Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Paleo Binges and Christmas Carb Fests: Body Composition Update

After trumpeting the success of one year of Paleo eating and posting a graph of my progressively improving body composition (One Year Later: Hunter Gathering and Body Composition), it was inevitable things would take a turn for the worse. I described my weighing ritual and equipment in that post, so I won't repeat it here. This time I have marked the chart with key events and time spans to highlight the likely causes of changes to my weight and body composition.

We pick the story up in November 2008, as I came to the end of a year of strict Paleo eating. During this time I had never knowingly eaten non-Paleo food and was quite fastidious about avoiding food that was suspect. My only concession was eating at a restaurant once a week, where I would resist the temptation to demand a list of ingredients from the chef. I tried to follow my hunger and avoid gluttony, and was quite self-consciously trying to become leaner. My whole mindset was one of less, rather than more.
Paleo Greed
Around mid-November, something strange happened. Whether because I had achieved a leanness with which I was happy, or because there was additional stress at work and more frequent trips away from home, I began overeating. The food remained Paleo, but I was being consistently greedy. More nuts than I needed, bigger pieces of chicken, gratuitous teaspoons of nut butter. You can see what happened on the graph - over a 3-4 weeks period I gained about a third of a stone, apparently all fat.

To me this shows that even on a low-carb Paleo diet, you can gain fat if you don't obey your appetite.
Water Retention
There are footnotes to this. I was spending a couple of nights a week in hotels at the time and getting my food from supermarkets or restaurants. This, plus my once-weekly social restaurant visit meant my salt intake was probably doubled or tripled. Since sodium encourages water retention, I suspect some of the additional weight was attributable to that. Whether this means the additional weight was not in reality all fat is difficult to say - it is not clear how the fat percentage measurement system of my scales is affected by increased water content.

The second, related point is that it would have been harder to control my appetite when eating food from supermarkets and restaurants. Although the food was ostensibly Paleo, it would
have inevitably been adulterated. I must confess to at least two Marks and Spencer Chicken episodes during that time, which as we know, means I was not eating just chicken, but sugar and salt too.

I recall one occasion where I bought a half roasted chicken, a large avocado, a 150g bag of mixed nuts and a yellow pepper. The nuts were totally plain, but I sat in front of my hotel TV rhythmically tossing them into my mouth well after my hunger had vanished, as though my latent greed had been activated by the sugar and salt in the chicken. Boredom, too, is the enemy of dietary restraint, which I doubt helped.
Gim Tales
As my period of stress and hotel-dwelling came to an end in early to mid-December, there was a 2-week period of restraint, while I girded myself for the impending festive feasts. I didn't know it at the time, but I would fall off the Paleo wagon in quite spectacular style on several occasions before the end of the year.

There is a gap in the chart for the week I spent with my folks over Christmas, where the grim tales of dietary catastrophe
unfolded (tale 1, more tales). The spike on the chart at the start of January tells you all you need to know, marking my return to the scales and the revelation that I had gained half a stone.
Diet Illusion
This spike looks very similar to the one seen at the end of November 2007 when I had a last carb binge before going Paleo. Clearly this would have been a combination of water retention, sheer volume of undigested and semi-digested food and some fat accumulation. Over the week that followed each spike, you will notice a dramatic fall in weight to reveal a true weight gain of closer to a quarter or third of a stone.

This is a good illustration of how the multitude of diets gain a reputation for working - most recommend eating foods that are lower in salt and eating less. People typically increase their calorific intake before starting a diet, taking that final opportunity to indulge; as a result, they inevitably lose several pounds over the first week, of which most is water and intestinal baggage.
Missing Fat
Those of you familiar with the science of low-carb eating (eloquently documented in Gary Taubes' Good Calories Bad Calories) will know that the byproducts of carbohydrate digestion supposedly make possible the storage of dietary fat. No carbs, no fat storage. I know it's not quite that simple, but for a while I have been wondering where the fat goes when it can't be stored. I need to do some more reading before posting on the subject, but I have a theory based on observations you might not all want to read about...

At the start of January 2008, the very time when I needed to retreat to the sanctuary of a whiter-than-white Paleo diet to cleanse my system of the festive toxins, I was obliged to spend two weeks consuming bread and other nasties for my Wheat Experiment. Apart from the garlic naan debacle, I was pretty sensible, resisting the temptation to treat the test as a license to gorge on all the wheat-based foods I hadn't managed to tackle during my festive binges. As you can see from the graph, my weight remained steady during this time.

Since mid-January, I have been on a particularly low-carb, Paleo regime, probably in and out of Ketosis, with regular fasting. I have nevertheless been careful to get regular and varied portions of fruit and vegetables in my diet, albeit in reduced amounts.
You can't see it from the chart yet, but I have been making steady progress. I hope to be able to post an update in a few months showing a return to former glory.
Extra Muscle
One final point to note. According to the chart, I gained a few pounds of muscle during the festive binges. I did notice an improvement in strength, possibly helped by my better sleeping at the time. I will be carefully monitoring the chart and my training performance as I restore my former leanness, to see whether I can keep these gains. If I do, there will be a disturbing resonance with the 2005 -2007 bulk-and-cut ethos I was so keen to discard...

See Also:
One Year Later: Hunter Gathering and Body Composition
My Wheat Experiment
My Wheat Experiment Blood Test Update
Paleo Apple Crumble and the Chestnut Tojan Horse
When does Intermittent Fasting become an Eating Disorder?
High Carb Feasts could Help you Sleep
High Carb Feasts and Sleep - A Failed Attempt


Anonymous said...

Incredible graph, I didn't know your weight could fluctuate so much!

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