Saturday, September 25, 2010


"I try to keep myself in situations that will teach me shit. The more challenging, the better. It keeps me young, curious, and humbled. Life isn’t supposed to be figured out. It’s supposed to have twists and turns and things you can’t predict." --Mike Watt

It's all a giant self-improvement project, but the project never ends, because as good as you may be at one thing, there's always something else you need to work on. Lately, I've been working on nutrition.

I was a runner in high school, 160 pounds and thin as a rail, but college slackerdom led to twenties slothfulness, and somewhere around the mid-1990s I realized I'd better start running again, having reached the embarrassing zenith (nadir?) of 215 pounds around age 33 or so. Renewed running burned off some of that, led to more running, and eventually to weight training which I would alternate with running. But nutrition was lagging way behind exercise in my world. In fact, for the longest time, I guess I figured that if you followed that wacky food pyramid in some vague sense, you'd be OK as long as you pounded out the miles, hoisted the iron, etc. Lots of grains (whole and otherwise), not much meat, some veggies and fruit and I thought I was eating OK.

In fact, when I made the decision about five years ago to stop eating any deep-fried food, I figured that, at that point, with my grain-filled/meat-light/nearly-vegetarian diet I was somewhere riding atop the breaking wave of good health.

But here was the weird thing -- and it didn't seem all that weird at the time, just a product of being in my mid/late 40s, I thought -- but I was hurting. After the 215-pound awfulness of age 33, I had gotten down only a year later to about 200, and lived at that weight for the next 11-12 years. I'm 6'3", so no one I knew would have called me "fat" at 200 pounds, but damn, by age 45 or so I was starting to feel old, especially in the mornings.

Then, a couple years ago, just after I turned 46, I started drumming for Mondo Topless. What does that have to do with anything? Well, as I've discussed before, all this hard/fast playing leaves a man exhausted, doubly so if you are in your 40s and already feeling the aches and pains of age. So I ramped up the weights and the cardio/running. And that helped me take off five or so pounds, but it didn't stop the pain. In fact, it just made me even more sore. My post-practice routine necessarily included 600 mg of ibuprofen or else I'd wake up with joints that felt 100 years old. Then I started doing CrossFit.and got wind of a whole new way of eating.

One digression: I'm not telling you any of this to preach at you about nutrition. I really don't care what you do or don't do in your personal life, and that includes what you eat. This is just a tale of what I've learned about my own nutritional needs. It's not a sermon.

When I get into something -- a new band, a new album, a new author, whatever -- I tend to really go for it, reading up on whatever I can regarding that new thing. That approach led me to a lot of CrossFit websites where it seemed like all the really "into it"/committed folks were eating "paleo." A little research into that phrase, and it seemed like these guys had grabbed the aforementioned food pyramid, taken it to the top of the nearest building and thrown it off.

Paleo(lithic) eating is pretty simple. To quote CrossFit founder Greg Glassman: "Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar." In slightly (but not much) more complicated terms: eat protein (meat, fish or eggs) plus non-grain carbohydrates (lots of veggies and a little fruit) plus a good monounsaturated fat (like avocado/guacamole, nuts, seeds). Avoid grains (pasta, bread, rice, cereal), dairy (milk and cheese), legumes (beans, peanuts) and sugar.

You can learn a lot more about the science behind all this from the super-smart folks at Whole 9, or from the awesome, somewhat wonky and highly informative new book by Robb Wolf called The Paleo Solution. But the bottom line is all about insulin spikes and inflammation, caused by grains, whether they are "whole" or not.   

It's a big shock to the system to learn that everything you were ever taught about a particular subject has been leading you down the wrong path. In my case the subject was nutrition. All that grainy goodness of my nearly vegetarian life was an enormous source of inflammation and bloating. After five to six months of eating mostly paleo, I am completely off the ibuprofen addiction of my post-band-practice routine. My joints ache far less than they have since my late 30s. And I know the change in diet is directly responsible because when I "cheat" and eat breads or pizza or other grains in any significant amount, the pain/bloat returns the next day. Eat clean, and it goes away and I wake up with defined abs and no aches. Cheat again, and my gut is soft and pliable and my knees and elbows hurt. I have also found that, for me, grains are a bigger source of inflammation than legumes or dairy in small amounts, but I'm sure that varies for everyone. So I still eat a little bit of cheese and some beans here and there, but my consumption of both is nevertheless way down from my nearly "vegetarian" days.

Oh, and a few other benefits -- my acid reflux issues that I've had since I was a kid are way down, and my late afternoon insulin-crash-inspired "I need to eat something or I am going to go postal" moments are much fewer and farther between. Plus, my recent physical had me for the first time at normal or better numbers in every one of the following categories: blood pressure, HDL ("good cholesterol"), LDL ("bad cholesterol"), triglycerides and blood sugar. I weigh 178 pounds.

Now, before this sounds like I just told you the key to my happiness is to eat a lot of meat and no bread, if that's all you got out of this you missed an enormous piece of the puzzle: vegetables and good fats. This way of eating is centered foremost around veggies. They are the way you get most of your carbs, and fruit supplies the rest. A typical meal is a pile of veggies, a piece of meat (or fish or eggs) and a "good" fat. This is not an Atkins-inspired meat-fest.

So why did I tell you all this? Like I said, I don't care what you do. But I do think that whatever you do, you ought to do it with full understanding of the facts. And the fact for me has been that I got lied to for a really long time. That crazy effing food pyramid where the biggest single component of a diet is grains, cereals, rice, bread and pasta is a prescription for insulin spikes, inflammation, bloat, aches and pains.Yet, everyone -- doctors, governments, etc -- seem to be drinking the (grainy) Kool Aid and passing it on to us. Do your own research. Do what you want. But know that just because you've been told something since you were a kid doesn't make it true.


  1. I can vouch for all you've said here, not that I'm currently in a healthy cycle. But a few years back I had a scary physical with cholesterol numbers I associate with the dying. I was prescribed Lipitor but being inherently distrustful of most prescription drugs, I did a bunch of research and decided to deal with my cholesterol by completely remaking my diet. I knew no name for this, I just kinda made it up as I went. What I ate a ton of: salmon, berries, salads, seeds, eggs and veggies. What I ate a little of: nuts, fruits, beans and skim milk. What I ate NONE of: starch, sugar, or fatty diary. Oh, and I sprinkled raw oats on everything, ridiculous amounts of oats. My cholesterol completely reversed in 3 months, I losdt about 20 pounds, and I felt like a million bucks. Also: no headaches. Another thing about too many non-veg carbs, if you're prone to headaches, those foods will trigger them; enough of those foods, esp. in the form of sugary treats, will give me hammering migraines. Thanks for posting about your nutritional journey.

  2. Peter, I'm sorry to hear that you are not currently doing well, but that's a great story. I'm not sure what to think about the oats part of it. Robb Wolf will tell you that even though oats don't contain gluten, they are still a substantial gut irritant, but there's no doubt that tests show oats have a positive effect on cholesterol numbers. I think, as with all this stuff, individual tweaking of the "no-grain/no-dairy/no-legume" plan is a perfectly appropriate thing to do depending on your personal tolerance for various foods.

  3. Real interesting read, Steve.