Stews are perhaps the ultimate comfort and convenience food. Without a lot of prep, you can make a large (leftover-friendly) hearty meal that essentially cooks itself and keeps well. With an Instant Pot, it’s even easier.
The original version of this recipe contains chicken (which can definitely still be added here), but this vegetarian Instant Pot version is just as filling and flavorful.
2 inches ginger root, peeled and finely chopped (5 cm)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander (5 ml)
½ teaspoon turmeric (2.5 ml)
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes (425 g)
3 cups vegetable (or beef) broth (700 ml)
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch/2.5 cm cubes
8 ounces frozen spinach (226 g)
½ cup natural, unsweetened, creamy peanut butter (256 g)
Garnish: 1 or 2 jalapenos or other hot chilies, seeded and minced, chopped cilantro
Select the sauté setting on the Instant Pot and heat the oil. Add onion and ginger, sauté about 5 minutes to soften.
Add garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric and sauté 2 minutes more.
Add diced tomatoes, broth, sweet potatoes and frozen spinach.
Secure the lid and make sure the pressure release valve is set to “sealing.” Select the “manual” setting and set the cooking time for 6 minutes on high pressure. After cooking time, do a quick release by moving the pressure release valve to “venting.”
Open the lid and stir in peanut butter until fully mixed into the broth.
Men occupy an interesting place in the health sphere. While there’s a disparity—albeit one that’s approaching parity—between men and women in the conventional medical literature, in the alternative health world, it’s flipped. Women are a “special interest” group, and their specific health issues and special considerations related to diet and exercise receive a lot of attention, often as a way to counteract the conventional imbalance—and because women tend to be higher consumers of health information. I have far more posts (including a post on Keto For Women) explicitly directed toward women and women’s issues (and the same can be said across many ancestral health sites).
Men are assumed to be “the default,” requiring no special consideration, but is that actually true?
Today, I’ll be talking about any special considerations men should make when following a Keto Reset plan.
Play At the Margins
Historically, anthropologically, and biologically speaking, men can tolerate great variations in environmental intensity. They’re usually (not always of course) the ones going to war, performing great feats of physical endurance and strength, willingly subjecting themselves to misery and pain, as well as being more violent and getting into the most trouble. (On the whole) carrying more muscle mass, secreting more testosterone, and being physically larger than the opposite sex will tend to make all that possible. We see this kind of sexual dimorphism play out across most mammals, and there’s no reason to think humans are any different.
Most of us don’t have these extreme situations foisted on us any more, but we still thrive doing them. Try a 2-day fast. Do one meal a day. Eat a 3-pound steak, then no meat at all the next day. Eat a dozen eggs for breakfast (whenever that happens). Try lots of seemingly extreme experiments to see what works. It may be that you thrive doing the occasional intense bout of keto bravado. Only one way to find out.
Whereas women tend to have a lower tolerance for perturbations in caloric intake for their potential impact on fertility status, men have far more leeway. Take advantage of that.
Be As Strict As Possible Early On
I’m not going to mince words. Get strict. Most of the men I encounter who are having problems with keto do better the stricter they are. For women, it’s often the opposite—they need to relax their keto adherence and just eat.
Don’t mess around with carb refeeds, pre-workout carbs, or “just one donut hole” until you have a good thing going. Get those fat-burning mitochondria built. Stay strong and stay strict.
Manage Your Stress Levels
This is good general advice for everyone on any diet, but it’s especially so for men eating keto.
A big part of traditional masculinity (for better and worse) is stoicism—the ability to soldier on through a difficult situation. This is, on balance, often a good yet misunderstood trait that gets a bad rap that it doesn’t always deserve. Stoicism isn’t unfeeling. At its healthiest, it’s the ability to address the feelings without being ruled by them. It’s feeling grief without letting your life fall to pieces. These are positive ways to respond to life’s slings and arrows. But this can lead to a denial of the physiological ramifications of stress and a failure to manage them with anti-stress behaviors.
Keto does not make you impervious to stress. Being a man does not make you impervious to stress. There are still limits to the amount of stress we can tolerate, physiological ones that no one should try to transcend. At those levels, “mind over matter” stops working. Stress will spike cortisol, blunt testosterone, and make all that decidedly non-keto junk food all the more attractive and alluring.
Monitor Your Testosterone Levels
For the most part, going keto tends to improve testosterone levels:
It reduces body fat. Researchers have known for decades that carrying extra body fat depresses testosterone levels, and that losing the extra fat restores them. In fact, a recent study found that a man’s body weight is such a fantastic predictor of low testosterone and poor sexual function that the authors recommend it should be used as a standard biomarker for evaluating testosterone levels. If keto is helping you lose body fat, it’s probably improving your T levels.
It increases saturated fat and cholesterol intake. Both nutrients (yes, nutrients) are important building blocks for the production of testosterone. Studies show that low-fat, high-fiber diets lower testosterone in men, while diets higher in saturated fat increase it.
Once the initial exodus of body fat is over, though, you have to be more vigilant. Calories can dip too low. Deficiencies of micronutrients you haven’t been thinking about may start to surface. And this can all impact your testosterone levels.
Make sure you’re not starving yourself. Men are built to handle and even prosper from acute boluses of extreme caloric restriction or expenditure (fasts, heavy training), but extended bouts can destroy our hormonal profile. Just look at what happens to a seasoned bodybuilder preparing for competition with caloric restriction and intense training—their testosterone tanks and their cortisol shoots up.
Make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of the pro-testosterone micronutrients. Zinc, vitamin D (either through sun exposure, vitamin D-rich foods like wild salmon, eggs, cod liver oil, or supplementation), saturated fat, cholesterol, magnesium. Using a tool like Cronometer can help you track them and get your diet in order.
Don’t Let Keto Take Over
Men tend to obsess over things that interest them. We scour the literature, try to optimize everything, spend every waking moment thinking about how to do something—in this case, keto—better. We can get a little iron-willed and myopic if we don’t watch ourselves.
Focus is all well and good, but not if it starts impeding your ability to handle other aspects of health that are no less important.
Don’t stay up ’til 2 A.M. arguing on keto forums and reading PubMed abstracts. Get your sleep.
Don’t become a recluse because none of your friends understand your “weird keto thing.” Maintain your social relationships, your community.
Don’t stop sprinting because you measured your blood glucose once after a hill session and it spiked. Exercise is equally important.
Make Sure You’re Lifting
Keto does not replace strength training.
I’m a firm proponent of weight lifting for everyone—man, woman, elderly, and sometimes child (depending on the child). The benefits are unassailable and vast. Carrying lean muscle mass is a wholly beneficial trait for everyone.
But you have to admit, it’s especially crucial for a man. There’s nothing more indicative of poor metabolic health than the male skinny fat look. I see far too many men on keto diets who carry around the skinny fat look, and it’s usually because they aren’t lifting anything heavy. Yeah, you’re burning a lot of fat. Yeah, you’ve got some nice-looking mitochondria. Yeah, keto is protein-sparing. But are you using those mitochondria? Are you taking advantage of that lost dead weight to do some extra pull-ups? Are you content with merely limiting the number of amino acids your ketogenic metabolic state extracts from your muscle tissue, or are you going to build brand new muscle tissue?
Get to it.
That’s what I’ve got. What about you? Can you folks recommend any special tips, tricks, or tactics for men doing a keto diet?
For this week’s Dear Mark, I’m answering a question from a reader about a topic I thought I’d covered (so did they) already. A quick look through the archives (hey, I can’t remember absolutely everything I ever wrote) showed that I had not, so here we go. It’s all about whether fermented foods—sauerkrauts, kimchis, pickles, yogurts, and any other food that has been acted upon by probiotic bacteria—make eating meat healthier and more enjoyable. From the start, I suspected that they do, but I had to confirm it in the scientific literature.
Let’s find out:
I’m trying to find an article on why you should eat ferments with meat, (how it breaks down the fats) our mutual friend Hilary, AKA #thelunchlady ? and I are working on getting some of the high end butcher’s around LA to understand this, so they can help educate their customers. I was hoping to find info on your site, but now hoping you might write one for us
As for the effect you mention—fermented food breaking down the fat in meat—I’m unaware of any evidence. I am aware of a beneficial effect of fermented food on carbohydrate metabolism though. See, lactofermentation produces acetic acid as a byproduct. Acetic acid provides the “sour” flavor, the acidity of a batch of sauerkraut or pickles. It’s also what makes vinegar so sour, and there’s a long line of evidence showing that vinegar improves glucose tolerance and reduces the blood glucose load of high carb meals.
A 2017 review of the evidence found that vinegar was significantly effective at reducing both postprandial blood sugar and insulin levels.
Research shows that acetic acid, rather than some other component in the vinegar, is the active component responsible for the effect on blood sugar. Anything with acetic acid should work, like food ferments.
That’s carbohydrate, and it’s good info, but you didn’t ask about carbs. You asked about meat. So, is fermented food pointless when eating meat? Not at all.
There are many examples of traditional cultures and cuisines making it a point to serve fermented foods with meats:
Italians, cheese, salami (itself a fermented meat).
They may not have “known” about the biochemistry. They weren’t citing PubMed studies. But over the many hundreds of years, these pairings emerged as combinations that just worked and made people feel good and the food go down more easily.
What could be going on here?
One thing I’ve stressed over the years is the importance of consuming foods high in polyphenols, not only for their isolated health benefits but for their ameliorative effects on the potential carcinogenicity of meats—particularly high-heat cooked meats(barbecue, grilling, searing). If you eat foods high in polyphenols, like blueberries or leafy greens, with your meat, that meal becomes healthier. It reduces the formation of carcinogenic compounds and reduces the peroxidative damage done to the fat.
And if you take a food high in polyphenols and subject it to fermentation, those polyphenols change and actually become more effective.
Red wine is one such fermented food that is higher in polyphenols than its non-fermented counterpart. The fermentation process alters the polyphenols already present in the grapes, making them more bioavailable and more effective, and creating entirely new compounds in the process. One reason red wine pairs so well with steak on a subjective level is that it actually reduces the formation of toxic lipid oxidation byproducts in “simulated digestion” studies that attempt to recreate the stomach environment after a meal, inhibits the absorption of those toxic lipid byproducts, and, when added to meat marinades, reduces the formation of heat-related carcinogens when you cook the meat, even over open flame. The responsible compound for these effects in red wine isn’t the alcohol, it’s the polyphenols. Grape juice doesn’t have the same effect.
This applies to everything. Fermentation of almost any other food, from beans to cabbage to garlic, also changes and improves the antioxidative capacity of the polyphenols. And the more polyphenols a food has, and the more effective they are at reducing oxidation, the healthier they’ll make any meat we eat.
Fermented foods also contain probiotic bacteria, and there’s some limited evidence that certain bacterial strains can actually enhance metabolism of cooked meat carcinogens.
So, in a roundabout way, fermented foods actually are improving the way we digest the fats in meat. They aren’t quite “breaking them down,” but they are allowing us to metabolize them in a healthier way that produces fewer toxic byproducts and inhibits our absorption of the toxic byproducts that do slip by.
This actually gives me a good idea for a post: A series of elevator pitches that inspired readers can use to lobby restaurant owners, butchers, doctors, and anyone else about the otherwise complicated health and nutrition topics we’ve bandied about on this blog for a decade. Most folks’ brains will glaze over when you start talking “omega-3s” or “peroxidized lipids” or “oxidized LDL particles” or “high heat carcinogens,” but it’s still important information. I think I’ll start putting that together in the next few weeks, starting with today’s topic, and I could really use your help. What other topics have you wanted to broach but can’t figure out how to make relatable, simplistic, or elegant enough to drop in casual conversation with professionals (or friends) who could help make a difference?
Let’s get a list going and try to knock this out.
That’s it for today, folks. Take care and be well. Thanks for reading!
It’s Monday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. I’ll continue to publish these each Monday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!
My primal journey started in 2010. I had just attended my last Weight Watchers meeting ever. I had been doing Weight Watchers since 2005, and was at my highest weight ever. I was massively obese, I was severely lethargic, and I lived with daily brain fog. I was having miscarriages, but was being told there was nothing wrong with me. I went to a new doctor who told me that when I got pregnant again, I should come in and immediately start running tests so that when I lost it, we might have some insight as to why.
That was at the end of April. I was depressed and desperate. My dad had stumbled onto Mark Sisson’s website and pushed me to try Primal eating. I was extremely skeptical. In 2001, when I had first started dealing with health issues, I had been diagnosed with peripheral insulin resistance and had tried the Atkins diet. I was living in a dorm room at the time and failed miserably. So I was skeptical about trying another low carb restrictive diet.
But what did I have to lose?
Within a month of going Primal, I had lost several pounds, my brain fog was slowly clearing, and my gut was healing (another problem I hadn’t realized existed!).
And in July, I got pregnant again. This time it stuck. My son was born 9 months later. After 3 miscarriages, I am firmly convinced that I stayed pregnant because of my diet changes, and I became a full Primal convert.
After my son was born, I immediately resumed my Primal lifestyle. His first real food was bacon, and he loved liver as soon as he was old enough for real food. I continued the Primal journey, and continued slowly losing the weight and regaining my health.
Then I got pregnant again. This pregnancy was a whole different situation. I had hyperemesis gravidarum for both pregnancies, but this time I couldn’t eat anything. I lived off of cinnamon rolls, as they were the only thing I seemed able to keep down, and I drank nothing but gatorade. I was miserable, I was unbelievably adverse to the smell of all meat so I couldn’t even try to be Primal. I developed eczema on my arm so badly that I had to wear sleeves to work so my clients wouldn’t think I’d contracted ringworm! Luckily, my daughter was born healthy. I ended that pregnancy 10 lbs above where I started. And then my health disappeared.
The rash on my arm never really went away. I soon had eczema on my legs as well. Furthermore, I was so constipated that I wouldn’t go to the bathroom for days at a time and had constant crippling, severe stomach cramps. I had horrible brain fog, and who knows how much of that was a daughter who wouldn’t sleep versus dietary issues.
But more importantly, when she was not quite a year old, I broke out with hives. At first we didn’t know what they were and thought they were bed bug bites! Finally we clued in and I went to the allergy doctor. I knew I was reactive to wheat. As soon as I had cut it out in 2010, I noticed I got sick every time I ate it. I was suspicious of eggs and dairy. But I tested positive to literally every single food, plant, and animal they tested me for with the exception of white fish!
He immediately confirmed that it was an allergy problem. But that night I ended up in the emergency room with full body, raised, angry red, large diameter hives (like inches in diameter). He put me on all sorts of steroids, antihistamines, and beta-blockers. I cut everything out of my diet, and literally ate nothing but unflavored ground beef and vegetables for months.
And the huge, angry, red, full-body hives never went away.
I went from the allergist through eight other doctors. I went to conventional doctors, homeopathic doctors, acupuncturists, herbalists, etc. The hives never went away. I finally took myself off of all meds because they were turning me into a zombie. Unfortunately, even off of meds, nothing improved. One doctor started me on progesterone, thinking it was a hormonal problem because my cycles were so irregular (they had been like clockwork up until my daughter), and that made me much sicker. Unfortunately, those side effects didn’t go away once I took myself back off the meds.
Finally, out of sheer desperation, I gave up. I stopped going to doctors. I cleaned my diet up to be 100% Primal. I started meditating daily. I changed my job to reduce the stress.
And between less stress and diet improvements, finally, the hives started to go away. It had been a year and a half. They weren’t gone completely until after the two year mark, and even as recently as a few months ago they’d still pop up if I became too stressed or ate the wrong things.
Since then, my health has been a slow improvement. The eczema slowly disappeared. My gut slowly healed. But my weight wouldn’t drop. All the signs that showed up when I was put on hormones (heavier periods, breasts that were so sore you couldn’t look at them for a full 2 weeks each cycle, twenty day cycles) were still present. And I was plateaued. I would drop to 188 lb (I’m 5’3), but could never get below that number.
I was stuck there for nearly 3 years. I was feeling better overall, but I was stuck. I would be extremely clean for about 2 months, then I would give up since my weight wasn’t shifting anyway. Then a week later I’d be back to Primal eating because the brain fog and low energy would have come back.
Finally, this last spring, I broke that plateau. I had been 100% Primal for a few months, finally, and everything suddenly balanced. My cycles regulated, I stopped being in pain, and my weight finally started to drop again.
It’s still a journey. I’m not quite to my ideal weight yet as I’ve hit several other plateaus since. But for someone who has been obese since they were 16, now that I finally know what works for me, I can be patient. And more importantly, being Primal allowed me to heal up such severe disease after nine doctors couldn’t help me that I became an even stronger advocate than I’d been before.
I was already a licensed veterinarian and was using Primal principles in my animal patients, but after finally healing my own body, I became a certified Primal Health Coach so I could help the humans as well!
So what have I done since I received my certification? Since I received my certification, my life has gone in all sort of directions!
I was already using Primal principles in my holistic veterinary practice.I have absolutely continued using those principles to help heal the pups who walk through my door, and I have created an educational website and Facebook group for owners interested in healing their pets through diet!
However, I still wanted to help people, too.
When I first graduated, I obtained two informal coaching clients. One was a friend of my mother’s who had suffered from IBD, allergies, inability to lose weight, and masses around her thyroid (although they said her thyroid values were normal).
When we first started talking, she was eating grains with most meals, avoiding fat, and filling her diet with things like vegetable oil!
The first thing we did was cut the grains and vegetable oil, reintroduce real foods, and increase the healthy fats.
Within a month, she had lost 20 pounds, her energy was returning, and her IBD was feeling more controlled than ever!
My other client was a friend of mine who had also suffered from IBD, but who also had her gallbladder removed a few years before. In addition, she couldn’t lose weight and had all sorts of fluctuations in her hormones.
Again, with nothing more than diet changes, she slowly started to recover. Her weight decreased more slowly, but it was the first time she had ever succeeded in getting it off! More importantly, the IBD that flared with every menstrual cycle started staying controlled, and her hormones started to balance.
However, that wasn’t the end of coaching for me.
Around this time, I started having other veterinarians approaching me, asking how I had changed my life around. I had gone from severely burned out and feeling trapped and desperate in my job to outsourcing myself from my own business, moving to another state, and learning to love life and travel again!
And they wanted to know how I had done it.
Well, the first answer to that question was that when I started to get my stress under control (which started with getting my diet and health under control), then changes just started to take place that allowed me to completely turn my lifestyle around.
So I also began coaching veterinarians and other health care professionals on how to change their lives around. That coaching isn’t just about health, but health is almost always a piece of what we have to cover since these are women under massive loads of stress, and we have to deal with the health effects of that stress.
Today, I do both health coaching and mindset coaching. I believe in helping people live their best lives, and I will use whatever means necessary to help them do that! So while much of my focus is on veterinarians and other health care professionals, I still do regular health coaching as well.
I teach people that it is definitely possible to live the life of your dreams, and in my case, it all started with learning about ancestral health!
– Jenny Elwell-Gerken
Jenny’s listing in the Primal Health Coach Institute Directory
Episode 303: Tanya Stewart: Host Elle Russ chats with former high-conflict litigator Tanya Stewart about putting people’s lives back together.
Each week, select Mark’s Daily Apple blog posts are prepared as Primal Blueprint Podcasts. Need to catch up on reading, but don’t have the time? Prefer to listen to articles while on the go? Check out the new blog post podcasts below, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast here so you never miss an episode.
This meal adds new flavors to the leftover short ribs from last week’s comfort food recipe—and pairs the ribs with a colorful slaw that offers a boost of probiotic magic.
It’s an easy, quick meal that balances the richness of short ribs with fish sauce and balsamic vinegar with the fresh crunchiness of a slaw sweetened (slightly) by our popular Primal Kitchen® Sesame Ginger Dressing. It’s a colorful and flavorful choice for a midweek dinner or a large dinner party.
Add the leftover ribs and broth from earlier companion recipe along with ginger, coconut aminos, fish sauce and balsamic vinegar to the Instant Pot.
Secure the lid and make sure the pressure release valve is set to “sealing.” Select the “manual” setting and set the cooking time for 5 minutes on high pressure. After the cooking time, do a quick release by moving the pressure release valve to “venting.”
While the ribs are in the Instant Pot, make the sesame ginger slaw.
As you get keto-adapted, most people find the inclination to snack (at least snack frequently) decreases. But that can take a bit of time. It’s not necessarily something to expect your first week (although some folks do begin to experience the change within a few days, provided they’re eating enough overall). Still, even the most long-term keto dieters will want a snack now and then—or will replace a meal with a snack because they’ve settled into a solid keto nutritional strategy and don’t always need three regular “meals” most days.
My theory is that meals, and particularly snacks, should be simple and easy. Few of us have time to make elaborate meals every day, and when we’re living into a new eating strategy, convenience matters. In that spirit, here are 20 keto snack ideas that take 5 minutes or less to make. Enjoy! And let me know your favorite—from this list or from your own keto or Primal practice.
1. Egg Coffee
An original Primal favorite is a great keto pick-me-up for morning or afternoon. Find the recipe here.
2. Soft- or Hard-boiled Egg
It doesn’t get much easier than this. Cook up a batch on Sunday, and you’ll be set for the week.
Make it as simple as you like. Mashed avocado, sea salt and lime juice do it for me, but sometimes I’ll throw in some canned green chilis, half a tomato, and some chopped red onion, garlic or cilantro.
4. Primal Kitchen® Protein Bar
I wanted a packaged keto snack to travel with, and these have become my favorite. (This variety has nine grams of total carbs.)
5. Tuna in Avocado Half
The fat of the avocado and Primal Kitchen Mayo with the protein of tuna make this one of the more filling snacks I turn to.
It’s the simple things, right? Splurge on a container of your favorite olive mix.
7. Spoonful of Artisana Coconut Butter
Just when I said it didn’t get any simpler… As I’ve shared before, this is one of my favorite go-to snacks.
8. Raw Veggies and Healthy Dip/Dressing
Anyone can put this together in containers for the week. And, yup, Primal Kitchen Dressings make it easier and more flavorful.
9. Leftover Chicken Wings
Savvy keto strategy: make enough wings for the play-off games on Sunday. Enjoy the leftovers during the week. Deep fry them in avocado oil (trust me on this…) and slather on your favorite BBQ sauce.
10. 5-Minute Salad
As most of you know, I’m a big fan of Big-Ass Salads for lunch, but a lighter (and quicker) snack salad is always a possibility. An easy one to put together is spinach, pecans, red onions, feta and Primal Kitchen Balsamic Dressing.
11. Leftover Steak Strips with Bell Pepper Strips and Steak Sauce
As you and millions of other people embark on new dietary journeys, you’re going to hear a ton about calories.
“Calorie counting is everything.”
“If you aren’t counting calories, you won’t lose weight.”
“Just eat less calories than you expend.” For one, it’s “fewer.” Two, that’s not the whole picture.
These statements aren’t wrong exactly, but they offer an overly simplistic picture of the relationship between weight loss and calories. They ignore context. And context is everything, especially when you’re talking about calories and weight loss.
Most people (even many scientists) believe that the body composition challenge is a relatively simple equation: to lose weight you must reduce calories (either eat less or burn more), to gain weight you must add calories (eat more or burn less), and to maintain weight you keep calories constant (eat and burn identical amounts). Calories in over calories out.
Right away, it sounds preposterous. Are people really maintaining perfect caloric balance by dutifully tracking and comparing their intake to their burn? Are they walking six fewer steps lest they lose an extra ounce off their midsection?
Are All Calories the Same?
The truth is, it’s more like a complex equation where you have to factor in many other very important variables:
Am I getting calories from fat, protein, or carbs?
Am I getting my calories through whole foods or refined processed foods?
Are my glycogen stores full or empty?
When’s the last time I exercised?
Am I insulin-sensitive or insulin-resistant?
Am I trying to lose “weight” or lose fat?
How’s my stress level?
Am I sleeping enough?
The answers to all those questions (and more) affect the fate of the calories we consume. They change the context of calories.
Ideally, all that complexity is handled under the hood. That’s how it works in wild animals. They don’t calorie count. They don’t think about what to eat or how to exercise. They just eat, move, sleep, and somehow it all works. I mean, they die, often violently, but you don’t see obese, metabolically-deranged wildlife—unless the obesity and metabolic derangement is physiological, as in bears preparing to hibernate. Somehow they figure it out. They’ve delegated the complex stuff to their subconscious.
This is generally true in “wild humans,” too. Hunter-gatherer groups by and large did not and do not show any evidence of metabolic derangement, obesity, or the other degenerative trappings of modern humans living in civilization. They are fully human in terms of physiology, so it’s not that they have special genetic adaptations that resist obesity. They’re living lifestyles and eating diets more in line with our evolutionary heritage. They’re moving around all the time, not going through drive throughs. They’re eating whole unprocessed foods that they have to procure, catch or kill.
What they don’t have is the ridiculous concept of calories and macronutrients floating around in their heads, informing their dietary choices. They don’t even think about food in terms of calories, or movement in terms of calories expended. Metabolically speaking, they consume their calories in the proper context.
But you? You might have to think about context. You might have to answer those questions and create the proper context.
Most people do not think about context. They home in on the number of calories the food database claims the food they’re eating contains, plot it against the numbers of calories the exercise database claims the exercise they’re doing expends, and then wonder why nothing’s working. That’s why “dieting doesn’t work”—because, as practiced in accordance with the expert advice from up high, it doesn’t. Almost invariably, the people who see great results from strict calorie counting, weighing and balancing, those types who frequent online weight lifting forums and have the freedom to spend hours perfecting their program, have the other relevant variables under control without realizing it.
They’re younger, with fewer responsibilities—and less stress and fewer disruptions to their sleep.
They’re lifting weights and training religiously, creating huge glycogen sinks and maintaining optimal insulin sensitivity.
They’re eating a lot of protein, the macronutrient that curbs hunger and increases energy expenditure the most.
They’re eating mostly whole foods.
They’ve had less time on this earth to accumulate metabolic damage.
Not everyone is so lucky.
Fat burning, glucose burning, ketone burning, glycogen storage, fat storage, gluconeogenesis, and protein turnover—what we do with the calories we consume—do not occur at constant rates. They ebb and flow, wax and wane in response to your micronutrient intake, macronutrient intake, energy intake, exercise and activity habits, sleep schedule, stress levels, and a dozen other factors. All of these energy-related processes are going on simultaneously in each of us at all times. But the rate at which each of these processes happens is different in each of us and they can increase or decrease depending on the context of our present circumstances and our long term goals. All of these processes utilize the same gene-based principles of energy metabolism—the biochemical machinery that we all share—but because they all involve different starting points and different inputs as well as different goals or possible outcomes, they often require different action plans. We can alter the rate at which each of these metabolic processes happens simply by changing what and when we eat and addressing the non-dietary variables. We can change the context.
But don’t controlled trials demonstrate that a “calorie is a calorie”?
People hear things like “in controlled isocaloric trials, low-carb diets have never been shown to confer a metabolic advantage or result in more weight loss than low-fat diets.” While often true, they miss the point.
People aren’t living in metabolic wards with white lab coats providing and precisely measuring all their food. They’re living in the real world, fixing their own food. Free living is entirely uncontrolled with dozens of variables bleeding in from all angles. In the lab situation, you eat what they give you, and that’s that. The situations are not analogous—real world vs. controlled lab environment.
In real world situations…
Why a Calorie Isn’t Just a Calorie
The macronutrient composition of the calories we eat alters their metabolic effects.
The metabolism of protein famously increases energy expenditure over and above the metabolism of fat or carbohydrate. For a given caloric load, protein will make you burn more energy than other macronutrients.
Protein is also more satiating than other macronutrients. Eat more protein, curb hunger, inadvertently eat less without even trying (or needing a lab coat to limit your intake).
Protein and fat together (AKA “meat”) appear to be even more satiating than either alone, almost as if we’re meant to consume fat and protein in the same meal.
The isocaloric studies tend to focus on “weight loss” and discount “fat loss.” We don’t want to lose weight. We want to lose fat and gain or retain lean muscle mass. A standard low calorie diet might cause the same amount of weight loss as a low-carb, high-fat diet (if you force the subjects to maintain isocaloric parity), but the low-carb approach has been shown to increase fat loss and enhance muscle gain. Most people who lose weight with a standard approach end up losing a significant amount of muscle along with it. Most who lose weight with a low-carb, higher-protein-and-fat approach lose mostly fat and gain or retain most of their muscle.
Take the 2004 study that placed overweight men and women on one of two diets: a very low-carb ketogenic diet or a low-fat diet. The low-carb group ate more calories but lost more weight and more body fat, especially dangerous abdominal fat.
Or the study from 1989 that placed healthy adult men on high-carb or high-fat diets. Even though the high-carb group lost slightly more body weight, the high-fat group lost slightly more body fat and retained more lean mass.
Both describe “weight lost,” but which is healthier?
Whether the calories come in the form of processed or whole food determines their effect.
We even have a study that directly examines this. For two weeks, participants either supplemented their diets with isocaloric amounts of candy (mostly sugar) or roasted peanuts (mostly fat and protein). This was added to their regular diet. After two weeks, researchers found that body weight, waist circumference, LDL, and ApoB (a rough measure of LDL particle number) were highest in the candy group, indicating increased fat mass and worsening metabolic health. In the peanut group, basal metabolic rate shot up and neither body weight nor waist size saw any significant increases.
Your current metabolic state determines the effect of calories.
In one study, a person’s metabolic reaction to high-carb or low-carb diets was determined by their degree of insulin resistance. The more insulin resistant a subject, the better they did and the more weight they lost on low-carb. The more insulin sensitive a subject, the better they did and the more weight they lost on low-fat. Calories were the same across the board.
In another study, insulin-sensitive obese patients (a rarity in the general population) were able to lose weight on either low-carb or low-fat, but insulin-resistant obese patients (very common) only lost weight on low-carb.
Whether you exercise determines the effect of calories.
If you’ve just finished a heavy lifting workout followed by a sprint session, your response to a given number of calories will differ from the person who hasn’t trained in a year.
Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will be empty, so the carbs you eat will go toward glycogen storage or directly burned, rather than inhibit fat burning. Your insulin sensitivity will be elevated, so you can move protein and carbs around without spiking insulin and inhibiting fat release. You’ll be in hypertrophy mode, so some of the protein you eat will go toward building muscle, not burned for energy.
Not Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will be full, so any carbs you eat will inhibit fat burning and be more likely to promote fat storage. Your insulin sensitivity will be low, so you’ll have to release more insulin to handle the carbs, thereby inhibiting fat burning the process. You won’t have sent any hypertrophy signals to your muscles, so the protein you eat will be wasted or burned for energy.
How you slept last night determines the effects of calories.
A single night of bad sleep is enough to:
Give you the insulin resistance levels of a diabetic. Try eating carbs in an insulin-resistant state and tell me a “calorie is a calorie.”
Make the reward system of your brain light up in response to junk food and dampen in response to healthy whole food. The more rewarding you find junk food, the more your brain will compel you to eat more of it.
And those are just a few important variables that determine the context of calories. There are many more, but this post has gone on long enough…
The Take-Home Message
If calorie-counting works for you, great! You’re one of the lucky ones. Own that and keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve clearly got a good handle on the context of calories.
If calorie-counting and weighing and measuring failed you in the past, you’re not alone and there’s a way forward. Address the variables mentioned in this post that need addressing. Do you need better sleep? Do you need to manage stress better? Could you eat more protein or fat, eat more whole food and less processed food, or get more exercise, or lift more weights, or take more walks?
Handle those variables, fix those deficiencies, and I bet that your caloric context will start making more sense. The trick isn’t to increase the number of variables you plug into your calories in/calories out formula. It’s to make sure all your lifestyle and dietary ducks are in a row so that the caloric balance works itself out.
By understanding how these metabolic processes work, and knowing that we can control the rates at which each one happens through our diet (and exercise and other lifestyle factors) we needn’t agonize over the day-to-day calorie counting. As long as we are generally eating a PB-style plan and providing the right context, our bodies will ease into a healthy, fit, long-lived comfort zone rather effortlessly.
So, what’s your caloric context looking like? Thanks for reading today, everyone.
Good morning, folks! I’ve got a blog post coming up here soon, but let me share about an upcoming event I think you’ll be interested in. At the end of this month I’ll be speaking at the Metabolic Health Summit (MHS) in Los Angeles. It’s shaping up to be an amazing event and groundbreaking partnership between the Metabolic Health Initiative and the renowned Cedars Sinai Medical Center in L.A.
You’ll hear expert presentations about the ketogenic diet and metabolic therapy from the world’s top scientists, physicians, and influencers in a 4-day ketogenic experience co-hosted by Dr. Dominic D’Agostino Jan. 31st – Feb. 3rd, 2019. If you’re interested in hearing the latest scientific evidence on nutrition and metabolism and its potential in treating disease, increasing longevity, and improving performance…Metabolic Health Summit (MHS) is definitely for you!
Other Speakers Include:
Dominic D’Agostino, PhD
Suzanne Ryan of Keto Karma
Thomas Seyfried, PhD
Georgia Ede, MD
Matt and Megha of KetoConnect
….and many more!
What You Can Expect:
Dive into the research and learn how to apply it in the real world during 4-days of presentations
Enjoy nightly receptions with keto-friendly drinks and appetizers
Explore a scientific poster session that includes the latest research on ketosis and human optimization
Discover new innovative products at the MHS Keto Expo
Network with some of the world’s most brilliant minds at the MHS VIP Mixer and Gala Dinner.
Note For Physicians: This activity is jointly provided by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the Metabolic Health Initiative. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is accredited by the ACCME to provide continuing medical education for physicians. Earn up to 21.5 AMA PRA Category 1 Credits.
It’s Monday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. I’ll continue to publish these each Monday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!
At about 45, I was diagnosed with Palindromic Rheumatism. As an irrigation contractor at the time, this wasn’t good news. I could hardly go to my knees at times, then I couldn’t get back up without aid. Sometimes, my forearms would become inflamed, so I couldn’t turn my wrists even slightly. Let me tell you, one cannot install irrigation systems when this is going on!
Now, I was never overweight. In fact, I was always a hard gainer, so-to-speak. In order to gain any size, I have to work hard in a gym lifting weights, and eating quite a lot. (Sorry if this makes some people angry…;) Getting to the gym at times, also became an issue. The pain would come and go, and there was no pattern to it. I never knew what would ache next.
One day, I ran into a friend, who also happened to work for my parts wholesaler. Since it was the beginning of spring (I live in Canada), and I hadn’t seen him through the winter months, I was surprised to see he had lost about 30 pounds he had always been carrying. I asked if he’d been sick, and he replied that he had never been, or felt, better. With that, he took me to his office, and explained. He had also witnessed a friend’s transformation, and decided to give his friend’s advice a try.
Well, when he explained Paleo to me, it just made so much sense that I had to also try it. Within about two and a half months, I had lost 22 pounds of body fat that I didn’t even realize I had. To my surprise, I also lost my arthritis. I had been tested for gluten intolerance, so it wasn’t that.
What’s interesting is also that my friend also eliminated a lifelong battle with eczema. Pills, potions and lotions weren’t helping him. Going Paleo did. 100% eradicated. He is one fellow I can honestly say will never go back to traditional ways of eating. Neither will I.
Now that I’m 60, I praise the Paleo lifestyle, and I tell others all the time. I feel like a 30-year-old, and I can keep up to my 10-year-old, adopted son. (I also have a 41-year-old son.) It’s important to me to be around for him as he matures, as I lost my dad at 62. Thanks for your great website, and your commitment to helping others.