We Never Do One Thing Before We Do Another
My wife and I attended a parents’ night decades ago at our son’s school and spent ten minutes in math class, where the teacher explained the sequence of increasing difficulty in the curriculum that year. “First, we cover the basics like integers and absolute value, then the order of operations, then simple equations, then two-step equations, then equations with fractions, etc.” He summarized with that headline phrase: “And so, we never do one thing before we do another!” Now my head was spinning – how is that possible? I thought perhaps he was channeling Yogi Berra.
While his grammar may have been a bit garbled, he described the progression well. Increasingly difficult concepts would build on what had already been learned. You wouldn’t start with solving simultaneous equations, though that sounds pretty cool.
When we try to implement fundamental lifestyle changes our likelihood of long-term success will improve if we build on steps of increasing effectiveness. A very, very few can gut it out by going cold turkey with a drastic behavior changes, but that doesn’t work for most of us for the long run. If you just want to lose 10 pounds before swimsuit season, then go on any diet. They all work in the short term. But if you want to teach your metabolism to burn fat, get your inflammation in check, repair your leaky gut, reverse your diabetes or autoimmune symptoms, sleep better, regain energy, and live longer while healthy, then designing and following your own path for lifelong success is the way to go.
We all need to start somewhere, so here’s a general path that works for many, focused on nutrition. And here’s the caveat: eventually, everyone’s path will be different. That’s not an excuse to quit before you start. It means that you’ve got to learn to pay attention to what works for you, what doesn’t work for you, and adjust along the way.
Arithmetic: cut out the foods that harm you. You probably have a pretty good idea of what they are, but here’s where the discipline starts. No more junk food. No chips, no sugary or “diet” drinks, no empty carb snacks, no McDonalds, no candy bars. Shop the outside of the market, not the inside aisles. Learn to read labels and remember that “lite” or “low fat” probably means it’s full of sugar and/or sodium. In fact, if it’s got a label at all, try to avoid it. Cut way back or eliminate grains, even if the USDA food pyramid or plate says we need seven helpings a day. That’s business and politics talking, not science. We need fiber, not grains. Flour – bread, pasta, crackers, cookies, many desserts – is a highly processed food and low in nutritional value. Toss out the vegetable oils. Eat real food. Like arithmetic, you can use this skill every day for the rest of your life.
Algebra I: add in healthy fats. Get over the false notion driven into our brains over the past 6 decades that all fat is bad. It’s hard to believe, but those studies were misleading and misused. Eat whole, pastured eggs, not just egg whites. Eat avocados, wild fish, grass-fed beef if you choose. But don’t overdo it. Counting calories is a poor approach to lifestyle change for weight loss, but calories do count, so don’t just add more by accepting healthy fats into your diet and not adjusting elsewhere.
Algebra II: figure out how exercise, sleep hygiene, and stress management fit into your life, and pursue each area with mindfulness. For instance, good sleep doesn’t just happen by luck or DNA – you can manage your eating, exercise, sleep environment, and other habits to get better sleep. This blog post is about nutrition, but a happy, healthy life is about much more!
Trigonometry: after you’ve cut out the bad food, added healthy fat, and starting mindfully working on sleep, exercise, and stress, your body may now be ready for a Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) approach.
To do this, you’ll need to track your food and drink with a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal or Cronometer. During the first semester of trig, keep your daily dose of carbohydrates under 150 grams. No problem, you say? Most Standard American Diet (SAD) followers consume 300 – 500 grams/day, and many consume far more. One personal (8”) pizza with two meats is 161 grams. One can of Coke has 35 grams, from its 33 grams of sugar. This will take some planning!
During the second semester, keep your daily dose under 75 grams. More planning, shopping, preparing your own foods – this is hard to do with packaged and restaurant foods. How do you know when the semester is finished? When you consistently feel good and in control of your nutrition. When you are not hungry as soon as you wake. When you are busy and full of energy, and only realize after work that you forgot about lunch. You’re burning fat, and you’re used to it!
Pre-calculus: a ketogenic diet, usually defined as under 20 grams of carbs per day. You’ll have to love your vegetables, and probably cut back on fruit. One whole fresh apple has about 25 grams, from its sugar. Ketogenic diets are safe if you are ready. They have been used since the early 1900’s to treat epilepsy. My favorite book on this is Mark Sisson’s Keto Reset Diet. Many “keto” practitioners cycle in and out of a strict 20 grams per day, and others set their limit at 30 or 40 grams. I’ll write more on this in the future.
Calculus: Intermittent Fasting, or IF. Perhaps it is unfair to assign “calculus” to IF. Just the word calculus is intimidating for most of us, and IF practices range from simply narrowing your daily eating window, for instance eating all food within 8 hours – skip breakfast, don’t snack after dinner – to fasting for weeks under medical supervision. This is a very intriguing new area of research and practices. Remember, we evolved doing IF. It’s only very recently that we’ve strived for three square meals a day, augmented in the last 50 years with tons of snacks in between. More on this in future posts as well, but here’s a great resource if you’re curious right now: Dr. Jason Fung’s Intensive Dietary Management program. See especially the Resources page.
OK, all well and good, but you said my path will vary from others if I listen to my body. How the heck do I do that? How can I learn to pay attention? Life is complex enough, and now I should add the complexity of nutrition on top of that? Here are a few ideas:
Keep a food diary. Write down everything you eat and drink during the day, along with how you felt, and then analyze your diaries for patterns or problems. “I never noticed before, but it seems that the day after I eat [fill in the blank] my energy sags and I feel bloated. Hmmm…” Send me an email, and I’ll reply with my printable form, designed to be used in conjunction with a food diary app. Maybe a very low carb or keto approach leaves you tired and cranky, even though you’ve given it your best. Then add more carbs – not with junk food – and keep tracking how you are doing.
Use one of the many food diary apps like MyFitnessPal or Cronometer mentioned above. MyFitnessPal is most popular, and like many it comes in a free version with ads and a paid version. You can track the time of meals, exercise, and other variables, and even link other data from smart watches, heart monitors, etc. Cronometer has perhaps the most accurate micronutrient database.
Before you go to bed, think about what worked and what didn’t during the day, and plan for tomorrow. You can combine this with other practices, such as keeping a gratitude journal. (I’m not great at this, but my wife writes a few sentences every night.)
Extend your planning to the week. When will I shop? Shall I make a week’s worth of a favorite food on Sunday afternoon? I’m going out with friends on Thursday – how will I handle that?
And tons more…
In health as in math class, you should do one thing before you do another!
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