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Health Hack #31 - One Size Does Not Fit All - An Individualized Approach To Diet

Hey all - Mike here, reassuming the reigns for this week’s article. If you’ll recall, our co-owner, John, emerged from the shadows last week (How I Get My Kids To Eat Vegetables) to share a very personal tale, in how he learned to successfully introduce his children to real food, namely vegetables. There’s another personal tale to share for this week, but one very different from John’s. Hope you’ll enjoy!

What’s that thing on your arm?

For the first two weeks of May, I wore a continuous glucose monitor, often referred to as a CGM. Granted, I see fewer people than usual these days with quarantine restrictions still in place, but I still likely encounter more people than most throughout the week. Despite my best efforts to hide the device with my shirt, many took notice, and all who did asked the same question: “What’s that thing on your arm?” The answer is simple. A continuous glucose monitor. Their inevitable follow-up question is a much denser one. “Why are you wearing that?”

CGM’s are vital lifelines for individuals with metabolic abnormalities, namely those with some form of diabetes. In no way was my experiment at all meant to diminish their importance, for the sake of some hokey health-fueled self-experiment. I wasn’t “playing around” with the device per se, but instead valuing its data and trying to understand more deeply my personal metabolic state, as it pertained to a very specific concern of mine.

A CGM works quite simply these days. An extremely thin and short needle (which is positioned in the center of a circular patch) pricks itself into the skin of the tricep, and an adhesive material helps fasten the circular patch to the skin. An app is then downloaded onto a smartphone. Then, over the course of 14 days, the monitor provides a blood glucose reading each time you scan your phone to the device, also showing you how your blood glucose has behaved between scans.

Why are you wearing that thing on your arm?

For many years I’ve obsessed over my personal health, which is largely why I decided to open Real Food Eatery with John, as a means of sharing my learnings and putting them into practice for the benefit of others. In doing so, I’ve encountered a constantly evolving set of ideas and principles for guiding one towards improved well being, many that I’ve adopted, but also many that I’ve shoved aside. Of those dismissed, one key notion nagged at me for quite some time, lingering in mind, seemingly attempting to break through and become a part of my modus operandi.

The idea that maybe what was best for me, wasn’t necessarily best for someone else. When you stumble upon a successful strategy for improvement, it’s easy to fall into a dangerous trap. "This was great for me. You try it - I guarantee it will work for you, too."  It would seem to make sense that there should exist a one size fits all approach.

My initial turn towards getting my health on track came back in 2012 when John introduced me to the ketogenic diet. I was unfamiliar with it at the time (and many of you still may be; if so, you can find a quick rundown in one of our prior articles here: The Tie That Binds All Modern Diets), but eager to try something new, and tempted by something that was fairly unconventional (at that time it was). For some context, at the time I weighed 50 pounds more than I do today.

To say that my keto experiment worked would put it mildly. I had weight to lose, energy to recapture, and was desperately in need of a positive lifestyle change. I crossed off all of those boxes and then some. I’m a creature of habit, and have always been perfectly content with eating the same foods every single day. Many of the permitted foods were already in my dietary repertoire, so the diet didn’t feel too restrictive. In other words, I was easily able to navigate around dietary pitfall #1 - lack of variety.

I also felt that I was easily able to avoid the most ubiquitous danger of dieting, pitfall #2 - hunger. I ate whenever I wanted, largely whatever I wanted (provided it was high fat, low carb, moderate-low protein), and managed to lose weight in doing so. It was combined with a reborn exercise regimen. However, I’d exercised more aggressively in the past without half the results, so I was able to attribute much of the benefits to my new diet.

After three months on the diet, I was transformed. I backed away from remaining on a full blown ketogenic diet, largely due to the social implications. If you’ve ever dined out with friends or attended any type of event where food was served while on a ketogenic diet, you’ll know how difficult it is to remain in compliance. But overall, I maintained a moderately low-carb lifestyle, I was just no longer a ketogenic zealot. I had taken the stringent parameters of a diet and loosely massaged them until they became suitable for a lifestyle. Big difference.

At the time of my transformation, two close friends of mine were interested in doing the same. Each had come to me separately, eager to learn of my methodology. I spent hours mapping out a ketogenic diet plan for each of them, as well as a clean, entry-level exercise routine. Over the course of a month or so, I fielded dozens of questions, provided plenty of feedback, and watched as one friend fared pretty well, while the other completely derailed from the track I’d laid out. Friend #1 was adhering closely, but the results weren’t as pronounced as they’d been for me. Friend #2 was struggling with compliance, and really not seeing any discernible results.

Lesson #1

What worked for me may not work for everyone else.

For a while I’d assumed that Friend #1 was on the right track, but maybe not as dedicated as I was. And Friend #2, well...I thought of him as an idiot. Shame on me!

Why was I so successful? Because the diet is perfect? Absolutely not. No diet is perfect. I was successful because the diet was perfect for me. And it was perfect for me at the time. Zero chance it would work for me so elegantly at this stage of life. At the time, I wasn’t yet married. I was in a relationship, but as we all know - we get a little more slack thrown our way when we’re in that courting stage of a relationship. Now married, my wife and I strive to build our evening around a dinner together. She is not ketogenic, nor does the diet resonate with her on any level whatsoever, so I would flat out fail miserably were I to try implementing it nowadays.

Unsurprisingly, Friend #2 was married. His wife happens to love pasta. He also happens to enjoy a bit more variety than someone like me. And high fat whole foods didn’t comprise a large facet of his dietary regimen prior to trying keto, so the new paradigm came as a shock to both his system and his taste buds. If anyone was an idiot in this equation it was me, failing to realize that there is no one size fits all approach to diet and exercise.

Lesson #2

What worked for someone else may not work for me.

I embarked on my CGM trial out of fear that my late night eating habit was unwise. I’ve long heard many leaders within the health and wellness sphere harp on the notion of eating in harmony with your circadian rhythm. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense. Hunt and gather by day, while the sun assists in your search for food. Eat your gatherings immediately, before you’re being challenged for them by another tribe, or even another species. Shelter and slumber by nightfall, when food is harder to find and predators are more likely on the prowl.

It’s often recommended that we avoid eating too close to bedtime. From a physiological perspective, the argument is also hard to dismiss. Melatonin, our primary sleep hormone, begins to ramp up roughly 3-4 hours before we sleep. When it does, a signal is sent to our pancreas which basically says: “Hey, pancreas - we appreciate all of the insulin you produced for us today, to help us best dispose of glucose. But we’re readying for bedtime now, so your shift is over. Have a great night, rest up, and we’ll see you back in the morning.”

The implication here is fairly concerning. If the ability of the pancreas to efficiently produce insulin is significantly down-regulated at night, then it would be dangerous to eat much food after dark, particularly carbohydrate-laden foods known to increase our blood glucose. Doing so is likely to elevate your blood sugars for much longer than we’d like, which, among other more obvious metabolic ramifications, could adversely affect sleep quality, which we should always seek to protect (Sleep Pt. 1, Sleep Pt. 2).

Well, I was able to put this hypothesis to the test. Strangely, and thankfully, eating a late night dose of carbs doesn’t appear to weigh significantly on my blood glucose measurements over night. But this article isn’t about the results I found, so we’ll leave them at that. What it showed and reinforced more than anything, is the idea that we’re all uniquely different. Most of my online wellness mentors swear religiously by forgoing any eating whatsoever within 3 hours of bedtime, let alone carbohydrates, having proven to themselves (via CGM monitoring) the deleterious effects of doing so. I expected to yield the same results. But much like Friend #2, I didn’t.

It’s very dangerous to hop up on a soapbox and pronounce that “this is the way for me, therefore this must be the way for you” when it comes to health. Genetics factor greatly as to how we respond to certain foods, and certain lifestyle changes. Layered on top of our genetic foundations is this newer concept of epigenetics (which will be the topic of a future Health Hack), which is a wildly fascinating arena that reveals how our gene expressions may vary immensely, depending upon environment. And as alluded to above, we all have varying degrees and societal pressures and influences, which alter our abilities to eat and exercise in a variety of ways. Always keep an open mind, strive to deeply understand what works best for you, and be very careful about planting a flag when it comes to making suggestions to others.

Keep it Real.