Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Paleolithic revolution

I might have slept through the revolution altogether. That is, assuming it started with the Loren Cordain Paleo Diet book. But it might have actually started in 1863 with William Banting, an English coffin maker, who in his widely read "Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public", quite contrary to his business plan, indicated that bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes were not the way to proceed. And there were a few others, like Wolfgang Lutz in the 60s and his "Leben ohne Brot", but in the pre-internet era the revolution was hardly possible.

The idea is, of course, simple and today it takes only few hours for the uninitiated to discover that paleo life is all about replicating the lifestyle patterns of our forefathers. Naturally, it is the dietary and exercise patterns which are being pursued, which are thought to be evolutionarily conservative. Compared to millions years of human evolution, the few thousands since people started to farm land was simply not enough for our bodies to adapt to new foods and the physical demands of the daily toil. So we now know that "paleo good, neo bad". Simple and overwhelmingly convincing.

But it was not very obvious to me, living in the dark ages of nutrition. In fact, the revolution for me happened fifteen years ago, when I embraced the vegetarian paradigm and long distance running as the way of life. Life couldn't have been better then. I lost 20kg, got in shape, felt more energetic, even run a marathon. I kept proselytising and actually managed to convert others.

It is all about paradigms. No theory is ever water tight and there is always evidence to the contrary. It is rather a matter of momentum, critical mass of evidence that proves enlightening and leads to a scientific revolution. In my case one piece of evidence made me reconsider everything and I started digging deeper.

Being a vegetarian for so many years and having read almost everything on vegetarianism I could challenge every criticism. Obviously, every won argument only reinforced my beliefs. But the problem was, I was never truly challenged as the criticism was quite superficial and typically revolved around protein or vitamin B12 deficiency. With a healthy lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet based on abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, life should be a Garden of Eden. I actually cheated a bit and had occasional fish. This is because I thought that industrially produced vegetables and fruit were less nutritious than the original varieties and some micronutrient deficiencies were possible. The idea was not so much to be vegetarian, but to eat naturally. Since taking supplements seemed quite unnatural, an odd fish did the job. I had known all along that our Palaeolithic ancestors did some scavenging (their teeth marks were made over the marks of teeth of large carnivores) and thought it somehow justified evolutionarily. Meat was out of the question due to pesticides, processing, decay in the intestines, implication in cancer, and the epidemiological stories propagated by vegetarian prophets. But even then, when debating the issue, I would say that meat was probably more natural for people than dairy products. I had quite a lot of cheese and yogurt, though, but felt noticeably better during periods when I stuck mostly to fruit and veg plus eggs and random fish. Dietary cholesterol was not really an issue as I was sceptical of the simplicity of the story from the very beginning. The theory of oxidisation of cholesterol was more appealing, and I though that healthy vegetarian diet controls the formation of free radicals, thus also lowering oxidised cholesterol. But I was busy working on treatments of diseases and on pharmaceuticals, and did not bother to pursue this further. After all, I thought I know everything there was to know from the practical standpoint.

What was it then to turn me back into a revolutionary? The fat. Specifically, the omega-3 fats. I had known how essential they were and had used flax seed oil, the richest source known to humans. But on closer scrutiny, there was a problem. There are three omega-3 acids: ALA, EPA and DHA. Flax seeds abound in ALA, but have much less EPA and DHA. Also, the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA is quite slow, which in effect, could not provide sufficient amount of EPA and DHA. Now, when you think about it, is flax seed oil the kind of food that out paleo ancestors would have eaten? Did they have the technology? Did they have refrigerators? Plus, there is one problem with flax seeds: they contain lignans which inhibit conversion of testosterones to DHT. That could have consequences for expression of masculine characteristics quite essential for the Palaeolithic hunter, spatial orientation being one of them, but reproductive success also of critical importance (while looking at testosterone, I also found out that vegetarian men have lower levels of this hormone, though this may be due to low cholesterol or low fat diet). The bottom line: you need to eat oily fish or... meat.

But there is meat and meat. When farm animals are fed grains, which are unnatural for them, the meat would contain much more omega-6 oils than omega-3. The problem with standard western diet seems to lie in the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, which is 20:1 and should be 2:1 or 1:1. So, eating standard western meat would only make things worse. Grass-fed meat is a wholly different story, as is rich in omega-3.

This was the beginning of my revolution. Then I did some more research and some more thinking. The next discovery was lectins in grains and legumes, toxicity and addictive nature of gluten, the fattening carbohydrates, and the futility of endurance aerobic exercises if weight loss was the objective and countless tangential bits. I pondered the dichotomy between the sugars versus ketones and wondered what the role of periodic fasting could be. I will get back to these topics in the near future, though there is no need to reinvent the wheel: most has been already said and I will try to provide the links.

There is, however, one discovery which may be quite new. It is only a working hypothesis and the evidence is scarce: my own experience. I decided to do water fasting for a couple of weeks. More out of curiosity than anything else, though losing some weight would be helpful (I will cover with loss in greater detail in my next posts). In any case, today is the third day of my water fast. I had read Shelton, Malachov and many online testimonials. Did not seem like a big deal at all.

And what did I discover after three days? First, I did not observe any discomfort which is reported in almost all cases: headaches, muscle aches, extreme coldness, nausea, severe cravings, stuffiness of the nose, expectoration, etc. Even my tongue is only mildly white and I have no unpleasant feeling in my mouth. Furthermore, I did not do any enemas and even had smoked mackerel, avocado and vegetables baked with loads of olive oil the day before.

What makes it interesting is that for a couple of weeks before starting the fast I started eating paleo: no grains, no legumes, and no tomatoes. Instead I had more veggies, more nuts and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower) and considerably more fish and seafood. No salt, except inevitable very small amounts in some fish. I also implemented the warrior diet regime, which is essentially eating irregularly, some fruit at lunchtime, a leafy salad with oil in the afternoon and something more substantial in the evening. I actually practiced that for years before with the vegetarian diet, so my body was used to mild ketosis after prolonged overnight fasts.

And the working hypothesis is that the theory behind water fasting may only apply to people fed standard carbohydrate rich diet. In fact, this is the type of diet typically recommended by fasting gurus, such as Dr. Joel Fuhrman. The nasty symptoms which fasting patients develop are related to the switch from glucose to ketosis and possibly from elimination of gluten, lectins and salt. What is descried as cleansing from toxins can actually be a quite predictable physiological reaction.

While long water fasting can be very helpful in these people, the question arises: is it really necessary for health reasons? Perhaps the doctors were right when almost hundred years ago they decided that it was not? Perhaps it could be sufficient to stick to the caveman diet with occasional short or intermittent fasts, as with no grains or legumes in diet, there would be hardly any toxins to detoxify?

Now, this is going to make most people uncomfortable. The meat-eaters (they eat largely grain fed meat), the vegetarians (for obvious reasons), the supplement gatherers (flax seed), the long distance runners (you can’t actually run very far on low carbohydrates, though you can walk and walk) and the fasting fans. I treat this as an invitation to discussion.

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