Opening the food floodgates

After eating paleo for six months, and beating the piss out of myself with kettlebells and mountain biking (which are two highly enjoyable ways of beating the piss out of yourself), I found my recovery from exercise getting slower and slower. My hamstrings were constantly lit up from the weight training, and the cycling was sucking the calories out of me at a rate faster than I could replenish.

I’ve been in a state of mild overtraining before, and found that I needed several weeks of complete rest to start to feel really fresh again. Usually these periods of rest are put off until the rainy season in the fall. This summer though I’m really looking forward to doing some bike touring – strapping all my gear to my mountain bike and winding my way across British Columbia primarily following old rail lines and logging roads. Going on a journey like this is not something I want to enter into in an overtrained state.

The obstreperous Matt Stone wrote a post entitled The Catecholamine Honeymoon, which got me really thinking about overtraining and food intake and adrenal hormones. He iterates through different ways of achieving an adrenal hormone buzz: eating low-carb, rigourous exercise, intermittent fasting, and caloric restriction. Last winter I embarked on all four of those items to some degree or another, and I felt like superman! In the spring, when my bottomless energy began to wane, I wondered why – I had thoughts like, “Maybe I should go back to eating junk food, so I can experience the energy of eating clean again”. Looking at those lifestyle changes from an adrenal perspective though, it makes sense that I was overly relying on those hormones to provide my energy and sense of well being.

Matt Stone puts forth an interesting hypothesis in a comment on his own article, “I believe that catecholamines and insulin have a tendency, in a well-functioning person, to exist on an axis. When insulin levels rise, catecholamines fall – which is why you tend to feel sleepy and relaxed after a big meal. A few hours later, insulin levels fall and catecholamines rise, not to liberate glucose from muscle tissue per se, but to liberate fat from fat cells for energy. So, drop insulin and catecholamines rise. Spike insulin and catecholamines fall. That’s why it’s important to have a bit of both.”

For those who have been over-relying on the catecholamines, Stone offers his RRARF protocol (Rest, Recovery and Aggressive Re-feeding). It’s a really simple strategy: eat as much good quality, whole foods as you can, tending to lean towards a high-carbohydrate diet while doing no exercise. You don’t overeat, so that you feel stuffed, but if you feel even the least bit hungry, go ahead and have a nice big meal.

For me I’ve been eating my normal paleo diet (buffalo heart stew this week, my fourth heart and I was stoked to finally cook it in such a way that the meat is tender and palatable), and then because I already find that level of cooking and eating to be a chore at times, I’ve gone the lazy and slightly sub-optimal route of throwing on top of that mix as many bowls of cereal as I can (organic milk, no-sugar corn puffs or puffed rice, and blueberries). This has been working out to about 6-8 bowls of cereal a day. I’ve also recently discovered the TCM channel (Turner Classic Movies), which plays nothing but commercial-free old movies, so that’s been my outlet instead of mountain biking.

Body temperature is an indicator of your basal metabolism. 36.5 to 36.8 C is regarded as a good, healthy range. In theory, you can raise your metabolism through a period of over-nourishing – which makes sense, since there are so many people out there today who under-nourish day-after-day and year-after-year and have lowered metabolisms (either through dieting, or eating “healthy” low-fat crap, or sugar and refined carbs which are high-calorie but are an overall nutrient drain on the body to digest). Measuring my body temperature in the mornings, when it’s at the lowest, I’m a full degree below optimal the moment, holding pretty steady in the 35 to 35.5 C temperatures upon waking. Stone claims that many can see marked improvements in body temperature after only 30 days of following RRARF.

I’ve been on the diet for a week now though, and I’ve already learned a couple interesting things.

The first is that I can tolerate a high-load of carbohydrates. This macronutrient was taking the brunt of the blame last fall, when I was eating a craptacular SAD diet last year, and experiencing low energy and brain fog. For me, it does appear to only be the sugar and refined carbohydrates which are the trouble makers. I was also reticent to indulge in high-quality carbohydrate sources in the winter, as it was no easy picnic to wean myself away from sugar and refined carbs – I was deathly afraid of backslipping. Refined sugar is a mighty bitch of a drug! After 6 months though, eating healthy has become set and locked in, and junk food cravings are a non-issue.
I had assumed that I still had a lingering sugar addiction because I still had fruit cravings, but since I’ve started really packing back the mainly glucose carbs (corn, rice, potatos, yams), my fruit cravings have disappeared.

The second, and more interesting, is that I’m realizing that I had more hesitation about eating food than I was sub-consciously aware of. I’ve never counted calories, nor shied away from high-calorie foods, so I figured I was always eating all that my body required by more-or-less eating to appetite. But the more I learned about nutrition and food, the more I was sub-consciously coming to fear food. Don’t eat too many plants because their anti-nutrients (phytates and lectins), don’t eat too many animals because the animals don’t enjoy it and it can have a higher cost of production, don’t overeat because you’ve become more aware of body composition by following people who focus on weight training, don’t eat too much because it’s expensive and don’t eat refined foods because they are the primary causitive agents of degenerative disease. OK, I’m still not eating very little junk food, but it’s clear that since I’ve been able to really pack back the food and it feels really good, that I’ve been chronically undereating these last few months.

It’s liberating to take the view that, when on RRARF, that if I haven’t eaten to appetite and comfortably beyond, then I’m not following the diet properly. The license to eat as much as I want, and then some, is great! Sure I may have had a big bowl of stew for dinner, and followed that up with three bowls of cereal. But the cereal was really tasty, and I’m not stuffed yet, so I fire up a fourth bowl and dig in – yum, yum! I would have thought that if I increased my daily caloric intake by 50-100% I would have a perpetual feeling of bloatedness and a feeling of being stuffed and lethargic. But such has not been the case. I can pack back a big meal, and in three hours while I might not feel any pressing need to eat, I can still put back yet another large meal. My digestion seems to have stepped up to the task of processing more food beautifully. Sleep has definitely improved, I’ve had some really great, long deep sleeps in the last week.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll be on RRARF though right now. Summer is just around the corner, and I’m going to have to get out there and enjoy it. However, I will be trying to stick to the maxim, “There is no such thing as overtraining, only undereating” this summer. Perhaps once the rainy season arrives in the fall I’ll give RRARF a 30+ day shake and make a more concerted attempt at seeing if I can raise my body temperature and my basal metabolism back towards the positive a bit more.

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