The Low Carb Paleo Approach
It was three years ago when I transitioned to what could be labeled a Paleo diet. In the past I had tried many different nutritional approaches which included raw food, vegan, and vegetarianism. I was searching for ways I could improve my health after having a lot of health problems as a child. I had grown up eating the Standard American Diet (SAD), and I payed the price by being sick often. I suffered from tonsillitis and strep throat on numerous occasions, and I had to have my tonsils out at the age of twelve. That eliminated my throat problems, but I still got sick, just now I would get sick with bronchitis and sinus infections. This continued on for a good portion of my life, all the way through college, and even beyond. On top of this, for years at a time, I suffered from social anxiety with panic attacks and the whole nine yards. That started in 5th grade when I began feeling pressure in sports. Social anxiety really plagued me in my middle school years. It eased up for the majority of high school and college, but hit me hard again around the age of thirty. It held me back from playing a lot of sports and taking part in other social opportunities. In my early thirties, I wanted to improve my health so I began experimenting with those nutritional strategies I mentioned earlier. While being a major improvement over my SAD diet, raw food, vegan, and vegetarianism weren’t very effective in improving my health. I was still suffering from frequent bouts of sickness and anxiety. On top of that, my new passion of endurance sports, was breaking my body down. I was dealing with injuries, the worst being Achilles tendonosis, and I even had a bout of over-training. I finally found some relief when I switched to a Paleo diet. I believe the key was reducing my carbohydrate intake, and sorry to my vegan and vegetarian friends, but incorporating some meat back into my diet. It has made four huge improvements in my life.
The first thing I noticed was I didn’t get sick as much, in fact, I get sick about once a year now. I still can’t shake that October cold for some reason. I used to always sense when I was getting sick, and once the progression of symptoms started, there was no stopping it. I knew I probably would be sick for the next two weeks. The sinus and bronchitis stuff was slow moving and tough to get over. Then I would get blasted with antibiotics over and over again, which we now know, does terrible things for your gut and its flora. Now when I feel like a cold is coming on, most times it never develops into anything. I believe the main reason for this boost in my immune system is the reduction of sugar in my diet. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that the function of neutrophils to engulf bacteria was greatly reduced with the ingestion of sugar.
Another great benefit I noticed from changing my diet was a reduction and then elimination of my anxiety symptoms. I used to suffer from social anxiety and it made my life quite difficult. I went to counseling and while finding it to be helpful, I never could get complete control over it. I had my share of negative thought patterns, like imagining negative outcomes in social situations (negative forecasting), but I always felt like there was more going on physically. My body was quick to flip the switch to fight or flight. Once I started to eat lower carb, I noticed a sense of calm come over me. Experimenting with very low carb diets has only increased my sense of calm. There is some anecdotal evidence linking ketogenic diets to euphoria and feelings of well being. A study out of the Neurobiology of Aging showed that dietary ketosis improved neurocognitive function (improved memory), most likely due to correction of hyperinsulinemia , reduced inflammation, and enhanced energy metabolism. It may be a way to combat early neurodegeneration. It appears that a diet reduced in carbs, can have positive affects upon mental health.
My chronic injuries seemed to finally mend. My most chronic injury was a case of Achilles tendonosis that flared up during my over-training phase. During the time that I struggled with the injury, I saw many talented local therapists that helped, but every time I seemed to be recovering, the injury would flare up again. The tendon felt constantly irritated and inflamed. As my diet became lower in carbs, the injury seemed to feel better. When I went ketogenic with my diet, it seemed to truly heal. During a race a year and a half ago, I had partially torn the tendon and I couldn’t walk without an extremely painful limp. It felt like it would never heal. After changing my diet, I was able to train and race all Summer. One last thing that was remarkable to me, while struggling with the injury, every morning I would awake to a very stiff and painful heel. That stiffness and pain is no longer present in the morning. I will admit that there were other factors that played a part in the healing. I know the therapy helped, but it really seemed like my diet change was the final piece to the puzzle in the healing process. A study from John Hopkins revealed when overweight people lose weight through either a low carb or low fat diet, they had significant reductions in inflammation, but the low carb group had the greatest results. However, there was also a study that seemed to show the opposite was true with a low carb diet, and inflammation was increased. From a research standpoint, things look a little inconclusive. I do know that my diet has helped me, but I will admit that it might not be the answer for all people. The following video has information about ketogenic diets if you want to know more.
And finally, my blood work improved. My blood work always seemed to be fairly good with low total cholesterol and decent triglyceride numbers, but a low carb diet has improved upon those numbers. My cholesterol has always been on the low side, and at times, probably too low. Cholesterol is important for building and maintaining cell membranes, it’s converted to bile (important for intestinal absorption of fat and fat soluble vitamins), and it’s a precursor molecule for the synthesis of vitamin D and other hormones. During my over-training phase, my cholesterol was rock bottom, which some would think was a good thing, but with the important functions of cholesterol, it probably wasn’t. Another problem was my HDL stayed chronically low. I was told to exercise more, but I was getting plenty of exercise at the time. High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) particles have been correlated with better cardiovascular health. A low carb diet has been the only thing that has increased my HDL numbers. My triglycerides have gone lower. High triglycerides are linked to atherosclerosis, increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke. My C-reactive protein (CRP) has been extremely low which is a very good thing. CRP is linked to inflammation. My CRP peaked when I was over-trained and eating high carb. Check out this study from the American Journal of Epidemiology showing that a low carb diet had greater reductions in total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides, but greater increase in HDL in comparison to a low fat diet. When I hear people say that they have high LDL, triglycerides, and CRP, in combination with low HDL, a low carb diet may be worth a try.
If you’re wondering what my current approach to nutrition is, I would label it low carb Paleo. With the popularity of the Paleo diet, more and more recipe websites and books have appeared. Some of these began to stray from the original approach. Suddenly, Paleo dessert books were even popping up everywhere. As I began to cave in to my sweet tooth, the carbs began to creep up, and I started to not feel as good. Around that time, a client of mine who is a medical professional, told me to check out the ketogenic diet. I decided to experiment with bringing my carb intake very low, under 50 grams. After getting past the initial carb flu, I really liked the way I felt. The popularity of a high fat, low carb diet has become more mainstream and even the Los Angeles Lakers utilize it. I am not completely convinced about staying in a ketogenic diet for a long period of time, so I cycle between periods of extremely low carbs and times where I increase my intake. Some of the ketogenic diet plans I have seen outlined include foods that I would not care to include in my diet, some that are processed, because the concern is more about the carb intake and not so much the food. I believe the combination of low carb and Paleo is a great way to go. Keep the carbs low and eat natural foods. Mark Sisson, who wrote the Primal Blueprint, recommends 100 to 150 grams for maintenance, and 50 to 100 grams is what he considers the “sweet spot” for weight loss. It continues to be an experiment on myself to figure out where I feel most optimal. After reading Anti-Fragile, by Nassim Nicholas Talib, I have been trying to add a little randomness and disorder to my nutrition. He makes an interesting case for it. Now I randomly throw in an intermittent fast, a vegan meal or day (just veggies, no fake meats or tofu!), high protein meals, periods of extremely low carbs, and times when I indulge in some extra carbs. I also tweak things a bit depending on the season, with more carbs in the Summer when fruit is available. It’s just one big experiment that I am looking forward to continuing in the future.
I feel like a low carb Paleo diet has helped me with immunity, anxiety, the ability to heal, and the reduction of cardiovascular risk factors. It was recently named the worst diet on a list by US News and World Report. I can’t help but take a little offense to that since it has been so helpful in my life. I think Paleo is a great way to label the concept and get people on board with a more natural diet. It’s easy to visualize the caveman diet. People say it’s impossible to truly eat the way of the caveman in these modern times, but I don’t think that’s the point. It’s to eat a natural diet free of processed junk. So while people may question the research and disregard the diet, I will continue to do what works for me. Who knows, maybe it works for me because my 23 and me test kit told me I was 3.3% Neanderthal, putting me in the 99th percentile. But all joking aside, I know these are the results of just one person which doesn’t make for good science and this blog post does contain my own opinions, but I don’t need a research study to prove to me that my results are valid. That being said, I don’t have all the answers and it’s quite possible that what works for me, may not work for you, but something that’s simple and fairly inexpensive compared to medical procedures and medication, may just be worth trying.