I never really cared about nutrition, exercise and health until my mid-30s. As a kid, I ate giant bowls of Corn Flakes while reading Swamp Thing comic books. Root beer was my favourite soda, maple-flavoured cookies were the best, and I considered myself a professional ice cream devourer. I was never obese but I was definitely a pudgy kid.
I didn’t care though. I preferred plants to people and mostly kept to myself. The plan was to one day live out in the woods and become a hermit. So I enrolled in university to learn about plants – I needed to know which ones to eat and which ones to avoid if I was going to make it.
Once I entered academia, I was hooked and found it hard to leave. I began in Botany and ended in Human Nutrition. Along the way, I had taken a semester off to travel in Nepal, India, and Southeast Asia. This trip would seriously change my views on health.
Hiking in the Himalayas carrying around an 80-pound backpack, eating nothing but yak cheese, rice, lentils and vegetables lead to some pretty serious weight loss. For the first time in my life, I saw abs on my belly. This accidental exercise and nutrition program would kick-start a lifestyle that would include fitness as part of my lifestyle.
The West, unfortunately, is bursting with convenience foods, entertainment options, and fine restaurants. Maintaining an active lifestyle proved harder than expected. To stay accountable, I had joined the university lumberjack sports team and would eventually explore TaeKwonDo, capoeira, parkour, weight lifting, and CrossFit. But no matter how active I was, I always had a layer of fat around my mid-section.
In my university nutrition program, we were taught that the healthiest diet was that outlined by our national food guidelines, which at the time promoted the consumption of high-fibre cereals, low-fat dairy, vegetable oils, fruit juices, and low-fat meats. They also discouraged the consumption of saturated fat, salt, and sugar. Following this diet made me chronically constipated, worsened my asthma, and exacerbated my acne.
I began to question our Western dietary advice after having analyzed data from my research in the Himalayas. Tibetan Highlanders ate an enormous amount of saturated fat from animal products, regularly added salt to everything, and didn’t consume much in terms of fruits and vegetables. According to what I was taught, they were on a fast track to getting a heart attack. But cardiovascular disease is rare among this population and all biomarkers suggested they were in perfect health.
So I adopted a diet similar to theirs: higher in fat, higher in protein, and lower in carbs. Eliminating cereal grains and non-fermented dairy from my diet cleared up my skin, cured my asthma, and finally, after several frustrating years of eating high fibre cereals and psyllium powders, my constipation disappeared.
After years of following a Paleo diet template, I’ve adopted an functional, holistic approach to health. Essentially, the answer extends beyond nutrition and involves a complex interplay of genetics, circadian rhythms, hormones, gut flora populations, sunlight exposure, exercise, stress, and the concept of leisure and play. In essence, who you are, where you’re from, what you do, and how you do it will largely determine what you should eat and how you should move.
Ironically, my dream of escaping into the wild has been reduced to weekend camping getaways because I now want to be around people, and more importantly, I want to help them in any way I can!