I see that tracking what you eat with a food journal can be very helpful.  That snapshot of where you are at a point in time can give insight as to how you are doing, allows you to focus on the right balance of food, and can help you learn if changes are needed.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what I typically eat today and compare it to how I used to eat years ago.  In other words, my "before" and "after" snapshots, using food journals.

I didn't actually capture a food journal for before, but it is pretty easy to think about a typical, representative day, and recreate a food journal that's probably pretty accurate.  While I knew this exercise would be pretty educational to demonstrate the use of a food journal for the purpose of this blog post, I was quite surprised by the insight it gave to me about how and why this diet works.

BEFORE

Here is my diary from a typical day of food a few years ago was when I was trying (not always successfully) to follow the "conventional wisdom" guidelines for diet.  

During my typical day years ago I estimate I would consume a total of about 2,900 calories, 43% from carbs, 44% from fat, and 13% from protein.  The protein intake would have been around 96 grams.

I was also consuming roughly the recommended, or slightly higher, calorie intake for someone my size and activity level.  I was consuming around 2,900 calories per day with the recommendation being around 2,700 - 2,900 calories per day.  I also remember that I often felt hungry and that I had to eat something every few hours or suffer shakes, headaches, etc, despite my eating on the high side of the recommended range of calories.

The protein intake was probably right where it should have been based on my current understanding, while the carbohydrate intake is much higher and fat lower than what I understand today to be the best approach for me.  The carb intake is on the low end of the conventional recommendation (about 43% versus the recommended 45-65%) and fat intake is above the conventional recommendation (about 44% versus the recommended 20-35%.)

AFTER

My diary from a typical day of food today is a bit different, to say the least.

During my typical day today I estimate I consume a total of 2,200 calories with a minimum recommendation for someone my size and activity level being around 2,600.  Keep in mind that I do not feel like I'm starving and am almost never hungry despite the lower calorie intake, and can go for hours, or even a day, without feeling like I need to eat or risk having the shakes or headaches.

My protein consumption works out to be exactly the same at 96 grams!  (This was not a setup, it actually came out exactly the same.)  If you ever hear of this being a "high protein" diet or the dangers of a "high protein" diet, realize that this is not, and that is not what I recommend.

I now consume around 76% of my calories from fat (well above "conventional wisdom" of course) and my carbohydrate intake is around 7% (well below "conventional wisdom".)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED

This was a very interesting exercise for me and I've learned the following from it:

  • I ate more calories before, and too many for my size and activity level, so I was having issues controlling my weight.
  • I ate a little less fat in terms of total grams before as I do now (141 grams vs. 187 grams) but not nearly as much difference as I would have thought.
  • I ate many more calories before, and most of the additional calories came from carbohydrate.
  • I ate more calories before, BECAUSE I was eating more carbohydrates and had poor control of glucose/insulin swings and the resulting hunger.  This also lead to most of the other health issues I was having.
  • I may be eating too few calories today, so it might not hurt to consciously increase consumption a bit, but I'll look to add a little more healthy fat instead of carbohydrate.  I'm pretty convinced that these added calories won't lead to increased weight but probably increased energy.  When I had done this previously while I was adapting to this way of eating, I observed that when I increased consumption of fat, my weight decreased even faster.
  • Although not obvious from the food diaries, I eat much better quality food, and much less processed food today.

I don't believe that anyone should constantly calculate these detailed numbers about their food, or constantly count calories, fat, carbs, or anything else.  But occasionally tracking exactly what we're eating can lead to discovery and ensure that we're on the right track.

Processed Food Jumping on the Bandwagon?

It's very difficult to know what the right things are to eat.  It's not any easier when all around us are advertisements, slogans, and claims on and about packaged foods.  Everywhere you look these days among packaged food -- particularly high-carbohydrate packaged food such as cereal, snack bars and the like -- you see protein being advertised as the next great food benefit.  What's with this new trend?  Is this an earnest effort by these food companies to improve our nutrition?

I don't want to claim that these companies are out to harm us, they're not, but their objectives are exactly what they are required to do to benefit their shareholders.  They're out to sell more product.  This is not necessarily the same as your objective to eat healthier food.

I think these big food companies are seeing a trend toward paleo, primal, low carb diets and they want to jump on the bandwagon.  But they've got a problem.  If they were really to embrace this approach, they would develop food that was low in carbohydrate and not lower in fat, but not necessarily higher in protein.  If they did that, they'd do two things which aren't in line with their objective to sell more product.

For one, they would scare a large part of their customer base away.  That base is made up of average Americans who are convinced, from years of the low fat mantra, that fat is to be avoided at all cost.  They avoid any mention about reduced carbohydrates, whether or not their new products have reduced carbohydrates or not.  If they mentioned reduced carbohydrate, they fear they would sound like they were suggesting "healthy whole grains" should be avoided.  The only safe thing they can say is that they have more protein.

Another likely reason is fear of stirring the wrath of experts in conventional nutrition who would disparage food that is higher in fat or lower in healthy whole grains.

To those who are trying to understand what to eat and what's good for them, particularly those who are trying to follow a low carbohydrate approach, be cautious about buying into the message from these processed food manufacturers.  High protein is not necessarily the way to go.  You probably are getting enough protein and having more is not going to help you reach your goals.

The list of new Protein-enhanced processed foods I found on a walk through the grocery store;

  • Special K Protein Cinnamon Brown Sugar Crunch Cereal
  • Special K Protein Chocolatey Peanut Butter Granola Snack Bar
  • Special K Dark Chocolate Granola Snack Bar
  • Quaker Select Starts Protein Cranberry Almond Instant Oatmeal
  • Quaker Select Starts Banana Nut Instant Oatmeal
  • Fairlife reduced fat ultra-filtered milk.  (The issues with this product go far beyond the focus on 50% more protein.  The shear idea that milk itself needs to improved is hard to believe.  See this blog post for more at PrimalPastures.com)
  • Rockin' Refuel protein fortified, low fat milk
  • Weightwatchers Frosted Shredded Wheat with Protein
  • Fiber One Coconut Almond Chewy Bars with Protein
  • Nature Valley Mixed Berry Protein Greek Yogurt  Chewy Bar with Naturally Flavored Greek Yogurt Coating
  • Nature Valley Strawberry Greek Yogurt Protein Chewy Bar with Naturally Flavored Greek Yogurt Coating
  • Fiber One Cranberry Almond Protein Cereal
  • Fiber One Maple Brown Sugar Protein Cereal
  • Special K Protein Cereal  (One listing 10g of protein the other with 14g including milk.  Other than that I see no difference -- could this be an experiment on their part?)
  • Cheerios Cinnamon Almond Protein Cereal
  • Cheerios Oats and Honey Protein Cereal

It's interesting that these protein-enhanced packaged foods are almost all foods that are normally high in carbohydrate.  (Cereal, snack bars, etc.)  There's also no mention of them having lower carbohydrate since I suspect they don't.

 

 

 

Calories In = Calories Out

The conventional wisdom, and the mainstream approach to diet and exercise is that you must balance "calories in" with "calories out."  What does that really mean?  I'm going to attempt to answer that from my perspective, and talk about why I think it is more or less true, yet misguided advice.  While calories in may balance calories out, a low carbohydrate approach can take the natural processes that our bodies use and turn them to our advantage.  We can make the process of improving our body composition and improving overall health (usually that also means losing weight) relatively easy and automatic, instead of a tremendous feat of willpower.

The conventional wisdom on diet and exercise can be summed up in the concept that the calories in the food you eat (calories in) is either burned up, or is converted to fat.  When you exercise you burn calories (calories out.)  Part of the “calories out” is your “basal metabolic rate” which is simply the energy your body needs to stay alive, even if you are doing nothing else. The idea is that this simple equation governs whether we gain or lose weight.  If we eat more and don't exercise more, we gain weight.  If we eat less or exercise more, we lose weight.  When put this simply, it’s essentially true, but there are more things going on and our bodies aren't that simple, and how easy it is to hold that equation in balance can depend a lot on what kind of calories you consume.

If we eat a conventional diet, high in carbohydrates and low in fat, we really can affect our body composition by consciously limiting our intake of calories and constantly exercising to burn calories (think “The Biggest Loser”).  If you can do that, you can improve body composition, lose weight, and be fit.  The problem is, you will have to really work at it, you’ll need to have strong willpower.  (Think “The Biggest Loser” again and all the made-for-TV drama as the contestants struggle to stay on the program, driving themselves or being driven to exhaustion, while basically starving.)

ExhaustedExercise.jpg

If we try to limit our food intake, we are fighting our own body’s chemistry and will have a real struggle. The primary reason this happens, is that when we consume carbohydrates, they quickly turn to glucose in the blood.  (See my post on why LCHF diets work.)  As glucose goes up after a meal, it must be removed from the bloodstream since too much is toxic so insulin is secreted. Insulin drives blood glucose back down.  Assuming someone on the standard American diet high in carbohydrates, the constant insulin surges keep the body form having access to burning fat so when blood glucose drops, this signals more hunger which must be countered with sheer willpower.

If we try to hold our “calories in” the same and just try to burn more calories (exercise more) we run into another problem.  Our bodies know we’ve burned a lot of calories.  If we are consuming a high carbohydrate diet, we can’t access our stored body fat because the constant insulin surges cause fat cells to hold on to their fat stores.  This leads to fuel not being available, particularly to the brain which triggers an overwhelming drive to find food.  Unless we have tremendous willpower, we’re going to eat more and cancel out all that work we did to burn more calories.

The worst case of ramping up exercise and forcing ourselves eat less compounds the problem.  And if we're constantly exercising (again, like you see on "The Biggest Loser") you crank up cortisol (the "fight or flight" response) which also triggers the body to hold on stored fat and more hunger.

If we eat a low carbohydrate diet, we still have to eat fewer calories than we burn, more or less, if we want to lose weight.  The advantage with this approach is that without the constant insulin surges, our fat cells are more than happy to provide the energy the body needs, and we don’t experience the drive the eat.  In fact, if we have some fat to lose, our bodies will actually seek ways to burn more of our fat, giving us a tremendous amount of energy.

So we’re not violating some natural law that calories in equal calories out.  We’re not cheating the system.  We’re leveraging the body’s natural systems to our advantage.  Turning from the need for a an almost superhuman feat of willpower, to an almost effortless, automatic, and quite natural process.

How I got here, pt. 1

where this started

My story starts back in the mid-90s.  This was a time when you learned things from things called books that were made out of paper.  (Strange concept these days.)  The Internet was getting started, but was not yet the go-to place where people got information.  That meant that: 1. Information was harder to come by. 2. It was difficult to get a broad range of views on topics.

I was reasonably healthy but high blood pressure was looming due to family history, I was starting to gain a bit of weight and didn't really have a ton of energy.  What I learned was that: 1. The key way to health and weight control was exercise -- aerobic, to build muscle which burns more calories even at rest than fat.  2. You have to avoid fat, eat lots of complex carbohydrates, vegetables and fruit.  3. You need to watch your calories and eat less than you burn through exercise, etc. if you want to lose weight.

Much of what I learned and believed can be summarized in a couple books that made perfect sense to me, particularly in the vacuum of other information sources.  They were "Fit or Fat" and "The Fit or Fat Target Diet." by Covert Bailey.

 

a long spiral down

This low fat, high exercise approach worked fairly well for me, on and off at least.  The "on" was when I was really regularly exercising.  The "off" was at all other times.  When I started that, I was getting into road cycling -- typically some pretty long rides like centuries or half-centuries.  Cycling is an excellent calorie burning activity.  For one thing, for me, it is an activity that I can do for extended periods of time because you are moving fast and able to avoid boredom.  Cycling burns a lot of energy.  An hour ride burns around 500 calories.  A half-century burns around 2000-3000 calories (almost double an average day) and a century burns around 4000-5000 calories.

For various reasons, I got out of cycling and then only the intermittent exercise I would do (stationary bike, treadmill, some weightlifting) would keep me at any level of fitness, and allow me to keep weight off.

Simultaneously, and not coincidentally, other health markers declined.  Most importantly,  my blood pressure gradually increased being "borderline high" for a number of years, despite avoiding sodium and largely following the low fat guidance, finally spiking at a somewhat "scary high" level, meaning that I now had to get on medication.  I was daily taking a combined beta blocker and diuretic.   It did indeed control my blood pressure.  Of course, as with most modern medications, it also brought side effects.  Initially I experienced some tiredness, but this wasn't bad, it was more a feeling of relaxation that eventually went away.  Worse though, after several years on the medication, I discovered that my potassium levels were seriously low.  So, I started taking a prescription potassium supplement, eventually taking a very large does just to keep my serum potassium levels reasonable.  I was getting regular heartburn which I thought was probably due to the potassium, but as you'll soon see had nothing to do with that.

Over the years, while my blood pressure stayed fairly stable, other, not-so-positive things were happening.  I was beginning to get arthritis symptoms, particularly in my hands.  The heartburn continued and gradually got more frequent.  (I was taking Prevacid almost daily and sometimes had to take courses of Prilosec.)  My doctor wasn't happy with my cholesterol numbers (he was of course focused on total and LDL cholesterol but my triglycerides were also above normal.)  I had started to take fish oil for a few years and that had helped my arthritis symptoms somewhat and actually brought my HDL numbers just into the normal range.  My blood glucose numbers were getting worse, to the point I was considered pre-diabetic.

Less quantitative, but easily important things were happening as well.  I was getting less and less able to even think about doing what I thought would make me healthier.  While I still tried to eat what I thought was healthy, I would give into temptation more and more when those cookies were sitting out at a business meeting, or having an evening snack that I knew I didn’t need. I would also think about exercising but seldom would I have the energy to start, or if I started would I have the energy to keep it up.  I got to the point that I was starting to resign myself that I was too old to really change my health or fitness level significantly, and figured I would continue to gain weight, would continue to take prescription medications the rest of my life (and add to those that I was already taking.)  I thought this was just an expected part of the aging process and without some super-human effort, which I didn’t feel I had in me, was impossible to change.

There was quite a bit of buzz about low carb several years back, even to the point that restaurants were offering lettuce-wraps etc, I never paid much attention or thought that these people were missing the point that the problem wasn’t the bun or the bread but the fat in the sandwich that was being lettuce-wrapped.

How things changed ...

I welcome your feedback!

How I got here, pt. 2

a bit of an epiphany

OK, epiphany might be a little melodramatic, but I can actually remember the specific time when I thought; “If this is true, this could be the way I could get healthier and get off of my regular prescription medication.”  But before I describe this, a little more background.

Going back to my previous learning on nutrition and health from Covert Bailey, I remember he cautioned strongly against very low carb (aka, Adkins-style) diets.  His warning, among other things, was that they were essentially starvation diets that had extreme rebound (weight gain) effects should you ever stray off of them.  

With that in mind, my re-education began when a friend of mine was surprisingly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  He told me that he was going to be going on a low carb diet of some sort to help control his blood sugar.  This brought back the warnings that I remembered from the “Fit or Fat” books and remember actually cautioning him that I had heard that these low carb diets could get you into trouble, particularly if you ever went off of them.

I also heard a couple other comments from various places about low carb diets, etc, but never paid them much attention.  I thought I knew the right path to health and weight control and that was the conventional wisdom of low fat, eating lots of healthy whole grains, and plenty of exercise.

What brought this epiphany into focus was a podcast on internet security, of all things.  I regularly listen to a number podcasts, particularly when I’m in the car. They are mostly various technology podcasts, but include “Car Talk” from NPR, (and today a number of health podcasts.)  One I’ve listed to for years is “Security Now,” with Steve Gibson and Leo LaPorte.  During an episode in May, 2012, Steve made reference to something that had “changed his life forever” with respect to health and that they were going to do a special episode (since it had nothing to do with security) soon.  Intrigued, I made sure I listened to that episode which ended up in two parts.  (Part I, Part II)

Steve Gibson, for those that don’t know, is an ultimate geek that researches things to death and really digs into the science of what interests him.  I listened to what he talked about -- the concept of ketosis brought on by a very low carbohydrate diet and was very intrigued.  While listening to this podcast is when I had my “epiphany,” 

 

the process of change

Being the geek that I am, while all of what I heard made perfect sense, I had to do some research for myself.  For the next several weeks, I read books, blogs and did other internet research and learned what I could about this concept.  I finally decided to start, actually a joint decision with my wife who also wanted to try it.  We started rather suddenly one weekend after going to a couple health food stores reading labels and browsing to see what we could eat.  That was followed a week or so later with a major purging of carbs from the house.  About a week into eating this way, I experienced about a day of feeling pretty weak and with a pretty bad headache. (This is a normal process as your body adjusts to burning fat once again after a lifetime of being dependent on the glucose that comes for carbs.)  After that my energy returned to normal, and started exceeding the energy I had felt in a very long time.

 

and I continued

It has now been over two years since that time, and I have no intention of ever changing back to the "Standard American Diet" (or SAD) that I used to eat.  After that first week or so of adjustment, I can honestly say that a week hasn't gone by that I  don't stop and think in amazement, how good I feel and how much I love eating this way.  I had heard about how hard it is to not get bored because of the limitation of food choices, etc.  I've actually found it to be quite the opposite.  While the choices at fast food restaurants or with packaged food is quite limited if you're low carb, I've found I can get by with some compromise at just about any restaurant.  I cook at home probably more than I used to but that's a good thing with more fresh and higher quality foods.  There are a lot of foods that I used to avoid because there was "too much fat."  Things like eggs, bacon, eating chicken with the skin on, butter, and steak, (better yet, steak with butter on it.)

It's interesting that "conventional wisdom" says the best way to lose weight and get healthy is to exercise first and foremost.  I know for myself that over two years ago when I was eating the SAD, avoiding fat and eating carbs, I often felt guilty but just didn't feel inspired to exercise for any sustained period.  As soon as I started the low carb approach, I quickly started feeling more energy.  It felt like I just had to keep moving.  (There's good evidence that this is a normal function of metabolism that naturally finds ways to burn energy when you have more than enough fat.  This only works if the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar, and the ensuing insulin response, isn't getting in the way.)

I ended up losing 45 pounds in about 5 months and got right down to the "normal" BMI.  My weight leveled off without consciously changing anything in the quantity I ate.  The natural equilibrium of my body seems to have been restored and I have stayed right around that weight without really trying (except consistently avoiding carbohydrates.)

One of the things that changed significantly for me was heartburn.  I had frequent heartburn (several times a week) before I started eating this way.  I was taking Pepcid often and occasionally had to take Prilosec just to keep it under control.  Since I started low carb, I have had no, that's zero, heartburn.  That's for the two years since I started.  The other thing that completely disappeared was the arthritis that was beginning in my hands.

In a future post, I'll talk about measures of health and how these have changed for me.

I welcome your feedback!