Monthly Archives: February 2013

Pale-ish

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I started this month by following Paleo as Cordain has spelled it out.  That lasted all of two days.  Everything I ate was bland, I was hungry, and I wasn’t being a very nice person.  Then, I decided to modify it in the ways that other people have or in ways that made it tolerable for me.

Here are the things I eat that don’t qualify as Paleo:

Potatoes – I don’t see any legitimate reason not to eat them, though I’ve only eaten them twice in the last two weeks.
Quinoa- This is frowned upon in the Paleo Diet community, but I need carbohydrates, and eating yams and yucca are just not going to cut it. If you didn’t see Matt the Archaeologist’s comment on my last post, here’s what he has to say about quinoa and amaranth:

“Ok so addmitedly this subject gets me a bit riled up, but when I read that this diet does not allow amaranth or quinoa I think I may have burst a few blood vessels. Here’s the reason: in the southwestern united states the remains of cheno-ams are found in many preagricultural archaeological sites, in fact they are one of the few types of plants that nearly all theses sites across an area covering almost a half of the united states share in common. Amaranth and quinoa are both members of this family and while now days we generally eat larger domesticated varieties they are essentially the same as their smaller wild relatives. Also why forbid honey which Is known to be eaten (albeit sparingly) in modern nonagricultural societies and at the same time allow any kind of processed oils which most nonagricultural societies both past and present had/have no acces to? I would like to propose a revision to the paleo diet that reflects what I beleive to be the views of the archaeological and ethnobotanical communities concerning nonagricultural subsistence, and it goes something like this: eat everything in your environment that is in any way edible except those things which are forbidden by your cultural or spiritual beliefs.
If you want to know LOTS more about what people have been eating throughout history in the wester half of north America (spoiler: it’s lots of things the paleo diet doesn’t allow) check out ‘People and Plants in Ancient Western North America’ edited by Paul Minnis, or for a bit of lighter reading check out ‘gathering the desert’ by Gary Paul Nabhan.”

Honey- I read a paper about pre-agricultural diets (Eaton SB. The ancestral human diet: what was it and should it be used as a paradigm for contemporary nutrition? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 2006. Let me know if you’d like to read this, and I’ll email you a PDF version), and Eaton says that honey was likely consumed in small quantities (evidence based claim), much like Matt the Archaeologist said, so I add just a smidge to my coffee every day.
Coffee and alcohol- Can’t stop, won’t stop.  I actually don’t see anyone on Paleo cutting these out, but coffee is a bean, which means it shouldn’t be included in Paleo.  Either no one seems to care or there’s some reason I don’t know about that allows coffee consumption. I am a coffee addict, and I used to drink it in the morning (always) and in the afternoon (~3-4x/week).  I’ve switched the afternoon habit to green tea, which is probably for the best. And I still love the occasional glass of wine or a pint of beer.
Salt- I don’t use much salt, but food is BORING without it.  Plus, every nerve impulse and muscular contraction in your body requires sodium, so I’m eating it…in very small quantities.
Dried fruit- This isn’t completely restricted on Paleo, but recommended in small quantities.  I eat a lot of it.

The Paleo rules I follow:

Grass fed beef; free range, organic poultry; fresh caught fish. This is not cheap.
Organic eggs from free range chickens. Also not cheap.
No dairy
No legumes (you have no idea how hard this is for me)
No soy, soy products, etc.  This includes most chocolate, as most of it contains soy lecithin
Lots of fresh fruits and veggies
No grains
No processed foods

A Paleo Caitlin is a Crappy Caitlin
It’s sort of difficult to describe how following the Paleo Diet makes me feel.  The best way to say it, in short, is that I hate it. Yes, I mean I hate it.  Most days, I’d like to trade lives with this little girl, though that would be extremely unfair to her:

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The first week was the hardest.  I felt depleted and like I was running on fumes.  My stomach hurt, I couldn’t become and/or remain full, and everything I ate felt boring and like a chore.  Everything I eat, with the exception of fruit and nuts, has to be prepared in some way.  No more hummus and crackers.  No freshly made tortillas with peanut butter and a banana. No Greek yogurt.  No Babybel cheese. But, instead, so so so so much cooking…and for a result that I don’t really even like that much. I always thought that I didn’t like meat that much for a few reasons.

1) Meat requires planning. It’s usually frozen because I don’t eat it often enough to keep it fresh, so I have to remember to take it out in the morning and thaw it.

2) Cross-contamination.  You have to pay attention more when you prepare meat. Don’t touch stuff after you’ve touched meat without washing your hands, cut your vegetables first or you’ll have to wash the knife/cutting board or use two knives/cutting boards, and then you have to wash both of them.

3) Cooking to the appropriate level of done-ness. Undercook –> food poisoning. Overcook –> jerky. I haven’t mastered this not so fine line that other people don’t seem to struggle with.  I understand vegetables and beans much better in this way.

These may seem like silly reasons to not cook meat, but they have always been very real barriers for me.  Now that I cook meat ALL THE TIME, I have been reminded that these things still bug me, but more importantly, I just really don’t like to eat meat that much. I’m also not very good at cooking animals, with the exception of chicken and salmon.

Breakfast and the Carbohydrate Conundrum
I realized my main problem is not enough carbs (go figure).  Before this month, my breakfast every morning was toasted cinnamon swirl bread (Trader Joe’s. Check it out. It’s awesome.) with a nut butter of sorts and a piece of fruit: carb heavy.  When I switched to Paleo, I sautéed a bunch of veggies (shaved sweet potato, kale, broccoli, bell pepper) and baked it with some eggs.  Every morning I would just cut out a piece of that egg bake for breakfast.  I think part of the reason my stomach hurt so much was all the eggs, not meat. It’s recommended to eat no more than 7 eggs/wk, and I ate over a dozen in week one.  I’ve cooled it on the eggs, and my stomach feels better…maybe I have a minor digestive allergy to eggs. Maybe I’m just not supposed to eat that many.

This week I made a week’s worth of quinoa “oatmeal” on Sunday.  I cooked it with almond milk instead of water, added pumpkin pie spice, pumpkin puree, a little maple syrup, and a diced apple to the mix.  I eat some of that every morning, and it’s incredible how much better I feel… because your body needs carbs to function.

Exercising and the Carbohydrate Conundrum
I decided to go for a run last Saturday. I haven’t been going much, and I want to get back into it because it’s a good way for me to clear my mind.  I felt fine during my run, but about an hour later, I crashed, and I crashed hard.  I felt exhausted, like I hadn’t slept in about 40 hours.   All of my muscles ached.  I would eat something (like fruit, because I was too tired to cook anything) and feel better for about an hour until I crashed again.  I wrote in my journal “Feeling tired, frustrated, irritable, confused, can’t focus…” My roommate told me I was “off,” which is probably a nice way of saying that I was acting crazy.  It’s clear that my glycogen stores were completely depleted, and running was a bad idea.  How do people follow Paleo and exercise? What are the secrets? Because I honestly have no idea how anyone could do it.

My Mood and the Carbohydrate Conundrum
This is a pretty personal thing to write about – to expose the inner workings of my now crazy brain is a sensitive subject, but maybe other people have experienced it too.  If there are people who see me regularly and think that I haven’t been myself lately, maybe this will explain some of it.  So, let’s talk about it.

Like I said, I feel exhausted, irritable, and frustrated a lot of the time.  My thinking isn’t as methodical as usual, and I find that I speak/text/write without considering what I’m actually saying.  I’m more reactionary than I usually am, and I have a very short fuse.  I also feel like I don’t have much control over my emotions.  On Saturday, the hellish day, I started crying for no reason.  Maybe some reason – I was trying to work on my dissertation and I kept writing sentences that didn’t make sense.  Then I’d lose track of what I was doing.  Then I’d stare at my computer screen for 5 minutes without forming complete thoughts, and I just started crying.  Crying is not the right response to that situation.  Eating a snack is. Tried it, didn’t work.  Exercising is a solution. Oh wait. That caused the problem.  Doing something else is a solution, but I was too tired to think of anything to do and the TV was boring me.  Then I just gave up and took a nap…like a child.

Granted, my life is stressful right now (developing a scientific manuscript, writing a dissertation, preparing for an out-of-state move for the first time in my life, amongst the normal day-to-day responsibilities), so maybe it’s not fair to blame it all on the diet.  But all of that stuff was going on in January too, and there hasn’t been a point in my life for the last 4 years that would be considered less stressful than what I’m doing now.  I have just always been pretty good at dealing with it.  Now, it seems that my ability to cope with stress is significantly diminished.  I blame this on my lack of carbohydrate intake (remember: the brain’s metabolic substrate of choice is glucose).  The days that I focus on eating more carbs (usually quinoa “oatmeal” for breakfast, 3-4 servings of fruit for snacks, starchy vegetables like squash at dinner), I feel a lot better and I’m focused and productive throughout the day.  But seriously, I hate having to plan my food intake so much to just feel OK.

In Summary

I get headaches ~5x/week.  I used to get them maybe once a month.  I’m tired. I’m tired of having to cook everything I eat. I don’t like eating meat this much. I haven’t cooked one meal yet that, afterwards, I thought to myself, “mmm mmmm, that was delicious.” I had that with almost every single meal I ate as a vegan. I really only look forward to the 3 non-Paleo meals/week that I can eat. But I’m not going to give up on Paleo yet.  As long as I focus on carbs (particularly on the days I work out), I’m fine and not nearly as crazy as the days that I don’t.

I genuinely have so much respect for anyone who can successfully and happily follow this diet.  Are we built differently in that I inherently need more carbohydrates to function? Are you just better at this than me? Are you less of a cry baby than me? It’s all very difficult to tease out.

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Extreme Diets: Paleo Edition

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wheres-the-food

I’ve been dreading writing this post since I came up with the idea for this whole year long experiment.  I have so much to say. Once upon a time, a friend asked me my opinion, and I said, in a tone dripping with condescension, “I’m about as on board with Paleo as I am with being vegan.”  ….oh, snap. Who knows.  Maybe February 2013 will show me the error of my ways, and my comment, originally designed with sarcasm, will actually ring true, and I’ll be way into Paleo. I doubt it, but weirder things have happened.

First, some background on Paleo.  The Paleo Diet was created by Loren Cordain, PhD, and the premise of it is to revert back to the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors (from 2.3 million to 10,000 years ago), before agrarian societies were developed.

The Paleo Diet focuses on eating the following foods:

  • lean, naturally raised meats (i.e. grass fed beef, free range poultry, wild fish)
  • fresh fruits (not dried) and vegetables
  • nuts (not peanuts, which are actually legumes) and seeds
  • and minimally processed oils (namely, extra virgin olive, avocado, walnut, macadamia nut, flaxseed, and almond oils)

One great thing about Paleo is the “85/15” rule, which means that 85% of the time you follow the diet, and 15% of the time you get to cheat.  I actually think this is something that should be practiced with all diets as it reduces psychological burnout and allows you to have those little splurges without feeling like you’ve totally fallen off the diet wagon.

But back to the rules.  When I first visited ThePaleoDiet.com, my initial reaction was something along the lines of, “You’ve got to be ****ing kidding me.”  But the more I started looking at Paleo blogs and recipes, I opened up to it a bit more.  Then, my brother gave me The Paleo Diet Cookbook, and I went back to my original mindset because I realized that nearly all the recipes I was seeing aren’t truly “Paleo,” according to the way Cordain has defined it.
Here’s a sampling of things you can’t eat if you were going to do all-out Paleo:

  • Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, butter
  • Cereal grains: wheat, corn, rice, rye, barley, oats
  • Cereal-grainlike seeds: amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa
  • Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, all beans, peanuts, soy products (edamame, miso, tofu, etc)
  • Starchy tubers: Potatoes and all potato products
  • Vinegar and all vinegar containing products
  • Salt: essentially everything processed including most condiments, salad dressings, deli meats, bacon, pickles, virtually all canned meat/fish, and no adding salt to any foods
  • Fatty meats: pork ribs, bacon, sausage, beef ribs, poultry legs, T-bone steaks, etc.
  • Soft drinks and fruit juices
  • Sweets: candy, sugar, honey, maple syrup

Cordain states that the pattern of Western eating, characterized by refined carbohydrates, fats, and sugars; high in salt; and high in fatty meats and processed foods has led to the epidemics of obesity and metabolic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Yes. Absolutely.  There is no denying that.  However, these are diseases of the 20th and 21st centuries, not the last 10,000 years, and are really a result of our current highly-palatable, nutrient depleted food landscape compounded by a marked reduction in physical activity.

Now, I’ll go into my issues with Paleo.  I’m a hyper-analytical person, often to a fault.  This makes it borderline exhausting to be inside my brain (and I would know. I’m there most of the time).  On the plus side, it makes a life in the sciences extremely appealing.  Some may say that I’m missing the point of Paleo and I’m being too nit-picky.  That may be true, but I believe that if people are going to follow a diet, there should be evidence to back up said diet.

  • Cordain claims that if we follow Paleo, we will be eating the way Mother Nature intended us to eat.  This is a HUGE issue for me because we just simply do not have sound evidence that everything Paleo eliminates is bad for us.  Yes, our processed food intake is way too high in this country, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that foods like whole grains and lentils are going to hurt you, provided you don’t have an allergy/sensitivity/intolerance to them.
  • My approach to science and nutrition is that you need both epidemiological AND mechanistic evidence to back up any theory.  If legumes, whole grains, potatoes, etc. were so “poisonous” (as many blogs claim they are), how has mankind survived this long? Shouldn’t we have died off thousands of years ago if all these foods were causing such irreparable harm?
  • Also, mankind began to thrive with the advent of agriculture.  Agriculture allows us to get lots of calories and nutrients by growing our own food without expending so many calories on searching for food.  (We have since abused that skill, but that’s not the point of this discussion.
  • Paleolithic people were eating for survival, not for proper nutrition or joy, which is why I eat food.
  • We do not know exactly what the Paleolithic peoples were eating.  This is a huge point of contention for evolutionary biologists and archaeologists.  My friend Matt, an archaeologist, gets pretty heated when we talk about Paleo.  He was telling me that Paleolithic people living in the Andes mountains were eating all types of potatoes, while there is evidence that an important staple in the Middle Eastern Paleolithic people’s diets were chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans).  I haven’t cross-referenced his information, but I really haven’t had time because I’ve been busy looking up too many other Paleo claims.  And, you know, writing a dissertation.
  • Why sweet potatoes, but not white potatoes? Cordain justifies this by saying that white potatoes have a high glycemic index, and thus aren’t allowed.  Two things:
    1) This seems completely arbitrary as to what we are allowing and not allowing. Are we eating like Paleolithic man? Then we should be able to eat potatoes, particularly because very few other starches are allowed.
    2) Gram for gram, sweet potatoes and white potatoes are extremely similar, regarding macronutrient content. Here is a breakdown of the differences (I didn’t double check this, but I’m pretty sure it’s reasonably close.  However, “inflammatory factor” isn’t a scientific term.  You’ll find lots of info on the inflammatory factor index on Google, but plug that search term into PubMed, and you won’t find any peer-reviewed science to support it. Pseudoscience!)
  • I wanted to know more about why legumes and potatoes aren’t allowed in Paleo.  I wish I had just accepted this fact, but instead, I went on a wild goose chase.  I have yet to find anything that says that Paleolithic man wasn’t eating these foods, but instead that these foods contain “anti-nutrients.” I had to look up what anti-nutrients are, because despite being 3.5 years into a PhD in Nutritional Science, I had never heard the term.  Apparently anti-nutrients include compounds such as lectins and saponins.

    –> Lectins are glucose-binding proteins that are in essentially every plant and animal but particularly high in grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and nightshade plants (tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, bell peppers).  They can bind to any sugar moiety (pattern) they recognize, and cause agglutination (clumping) of proteins.  In fact, one of the most important immune responses we have, the complement system, utilizes lectins produced by our own bodies.  The theory behind avoiding foods high in lectin content is that lectins bind to the lining of our intestines, resulting in leaky gut syndrome, which would allow a whole host of foreign matter into our bodies to wreak havoc. I did search for some data to support this theory in humans, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t exist.  Leaky gut syndrome is also more of a hypothesis than a true pathological disorder, and is not well recognized in either the medical or scientific communities.  Of course, it takes time to conduct good science and develop legitimate evidence to support or refute an idea.  So, I’m not saying that this isn’t true.  Perhaps we just haven’t found the link yet… though a person stating that these compounds are deleterious to our health is an issue since the science doesn’t exist to support it.  If you are concerned about lectins, soaking or cooking the food (as most of us do with grains, legumes, and potatoes), and/or allowing the products to sprout will reduce the lectin content.–> Saponins are also found in many plants, particularly desert plants, legumes, potatoes, and quinoa, and they act as antimicrobial agents to fend off disease.  Cordain and other Paleo-goers state that saponins are also anti-nutrients and impair digestion of food.  Once again, I did another search to see if and what the evidence was.  I found lots of really good things. The The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University states that saponins have a role in reducing cholesterol and secondary bile acid formation (bile acids are linked to colon cancer development) and are considered a natural remedy for hypercholesterolemia.  There is some evidence from animal sciences that saponins could be toxic if ingested in large enough amounts, but I really couldn’t find anything in human research. So, I’m not sure what the problem is with these things, but I think I’ll keep eating them.

I’m sorry for the rant.  And I’m sorry if I offended anyone with my rant because I certainly don’t think that people who follow Paleo are fools.  I hope no one thinks that.  I think that Paleo is one of many healthy diet options simply because it greatly reduces processed food intake and focuses on eating whole foods.  However, I want answers to my questions, and I think what bothers me most is that I haven’t found a good, reputable, scientific source with these answers.  That’s a red flag for me.  Maybe I’m using the wrong search terms.  I certainly haven’t read all the information out there, but it just seems like I shouldn’t have to spend so much time trying to find the evidence behind these claims.  I’m willing to take the time to look all this up, but I imagine that not everyone is willing or able to invest this much thought/time.  If anyone can provide me with SOUND evidence to answer my questions, I would be grateful, and more than willing to read it.

But for now, I will step off my soapbox, move past my scientific issues with Paleo, and follow the diet for the rest of February (it’s not an accident that I chose the shortest month to practice Paleo-ism).