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Fasting – Eat Well

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Fasting?! What? Why in the world would anyone want to starve themselves, other than for religious reasons? Because it’s good for you, that’s why.  Fasting is the planned, controlled absence of eating.  Everyone fasts at some point – after all, ‘breakfast’ just means the meal that breaks your fast.  Fasting – absence of food – can be done for hours or days, depending on your health goals. Benefits of fasting include reduced insulin resistance, weight loss, increased metabolism, improved levels of growth hormones (which leads to sparing of lean muscle mass), improved mental clarity, and decreased inflammation.  It will also make you live longer, according to many well-designed studies looking at fasting and longevity.  Fasting has been a pillar of healthy living for centuries, and only fell out of favor when there was a cultural shift towards eating ‘small meals’ every few hours.  Frequent eating helps with satiety and prevents dips in blood sugar, but it can wreak havoc on your body’s ability to properly produce and use important hormones like insulin, ghrelin, and growth hormones, leading to obesity, diabetes, chronic inflammation, and other problems.

Intermittent Fasting

There are a number of ways to fast, and something called Intermittent Fasting (IF) has become especially popular over the last few years.  This type of fasting limits eating to a specific time frame during the day. For example, if someone says they do a 16:8 intermittent fast daily, then what they mean is they limit their eating to 8 hours a day, say from 10 am – 6pm.  They don’t eat or drink anything of caloric value from 6pm – 10am in this example.  This type of fasting allows you to eat food every day, so you are unlikely to become malnourished or have electrolyte imbalances as a result.  And if you’re eating a ketogenic diet, you probably naturally eat in restricted time frames simply because you don’t get hungry very often.

The advantages of this type of fasting are primarily in weight loss.  You see, when you eat, your insulin levels rise in response to the food, signaling your body to move the energy you just ate into the cell for use and to store the extra as fat.  Frequent eating, or grazing, causes insulin levels to be elevated for longer than they really should be, leading to insulin resistance over time.  Think about walking into a room with a bad odor.  At first you notice it and it bothers you, but the longer you’re there, the more ‘resistant’ you are to the smell, and eventually you don’t even realize it’s there. The same thing happens with insulin. The more often you eat, the more spikes in insulin your body needs, and the longer your insulin is elevated, the more likely you are to become resistant to it.  Insulin resistance leads to diabetes and obesity, among other things.  High insulin also promotes fat storage instead of fat burning, making it harder to lose weight, even while restricting calories.  Intermittent fasting causes you to have long periods of time for insulin levels to come down, leading to less insulin resistance as well as longer periods in a fat burning stage.

Time frames for Intermittent Fasting can range from person to person. The shortest window should really be 12:12, and 16:8 and 18:6 hour windows are much more common. The longer the fast, the better the benefits.  As mentioned above, IF is particularly popular among people who eat a ketogenic diet, but you do not have to be ketogenic to do it.  It may be harder on a non-ketogenic diet, but if you do it every day, it will become easier with time, and you will find that your hunger pains will subside with practice.

Longer Fasts

These include 24-hour, alternate-day, and prolonged (2 or more days – the record is over 300 days, but I definitely don’t recommend that!!) fasts, among others.  Longer fasts have a better impact on things like chronic inflammation, diabetes, and longevity.  However, these fasts should always be done under the supervision of an experienced professional! While there are numerous benefits to these fasts, it is also very easy to develop electrolyte disturbances, which can be dangerous.  If you are diabetic, it can also cause low blood sugar, which can be dangerous as well.

Things to remember while fasting

  1. Don’t be afraid of water! Water will not have a metabolic effect and will keep you hydrated so you feel better. Add some electrolytes to your water to prevent problems with salt/potassium/magnesium imbalance.
  2. Start slow. Start with a 12:12 IF and work your way up. You have probably never done this before, and any restricted eating can be quite a change (mentally and physically), so don’t do too much too fast.
  3. Expect to be hungry at times, even if you are ketogenic. Stay busy, drink water and coffee, and ride it out.  Hunger will come and go, and the more often you fast, the easier it will be.
  4. Eat a diet of whole foods with plenty of vitamins and minerals when you do eat. Fasting will not be helpful for your overall wellness if you still eat crap the rest of the time.
  5. DON’T fast if you are pregnant, and don’t do any longer fast without supervision, especially if you have chronic health conditions or take medications.

Fasting can be an important part of your health, and I do think that many people will benefit from fitting it into their lifestyle. The ‘guru’ for fasting of all kinds is Jason Fung, MD.  If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend his books or website, which are listed in the resources section here.

Ketogenic Diet

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There’s a ‘new’ diet around called a Ketogenic diet, or Keto. In actuality, it is not new at all – it has been around for about 100 years. But it is a new fad, so I feel like it is appropriate to discuss it here.

Never heard of Keto? Keto is a way of eating that was originally designed to treat seizures, and ongoing evidence continues to prove that it does indeed help seizure disorders.
Over the last several decades, it has actually been used to help with a number of neurologic disorders, including traumatic brain injury and dementia. It is used as an adjunct to cancer treatments. It is used for diabetes management, inflammatory conditions, as well as many other chronic medical disorders.  The research in the nutritional and medical communities includes thousands of studies discussing the advantages of this way of eating, but it never actually took off until it was used for weight loss. Many people find they can lose a great deal of weight quickly by eating this way, and this discovery has brought Keto out of the shadows and into mainstream culture.  Below I will discuss what Keto is and try to address a few common concerns.

What is Keto?

Keto goes against pretty much everything you’ve been taught about healthy eating.  Keto is a way of eating that has one goal: to allow your metabolism to switch from depending on carbohydrates for energy to using fat instead.  Your liver converts fatty acids to something called ketones that nearly every cell in your body can use for energy.  In fact, some organs (like your brain) PREFER to use ketones for energy instead of carbohydrates. But…the only way to make this metabolic change is by restricting carbohydrates. Really restricting them.  In general, if someone is eating less than 20 grams of carbs a day, has a moderate protein intake (more on that later), and then eats fat to round out their daily calorie count, then they will be in ketosis – a metabolic fat burner.  For this reason, it should not be considered a ‘diet’ – it is a lifelong way of eating.

Isn’t Keto just a new term for the Atkin’s diet?

Nope.  Atkins was low carb too, but there are some key differences here that are critical to understand.

  1. Except for the induction phase of Atkins, it allows for more than 20grams of carbs a day. This is because the goal of Atkins was weight loss, not ketosis. Sure, some people can enter ketosis with 30 or so carbs a day, but not everyone.
  2. Atkins was high protein, not moderate protein. You see, protein must be moderated because high protein not only has the ability to strain the kidneys, but it can keep you out of ketosis. This is because your body can convert protein to glucose and use that for energy, keeping you from making use of ketones from fat. There is a lot of controversy in the Keto world on the proper amount of protein to get, but you should be fine if you get about 1 -1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight.  This will obviously be variable based on your own body composition, current metabolic state, activity level, etc. The goal is to eat enough protein to prevent loss of lean muscle mass and to obtain adequate amounts of dietary nutrients, but not so much that you don’t enter ketosis.
  3. Type of fats didn’t really matter with Atkins. Technically, you can enter ketosis with any type of fat, but it is not at all healthy.  To truly make a ketogenic diet a way of eating, it is critical that you eat only healthy sources of fats – like avocados, red palm oil, olive oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, lard. You get the idea.  Vegetable oils (all of them!), Crisco, and other highly processed oils are terrible for you and should be avoided at all costs.

I heard that all the weight I lose will be water and I will gain it back as soon as I go back to eating carbohydrates.

This is partially true.  When you first begin a ketogenic diet, your body will use up its stored glycogen, and this causes a loss of water weight.  The first part of your weight loss will definitely be from this release of water and will not be fat. So, if you eat enough carbs that your body can store it as glycogen, then you will end up gaining that water weight back. However, once the glycogen is depleted and your body becomes what we call ‘fat adapted’, you will begin to burn your fat stores.  You will not regain the weight lost from fat unless you overeat.

But don’t I need carbohydrates?

Nope again.  There is absolutely NO dietary requirement for carbohydrates in a human being. Most cells in your body do not even have a carbohydrate requirement at all, and they ones that do need them can produce more than enough by converting fat to carbohydrates. Once you are fat adapted, you will find that you do not have the fluctuations in blood sugar that you had when you were dependent on carbohydrates, so ‘low blood sugar’ should not be an issue.

Fats are bad! I can’t eat that much fat!

A typical ketogenic diet has about 70% of its calories from fat.  That is a large proportion of calories from fat – but that does not necessarily translate into an actual large amount of fat.  Someone following the current nutritional guidelines will eat up to 80 grams of fat a day.  Someone eating a Standard American Diet will eat much more. Many people eating a ketogenic diet consume around that amount – sometimes more, sometimes less.  When eating keto, fat is NOT A GOAL. Rather, you limit your carbs, eat the protein you need, and don’t worry about the fat. Eat fat to satiety – or until you get full.  Most people who have been eating Keto for more than a few weeks find that they feel full for longer on less food, and actually end up eating less calories and fat overall than a sugar-burner.

And no, healthy fat is not bad for you. Eat the butter. Eat the ribeye.  Avoid the vegetable oil, canola oil, safflower oil…the negative effects seen with fat are due to the highly processed, manufactured fats. Not the natural ones.  There’s a reason you know an older person who ate bacon and eggs every day for 80 years and is still going strong.

The internet says it’s dangerous to be Keto for a long time.

The internet is wrong, sort of.  A properly constructed ketogenic diet – the way it was meant to be before all of the hype and fad-iness, is very healthy and can absolutely be done long term. If you haven’t figured this out already, I am keto.  And I stay in ketosis by eating a fatty protein (like salmon, ribeye, pork chops) and vegetables at every meal.  Do you really think a diet that is almost exclusively meat and vegetables is unhealthy? Of course not.  I do stick with ethically raised protein sources – heritage pork, fully pastured beef and poultry, wild caught fish.  I avoid most processed foods. I avoid unnatural fats.  And I can promise you, there is nothing unhealthy about this.

However – the problem is in the construction of the diet.  Far too many people have used a ketogenic diet as an excuse to simply eat fast food burgers every day and toss the bun.  Or continue to use oils that have been proven to be detrimental to their health.  Or they are deceived into buying products that advertise themselves as ‘keto’ but are highly processed, have many ingredients that can be inflammatory, and contain high amounts of sugar alcohols, some of which can also be detrimental.  Avoid these pitfalls. Stick with whole foods, and you’ll be fine.

Future articles will really delve in to more details related to carbohydrates, fats, sugar alcohols, myths and pitfalls of ketosis.  But for now, if you would like to know more, please visit the RESOURCES tab for links to reliable information on a ketogenic way of eating.

Just eat whole foods!

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If you change nothing about your way of eating other than this, you WILL be healthier.  Eliminate processed foods and replace them with the best quality whole foods that you can afford – be it vegetables, meat, healthy grains, eggs, whatever – and you will be a healthier person.  You may still have to tweak your diet based on your personal situation, but you will be healthier.

‘Heart healthy’ foods are not always healthy

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I was recently at the grocery store and passed a section that was labeled ‘Healthier Options’. I was intrigued, so I spent some time reading labels in that section.  Every single item on the shelf was highly processed.  Every single item was high in calories.  Every single item was high carb, low protein, low fat.  Every single item had high-fructose corn syrup. They all had oils that have been proven over and over to be disastrous for your health, like soybean oil, safflower oil, canola oil.  Most had a long list of preservatives and colorings that I don’t even know how to pronounce.  Compare the label of a typical granola bar or trail mix to that of a package of chocolate chip cookies. There’s not actually much difference.  Just because a food claims to be ‘natural’, ‘healthy’, ‘organic’ or whatever does not make it so. Remember ‘100% Natural 7-Up’? Do you really believe that any part of 7-Up is natural? Geeze.

Fats are not always bad

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For about 60 years, fats have been vilified in our society.  But they shouldn’t be. Healthy fats – coconut oil, pastured butter, ghee, avocado oil, olive oil – should be eaten daily.  Extremely low fat diets can lead to vitamin deficiencies. Worried about high cholesterol? Don’t be.  Consumption of healthy fats will raise your good (HDL) cholesterol.  Total cholesterol shouldn’t actually change a great due to eating healthy fats because most of the cholesterol floating around in your blood is produced by the liver, not ingested in your diet.

One caveat here: A diet that is high in fat, low in carb is not necessarily dangerous. However, a diet that is high in fat and HIGH in carb is a dangerous thing indeed.  This is the combination that leads to many chronic illnesses.  If you’re going to eat fat, make it healthy fat and limit your carbs to those you get from vegetables.

Carbohydrates are not always good

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Over the last month or so, carbohydrate consumption has received a lot of press time.  Here’s the deal with carbs – too many carbs WILL cause a variety of health problems.  Carbohydrates cause a greater insulin spike than either protein or fat, and chronically raised insulin leads to diabetes. Carbohydrates also cause inflammation throughout the body that can lead to a whole host of other problems.  Carbohydrates cause obesity (after all, cows are fed grains to fatten them up for a reason). BUT…

Not all carbohydrates are created equal.  Carbohydrates from vegetables and whole grains tend to cause fewer issues than simple carbohydrates, fructose (this includes fruit!), and sugar.  I personally don’t think carbs are evil, but I do believe they should be eaten in small amounts.  And for some people they should be very limited. Many food sources of carbohydrates are also the source of common food sensitivities – gluten probably being the most famous one – so even if you tolerate the carbs themselves okay, you might have problems with other compounds that you ingest with them. So be careful.

Every diet is good. And every diet is bad

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Before I go further, let me just say, when I am discussing diet, I do not mean a weight loss plan.  I am simply referring to a way of eating.  A Vegan diet, a Paleo diet, a Mediterranean diet, a Standard American Diet.  You get the point.  At its most basic, a diet is simply what you eat.  Goals for your diet are a different topic.

When it comes to a way of eating, I am not convinced there is any one particular right or wrong way.  Every person is unique.  Every person has their own values, health goals, and nutritional needs. Obviously, we all need certain vitamins and minerals.  But athletes need a lot more protein than a couch potato. Underweight people need more fat than obese ones.  People with food sensitivities need to limit things like gluten or dairy.  What is great for one person may be horrible for another.  The best thing you can do is figure out what YOUR body needs to be healthy. This is a process of trial and error. Sure, you can spend your hard-earned money on a variety of blood and stool tests to figure this out. Or you can be patient and follow a reliable elimination plan and figure it out for free.

What’s more, even a good diet can be done in a very bad way.  You can be a vegetarian and live off of grilled cheese sandwiches and potato chips.  You can follow a ketogenic diet and eat only fast food burgers but skip the bread.  Done properly, both of these ways of eating can be extremely healthy and beneficial for your health.  Done poorly, they can kill you.