The Problem with Nutrition Research, and an Easy Workaround

There’s so much we still don’t understand about how to live longer while maintaining quality of life. Whether you want to look and feel better, or you’re concerned about the USA’s absurd healthcare costs, it’s a topic worth thinking about.

One approach to this problem is to scour the available scientific literature on the subject and make educated guesses wherever the research is lacking. Unfortunately, conflicting studies in the sphere of nutrition (e.g. studies on saturated fat consumption) are often twisted or cherry-picked to fit the agenda of dogmatic groups claiming to possess the true formula for optimal health. Should you follow a paleo diet, or finally commit to being a vegan? Are eggs good for you if eaten daily, or is the high cholesterol content slowly killing you?

In addition, nutrition researchers themselves often fall prey to influences that hinder unbiased research (e.g. clinging to old beliefs or ties to big business), as The Guardian reported on earlier this year.

When the research is unclear about how to best live a healthy life, another approach is to identify communities across the globe that already live significantly longer than us and look for common factors that they share. Yes, it’s possible that some factors are missing or misunderstood, but this perspective is still a valuable one, as the TED talk below demonstrates.

When the research regarding a food or lifestyle habit is open to interpretation, I’ll happily defer to the healthiest societies on the planet. (If you have another approach that has worked well for you, please do share in the comments below.)

If you enjoy the TED talk and want to learn more, here’s a follow-up on the nine commonalities attributed to longevity.

Six Commonsense Rules for Optimizing Your Diet

commonsense-diet

It’s surprisingly hard to get a consistent answer to the question, “What should I eat for maximum health and longevity?”

Almost everyone can agree on the consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and a plant-based diet overall. But animal foods, legumes, and grains are constantly under fire.

Respectable MDs and nutritionists in the vegan camp champion whole grains and legumes, and demonize animal products as unhealthy and unethical. From Cornell MD Michael Gregor’s non-profit website NutritionFacts.org:

“Animal products, including eggs, dairy, meat, and animal protein in general may increase inflammation. A single meal of meat, eggs, or dairy may cause a spike of inflammation within hours that can stiffen one’s arteries. Several factors may account for this, such as heme iron, endotoxins, saturated fat, a high bacteria load, TMAO, tapeworms, advanced glycation end products or AGEs, and NeuGc, a foreign meat molecule that may increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.”

(For links to each of the factors mentioned above, visit Gregor’s site by clicking here.)

On the other side of the fence is the paleo crowd. Saturated animal fat? For most people, eat plenty of it! Beef tallow > canola oil. Grains are the devil (especially wheat). From the book Perfect Health Diet by Paul and Shou-ching Jaminet: “Cereal grains — the seeds of grasses — are rich in toxins that poison humans. They are the most dangerous foods.” They then dedicate many pages of their book to backing up this claim.

Both sides offer good points. I’ve found relief from IBS symptoms by removing wheat from my diet, but I also find that I do better with certain legumes than I do with a lot of paleo-friendly starches such as yucca and plantains. Even after a decade of experimenting with my diet, I still have much to learn. Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are the rules that have given me the most success in optimizing my diet (and sticking to it):

1. Don’t get lost in the details. Have high-level strategies you can always come back to.

I used to get lost in the weeds when learning about diet. I’d read about goitrogenic foods, for example, wonder if the health implications of those foods applied to me, and then spend two hours tweaking my diet. I would do this a few times a week and end up with a constantly-changing diet. I’d forget what was “good” and what was “bad” to include in my diet. And when you’re hungry and sitting in front of a menu — unsure of what the latest version of your diet lets you eat — you often give up and order the tastiest thing that just might squeeze into some version of your diet, even if it’s far from the healthiest option. Oops.

The same issue can emerge from jumping back and forth between dogmatic diets (e.g. paleo to raw vegan to fruitarian to the latest weight loss diet).

Lately, I’ve done much better by remembering the three simple rules proposed by food author Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” No matter how deep into nutrition research (and dogma) I delved, falling back on these rules has always proved helpful in deciding what to eat when I’m put on the spot.

2. When in doubt, opt for moderation.

Paleo people say grass-fed meat is great for you. Vegans say all meat will put you at risk for a shorter life span. From a nutritional perspective, both sides have research to back up their arguments.

Unless you have a PhD or truly enjoy digging through hundreds of thousands of research papers, your best bet is to find the moderate middle between those two approaches. E.g. cut your meat consumption by 50%, and make sure to have some grass-fed meat and some fish a few times per week, while completely avoiding CAFO meat.

Using this example, if you feel better by cutting meat consumption, see what happens if you take out even more meat from your diet. Keep calibrating until you find the range that works best for you.

3. Keep an eye out for food sensitivities.

Unless you’re extremely lucky, there’s likely to be at least one food out there that doesn’t work well for you. Over the years, I’ve learned that my body doesn’t tolerate tomatoes, cream/cheese, wheat, industrial vegetable oils, chocolate, coffee, inulin/chicory root fiber, and heavily fermented foods (e.g. fish sauce). I can get away with a little bit of these foods, but I experience side effects if I overdo it (poor digestion, lethargy, joint pain, acne, etc.).

I did a rotation diet called the Autoimmune Paleo diet to discover my food sensitivities, along with a food journal. If there are any nagging health issues you deal with, identifying sensitivities is a worthy endeavor. I won’t go too much into detail here, but if you have questions around food journaling or discovering sensitivities, leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

4. Data about your health and nutritional status is important too.

In an effort to optimize my diet, I’ve done lots of lab work (both covered by insurance and out of pocket). A few tests that I’ve done to optimize my diet and overall health:

– Blood sugar testing (finger prick)
– Blood work to determine nutritional status, omega-3/6 levels, heavy metal levels, and small, dense LDL levels
– Organic acids test (I’m still unsure how scientifically validated this test is)
– SIBO breath test
– uBiome microbiome tests every few weeks
– Gut health stool test
– Cortisol test

At a minimum, I’d recommend blood sugar testing (very affordable and useful information), blood labs at least twice a year, and working with a gastroenterologist for testing SIBO/gut health if you have gut issues.

Most recently, I’m concerned with optimizing my sleep, so I have an appointment with a sleep specialist to rule out any issues such as sleep apnea.

5. Learn to cook.

Let’s say you discover that you’re sensitive to soybean and corn oil. If you can’t cook, you’re at the mercy of restaurants who are likely to use these oils without making it explicit on their menu. Having at least a few recipes you can confidently make is like creating a safe space for your dietary needs. It gives you control to put only the healthiest foods on your plate. But at the same time…

6. Find some safe restaurants in your area.

This isn’t feasible for everyone, but if you live in an area that caters to specialty diets, you may be able to identify one or a handful for restaurants that work for you. I’ve written about this topic at length because of how important food and dining out is for your social life.

For many people, the stress of doing a strict diet outweighs any marginal gains in nutrition, especially when you’re sacrificing your social life to stick to the diet. Knowing where you can compromise to maintain a happy life is important.

In California, I’ve found a vegan restaurant and a paleo restaurant that fit my dietary needs quite well.

Conclusion: Diet optimization is a lifelong process.

Your body changes, research evolves, willpower waxes and wanes, and our industrial food supply trudges forward. Therefore, it’s advantageous to stay connected to the latest in health and nutrition. Unfortunately, there’s so much dogma out there, it’s hard to know who to trust. Dr. Michael Gregor of NutritionFacts.org and Paul Jaminet, PhD from the Perfect Health Diet are the two people I trust more than others, so perhaps they may help you as well.

Here’s to your health.


Featured image credit: Gemma Billings

Six Lessons About Success I Learned in 2015

As the year comes to an end, I find myself reflecting more than usual. It’s during these times that I like to report on the challenges I’ve faced and the goals I’ve hit (not unlike James Clear’s yearly integrity report).

Overview

I started this year in a health crisis, fighting as hard as I could to resolve stubborn issues that I had downplayed for almost a decade. Looking at my Key Lifestyle Indicators for the beginning of 2015 makes this painfully clear; I wasn’t prioritizing my health the way I should’ve been.

Jon's 2015 KLI data

To meet the demands of this health crisis, I begrudgingly gave up all of my favorite foods and adopted a strict healing diet, which required me to start cooking all of my meals. It was a painful transition, but I understood it was for the best.

Thankfully, after a few months, my cooking went from mediocre to fairly tasty. I learned more about my body and how it responds to the stressors of daily life. I studied how diet and lifestyle affect the immune system. I had out-of-pocket lab work done to give me medical data I could act on. I remain optimistic that this knowledge will continue to improve my life for decades to come.

I’m very glad to have significantly invested in my health, but it came at a cost. As Alain de Botton says in his TED talk:

Here’s an insight that I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything … any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept, as I say, that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding.

Indeed, there were elements of this year that did not succeed as a result of spending most of my resources on my health. This blog saw traffic drop as it became neglected for a large portion of the year. My engineering career slowed down as skill development got deprioritized. I avoided countless social events because I couldn’t eat anything at the restaurant and couldn’t bear feeling any more deprived of delicious food than I already felt. The sacrifices were unpleasant, but I’m glad I tackled this now rather than risk my health spiraling out of control further down the road.

Thankfully, I’ve experienced some success towards the end of the year, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

Successes and Failures

Let’s talk about failure first. Health can be a very difficult area, especially if you’re struggling with an illness or disease. Health often feels like a moving target. Sometimes you get inaccurate data, or the wrong data. Sometimes a medical professional makes a poor recommendation. Sometimes a brief lapse in willpower sets you back weeks or months. Needless to say, I experienced failure this year — lots of it. But, as I’m fond of saying, you need to fail to succeed.

Here’s how my health journey progressed over the year. (Yes, it’s on a scale of 0% – 200%, which looks weird — assume anything above 100% is good).

Jon's 2015 Health trend

As you can see, shortly after the beginning of the year, I started investing in health more substantially. Progress held steady for a few months. But what the hell happened in the middle of the year? Travel.

While travel is an amazing way to acquire new experiences, it’s tough on your body. I didn’t have my kitchen available to cook foods I knew I could tolerate. Sitting in airports, attending festivals (with supremely unhealthy food options), and exploring new cities lead to poor diet and lifestyle choices. My health came crashing down again.

For the last six months, I’ve doubled down on my efforts, prioritizing diet and stress management above all, and the data above shows those efforts in August. This is where I began to experience some success.

The graph above reflects time invested in health-promoting activities, but what about how I actually felt? It’s been a rocky road, but there’s definite improvement in my day-to-day health, as reflected in the graph below.

Jon's 2015 recovery trend

On this graph, Recovery is a percentage of symptoms that are not present. So the fewer symptoms present, the stronger the recovery for that day. As you can see, the trend line is slowly crawling upward, which is the most progress I’ve made in my health in over four years. I’d consider that a big win.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience success in other areas of my life as well. In February, I officially transitioned from advertising to software development, and I’ve been enjoying that career move ever since.

I’ve had the opportunity to improve a few skills throughout the year, including cooking, coding, writing, and meetup organizing. I even took a few dance lessons (I was pretty terrible). These are all skills I’m glad to have developed, and I’ll most certainly be employing them in 2016.

As the year came to a close, my diet and lifestyle were better than ever, which freed up some time to start writing again. You’ll notice that I’ve been more active on the blog lately; expect to see more from me as we welcome in 2016.

Key Lessons From 2015

Difficult goals yield great learning opportunities. Here are 2015’s key lessons:

1. What gets measured gets managed. Measuring how I feel each day keeps my number one priority (health) top of mind for me. Additionally, the long term trends in my data can be reassuring during awful weeks. Notice how my recovery graph (shown above) shows many ups and downs; it’s crucial on those down weeks to remind myself of the long term progress I’m making. To give you a sense of what I was measuring each day, here’s a peek:

Jon's 2015 recovery data

2. Goals inherently require sacrifice. As we discussed above, the pursuit of one goal comes at the cost of another (think back to opportunity cost from economics class). I’ve found that it’s important to acknowledge this sacrifice explicitly. Otherwise, I attempt to juggle all of my goals at once, which results in nothing but anxiety and a series of uncompleted goals. Prioritization and sacrifice are two sides of the same coin.

3. Tackle goals at the root by looking for lead dominoes. Although there was a high cost to putting some of my goals on hold, it was necessary, as health has a domino effect — if health falls down, all of my other goals fall down with it — so it needs to be tackled first. Thankfully, the domino effect works in a positive direction as well; if I can improve my health, other goals became easier to hit through improved energy, thinking, and mood. Look for these lead dominoes in your life and tackle them first for maximum effectiveness.

4. Stop obsessing over problems that simply need time. While daily measurement is helpful, what’s not helpful is obsessing over your progress and worrying when things seem to be on the decline. In my case, almost without fail, the solution was to simply continue doing what I was already doing. Sure enough, things started to improve without any further intervention.

This urge to obsess and over-optimize can be strong in areas like health where ups and downs are common and it may take months to show any meaningful improvement. I was able to stop obsessing using three strategies:

  • I would periodically look at my health data to remind myself that the ups and downs are normal, and that the long-term trend was still improving.
  • I turned cooking — my primary health-building activity — into a hobby, rather than only a means to an end. This way, I could focus on recipes and entertaining friends, rather than only focusing on the end goal of improved health.
  • I started meditating every morning to train my mind to spend more time in the present, rather than obsessing over the future.

5. Set up systems to prevent self sabotage. Once you start realizing all of the subtle ways you self-sabotage, you’ll never be able to unsee it. I used to use phrases like these on a regular basis:

  • “I’m sure I won’t overindulge on this dessert item if I buy a lot of it while it’s on sale… “
  • “Oh, I’m not supposed to eat that, but it’s only a small amount…”
  • “I’m too busy to meditate this morning, I’ll just do it later today…”

All self sabotage. Unfortunately, advice to simply try harder doesn’t work out very well. Willpower isn’t guaranteed to be there when you need it, so it’s smarter to build systems around your weak points to support you in moments like these.

In my case, I focused on the self sabotage around my diet. I found one healthy “fallback” recipe that’s so easy to prepare (less than five minutes), there’s no excuse not to make it. I also have canned food, food bars, and frozen goods that are helpful when I’ve unexpectedly run out of food in my fridge.

Additionally, by setting up a proper morning routine, I’ve also reduced a lot of the “I’ll do this later…” sabotaging that I used to do regularly.

6. Even when you fail, you succeed. I planned for my health goal to be complete after six or seven months. It’s been over a year now, and it still requires a major time investment. Although I technically failed to hit my goal deadline, the amount of personal growth I’ve undergone to meet the demands of this challenge is a success in it’s own right.

Too often, people discount the discipline, skills, and knowledge they acquire during the pursuit of a goal, and only focus on the result of the goal. By embracing the pursuit itself, I find myself less stressed about obstacles and roadblocks. Stated another way, instead of focusing solely on the pursuit of happiness, I now also focus on the happiness of pursuit (credit to Chris Guillebeau for that phrase).

Where do I hope to improve next year?

I’ve learned a lot, but there’s also much more to improve on. To meet the challenges of 2016, here are three areas where I believe I need work.

1. Actually prioritizing health as #1. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to subtly put health in second place when an exciting opportunity pops up. Like any goal, prioritizing health means sacrificing other goals. In 2015, I failed to prioritize health as #1 and it cost me many months of progress. In the words of Tim Ferriss, who has also been struggling with a health issue as of this writing:

“In practice, strictly making health #1 has real social and business ramifications. That’s a price I’ve realized I MUST be fine paying, or I could lose weeks or months to sickness or fatigue. Making health #1 50% of the time doesn’t work. It’s absolute — all or nothing. If it’s #1 50% of the time, you’ll compromise precisely when it’s most important.”

2. Leaving my comfort zone more often. When I first joined the world of software development after teaching myself to code, I was overwhelmed in a good way. So much to learn, so many opportunities for growth. Unfortunately, now that I’ve settled down into a small niche of software development, I’ve started to stagnate a bit. In 2016, I hope to explore new areas that are both scary and exciting. More on that coming soon.

3. Be more proactive with friendships. I’ve watched a lot of friendships fade away in 2015, and in 2016 I’d like to be more proactive with keeping in touch with the people that matter to me. Success isn’t as sweet when you don’t have people to celebrate it with.

4. Spend more time in a state of non-striving. Goals are helpful for choosing your direction, but once that direction is chosen, obsessing about the goal is counterproductive. Life is too short to spend most of your day worrying about future outcomes. Instead, I want to spend more time in the here and now, working on things I find interesting. I plan to do this through meditation and focusing on systems rather than goals.

All in all, this was a wonderful year. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited, the personal growth I’ve undergone. Let’s hope next year has plenty more of that in store.

If you’ve been reflecting as well, I’d love to hear your 2016 plans in the comments below.

The Dangers of Fructose — Why It Can Be Considered A Toxin

Earlier today I watched an excellent presentation that details the dangers of consuming fructose in our diets. I was aware that fructose-containing ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, are bad for your health, but I never knew exactly how much worse fructose is than regular ol’ glucose. The presenter even goes so far as to argue that fructose is a toxin. This is a must-watch for anyone who is interested in keeping their diet free of harmful ingredients.

Note: The presentation is quite long (~90 minutes)If you are strained for time, watch the first half hour or so to get the general idea.