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 #14

You tell me you can’t face the scale. I understand, I say. But losing or maintaining weight begins with truth: Go weigh.

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.

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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