I sometimes think that some people imagine I live some perfectly healthy existence. While my lifestyle might be tons better than it was when I was a young adult, say, at least some of my lifestyle habits vary a bit depending on things like environment (I travel quite a lot), workload and priorities. There is always some room for improvement. I also have never believed I am the ‘finished article’. As a result, I strive to remain open to new ideas and different ways of doing things.
Recently, I was reflecting on things that I regularly do now that I didn’t do 5 years ago. In no particular order, here’s five things that sprung to mind, and a bit on the thinking or strategy behind each of these changes:
1. Intermittent fasting
Although I have advocated eating in accordance with our ancient diet for a long time, I had until relatively recently been in the ‘eat three meals a day’ and ‘graze, don’t gorge’ camps. It did occur that regular eating was perhaps at variance with our evolutionary patterns of eating, and then perhaps three years ago I started to get interested in the concept of ‘intermittent fasting’.
It is my belief that probably body weight and certainly overall health are not solely determined by the balance of calories going into and out of the body. These things are at least to some degree influence by other factors, including hormones. A key player here is insulin, higher levels of which predispose to fatness. This is one major reason why I advocate a relatively low-carbohydrate diet.
Insulin levels can be tempered by adjusting not just what we eat, but when we eat too. Insulin is secreted in response to eating, so tends to be elevated during the day and relatively low while we sleep. In theory, extending the time each day when insulin levels are low might promote weight loss. This, in essence, is what intermittent fasting is all about.
My personal foray into intermittent fasting came after a period during which I had been hearing good things about it. I also had been discussing intermittent fasting with someone who had lost almost 100 lbs following the advice contained in my book Waist Disposal. She had plateaued, though, and was looking for something to get her going again. I suggested intermittent fasting, and volunteered to try it myself at the same time.
Although I had rarely skipped breakfast for many years, I am generally less hungry in the morning than in the evening. I therefore decided to skip breakfast, but resolved to do this gradually by slowly increasing the time in the morning before I ate anything. I generally get up quite early (6.30-7.00 am), and after a week or two, I found myself being able to get to 1.00 pm or later before I felt ready for lunch.
I was not consciously resisting food before this time – I just wasn’t hungry. I felt no decrease in energy either. If anything, my energy levels improved, particularly mental energy, focus and clarity. I also, though this may have had nothing to do with my dietary change, found myself needing less sleep.
I do eat breakfast sometimes, but only days that I actually feel hungry in the morning. I broadly follow the advice to ‘eat when you’re hungry, and not when you’re not’. Two of the benefits for me have been some fat loss, and a feeling of being less reliant on food and regular meals. Another spin-off benefit has been I have been much more relaxed about exploring if this way of eating is right for other individuals (which it can be).
2. Front crawl swimming (sort of)
I never really learned to swim when I was young. And my problems were compounded when, at school, I was ‘taught’ by a swimming ‘teacher’ who seems to get a kick out of humiliating non-swimmers like me. By the time I left school, I had some serious mental barriers to swimming.
In the late 1990s a good friend and colleague spent an hour a day over a week teaching me to swim breaststroke. At the start of the week, I could barely manage 25 metres without feeling like I was going to die. By the end of the week, I could swim with good form for as long as I liked. Even though I say so myself, my breaststroke is a joy to behold, and all because of some excellent coaching all those years ago.
However, front crawl has traditionally been a very different story. I remember as a very young child taking swimming lessons where we would hold out floats in front of us and kick like fury with our legs. My problem: no forward propulsion. I’ve been told that my fundamental issue is the angle of my feet relative to my lower legs and a problem with immobile ankles. Anyway, whatever the problem, my legs put a very serious brake on any attempts to swim front crawl.
A year or so ago, I was discussing this with the friend who taught me breaststroke. He suggested that I try using a ‘pull buoy’ – a figure of 8-shaped piece of foam that is help between the legs that elevates them, and basically negates the need for kicking. The end result? I worked hard on my arms and breathing, forgot about the legs, and can now plough up and down the pool at will.
I used to advise against drinking tap water and would not drink it myself. But both of these things are no longer true now. So, what changed in my thinking?
My original reservations around tap water were based on the fact that it contains chlorine and perhaps even some aluminium. I noted some years ago that some evidence linked tap water consumption with certain cancers, and that aluminium was being touted as a potential underlying factor in ‘neurodegenerative’ diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Over the last decade or so, though, I have also become aware that there is a downside to drinking bottled water. For a start, there is at least some risk of chemicals leaching from plastic water bottles into the water. But, also, environmental issues have come to the fore. I’m always slightly horrified when I see pictures of mountains of plastic waste piled up (or washed up) somewhere in the world. Also, the transportation of water from France or wherever to where it is ultimately consumed has an environmental cost too.
Some years ago I was at a conference listening to a naturally-oriented doctor who I very much respect talk about tap water. He was relaxed about its consumption, and suggested that for those concerned about chlorine, they could always leave some water out for a few hours before drinking to allow the chlorine to evaporate off. It seemed liked a reasonable suggestion to me.
The role of aluminium in neurodegenerative conditions appears to have dropped out of favour, and my hunch is that (as mounting research suggests) problems with blood sugar control and insulin resistance will turn out to be a major factor here. Plus, I drink Nespresso coffee almost every day (and these have aluminium caps through which the coffee is ‘forced’).
All behaviours are inherently risky to some degree, even crossing the road or walking down some stairs. However, when risks are relatively smalland our appear to be massively outweighed by the benefits (in the case of using roads and stairs, the ability to get to where you want to), then I regard that asacceptable risk.
So, whereas in a café or restaurant I used to only drink bottled water, I now default to tap water (unless whoever I am with has opted to order a big bottle of water).
One other thing that nudged me in the direction of tap water was a growing collective and personal awareness that a significant proportion of the world’s population has no access to clean drinking water. So, another thing that prompted this change was a growing feeling that I just needed to get over myself.
4. Eating white potatoes
I eat quite a decent diet, I think, and it’s based on natural unprocessed foods. I’m wary of the role of certain carbohydrates in weight and health, and while I am not a particular advocate of ‘very low carbohydrate diets’, I think its fair to say my broad advice does fit into the ‘low carb’ camp.
Low-carbohydrate eating normally necessitates eschewing starchy carbohydrates such as bread, rice, breakfast cereals and potatoes. In fact, for many years, I rarely ate white potatoes. Part of my thinking was based on the fact that potatoes are relatively disruptive to blood sugar balance. I also considered potatoes to offer little nutritional value, too.
However, on the blood sugar thing, it’s not just the food that is important here, but how much we eat of it. For me, potatoes were only usually a relatively minor accompaniment to a meal. It occurred to me that their impact on my blood sugar was not likely to be considerable, particularly if I ate them alongside foods that were not disruptive to blood sugar such as meat and green veg.
I also came to review slightly my view that white potatoes have no real nutritional value. They actually offer decent amounts of useful minerals such as magnesium and potassium. In the last year or so, potatoes have seen a return to my diet, though my intake remains relatively low (perhaps 3 meals a week).
Some concern has been expressed about the potential for potatoes to contain toxins known as ‘glycoalkaloids’, which are to be found in the skin. When I eat potatoes, there are generally without skin, either as mash or, more commonly, roast potatoes.
5. Conscious breathing
Maybe like a lot of people, I have tended through my life to take the act of breathing for granted. A couple of years back I was in a seminar where the facilitator got us to count the number of breaths (in and out) we took in a minute. He stated that 4-8 represented a good pace. Mine was 14.
I started to read about the physiology of breathing and particular the potential impact breathing too quickly can have on our state. The risk here is that we can blow off too much carbon dioxide, making the blood more alkaline. This, in theory at least, can impair oxygen delivery to the tissues.
Low carbon dioxide levels can upset the body’s chemical balance in another way too – it lowers calcium levels in the blood. Calcium is important for normal functioning of the nerves and muscles, and low calcium can lead to symptoms such as pins and needles and possibly ‘cramping’ in the hands and feet. These symptoms are common during episodes of ‘hyperventilation’ (‘panic attacks’). In fact, the emergency medical treatment for hyperventilation is to breathe in and out of a paper bag held tightly around the nose and mouth. This increases carbon dioxide levels in the blood, which helps restore normal physiology and calm to the system.
Classical hyperventilation is quite an extreme state of affairs that I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced. However, between this and an optimal breathing pattern is a spectrum. While I don’t suffer from full-blown panic attacks, I came to believe that my breathing pattern can be a long way off optimal.
So, in recent times, I have made a conscious effort to take some control over my breathing. Specifically, when I feel in need of some focused energy, I slow my breathing down to about 6 cycles (in and out is one cycle) per minute. Within a minute or so I do usually feel better and more centred. Is this a real effect or placebo (or a bit of both). I have no idea, and neither do I very much care (it’s the result that is important to me).