In the Night Farm…Your Ride is Here.

Fit to Ride Redux, Part 2 — Nutrition

Straight into it, then!  Those who agree that we should — for practical reasons if not moral ones — endeavor to be as physically fit as possible in order to support our equine partners, must first ask how a person goes about getting lean and strong.  Most people’s minds will leap immediately to exercise.

Here’s the bad news:  You can’t out-exercise the effects of poor nutrition.

No matter what the editors of Runner’s World, the hosts of Good Morning America, or (heaven help us) Dr. Oz would have you believe, you simply cannot burn enough calories to achieve meaningful (that is, healthful and sustainable) bodyfat loss through exercise.  In truth, at least 80% of body composition — the ratio of lean to fatty body tissue — is the result of what you put in your mouth.

But wait…is that news actually bad?  If body composition is mostly about food choices, maybe it’s more important for me to pay attention to my meals than to pound out 90 minutes per day on the treadmill.  Maybe, even if I’m injured or have other  limitations on exercise, I can still make significant progress.

Notice that we’re talking about what we eat, not how much.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it is that food quality is immensely more important than food quantity.  You see, body composition isn’t the result of the simple calories-in vs. calories-out equation with which we’re all familiar.  It’s more complicated than that.  Different foods induce different hormonal responses in our bodies, and different hormonal responses direct our cells to do different things — like to store bodyfat, or to release it.

Here’s one of the best allegories I’ve ever heard to explain why calories-in/calories-out is, at best, an incomplete model:

Think of your body like a bathroom sink.  When a sink functions properly, water that comes into the basin through the faucet goes out through the drain at about the same rate.  If you turn up the volume of water, it simply drains out faster, so the basin never overflows.

This is how your body is designed to work.  When more energy (food) comes in, a healthy hormonal response directs the body to send more energy (bodyfat) out, and your pants don’t get tighter.  Why doesn’t this always happen?  Let’s go back to the sink:

If the drain gets clogged, the incoming water from the faucet has nowhere to go.  It pools up in the basin.  Turning the faucet up or down will influence how quickly the water accumulates, but it won’t remove the clog.  The level in the basin will still rise, even on a restricted incoming flow.

That’s why going on a restricted-calorie diet doesn’t work.  You might slow the rate of bodyfat accumulation, but you haven’t changed the unhealthy hormonal response — that is, removed the clog — to restore the naturally occurring balance between intake and outflow.  So, the next time you indulge in Christmas cookies or a tailgate party, BAM!  Bodyfat lands right back in your basin because your drain is still blocked.

If you want to win the battle, you must remove the clog.  (Isn’t it nice to know that you’re not a huge failure because all those attempts at calorie restriction didn’t work?)

How do you remove the clog?  By changing your hormonal response to food.  How do you do that?  By changing the foods you choose to eat.

Yikes.  This is a huge topic.  There are scores of books and blogs and podcasts and websites and articles on the subject.  I’m not going to even attempt to cover all the territory here.  Permit me to simply summarize what I have implemented, to great effect, in my own life.  If you’re interested, you can chase down more information through the resources below.

This is the way I have eaten for 3 years now:

1.  I eat for maximum nutrient density.  This means vegetables (preferably organic), meats and fish (preferably grass-finished and wild-caught), some fruit, a little dairy, and plenty of healthful, naturally-occurring fats.

2.  I avoid all grains.  Yes, even “healthy” whole grains.  Despite what the USDAgriculture (ahem) would like us to buy, grains actually offer relatively low levels of nutrition when compared to vegetables and quality animal products.  And, they come with a number of downsides, including a wallop of carbohydrate that, as far as the body is concerned, is just sugar.

Excessive carbohydrate consumption induces a hormonal message to store bodyfat.  Most people do well on 75-150 total grams per day, as compared to the American average of 300g or more.  Relying on too much on poor quality carbohydrate comes with a variety of health impacts in the short term (hunger crashes) and long term (cancer, Type II diabetes).

Gluten grains also cause damage in the guts of a high percentage of people, leading over the long term to a broad range of health problems from Alzheimer’s to gout.

I also avoid legumes, including peanuts, for similar reasons.

3.  I’m not afraid of fat.  Cutting calorie-dense, nutrition-poor whole grains from my diet left quite a calorie gap.  When you remove that much carbohydrate, you need to replace it with something.  Your options are protein and fat.  Our bodies place powerful, natural limits on the amount of protein we can consume (1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day is good for most people), and many of us simply can’t eat enough protein to meet our caloric needs.  That leaves fat.

This may be even scarier than ditching the “healthy whole grains.”  But do your homework and decide for yourself.  Is fat really dangerous?  Yes…if you’re eating the unnatural, processed fats that clog our restaurants and grocery stores.  All those fats chemically forced from non-fatty products — soy, canola, “vegetable,” etc. — are extremely detrimental to human health.

Natural fats, however, are an extremely efficient and nutritious energy source.  As a bonus, the hormonal message they incite is one of satiety and safety.  (Hey cells, we’re in good times.  There’s plenty of chow.  No need to pack on emergency stores.)  So what fats do I eat, to the tune of about 60% of my daily caloric intake?  Avocado, palm, coconut, tree nut, and grassfed animal fats (butter, some cheese, meat, fish).

Mind you, the transition from being a sugar-burner to a fat-burner can be rough for a while.  Your body will demand carbohydrate, which for years has been its primary source of fuel.  Most people get over the “carb flu” in 2 days to 2 weeks, though it took me a good 6 weeks to hit the crash-free cruising altitude that I now enjoy.  I attribute this to the fact that I was coming off several years of what I thought was a healthful, mostly-vegan diet composed primarily grains and legumes!

But I digress…

4.  I avoid all sweeteners, both natural and artificial.

5.  I avoid all processed foods.

6.  I don’t make this a religion.  I eat this way at home.  I take my own meals to the office.  I’m pretty darn good at finding acceptable restaurant meals.  But if I’m a guest, or it’s Thanksgiving and Great Aunt Millicent made her special pie, or I’m in ridecamp between two 50 milers, I’ll eat what’s served.  No big deal.  But that’s the exception — I don’t let it creep into becoming the rule.

Some of you will recognize what I’m describing as being “primal” or “paleo.”  Indeed, those are the popular names for the kind of nutrient-dense, hormonally-healthful way of eating that I prefer.  If you want to know more about it, here are some of my favorite resources:

Websites — Mark’s Daily Apple, Whole 9,,

I really appreciate that all of these sites are run by professionals who give away massive amounts of valuable information for free, because they care about the ability of the truth to help people live better.  Equally impressive, they have shown over the years that they are willing to update their recommendations based on new research.  It’s not about who is right, but about what is true.

A word of caution:  most of the sites offer user forums.  I recommend avoiding those until you understand what the experts are saying.  The forums are packed with people who talk more than they listen, and are therefore rife with misinformation.

Books:  The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, It Starts with Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig; The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf, Protein Power Lifeplan by the Drs. Eades.


15 responses

  1. Aemi

    So glad your back to your regular postings! Always enjoy reading what you have to say 🙂

    October 28, 2012 at 9:18 am

  2. Canola and of course olive oil has a good omega 3 to 6 ratio. What is the science behind the hormonal changes with eating carbs that you describe?

    October 28, 2012 at 11:12 am

    • Oh, good catch! I forgot to add olive oil to my list. I do use it, but only cold (for salad dressings and such) because it is unstable when heated. That’s one of the main reasons I avoid canola, which is chemically extracted under conditions of high heat, thereby destroying the omega 3s that it would otherwise have offered. (Not that the label will tell you that part!)

      At its simplest, carbohydrate consumption promotes insulin release, and insulin is a “storage hormone.” Chronic overeating of carbohydrate leads to chronic insulin release, which can ultimately lead to insulin resistance, which swings you onto the vicious spiral down to Type II diabetes. All of the books I listed provide excellent, detailed explanations. Mark’s Daily Apple is probably the best website to check out for more info, as it’s well-researched by written for the general reader, and searchable.

      October 28, 2012 at 12:47 pm

  3. K.C.

    Nice post! Very clear and not too bogged down with scientific babble or details. Since switching to Primal (thank you Travis) my blood sugar has stabilized and my weight is easily controlled. What I notice with working out is I do look a little better, not just thin, but toned and strong, and not having the tummy bloat and gas is worth dropping the grains. I do have a not so hormonally balanced meal once in a while and I’ve noticed that the longer I’ve been eating primal my body’s reaction almost makes it not worth it.

    October 28, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    • I altered my diet in July, after reading “The Primal Blueprint”. Its amazing how much better I feel, and losing 10lb didn’t hurt either (without any hunger!!)!
      What I can’t get over is that I no longer get the up/down sugar highs and lows,and haven’t gotten hungry and shakey one time, despite being able to go longer between meals.
      My main motivation was to make a change so that I will be in better condition for Cartman’s second year of distance- hoping to move up to 50s!

      October 29, 2012 at 9:40 pm

      • Awesome, Karen! The end of hunger crashing was a big deal for me, too. I used to carry food everywhere, just in case. Now, I know I can comfortably go 20 hours without food if I need to. Amazing. Good luck on prepping for 50’s!

        October 31, 2012 at 9:07 am

    • Thanks, K.C.! It is SO exciting — and humbling — to hear from my “second generation” paleos (I told Travis, he told you…) Super cool to hear how much people benefit when they give this a try.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:08 am

  4. John

    I really enjoyed your writing on nutrition on your Nightlife blog, but I’ve missed it for quite some time. I hadn’t read the Barb Wire often, so perhaps you answered this, but are you just writing here now? I was pleased to see the last couple entries on diet.

    You are an excellent writer and very engaging – I’m learning a bit about horses just because I enjoy your writing! (My knowledge of horses is basically that than hay goes in one end, manure comes out the other…))

    October 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    • Hey, thanks for reading, John! I’m glad you followed me over here. I’m sure I’ll post more on NightLife over time, but right now I can scarcely keep up with one blog. 🙂

      As for horses…here’s the heart of the matter:

      October 31, 2012 at 9:06 am

      • John

        Read your link. Wow. As I said – you are an excellent writer.

        I’m sure blogging is a huge time sink, but I do hope you keep writing somewhere, somehow. Talent like yours is seldom seen, especially in the blog sphere.

        October 31, 2012 at 7:04 pm

      • *blush* Thanks, John. That is humbling. I’ll keep writing because I can’t help it — it’s just how I think — though time does affect how much gets on the page.

        November 4, 2012 at 6:59 am

  5. Horseman

    I’ll tell you, I’ve tried eating your way, I’d stick to it,for a while, but boy that bigmac was like calling me and I’d go! Lord, I felt like a horse eating all that green roughage, would be hungry 2.5 hours later and then more of the same! I’ll tell you, the taters and gravy looked sooooo good.

    Thanks for the info, took a lot of time to write it and is appreciated.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:54 am

    • Hold the phone, Horseman! What was it about the Big Mac you craved? I ask because I have no issue with meat — it’s the bun and low-quality oils and sugars in the sauces that make me avoid McDonalds. I certainly don’t subsist on rabbit food; my daily calorie intake is comprised of about 60% fat, 25% protein, and 15% carbohydrate (mostly in the form of veggies). That’s a TON of flavor and satiety. I eat a few salads a week, and have cooked vaggies with most meals, but I’m not forcing down truckloads of roughage. I think people have trouble with paleo/primal eating when they just try to cut back on carbohydrate and are afraid to fill the gap with fat and protein. 🙂

      October 31, 2012 at 9:01 am

  6. Pingback: Fit to Ride Redux, Part 3 — Exercise « The Barb Wire

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