Over the decades, I’ve made any number of mistakes. I try to learn from them. I thought I’d share what I’ve learned by applying my training in biology and my experiences as an endurance athlete. I think learning new things is fun. I admit experiences like the time I didn’t make it out of the Grand Canyon because I was too dehydrated wasn’t very pleasant, although I learned some things about taking care of myself.
Let’s start with my biggest mistake relative diet and exercise, plus some punchlines; no suspense. For decades I thought that if you exercised enough, the exercise was much more important than diet for staying healthy and trim. I conveniently ignored that my weight was creeping up over the years, despite running and riding bikes a lot. And the creep was especially noticeable around my middle. I’ve learned in the past year and a half that weight gain in that location indicates I was probably depositing fat on and around my liver, which is a component of “metabolic syndrome”. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by the fat deposited in and on the liver, insulin resistance, elevated blood pressure, leading to risks of diabetes, heart disease, and other problems, maybe including dementia in old age.
I’ve also learned if you try to exercise and don’t eat and drink the right stuff, you’ll still deposit fat in the wrong places. You can look lean and still be at risk for metabolic syndrome. You may even eat more of the wrong foods and gain weight. If you eat right, but don’t exercise, you can get pretty dramatic benefits. If you eat right and exercise well, you get the best results and feel the best. Since I’ve learned to eat better, I’ve lost 10 pounds, without any diets based on calorie restriction, just by shifting what foods I ate. What’s eating right? That can get complicated, but here’s the place to start. Eating and drinking products that put a lot of sugar into your bloodstream quickly elevates the hormone insulin which tells your liver to convert the sugar to fat as quickly as possible. It also tells your fat cells to take up the fat and hold on to what they have. There are a bunch of different kinds of sugars. One called “fructose” is downright nasty because your body doesn’t handle it well, turning it into liver fat right away, precipitating metabolic syndrome. Where is sugar? Soft drinks, sweetened coffee drinks, and (believe it or not) “natural” fruit juices. Anything with table sugar, either cane or beet, is “sucrose”; a glucose and fructose stuck together. Since the 1970s high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has replaced sucrose for a lot of uses, like in soft drinks, but it’s as bad as sucrose (table sugar), maybe even worse. Things made with white, low fiber flours become sugar in your body quickly, although that’s not as bad as table sugar or HFCS . White rice, which has had its fiber stripped off, isn’t so good; brown is better. Carbohydrates (“carbs”) are a form of sugars stuck together. Glucose is the most common sugar in plants, except for fruits that have fructose, too. Glucose wrapped in the fiber of a vegetable or a true whole grain doesn’t kick your insulin into orbit. Fructose eaten with the fiber in actual fruit is OK. Alcohol acts a lot like fructose and glucose, only worse, especially in beer, which also has yeast products that trigger fat production (sigh…). Eating high sugar diets also interferes with your appetite control systems; you tend to eat more calories. Elevated insulin also encourages your body to store fats and proteins you’re eating along with the sugar as fat; think fast food meals.
Fat and oils are what carry the molecules that give food much of its taste. Low fat foods, especially the processed ones, tend to have sugar added so the food doesn’t taste like cardboard. Salt often gets added, too. Humans don’t get fat on high fat diets, assuming it’s the kind of fats we evolved eating (animal fats, nuts, olives, avocados, etc.). Manufactured “trans” fats are the exception–avoid them. Higher fat, higher fiber nutrition plans (not “diets”) fill you up, taste good, and help your body and brain work better. Your body doesn’t know how to count calories. Diets that make you do that are making you lose weight the hard way, mimicking semi-starvation. Do you want to do that for the rest of your life? You need some protein in all diets, since proteins are important building blocks for your body’s structures and systems. So are certain fats; omega 3 and 6, for example. Too much protein isn’t so good. People who write about eating properly instead of starving yourself suggest you count grams of carbohydrates, which is on processed food labels. Gary Taubes suggests you try to stay under 100 grams of carbs/day. Jeff Volek and Steve Phinney advocate under 50 grams per day for “keto-adaptation”. Your body makes any additional glucose it needs by converting fats and proteins into glucose.
Exercise amplifies the effects of a good diet. Not because you “burn” calories, but because exercise, especially vigorous exercise, changes the way your muscles use sugars and fats. Your muscles can actually use fat for most their energy needs except when you’re doing very intense efforts. If you’re not eating properly, your body will conserve energy, still making the bad food into the wrong fat, yet making you lethargic and less active. If you’re eating properly, you tend to be more active and have more energy. Believe it or not, scientists have discovered that being able to exercise vigorously actually encourages your brain to grew new cells. So maybe it makes you smarter.
That’s enough to get you started thinking about your body, brain, what you eat, and what you do. Other pages go into depth on the topics I’ve touched on here.