Ramblings 5.8.18: Can Diets Cause Psychological Damage?

My friend Trevor Kashey, a brilliant nutritionist, was recently asked whether restrictive diets like Whole30 or Paleo can cause psychological trauma. His answer is worth reading:

From a scientific standpoint, it’s a correlation/causation problem. I don’t think restrictive diets causes psychological disfunction as much as they draw psychologically unstable people. 

If you’re using balloons and interpretive dance to get people to eat vegetables, like a lot of these diets do, then there’s probably something up with the people who need that sort of stimulation. So to me, restrictive diets don’t cause psychological instability, but the type of people who are obsessed with restrictive diets are probably more unstable by default. 

They draw a type of all-or-nothing person, which is also why some people get freakishly fantastic results—because they’re all in. At the same time, the same all-in person, when their environment is not perfect, they act like total dip shits. ‘Oh, I forgot my Tupperware of chicken and vegetables at home. Life is over, I’m getting Little Caesars,’ is a rather common response (ed’s note: This is called the “disinhibition effect.”). If their life isn’t going perfect, then the first thing that goes out the window is the precious diet. And then people blame the diet for causing psychological dysfunction. But the reality is many people just don’t have the capacity to cope with psychological stressors, and they use food as a tool to cope. That’s not the diet’s fault. That’s a problem that started when the person’s mom force fed her shitty broccoli. Again, correlation is not causation. 

I’m a capitalist. People need to make informed decisions and businesses are not charities. And at the same time, the government makes perfectly reasonable nutrition recommendations that people choose to ignore. Nutrition education is out there, and people refuse to see it and choose restrictive song and dance instead.
— -Trevor Kashey

A Case for Running by Feel

My fastest half marathon was my first. This was 2010, and I was in grad school in New York City and had no spare money for a gym membership. I need to exercise—I get uneasy without at least three weekly workouts. So I signed up for a half marathon, figuring running would not only give me a new form of exercise, but also allow me to experience unfamiliar parts of the city. 

My training gear included some basic Puma running shoes and cotton gym shorts and shirt; no techy fitness watches to monitor my pace, mileage, or heart rate. My training was simple: I ran suggested weekly mileages that I found online—a "longer" run on the weekend and a couple "shorter" runs during the weekdays—and estimated my run distances using GoogleMaps. I didn't track my pace, although I knew I was getting faster because I'd check the clock on the microwave before and after my long runs. The fact that I'd pass most other runners told me my pace was "good enough." 

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Then came race day. I stood casually in the starting corral, the racers around me strategizing with each other about their planned paces while fidgeting with pricey Garmin watches.

My race plan was simpler: Run to the finish line as fast as you can. That's exactly what I did, and the effort placed me in the top two percent of racers. Sure, my final time of just under 1:30 wasn't all that fast in the scheme of competitive running. But it was decent for a first-timer who didn't care about the competition.

The experience left me with a grand question: What if I did care about the competition? If I put effort and science into training, could I land on the podium? I had to know.

I went out and bought a GPS watch and shoes that weren't worn at the bottom, and tackled calculated training plans that involved complicated methods like "fartleks" and "200-meter repeats." The approach was novel at first. But the more I ran by the numbers—exact pace, heart rate, distances—the less I enjoyed running. In focusing on a digit on my wrist, I not only ignored bodily cues telling me to slow down or speed up, I also disregarded the passing natural world. Running felt like a chore, not the fun, meditative diversion it once was; a free-flowing type-B experience transformed into a regimented type-A exercise. The kicker: I wasn't running much faster.

I told you all that to tell you this: I recently wrote about the benefits of running sans-tech for the Women's Health September issue (opening page pictured above). It all started when my editor, the superbly-talented Jen Ator, saw this tweet:

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To report the piece, I talked to Kim Jones, a decorated US marathoner and run coach who ran a 2:48:48 marathon with perfectly even splits—all without the use of tech. I talked to Alec Blenis, a professional racer and exercise scientist who told me running by your breath rather than a watch may be a smarter way to pace yourself. I talked to Sakyong Mipham, a runner and the head of Shambala Buddhism who told me that electronics take you out of the now, reducing the meditative benefits of running. Those are just a few of the people who helped me understand the topic. 

I also waded into the science. One study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, for example, found being hyper-aware of your pace can slow you down, while research in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise discovered that runners who adapt their pace based on feel tend to run further, faster, using less energy.

The story's takeaway is surely not, "running with electronics is bad." But there are a wide range of tangible benefits you might experience if you disconnect from the cloud and run free. Click here to read a PDF version of the story.

Potatoes: The Real Superfood

My uncle Brad calls me Spud. He has for as long as I can remember. The nickname came about because Brad worked on the Union Pacific line with a guy, Tommy Miller, who called him Spud. Tommy gave the nickname to Brad, Brad passed it on to me. Despite the name’s nonsensical origins, it’s actually a good fit.

I spent the first few years of my life in Idaho, and have always eaten potatoes—white, usually baked, sometimes mashed or sautéed with eggs. This doesn’t make me unique—potatoes are the largest vegetable crop in the United States—but the rate at which I eat the root vegetable might be. I consume them four nights a week, and a baked russet potato with sour cream is my favorite food. Especially the oversized variety you find accompanied by fatty slabs of prime rib served in western saloons or smoky casino diners in small gambling towns. The two best baked potatoes in the country, for what it’s worth, are found at the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum, Idaho, and the Virgin River Hotel/Casino café in Mesquite, Nevada.

So Outside recently asked me to write about my love of spuds, and make a case for why they're the only real superfood. Read the story here, and make sure you visit the Pioneer if you're ever in Ketchum.

Nepali Sherpas are the World's Fittest People—But Only at Altitude

Sherpas are to mountaineering what Kalenjins are to marathoning. Climbing the world's highest peaks is a sport pioneered by westerners, but Sherpas, an ethnic group who live in the Himalaya, dominate it. They hold the world record for most Everest ascents—Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa both summited the peak 21 times—and the majority of speed summiting records. Pemba Dorje climbed from Everest's South Base Camp to summit with supplemental oxygen in eight hours and ten minutes, while Kazi Sherpa completed the feat without supplemental oxygen in 20 hours and 24 minutes.

Turns out that Sherpas bloom into incredible endurance athletes at high altitudes. From my recent Vice story:

The Sherpas’ mitochondria—tiny power plants within human cells that power our bodies—produce more ATP, or energy, using less oxygen at altitude. They also found that the Sherpas used fat as fuel more efficiently. “It’s interesting because the Sherpas are actually unremarkable at sea level,” Murray says. “You don’t see them winning marathons. Their adaptations is not one that gives them super performance at sea level, but it does at altitude when the oxygen is scarce.”

In other words, Westerners have the engine of a gas guzzling four-by-four, while the Sherpas are more like a sensible hybrid that sips fuel. When fuel is abundant—at low altitude—both engines get the job done. But when you climb into a fuel-scarce, high-altitude environment, the more efficient engine is optimal. It can help you climb farther, faster, and with less effort.

The story is based on a recent study conducted by Andrew Murray, a physiologist at the University of Cambridge. It also gets into how you can improve your own endurance by stealing a few secrets from the tribe. 

Click here to read the story. 

What the Hadza Tribe Can Teach You About Heart Health

Let's start with the fact that American office workers don't move much. They sit on average anywhere from 7 to 13 hours a day, depending on which stat you read. The habit could be elevating our risk of mortality, obesity, and, of course, heart disease—the number one killer of Americans—according to the Cochrane group. 

Indeed, the people in America are living much different lives than we were even a few hundred years ago. To find out how our modern, sedentary lifestyles have affected our heart health, scientists studied a completely unmodern group: Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. The tribe members wore wear heart rate monitors for two weeks, a way to determine their activity levels. The result: The Hadza move about 14 times more than the average American. In fact, they log about 138 daily minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as walking at a quick pace, or lifting and carrying things. 

The scientists found that the tribe members' tickers were all Swiss watches. Even the oldest among them displayed excellent markers of heart health.

Does this mean we could solve the American heart crisis if we just had everyone increase their activity 14-fold? No. First of all, that wouldn't be practical. Second, the study had a large confounding variable: the tribe's diet. The Hadza people subsist on hunted meats, fruits, tubers, and honey (read: not Doritos, Chalupas, Milky Ways, and Pepsi).

And studies on Australian workers suggest diet might play a larger roll compared to movement. Blue collar workers from Down Under each day sit just 1.6 hours and take 11,784 steps—roughly 5.5 to 6.5 miles of walking—according to researchers at the University of Queensland. If you assume it takes most people 15 minutes to walk a brisk (moderate intensity) mile, that's 82.5 to 97.5 minutes of exercise. Not quite Hadza level, but it still puts these workers anywhere from 3.85 to 4.55 times above the CDC recommendation of logging 150 weekly minutes of moderate exercise.

Australian white collar workers, on the other hand, sit about 6.2 hours and take just 7,883 steps each day. But does that relative lack of physical activity affect their heart heath more? Maybe not, according to this study. Here's the data:

As you can see, Aussie blue collar workers die from heart disease at about double the rate of white collar workers. What's going on here? Studies suggest blue collar workers consume lower-quality diets and are more likely to smoke. 

Americans are smoking less, so is diet is the cure-all? Probably not. Most Americans will never eat a "perfect" diet. And among people of the same socio-economic status, more moderate and vigorous physical activity has a clear association with living longer. 

So what does the Hadza study tell us? That heart health is determined by a variety of lifestyle factors. We're moving far less at eating differently than we used to, and that "old way"—the Hadza way—seems to be better for our hearts. So move more (walking counts!), and try to follow the CDC's diet guidelines. Don't try to make those changes all at once, which experts say only sets you up for failure. Here's a painless, sustainable way to overhaul your lifestyle.