Minnebar 11

I gave a talk at Minnebar 11 on Saturday, April 23, 2016 entitled Hacking your diet for health and energy. It was conveniently scheduled immediately before a lunch of pizza.

My motivation was to share my journey to using diet to feel and think better with other people in the tech community and hopefully open some people’s eyes to an optimal way to eat.

The room I presented in only had VGA input for the projector and I only HDMI on my devices, besides being a bit nervous to begin with, not having my slides flustered me a bit more. So, I winged it and just went through what I remembered from my script without having the slides to guide me. I still got some good feedback and talked to a number of people afterwards that learned something, so it was a success!

For those of you who are interested, this is the script I had written, just note that it’s not quite what I presented. At the end is the link for my slides (thanks to South Park for the food pyramid graphics and I’ll take any excuse to show off pictures of my kids).


Did you know that burning sugar isn’t the only way to fuel your body? In fact, it may be harmful and be at the root of many chronic diseases. We’ll talk about why everything you know about food is probably wrong and how you can use a low-carb, high-fat, ketogenic diet to turn your body into a fat burning machine.

You may have heard of this diet in the context of losing weight, but there is much more. It can help reduce risk for many “diseases of civilization” (diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune issues), improve your mood and exercise performance, make you less hungry less often and give you ridiculous amounts of energy.

I thought it sounded like magic too, but my journey has made me feel as if I am hacking my body to be better than I thought possible.

Last year, Dan Grigsby gave a talk on how important sleep is for you to be healthy. Both your body and brain need to be healthy in order for you to function in your work and your life in general. I think sleep is one of the three most important factors in being healthy and all three of these factors have significant opposition from our modern world that make it hard, or even impossible, to do what our bodies have evolved to handle.

The three factors are:

  1. Sleep (opposed by artificial light, screens on our devices, schedule that hinders natural sleep/wake cycle, we can suffer or cope with reality by using strategies for unplugging)
  2. Stress (a future topic?), and…
  3. Diet (our bodies have not evolved to live off mountain dew and pizza)

I want to to focus on diet in this session. First off, I’m not a doctor, this is just what I’ve learned in the past few years. Ever since both my parents had stents put into their coronary arteries, I began following the conventional dietary advice on how to keep my heart healthy. I started eating a nearly vegetarian diet, low fat: occasional chicken, never red meat. Then, about 7 years ago, I got diagnosed with sleep apnea and I had to use a CPAP machine to not die while I slept. About three years ago I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It took the diabetes for me to realize that what I was doing wasn’t working.

But I was following what nutrition experts and the guidelines tell us to do, what happened?

Well, where did those guidelines come from? It turns out they only date back a few decades. In the 1950s, people were in a panic because heart disease was out of control. This guy, incidentally from the U of M, Ancel Keys, had done research and he saw a correlation between high saturated fat consumption and heart disease in his seven country study. There was no time to waste, this was data that could save lives, so his diet-heart hypothesis became the recommendation by our government and by extension, most of the world. Nina Teicholz does a great job in her book “The Big Fat Surprise” to look at this hypothesis and show just how bad the science was that went into the recommendation. A big point is correlation doesn’t show causation, other disciplines study a hypothesis based on that observed correlation to try to prove or disprove it, apparently nutrition takes it for the basis for a national policy. Another interesting point, there were more than seven countries studied, but only the seven that showed this correlation were cherry-picked to be published.

Lets step back, humans have been around for a long time, in our modem form about 200,000 years, and the genus homo, dating back about 2.8 million years. So for almost three million years we’ve diverged from other animals to have our distinct dietary requirements. Modern agriculture only dates back about 10,000 years. Our current dietary guidelines only date back about 30 years. In the past 30 years there have been many diseases that have gotten worse and the corresponding cost of health care has gotten out of control, even though there’s evidence people are, in fact, following the guidelines.

There’s no written record from 2 million years ago, so we don’t know what they ate, but we can make some pretty good guesses, in fact there’s a large number of people that are trying to approximate it by following the paleo diet now. We know it wasn’t McDonalds, or pizza, it was natural foods, a lot of meat that was hunted or fished. Fruits and vegetables were certainly not available year round at a grocery store, they were seasonal. If you had sugar, it came along with the fiber and other nutrients of a whole fruit. The other place nature provided us with sugar is from bees, and they tend to be disagreeable when you take it from them.

10,000 years ago, part of this changed, we started domesticating plants and animals and changing them from their natural state by selecting crops for traits we liked like taste and size.

Then, about a hundred years ago we figured out how to process certain plants to get vegetable oils, such as soybean oil and canola oil. This is stuff that was essentially waste before-hand and is now a potential profit source.

Then 30 years ago, suddenly our government recommends we start basing most of our diet on vegetable oils and grains, all because of an untested hypothesis. Evolutionarily, these things are brand new, never before have they been a significant part of anyone’s diet, and now they are being recommended to be the majority of ours.

So, how did it go? In general the population has followed these guidelines. But, health care costs are skyrocketing, obesity and diabetes rates are through the roof, heart disease and cancer are still out of control. Why?

Maybe, just maybe the guidelines we have been following are not correct. Maybe the people on the paleo diet are onto something and we should try to go back and eat how our ancestors did before we screwed it all up. If you walk away with one thing today, I hope it’s that that you should eat less processed food and more natural foods! I firmly believe that step alone will help you be a much healthier person.

  • Vegetable oils are not good, they tend to be packed with omega-6 fatty acids, which are inflammatory and actually, despite what you’ve been told, promote cancer and heart disease. Furthermore, now that we’ve gotten away from trans-fats, they’re used to cook with, but they oxidize under heat and are probably worse than the trans-fats were! What should you use? Saturated fat, like coconut oil or what my grandma used: lard, they are stable under heat.

  • Don’t drink fruit juice, it is only the sugar of the fruit with none of the fiber to aid in digesting it. Eat the whole fruit instead.

  • Lastly, everywhere you look, you’ll see that you should eat “healthy whole grains”, they’re good for your heart. Also not true, you don’t need them at all. You actually absorb less nutrients if the grains are whole. But the nutrients that you get from grains, you can get elsewhere, and the carbohydrates are not essential for you to consume.

But wait, I lured you here with the promise of hacking your diet. What did I mean? Well, if you are eating how I just proposed, you’ll end up eating less processed food, less food with added sugars or based on grains, in other words it will be lower in carbohydrates. And that’s where things start to get cool. As you know, our bodies run off sugar, blood glucose travels to all our cells to provide them with energy, this is why you eat every few hours, the body can’t store a ton of glucose.

This isn’t the only way. It turns out, in those 2.8 million years, people didn’t always have access to 3 square meals a day. The reason we store body fat is so we can use it later, as energy. We are supposed to access that fat when we don’t have glucose available, but when we eat a high-carbohydrate diet, we are constantly flooding our body with insulin each time we eat. Insulin causes fat storage and restricts fat mobilization, which has a downside of causing us to gain fat mass. It also ultimately leads to type 2 diabetes when you lose the ability to keep up with the insulin production required. Is there a way to not have high levels of insulin all the time? Of course, eat fewer carbohydrates. In the case of our ancestor who doesn’t have food, starvation certainly lowers carbohydrate intake and you will start to access energy in your fat in a form called ketone bodies. These are a form of fat that can cross the blood-brain barrier so your brain as well as muscles can be powered by burning fat. Starvation is not the only approach, however, consuming dietary fat does not increase levels of insulin much, so, you can also eat-more fat along with less sugar. Without the presence many carbohydrates, eating lots of fat is “ketogenic”, meaning it makes ketones and puts you into what’s called a state of nutritional ketosis. Low carb, high fat = LCHF.

This is something that is completely normal for our bodies. When breast-fed as babies, this is how we operate, it is how we survived famines. There is, however, an abnormal condition, typically only seen in type 1 diabetics, called ketoacidosis which is a serious, if not fatal condition where blood glucose and ketone levels skyrocket. Nutritional ketosis doesn’t cause this, but most mainstream doctors have only heard of ketones in this context and therefore immediately assume ketones = bad.

The idea of a ketogenic diet is to transition yourself from being a sugar burner to a fat burner. Why?

Originally there was research into using a ketogenic diet to treat epilepsy. Before effective drugs were on the market it was used but has kind of fallen out of popularity in favor of drug treatments.

I mentioned omega 6 fatty acids before, being inflammatory. Powering your body off ketones has the opposite effect. Inflammation is a normal response to an acute injury, such as in the vicinity of a cut. Chronic, systemic inflammation, caused by diet or stress, is thought to be an actual cause of, you guessed it, heart disease as well as some autoimmune conditions and some cancers. Tumors usually need glucose to grow, if you reduce this, in favor of ketones, in addition to other treatments, it can be very effective at treating cancer. Not to mention, using ketones for energy causes less oxidative stress, which is thought to be a cause of cancer. People are researching possible benefits against ADHD and autism. Personally, I had always suffered from the trio of autoimmune issue: allergies, athsma and psoriasis and I can vouch that being in ketosis has helped a lot.

I didn’t want to focus on weigh loss, but that is another benefit, you access your body’s fat stores for energy more easily in a ketotic state. Along this same line, having easier access to your fat stores means you get less hungry. People sometimes do what’s called intermittent fasting, where they eat once or twice during a small window of time each day. Personally I usually eat just one meal per day, which frees up a lot of time to get other things done! People can do this because they are not hungry as often because the fat and protein they consume are very satisfying.

Ketosis can help you sleep better or get more efficient sleep and give you more energy throughout the day. This can lead to a much more stable mood.

Lastly, one other benefit I want to touch on is performance. There is some really cool research going into athletic performance. For endurance athletes, sugar only gets you part way through a marathon before you have to add energy with gels or some other source. Put simply, sugar gets you 2000 calories to burn, but even in a lean athlete, fat gets you upwards of 40,000 calories to burn, if you can access your fat, you can perform, essentially, forever.

So, how do you get into ketosis? The general rule is to flip the food pyramid upside down. Less than 20g carbohydrates per day will get almost everyone in ketosis. This is what Dr. Atkins called the “induction” phase in his diet. You actually don’t need any carbohydrates at all, but you can have up to 20g per day. The ones you get should be from vegetable sources, not from grains, sugars or probably even fruit. You can test your blood sugar and see your personal tolerance, if you are not metabolically damaged, you might be able to handle more than 20g. The trick is to test your blood sugar after a meal, after 2 hours it should return to your fasting level, if it doesn’t, you’ve exceeded your threshold.

It takes a little while, sometimes even a few weeks to adapt to burning fat instead of sugar, and if you don’t keep your electrolytes in check, you can feel sick, known as the keto-flu. Adding some potassium and magnesium might be necessary to stave off the headaches that come. Beware that sugar cravings can last much longer than a few weeks, but you have to stay strong and more fat can keep them at bay.

Sometimes the ketogenic diet is referred to as LCHF, but it is worth adding “moderate protein” in there. You want most of your intake to be fat, 70-90% fat. Protein is necessary, but your body has a nasty tendency to convert excess protein to glucose in a fancy process called gluconeogensis so you don’t want to consume more than your body needs. Beef tends to have a good profile of fat to protein, bacon is also a winner, but things like chicken breasts are too lean and can get you too much protein if you aren’t careful. A guideline for protein is somewhere around 1g per kg of lean body mass, if you have access to a scale which shows you body fat percentage, you can subtract out the fat portion to get your lean body mass to figure that out.

One last thing, it is important to test for ketosis. Urine strips can give you a rough idea at least at the beginning and they are cheap. There’s a breath meter called Ketonix available for about $100, it is not precise, but gives you an idea if you are metabolizing fat. The gold standard is to use a blood test. If you don’t test, you won’t know if you are in ketosis. That doesn’t mean you won’t get benefits from healthier eating but I find it’s the only way to stay honest with myself with how I’m eating.