Big Food Experient Pt.2: A Month With No Grains

My Big Food Experiment started with a month without meat. Eager to move on, next up on the food group cull list was grains.

I’ve eaten and enjoyed grains all my life, mostly in the form of bread, cereal, flour and pasta, and more recently in the form of rice and noodles in Thailand and Asia.

20 years ago giving up ‘heart healthy grains’ would’ve been absurd, but things have changed since then.

Food enemy number one has shifted from fat to carbohydrates, and numerous charges have been filed against grains by the food police – that they promote inflammation, that they contribute to an unhealthy level of carbohydrate intake leading to health issues, that many people react badly or are allergic to them, they make you bloated, their vitamin content is far surpassed by fruits and vegetables, that our bodies have not adjusted to eating them since their introduction to our diets roughly 10,000 years ago and that generally our bodies react badly to the gluten, lectins and phytates that grains contain.

Grains: pasta, bread (includes pita pretzels etc), noodles, flour, wheat, cereal, rice, oats, corn. Many processed foods include grain derived ingredients. Not grains: potato, sweet potato, quinoa

Grains: pasta, bread (includes pita pretzels etc), noodles, flour, cereal, rice, oats, corn. Many processed foods include grain derived ingredients.
Not grains: potato, sweet potato, quinoa

Now I’m not saying all these nasty things that are being said are necessarily true and I’m not particularly interested in debating them for now. All I want to know is how I react to grains, and how dropping them from my diet will impact my mind and body. So the day after my no meat month, I started my no grain month.

The first interesting thing was people’s reaction when I mentioned I was cutting out grains. Many people would just look confused and ask “why?” Not wanting to get into any long-winded conversation or debate (unavoidable, sometimes) I would just say I was trying it out. Some people would just stand there looking puzzled, wondering why anyone would do such a thing. I didn’t get this when discussing meat, something we’ve eaten for far longer throughout our evolution, so it was interesting that grains elicited this response.

So meat was back in and grains were out – I was happy to get my meat back and the changes I felt were immediate and positive. By eliminating grains I was mostly forced to take the healthy choice. No more cereal, bagels or croissants for breakfast, the only thing on the menu in the local cafe that passed the no grain audit was salad. Even the sauces had grain-derived ingredients so my salads went sauce free. At first it tasted a bit bland, but I found that fruit and vegetables for breakfast filled me up nicely until afternoon.

Grains, on the other hand, have me feeling hungry shortly afterwards and sometimes even make me hungrier. I’ve been a bit peckish before, eaten a bagel, and been full on starving afterwards (yes, even wholewheat bagels for those who asked after my last article).

I believe the poor hunger control often caused by grain and processed food consumption is due to blood sugar levels rising quickly and the resulting insulin production causing a crash, resulting in food cravings and more consumption. Repeat this often enough for a long enough amount of time and the blood sugar level rollercoaster will put you on course for weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes.

As much as I’ve always enjoyed bread, pasta et el, they’ve always left me feeling pretty bloated and heavy and certainly not primed for peak performance. By eliminating them I benefited from increased energy levels and felt lighter.

Now, I realise this comes across as flagrant grain-bashing but please understand that I don’t think grains are awful and terrible. My current view is that grains are fine, but it’s excessive consumption that causes problems. ‘Excessive consumption’ is relative to how active you are – a marathon runner or labourer can safely consume more than a sedentary office worker who rarely stands up.

Now I consume grains in moderation and I feel I’ve struck a nice balance in my diet now that suits me. However, some people eat cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, a big bowl of pasta for dinner and numerous grainy, high-carb snacks in between and think this is a good, healthy diet and can’t understand why they’re gaining weight and feeling tired.

no-grainMy only rule during this month was no grains. I didn’t diet (other than fasting for 24 hours every 1-2 weeks) and I didn’t monitor or worry about carbohydrate consumption during the month, but I still lost weight, just over 2kg. I didn’t worry about deserts or other ‘naughty’ foods and ate freely, but I discovered that most unhealthy, indulgent food has some form of flour, bread or cereal in it, so that seemed to largely keep my healthy eating in check.

Most highly-processed foods were off the menu, which again contributed to my positive experience with this experiment. I found myself having to check ingredients lists closely and almost all packaged food had something like ‘rice vinegar’, ‘wheat extract’ or some other grain derivative. This checking process made me more aware of what I was consuming and was a valuable education. I don’t think we give enough consideration to what we put in our bodies, but this month I was forced to check to ensure I didn’t inadvertently consume grains. Occasionally there’d be no grains, but the list would contain so many chemicals I couldn’t pronounce that I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. This is one of the biggest things I took from the month – being aware and mindful of what I was consuming.

Overall I felt great, had lots of energy and was losing weight, but I did crave grains at times. Towards the end of the month I started to enviously see people wolfing down sandwiches, pizza or pasta. Perhaps my body was craving the nutrients and energy, or perhaps I missed the taste and flavour of those foods. I introduced grains back into my diet after the month ended and now I eat them in moderation. By ‘moderation’, I mean a lot, lot less than the average person. If bread is served with soup and it looks tasty I’ll eat it. If it looks cheap, very white or full of preservatives, I won’t. If I’m eating out and I want grains, I’ll have them, but my intake has reduced dramatically. I’d estimate that my current grain consumption is about 30-40% of what it was pre-experiment, and I’m especially careful to avoid them earlier on in the day as I feel they set me up for a day of hunger. I’ve continued to see improvements in body composition and health without totally cutting them out and I can still eat the foods I enjoy.

Another way to put this is that I feel I’ve found the carbohydrate and grain consumption level that works for me, and I’m reaping the benefits of that.

My conclusion from this is that different people have different tolerance levels for grains and carbohydrates. Some react terribly, whereas some seem to be able to get away with consuming more. This idea of experimentation and accepting that people react to foods differently sounds so simple, but is so often forgotten with nutritional advice.

I have learned so much about myself and my body over these two months and would wholeheartedly recommend these kind of food experiments to anyone. Not necessarily no meat or no grains, but just play around with your diet, eliminate food groups for a while and see how you feel, try fasting or just keep a food diary and monitor weight, mood and energy level changes. You’ll learn so much about yourself you’ll never again pay attention to the drivel that’s often found in newspapers and magazines regarding nutrition, and that can only be a good thing.

Not wanting to halt my food journey, I had an interesting food experiment in store for part 3. Will fill you in soon…

Paleo Training: The Strength Project

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If you hate gyms, try training here

I’ve been training pretty consistently for the last 12 years, and the amount of effort and time I’ve wasted during this time is astonishing. I used to judge a gym by the amount of machines they had, my program stayed pretty much the same for years on end and I thought that what I was doing – long distance running and what basically amounted to bodybuilding – would help me excel in football and sport.

My workouts still had value and were far better than doing nothing, but my outlook towards exercise and health has changed pretty dramatically since then.

Looking back, the worst thing about my old routine was how boring it became. I often found myself yawning in between sets and working out became a real chore.

Now, I can honestly say that I love training and look forward to it. Everyone should. I really believe, perhaps naively, that everyone has a way of moving that they enjoy. They just might not have found it yet.

You never see a 3 year old lethargic and lazy, making excuses not to go and play or run around. Sadly, along the way somewhere we lose this natural zest for movement.

Another drawback with my old ways was that I didn’t really know what I was training for and when I did have a goal, I wasn’t really sure how my training, diet and lifestyle would impact it.

My approach to training has taken a massive u-turn since then. I still lift weights, but no more of this ‘2 seconds up, 2 seconds down’ bull. I lift, jump, twist, shift, flip and sweep in every possible plane of motion, and I make it as fun as possible. Some days I try and invent a load of movements I’ve never done before; other days I’ll focus on the big lifts.

One of my new years goals was to try new things, and I’ve recently been doing this through a series of dietary experiments. This goal, along with a couple of minor injuries in the last few months gave me the inspiration for my latest project.

For two months, I will lift no weights, and will only use my own bodyweight for exercise. I can’t get away from demonstrating exercises with light weights but all my own training will be using only my body.

I’m pretty excited about this one – it will force me to get super creative with my programs and it will prove that you can get in good shape and maintain optimum fitness levels without equipment or an expensive gym membership.

I’m currently on some well-deserved R&R in Sri Lanka, and I think there can’t be many better places in the world to start this ‘strength project’ than the beaches here.

I’ve trained every day and have had some of my most intense workouts for a long time. I’ve been beach running , done bootcamp style exercises such as burpees, lunge jumps and press ups, I’ve used palm trees as pull up bars, have climbed rocks, been stair running and have been smashed around by the violent waves of the Indian Ocean. All with a healthy dose of sunshine.

People often talk about the paleo diet but I think we can also learn a lot by thinking about how we moved and used our bodies as we evolved. Did our ancestors use a bicep curl machine or an elliptical trainer? Hell no. Many people train in a way that has no real life equivalent. Our ancestors would’ve climbed, run, pushed and pulled themselves around, squatted and lifted heavy shit. I think we should base a large chunk of our training and movement around this for top results, not in just how we look but also how we feel. It’s my belief that these kind of primal movement patterns trigger a positive hormonal response that promotes muscle growth, fat burning and optimal health. If it’s done in natural surroundings then all the better.

For my following write ups on this I’m going to refer to these natural movements as Paleo Training – use the term and I’ll get my lawyers onto you ; )

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for other types of training for specific goals, but for general health and the athletic, lean look that seems to be most desired at the moment, you can’t go far wrong with Paleo Training.

As with my diet experiments, I will let you know how I get on with my 8 week bodyweight program, and I’ll give you guys a few sample workouts for the next time you’re at the beach, or you want to make the most of a sunny day at the park.

My experiment will consist of sprints, running, jumps, pushes, pulls, calisthenics and gymnastics. If you have any training ideas or opinions about this approach versus other training methods, I’d love to hear all about it.
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Organic coconuts, or ‘coconuts’ as the locals call them

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This awesome view was my reward for hitting interval sprints up some stairs I noticed by the roadside

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This tree was my bootcamp finisher pull up bar. Tore my hands up a bit, but that was part of the fun

The Big Food Experiment

What and when to eat?

Don’t let me tell you what you must eat and when you must eat it

I’ve been asked recently how I’m doing on my 2013 goals and ideas, which I so publicly revealed. The answer is some better than others. They’re all ongoing, so the end of the year is when I’ll fully assess, and if I haven’t achieved and maintained them I’ll get a big ‘FAIL’ stamp tattooed on my forehead.

One of the things I wanted to do was ‘try new things’, and I’ve approached this in one way by trying out some experiments with food. By food experiments I don’t mean genetically modifying tomatoes to be as big as footballs (although I would try that if I knew how), I mean experimenting with how different foods and eating patterns affect my mind and body.

We’re constantly bombarded with information on diet and nutrition. Magazines and online fitness ‘gurus’ tell you what you MUST do, and use powerful statements such as ‘eat this food to turn your body a fat-burning machine’, and ‘if you don’t eat breakfast your body goes into catabolic starvation mode and your metabolism grinds to a halt’.

When it’s written with such strength and conviction, who cares if it’s true?

Decisiveness sells and attracts people, I get that, but this is one area that requires a more diplomatic approach – experiment with different things, monitor closely how it affects you, keep an open mind and discover a personalized solution for you, which admittedly doesn’t sound quite as good as ‘eat this and watch the fat melt away’.

I guarantee, in 100 years there will still be people telling you that you MUST do this, you MUST do that, and the masses will be lapping it up and paying for it, both with their wallet and their poor results.

Discovering what works for you is possible for anyone with a little intelligence and the will to succeed. Unfortunately a lack of will is what stops most people…

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein

My first food experiment was a month without meat. I’ve eaten meat all my life and I’ve tried almost every meat imaginable. If it has a brain and moves, chances are I’ve eaten it. I believe meat consumption is largely healthy, but my big issue comes with the quality of meat. Organic grass-fed beef is very different from supermarket beef lasagne, which probably contains more unicorn than beef. So I rather hesitantly embarked on my no-meat journey and loudly proclaimed it on facebook to get some feedback and hold myself accountable.

I could write a lot about how I felt and reacted to no meat, but I want to summarize the main points to keep this article at a decent length.

I was told by some that a no-meat diet would leave me feeling clean, fresh and light. I didn’t find this at all. I actually felt quite heavy and bloated. A lot of my meat seemed to be replaced by grains – pasta, bread, rice etc. Interestingly, some of my vegetarian friends have confirmed that almost every meal they have is grain based.

If I saw this I had to turn around and run for my life

If I saw this I had to turn around and run for my life

For the first few weeks I was lacking in energy. This improved towards the end but I was a long way from feeling at my best. I stress, this could have been due to many other factors – sleep, stress levels etc, but I definitely didn’t feel ‘alive’, like some said I would.

It made me realise that I enjoy eating meat. It tastes good and I feel good from eating it.
I was really looking forward to eating meat again, but my first meat meal after the month was a bit of an anti-climax. It tasted good, but not spectacular like I’d envisaged. But overall I was happy to get it back into my diet.

It showed me I could go without meat fairly comfortably if need be. The longest I’d gone before this was probably a day or two at most.

I’d like to stress at this point that this was a long way from being a scientific experiment. I continued eating some fish and as mentioned previously, so many other factors could have played a part in how I felt during this month. I’m open to the idea that if I’d perhaps given it longer or tried some other no-meat diet solutions, these could have been more positive. Perhaps I’ll try that later. I have some friends who are vegetarian, eat loads of bread and pasta and look and feel great. I’m not doubting this works for them as I can see the results, but for now I don’t think it’s for me.

The biggest and most positive thing I took from this experience was how I view the quality of the meat I consume – how the animals kept and fed and how that affects the taste and nutrient profile of the meat.

So that’s a summary of what I discovered about myself. Nothing too profound, but I’m glad I did it and it’s already set me on the path to thinking more about what I consume.

And in case you’re wondering, I put on about half a kilo.

About half way through the no-meat month I was looking at a wholewheat bagel I was eating and thinking about how it was making me feel, when it came to me – the next month I would cut out all grains, which meant no bread, rice, noodles, wheat etc, or anything deriving from grains, such as rice vinegar, wheat extract (found in a lot of processed foods) and most alcohol including beer (oh dear!). I knew it would be harder as many food items are off the menu, but I was excited about trying this one.

In my next post I’ll let you know how I got on…

Also, please note that we offer nutritional guidance in Bangkok at BASE.