The Best Diet of All

Eat like a cave person, say the “Paleo” people, who claim that our bodies were designed to digest only meat, fruit, nuts, and vegetables. The Washington Post describes the diet today: “Some Dieters Have Chosen Paleolithic Fare — and the Rest is Prehistory.”

A Colorado State University professor, Loren Cordain, popularized the diet with a book called “The Paleo Diet.”

Jennifer Jeremias, one devotee quoted in the Post article, learned about the diet from CrossFit MPH, which offers nutrition counseling and group workouts. Since starting the diet last spring, she sleeps better, experiences fewer allergy symptoms, and has lost ten pounds.

The rationale is that eating the way our ancestors ate is more natural – and thus more healthy. Supposedly the diet balances insulin and glucose levels, prevents heart disease, and trims weight. In addition to CrossFit training gyms, the grandnephew of Jack LaLanne advocates the diet.

Most striking (but not surprising) to me is the fact that the diet makes Jeremias feel better. When she “cheats,” she says, “I immediately feel physically ill, bloated, and really lethargic. I think [before eating Paleo] I was probably feeling like that all the time.”

This is the “missing ingredient,” so to speak, of most diets. People look for results on the scale, instead of inside their own bodies. Truth is, it doesn’t matter which diet you follow, as long as you follow your body’s own feedback mechanisms. The only question that really matters is, How does food make you feel?

To be more specific: What happens when you gorge on cookies, alcohol, or foods you’re allergic to? Conversely, how do you feel after eating whole, healthy foods?

Answer those questions, and let the answers dictate your decisions. We have a lot more choices than our ancestors did, and a lot more information. Most important is not what the cave people did, but how food affects us as individuals. Just listen to your own body, and eat accordingly. I know it’s not easy, but it’s a better plan than following the advice of any expert, or any fad.

What Fat Students Might Learn from Exercise

National Public Radio caused an uproar this week when they reported that at Lincoln University, a historically black Pennsylvania college, students with a body-mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher must take a physical education class in order to graduate.

NPR, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times engaged dozens of readers in heated debates about whether the policy is fair to fat students. Detractors raised concerns about nutritious foods on campus, anorexic students, smokers, cooking classes, and the validity of the BMI.

James DeBoy, chairman of Lincoln’s department of health, physical education and recreation, defended the policy, which does not insist that students lose weight — only that they take a fitness-walking and conditioning class. Colleges “test, they assess,” he told NPR’s Michelle Norris. “We know that obesity and its co-morbidities are going to rob individuals of quality and quantity of life… We have to stand tall. Tell it like it is. Are we going to be criticized? Absolutely. But we have to do what is right.”

Oddly absent from the hullabaloo is this fact: Physical activity enhances learning.

Read Spark, by neuroscientist John J. Ratey, M.D. Sure, exercise builds muscle, strengthens bone, guards against heart attack and stroke, improves balance, and decreases your chances of getting depressed. But the revolutionary science presented in this book explains the effect of physical activity on the brain’s ability to absorb and retain information. Exercise is the “magic pill” that enables students – for instance, students of any size at Lincoln University — to become educated, which, last I checked, was the goal of educational institutions.

This body-brain connection is the main reason that all students, not just overweight ones, should take required physical education classes in every university, high school, elementary school, and pre-school.

“It turns out that moving our muscles produces proteins that travel through the bloodstream and into the brain, where they play pivotal roles in the mechanisms of our highest thought processes,” writes Ratey. “The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grown and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

“What’s the point of this? What does my BMI have to do with my academic outcome?” asked Dionard Henderson, a first year Lincoln student, in a commentary in the university’s newspaper, The Lincolnian.

Here’s the answer, Dionard: Physical activity (not BMI) has a lot to do with your academic outcome. Weight is not the problem, and discrimination is not the answer. The answer for all of us, regardless of our weight, is exercise. Go study the relationship between exercise and the brain, and it will change the way you move, which will change the way you think, which will change the way you learn.

Fit Tip #7

Do you notice how you want to move – & eat, & when? Path to fitness: noticing. The same as path to Zen.

Fit Tip #1

Count calories if you must. Or measure waist and bust. But food is not your foe. Though often, less is mo.

Fit Tip #2

One third of us have too much weight; another third: obese. The skinny third has problems too; remember that, oh please.

Whole Foods Diet Experiment

To heal my gall bladder and prevent surgery, I just switched from a very healthy no-meat diet to an even-healthier no-meat diet without fish, eggs, dairy products, fried foods, or processed foods. Oh yes, and also no caffeine or alcohol.

I am avoiding all the things that were triggering attacks (Chinese food, iced tea, eggs, tuna, salmon) and while I’m at it, avoiding the things I’m allergic to (dairy products) since some experts suggest gall bladder attacks are mostly a result of allergic reactions.

While this may appear to be a terribly “restrictive” diet, it doesn’t seem that way to me. It seems quite rational – like the way I was meant to eat.

After about 10 days I feel much less hungry – surprisingly. I would have thought a vegan diet would make me more hungry.

I wonder if I was chronically hungry in the past because I was hungry for the nutrients I was not receiving.

Eating used to be almost annoying; I’d eat simply to make my hunger go away. Now I’m eating to give my body what it needs, and am surprised to notice that food tastes better, more satisfying. I seem to be waking up to the deliciousness of simple things: apples, Clementines, even broccoli.

I’m not sure if this will heal my gall bladder but it’s an interesting experiment!

Also I have no cravings (so far) for anything except what I’m thinking of as whole foods.

A colleague told me that there are many things people ingest that “the body does not recognize as food.” That rang true.

I’m determined to only put things in my mouth that my body will not only recognize as food, but welcome.

I’d be interested in others’ experiences, experiments, or responses.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation MNelson@aahperd.org

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Food Choices: Not as Easy as Pie

“Just make healthy food choices,” diet gurus say. As if choosing to be well nourished and svelte were simple.

Brian Wansink, a Cornell professor and founder of Consumer Camp, studies food choices in Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab. An article in this month’s Stanford Magazine (“Mind Over Platter”) desribes some of his fascinating (and helpful) findings:

1) We eat more M&M’s when they’re sorted by color.

2) We eat more nuts or candies from a jar when we can see through the jar than when it’s opaque.

3) We eat more popcorn if given a huge bucket than we do if given a medium-sized bucket. Same goes for plates.

4) We value food more when it comes with pleasant surprise, even a simple thing like a plastic toy. (Parents filling school lunchboxes, take note. Also anyone planning a dinner party. Airline dieticians – ignore this! We’d really rather have edible food!)

5) We prefer food with exotic, descriptive names – such as Bavarian Dark Forest Chocolate Cake – as opposed to chocolate cake. Same goes for Starbucks’ “grande chai soy latte” and infinite other variations on that theme.

The “takeaway” lesson? We’re not as “in control” as we might think we are. Our choices and perceptions are greatly influenced by the subconscious, which has its own ideas about what it likes and wants. Therefore, pay attention not only to food, but to how it’s prepared and served and described. And if you prefer not to eat a lot of popcorn, never buy the big bucket.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation MNelson@aahperd.org

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Fat Friends: Obesity Study Hard to Swallow

The “fat friendship” story was all over the media this morning. Yikes.

The implications of this are so upsetting I’m already eating my seventh Hershey’s kiss.

(Good news: check out the “nutritional information” on the package. Serving size is nine!)

Really, though, could it be true that just having a fat friend or spouse can somehow make you fat?

So says this new research based on the famous Framingham Heart Study, which is tracking more than 12,000 people over 32 years. “Social networks play a surprisingly powerful role in determining an individual’s chances of gaining weight, transmitting an increased risk of becoming obese from wives to husbands, from brothers to brothers and from friends to friends,” reported the Washington Post.

My heart hurts just hearing this. Aren’t fat people already shunned and mocked enough? Now they have to take responsibility for everyone’s fat as well? Yikes. (And she pops Hershey’s kiss Number Eight.)

Sure sounds credible, coming from Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard Medical School, and to be published tomorrow in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Watch out,” the new study seemed to imply. “Stay away! Get too close to a dreaded Fat Person, and their fat will magically and irreversibly rub off on YOU!”

As an afterthought, at the end of the Washington Post article and also at the CNN report I saw this morning, reporters note that the opposite also seems to be true: when one person loses weight, so do their friends.

This is the concept behind Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, running clubs, and many other health-oriented groups. We inspire each other to achieve our goals.

Why wasn’t this the headline?

Why aren’t researchers putting half as much energy into promoting healthy behaviors as they are into exploring obesity?

We already know what prevents obesity: daily physical activity and relatively healthy food choices. You don’t have to be a nut about it. You can have some Hershey’s kisses now and then (she says, finishing off Number Nine.)

The key is to move: moderate to vigorous activity on most days.

But by all means, please please please don’t abandon your fat friends out of your own fat-o-phobia or misinterpretation of this research.

Fat friends do not cause obesity; overeating and under-exercising do.

The moral of this story is not to avoid fat people.

It’s to be a leader yourself, inspiring all of your friends and colleagues, fat, thin, and middle-sized, to follow in your footsteps, literally, and choose a path of daily physical activity.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation
MNelson@aahperd.org

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A Whole Lot of Skinny, Unhappy, Unhealthy People

The news on the front page of the Washington Post today (“Way to Shrink, Grow Fat Is Found”) did not make me jump for joy. And I’m the kind of person who DOES jump for joy – unlike those who only jump to burn calories.

Georgetown University scientists have discovered that these three things are true of mice:

1) If you stress them out (more on stress techniques for mice later) and feed them junk food, they gain more weight than their little mouse-peers who eat junk food without being stressed out; and

2) If you inject mice with Certain Stuff (more on that later too,) they don’t gain weight, even if they’re stressed AND eating junk food.

3) Injections of that same Certain Stuff can actually shrink fat deposits by up to 50 percent in two weeks.

You see why jumping for joy comes to mind. Surely, if these results hold true for humans, this Certain Stuff is going to become bigger than Google itself.

Can you imagine the line of fat people lined up to get these shots? Now add to that line all the imaginary fat people (those who obsess over fat that isn’t really there,) and the pharmaceutical company that gets the patent on this stuff is going to get one heck of a fat payday.

Here’s the catch, though. Imagine the impact on physical activity.

How many people currently exercise for the health of it? Or, better yet, the sheer joy of it?

Most people already get zero exercise.

And from the looks on the faces of the people at my gym, the large majority who exercise at all do so because of some grim determination to avoid getting fat.

What if all these people stopped riding the stationery bicycle and doing Pilates? What if the only place they ever ran was to the doctor’s office, for their next fat-blocking shot?

Here’s what would happen: There would be a lot of skinny, unhappy, unhealthy people in the world.

We know that physical activity is essential to help prevent osteoporosis, heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, and a zillion other bad things that can happen.

We know that physical activity is an antidote to depression.

We know that people who sit around on their butts all day — even if those butts become fashionably thin — get depressed and sick.

Which is why I’m not jumping for joy.

Neither are the stressed mice, by the way. To stress them, scientists made them stand in cold water or endure the company of alpha mice. They were trying to create the mouse equivalent of chronic human stress, such as sitting in traffic – or having to endure the company of an alpha boss.

Standing in cold water does not exactly bring to mind Abu Gahraib, but for the record I do not support mouse torture techniques, and hate the thought that scientists get paid to think this stuff up.

The other thing I promised to explain is what I called Certain Stuff. It’s a substance that blocks another substance that triggers the stress-induced obesity phenomenon, apparently. Read the Washington Post story if you’re the kind of person who can understand that neuropeptidies are not a form of detergent.

All I know is that anything that gives people another excuse to avoid moving is going to be one big fat mistake.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation
MNelson@aahperd.org

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Easy, Effective Diet Plan

Eat less for dinner.

That’s pretty much it. Eat a normal breakfast and lunch. Snack if you’re hungry.

Oh yeah – choose healthy foods. That’s a big caveat.

But the real trick to this diet — or maintenance plan — is to eat less for dinner. Just a little less, so you go to bed a wee big hungry.

Lying there in bed, you don’t need to do anything (usually,) so you don’t need fuel. You can let your body burn off a few calories because of the caloric deficiency you just created by eating a little less than you were hungry for.

The next morning, eat a normal breakfast. Eat a normal lunch. Oh yeah – keep choosing healthy foods. Then eat less for dinner.

The reason this works is because you’re not starving yourself. You don’t feel deprived, emotionally or physically. You just feel a wee bit hungy – which, on the way to sleep, I find to be a rather pleasant sensation, much preferable to going to bed full.

Most importantly, you wake up happy, because you’re a little thinner – and you still get to eat a regular breakfast and lunch.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation
MNelson@aahperd.org

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