Camera and Flask
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Camera and Flask // Steven Gray: Photographer. Storyteller. Artistic journalism and storytelling around the globe. Based in Pensacola, Florida.

Maybe it's not just the carbs...

Last year, I went Primal.  No regrets.  Mark Sisson's book got me going and his blog remains inspirational.

However, Mark isn't the only person who writes on primal living and ancestral health.  Through expanding my knowledge of health and fitness, I have been exposed to the the ideas of other writers and bloggers who talk about the paleo and primal schools of thought.

The Primal Blueprint is a title.  It is a structured "blueprint," written by Mark Sisson, for getting into good health and losing weight.

Bear in mind the meaning of the word "blueprint"--A plan, a map, a diagram.  I most readily associate the word "blueprint" with house-building.  But as we all know, there is more than just one way to build a house.

The Primal Blueprint is Mark Sisson's blueprint.  It is based on sound research.  It is effective for weight loss and body maintenance.  It is, above all, a healthy way to live.

However, promoting this style of living is how Mark Sisson makes a living.  His books are written by and large for people with bad habits and addictions to break.  His meal plan is strictly regimented to bring the greatest results out of the greatest number of people.  He tends to use a lot of general guidelines in his blog.  That keeps his material well-reviewed and ensures that people like myself continue to refer other newcomers to his body of work.

I have followed the Primal Blueprint quite faithfully for the past six months.  But as I wrote before, Mark's books and web essays are not my only source of information.  If you read enough material, it becomes apparent that, although Mark is a larger-than-life figure in the primal/paleo movement, he represents only one school of thought.  I do not say this to denigrate Mark or his work.  Quite to the contrary, I believe that Mark has done more good than possibly any other individual in the paleo community.  But I want to explore some thoughts of my own.

If one explores the "paleo diet," The Primal Blueprint is a fairly standard first encounter.  But beyond the body-repairing information it offers for someone who is insulin-resistant and overweight, questions are rising that the paleo movement has not yet done research to answer fully.  I have a few of my own which I would like to pose at this time.

Once the body has had time to repair itself, that is, for insulin sensitivity to be restored and for the body to adapt to the ideal fat-burning state for its energy needs, are natural carbohydrates still a problem?

I ask this because Richard Nikoley has done some extremely interesting self-experimentation lately, purposefully including extra starch in his diet in the form of potatoes.  However, he has not increased his caloric intake, he has simply changed the  fat : protein : carbohydrate  ratios of his daily meals.  And he has had good results, actually seeing beneficial changes in body composition.

This is one factor which increased my curiosity on the subject.  Another was a point raised by Angelo Coppola in the last episode of his podcastLatest in Paleo.  He has also been eating more starch each week in the form of sweet potatoes and rice, and has reported results similar to the "leaning out" described by Richard Nikoley: looser pants, increased muscle definition.

This comes after the mainstream paleo community's applying a long-standing mantra of "lower = better" in reference to carb intake.  But the movement is still relatively new.  Its influence is creeping into everything from 60 Minutes to celebrity fitness, but there have yet to be many serious studies done to provide new baselines with which to measure more specific effects.  More on that in a minute.

Is it carbs on their own, or the kind of carbs that are the problem?

The paleo diet, in its broadest definition, is simply eating the foods which our spear-weilding ancestors would have access to.  Meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, fruit, nuts.  Basically, this is a "whole foods" diet.  Foods which can be consumed in their natural state without the need for processing.  Grains are excluded from this list (yes, even whole grains) because not only do they require husking, grinding and the addition of extra ingredients to be eaten at all, the grains of today are not the same as what existed a hundred years ago, much less thousands of years ago.  And it goes without saying that the recent phenomenon of mass gluten intolerance is yet another reason to avoid grain.  I have personally found going grain-free to be the cure for my seasonal allergies.

With the exception of fruit, the paleo diet is grain-free and fairly low carb by its very nature.  But when following a regimented eating plan like The Primal Blueprint, it has been my experience that it becomes easy to demonize many natural and pleasant foods like fruit and potatoes; relegating them to "once in a while" treats.  But these foods occur naturally.  Yes, they contain sugar, and, yes, that sugar is fructose.  But, as even Dr. Lustig will readily state, fruit delivers its fructose load amidst naturally-occuring vitamins, minerals and fiber.  They contain enough caloric weight that it is simply unpleasant to gorge oneself on fruit to the point of the sugar's affects on the liver, blood sugar and deposition of fat being worse than concurrent nutrients of the fruit delivering it.

If someone is breaking long-standing food addictions, that is where The Primal Blueprint is instrumental.

Speaking from experience, when an individual changes their entire lifestyle to eat natural foods instead of processed foods, it is hard not to constantly seek out "cheats" while there is a lingering addiction to processed sugars.  Until the individual's palate returns to its "natural" state and can appreciate the full taste of natural foods, as well as the unbelievable sweetness of natural sugars in fruit, a structured meal plan, with "approved" foods and a carb count is not only helpful, one might say it is catalytic to long-term success.

The physical results of an individual's eating habits show themselves fairly readily and obviously.  But what is too often overlooked, or under-discussed, is the unhealthy mental relationship that overweight individuals maintain with food.  A popular Lao Tzu quote states that "mastering yourself is true power," and one could easily extrapolate that into an argument that if you can't master your own food consumption against the influence of a very flawed and unhealthy food culture, that is weakness.  People declare this weakness every day; telling someone about your own grain-free or paleo diet is usually met with the knee-jerk response of "I could never do that."

It takes guidance and encouragement to help people overcome the onslaught of  it, and sometimes a well-written book or a blog are all the only good influence an individual has in their life.  For beginners, a blueprint is necessary.

After the initial stages, there comes a certain point in the primal/paleo journey in which it becomes obvious to you and everyone who knows you that you have made a decision to change your life permanently toward a whole-foods approach.  This point is usually apparent when you realize that you no longer crave dark chocolate to "complete" a meal, and dairy products are seen less and less on your plate.  It is something which I would describe as a mature relationship with food.  It is a state of no longer being attached to or craving foods which are culturally mandated as "fun" or "special."  Heck, you might be so in tune with your daily needs that you ignore the old standard of "three squares a day" and only eat when you're hungry, regardless if it's a regularly-timed for breakfast lunch or dinner.  That is taking the idea of ancestral health beyond ingredients into the re-creation of habits and conditions--worthy experiments, but I digress.

Back to my point.  If one has a established a healthy relationship with food, then the allure of sugar should not spark a binge if one chooses to eat some fruit or cut into a sweet potato.  The whole idea of "ancestral living" is based on eating healthy food, and eating it according to need.  This isn't your mom's low-fat crash diet; it is not about eating healthy food "most of the time" so as to feel better about a weekly nosedive into pizza, nachos and cheap beer.

Claiming a mature relationship with what and how you eat also implies that you are not going to habitually overeat.  If natural sugar or starch is part of the meal, it should be factored in as part of the meal, not a superfluous addition that puts one "over the edge" of being full.  Remove the desire to binge by including rewarding foods in daily meals.

Finally, if grain-free, whole foods are your first choice, regardless of carbohydrate content, this means that many of the studies which have been conducted about carbohydrates and weight gain no longer apply to you.  To my knowledge, the accepted baseline studies have never been conducted from subjects who have lived any significant part of their lives on a whole foods diet.  Therefore, their carbohydrate intake was largely from grains and sugars.  The kinds of carbohydrates offered to the body by a sandwich bun or a sack of Fritos are much different than those offered from a berries, bananas or yams.  The last three all have benefits to the human body that extend far beyond quick energy or post-workout glycogen replenishment.  Furthermore, they are not full of synthetic, compound ingredients.  The only ingredient in the last three foods are the foods themselves.

Like politics, religion and virtually everything else in any human culture that exists simultaneously in the areas of philosophy and process, the paleo movement has become fragmented into contrasting ideas.

"Paleo" does not strictly mean "low-carb, ketogenic diet."

The definition of the word "paleo" literally means "old," and is most often combined with geologic or biological terms.  Hence the "Paleolithic Diet," referring to the eating habits of early humans.

This simple definition (and it truly is appallingly simple compared to many of the other ludicrous options offered to the weight and health conscious) only became fractured into its present, multi-faceted form as various new-school health and nutrition professionals have written and spoken to educate the masses on the subject.

Most books are written with weight loss in mind.  Weight loss requires insulin sensitivity.  To ensure insulin sensitivity, low-carb is ubiquitously recommended among paleo writers as the surefire way to go.

But once sensitivity is restored, and the decision has been made to eschew grains and processed non-foods, the old damage will not return.  There is also the assumption that moderation is a way of life and that food will be eaten when hungry until the individual is not hungry any more.

So are natural carbs a problem?

I've been eating right for a long time now.  At this point, it seems much more natural to eat right than it does to eat poorly.  I was at a business meeting the other night where the dinner provided for attendees was a stack of delivered pizzas.  I won't name the franchise, but I will say that I have never seen anything quite so repugnant as the overcooked slabs of dough with their scant population of cheese, sauce and toppings.  And there was a time in my life when I would have eaten an entire pizza by myself in one sitting, washed down with a sugary beverage.  Never mind the relative quality of ingredients or's pizza, and pizza means good things are happening, right?

That was a long time ago.  My entire life is different now.  Now that the psychological chains are broken, even milder attractions don't appeal to me any more.  I readily admit to indulging occasionally, but I reserve those times for foods that are truly unique and well-made, like when a friend brought home-dipped, chocolate-covered bacon to a movie party.  With such exceptions accounted for, the other 99% of my diet is made up of naturally-occuring fats, proteins, starches and sugars.

So, last paragraph. let's see if I can make it good for a change...

Should we give some respect to our day-to-day preferences, eating a little more starch or fruit on some days and little-to-none on others?  If one is not simply stacking extra calories on top of regular intake in their starchier meals, it does not seem like an unbalanced way to live.  This is especially true when intermittent fasting is involved and leptin and insulin sensitivity is optimal.  A mature relationship with food and not fretting over natural carbohydrate consumption seems a lot more fulfilling than avoiding something as tasty and refreshing as a piece of mango because of its sugar content.


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