A Bit About a Bite

While catching up with some news websites yesterday, I stumbled across an article that linked to a two-year-old study about sugar. The TL;DR is that added sugar seems to be bad for one’s health — obesity, diabetes, etc. In fact, there seems to be a growing consensus among researchers (and not the sky-is-falling conspiracy-theorist variety) that high levels of sugar are outright toxic and should be treated like cigarettes: “Sure, one cigarette isn’t going to kill you, but enough of them will, so don’t have the ‘one’ to begin with.”

Fair enough.

Second verse, same as the first, regarding too much alcohol.

References abound, too, to stories about a person’s microbiome, and how the macronutrient profile of what we eat directly affects the flora inside our intestinal tract, which directly affects our overall heath.

Oh, and don’t forget, adequate sleep matters, too. And getting enough exercise, especially cardio.

So the message that some health experts now share is relatively simple: Get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, avoid unnecessary sugar intake, don’t smoke, don’t drink to excess, and get at least a little exercise each week.
Got it? Good. Now gather ’round kiddies, cuz grandpa’s got a story.

Picture it: Grand Rapids, 2018. Since last autumn, as I’ve spent more time at home, I’ve been cooking more. (By more I mean, “I’ve started cooking.”) I’ve also gotten a bit more exercise, smoked fewer cigars, enjoyed comparatively fewer cocktails, and have been paying more attention to my sleep. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Diet matters. In 2005-2006, I lost 110 lbs. through a combination of diet and exercise. But funny thing: My diet in those days focused almost exclusively on calorie restriction, not on macronutrient balance. So I’d eat salads, and lean cuisines, and sometimes a pudding cup or something. I kept it below 1200 calories daily for a long time — but I didn’t change, e.g., my sugar intake. And even though I did, on average, more than 90 minutes of vigorous cardio a day at the time, my weight dropped at a rate of 2.5 lbs./week. Which on one hand is great, but on the other hand, not what it could have been. “I must have a slow metabolism,” I thought. Oh, and at that time, I never drank and never enjoyed a cigar.
Now, however, my diet is much more controlled. I tend to eat the same things, consistently:

  • Breakfast: Steel-cut oats with a light dash of cinnamon and a handful of freshly washed blueberries, plus coffee.
  • Lunch: Spinach salad with a few pinches of an Italian shredded-cheese blend and some shredded, plain chicken breast (the Meijer shredded rotisserie breast boxes, available in the deli, are awesome). Add a tablespoon of light balsamic vinagrette and a glass of low-sodium spicy V8 juice. Plus a Vitamin D3 pill.
  • Dinner: Pan-fried fish (usually salmon, tuna, swordfish or mahi-mahi — stuff that tolerates a cast-iron skillet) and a steamed vegetable, usually broccoli, brussels sprouts or asparagus. Rarely, just once or twice a month, I’ll swap in something like a rare filet. Serve with a tall glass of frosty distilled water.
  • Snacks: Sometimes a 30-gram pack of mixed nuts, sometimes a few tablespoons of 1 percent cottage cheese.

I don’t follow this diet perfectly. And that’s the point: I might go four or five days eating like this, then (as with last Friday) go to a social event where we all eat pizza for dinner and wash it down with chocolate desserts. Increasingly, I feel awful for a day or two after these “splurge” days, because my gut bacteria are adjusting to a better diet.
Remember how I lost 10 pounds a month exercising like a rabid monkey and starving myself? I lost 10 pounds last December by doing almost no exercise and enjoying holiday food, but cutting sugar and alcohol (most of December was dry) and eating well when I ate in. Never felt deprived, not even a little.

Healthy eating isn’t just about one or two lines on the Nutrition Facts label. I am not a nutritionist, so don’t take my word for it, but all of the reading and research I’ve seen in the peer-reviewed literature suggests that a variation on the Mediterranean Diet seems to be optimal. You need a good mix of protein, fats and carbs to thrive; looking just a calories, or just at sodium, or just at carbs, isn’t the right approach. It’s generically recommended that your daily intake include 50 percent carbs, 30 percent fats and 20 percent proteins. Mine is a bit different; I’m at roughly 25 to 30 percent carbs, 35 percent fats and 35 to 40 percent proteins, at between 1,500 and 1,700 calories per day. The point is, I’m looking broadly at all three categories instead of just obsessing about the calorie count. After all, if you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet, eating 2,000 calories of donuts every day probably isn’t the best solution. And while it’s true that the only way to lose weight is by burning more calories than you consume — calorie restriction really does matter! — your gut microbiome flourishes when it’s got a good, healthy balance. And with a flourishing microbiome, your risks of cancer, heart disease, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, and a whole host of other problems seems to reduce significantly.

Cut the sugar. Last week, I brought snacks to our writers’ group meeting. Pączki happened to be on sale, so I bought a four-pack of blueberry ones. And I ate one in the office. And I felt awful. I guess I’m recalibrating to a more low-sugar lifestyle; six months ago, I could have put all four away and wished for a fifth. That I can see such an immediate causal relationship between my feeling of well-being based on something as silly as a Polish pastry says a lot, now that I’m less desensitized to it.

Exercise doesn’t matter how you think it does. I used to exercise to aid weight loss. Now, I exercise less than I should (but more than I used to), but I do it for cardiovascular health. You’re not going to lose weight exercising unless you’re doing insane cardio every day and are strictly cutting calories (which, by the way, isn’t a good combination, he says from experience). Hopping on the bike for a few minutes every other day or so isn’t going to shred a pound, but when I go on a hike, I won’t struggle to keep up with the group, either. In fact, I went on a New Years Day hike with the Fortune Bay Expedition Team this year. When the hike, which proceeded over horse trails near Yankee Springs State Recreational Area, concluded roughly six miles later, I was a the head of the class, not the back. And there were two dozen of us out there that day! So I might still look a bit doughy, but I’m in better shape than I look for my age and weight.

Don’t skimp on sleepFor several months now, I’ve been sleeping with my Apple Watch. I use an app that tracks my sleep. It calculates a “sleep deficit” on a rolling seven-day average. And you know what? When I can keep the deficit to 5 percent or less, I feel great. When it gets above 10 percent, I can absolutely tell. I feel awful, I get crabby, I can’t focus as well. When I only get five or six hours of sleep for three or four days in a row, my performance declines markedly. Now that I have data, I better understand the phenomenon.

Moderate your vices. I’ve smoked fewer cigars in the last few months than I have in many years. Not deliberately, per se; with the more intense cold, and me keeping the back porch wide-open for Ziggy d’Cat, it’s just been too unpleasant. So I’ve not enjoyed cocktails while puffing on a stogie. And I’ve been consuming fewer cocktails in general, as well. I like to sip on things when I write and read, but it turns out that ice water works just as well as a 700-calorie martini. I don’t mind having a couple of cigars per week; CDC estimates suggest a negligible overall risk from puffing (not inhaling) at that volume. But moderation.

I’m more aware than I used to be about the signals my body sends me. I guess I’d rather not get to the point where the only signals it sends are of the “Danger, Will Robinson!” variety.

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