2020 – it sounds so futuristic. I was born in 73’, so when I was a kid, 2001 was a crazy futuristic movie. I never put thought into the year 2020, because it was just way, way too far off. But here we are.
Also when I was a kid, and then a young adult, I wouldn’t have guessed that food quality would be the largest health threat to the modern affluent western world. I didn’t fathom that as a general population, we’d be eating ourselves to death. I was however, playing my part in this ‘growing’ movement. I grew up a very typical teenager and young adult. I thought very little about where my food came from and what was ‘in’ the food I ate. I ate for convenience and taste – and that was the extent that I thought of food quality.
This attitude did not do me well. I was fat and very unhealthy, but at the same time I was fairly normal amongst my peers. I ate the same amount, drank the same amount, partied the same amount. Nothing seemed wrong, and I couldn’t see a problem, other than I was fat. Big deal.
The Love of my Life
Fortunately for me I fell in love with a woman that wasn’t interested in ‘all’ of me. This amazing woman had standards, that I didn’t meet, and she was quite clear about it. I respected that, but challenge accepted. I looked in the mirror and saw the man that she could love, he was just hiding under about 40 extra pounds of fat and laziness.
This is not to say that this amazing woman was vain. I know she enjoyed spending time with me but I understood that she was only really interested in someone that took their health seriously. She’d been raised by healthy parents and being fit and healthy was a core value of hers. Fair.
I knew that this woman was the woman that I wanted to spend my life with, and I needed to prove to her (but really to myself) that I was more (or less) that who I’d become. I needed to change my lifestyle and build some healthy habits.
One Step at a Time
There is a long, bumpy journey between then and now, but all in all, the trajectory is an upward curve. I joined a gym, gave up drinking, reestablished my vegetarian upbringing, started mountain biking, then running. I lost some weight and became stronger – but proved to myself, and to the love of my life, that I was putting my health first.
This was not an overnight thing, but I had goals. It started as a lose weight goal, which at first was easy. My excess fat stripped off with an improved diet (less eating) and consistent exercise. It didn’t take long to see results, and feel better about myself. But these were early days; at the beginning of my journey I weighed about 205/210 lbs (I’m 5’9”) and within a year, I was 180. Not a bad start.
As my new wife and I started to build our lives together, I kept a clear focus on my health. The first steps in my journey was to eat better all the time. This meant being mindful of what I was eating. After I hit 180 pounds, the weight did not fall off like it had – I had started to plateau. I transitioned from mountain biking to road running and in 2003 I started to Marathon. The long distance helped me work off another 10 pounds but there I was, stuck, hard, at 170 pounds.
Starvation – round 1
This was when a close friend and I decided to try a 10 day fast – cold turkey. I knew very little about fasting and was quite unprepared for the 10 day roller coaster. Even though it was a bizarre experience, the results were perfect. I lost 10 real pounds in 10 days of fasting. I found the first few days were really tough, but mostly because I ignorantly cut out caffeine. Not eating for 10 days may not be for everyone but if I can do it than anyone can do it. I was healthy when I started, without any medical issues, and saw my doctor before I started.
I was now at 160 pounds, which was a far cry from a few years earlier. I was getting faster and stronger at running – and believed I was getting healthier.
At 160 pounds, I hit another hard barrier. I spent the next few years bouncing from 158 to 165 pounds (which could be water and/or food in my guts). My running was good but always pretty much the same, no matter how hard I tried. I could lean up a bit when I focused on building lean muscle but in reality, I was still about 15 pounds overweight.
To be a healthy weight is not an average weight, because at 160 pounds I was at or somewhat below average. This would’ve been fine if I was looking for a justification to stay the size I was but I knew that I wanted 2 things:
- To be as fast as possible, which only comes with being lean and light.
- Getting rid of my abdominal fat that had been a tire around my waist for almost my whole life. This is partly for vanity reasons, partly to prove it to myself that I am not a slave to my body, but mostly to eliminate dangerous visceral fat.
To meet my goals, I needed help. I’d tried to limit calories for a long, long time with zero results. My body was going to sit right where it was with eating habits I had, and I was confused as to why I could run 100km per week, week after week, and not lose another pound. It was time to try another approach.
Sidebar: Being beat up
I ran and trained hard for years, and came to expect that I would need to recover from most exercise. Thinking back to the first few marathons I ran, I could barely walk down a flight of stairs in the following days. I was eating to compensate for exercise routine. Like all runners that are just starting out, I believed that I needed to put fuel in my tank, and could get away with eating anything I wanted because of the calories I burned.
I wanted to believe that I would get fitter, faster, and slimmer while continuing to do the same workouts and eat the same food. To my credit, exercise more and eat less had worked in the past but that was going from zero exercise and being obese. Fortunately I was no longer that guy but I was in a rut, for years. I would train hard, recover slowly, and get minimal results. It was a fairly ridiculous cycle.
A Low Carb Diet
So that I am clear – I am not a fan of Carbohydrate restricted diets. I acknowledge that many people found the Atkins diet (which is now called the Keto Diet) had great short term benefits, but it’s nutritionally unbalanced. I’ve researched these diets to death and only see that as a diet trap.
The issue with Carbohydrates is that people bundle them all together, just like Cholesterol once was – but we now know that there is good, and bad Cholesterol . The same is true for Carbs.
Simple carbs, in the form of processed sugar and processed flours easily make me fat. I can easily overeat them and they process into blood sugar very quickly. Insulin is released and our cells uptake as much sugar as they can for use as immediate fuel but the cells quickly get full and the excess is stored as fat.
Complex carbs are whole food, and are fibrous. Fiber has been taught to me this way: If sugar is the poison, then fiber is the antidote – simple enough.
Fiber is magical. It’s one of the most important types of food to eat. It’s an interesting food, as we don’t actually digest it but it helps us in the best way possible. 1) It slows our digestion, which regulates our blood sugar, and allows us to uptake more nutrients.. 2) It feeds our gut bacteria.
It’s been well proven that most North Americans are deficient in Fiber. The numbers are like this: A typical NA adult gets around 15 to 20 grams of fiber a day. The minimum recommended amount is 40 grams a day but for those that advocate for a very healthy diet, the number is closer to 100 grams per day. To put this into perspective:
Fiber per gram
1 cup walnuts = 5 g
1 cup kale = 2.6 g
1 cup flaxseed = 8 g
1 cup cabbage = 1.6 g
All animal products do not have fiber.
What I understand is that the expression ‘Low Carb’ is used quite loosely. What I mean is that most of us eat a load of processed flour and sugar, which is now normal – or what could be termed a regular North American diet. For those that cut out processed flour and processed sugar (carbs without fiber in a near powdered form and are made to be less dense, like bread), it’s called a low carb diet, where it could be more like a ‘normal diet’. when compared to what our ancestors ate.
Throughout my journey, I was a simple carb junky. I love pizza, pasta, muffins, donuts, croissants, cookies, sourdough bread, and the like. I didn’t eat junk, only the fancy donuts, pasta and bread for me. So of course these were better than cheap junk. Know what, my liver didn’t know the difference.
Cut The Crap
I always knew it. The extra piece of cake, the fancy bread and peanut butter when just in from a long run, the healthy muffins. These are the foods that were stopping me from getting to an ideal weight. The farther I ran, the more I trained, the more I ate, and I kept on the pounds.
At the same time as I was slowly coming to terms with what I thought was a healthy diet, I was learning about inflammation. This is a trendy word, which gets thrown around a lot – I’d say, ‘oh yeah, I drink it because it reduces inflammation’. I actually had my head in my ass while I spuide ignorant marketing bable, which I’d heard somewhere. I didn’t have the first clue what I was talking about, but was quite convincing.
I’m a bit more aware now: Inflammation is what your body does to heal itself, and it’s normal and healthy. Our bodies are amazing healing machines that continue to fend off bacteria to limit infection and deal with cell/dna damage. However, if our bodies are continuously inflamed, like in the gut, we have what’s called ‘chronic inflammation’, and it’s really, really bad. Like, leaky out the butt and/or cancer bad. Chronic inflammation is horrible for our bodies.
This is where things get confusing, however, because chronic inflammation is triggered by different things in different people, and there is a huge industry that panders to those that are sick but don’t know why. This part can get people right off the rails. There are so many issues which could be caused by so many things that it becomes very, very hard to understand why you don’t feel great. Not enough iron, or B12, or DHA, or Omega 3, not enough protein, not enough water, too much meat, nightshades, gluten, dairy, etc.
I’m getting quite deep, so let me be clear. I am not trained in nutritional information, and am not a naturopath and have never taken a class on nutrition. What I know is what I have read, and what I have practiced. I eat a Whole Food Plant Based Diet, and feed my family the same way. I train 6 days a week, and race marathons and ultramarathons. I am fully content spending hours alone, or with my wife and kids, in the bush.
I’ve slowly become obsessed with maximum nutrition and have read all the leading books and many of the current textbooks on wholefood, nutrition and weight management. I’ve used myself, and my own family to some extent, as a testing ground. I will be 50 in 3 years and my goal is to be at the top, or near the top of my age group in any race I enter. I will not do this at any cost as you can quickly over train, become undernourished, and break myself, which I have done in the past. Building a lifelong top end physical baseline takes a lot of time.
So back to my bumpy journey. By the beginning of 2018 I was training fine, feeling as good as usual, but still carrying too much weight. I raced the LA marathon in Feb, which was good, with the same result as usual. I came back to Van to recover and then continued to train for BMO (Vancouver Marathon). I did not recover well as I made it about the halfway mark and the wheels came off. It was one of the worst marathons that I’d ever had.
I spent the rest of 2018 doing much the same but I knew, deep down, that my poor results were due to what I was eating. I knew I could cut out more sugar, as I LOVE to eat sweets, but was that it? And the only thing? Probably not.
Finding the Culprit
In about 2012, when my daughter was old enough to communicate how she physically felt, she complained about pains in her gut in the evening. I investigated the cause and it seemed that it must be diet related. I initially cut out gluten, but that did nothing so I removed dairy, the next main allergen. Bingo. Pain gone. I then transitioned us all to a dairy free diet as it was a hassle to keep both and no one was married to dairy. The unintended result of this was that I had some eczema, which wasn’t that bad, but it cleared up within 2 months and now all that is left are the scars. Strange, but true. This was the first ‘in your face’ personal experience with eliminating a food allergen.
In late 2018, after a lackluster year of training and racing, with the Finlayson 100 KM ultramarathon race being my highlight, I really needed to figure out why I’d hit a wall. Being in this place is confusing because to most people I looked fit and my health was good, but I was not personally satisfied. My extra weight, and that I felt that I was being held back, drove me nuts. As 2019 started I promised myself that this was the year to break through the barrier, but it was going to take some experimenting, and no better place to start with the food that makes most North Americans sick and fat – Simple Carbohydrates.
You may be thinking at this point – why not see a naturopath? I’ve seen loads of people and the reality is that they are great for sick people. I was not sick. I was fit, looking for peak performance. So, if I wasn’t looking for peak performance, then I wouldn’t have had an issue and I could have obsessed about something else.
Making it work, better
As Whole Food Plant Based eater, I know the importance of balanced nutrition so I did not go on a full scale anti-carb tyrade. What I did do though, was to drastically cut out refined carbs and processed sugar from our house and diet. This wasn’t simple, as this meant pasta, pizza, and bread were gone but I needed to really see if this would help.
I started this new regime in January 2019
I’m a lucky guy for many reasons, but 1 of them is that I have a national level running coach. I can NEVER blame my workouts for not meeting my goals, as long as I follow them. I started the build for Van Marathon the same way I always do – nothing changed. I stuck to the training, as close as I could, and made sure to nail the important workouts. My diet was bang on – I’d dramatically increased my caloric intake from whole food – no more processed shit.
A marathon is an interesting race. For those that have not run one – it is not actually twice as far as a half marathon – that is just a number. The marathon is a 30ish km warm up with 10 to 12 km of doing anything you can to keep your pace without hitting the dredded wall. It is a mental and physical battle.
There are a few factors that impact the last 10 or so km better in a marathon. 1. Water 2. Available energy 3. Conditioning (overall training and health)
For this race, I trained with a new fuel, which I liked because I was able to take in more calories throughout the race. I hit every water station, like I usually do, and my conditioning was as good as it usually is.
The race was smooth, and my time was excellent. I finished within 30 seconds of my best marathon time, which was 10 years earlier. BUT, and a big BUT, I felt great. Directly after the race and in the recovery days directly after. 3 days after the race I was grunting up the Grouse Grind at my regular pace. I had NEVER had this type of recovery. It was as though the race didn’t happen. It seems that I’d managed damage and inflammation like never before.
This new feeling of recovery was really encouraging. It was clear that this diet tweak to reduce inflammation was a thing and it got me even more obsessed with how what I ate directly affected my performance. I knew even more clearly that if I could see and feel this type of result, from reducing processed food from my diet, then this was a healthy change for me and my family.
I doubled down on the quality of our meals, as it took effort to find interesting foods that my kids were willing to eat all the time. They are amazing, and eat super clean, but sometimes they really want a donut, pasta or pizza. This is fine, but they have come to call these foods ‘treat food’, and realize that they will eat them once or twice a month. Both of our kids feel great all the time, hardly get sick, and know that their physical ability and academic achievements are the results of treating themselves well. They have taught themselves to say no to food that they do not believe is good for them, but we are not religious about it.
While I was on my own food journey, with my wife and kids as active and willing participants, I was examining our cooking classes and was discouraged about what I saw. At the time that we started Cook Culture, our goal was to teach more people to cook at home more often. Job done. We now teach over 27,000 people a year how to cook. Not a number that I ever thought we would achieve but non the less, that is what we do, and I am proud of it.
I decided that 2019 was going to be the year that I figured out what we needed to do for our Cooking Program to offer better quality nutrition. I knew that I could not just ‘wing it’. It was critical that I have a super clear understanding of modern nutrition.
There is so, so, much spin in a 24 hour news cycle. There are articles coming out every 10 minutes that counter the article that just preceded it. It is literally impossible to understand what is healthy if you Google ‘healthy food’.
This took me towards literature, researchers, and teachers of nutrition, and was only interested in information that was backed by science. I came across a few incredibly smart and knowledgeable people that have devoted their lives to nutrition. They’ve done the research and witten studies. They’ve battled government, dealt with peer rejection, and been strongarmed by big business. It is incredible how much money and power is at play in our food system and many rich and powerful companies take the threat of what a healthy North American diet would do to their bottom line.
Through my research and talking to hundreds of people (mostly customers), about what each one of us believes is good nutrition, it seems that there are a hundred opinions. This is valid, as what works well for one, may not work that well for another. There are a myriad of factors at play that affect nutrition, however, there are 3 basic choices that can be made that will improve anyone’s health
- Eat whole food
- Drink water
- Don’t eat all the time
A New Direction
From the 3 points above, #2 and #3, can be ‘easily’ achieved. #1, however, is less easy. Eating Whole Food, all the time, for all meals and snacks, is not how our food environment is built. To accomplish this you either need to know some pretty unique restaurants or make and pack all your own food.
I decided to do all three.
First, whole food. I work in our downtown Vancouver location, which has a Whole Food Juice Bar built into it. We do make some treats, which have sugar in them, but all of the meal food is made from 100% whole food. So if I am not packing my own food, I eat there.
I eat about 98% of my meals from whole food. We eat out once in a while, for pizza, pasta, Indian Food. We have our favourite places, but we only go for special occasions.
I spend up to 2 hours a day preparing and making food. This is a commitment, but the more I do it the better and more efficient I become. I now use 2 hours, once a day to prepare a few days of food so the next day I may only spend 45 minutes pulling meals together. All in all, my goal of whole food for most all meals is met.
My kids lunches are made up of whole foods too. I only put in food that I have made from scratch, from whole food. I rarely use bread, or pasta. They love dense salad (this did not happen overnight) and heaps of veggies. I make chillies and dense soups, with loads of grains and beans. I ensure that they have food with a low glycemic load, so that they have regulated blood sugar throughout the day.
Second, water. Almost everyone I know tries to drink more water, I’m no different. I feel more alert and sharp when I’ve had enough water, however I do find going to the washroom more often kinda annoying.
Third, don’t eat all the time. This point is fascinating, and a main point of this story. As with most people, I’ve been in the battle for my health and weight for years. I have an ideal weight in my head but no matter what I’d done, I couldn’t get there. I knew from experience that fasting could force my way there but my first experience with fasting was less than ideal, and was not sustainable.
Through my journey reading and listening to hundreds of hours of information on nutrition, it became clear to me that weight is created by the production of insulin, which is produced by the pancreas when sugar enters the digestive system. The amount of insulin in our blood translates to the amount of sugar that is taken up in our cells, and the excess is transferred to fat, as energy storage. This is normal: the more food, the more sugar, the more insulin. Simply, the more sugar that our system gets, the more fat that will be created. It is almost impossible to know exactly what the right balance of food in to when fat creation starts is, but the ‘don’t eat all the time’ rule can help manage this.
As I wrote, I’d managed my diet well but I worked out all the time, and like all of us, I live a busy life. I’d tried to limit my food intake, but eating less at meals left me feeling unsatisfied and wanting more, so I would snack after small meals. I’d constantly fall into the ‘I worked out hard this morning so I can afford eating a pound of grapes or 6 dates after dinner (health food)’. This may seem harmless but I’ve learned how weight provoking eating that many extra calories just before sleep can be.
In learning about the production of insulin, and how our bodies metabolize food, I learned much, much, more about our Circadian Rhythm. I’d been somewhat aware that we have a Circadian Rhythm, and that it was important, but I had no idea how it plays such a vital role in managing our overall health and is the key to ideal weight management.
Athletes are sold recovery tools and recovery food, which we buy hoping for some edge come race day. We eat powders, bars and concoctions hoping to feel better faster. We take pills to keep down our inflammation when we’ve ‘overdone it’, and multivitamins to fill in the nutritional gaps. We take electrolytes to keep hydrated, because we don’t drink enough water.
This is not to say that many of these things don’t do anything. There’s no harm in taking a multivitamin, and if electrolyte powders help you meet your H2O target then that’s not the worst thing for you. What the media, and marketing companies, don’t want us to know is that most of what they are selling doesn’t make us healthy. For me, I was plain and simply eating too much food, and at the wrong time of the day, no matter how much I tried to limit myself at meals.
Enter Starvation – round 2
The word fasting was in almost every book on nutrition that I read. I had my own experience with the concept, but this was different. Almost all of the leading professionals on health and nutrition, that advocate for a Whole Food Plant Based approach, proclaimed that eating in a ‘food window’ is the absolute best way to manage weight, reduce inflammation, and generally be healthy. This is eating between 12 to 8 hours in the day and eating nothing for 12 to 16 hours. When 6 to 8 are taken up with sleep, this means that only a handful of waking hours are non eating hours. Compared to eating nothing at all for 10 days, this sounded like a snap to me.
I knew that I snacked too much, ate too much at meals, and took unnecessary supplements with empty calories, like Protein Powder. Studies have shown that most people that report their food intake through food journals are stunned to learn that they eat over 2x more food per day than they thought they did, and I don’t think I was any different. If I was honest with myself, I ate more than my body needed, day in and day out. To be blunt, I overate and lied to myself all the time.
I researched the crap out of Time Restricted Eating (TRE). I came to learn that TRE can be incredibly beneficial for my Circadian Rhythm, especially if I implemented TRE in the early hours of each day. I learned how critical it is to allow our digestive system time to clear out, and then rest and repair. By eating from wake to near sleeping time, our digestive system is always on. Also eating close to bedtime, as our bodies slow and need less energy, is a culprit for caloric fat storage. Basically, it’s proven that more of the same amount of calories are used throughout the day than at night. If we frontload our meals in the day, we use more of the energy just doing regular things.
I started a 16:8 TRE a few months ago. 16 hours of fasting, with only coffee and water, and 8 hours of eating. I chose 7am to 3pm. I eat a healthy diet so I did not believe that I needed to change anything during my eating window.
The first few weeks were uncomfortable as I was very used to eating dinner, and I make dinner for my family. If I stopped eating at 3pm, I’d be looking for food by 8pm. My technique for this food desire stage was to ask myself if I was truly hungry. Being that I’d only eaten 5 hours previously, the true answer was no. I find that I get lethargic earlier in the evening and crave going to sleep by 9pm. I wake up in a window of 4 to 5 am, and either work or workout. I prepare breakfast, lunches and dinner food, which consists of many items going into the oven and pulses and/grains being soaked to be pressure cooked later.
In years past, I’d eat quite quickly after getting up as I was going to be working out with either free weights on non run days, or getting out for at least an hour run. With my eating window starting at 7am, I started out with black coffee and water, then straight into my workout. I quickly found that I’d wake up feeling great, without hunger. I was concerned that I would go out for a run and bonk half way through but to my amazement, I could go up to 3 hours in the trails without needing fuel – only water. I’ve actually found that after 15 hours without food that I am getting better baseline results than when I was eating all the time. This means that I’m training on the same trails as I was a few months ago, before TRE, and I’m going faster with the same effort. (I have a fancy watch and software that tracks all of this). I’m eating less, taking in less calories, feeling better, going faster, and I’ve lost nearly 10 lbs in the last 6 weeks (I’m now 150lbs).
I do not obsess over carbs, fat or protein. I still eat high quality 70% dark chocolate. I drink a lot of water. I eat a Whole Food Plant Based diet. I look at processed flour and processed sugar as poison, but know that fiber is the antidote, so I don’t beat myself up if I have some cake once in a while. I eat whatever I like between 7am and 3pm every day, and on special occasions I will eat dinner with my family. I have never felt better, been as strong and managed my weight as well as I do right now.
Goals for 2020
I do not have proof or data that this lifestyle is the right one for me. I feel great now, but will this continue? Will there be a point where I have unknowingly stressed my system and I break? I’ve broken myself from pushing too hard in the past, but I’m quite confident that at the moment my body is rested, and recovered most of the time. I can get busy at work, and there’s always life stress, but my family and my body are in tune, and happy. I’m going to put this lifestyle to the test and in my 47th year I am going to challenge myself to the most difficult year of training and racing yet, including my first 100 mile ultramarathon.
Eating a nonrestrictive WFPB diet, and following the 16:8 TRE protocol, I will continue to train and race hard. I’ve worked out a manageable schedule with my coach to race a substantial race every month leading to the WAM 100 Mile race in Whistler – September 2020. I’m interested in proving to myself that humans were not meant to eat all waking hours and that I can ingest all the calories and nutrition I need to thrive in 8 hours per day. I’ve already proved to myself that I can thrive eating a 100% Plant Based lifestyle but Whole Food will be the focal point of my nutrition plan while I continue to find improvements.
I will document my journey here on the Cook Culture Blog, through my instagram feed, and on my new and developing race/training blog. I hope that what I learn by pushing my own boundaries can help you figure out your own journey and relationship with nutrition and health.
In 2020, I will continue to develop our Cooking Class curriculum to offer more Whole Food cooking classes. While I believe that a Plant Based lifestyle is right for me, I am less interested in advocating that it must be a ridgid adoption for all. I believe that the choice of Plant vs Animal is a personal choice however the issue of Timed Eating (eating less), and increasing a diet to near 100% Whole Foods will improve health for anyone.
As always: Please leave me any comments and questions and I’ll get right back to you.