My girlfriend’s daughter just turned 7. We were eating some food at a restaurant the other day and I watched her eat 2 cheeseburgers, half an order of French fries, a small milkshake, and a few good sips of a soft drink. I looked up all the nutrition data for her meal, and it totaled, by modest estimates, 1,200 calories. She weighs a whopping 49 pounds. That day she consumed over 2,500 calories. No I don’t meticulously count all her calories. But I did that day because her appetite was extraordinarily large, and well, you know, I’m a nerd. Metabolism has been the epicenter of my research for the last several years, and that’s just too impressive not to calculate and ponder.
To put it into perspective, that single meal equaled nearly 25 calories per pound of bodyweight – in 15 minutes flat. For a 200-pound adult male that would be 5,000 calories. And she’s lost 3 pounds in the last 10 weeks eating that way.
Yeah, metabolic rate declines as we age. The declines with aging are inevitable. We’ll probably never see an 80-year old win a gold medal in a 100 Meter sprint at the Olympics. I think the oldest ever was an ancient 32. But there are a great many things we can do via our diets and lifestyles to either hasten the decline, slow the decline, or in some cases even reverse the decline. To better understand this, we turn to some really basic principles of how our bodies work, and a shift in thinking when it comes to how we look at diet and exercise…
In the 20th century, people looked at nutrition in a very Neanderthal-like manner.
“Cholesterol bad. Saturated fat bad. Saturated fat raise cholesterol. Saturated fat cause heart disease. Me eat canola oil instead. Me fat. Me eat less Wooly Mammoth. Me eat only lean cuts Wooly Mammoth. Me cook Wooly Mammoth on Foreman George. Me burn more calories on stairmaster.”
But this ain’t the 20th century anymore. We don’t use typewriters or travel agents, and kids don’t even want Lite Brites anymore. And those things were totally sweet. Instead, we recognize that, like bellbottoms and parachute pants, the relationship between the food we eat and things like blood cholesterol levels are not direct, but indirect. Okay, that was a terrible metaphor that made no sense, but I squeeze in parachute pants whenever I can. Halloween is just around the corner. I hope to squeeze into some then. They’ve gotten tighter every year since age 30, when the first major hallmarks of aging start to set in.
Fashion from the past aside, what I mean by a shift in thinking in how we see nutrition and exercise is this…
As we age, statistically-speaking, we consume fewer calories, less saturated fat, less cholesterol, less salt, less sugar, and the list goes on. We consume less of everything “naughty” because appetite decreases with aging. We eat less of everything, period. And, parallel with that decreased consumption we see rises in cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, body fat, blood sugar, rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and well, pretty much everything undesirable.
The reason? Could it be something other than butter and steak and apple pie that causes these changes? Well gee whiz I think it might! Decline in metabolism? You betcha!
All of the changes mentioned can pretty neatly be tied back to our rate of cellular energy production and respiration. The higher the rate of cellular respiration and energy production, or metabolic intensity you could call it, the better one’s health, body composition, hormonal balance, cellular repair, longevity stats, and so on.
“…increasing cellular energy production appears to improve EVERYTHING, and follow-up research is underway to look at immunity, strength, endurance, and cardiovascular health.”
-Stephen Cherniske; The Metabolic Plan
Does your diet and lifestyle have an impact on metabolic intensity? Of course it does. It has a huge impact – an impact larger than probably any two other factors. But it’s not a neat and direct impact such as the small, temporary, and insignificant rise you might see in blood pressure when you have a few too many Doritos, or the half pound you might lose after a week of obediently grinding out time on a treadmill. It’s more of a long-term impact, and one that has little to do with various health religions, most of which revolve around some puritanical, joyless, restricted diet or self-assaulting and/or ridiculous New Age workout.
If I had to trim the concept of aging down to an oversimplified summary, I would call it the outcome of a lengthy tug-of-war battle between the body’s hormonal forces of building vs. breaking down. This is referred to as the anabolic vs. the catabolic. This can probably further be distilled down to what goes on in the adrenal glands, and the battle of DHEA vs. cortisol.
We know more and more each year about the balance between these pivotal opposing forces. Most of the major things we can do to enhance metabolism and DHEA and decrease our exposure to cortisol are far out of line with typical healthy eating guidelines. With our diets, the major metabolism promoters and cortisol suppressors are what I call the “Anti-stress S’s.” They are, primarily…
3) Starch – Potatoes, yams, rice, oats, beans, and others
4) Saturated fat – Red meat, dairy products, coconut, chocolate
These are the de-stressing foods – the things you crave when you have gone too long without food, have done some hard exercise or overexerted yourself somehow, have been dieting, have experienced some kind of emotional turbulence, have been forcing yourself to drink tons of water and tea because some bonehead said it was good for you (that bonehead being everybody, more or less), or haven’t been sleeping enough. If you can’t remember these, at least remember to eat foods that you enjoy and crave. The lower the metabolism gets, the more important these foods become. Salt and sugar seem to be particularly potent, and exceptionally maligned by those with eating disorders (nutritionists, dieticians, internet health gurus). The opposite of eating foods you enjoy would be to do some hard dieting of some sort. Cut out the carbs or calories, do some vegan dieting or a cleanse – that will cleanse you all right – cleanse you of DHEA, sex hormones, strength, and an immune system. To name just a few of the downsides.
In terms of lifestyle, the factors that will give you the best youthful metabolic preservation are…
1) Sleep – the king of all destressors
2) Anything that decreases psychological/emotional stress – different for everyone and relative to what you find stressful and unstressful
3) Exercise – particularly strength training and speed training, but not too much, and not if you injure yourself doing it (although to get more exercise, all most people really need to do is decrease their total screen time in front of computers, tv’s, and smart phones to as close to ZERO as possible while still functioning in society)
Simple I know. Or you could get wrapped up in a bunch of minutiae and supplement propaganda and advanced training strategies and other magic wands and potions and get nowhere (unless you call reading health websites in your spare time somewhere). Sorry, but the keys to good health aren’t New and Improved or residing in some traditional custom in an undiscovered Himalayan village somewhere. They are simple, and very basic. And they go with the flow of what our bodies actually seek, not against it. Or as I say, “The Health Gods are much kinder than I ever expected.”