Braden with about 200 or so of his relations — spawning landlocked kokanee salmon in Isabella Creek, Clearwater NF, ID
One of the most popular subjects I’ve written about lately has been my weight loss journey, inspired mostly by Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body, which I heartily recommend. I’ve lost 45 lbs. in about 15 weeks, mostly by modifying my diet. I’m not done with weight loss yet — my goal is to dump another 25 lbs. and get back to my weight in my mid-20s.
My Story and the Medical Profession
Just a little background — I’ve always been an exercise/bike geek, riding around 1500 miles/year, which is nothing for a hard-core rider, but quite a bit for someone who just goes out for recreation. I fill the rest of the time with weight training and running on the infernal elliptical 3-4 times a week during the lousy-weather season. None of this had prevented consistent weight gain. By the beginning of last May, I was 292 lbs. Trainers in the past have called me a ‘fit, fat guy’. If there was an advertisement for how exercise doesn’t prevent weight gain, I was most definitely it. I still had the increasing incremental health problems that happens when your weight goes up. Most of these, the current medical community attributes to aging, and that philosophy has become so normalized in this society, when you protest — even me — people shame you for not accepting your slowly degrading fate. For the most part, they’re all going downhill, too. And in a low-empathy environment like an academic institution — or a hospital, you don’t get much sympathy, or empathy, for anything. “Hey, you’re tenured!” That’s your consolation.
As I write this today, I am 247 lbs., and have fixed a majority of my health problems, which while not severe, were headed in the wrong direction. As we age (I’m 55 as I write this) you go to the doctor’s office with a new problem. And they go “tsk, tsk… there’s a pill for that.” They give you the pill, you go out the door, and even with that symptom remediated, you’re only an annual check-up away until you’re back in the door with a new problem. And then, of course, they go “tsk, tsk… there’s a pill for that.” They always ask “do you exercise?” and, in my case, I’m already exercising. They shake their heads (most of them are also fat, and many are also obese) and give you another prescription, or another study. In my case, the progression of prescribed pills looked sort of like this:
- Blood pressure (“well, you’re under stress in your marriage/incipient divorce…”)
- Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Syndrome (“more work stress!”)
- Rising cholesterol (“this just happens as you age…”)
- Anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medicines (“well, we all know the state of the universities and budget cuts nowadays!”)
- Sleep disorder/apnea (“time for a sleep study — we can get you on a CPAP — that ought to help!”)
- Erectile dysfunction (“well, there’s this thing called male menopause, where Old Reliable just isn’t that Reliable!”)
- Pre-diabetes (“you know it’s just increasing in the general population, and losing weight just isn’t an option. 96% of all people who lose weight just gain it back. So take this pill, or you’ll end up on the dialysis machine.”)
I’m paraphrasing the input I’ve received from the medical community here, but a lot of it has not been far off. But, not surprisingly, there’s little sense of empathetic, systemic thinking at all. For example, what might have happened to my health had I been taking all the prescribed medicines and treatments together? (Just so you realize, I resisted every step of the way, not taking many of the drugs, partially because I was an exercise geek.) What about the potential interactions? What about a slowly degrading homeostasis that’s experienced with many of these drugs? What about the intersection of effects that create mood change? An experienced endocrinologist would recognize that what’s wrong with me here is likely metabolic syndrome.
But no one in any doctor’s office ever mentioned that term to me during the whole time I was experiencing it. I was “just getting older.” And not dealing with the inevitable very well. For example, if you didn’t understand the connection between visceral fat and increased estrogen production (visceral fat drives estrogen production, which shows up as the discussable gynecomastia– enlarged breasts in men,) how would one then interpret (or even discuss) the surge in Viagra sales in the U.S., a likely side effect of increased estrogen production in obese men, which is far less a subject of polite conversation?
It took a crisis, and a friend, to start the process of figuring out what what was really going on with my weight. And, of course, I had a powerful tool — the Theory of Everything that I write about on the blog. Sometimes people ask me “what is all this v-Meme/empathy stuff good for?” Well — this. Why? Because there are so many perspectives on weight loss, all with some piece of information. And since we as a society have NOT figured it out, someone’s got to pull it all together. That’s what this piece does — as well as give you a meta-roadmap to your own weight loss issues.
The crisis hit last March. I was out skiing with my younger son, and two friends, who live in McCall, ID. It was one of those “powder, but slushing up” days at Brundage Mountain, where it was 8″ of freshies that were DEFINITELY not blower pow. I was just about ready to head in, feeling unsteady in the deep stuff, when my compatriots ducked a rope for one last schuss through some untracked. We stopped above a moderate grade with some trees. Upon start-up, I took one of those slow, twisting falls where bindings only work nominally, and partially tore my ACL. I ended up taking my first Ride of Shame down the mountain on the rescue toboggan, after wrestling myself back in-bounds. The poor, geriatric ski patrollers in charge of lugging my 292 lb. carcass huffed and puffed the whole way while dragging me back to the base.
I went to the doctor, and had the usual things done when you screw your knees up — x-rays, MRIs and such. The diagnosis was a torn meniscus and a partially torn ACL. Surgery was marginal, and rehab turned into time on my bike, which was what I would be doing anyway. From March to the beginning of May, I swam, and did the low-impact thing. Weight loss was never mentioned at the doctor’s office nor with the physical therapist — both of whom are extremely competent and had a great bedside manner. Compared to many of the people they treat, I’m really not that fat.
And inside my head, I also resolved that if I couldn’t lose weight (remember — I hadn’t figure all this out at this point, and was bombarded with the same bullshit about not being able to permanently take off the pounds) I would take the summer and ride miles on the bike. I’ve had friends who get to 3000+ miles on the bike, so I could easily re-attain my old performance of 2000 miles.
It was the middle of May when I started complaining to my friend and chronic co-conspirator, Ryan Martens, who’s a sort-of retired CTO of a medium-sized software concern, Rally Software, in Boulder, CO. Ryan’s a great guy — and he’s also embedded in a completely different information stream than I am. “Everyone in Silicon Valley is using Tim Ferriss’ book, The Four Hour Body. Why don’t you give it a try? I’m planning on losing about 20 lbs. myself. It’s really not that hard.” There was no formal competition, collaborative agreement or anything between us regarding weight loss — just a suggestion from a friend. But at this point, having nothing to lose, I ordered the book, and started.
Below is a graph of my weight loss to date. I’ve managed to maintain a relatively linear weight loss pattern. This pattern, through understanding the v-Memes of what is known, is likely to change — but that’s the subject of another post. Here’s my weight loss for the past 15 weeks.
I started the diet staring into a a bowl of canned refried beans that I had stuck a cooked Costco Italian sausage in, determined to give it a try. I lost 4 lbs. very quickly. The graph starts at that point (288 lbs.) I also started taking the recommended supplements — the PAGG stack. The PAGG stack isn’t some crazy concoction — it’s garlic pills, green tea pills, an anti-oxidant (alpha-lipoid acid) and a triglyceride chopper (policosanol) taken essentially with meals. They are concentrated, of course, so they do give a heightened push to your metabolism. But it’s not like taking benzedrine or other true amphetamines. Far from it.
Those that know me also know that once I say I’m going to do something, I do it. And so I did. The big thing is on a diet, I don’t cheat. And the big promise with Tim’s diet was that you’re not hungry. Hunger was always my bugbear, so a diet that wouldn’t make me hungry was absolutely mandatory. For me, hunger meant headaches, and incapacitation to think clearly. I’m the primary income for my family, and having a headache would mean not working effectively. It was the deal killer with all the usual starvation diets. I’ve written about this before — but this lack of empathy in understanding hunger is, I think, the real deal breaker in the medical community with recommending diets in general. Hunger is real — but it means different things for different people. A key insight I gained in all of this is that it’s a key indicator of what’s happening metabolically in your world.
There are no restricted quantities of allowed foods on the diet — you basically can’t eat sugar, dairy, fruit and wheat — but you can eat in even portions as many eggs, meat, green vegetables and beans (with a couple of exceptions) as you can stomach. You also are supposed to vigorously hydrate yourself — up to a gallon of water a day. The beans are the unique separator from other Atkin’s-type diets. Once a week, you get a splurge day, where you can eat anything you’d like — and you’re supposed to take it.
And the pounds just started falling off. As I’ve written in previous posts, the first three days, I walked around with my brain in a fog. I wasn’t hungry, but I definitely felt weird. I kept up the same exercise pace I always had. Then things started changing. Not just the weight — but how my body dealt with its stresses. First thing that happened was my joints stopped hurting. I still have the occasional twinge of pain from my torn ACL. But my knees used to hurt all the time. Now they don’t. I have a whiplash injury that’s prevented range of motion in my neck that always hurt. That pain is gone. My body, and my kidneys, process water very differently than before. I drink a glass of water — it passes, appropriately, through the system.
And finally, I am blessed with abundant energy. I am never tired. I breathe differently, likely largely a function of the loss of fat around my liver that formerly pushed up on my diaphragm. And I can go camping again without fear of insomnia because of my sleep apnea. I used to wake myself up from snoring every 30 minutes. And while I’m not exactly sleeping through the night, I can easily sleep for two hours without my CPAP before waking.
Starting our Understanding of WHY the Four Body Diet Works – National/Cultural and Deep Paleo Diets
But WHY did it work? Tim alludes to some of the effects in the book. He’s famous for running experiments on himself. A classic Performance v-Meme individual, if someone comes in with an idea, he’ll say “well, let’s give it a roll.” He’s wired himself up to blood glucose monitors, weighed his inputs, and his, well, outputs. So there’s no question that the Four Hour Body diet works for lots of folks. And he’s done some digging. There are allusions to performance heuristics and connections. All that could be enough — and is enough — for most people.
But not for me. WHY? Why did what he invented work so well for me? And how is it different from other diets? Or rather, instead of thinking in status-based terms (which of the Four Hour Body/Atkins/South Beach/Paleo/etc. is the BEST diet?) maybe we can really get off the Mario Kart level and understand the deeper dynamic, not just behind the Four Hour Body, but all the diets. Let’s look at the v-Meme stack — the meta-diet representation. And then you can deal with the comments that inevitably come when one starts talking about diets. You’ll likely hear from many people “well, everyone’s different.” Or “you just have to count calories.” Or some such icks. Because what these statements REALLY are are low-empathy declarations that prevent larger coherence. They keep us trapped in a superficial paradigm that directly disallows the development of a larger, current collective intelligence. Yeah, everyone’s different. But how are we also the same?
And here’s the kicker — with the near universal extreme modification of national/cultural diets, which were our back-up protection for basically all our history, we’re doomed, unless we come up with a new, shared understanding of food. National/cultural diets are fascinating things, which like culture itself, are compacted information from up and down the v-Meme stack, that we can only guess at the origins of. But they have kept respective societies healthy for the past 10,000 years. And through the spread of ubiquitous, various processed food products, all these diets are changing. And as a consequence, everyone, around the world, is now getting fat.
In this previous post, I talked extensively about what I call the Deep Paleo Diet, which is really what Tim’s diet has at its core. The short version of the Deep Paleo Diet is that if you roll back our diet not 10,000 years ago, but 100,000, or even a million years, you have the diet that proto-hominids evolved to eat. What THAT diet contained was ten months of protein, fats, grass and beans during the dry season, along with two months during the wet season of fruit. During the wet season, everyone would bulk up on sugar, the newly accumulated fat would make the women estrogenic, fertility would be achieved and babies would be made. During the ten months of dry season, we naturally would shed excess pounds — not through some wild agony of starvation, but through metabolic (and as I know now, ketogenic) processes because that would increase our fitness to go club bunnies, or impalas over the head. We’d fill in the gaps catching easy prey like lizards, and eating the occasional seed source we’d find. And so we would thrive for a million or so years.
Yes, there were influences from extinction and starvation events. But the idea that hunger dominated our profile our entire existence is absolute nonsense. Our collective nature, and the empathy it fundamentally requires, belies this Authoritarian, depressive lie. In order to move up in social organization, collective agents (read as tribes of humans) would have to have put hunger aside as a driver. You can’t get consistent, coordinated collective living habits if everyone is grumpy all the time. When you add in the fact that female humans have both hidden estrus, and are relatively constantly sexually available (at least biologically!) this also belies the starvation stories. Humans are deeply social, and attachment behavior is a cornerstone of our existence.
Larger cultural/national diets came next, as humans spread all over the globe. It’s important to understand those national/cultural diets and how they evolved, and place them in the context of maintaining entire populations in healthy homeostasis. If you live on the Beaufort Sea, the Inuit diet has salmon, whale and seal meat. If you’re in France, it’s red wine, creamy soups, vegetables, cheese and bread. Northern Germany, pigs, sausages, cabbage and beer. And so on. All those diets represent mythic-level, long-term, time-averaged data for success, built on food availability now having to do with different seasonal requirements, as well as different ecosystem productivities, deep cultural knowledge of preparation, the balance of micro-nutrients, and so on. They have been modified only slowly over time (potatoes were in the New World, and didn’t show up in the Old World until Columbus returned, for example) and the fact is that they work. Because if those diets did to their populations what our current diet is doing to the world population, they would perish. These diets were not just built as buttresses against starvation, which is the popular model. They were also constructed as nourishment for societies facing different levels of challenges at different times. As a core part of the energetic requirements of civilizations, national diets often directly dictated ranges of cultures and their success against competing cultures, which often wanted to kill them. Empathy and negotiated boundaries between In-Groups and Out-Groups are relatively new phenomena in human existence. If your diet wasn’t adequate, you couldn’t maintain a national or cultural identity.
One of my favorite myths involves the Yaqui Indians, who were originally vegetarians, but received a vision that they should eat deer after the Spaniards invaded, because they needed the strength to fight. The Yaquis, who had a reputation for being particularly ferocious, were one of the only unconquered tribes during the whole Spaniard conquista.
Those cultural/national diets haven’t completely vanished. Japanese still have sushi, and if you go to Taiwan, you’ll find roast squid on a stick. Russians still have borscht, and the French still have duck l’orange. Mexicans have rice, beans, and steak, and we, well, we still have hot dogs. But everyone around the world now has ice cream, and Twinkies, and Coca Cola, which no one 1000 years ago could have predicted. There are large thematic ingredient differences between past and present. We have machines that grow food, and crops that produce macronutrients (like high-fructose corn syrup) that used to be exceedingly rare.
The entire story of global food is a long one — but the core notion is that we are not going to recover our health through reversion to national diets. We need a different understanding of food, and how it affects us on all levels, than what we have now. It has to be Global Holistic, AND well-scaffolded by the lower v-Memes. Because if it isn’t, we can’t share the important information and diversity that’s out there. We remain trapped in rejection of information because of perceived differences, instead of understand our fractalized, self-similar genetic backgrounds that actually dictate what happens with our bodies and our health.
And here’s the big rub — if we’re not healthy, we can’t be the more evolved, empathetic humans we so need to be. We’re much more prone to being depressed, and as such, limited in our curiosity toward others. And much more likely to be manipulated by psychopathic relational disruptive Authoritarians toward needless conflict. In short, not understanding the diet thing is really gonna kill us. Really.
So here’s a start below, where I give the Four Hour Body diet a v-Meme once-over. As a mechanical engineer and complex system scientist, I fully realize that what below is incomplete. And yeah — it starts from one guy, reading a bunch of material, and understanding his own body. But it has to start somewhere.
So here goes.
How does the Four Hour Body diet work? And WHY does it work, at least for some of us, so well? The first thing we need is an understanding not so much of food, but of how the body works. And that is metabolism. Metabolism is the top, Guiding Principles place where we have to start our journey. All humans across the globe possess, in varying amounts, the same metabolic processes. We breathe air, and utilize energy with two primary methods — glycolysis and ketosis.
For any of us that have taken an introductory biology class, we’re all intimately familiar with glycolysis. This is the process of breaking down glycogen into glucose, which our cells use to create energy. We’re taught about how the body takes food, converts it into glycogen, which is always readily available to convert to glucose, and then burns this when we exercise. When we “hit the wall” during a run, or “bonk” — it’s the result of your body running out of glycogen and glucose. For most folks, it usually happens about an hour or so into whatever intense physical activity you’re participating in. After that, you need to suck down some Gatorade, eat a candy bar, or something, to keep going. And this, if you believe most of the textbooks, is the END OF THE STORY. We need glucose, sugar, whatever — because if we don’t get it, we don’t have any energy. And then the body consumes itself, or something, and we die.
As with many understandings of how our bodies (or our world) functions, it’s not wrong. It’s just not the full picture. There’s another half — and that’s ketosis. Ketosis is what your body uses for energy when the glucose runs out. Sort of. Ketosis is your body burning ketone bodies for fuel when glycogen and glucose hit critical levels. Ketone bodies come from fat, and so ketosis directly burns the fat cells you have saved up, that your body has socked away using insulin from the various foods you eat.
The reality is that these two are in some form of balance at all times in your system. And that balance is a direct effect of your diet. How your body reacts to the homeostasis that you establish will directly affect how you feel. I can’t find any studies about how the body balances that, so any of my readership wants to add comments, let me know.
First, I’ll tell you that most of our deep Paleo ancestors likely ran mostly on ketosis. Humans aren’t speed hunters, like cheetahs or lions. We tend to follow animals until they’re exhausted, and then put a spear or something in their side. That means that we evolved to hunt this way — no human alive can run as fast as the slowest antelope. But we keep going. And that pursuit is likely an all-day affair.
What does that mean? What are the system requirements for running down an antelope? It likely means we had to be extremely efficient in our locomotion. And we are. The research is, for example, well-established that exercise isn’t a great way to lose weight — something like 10% of weight loss, for anyone other than Michael Phelps, is geared to exercise. That’s because we evolved ourselves to be energy efficient. As well, we were designed to run all day — not just for an hour until we hit the wall and bonked. That means the modern runner, strapped on the back with Camelbaks full of energy drinks are not representative of any proto-hominid. Any self-respecting proto-hominid would likely fill up with water at the beginning of the day, or at a clear stream, and then run with his or her buddies until the game was exhausted. There wouldn’t be any time to ingest any squeeze packets, eat a Clif bar or sip from a water bottle. You ran on some residual fat, for hours at a time.
And if you had to get along with your buddies to make a kill, evolution would not favor you being in a bad mood. Think about that. What this really means is that all the stuff we’ve associated with pre-civilization life is mostly bullshit. It’s not that it was rosy, nor that death wasn’t somewhat common. Infant mortality was likely high, and you still had to contend with diseases and such. But hunger? Not such a big deal. Or else we could never have evolved socially. And in the back of all of it was ketosis. Glycolysis was for the fruit season, where we’d lay around and get fat, have sex, and make babies with the estrogenic women and the extra calories. Fat wasn’t just about some insulation from starvation. It was actually part of metabolic changes and storage required to make more humans.
And then the fruit would end. Our bodies would have little use for the extra calories gained during the fat season– fat slows you down. So we’d naturally shed the weight, with minimal pain, get back to running and chasing bunnies, and wait for the next sex fest when the apples showed up back on the trees.
That’s the REAL “Deep Paleo” diet. It was geared, of course, to the two seasons we evolved in. And it’s what we evolved in for literally over a million years. But the transition from one season to another wasn’t some agonizing month or so where we almost starved. Rather, it was a couple of days for our bodies to get used to sticking the fuel line in the ketosis tank, instead of the glycolysis tank. The modest disharmony probably worked to spread people out a bit as well, as even in abundant landscapes, there are still only so many lizards per acre.
For me personally, one of the big changes that happened was my need to fuel myself on my bike rides. I noticed this directly. Before I started the Four Hour Body diet, I’d pack my energy drink (Cytomax was my chosen tool of destruction) start my ride and wait until about 45 minutes in to take my first sip. After that, I’d carefully regulate my consumption, sipping along the way, and inevitably gain weight. I found that if I stopped too soon, or ran out, I’d bonk. And then that would be that.
After I started the Four Hour Body diet, though, the world changed. I now ride regularly three hours without anything but a couple of quick stops to pee. I don’t drink water unless it’s really hot — I don’t even take it with me. I remain hydrated throughout the whole ride — remember Tim’s requirement of super-hydration? I have plenty of reserve water.
And interestingly enough, if I’m sitting around typing and getting hungry, the easiest way for me to kill my hunger is to hop on my bike and go riding. It puts my body back into strong ketosis, and kills the hunger. My own experience is that the brain runs far better on glucose than ketones, which is an interesting observation deserving its own speculative column about the rise of civilization. But on a bike ride, I usually practice meditation and audiobooks. The brain is just not that engaged. Ketosis now has become a much larger part of my energetic make-up. And when I couple that, with a change in diet that helps re-balance my energy consumption toward ketosis (it’s not complete — there’s still a mix) I feel great.
Interestingly enough, my cycling times show the change. After about 500 miles training on a glycolysis-dominant regime, my cycling times between Moscow, ID and my house, around 15 miles, averaged out at an hour. Now, with a Four Hour Body diet, I average about 1 hour 10 minutes. This matches the idea that fats burn more slowly and longer than carbohydrates. It also shows how the body adapts energetically to different diets.
Everyone knows that if you want to lose weight, you have to burn fat. You have to have some accelerated ketosis from wherever you’re sitting. I can directly tell whether I’m in ketosis or not during exercise because I will taste the ketones in my mouth. They taste kind of metallic, and it’s definitely different from regular breathing and burning carbohydrates. On my morning bike rides, I’m most definitely in ketosis for the first hour of any ride — any sugars from the eggs and bacon I’ve digested haven’t kicked in. And I can taste it.
A simple (and incomplete, but still useful!) way of conceiving this top level of energetic process is to understand your body has two fuel tanks. One is glycolysis/sugar. The second is ketosis/fat. If you’re a standard American, you eat lots of carbohydrates and sugar, and run most of the time with your fuel line in the glycolysis tank. As we get older, running our systems on this readily available fuel source gets more unbalanced, especially because we’re often busy, with our modern diet, dumping tons of processed sugar into the system. Refined sugar in the quantities we have in the American diet is just awful for our health. It’s like spraying nitrous into the top of our car’s carburetor/fuel injection system constantly. The engine revs, and then the insulin floods and packs away all that sugar as fat. Think about that the next time you bite into a Pop-Tart.
The second fuel tank is the ketosis/fat system. The way I like to think of this is more like a diesel engine. Diesel is a heavy fuel, that takes longer to burn. But it can keep your system running longer, once you get it going.
And here’s the rub. If you run your system on carbohydrates, which bias heavily toward glycolysis, then your system gets used to it. When you attempt, however, to switch over, your engine sputters, and you feel like you want to collapse. Like you “Hit the wall.” The reason is your metabolic engine has adapted to running on carbs. And then if you’ve also been dumping tons of sugar into the system, through Big Gulps and Super-Sizing, you’re just really screwed. We do know what happens in that system — massive hormonal dysregulation and sooner or later — system failure of your other cleaning/exhaust/engine-metabolic systems, like your liver, pancreas, and kidneys.
So, at the top of Tim’s diet, the fundamental Guiding Principle is to re-regulate your core metabolism by knocking down insulin production. This works for many of us because we are on this diet because we are obese, and likely have developed insulin resistance. Right off the bat, Tim says “NO SUGAR”. That’s a huge one, and likely responsible for many of the problems people have anyway. He also hits all the “white vegetables” heavy in starch, which are another sugar pathway. The one easily accessible carbohydrate he does allow in the diet — beans — have tons of fiber, which is useful for buffering glucose absorption in the system, and also aid in digestion. Tim’s fixations with beans then turns out to be very smart.
Tim also hacks our social system, and then in turn, our body’s metabolic system, by introducing fat into it — especially in the morning. Our whole society tells you fat and eggs are supposed to be bad for you. But for the diet, you’re supposed to eat eggs and some fat source (like bacon) every morning. What actually happens is satiety is increased so you don’t want to eat more. It’s a metabolic hack in multiple ways. Once you’re on the diet for a while, by eating fat, in a system already balanced more toward ketosis, it becomes the readily available energy source during the busiest time of the morning.
Metabolism has core drivers. I’ve focused on researching insulin, because insulin resistance was my problem. But there are others in this level of systemic understanding. Below is a figure for our larger Global Systemic/Global Holistic Metabolism top level. They are all functions of the endocrine system, which regulates our evolved instantiation.
There are a ton of things I don’t understand about dysfunctional metabolism — what happens, for example, if you have a thyroid problem. And estrogen also seems to be huge. Estrogen is produced by the visceral fat that surrounds your liver and other internal organs once you become obese, and becomes somewhat a self-fulfilling prophecy. More estrogen in the system, the easier it is to get fat, which then creates a positive feedback loop producing more estrogen. You get the idea. In our Deep Paleo past, it used seasonally to produce babies. Now it just messes us up.
Next down in Tim’s stack is he has you eliminate all dairy, wheat, and fruit, except on splurge day. These are obvious caloric sources, but it turns out that they are far more interesting than just that. One of the biggest things I noticed after starting the diet was the decrease in inflammation across my body. My joints stopped hurting, and even more interesting, my kidneys (as I mentioned above) started dumping water far more quickly after ingestion. I’ve thought about this, and what I think is really going on is that Tim is likely eliminating the majority of potential food allergies and various intolerances that different people have. By reducing inflammation, one also makes water function more normally in the body, not creating edema, and also allowing for more balanced metabolism. Smart!
At the same time, allergies are different in scale for lots of different people. My suspicion is that these built-in genetic intolerances are responsible, once core metabolic function has been fixed, for the variable results many people see with different diets. Much of this is well-documented. Asians, for example, are known for being lactose intolerant. So if you dump milk out of the diet, you’re getting down to a much more healthy, well-functioning core metabolism, which then helps you burn fat.
Allergies also have profoundly nonlinear effects in the context of diets. For myself, I can take hay fever season for a while. But once my system reaches some level of histaminic reaction, I have to take antihistamine in order to knock down my mucus production. It is similar with food, of course. You can eat a certain amount, say, of cheese, or wheat, and lose weight. But once you cross that threshold, all of the sudden you’re in the nonlinear effect zone for inflammation, and then bad things (like no weight loss) start happening. Interestingly enough, Tim hedges his bets by dumping ALL the big potential allergy sources. That’s likely part of the reason for the success. He leaves you with beans and veggies, which I’ll bet are the least likely to have allergic responses. Smart.
Getting closer to the bottom of the v-Meme stack, we have the calorie counters. Many folks swear the only way to lose weight is to count calories. After all, the fundamental energy balance has to hold, doesn’t it?
And they are right — just not with the expected sensitivity to timescale that calorie counters says exist. Short timescales, like minutes, hours, or even days, don’t matter. What this means, of course, is that Fitbits and step counters are total bullshit. Over long periods of time, calorie counting has to be true. Like a year, maybe. Or even a month. But it is not true on any given day, and if metabolic processes are out of whack, different food sources will yield vastly different metabolic outcomes. If you have insulin resistance, you’re not going to expend the typical “maintenance calories” on a given day. If you eat two bowls of ice cream, you’re going to feel tired and go to sleep. You may be under the calories counted for that given day. But you’re still going to pack on the pounds. That’s why I found that I could ride my bike to Moscow and back, drink a beer, and eat fries, and then gain weight — my metabolic process was out of whack, and all the calorie counting in the world couldn’t save me.
More than anything else, the calorie counter insertion into the v-Meme stack shows the value of scaffolding higher v-Memes with lower ones. Tim, for example, says “no almonds” in the diet because while they may map to the metabolic process he’s trying to achieve, they’re still too calorie dense to make the diet work successfully. And at the same time, it also shows why you shouldn’t limit your understanding by limiting your evolution. There are so many things that calories alone simply can’t explain. But you can’t ignore them entirely.
Finally, down at the bottom of our stack is the our long-time, averaged, story-based knowledge about diet. Since the sources of such knowledge are literally shrouded in myth, it’s hard to know what should be taken seriously or not. At the same time, there is often deep, embedded knowledge that should always be considered when listening to this source. If you listened to most of the medical community until recently, ingesting omega-3 fatty acid, found in fish, was bad for you and would increase your cholesterol. We now know that it turns out to be very important for a variety of health needs, including even preventing depression. And Tim, in his book, tells his own mythopoetic story of encountering a homeless man who insisted on eating garlic.
From deep jungle herbs to the larger structure of Chinese medicine, humans capture long-time knowledge in their stories. And stories, through their very nature, have deeply synergized understandings, whose roots may have been forgotten. Some of these stories may be bullshit. I wouldn’t eat part of an endangered animal, regardless of what I’d been told, to save my life. But to point out those as the reason for throwing out all that collective knowledge is just stupid. Consider it — we have other tools as well.
OK — there’s a ton of information in this post. It takes a while, pardon the pun, to digest. But it’s a start on a deeper understanding on the dynamics of a diet like the Four Hour Body, and how it works.
What’s the point? You can now start understanding OTHER diets from these perspectives. Atkins, Paleo, and so on. Notice that almost all eliminate sugar. That’s hitting things at the metabolic guiding principles level. Further down, different diets make different choices, usually based on cultural precedent. Cultural precedent often maps to specific allergies that occur with different genetic types spread across humanity, so it’s not such a bad way to roll. And if there’s one takeaway I’ll leave you with, it’s this — experiment on yourself. Here are the basic principles. Try something. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, change a variable and track your progress. At the most basic level, if you dump sugar, and move to a protein and fat breakfast, you’ll lose weight at least for a while.
But you don’t need to starve any more. It’s not, well, empathetic. And remember — you first have to empathy with yourself before you can have it for other people. Same as it ever was!
6 thoughts on “Weight Loss by the V-Memes — (III) What’s the v-Meme stack look like?”
That was a detailed post. I’m not familiar with Tim Ferriss’ The Four Hour Body. I’ve read dozens of other books about traditional foods, paleo, low-carb, keto, etc. But for some reason, I haven’t previously come across Ferriss. So, I don’t know anything about the Deep Paleo Diet, other than what you’ve shared here. My most recent dietary changes began with a paleo diet that was low-carb. Over time, I shifted more toward keto. Like you, I couldn’t lose weight with exercise. Yet with very little effort was able to lose 60 pounds by restricting carbs, especially sugar.
From what I can tell, Ferriss and other paleo advocates are more or less in agreement. The main point of divergence in the paleo community might be over something like legumes. There isn’t a lot of evidence about legumes in the diet prior to agriculture. My guess is that, for most of human evolution, they were probably an occasional food, at best. Tubers is another area of uncertainty. White potatoes are definitely a newer introduction to the human diet. But in Africa, there are wild tubers that are extremely fibrous and hard to eat, to such an extent that they aren’t a favorite food and only eaten when nothing else is available — the ratio of effort and energy expended to nutrients gained is rather high and yet they were useful as a backup food or maybe when one simply didn’t feel like hunting. Other than seasonal fruit and honey, there aren’t too many dependable sources of carbs in nature. Still, even a small increase of carbs seasonally could have made a major difference in physiological functioning and maybe social behavior.
The main things humans ate for most of our species’ existence is blubbery megafauna with a fat content similar to whales and that also meant immense nutrient-density of fat-soluble vitamins. This is what hominids were eating for millions of years. Mass extinction of these favored foods permanently altered the human diet. No other species compares to the fat content of these massive beasts. A single mastodon could’ve fed a survival band for months. As with hunter-gatherers still today, they probably would’ve eaten the organ meats, brains, eyes, etc right away and stored the fatty meat for later such as with drying. Then they could’ve settled down for good eating in a single location, during which they would’ve had much socializing, or else they would have brought some of their surplus to other nearby tribal bands for trade such as getting some nutritious ocean fish.
No doubt they would’ve been in ketosis and that would’ve served them well in preparation for the next hunt. At times, they would’ve gone for days or even weeks without food or without much food. And when in ketosis, one feels perfectly fine and betohydroxybutyrate ensures the brain functions at optimal levels. It wasn’t starvation but basic fasting that humans are designed for. The body does cellular repair (autophagy) during fasting and so it is absolutely necessary for optimal health. There is a lot of awesome research on ketosis and autophagy as its balanced with mTOR and IGF1, repair balanced with growth. The body is meant to cyclically go back and forth between these.
Even when food is plenty, it’s common for hunter-gatherers to freely choose to not eat for periods of time. This is true during some religious rituals, but also for no particular reason at all. Daniel Everett describes the Piraha as simply choosing not to eat on a particular day just because they didn’t feel like it and would rather spend their time relaxing and socializing or, as in other situations, they would dance for multiple days without stopping to eat. But when they did eat, they ate well with lots of nutrient-dense fatty fish from the river. The Piraha would eat all food cooked until it was all gone, even to the point that their stomachs would become distended, and then they would lay down and not eat for quite a while like a python digesting a cow.
This feast and fast style of eating is sometimes enforced by external conditions of food availability but I don’t know there is any evidence that this is typically the case. It seems hunter-gatherers ate well when they chose to eat, but sometimes they chose not to eat. They were often surrounded by abundance and didn’t worry about starvation. They didn’t feel neglected or desperate. That is the odd thing about modern humans in how so many eat constantly as if they really are worried about starvation. Metabolic syndrome really messes us up not only physiologically but also psychologically and neurocognitively; and one might also argue messes us up socially as well. I agree with you about the relationship of sugar to lack of empathy and authoritarianism. Most modern humans feel crappy all the time on an industrialized diet of processed foods. It is one stressor combined with many others that brings out dysfunctional behavior.
You discuss ketosis and glycolyis. You state they are “in some form of balance at all times in your system.” But you mention that you “can’t find any studies about how the body balances that.” One of my favorite sources on ketosis and such is Siim Land, along with other good sources such as the insulin researcher Ben Bikman (of course, I could name many others). I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking for in terms of balance. One thing you left out, though, is glucoeogenesis. There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. The body can produce its own glucose from protein and does it just fine. A human on a carnivore diet typically maintains as much glucose and glycogen as when on a high-carb diet. The body is adaptable like this. People have lived for decades on carnivore diets and remained perfectly healthy, just as long as they are eating high quality animal foods. All essential nutrients can be found in the fats, connective tissues, organ meats, etc. For example, small amounts of vitamin C can be obtained from meat, especially raw or fermented meat (as traditionally eaten by many hunter-gatherers), and the body requires very little vitamin C on a low-carb diet.
You observe that, “My own experience is that the brain runs far better on glucose than ketones, which is an interesting observation deserving its own speculative column about the rise of civilization.” My experience is a bit different. My brain is more clear and alert while in ketosis, although there is maybe a different kind of functioning going on. I do think there is something to glucose promoting highly abstract, analytical thought involving long periods of mental focus and reading while avoiding exhaustion, as long as there is a steady stream of glucose into the system (i.e., constant snacking of simple carbs and glugging down sugary caffeinated drinks). Without stimulant drugs like sugar, tea, coffee, and tobacco of colonial trade, the Enlightenment arguably never would have happened.
You emphasize Ferriss’ banning of sugar from the diet. That is wise. There is something powerful about sugar. Even before I went on a high carb diet, I had concluded decades ago that refined sugar is the single most addictive drug on the market, legal or illegal. And I’m not exaggerating for effect. I became a sugar addict as a child and it took me most of my life to finally get free of it. Even when I quit smoking, it wasn’t even close as challenging as kicking the sugar habit. Addiction is a key element I see to lack of empathy and authoritarianism, also as they relate to hyper-individualism with its thick and rigid egoic boundaries. Ferriss sounds like a lot of paleo dieters who will in certain ways shift toward a traditional foods diet. Legumes, for example, are more part of a traditional agricultural diet than an actual paleolithic or hunter-gatherer diet. It’s similar to how many paleolists will make exceptions for foods such as ghee (I keep going back and forth about dairy, since it is such a nutrient-dense food such as raw aged cheese from pasture-raised cows with all of its fat-soluble vitamins, especially K2; and it’s delicious).
That is fine, as far as I’m concerned, as long as it works for you. I’m not an ideological purist. Different people do have different sensitivities, allergies, and other issues because our health has been affected by different environmental condition, from toxins to microbial exposure. But one universal is that sugar is best avoided by everyone and this includes modern fruits that are sugary and nutrient deficient. I’m even a bit wary of many modern vegetables and how they are typically prepared. Reading about hunter-gatherers, one quickly realizes how much time and effort (a full time job for much of the tribe) goes into preparing plant foods to make them safe and healthy to eat, to eliminate the anti-nutrients and make the nutrients bioavailable. This is the reason I’m so fond of fermented vegetables, also higher in vitamin K2 that otherwise is not found in plant foods (anything that is cultured, fermented, or rotted will have vitamin K2 produced by microbes).
Plant foods not prepared properly can actually be harmful to your health, although people have varying capacity to handle phytate, tannins, protease inhibitors, calcium oxalate and lectins — largely dependent on whether your health has been compromised or not and, unfortunately, most modern people have compromised health. I know that I feel better when I’m careful about my plant foods. Still, the biggest issue for me and most people is too many carbohydrates, specifically sugar or what turns into sugar. On the positive side, if you’re careful about your plant foods, it makes it easier to also be careful about your carbs. Go low-carb, eat plenty of high quality animal foods, and it is hard to go wrong — for gut health, for metabolic health, and for neurocognitive health.