I Am Paleosaurus

Being the promised follow-on to Going Paleolithic in which I report on the results of my experiment with the paleo diet, which Troy has dubbed my Paleosaurus Thing. He's also called it my Stegosaurus diet, but a quick wikipedia search reveals that stegosaurus were herbivores and there ain't nothing herbivorous about paleo, so Paleosaurus it is.

I originally planned an eight week regimen and then blood work to test the results. Due to general life craziness, it ended up being a 10 week experiment, but I got my blood work done yesterday and the results were emailed tonight. Recall that the primary objective of the experiment was to reduce my triglycerides solely through diet.

Drum Roll Please...

Mission Accomplished. I believe Charlie Sheen would call this Epic Winning.

Now let's get geeky and dig into the numbers a bit.

NameStandard RangeAncestral Range11/28/20052/23/20103/10/2011
Triglycerides40-149mg/dl50-80mg/dl34133393
Total Cholesterol110-199mg/dl120-140mg/dl186191198
HDL Cholesterol> 40mg/dl> 50mg/dl353344
LDL Cholesterol< 131mg/dl40-70mg/dl8391135
Triglycerides

Why my obsession with triglycerides? I would never have known what they were had I not applied for an "extra healthy" lifestyle insurance policy. The underwriters sent a lab tech to the house to take a blood draw. Seemed like a shoo-in to me. Then the policy was rejected, but they wouldn't tell me why - all they would say was "blood work". This irked me on two counts: first that they wouldn't give me a reason and second "I'm healthy dammit!". So I got my first lipid panel done (the 2005 stats) and found the smoking gun.

High triglycerides have many undesirable effects. Given my family history with diabetes and tendency to only gain visceral fat, this freaked me out. Given that they can be an indicator of metabolic syndrome, I saw my Dad's endocrinologist who said I don't have all the indicators to be diagnosed, and that I should make some dietary changes and exercise more. Not having all the indicators didn't really comfort me much - I don't want any indicators of heart disease, diabetes, etc. After I did all the training for the half-marathon in 2009 I got the second lipid panel done last winter and had high hopes of better numbers given that 2009 was both the highest volume and most consistent exercising I have ever done. No dice. The plus side in retrospect is that it helps eliminate a variable in my experiment.

Needless to say, I am tickled pink with the score of 93. The graph says it all. I also think I could have done better, as alcohol "has a particularly potent effect on triglycerides. Even small amounts of alcohol can raise triglyceride levels." In a classic space cadet moment, I had a giant NorCal Margarita the night before my blood work. I guess it's good to know good vices and good numbers aren't mutually exclusive.

Cholesterol

My general cholesterol numbers are acceptable but not stellar. I'm OK with this given that they weren't remotely the target of the experiment and triglycerides are actually a better predictor of heart disease than cholesterol levels anyway. My HDL/LDL ratios could use some tuning. The standard method for this is consuming fish oil to tweak the Omega 3/6 ratios. This was recommended to me by the endrocrinologist and is also recommended in both the paleo books I based my experiment on.

I actually took them for a good chunk of 2005, but I got sick of them and quit. I didn't take them for the experiment because I wanted to see what diet alone would accomplish and I still find them repugnant. I've read about some liquid forms, mint-flavored varieties, etc. If I can find a variety I can live with I might consider it. There are other recommended supplements such as Vitamin D which I'll look into as well. It takes a pretty compelling reason to get me to take a pill though.

Weight Loss

Weight loss was not a goal of the experiment, but it was a pleasant side effect. I went from 191 at the start of the experiment to 176. The vast majority of this was visceral abdominal fat, which is bad news both for health and aesthetics. The only downside to this is now none of my pants fit and I hate clothes shopping. Bear in mind that I deliberately avoided exercise to focus the experiment on diet alone. I also ate like a horse, so I'm quite happy with this result.

The "Diet"

The term "paleo diet" actually annoys me because it's really not a diet in the conventional sense. There is no calorie counting or portion control. It's not about how much you eat, but about what types of food you eat. Whole foods (meat, vegetables, fruit) are good, grains, legumes and dairy not so much. That's a bit abstract, so let's look at some of my favorite meals from the last 10 weeks.

Pumpkin Curry Cioppino and Crab Legs Taco Salad Surf & Turf

I've got a lot more pictures from my food diary I could share, but these are already making me hungry. Obviously deprivation isn't on the program.

Eating Out

Eating paleo-style meals at restaurants is actually quite easy. Thai? - get a curry and skip the rice. Mexican? - get fajitas, carnitas, carne asada, etc. and skip the tortilla and beans. Chinese? - skip the rice and any of the breaded chicken dishes. There are usually several passable options in the buffet line. Almost any restaurant will have some form of chicken salad. If you really get in a jam where nothing looks good (like I recently did at the cafeteria at work) get a burger, ditch the bun, chop it up, throw it on top of a lettuce salad and call it a "deconstructed hamburger" just to sound all foodie.

Eating In

By far the best thing about this experiment is that it got us cooking again. All but one of the favorite meals pictured above are homemade. I've come to quite enjoy cooking breakfast in the mornings (although it required some logistical work with our family routine). There are some nice recipe sites available to use for inspiration, but mostly we just improvise.

Grocery shopping does require some more thought. It no longer suffices to throw together some spaghetti or a frozen pizza. We have to have meat and veggies on hand and actually cook a real meal. That's been an adjustment, but a good one. There are still nights where we haven't provisioned or are just too fried to cook, but the restaurant tips above cover those.

I've never eaten better than in the last 10 weeks, in terms of enjoyment of food - not just health.

How Does It Feel?

Surprisingly, I experienced relatively few cravings. The only major temptation was making cinnamon-raisin toast for the Wrecking Crew the first week (man, was I glad to see that loaf gone).

I was completely strict for the first month, and loosened up a bit after that by allowing myself some dark chocolate (> 60% cacao) every day. That and occasional small portions of fruit are enough to keep my sweet-tooth satisfied.

I've always joked about my tapeworm, but it's not so funny now. Going without sugar for this long has had dramatic effects. I used to want to gnaw my arm off within 90 minutes of most meals regardless of size. Eating paleo, I can go a good 3-4 hours before getting hungry. Without the constant blood sugar roller-coaster it's a lot easier to focus. I feel more clear-headed and productive.

My few "cheats" have reinforced this. I had a piece of carrot cake and got a massive headrush accompanied by borderline nausea. My idea of candy now is a grape.

Booze

Alcohol is not strictly paleo, as cavemen weren't equipped for brewing or distilling. That being said, a fellow has to live.

Beer in particular is problematic from a paleo perspective because of the gluten content and the amount of sugar it contains. Because of this, I gave it up for the experiment. Possibly the most surprising thing about the experiment was how easy this was. Even more surprising is that I'm OK with continuing, although if I ever make it back to Belgium all bets are off. I will be a bit sad to inform all my home-brewing friends to take me off their sample programs - they make some good stuff.

We've been drinking more red wine over the last year anyway. In addition I've been enjoying trying different whiskeys this winter and the infamous NorCal Margarita will be a summer standby. The real thing to avoid is using mixers with a lot of sugar. Soda water, tonic, lemon and lime are your friends.

One interesting thing I learned is that alcohol blocks the release of growth hormone which normally occurs during sleep. This disrupts the body's natural recovery process. It takes roughly 3-4 hours for a couple of drinks to metabolize so now I try and keep the cocktails lined up with dinner and skip the late night glass of red.

Next steps

I consider the experiment a total success and am planning to explore more aspects of the paleo lifestyle. The "diet" for me will be going forward indefinitely. As a family we're also looking into meat and vegetable CSA's, something which will increase the quality of our diet even further and support the local farm economy, which I'm a big fan of.

The bigger task will be getting the Wrecking Crew onto the program. So far it's been an adults-only journey. After my personal results I feel like I might as well be handing the kids a cigarette when I pour them their second bowl of cereal in the morning and pack the Oreos in their lunchboxes. That needs to change.

Beyond diet, recalling the four points of my paleo interpretation still leaves plenty of work to do.

  1. Eat foods our genes are optimized for (Paleo Diet)
  2. Sleep more
  3. Exercise differently
  4. Stress less

The next experiments will be around sleep and exercise. Given that I'm writing this at 2:30 in the morning there is some irony there.

If any of this interests you I'd encourage you to check out the references in Going Paleolithic which inspired this experiment. There is also a nice Nightline segment that aired recently with Robb and Art which provides a nice concise overview of the paleo lifestyle.

Stay tuned for more and remember to drop me a line if you try an experiment of your own.

Jeremy Ulstad

Dad, IT Architect, Hack Musician, Sailor

Minneapolis, Minnesota http://jeremyulstad.com