What do you thrive on?
What makes you feel alive? What kind of diet makes your skin glow, your hair soft and satiates you? What gives you energy to run for hours on end or helps you recover more quickly after an intense workout?
I like the word “thrive.” It implies not merely existing but living with vibrancy. It suggests a life bursting with energy. I thrive on good books, storytelling, exhilarating sports and the love of people close to me.
But here I want to focus on one specific thing: our diets.
I started thinking recently that it seems that there is no one perfect diet. Sure, there is general consensus that we should eat unprocessed food, avoid sugar and chemicals. But within this general consensus, you have vegans and you also have the paleo types. Within the paleo types, there are people who advocate a low-carb, high-fat diet as carbohydrates are unnecessary for our well being. Then there are others who eschew dairy. Then there are people who say that white rice is a safe starch and others who avoid it at all cost. It can all be very confusing.
My conclusion from all this is that we should experiment on ourselves until we find the range of food that enables us to thrive. Having a good diet is not just about losing weight or fitting into that new dress. You can still lose weight eating nothing but cookies and chocolate (this guy did it) but you may not be at optimal health. You can tell that your diet is working if:
- You glow – your skin and hair should be healthy and soft
- You are able to maintain your weight. I would say that a diet that causes you to gain weight is probably not an ideal one.
- You have lots of energy. Who wants to be sluggish all the time and be unable to enjoy physical activities?
- You recover well from workouts. Nutritious food should be able to repair cells.
- You are mentally well. A diet that causes you stress and obsession with what you’re eating is not a good diet. Mood swings associated with spikes in blood sugar are also not desirable.
- You are not bloated. While we may stuff ourselves silly at Christmas, we don’t want to be swelling up on a regular basis. Bloating seems to be caused by eating certain types of food – and different people seem to react to different kinds of food.
- You are satiated. You do not overeat. If you indulge in something sinful, it is a small piece and you do not binge because you know you can have it again another time.
- Your blood tests are good. This means that your cholesterol levels, triglycerides and other markers are normal.
- You have a general sense of well being! This is hard to quantify and so vague but it’s almost the most important indicator of a good diet!
I started thinking thinking about all this when I read the autobiographies of vegan athletes such as Rich Roll and Scott Jurek. These are two world class endurance athletes who fuel their exploits on a plant-based diet. They don’t eat meat or eggs. They even go one step further by avoiding processed vegetarian food, which means that their diet is limited pretty much to salad, beans, whole grains and fruits. They do not have a problem with the lack of meat in their diets. They don’t seem to have issues with getting enough protein.
It would not make sense for me to look at them from a paleo point of view and think that their diet is wrong simply because I eat meat and the backbone of the paleo diet is meat. The paleo diet is not a religion. Similarly, I consume dairy products even though it’s not technically paleo in the strictest sense.
These two endurance athletes thrive on their vegan diets. It made me think, so what do I thrive on? I have experimented with various eating plans over the past couple of months to see what is an optimal diet for me. These are the lessons I’ve learnt so far.
1. I do not thrive on a low-carbohydrate diet
I experimented with eating a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet for about a month. This means that 70% of my calorie intake came from fats, 15% from protein and 15% from carbohydrates. By reducing carbohydrate intake, you train your body to burn fatty acids instead via a process called ketosis. There is no calorie counting. You eat whatever you want but you must eat a lot of fats and limit your carb intake. This guy called Jimmy Moore lost 180 pounds eating cream, avocados and animal fats. I have a colleague who lost about 10 kg on this diet; he eats pork belly every day and limits his fruit intake.
This was terrible for me. Do you know how difficult it is to eat 70% of calories from fats? It sounds like a dream come true, I know, to be able to eat as much bacon as you want. But while I like bacon, I also like my low-fat food like yong tau foo and salads. This way of eating gave me intense cravings and made me slightly deranged as well. This definitely failed Number 5 on my list – I was not mentally sound.
This brings me to my next point.
2. I do not thrive on a meat-heavy diet
I ate a lot of meat on my high-fat diet. I do love pork belly. But having it for breakfast was too much. I felt bloated constantly. When I decide enough was enough, I ate all the vegetables and fruits I wanted and felt much better immediately. For some reason, my belly tends to swell up when I eat too much meat. This failed Number 6 – bloating is not desirable.
My colleague gets bloated from eating oats. I don’t get that same reaction but again, it’s a testament as to how different food affect people differently. Another friend gets stomach cramps from dairy.
3. I am not gluten intolerant
I’ve known this all along. I’ve never had a problem eating bread. But in an attempt to be strictly paleo, I’ve avoided all grain – rice, noodles and bread. I have no issue with giving up rice and noodles but I really, really like bread. I don’t mean toast because my paleo bread satisfies my cravings. What I have been hankering for recently is red bean and I have been eating Jollibean’s red bean pancake every day for breakfast for the past two weeks. Nothing bad has happened to me. My gut isn’t irritated. I haven’t put on any weight. I don’t feel worse off. In fact, I feel very happy for satisfying my craving and I have stopped overeating as a result.
This also leads to my next point.
4. It is better to satisfy my craving than to find a substitute
Whenever I get hunger pangs in the middle of the day, I would reach for dark chocolate, cheese or nuts. These are considered good paleo snacks because they are nutritious. Don’t get me wrong, I really like chocolate, cheese and nuts. But I ate them as a substitute for what I was really craving for. This can range from bananas (I was concerned about the amount of sugar) to yoghurt with honey (again, it was the sugar issue).
Eating what I didn’t desire made me overeat. I was definitely not satiated (Number 7).
What do I thrive on then?
I don’t know if this will change in the future but I have realised that the most important thing is to listen to what your body needs and experiment until you find what works for you. The way I eat may not be good for you and vice versa. This is my current diet philosophy:
- More vegetables and fruits, less meat (this has resulted in about a 50% carbohydrate intake, versus the 20% I was aiming for in the past)
- Eat anything I want, within reason
I am happy and I do not obsess about my next meal. Number 2 has been easy for me because there are very few things I crave for that is terribly un-paleo. Right now, it’s limited to red bean pancakes, red bean pau and salted egg yolk pau.
What do you thrive on?