When I have something on my mind like learning how to ride a motorcycle, running a marathon, building muscle, learning how to surf, losing weight, and optimizing health I just go for it. I know that if I wait too long my zeal and enthusiasm would dwindle and that little voice in my head will come up with all kinds of excuses for me to “do it tomorrow.”
So when I first attempted to lose weight I immediately (and I mean that very moment) put on my running shoes and attempted to run a lap around a park near my home. Mind you I’m 5’10” (1.8 meters) and at the time I was 240 pounds (17 stones, 109 kg) and 1 lap is 6.7 miles so it wasn’t too long before I started to huff and puff and walked a good 6.0 of the 6.7 miles.
This didn’t deter me, every day for the next 3 months I attempted to run as much of the 6.7 miles as I can, I was losing weight but it was slow and painful. Clearly conventional wisdom of eat less, exercise more wasn’t working, or at least not as how I thought it should have worked. So I decided to do all the research I can about weight loss, fitness, and general health.
I read everything I could find: blogs, magazines, articles from big media outlets, and books. I stumbled upon the Paleo diet movement and having come from a biology background I was immediately drawn to the idea of eating the way our bodies evolved to eat. I read a lot of Paleo books; names like Robb Wolf, Dr. Cordain, and Mark Sisson became common names I would mention if people were asking me about health and nutrition.
The ironic thing about my initial experience with the Paleo diet is that I actually gained weight! After reading all of the Paleo books I came away with the idea that I can eat any quantity so as long as it was Paleo. So I did! I ate nuts, meats, fruits, and vegetables until I was “satisfied.” After 1 month I had gained 10 pounds, not exactly ideal and not exactly how I thought the Paleo diet was going to be the magic “pill” for my weight and health problems.
Then one day I was searching for a dietary cure for my chronic red eyes and stumbled upon Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminets’ blog about the dangers of a zero carb diet and how it leads to a lack of mucus production which can lead to dry eyes and gastrointestinal cancer. Curious, I immediately ordered their book from Amazon and 3 months later, along with some lifestyle changes and the reintroduction of safe carbohydrates my eyes were finally clear and comfortable.
The authors Paul and Shou-Chings’ approach to healthy eating and living is based around scientific research, self-experimentation (I can relate to this), and observational data. I recently had a Q&A with Paul about his book The Perfect Health Diet (PHD) to get an idea of his approach to a healthier lifestyle.
1. What was your motivation for writing the book? There are a lot of Paleo/Primal books out there by the likes of Cordain and Sisson, what sets your book apart?
“I spent 15 years floundering trying to understand my chronic illness and get help from medical doctors with no success. Then I found Paleo, found it made a difference but caused problems as well as improvements, and spent five years of fairly arduous study figuring out how to improve it before curing my condition. After this 20 year journey was successful, I was convinced that millions of other people were probably suffering from similar chronic ailments that were addressable by diet and lifestyle, but that no one should have to go through the 20 years of groping that I had, and that most people would be incapable of curing their own problems even in 20 years – after all, I was a fairly well-functioning intelligent person with scientific training who had been willing to set his career aside to pursue health, and it still took me many years. So, having worked out a diet and lifestyle that I was convinced would heal many others’ disease, I felt I had an obligation to take a few years from my life and set out what I had learned in a cogent and persuasive way, so that others could learn from it and benefit from it.”
Groping perfectly describes my first few attempts at better health and weight loss. I gained a lot of experience and discovered a lot about myself and health in general, but the fastest way to accomplishing any goal is to find someone who has already blazed a path and following them.
2. In your book, you mention of a “medical revolution” (Preface) through food and diet. Are you worried that you might ruffle some feathers within the established medical and pharmaceutical community?
“No. The pharmaceutical approach to medicine has turned out to be a blind alley, by and large. Better ideas are needed and should spread whether it ruffles feathers or not. We need a fair test of sound natural healing methods against standard pharmaceutical approaches, not an unsupported presumption that pharmaceutical medicine is superior.”
I suffered from asthma for many years after high school, the only solutions my doctors gave me were albuterol inhalers and “preventative” medication. After reading up on the Paleo diet and learning that food allergies can cause auto immune diseases such as asthma, I decided to eliminate dairy from my diet and my asthma “miraculously” disappeared. A fair test of natural healing methods versus conventional medicine would have helped me a great deal. This is when I learned to “never ask a barber if you need a haircut.”
3. I tell a lot of the people who I help lose weight to get their mind into Flow, were you in a state of Flow while you were on the PHD and if you were, what were you doing?
“Flow certainly comes, and came to me often. Wikipedia’s definition of Flow seems to me to be merely a description of the process of attaining insight. I am not sure I believe in purposive pursuit of flow itself. Rather, I believe that God aids faithful seekers after truth, and so when you ardently pursue the solution to an intellectual problem, I believe that insight will come. We should pursue truth above all else, and then we will be given flow. But insight comes on its own terms. Sometimes ideas have to ferment. I never tried to force insight to come. When it did, I ran with it; when it didn’t, I worked on something else that interested me. I like to work on half a dozen projects simultaneously, so that I can always find a project that seems interesting and ready to bear fruit.”
When I’m eyeball deep into a project, whether it is training for a marathon, working on my motorcycle, or solving a complex problem I get deep into flow. I get “lost” and sometimes I literally have to remind myself to eat; diet and nutrition aside, I find myself in great pleasure even from the most trivial task if I’m in flow.
Insight certainly comes when I’m in flow and I have my own theories about how to “create” insight. Eating and thinking healthily are definitely important factors.
4. How important was it to the success of your health goals that both you and your wife were actively involved with each others’ health and well-being?
“Shou-Ching was very supportive of my search for better health and it was very helpful that we both liked home-cooked food and that she was willing to make dietary twists and turns along with me and share the labor of shopping, cooking, and experimenting. She provided a second test of everything we tried and a second perspective on all ideas which was very helpful. Having a supportive spouse is very helpful in any long and uncertain project; and recovering our health was certainly a long process and its ultimate outcome seemed uncertain until the very end. It would have been hard to have succeeded without her.”
When people ask me for advice on weight loss one of the first thing I tell them is to get their boyfriend, girlfriend, roommate, wife, husband, whoever to be on board and committed to the idea of healthier living. It makes it so much easier when someone close to you is 100% supportive and encouraging you along the way.
The opposite is also true. When one-half of a relationship has decided to live healthier while the other half is sticking to old ways, resentment, envy, and jealousy always seem to bubble up.
5. Obviously you’re a “safe starch” Paleo/Primal dieter because you list what you consider healthful carbohydrates in your book, how do you answer to strict Paleo dieters (Robb Wolf, Nora Gedgaudas) who even considers tubers such as yams and sweet potatoes to be unsafe and not necessary since our body can produce glucose from protein?
“Well, Robb has come out in support of some carbs. It is mistaken to think that carbs are inherently harmful, in moderation carbohydrate is nutritious for us. The body’s ability to generate some glucose from amino acids doesn’t change the nutritive value of carbs, because on very low-carb and high-protein diets, only part of the body’s glucose needs are met through gluconeogenesis (manufacture of glucose from protein) and the rest are postponed, under the evolutionary assumption that carb deprivation is temporary and carbs will soon become available. The metabolic and hormonal adaptations that achieve this postponement of glucose utilization are harmful if persisted in for long periods of time. There is another angle to this: carbohydrates only become harmful at low doses in certain pathological conditions. A negative reaction to carbs is diagnostic of these pathologies. Some in the low-carb community assume that if carbs do cause problems, the proper response is to avoid carbs for the rest of one’s life. No, the proper response is to cure the pathology that has made one carb intolerant. There may be a few genetic conditions where no cure is possible, but commonly the problem is a bacterial overgrowth or infection in the gut and it is quite treatable or curable by natural means. There is no good reason for people to be forced to forgo carbs for the rest of their life. Nor is starving the body of carbs likely to generate long-term health.”
I definitely agree with finding the root cause of any condition or disease is key to overall health.
When I first did Paleo I eliminated all forms of carbohydrates from my diet; no rice, no corn, and definitely no bread and pasta made from grains. I did lose a lot of weight, but I was miserable and actually lead me to cheat on “special” days like parties, happy hours, and other social gatherings.
Now I eat safe carbohydrates guilt free, my favorites being sweet potatoes and purple yams (Love the stuff), but only in moderate amounts. I find the idea of being able to eat carbs when I want to, as oppose to not allowing myself to eat any carbs at all keeps me from over eating. 75 to 100 grams per meal, or about a fist full of raw rice or a piece of sweet potato that can fit in the palm of my hand is just enough per meal to satisfy my carbohydrate cravings.
6. I’m a big believer in eating food to increase intelligence, do you have a “smart diet” in which you eat only certain foods to be smarter or more productive with your work?
“I generally consider the “smart diet” to be the same as the diet that is most healthful for the body. By and large, the brain and body share a common physiology and the diet that best supports bodily health will also support brain health. I am cautious toward nootropic compounds, I am not confident they have no negative long-term effects. Some key dietary steps for brain health: omega-6/omega-3 balance; a fat-rich carb-moderate diet; a low-polyunsaturated fat diet; a cholesterol and choline rich diet (liver, egg yolks); balanced mineral intake (especially zinc/copper, iodine/selenium, magnesium); vitamin A/D/K2 optimization; intermittent fasting; consumption of coconut milk and other ketogenic fats; exercise; healthy sleep and circadian rhythm entrainment.”
I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to nootropics and I don’t mind experimenting to optimize my mind. But like you said, the negative long-term health effects are unknown so I do a lot of research before putting anything into my body.
But I used to take the supplements choline, L-tyrosine, and L-phenylalanine if I needed to focus and complete a task. After learning from the book that choline is found in egg yokes and that beef liver is nature’s multivitamin I started to eat more eggs and liver. This could be just the placebo effect but I can personally vouch that when I consume eggs, beef liver, and coconut oil I would feel very confident, creative, motivated, and even a little aggressive. Whether the cause be psychological or physiological, the effects were very apparent.
I still use the combination of egg yokes, beef liver, and coconut oil as a study aide.
7. You consider the Pacific Islander diet, such as the Okinawan and Hawaiian (pre-western) to be the ideal diet. Do you have any plans to visit those places and eat as the locals do to see if it affects your health?
“I have enjoyed my visits to Hawaii, so I’d be quite happy to visit again! But I don’t feel the need to visit to improve my diet. We already eat in a traditional Pacific islander style – yams, taro, and potatoes; fish and shellfish; coconut milk; fruit and vegetables are all mainstays of our diet. Actually I find it harder to eat well when traveling than at home.”
Personally I want to visit Hawaii, Thailand, and any pacific island to do “research.” Yeah right, I just want a holiday!
8. What are some of the changes in your metal state, mindset, or behavior since going on the PHD?
“My mood improved quite a bit – I became consistently happy and cheerful.”
9. What is your favorite Paleo/Primal meal?
“My daily lunch – a sort of custard made with egg yolks, coconut milk, diced potatoes, leftover meat or fish, apple cider vinegar, bone and joint stock, tomatoes, and spinach (usually; the vegetables vary), warmed in the microwave – never fails to please me, and it only takes five minutes to prepare, which makes it my favorite because I am very lazy. But we have a lot of terrific recipes at http://perfecthealthdiet.com/recipes/. Variety is the spice of life, so it is hard to pick out one as the best.”
10. What do you say to people who shun red meat (vegans, vegetarians)?
“This is a mistake – ruminant meats are among the healthiest of all meats. Only fish and shellfish are as good. Vegans are misguided. Vegetarianism can be compatible with good health if eggs and dairy are eaten, but it is far more difficult to be a healthy vegetarian than to be a healthy omnivore.”
Health aside, I love eating red meat and seafood. Steak, lobster with ghee, and sweet potatoes; my meals are more enjoyable knowing that eating that kind of food is healthful too.
11. If you could give one piece of advice to help people obtain great health and reach their ideal weight, what would it be?
“Be well nourished. Unbalanced or nutrient deficient diets increase appetite and energy intake; and nutrient deficiencies are a common reason for impaired ability to expend energy and eliminate an excess of calories in the body. Most restrictive weight loss diets generate yo-yo weight regain by inducing nutrient deficiencies that stimulate cravings and appetite. A nourishing, balanced diet is the first step to weight normalization. My second piece of advice would be to tend to circadian rhythms – sleep, daily exercise, light exposure in daytime, dim light at night, intermittent fasting, mealtimes during daylight hours, social interactions during daylight hours.”
Great information from Paul and Shou-Ching and I would like to thank them for taking the time to answer my questions. I have followed a lot of their dietary guidelines with great success. Check out this picture of me at 73 pounds lighter! I was focused, determined, had a structured plan, measured results, and followed through.