Saturday, 5 July 2008

Further, Faster, Stronger, Fasting

I try to keep abreast of all the dietary research out there. I read plenty of blogs and visit plenty of sites dedicated to diet, nutrition, sport and training in general. I have a limited knowledge of both and specialised medical research and highly scientific debate can 'lose me' after a while!

My opinion is informed from medical literature dedicated to nutrition and training, and also from a few selected blogs. Fortunately I have my own body on which to experiment and actively do so by adapting my nutrition and training. Ultimately I simply go for what feels 'right'. If I follow my own intuition based upon stuff I have read, and see improvements in my physical performance, a reduction in injury and illness, and get a general thumbs-up from the doctor at each annual medical, I assume I am doing something right.

There are several blogs out there run by doctors. The level of debate suggests that these guys know their stuff - but I noticed that more than a few of them have derided the paleo approach to nutrition. This got me thinking; "have I simply swapped one dietary dogma (low fat, complex carbs) for another (paleo)?"

Just because the paleo diet is 'natural' in terms of being an eating pattern based upon an ancestral template, does not necessarily mean that it is optimal.

This is one of the most important points I think we should all bear in mind. We think of 'natural' as somehow 'better' and 'safer'. The reality is far from this simple. Consecutive days of very hard training will require rapid replenishment of glycogen in your muscles. Arguably complex carbohydrates would be an optimal way of achieving this goal. (Whether training hard on consecutive days is 'optimal' is another matter).

Back to the blogging doctors. Several of them had put up posts criticising paleo diets. And this really set me thinking. I was reassured by my annual medical (including a cholesterol test), that eating a diet high in saturated fat, nuts and red meat with about 35-50% of my diet (by volume) coming from vegetables and fruit was an effective way to live, but is it optimal?

Now in the past year I have included a 24 hour fast periodically. I normally fast from tea-time one day to tea time the next. I fast every three or so days. Herein I found an answer to my question.

When my nutritional profile was based upon the traditional food pyramid, I would often be ravenously hungry several times a day even though I would eat until 'full' at each meal. My blood sugar levels could plummet quickly - particularly after exercise. In fact I would awaken famished and even the stretch from lunch time to the evening meal (a period of no more than 6 hours), would cause me to get 'the shakes'. At no time on this 'traditional diet' would I have been able to contemplate a 24 hour fast! And this was the answer to my question.

Eating the paleo way, such problems are a thing of the past. I can fast effortlessly for 24 hours several times a week. I might get a mild hunger at some point during the day, but never a gnawing one. In fact on some fast days I do a 30 minute, intense workout at lunchtime, and then an hour of kickboxing that evening. All without any feeling of weakness. During exercise, the hunger actually goes away! On non-fast days, my hunger is well under control between meals.

Now after a fast, believe me, I 'chow-down' big style - eating more than I would at each meal after a non-fast day. Clearly after a fast I must have built up a calorific deficit and that is reflected in my appetite. In fact after a fast, I am more inclined to eat an extra (third) meal (normally I only eat two meals a day and rarely snack). I am in a position to trust my appetite and I never feel bloated or 'stuffed', regardless of how much I have eaten. I simply get a feeling of 'enough' and that is it.

For me this is a perfect situation. I can eat when I want (two meals a day normally suffice). I can fast for at least 24 hours without a deterioration in my performance. During a fast I MUST be accessing and cycling my fat stores - exactly what they were intended for! After a fast, I trust my appetite to dictate how much I eat for my body to replenish its fat stores. If I need an extra meal (particularly after a fast), I eat one. I adjust portions in any one meal according to my appetite. My body fat is well under 10%.

Doesn't this sound simple? Doesn't this sound EXACTLY how the body SHOULD function? I have only managed to achieve this on a paleo diet. I must add one more point about the fasting. After about three days of eating, I just don't actually feel like eating much if anything the next (fourth) day. Not eating until that evening is actually an appealing situation. As I have already said, I might have a mild hunger, but it is insufficient to compel me to eat. (As soon the hunger does develop to a point that prompts me to eat, I respond to it).

Many people learn to eat out of habit and social conditioning. This, in conjunction with the consumption of foods with elicit a poor level of satiety and for which we are poorly adapted, is what I believe has lead to many people becoming obese.

In a carbohydrate-scarce environment, it would make sense that we would gorge on such a valuable nutritional resource should we come across it (especially if it meant we could perform intense physical activity on consecutive days - a distinct evolutionary advantage in a dangerous environment). Given its scarcity, how could our bodies have adapted to handle chronic supply of such a resource?

Fat storage/cycling is simply a mechanism to keep us going between eating. I have re-engaged with my appetite and developed the metabolic pathways to my fat stores. Fasting for me has been an intuitive extension of my dietary habit and an indicator of my metabolic health. Body fat for me is not simply baggage that inhibits. It is a trusted source of energy to make me go. A resource that I can instinctively draw from and replenish. How could the role of body fat be any more complex?

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