Saturday, 27 February 2010

Battling the Coffee Demon

I’ve always been good at stopping things others appear hopelessly addicted to.

In 1996 I gave up smoking with scarcely a glance back; and when I became interested in nutrition about 8 years ago, I systematically removed foods from my diet with ruthless, almost mechanical ease. Sugar, salt, cereal, tomato ketchup, cheese – I just kept going until everything bad was eliminated from my diet. It didn’t matter how much I enjoyed them – I just stopped eating them.

My friends regarded me with amused suspicion. Was this guy human?

At some point during by diet clampdown, caffeine came under the hammer. I think at one stage I went at least 2 years without any caffeine from any source. I drank a lot of herbal tea.

So it came as quite a surprise in the last two months when I developed a caffeine problem I seemed unable to kick.

Regular readers will know that I tend to binge (for example.) I am pretty strict most of the time, but occasionally lapse in spectacular style. Granted, the gaps between binges last year were rather close together, but even at 6 weeks apart, I like to think the net health outcome was better than the steady drip-drip of a moderately unhealthy life.

It started at Christmas, during one of my ‘lapses’. I’d had coffee before during lapses, but for some reason, this time was different – this time I came to truly appreciate the ritual of making real coffee, its taste, sharing it with others and filling the house with that rich aroma.

Back at work in the New Year, a colleague offered to buy me a coffee. Christmas binge over, I should have said no – but I didn’t. As it happened, it was a particularly strong coffee, so bam – I was wired. I got more stuff done in three hours than ever before; and it felt great.

A few days later, I discovered how easy fasting can be with the help of coffee. A strategic cup at 11am more or less obliterated the appetite for the bulk of a 24-hour fast; it also gave me something to look forward to during the first few hours of the day when the long day ahead without food seemed a little daunting.

For a while I alternate-day fasted with ease, when normally I would struggle after a few days.
I started to enjoy the coffee-drinking rituals I’d established with my colleague, and the caffeine-fuelled meetings at which we’d seemingly cover way more ground than normal. When I felt tired at work, either because of a particularly savage gym session or because I had not slept well, I would have a coffee. Brilliant! I must have upped my productivity by 25%.

You get the picture.

It didn’t take long for the honeymoon to end. First, I quickly re-learned the 12pm rule – drink much coffee after that and my sleep was affected. I would sometimes drink two cups instead of one, and the energy and focus would metamorphose into a fidgety anxiety which, paradoxically, affected my concentration.

My response to coffee began to vary and it became a lottery how I would feel. If I drank coffee every day, the caffeine hit diminished so that even throwing back a large one didn’t have the same effect. Sometimes I’d get the nervous adrenaline and mild muscular tension but none of the benefits. Once or twice I found myself thinking “I wish I’d skipped that coffee. I just want to feel normal.”

The fasting benefit also diminished. The coffee still helped, but not as much. Hunger started to slice through the superficial caffeine lift, reminding me that I was fasting more often than is normally comfortable.

Curious to understand what I was doing to myself, I read this article on Fitness Spotlight. Apparently, caffeine stimulates our adrenal glands. It manufactures a physiological stress response. Done regularly, that cannot possibly be good. Everything I read told me it was a bad idea to drink coffee every day. So I decided to stop.

Four weeks later, I was still on the merry-go-round. Several times, I had given up for a few days, then re-started. I’d invented rules, re-written rules, made and broken promises to myself and explored just about every self-motivation approach I knew; but it hadn’t worked. My weaving, dodging and self-deceptive chicanery had inexplicably sabotaged my normally iron resolve.

First, I rationalised that I should moderate rather than give up, clinging onto the idea that I would be able to simply have coffee occasionally. “I’ll treat myself to a coffee on a Friday” and “I’ll only have coffee on fasting days” were two of my favourites.

Ever present was the phrase “Life’s too short”, an irritating mantra that had been plaguing me since last year, regularly whispered in my ear by that the little horned fella at all the wrong moments. This single, corrosive idea led to defeat after defeat in these inner skirmishes, and I would find myself once again over-caffeinated mid-afternoon, less than 24 hours after I’d sworn blind I’d never drink another cup.

Then, a couple of days ago, something suddenly when "pop". I’d had a terrible night’s sleep and was fasting. I’d also done some sprints in the morning, which as the day progressed added to my fatigue. Everything cried out for a double espresso.

The night before I had decided that enough was enough. Nothing unusual about that – I’d given up coffee at least a dozen times already, so no reason to think it would work this time. Except that on this day, when I went through the all my usual rationalisations, excuses, rule re-inventions and psychological self-trickery, none of them seemed to work.

The fact was, I’d got sick of bitching to myself about it. I’d worn myself down. The message had finally got through.

There were particular buttons I’d been pushing which I think had the most powerful effect. I had been saying to myself:
  1. This is what makes you who you are – you can just top things,” – so failure threatened to strike at the very heart of my identity
  2. You don’t have a right to get what you want all the time” – something patronising I often say to other people so it resonates strongly when directed at myself: I don't like being a hypocrite
  3. Hyping up your system on a daily basis like this is chipping away at your health,” – this threatened to sabotage the supposed health advantage of my ‘strict then binge’ approach.
Finally – I started writing this blog post. Let’s face it, I will look like a tool if I trumpet my success then mess it up.
... Read more

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A Hymn to the Lifestyle: Part 2 - Pseudo Paleo

In part 1, Paleo at its Best I waxed lyrical about the joys of being 100% tuned into the Paleo lifestyle.

A couple of years ago I went for months on end without a single lapse; but last year, thanks in no small part to a seemingly endless procession of celebrations that demanded full immersion, I fell off the wagon often enough to understand the profound differences between Paleo at it's best and 'Pseudo Paleo'.

Not Breaking the Emotional Food Ties

For me, Pseudo Paleo is characterised by a failure to emotionally let go of non-Paleo foods. This recent article on PāNu makes the point well. Kurt talks about the culinary alchemy with which we try to approximate non-Paleo foods using ingredients which, taken in isolation are each technically Paleo.

A good example is my recipe for Paleo/Primal chocolate, posted last summer. It seems highly unlikely our ancestors had the time, materials or inclination to process, assemble and create the ingredients for those chocolates - especially since they could spend a fraction of the time preparing just as tasty (in a different way) at a fraction of the energy cost. Survival is, after all, about the trade-off between the energy required to acquire and prepare food and the energy it provides.

I have no evidence that these pretend Paleo foods are less healthy in any tangible or immediate way; but what they do to me is much more insidious - they maintain the emotional ties with the non-Paleo equivalents. I may be eating chocolate made from concentrated coconut cream, cocoa powder and dried blueberry, but I am thinking about real chocolate.

Junk Food Stand-Ins and Impostors

As I mentioned in Paleo at its Best, when I am truly Paleo, I genuinely relish eating nothing but meat, vegetables, eggs, fish, nuts and seeds. The powerful emotional associations formed in childhood (I talk more about that here) fade away and I am utterly content with the joys of real food. That joy takes weeks to develop and is sabotaged when I instead seek pleasure from junk-food stand-ins and Paleo impostors.

Dodgy Digestion

In fact, concentrated versions of technically Paleo foods are my main weakness. When I am in Pseudo Paleo mode, I keep jars of tahini, and nut butter in the house, along with bags of almond powder and dessicated coconut. I routinely plunder these stores after a meal, eating large spoons full at a time and returning several times. My nut binges, too, take on a new dimension, ending only when the reality of my stomach's disquiet becomes clear, after which I invariably spend the night in mild gastric discomfort.

Hunger Control

Hunger control is a crucial part of being truly Paleo for me. Low-carb eating and especially Paleo eating give you a better chance of responding to your appetite the way nature intended... but in my experience, Pseudo Paleo foods inflame the appetite in a way that truly Paleo foods do not.

Admittedly Pseudo Paleo foods do not inflame the appetite as badly as real junk food - but they inflame it nevertheless. When I am in Pseudo Paleo mode, I cannot let go of the idea that each meal is an opportunity to guzzle until I am more than satisfied. True Paleo meals don't lend themselves to gluttony - overeating meat and vegetables feels counter intuitive. Overeating nut butter is supernaturally hard to avoid.

In pseudo mode, I seek smoked fish and salted meats; supermarket-sold pre-cooked chicken with its perplexing additives are something I become fixated with. I find that foods laced with these flavour enhancers, despite technically adhering to the low-carb and broad Paleo ethos, play havoc with my appetite.

Fasting Debt

In Pseudo Paleo mode my fasting works in reverse. I am always playing calorie catch up. I skip meals because I gorged on half a jar of tahini the night before, not because it feels like my body would benefit from a fast and I would like to emulate the experience and benefits of temporary food shortage.

I feel like one of those guys who always owes money. Instead of earning my meals with activity and fasting, I am paying for them with interest by skipping planned meals and going for unnecessary walks around the block.

Taking the Easy Way Out

Finally, I take the easy way out more often than I feel I should.

Instead of following through with a planned, savage, painful workout, I may move it to another day. Perhaps I had a bad night's sleep or decide my body needs a rest. Clearly there is a line to be drawn between what is sensible in a stressful modern life, and the need to buckle down and take the pain so that at other times you appreciate the easy life. In Pseudo mode, I stray too far from that line into easy street.

Then there's the coffee fasting. A 24-hour fast is a cinch when you load up on caffeine - at least that's the effect it has on me. Part of the value of the fast is to experience the hunger. I see coffee as cheating and find the evening reward is diminished when in Pseudo mode I resort to it.

And finally, cold showering, that paragon of the discomfort model - of how exposure to fleetingly uncomfortable stimuli can help you cope more easily with the milder discomforts of day-to-day life. In Pseudo mode I find reasons to shorten the cold section at the end of my shower, or avoid it altogether. I lose the resolve and the appreciation of the payback.


In my case there are factors at play relating to identity, pride and control. Everyone, I am sure, is different. It's possible that some of the elation and well being I talk about in Paleo at its Best are diminished in Pseudo Mode partly for psychological reasons. It's in my nature to be 'all or nothing' and I love to evangelise. No doubt these are important to my identity and my state of mind plays a part in my perception of overall health.

But enough psychobabble. The fact is that most of the time I am not in Pseudo Paleo mode - and just now I am at the right side of a good 6-week run. Bit too much coffee, but otherwise good.

You Decide

The joys I talked about in Paleo at its Best are not easily earned - last year all it took was one week out of every six in Pseudo mode to strip away much of the buzz. The only way to find out whether Paleo at its Best is worth the extra effort for you is to put in the work required to get there, then decide for yourself.

A Hymn to the Lifestyle - Part 1: Paleo at its Best
... Read more