For a lot of people, cycling forms part of a healthy regime that keeps you fit and strong. For others it is a way of losing weight. Check out the Amazing 39 Stone Cyclist for an extreme example.
About eight years ago I decided it was time to improve my health. At the time, I had not long quit smoking, I was a car commuter with a tendency to snack on chocolate bars and crisps, and I was doing little exercise. My weight, an overweight 15 stone, was gradually increasing with every month that passed. That's where my cycling and diet improvements kicked in.
Fast forward to today and my diet is looking more like general advice - full of fruit nuts and seeds, quite low fat, fish, lean meats and full of whole grains. Most white flour products are out, and I'll always be searching for wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta and brown rice. The combination of diet and rather intense cycling has brought my weight down to a more healthy 12 and half stone and my resting heart rate is 42bpm.
That sounds great in theory, but the reality is different. If I stop cycling, my weight starts to climb. Cycling has become a way to keep my weight under control and without it, despite the change in diet, my body cannot maintain a weight without intervention. Obviously, my balance of calories in calories out is tipped towards calories in. Quite simply I am eating too much regardless of how healthy it is.
I have tried eating less, but I but it always feels like I am starving myself. Just two hours after breakfast, I would be starting to feel cold and my body would feel jittery and I couldn't concentrate. My body was telling me to eat something. I knew something wasn't right.
Internet investigations kept leading me to pages on Diabetes and Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). Thankfully, I don't have anything serious (confirmed by my doctor), I think it is a form of Hypoglycaemia called Post Prandial Syndrome. The advice is to eat often, more protein and less carbs.
What I thought was a reasonably healthy diet is laden with carbohydrate foods such as breads, potatoes, pasta and rice which are doing me some harm. I am now trying to reduce carbs and add more proteins, especially at breakfast time.
The modern Western diet
Whilst trying to work out what my problem was, I started to browse around the subject of food. What is really quite interesting is that the conventional idea of healthy food is being challenged.
For the last few decades we have been adviced to eat a low fat diet. More recently, there was the Atkins Diet, essentially a meat and low carb diet. I dismissed this as a diet fad at the time. The new diet I am hearing about is the Paleo Diet, essentially eating foods of an ancient hunter gatherer lifestyle, with no modern starchy foods like grains and legumes, and it loses dairy and processed foods. Like Atkins, it is rich in proteins and vegetables, but low in carbs.
My natural instinct is to think that both of these low carb diets are totally insane, losing an entire food group (grains) and increasing meats (sometimes with saturated fats) goes against all current advice. However, when you look into current health issues, you start to see a link between scientists messing with our food, and food related health issues such as Diabetes. These fad diets, appear to be wiping the slate clean right back to the diet of our ancestors and removing science from food in the hope of improving your health.
The picture that is emerging is that the low fat diet could be wrong, and that many modern health issues are related to high carbs.
The following sources of information are really quite fascinating:
- What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?. New York Times article from 2002. Well written article on Atkins, low carb diets, saturated fats, and research which was leaning towards Atkins was right. Very readable and not overly science heavy.
- Micheal Pollan's book In Defence of Food. A lot of this book exposes the bad science and claims of industrial food companies.
- Youtube: How Bad Science and Big Business Created the Obesity Epidemic. A fascinating 1hr lecture suggesting saturated fats are not evil, its carbs.
- Video: The Paleo Diet and MS. The first part of this lecture has good detail comparing the Paleo and modern post-agricultural diets.
- Wikipedia: Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease controversy. Showing that the link between Saturated Fats and Heart Disease is not a strong as you think.
- Harvard School of Public Health: Fats and Cholesterol: What should you eat. In summary says you should be replacing bad fats with good, and that there is no evidence that replacing Saturated Fats in your diet with Carbs will protect you from heart disease.
I personally remain sceptical but interested. For now, I shall be tweaking my diet rather than being radical, and sticking to the golden rules of mine:
- Listen to your body (mine was definitely grumbling)
- Eat everything in moderation (and don't overdose on one type like I did)
- Eat foods as close to their natural state as possible (eg raw veg, and butter instead of marg)
- Don't believe the claims of advertisers trying to sell you their product.
- Don't believe anything you read on the internet :-)