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0 Comments | Apr 16, 2010

In All Things, Balance Is Better

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So says William Shakespeare. We agree. This is Part 4 in our four-part health and nutrition series, and a continuation of Part 3’s discussion on the drug-like influence food exerts over our hormone levels. If all of this has so far sounded cranky, contrarian and iconoclastic, rest assured it is apolitical and with a single unifying agenda: to communicate the best of what we’ve encountered in a concerted years-long discovery of what works best in the fitness and health arena. Shakespeare also says, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” Bear with us through a little madness.

We left off last time lamenting the gross insulin imbalance caused by the high-carbohydrate (particularly processed carbohydrates) diet espoused by the well-known food pyramid. This is a much bigger deal than it may sound at first. Insulin problems are famously tied to diabetes, but the reality is that hyperinsulinism likely underlies a much broader family of inflammation-derived diseases than most realize.

Insulin is good for the body. But Mae West wasn’t completely right: too much of a good thing isn’t always good. And our collective insulin addiction adds billions of dollars in excess healthcare expenses and productivity losses to businesses across the country. We’re killing ourselves, and our businesses, one bite at a time.

On the other end of the macro-hormonal seesaw sits glucagon. Whereas insulin promotes fat storage, blood sugar uptake, and inflammation, glucagon promotes fat breakdown and inflammation reduction.

The important question is this: precisely what do we balance, and in what proportions, in order to restore the body’s optimum balance between insulin and glucagon levels?

The answer requires us to go back a few thousand years. Twelve thousand, to be a little more precise. In those days, in addition to having to walk uphill both directions, people hadn’t yet figured out how to farm. Survival depended on hunting, gathering, and foraging, which means that the genetically-driven hormonal impact of food evolved entirely without the influence of high-density carbohydrates like those found in the processed (milled, floured, crushed, etc) grains we consume by the truckload today. The human genome calibrated the human body’s carbohydrate insulin response to the kinds of carbohydrates that weren’t nearly as dense as the kinds we consume in large quantities now. From our body’s perspective, there is a gargantuan supply of carbohydrates available in a single slice of bread. For an organism genetically optimized to consume foods much lower in carbohydrate energy supply per unit volume, this glut of excess carbohydrates proves to be a big problem. We produce insulin like it’s going out of style.

What kinds of carbohydrates did our non-farming ancestors consume? Fruits and vegetables. Unprocessed plant matter.

Embrace your inner Neanderthal when it comes to your food choices.

Neanderthal food was high in nutrients and relatively low in energy content. Because of the incredibly slow pace of genetic change, the human genome hasn’t caught up to our agricultural advances, which happened a nanosecond ago in evolutionary time.

Hence, a little carbohydrate goes a long way in our bodies, and the insulin response to high-density processed carbohydrates such as breads, cereals, tortillas, pancakes, muffins, cookies, brownies, crackers, and the like, is exceptionally high. Our bodies freak out on the insulin high that results from consuming too many starchy carbs, and results on a cellular level are problematic – and expensive for businesses.

Avoid starchy carbohydrates. Eat as many vegetables as you can stand. Don’t be afraid of fat – it’s a tremendous energy source, and it is hormonally neutral. And be sure to consume protein – it is the trigger that causes our bodies to produce glucagon, essential to hormonal balance. As Greg Glassman (www.crossfit.com) puts it, “eat meat and vegetables, seeds and nuts, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar.”

That’s the hard part, friends. Breaking the bread-induced cycle of hyperinsulinism can be metabolically uncomfortable, but the discomfort soon passes. Life is much more enjoyable without the constant blood sugar highs and inevitable mood crashes that a hyperinsulin cycle produces.

But as the post’s title implies, and as our discussion has pointed to, balancing the hormone levels requires eating the right insulin- and glucagon-promoting foods in the right proportions.

There are complicated methods to calculate the most appropriate food proportions, but they require a slide rule and a part-time actuary to help you follow them correctly. Here are two exceedingly simple techniques to help ensure you consume the right amounts of carbohydrates and proteins.

  1. Make a fist. Place a fist-sized amount of lean protein on your plate. Chicken, fish, most pork cuts, and lean red meat cuts are fine. Now, place two fists worth of vegetables on your plate. Add two tablespoons of salad dressing (really, that’s a lot more than it sounds like), and you’re in business. You have roughly the right amount of protein and carbs, and the salad dressing provides a bit of fat.
  2. A second option is to divide a medium-sized plate (not a dinner plate) into thirds. Fill one third of the plate with lean protein. Fill the remaining two thirds with veggies of your choice, and add a couple of tablespoons of salad dressing for fat and flavor.

Eat more often – four to six times per day, in small portions. Consuming large meals at once is another terrific way to spike insulin levels in your bloodstream, so a better approach is to eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day. Many favor option 1 above, because your fist size is also a great portion size estimator.

Is it difficult to eat this way? At first, absolutely. But healthy carbohydrates – fruits and vegetables – come in virtually endless varieties, and taste amazingly good all by themselves after you disabuse yourself of the notion that every breakfast must include a sugar coated double chocolate gut-buster.

And if you just can’t live without bread? Yeah, about that: one half slice of bread equals one fist’s volume of vegetables in terms of caloric load. Put the donut down, Dewey.

Is all of this bad news for employers looking to help their staff make healthier choices? Yes and no. At least now you know what it means to really eat a “balanced diet,” difficult and daunting as it may sound at first (it really isn’t after you get used to it). And there is power in the truth. Not sugarcoating (no pun intended) the degree of dietary dedication required to affect real health change gives your employees a realistic starting point to set attainable goals.

Dietary change is hard, and the sad truth is that most people would rather stay overweight and unhealthy than make the necessary changes, one choice at a time. That’s why employee wellness offerings aimed at physical health indicators have such low employee participation. Obesity programs attract a 5% adherence rate, on average.

If physical health indicators are the cornerstone of your wellness program, at least now you know what you’re up against – and why we’re excited about Vacation Wellness‘ high participation rate. If nothing else, the hard truths of health and fitness demonstrate the need for a holistic wellness approach. Your wellness suite should offer pockets of value for participants across a broad spectrum of fitness interests and abilities, but should also contain engaging measures with broad appeal that require less spartan dedication.

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