Look on Google Health News, and you’ll find the most confusing barrage of information possible about what you need to do to be healthier. Just today, I learned about the downsides of bulletproof coffee, if lentils are actually good for you, how plants on your plate might not actually be good for you, why counting calories might not be the best way to get healthy, and how counting calories is essential to managing health. The overwhelm in the health space seems to be one of the main reasons people aren’t making much progress.
Getting healthy is certainly not easy, but it can be simple. Most people (specific medical conditions aside) can undo most of the damage done to their body through the following four interventions. The benefits I’ve experienced from these range from weight loss and muscle gain to being a better dad.
One final note before we get started. All of these things exist on a spectrum, and making the perfect the enemy of the good can undo any progress you’ve made. All we’re talking about here is choices. If getting eight hours of sleep is ideal and you can only make room for seven because of legitimate demands on your time, then push for seven rather than saying, “the hell with it” and getting four. Little tweaks can go a long way in the drive to get healthier.
A few weeks ago I would have started this post with changes in diet, and then I read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Whatever is next on your reading list, bump it to second place and put Why We Sleep at the top. The benefits of sleep are too numerous to mention here, but some highlights are improved body composition, improved cognition, decreased loneliness (can you believe that?!?!), and a vastly improved hormone profile. One week of sleep restriction to 5 hours (which 15% of the workforce experience) led to a 10-15% decrease in testosterone levels. That’s equivalent to aging ten years!
Why We Sleep is so great because of the combination of helpful advice and science. Researchers know WAY more about sleep than I thought they did, and the book dives into the benefits of each stage of sleep throughout the eight hours we should be getting every night.
Some of the big takeaways from the book were
Try to get the same eight hours of sleep every night. Our circadian rhythm is active whether we are sleeping or not. In other words, if you usually go to bed at eleven, and you go to bed at one in the morning, you’ve missed the benefits of the first two hours of sleep even if you sleep for a full eight hours.
Be careful about alcohol and sleep. Alcohol is a sedative, and being sedated is very different from being asleep. REM sleep is suppressed when alcohol is consumed before sleep, and there are major restorative benefits to this stage of sleep like concentration, focus, memory consolidation, and decreased pain perception that we miss when REM is suppressed.
Avoid caffeine late in the day. Even if you are able to sleep after drinking coffee, non-REM sleep (which is important for different reasons than REM sleep) is suppressed when enough caffeine is present in the system. Two side notes about this I found super interesting
The half life of caffeine is about 6 hours. That means if you have your coffee at 10 a.m. and start to go to bed at 10 p.m. that is equivalent to drinking a quarter cup of coffee as you are getting into bed! This blew my mind.
Side note to my side note…I got the flu a few weeks ago and didn’t eat or drink coffee for three days or so. When I reintroduced food, I skipped my coffee for a couple more days and my sleep improved a ton. Other than being a huge bummer, this really shined a light on how much caffeine was affecting my sleep.
Decaf has a quarter the amount of caffeine as regular! I would never drink a quarter cup of coffee right before bed, but drinking a cup of decaf seems totally reasonable. I digress…
Temperature is more important than we think for sleep. We evolved sleeping when it gets cool at night, and the ideal temperature for sleeping is between 60 and 65 degrees. That’s pretty chilly! The last cool takeaway about this is that a hot bath actually decreases your core temperature a lot. There are a bunch of blood vessels on your hands and feet that shed temperature like crazy when they are heated up. In a sense, heating your hands and feet allows your body to release a bunch of heat. This means that half an hour or so after a hot bath, your core temperature has actually dropped a lot.
He doesn’t talk about it in the book, but the last note I would make about sleep is that it’s one of the more luxurious things we do. My bed may well be my favorite place on earth, and knowing that I am giving myself a third of my time in my very favorite place is a huge piece of self-care for me.
Drop Sugar, Grains, and Seed Oils
The post started with the incredibly confusing nature of nutritional advice. Some vegans have success with health (and some don't). The carnivore diet is gaining popularity. Keto. Paleo. Vegetarian. Whole 30. Raw food. Cooked food. If people are having success with all of these diets, what in the world should you do? One of the secrets to successful dieting is that what you DO NOT eat is just as important (if not more) than what you do eat.
A very short version of the problems with the current food scene in the civilized world is an intake of pro-inflammatory foods and carbohydrates that is way out of whack with what’s required to maintain a healthy body composition.
Sugar, grains, and seed oils all check at least one of these boxes.
Seed oils are pro-inflammatory. Mark Hyman does a great summary of what is going on in your body right when you consume this “food” here. Rather than thinking about the way this takes a ton of food off the table, think about replacing the current fat in your diet with olive oil, avodado oil, and animal fat from your favorite trusted farmer.
Sugar is both pro-inflammatory and full of carbohydrates. Gary Taubes has done a lot of great research and writing about the danger of sugar. He’s pretty controversial and rubs some people the wrong way, but the takeaway should just be to eat way less sugar than most Americans currently do. By way of example, if you have a “healthy” breakfast of cup of flavored, lowfat yogurt and half a cup of granola, you have already had somewhere around 50 grams of sugar. The American Heart Association (who, in my humble opinion, still overstate the amount of sugar we should be eating) recommends 37.5 grams per day for men and 25 grams for women. And that, by the way, is a pretty small breakfast. Start checking labels and you’ll be shocked how much added sugar is in pretty much everything we eat. Start cutting sugar out, and you’ll be shocked at how quickly weight comes off and the inflammation decreases.
Finally, give yourself chance to live without the cereal grains (wheat, oats, barley, corn, rice, etc) for a little while, and you might be surprised at the results. Carbohydrates in any form increase blood sugar, which increases insulin, which drives energy storage. Grains do contain carbohydrates, so avoiding them to keep carbs in check is compelling. The story doesn’t end there though. Plenty of foods that are health promoting contain carbs (fruit, veggies, tubers, etc.) so there is also the inflammation side of the story to consider.
There are proteins in grains that act as defense mechanisms to keep them from being eaten. Gluten and lectin are two such examples. These are considered to be antinutrients by some folks because they make nutrients harder to absorb. Not only that, but your body recognizes these proteins as invaders and initiates a pro-inflammatory response that, when combined with a “graincentric” diet leaves your body under siege all the time. When these are cut out, some people often lose a huge amount of water weight really quickly because of the decrease in inflammation.
In place of sugar and grains, eat whole foods. Get your fiber from veggies roasted in healthy fat, your protein in the form of animals (beef, pork, fish, fowl, etc.) from a trusted source, and fill your diet out with nuts, occasional fruit, some high quality dark chocolate, and dressings and sauces from healthy sources full of healthy ingredients.
The deeper you get online in the health sphere, the more specific the nutrition advice gets. You’ll find tons of talk about balancing your macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbs) in accordance with your goals. There’s a time and place for that, for sure, but at the beginning of an effort toward health, eliminating these three categories of foods from your diet will, in my humble opinion, be the biggest step you take toward improving your nutrition.
Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow.