November 12, 2014

Better than 80/20 - Diet, Pt.1

(Warning: That pledge I made to write shorter posts? Yeah, not happening today. Not happening for the next 2-3 posts, in fact. But once we get past me talking about my food & exercise, I really am going to try to keep things more succinct and reader-friendly. Just don’t hold it against me if that doesn’t occur.)

Well, here we are. The post you may or may not have been waiting for, but here it is nonetheless. Today I’ll give you the rundown on what I’m doing with my diet that I think is helping me feel (and maybe look) better than I did a few months ago, when I posted about feeling like a fraud. To bring you up to speed, last time, I covered my supplements. And assuming at least some of the page hits on that one are legitimate and not all of them are coming from automated search engines in Russia and China (although there is a freakish amount of those), there are a couple of people out there who are curious about what I’m doing these days. Oddly enough, my posts about beef shanks and beef hearts have way more hits, but on the off chance that someone out there finds something new or interesting here, I’ll yammer on for a bit about what I’m eating.

It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone really wants to know what I put down my piehole, but I said I would share, and I don’t want to renege on that. I’m no rock star, but people seem to be fairly curious about what nutrition and health-minded professionals eat. Since I am technically in that latter category, even though my influence is small at the moment, it couldn’t hurt to give you a glimpse into what’s on my plate and in my fridge.

So I’ll talk about my chow for a post or two, then my exercise habits, and then we’ll get back to the blog’s regularly scheduled programming. (For a look at what’s coming up, see this post.)

The Fine Print

Before we jump in, let me caveat things: What I said about supplementation is equally true of diet: this is what I’m doing, and what is working for me. These are not recommendations customized for you. If you find something of interest and decide to try something a little different in your own routine, be my guest. Just know that this is not a prescription or a protocol. It’s just my grub. What I eat, and when-ish I eat it.

As we get into things, you’ll see that some of what I do goes quite against what we’re used to hearing about what and when we should eat. I am breaking some major dietary commandments. (But then, many of those commandments come from the same people who brought us the low-fat, high-carb diet, and we all know what a resounding success that’s been.) Still, some of what I do goes against even the more ancestral-type recommendations. *Shrug.* What can I say? I am a work in progress. There’s plenty of room for improvement, and I am trying to make there be less of that over time. I’m making slow progress, but I stand by what I said about things being better than they were a while back. If you’re looking for perfection or dietary sainthood, this isn’t the blog for you. There’s more to life than what we eat.

One more caveat before we jump in: The things that work for me work because I’m me. Your job/lifestyle/childcare situation/medical conditions might preclude you from doing some of what I do. I have no known gluten intolerance. I only have to cook for myself. I don’t have to take into consideration the taste preferences and/or food intolerances of a picky or uncooperative spouse, or finicky kids. I am beholden to no one’s schedule but my own. I can go food shopping, cook, and eat when it suits me. Also, I don’t mind leftovers. Even though I’m cooking for one, I often cook in big batches and am perfectly happy to eat the same thing for lunch or dinner three and even four nights in a row. If this doesn’t describe you, no problem. The world needs its high-maintenance eaters. (I still love ya!) You can make big batches anyway. Just freeze some, so instead of leftovers the next night (and the night after that), you can defrost it say, a week or a month later, when it’ll seem “new” again. Sweet!

I Am Not a Zealot

So what am I up to with my diet? Not a whole lot, actually. That is, not a whole lot that’s unique, special, or super-shiny and new. Just the basics. Imagine that. When you eat real food, it kind of just works. If you’re looking for the stellar new program that will tell you exactly what to eat, how much of it, and when, down to the finely calibrated ounce, gram, and minute, you’re gonna be disappointed here. I kinda just eat. If you do want someone to treat you like a three-year-old and dictate in no uncertain terms what, when, and how to eat, I’m sure someone, somewhere, has that for sale for $19.99. (But only if you act now! The price goes up tomorrow!)
This stuff does not belong near my food.

I do try to manage things somewhat, but it’s at a systemic level, taking into account some basic physiology and endocrinology. I’ve said before that I don’t weigh, measure, or portion anything out. If you have the time and inclination to do that, more power to ya. Honestly, I can’t be bothered. I love food. I love cooking. I love eating. I refuse to turn those into an adventure in advanced calculus. (Yes, tracking can be helpful, and I've done it in the past. Right now, though, I'm not into it.)

Because I don’t weigh, measure, or track anything, there’s a chance I’m consuming fewer calories overall than I had been. But if I am, the thing to keep in mind is, I’m not trying to. I am not actively restricting anything or forcing myself to go hungry for extended periods of time. Some days, I’m fairly certain I am consuming relatively few calories. But others, I load up on fat like nobody’s business. So in the end, over the course of a few days, it’s probably a wash.

I’m still not 100% “clean,” “Paleo,” or sugar- or gluten-free, nor do I feel any burning desire to get there. But I’m better than 80/20, and way better than the 70/30 I talked about a few months ago. I definitely don’t feel like a fraud anymore. Let’s put it at about 88/12. Since I’m not claiming to be 100%, my “88” includes things the zealots would consider either totally verboten, or part of their off-roading “12,” but whatever. I’m more low-carb than I am Paleo. For me, my best success seems to come from managing my total carbohydrate intake, whether those carbs come from potatoes, or fruit, or chocolate, or—*gasp!*—bread.  For example, my “allowed” 88% includes peanuts and cashews, and I have no problem advertising that I enjoy these delicious, fat- and protein-rich legumes. Yes, they’re legumes, but in terms of carb content, they’re not exactly kidney beans (never mind sugar cubes), know what I mean? I also keep things like GG Scandinavian Bran Crispbread or Suzie’s Thin Cakes on hand for the rare occasion when I want something with a crunch that’s darn near impossible to replicate with coconut and almond flour. (And I mean a crispy crunch; not the kind of crunch you get from, say, raw celery.)

My biggest indulgence, in terms of sheer amount, is peanut butter. I consume obscene amounts of this stuff. (And to give you some idea of what I mean by “obscene,” I invite those of you who’ve seen the movie Pretty Woman to recall the scene in the clothing store on Rodeo Drive, where Richard Gere tells the manager they’re going to spend an obscene amount of money there, and the manager says, “Exactly how obscene an amount of money were you talking about? Just…profane, or reeeeally offensive?” And Richard Gere says, “Reeeeally offensive.” That’s how much PB.) So I have no qualms telling you I eat peanut butter, but the amount is a little crazy, and I’m working on reducing it. (Rest assured, though, it’s the natural stuff, and not the stuff with hydrogenated soybean oil in it.) Copious amounts of PB might not be the best thing for me to eat, but in terms of progress (and not perfection,) I’ll take that over the cookies and ice cream I was eating a while back.

So when I say “88/12,” the “allowed” foods that fall into my 88 include a few things the orthodox eaters out there would consider “cheating.”

Fasting / Insulin / Hormonal Regulation of Appetite

My main concern with regard to keeping myself at an appropriate weight and maintaining my long-term health and cognitive function (plus short term just feeling good) is controlling my blood sugar and insulin levels. If you happened to read the (├╝ber-long) post about my mother’s ugly and difficult road of health complications, you’ll understand why this is paramount for me. I’ve been doing this all along with a relatively low-carb diet, but I had definitely let “carb creep” work its magic wreak its havoc. (Notice I did not say “I became a victim of carb creep.” ‘Cuz I didn’t. Nobody’s a victim of food. The cookies on the receptionist's desk at work and the dishes of baby Kit-Kats and Snickers didn’t pry my mouth open and force themselves down my esophagus. I own the choices I made, and where they got me.) So while I wasn’t downing all-you-can eat pasta and breadsticks at The Olive Garden, I wasn’t quite as low-carb as I wanted/needed to be, either.

So I’ve cleaned things up a bit. One thing that has helped a lot is waiting a while to eat in the morning. I don’t like calling this “fasting,” because fasting implies a few things I don’t necessarily think are happening with me. I’m just not eating first thing in the morning, that’s all. I’ve found that if I eat fairly early, I turn into a bottomless pit for the rest of the day. It’s like flipping a switch. Even if what I eat is low-carb, it seems to trigger hunger throughout the rest of the day far more than if I’d eaten nothing. And maybe this is a sign that eating regularly “keeps the metabolism up,” but I find it more likely that it just messes with my physiology and spurs me to feel like I need far more food than my body actually requires. So yes, like I mentioned earlier, there’s a chance my skimping on food earlier in the day results in a net decrease in total caloric intake, but when evening comes, you best believe I am chowing down. So it’s hard to say. (Maybe sometime soon I will get over myself and start plugging everything into Fitday to see where I fall. Could be revelatory.)

As “don’t (ever!) call him John” Kiefer, an unabashed champion of low-carb diets, said, “Your body starts each day as a fat-burning machine, and the key to simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain is to avoid screwing that up.”

I have really been taking this to heart the past few months, keeping my insulin & glucose levels low-ish for as long as possible until later in the day. The longer I go without spiking blood glucose and insulin, the more my body is required to use fat (both my stored body fat and dietary fat I eat from whatever low-carb, high-fat meals I do have in the morning and afternoon) to fuel me. (And remember, as we discussed here, when I say my body is using fat to “fuel me,” I don’t just mean if I were to go for a run or even be especially active at all. Even just walking to the bus stop, or sitting around in my cubicle getting work done—my body still needs to use energy for the zillions of things going on inside it when I’m sitting still—and provided I haven’t dumped a huge load of carbohydrate into it, my body will provide most of that energy by using fat.)

So I usually don’t eat for a few hours after I wake up. I do have coffee with a generous amount of heavy cream, a sprinkle of stevia, and maybe 1-2tsp of coconut oil, right off the spoon, if I’m feelin’ frisky. (And that is teaspoons, not tablespoons. This is not even close to Bulletproof Coffee.) Sometimes I even add a splash of sugar-free DaVinci syrup. (Yes, those contain sucralose. No, I’m not terribly concerned. Go ahead, disown me.) I’ve tested my blood sugar afterward and it doesn’t seem to affect me. Does that mean everyone should use Splenda and that it’s totally safe regarding issues other than blood sugar? That is a decision you will have to make for yourself. (But if you’re female, and you don’t touch sucralose or saccharin with a ten foot pole, I encourage you to take a look at the ingredients in your foundation or your body lotion, assuming you use beauty products beyond just coconut oil, baking soda, and apple cider vinegar. Make no mistake; your body is eating those just as surely as if you’d swallowed ‘em.)

Hunger/Snacking – Bueno/No Bueno

So most days, I wait until I’m hungry enough for a meal to have my first substantial amount of food for the day. Sometimes, this is around 9am, sometimes it’s 11, sometimes it’s 1pm. It varies. The biggest thing I have been reminded of is that it’s okay to be hungry. Hunger is a physiological feeling that many of us—even some of us in the low-carb/Paleo/Primal/whatever crowd are semi-unaccustomed to. News flash: we don’t have to cram something down our pieholes at the first inkling of wanting some food. I’ve come to believe it’s actually a good thing to let yourself get hungry. I’m not telling anyone to starve themselves, but I do recommend getting reacquainted with hunger. You’re not going to starve if you don’t reach for some grub the instant food starts sounding like a good idea. In fact, allowing yourself to get good and hungry before eating is probably the best way to make sure the enzymes and other mechanistic “stuff” work the way they need to. Your body is supposed to be able to go several hours without eating—and without you feeling shaky, lightheaded, irritable, and making everyone around you miserable and slightly terrified of your mood swings. Thanks to things like lipolysis and gluconeogenesis, and super-sweet hormones like glucagon, healthy bodies can go hours (days, even, if ever necessary) without food.

(Tangent: hypoglycemia is not normal. Think about it from that gool ol’ evolutionary perspective: It would have been a huge survival DISadvantage to be out roaming the plains/savannah/whatever, and be caught with symptoms of low blood sugar about 15,000 years before the appearance of Reese’s pieces. Heck, you’d have been in trouble if you were in a landscape without fruit, for cryin’ out loud. Like many other animals, we are designed to be able to go safely and comfortably for hours between feedings. I’m not saying hypoglycemia doesn’t exist, just that it’s not natural. It’s the product of a messed-up carbohydrate metabolism, largely due to the modern diet & lifestyle.)

If this is you when it’s been a whopping 3 hours since you last ate, there’s a problem.

Along these lines, I don’t snack as much as I used to. Here and there, but not much. Now, when I get “snacky,” more often than not, I tell myself to wait a little while. The urge to snack either goes away, or if it doesn’t, about 20-45 minutes later, I’m hungry enough for a full meal, so I have one. I think this is good because snacking—even on lower-carb foods—keeps us out of the post-prandial and between-meal windows, where the good stuff happens: the aforementioned gluconeogenesis and lipolysis, digestion, giving the poor pancreatic beta cells a little break, etc. If you’re constantly introducing food into the system, your body never really gets a chance to ramp up the biochemical pathways that are supposed to kick in between meals, because you are never between meals.

If you’re eating every 3 hours and having snacks, to boot, tell me when, exactly, your body has to break down your fat stores, or has a chance to bring your blood glucose and insulin levels back to a nice low-ish baseline. (Even if you’re eating lower carb, I think this still applies. The blood sugar and insulin factors are less impacted there, but even so, I think the body does good stuff between meals. Autophagy happens all the time, not just when we’re fasting. Maybe it’s ramped up during a fast, but our bodies “clean up” and clear out debris whenever we let them, and a good way to interfere with this beneficial process is to force the body’s focus onto dealing with overly frequent influxes of food [even low-carb food], and away from repair and regeneration.)

It’s a good idea to give your body the opportunity to do what it’s supposed to do. You know what they say: use it or lose it. This is likely why so many high-carb eaters do have hypoglycemia – their bodies aren’t accustomed to having to make glucose from glycerol, lactate, and amino acids. The enzymes involved are asleep at the wheel because they haven’t been needed in ages. So they are dependent on constant influxes of carbohydrate. (These are the people for whom those “eat every few hours to keep your blood sugar up” and snack on grapes or rice cakes recommendations were created. Why is no one asking why these people can’t go 4-5 foodless hours without getting shaky? You shouldn’t have to have something sweet within reach at all times or risk passing out.)

I completely disagree with this: Eat smaller meals and don’t skip the snacks. “When your body goes several hours without food, it starts to assume it’s never going to get food again, upping the odds of eating binges and dangerous cravings.” They’re kidding, right? The “starvation mode” that involves metabolism slowing down and the catabolism of muscle tissue in order to feed your body when you’ve gone a long time without food IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN AFTER TWO OR THREE HOURS WITHOUT FOOD. People should NOT “NEED” to eat every few hours. If they do, they should ask themselves WHY they are craving food a mere two hours after they ate. Contrary to Men’s Fitness magazine’s advice, you will not enter starvation mode and lose precious muscle if you go three freaking hours without shoving something down your piehole.

I also completely disagree with this one: Never Skip Breakfast. For all the reasons I stated above, you can imagine how I feel about this. “Breakfast is the earliest meal of the day.” Yes, that’s true, but all it means is that it’s your earliest meal of the day. Whether it happens at 6am or 1pm, it’s still “breakfast,” because you are breaking the fast, in that it’s the first time you’re eating anything substantial since going to sleep the night before. (I’ll refer you again to Kiefer’s article on breakfast, because it’s golden.)

It’s not that I never snack. But when I do, I try to make it something that will still keep my blood sugar and insulin nice and low. Most often, I snack on nuts. (A little omega-6? Yes. The hardcore zealots can bite me. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, and hazelnuts ain’t cottonseed oil, people.) For snacking purposes, I mostly stick to raw nuts. Once in a while, I’ll do roasted unsalted—not because I have anything against salt [in fact, I have a post on the awesomeness of salt coming up soon], but because I find it easier to walk away from raw nuts after a reasonable portion than from roasted, and much easier than from roasted & salted. The more doctored up nuts are, the harder they are to stay away from once I start. (I do not agree with everything obesity researcher Stephan Guyenet says, but I will admit there is some merit to his food reward angle. After all, for most people, a pile of steamed broccoli is less appealing than that same broccoli covered in bacon and melted cheese, right?)

Now that I am making a conscious effort to limit snacking, I’ve realized how much of it I’d been doing. My day-job office is loaded with candy. Right now, we’re in post-Halloween candy dump mode, but that just means there’s more than usual, and there’s usually plenty. Donuts, homemade cookies and cakes, plus candy dishes on many people’s desks, filled with all the happy, brightly-colored, tempting mini chocolates you can imagine. When I was feeling angry/depressed/annoyed/bored, they were a 60-second morale boost, and until I stopped reaching for them on autopilot, I wasn’t aware of just how often I was doing that. (The homemade stuff got me more often than the cheap candy. Probably because I couldn’t see the ingredient list. Even now, the homemade stuff still tempts me, but Im better about staying away from it. I think of it like a museum: Look, but don't touch. [Most of the time.])

One piece here, one piece there…by the end of the day, maybe it was 3 or 4. And that’s really not that big a deal, except it can mess with blood sugar, and it was contributing to the carb creep I mentioned earlier, especially when combined with the junk I was eating at home. And probably even more important than carb creep, my grabbing bits and pieces of this-and-that had become a habit. A regular occurrence, and a casual one, at that. (Ive said in the past that little onesie-twosies arent so bad. The problem is when those morph into fivesie-sixies.) And that, my friends, I believe is a slippery slope. How long before I would go back to pasta and breadsticks, simply because I’m not thinking about the consequences? So nipping the unconscious snacking in the bud has been very helpful for rewiring the circuit/disrupting the pattern.

A bite here, a piece there. It adds up. And that's not really a big deal...
until becomes your new normal.

Back to real food:

I generally have my first meal of the day later than most people. Beyond that, I tend to eat the majority of my total calories (and carbs) later in the evening. In theory, by not having eaten all that much earlier on (and most of it being low-carb anyway), later in the day my glycogen stores are lower and most of the ingested carbohydrates will go toward replenishing them, rather than being stored as fat (especially if I had a good workout at some point during the day). I guess you could say I’m carb and calorie “backloading” – that is, eating most of my food (including carbs) later in the day.

This is practically a sin punishable by death or excommunication in mainstream and ancestral nutrition land. What can I say. It’s working for me. (Granted, this is probably the reason I can go many hours without eating in the morning. If I eat more food at night, it makes sense that I don’t wake up ravenous.) But I am going to slowly transition myself away from this to see what happens. There’s a lot of data saying we’re better off eating less as the day goes on. You know the old phrase, “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.” Well, I dunno. I feel pretty good eating breakfast like a serf and dinner like a king, but I’m willing to change it up and see what happens. It does make sense to me that it’s not the greatest idea to go to bed on a full stomach, but I can also picture our hunter-gatherer ancestors sitting down late in the day to feast on the spoils of their hunting and gathering, and maybe after some storytelling and stargazing, they probably nodded off for a while. Wild speculation on my part, yes, and of course, we moderns here in 2014 can’t model everything after what our hominid ancestors did [which might not be “optimal” anyway]. I’m just saying that while I can see the case for eating more food earlier on in the day and tapering off as the hours pass, I also don’t think the surest way to health and weight disaster is eating a large meal at night.


I’ll spare you any more reading for now and save the specific foods I eat, and how I plan, prepare, and cook them for another post.

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Hi Amy,
    I agree that the notion of 3 meals plus 2 snacks per day is ridiculous - just couldn't fit it in, and I often pretend that I'm hungry 6 hours after lunch (actually my breakfast) just so that I can finish eating dinner at least 3 hours before bedtime. I also have the "problem" of wanting to eat all day if I have breakfast soon after getting out of bed. Only today at my "outdoor fitness" class, the trainer reminded us to get our 3 meals plus 2 snacks in; and get a good meal into us as soon as you get home from training (cripes we exercise out tongues more than our bodies).....I just bite my tongue and think..."well, I'll have nothing until breakfast in about 3 hours time" He is going to give us some information sheets on nutrition - wow, can't wait!! Why am I the only one who doesn't get light headed after pushups; why am I the only one who doesn't have to sit down after a 5 minute circuit? Why is it that I'm by far the slimest (ie least fat) and most toned, and I'm the only one who dares eat saturated the bucket load! Oh, that's right - I've got high metabolism (but hold on, you just told me that skipping meals and snacks tanks your metabolism); oh well in that case it must be your genes.....Must stop rambling. Thanks for your post. Rosemary

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. HA! *Exactly.* Love it! I bet those nutrition sheets will be very, um..."interesting." ;-)

  2. Yes, eating regular meals is so indoctrinated in our society. I went to see my new young family doctor, and when I mentioned that I occasionally skip meals and do mini-fasts, the first comment was "you shouldn't do that!". The kid inside me, wanted to pout and say "your not the boss of me", but instead we had a small chat about the benefits of intermittent fasting. On a side note about blood levels, I learned that its probably not best to try an intro to Crossfit (after being mostly an office slug / less intense exercise person, for many years), then doing a blood test not long after when the muscles are sore and healing. Leads to a young doctor seeing things in the tests results that one is on a critical path to kidney failure or a heart attack, and a directive to go to emergency right away. The emergency staff were not amused about a false alarm, then again neither was I. : (, but its nice to know the doctor cared. : ) Congrats on the reference to one of your posts my Mark Sisson, the recognition of your efforts is growing.



    1. I'd like to think I'm starting to have a wider audience, but you know what? I submitted that link to MDA myself. What can I say...I thought it was important, and I haven't seen that perspective explained in many other places. :-/

      As for your doc, yeah, good to know he was alert, but that's a pretty scary overreaction! Glad you're all right. It's interesting what exercise does to us in the short term, versus long. Technically, it's "damaging," right? It tears us up. Acutely, it takes its toll. It's in the healing and recovering from the damage that we get stronger and healthier. And it's funny about the fasting -- back in the day (whenever that officially was), fasting was routinely "prescribed" as therapy! (That's sort of how the ketogenic diet was discovered...ancient docs took notice that seizures stopped when patients fasted. Wasn't long before they made the connection to carbohydrates, specifically.) I hope some of what you said about IF made sense to him/her.