Debunking Fat & Cholesterol Myths

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For decades, fat and cholesterol have been demonized as culprits for cardiovascular disease and obesity albeit for no good reason as there is no good scientific evidence to support these claims. Only recently has the mainstream science and nutrition community started to recognize that fat isn’t the issue. Instead, as researchers are finding, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity is more closely linked to the consumption of processed foods, higher intake of carbohydrates, as well as poor lifestyle choices. Let’s take a closer look!

Fat & Cholesterol – What Are They Exactly?

When talking about fat and cholesterol, we tend to lump the two together and think of them interchangeably. However, fat and cholesterol are very different. Fat is a macronutrient. Macronutrients are the nutrients we need in high amounts in our diets. They provide energy, often displayed in the form of “calories” on food labels. Fats are hydrocarbons, meaning they contain hydrogen and carbon components. The hydrocarbon chains that fats are comprised of determine their function and help differentiate between the supposed “good” and “bad” kinds of fats, unsaturated and saturated fat, respectively. The difference between saturated and unsaturated fats has to do with the difference in saturation of hydrogen atoms. Unsaturated fats contain a double bond, meaning they have fewer hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atoms.1 Saturated fats contain no double bonds.

Cholesterol, on the other hand, is an organic sterol, which is a waxy, lipid substance. 25% comes from our diet, and the liver makes the other 75%.2 Cholesterol, unlike fat, does not provide energy to the body. There are two types of cholesterol, LDL, and HDL. LDL, or low-density lipoproteins, are often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol. HDL, or high-density lipoproteins, is considered to be the “good” cholesterol. HDL is considered “good” because it helps clear excess LDL from the bloodstream, sending it back to the liver to be broken down and excreted. As a side note, it is important to understand that LDL and HDL are not actually “cholesterol”. They are the proteins in the body that carry around cholesterol.

Despite the common belief that we should eliminate fat and cholesterol from our diets, we need to consume these in our diets for regular functioning and body processes. Fats protect your organs, provide energy, aid in hormone production, and help in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A and K. Cholesterol is responsible for the production of sex hormones, building certain tissues throughout the body, and helping in the production of bile in the liver.3 It is also necessary for vitamin synthesis, cellular integrity and hormone synthesis. In fact, certain diseases, such as Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome, where cholesterol cannot be synthesized properly leads to serious issues such as autism and reduced muscle.

Dietary Saturated Fat – Why the bad rap?

In the 20th century, heart disease became an epidemic amongst the American population. Statistics showed that it was the number 1 cause of death. Researchers made a correlation between the high consumption of saturated fat and heart disease because saturated fats were found, in the short-term, to be associated with increased total cholesterol. The problem(s)? There was no solid scientific evidence to back up these claims. The studies and evidence presented were based on animal trials and general assumptions. Experiments were never well controlled in these studies, and researchers never accounted for confounding factors. There was also no evidence from human studies to back up this saturated fat/heart disease hypothesis.

More specifically, researchers also failed to recognize that total “cholesterol” is a flawed marker of heart disease, because total cholesterol includes both “bad” LDL cholesterol, and “good” HDL cholesterol.

What researchers actually found is that, in the short term, saturated fat increases both HDL and LDL cholesterol, and HDL is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

In reality, there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” cholesterol. You need both HDL and LDL for proper physiological function (LDL is good, and actually helps bring cholesterol into the cells and helps to maintain cellular fluidity). The only time cholesterol is “bad” is when it ends up in the wrong places. Under the influence of inflammation and other factors, this can result in plaque buildup in arterial walls, causing blockages and wreaking havoc on the cardiovascular system. More importantly, it turns out that the type of cholesterol that increases the risk of developing arterial plaques is small sized, dense, LDL particles, in high numbers. The reason for this is that smaller sized LDL particles have a higher chance of being absorbed in the arterial wall becoming oxidized, which is a critical step in the development of atherosclerosis. Larger LDL particles are less susceptible to arterial wall penetration and oxidation. Furthermore, the larger the number of these smaller particles, the higher the chances of these processes occurring.

Interestingly, researchers have found that in the short-term, saturated fat consumption actually helps convert small LDL particles to larger particles.4,5,6 Researchers have actually found that low-carb diets, high in saturated fats, can reduce the risk of heart disease significantly due to the favourable cholesterol profiles obtained following these diets; fewer numbers of small LDL particles, and higher numbers of large LDL and HDL particles.7,8 Low-fat diets do NOT reduce the amount of small LDL particles, and actually, have been shown to result in an unfavorable lipid profile (high small LDL, low HDL, and increase triglycerides).9,10 

There are a few large studies (systemic reviews and meta-analyses) that take an in-depth look into all of the data obtained to date on observational studies and controlled trials about saturated fat and heart disease. Here are there conclusions:

  1. A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD. More data are needed to elucidate whether CVD risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.11
  2. Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.12

Perhaps most importantly, a recent scientific study from 2017 explored macronutrients and their relationship to mortality and cardiovascular disease from 18 countries in 5 different continents. They concluded the following:

“High carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality. Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke. Global dietary guidelines should be reconsidered in light of these findings.”13

Dietary Cholesterol

We’ve already covered why cholesterol is good, and identified that the only time cholesterol is potentially “bad” is when you have an increased number of small-sized LDL particles. Even in these scenarios, this doesn’t mean you will get heart disease, but that you are increasing your risk of heart disease. In fact, cholesterol-lowering therapies do not lower risk of cardiovascular disease.14 Heart disease is a complex phenomenon, and researchers are finding out that it is driven by a variety of factors, including inflammatory and autoimmune factors, as well as genetic and epigenetic factors.

But what about the cholesterol in our diet? Does this impact our cholesterol levels?

It turns out that dietary cholesterol actually has no impact on our blood cholesterol levels. Only a small portion of the cholesterol from our diet actually gets absorbed into the body. Furthermore, when our bodies sense low levels of cholesterol, they ramp up cholesterol synthesis to make up for the lack of cholesterol. In fact, avoidance of dietary cholesterol can result in malnutrition, due to the reduced consumption of healthy foods that also happen to contain cholesterol, and even increased risk of heart attacks.15,16

The most important factors for achieving ffavourableblood cholesterol profiles appear to be of epigenetic origin, and include: 1) decreasing the amount of dietary carbohydrates, 2) elimintation of processed foods, 3) avoidance of inflammatory foods, 4) positive lifestyle choices (like increased exercise frequency).17,18,19,20

Genetics or hereditary factors also play a role in blood cholesterol profiles. The liver is a key player in cholesterol homeostasis and LDL and HDL production, and individuals with genetic conditions that affect the liver are more susceptible to cholesterol issues.21

The Bottom Line

Cholesterol and fat do a whole lot of good for our bodies. Without them, we would have many problems functioning properly. Don’t believe everything you read. Do your research and stay educated about what foods you are putting in your body!

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The Health Benefits of Fasting

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What is fasting?

Fasting is the process of not eating for set periods of time. Our genetics are actually well suited for this process. We are the only species of human to survive the Paleolithic Era, and during this era, we had to experience periods of time where food was abundant, and other times when it was scarce.

Flash forward to our modern society, and we typically eat 3-4 times a day, often snacking in between meals. Now, I’m sure if our Paleo ancestors had the ability to eat all of the time, they would (humans are also programmed to love food). But the fact that our species survived one of the harshest eras of existence (the Paleolithic Era and corresponding Ice Age) means something; our metabolism is programmed to run optimally when food and energy intake is random and varied, not constant (for the technical bent, these are called stochastic processes). As research is starting to show, a constant intake of energy may not be so beneficial for us in the long run, especially if we are living mostly sedentary lives.

The Health Benefits of Fasting

There are a plethora of health benefits associated with fasting, including improvements in metabolism, reduction in inflammation, aging prevention, and a decreased risk of developing disease. Let’s go one by one…

Fasting induces a healthy metabolic state called “ketosis”

During fasting, when our intake of macronutrients glucose, fat, and protein, are zero, our body begins to burn glycogen stores in the liver (our body’s way of storing glucose for periods of no food) to release glucose for the body and the brain. However, once our glycogen stores become depleted, our body switches its metabolism towards burning fat for fuel. When we burn fat for fuel instead of glycogen, we enter a state of ketosis, which is a state where, in the process of burning fat for fuel, ketones are released [Note: ketosis is different from ketoacidosis, and Dr. Peter Attia has a great article describing the difference]. There are two ways to enter ketosis: by fasting, or by eating a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet. This is why it is often said that ketogenic diets mimic fasting.

Ketones are miracle molecules and have been shown to do all of the following: 1) suppress oncogenes, 2) decrease inflammation, 3) promote healthy cell metabolism & cell signaling, 4) promote healthy body weight and physiology, 5) improve good cholesterol and other cardiovascular markers, and 6) enhance cognitive ability.

Ketosis is also thought to be the reason behind why ketogenic diets work so well for treating epilepsy and for reversing cancer tumors.

Fasting improves our immune system profile and reduces inflammation

Excellent research by Dr. Valter Longo has shown that by fasting we can drastically improve our immune system by 1) clearing away damaged white blood cells (via a process called autophagy) and 2) regenerating the immune cell population towards one that is more representative of our youth (by normalizing the ratio of myeloid cells to lymphoid cells).

Fasting has also been shown to reduce inflammation via the reduction of the inflammatory cytokines TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-1.

Fasting promotes longevity and prevents aging

Fasting is known for triggering the expression of longevity genes, which are genes that are associated with a longer lifespan. Fasting also promotes healthy mitochondrial function. Healthy mitochondria are critical for preventing the oxidative damage that is associated with aging.

Finally, fasting triggers the production of new stem cells as well as critical cellular repair processes.

Fasting can improve our metabolism and body composition

Fasting triggers weight loss via adipose thermogenesis (a.k.a. “calorie burning”) and promotes metabolic homeostasis. Our metabolism is boosted when we fast, as we alter our hormone profile to favor fat burning while preserving muscle mass.

Fasting has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. When insulin sensitivity improves, our ability to store glucose and fat, as well as properly utilize glucose and fat for energy, improves.

Fasting has potential for preventing and reversing disease

Research has shown that fasting can significantly reduce the risk of developing metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, fasting may also help prevent and reduce cancer via activation of tumor suppressor pathways, lowering of blood glucose and activation of AMPK, as well as by turning our immune cells into tumor killers.

Research has also shown that, by promoting pancreatic beta-cell regeneration, fasting may help reverse diabetes.

Finally, fasting may help prevent neurodegenerative disease and cognitive decline via the increase in production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that is experienced during periods of calorie restriction.

So what is intermittent fasting exactly? And how do you do it?

Intermittent fasting (IF) is the safest form of fasting. It consists of voluntary fasting for short durations, typically 16-48 hours at most. We do not advocate long-term fasting (fasting for more than 48 hours), especially without a doctor’s consent. Long-term fasting is trickier to pull off, and arguably not as healthy as short-term fasting.

A typical IF regimen is as follows:

  1. Eat lunch at 12 pm.
  2. Eat dinner at 8 pm.
  3. Sleep around 10 pm.
  4. Eat the next day at 12 pm.

This is called the 16/8 regimen (16 hours fast, followed by an 8-hour eating window). The 16/8 is the most common IF protocol because it is the easiest to follow since you are sleeping for the majority of the 16 hour fast. However, there are a variety of other ways that you can structure your IF.

If the 16/8 protocol is too hard for you, or if you are just starting out, trying simply skipping a meal now and then. It may be hard to do at first, especially if you are currently on a high-carb diet since you will experience more “sugar/carb” withdrawal (people on a high-carb diet typically have altered hunger and metabolism hormone function that keeps them in a state of “hunger”). But, it will get easier as you begin to stabilize your hormones; as we ease into IF, we start to improve our leptin signaling, which controls our appetite. Remember, the hunger cravings, if you have any, are temporary and will subside.

As mentioned, we recommend following the 16/8 fasting protocol, skipping breakfast, and only eating lunch and dinner. To help you out with your IF journey, here are a few tips:

  • During the fast, consume only water, black coffee, or tea.
  • To help you prevent hunger during each fast, try eating a low-carb Paleo diet or Ketogenic diet during your allowed eating time.
  • Stay busy during your fast
  • Remember that any hunger symptoms you may have will go away as you begin to correct and balance your hormone profile
  • Don’t binge eat after your fast
  • Avoid alcohol consumption before and after your fast
  • Get plenty of sleep (consider a good quality sleep mask and ear plug kit, as well as taking a small amount of melatonin)

Is it safe? Is it for me?

As we mentioned, short-term IF is safe for almost everyone (although you should always consult your doctor first), and there are a plethora of health benefits (as described above). The only side effects that may occur are headaches and constipation, which are usually temporary and are a by-product of your body going through high-carb withdrawal as well as hormone stabilization.

We don’t recommend long-term fasts. We also DO NOT recommend that you try to fast if you are a child, are underweight, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Furthermore, you should consult your doctor if you are taking medication, if you have diabetes, or if you have high uric acid.

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Other Links & Resources

  1. Intermittent Fasting for Beginners
  2. Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications
  3. 10 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

NOTE: Nothing in this post is written or intended to be medical advice or to replace medical advice. We are not doctors. We are merely individuals with a passion for health, fitness, nutrition, and scientific research.

What Is The Paleo Diet (a.k.a. The Caveman Diet)?

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The Caveman Diet: The Original Human Diet

The Paleo Diet, also known as the “Caveman Diet”, is a nutritional protocol that is intended to mimic the diet of our ancestors, who were hunter-gatherers that lived during, and survived through, the Paleolithic era. Overall, it is a low-carb diet, but differs from other low-carb protocols in very specific ways, as well explain below.

This particular diet is actually our favorite dietary protocol here at HealthSnap, with the Ketogenic Diet being a close second (note: the Paleo Diet and Ketogenic Diets are actually quite similar). We strongly believe, and the research agrees with us, that the Paleo Diet is the healthiest way to eat because it is the only nutritional protocol that takes into consideration our genetic makeup.

So, why mimic the diet of our ancestors? How is the diet aligned with our genetics?

The theory behind the diet is that our genetic makeup today is virtually the same as that of our ancestors who lived 40,000 or so years ago during the Paleolithic era (genes are very slow to change, evolution takes place on VERY large timescales). The Paleolithic era was one of the harshest moments in time for the human species, and yet we are the only species of human to survive this era (the Neanderthals, for example, did not survive).

During this era, we experienced diverse environmental conditions, exposure to certain food sources, as well as variable food availability. We had to survive on the African savannah, as well as on the sea shoreline during the Ice Ages. We likely experienced periods of feast and famine, as food sources were scarce. We had to be hunter-gatherers (working in teams to hunt and gather food), we had to be fit, we had to be mobile, and we had to be smart in order to survive.

It’s obvious that we were genetically fit to survive this period because we are the only species TO survive this period. Our genetics must be something quite special. Thus, any lifestyle choice that closely aligns ourselves with our genetics would seem like a prudent one.

This doesn’t mean that we need to go the Arctic to experience the extreme cold to mimic the Ice Ages (although science is showing that there are many health benefits of periodic cold exposure), or that we need to starve (although science is showing the benefits of intermittent fasting, which is fasting for brief periods of time). What about dressing like a caveman, acting like a caveman, or giving up all modern technology? NO. What it does mean is that mimicking the energy (a.k.a. food) availability and density we experienced during that time may be a healthy thing to do. Why?

The advent of farming and agriculture occurred only approximately 10,000 years ago. If our genes are slow to change, and we carry the same genetic makeup of our ancestors, this means that the consumption of edible grains and dairy products through farming and modern agriculture is quite simply alien to our genes. In short, the only thing that has changed in 40,000 or so years is that the environment that our genes are expressed in.

So, what exactly did our ancestors eat? What should we eat on a Caveman Diet?

Since the diet is modeled after our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this means that we should aim to eat the foods that hunter-gatherers ate during that time period. Or rather, eliminate the foods that they likely never experienced. So let’s start with a list of what to NOT eat. A list of foods that they likely never experienced, and thus should be avoided on a caveman diet, is the following:

FOODS TO AVOID

  • Grains and refined carbohydrates (wheat, barley, rice, bread etc.)
  • Legumes (beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, etc.)
  • Dairy
  • Sugars, soda’s, candy
  • Alcohol

I know, all the fun things, right?

This leaves us with the following:

FOODS TO EAT

  • Grass-fed and free-range meat (ruminants like cows were meant to eat grass, not grains which they are fed today)
  • Wild-caught seafood (not farm raised salmon)
  • Fresh organic vegetables (not GMO-based vegetables; from a statistical and risk analysis point of view, messing with the genetics of mother nature by genetically modifying foods is a dangerous thing, and can have unforeseen consequences)
  • Fresh organic fruits (although sparingly because modern fruit is high in simple sugars)
  • Nuts, seeds, spices, and some tubers

How do we know cavemen ate this way?

Again, since the farming is a relativity recent invention in the context of the lifetime of our species, we likely never experienced edible grains or dairy (other than breast milk) in our diet. Furthermore, sugar consumption, if it took place at all in the ancient world, occurred via the consumption of fruits, which were only seasonally available.

We can also look at fossil evidence, which shows that our species utilized stone tools to cut meat and bone marrow. Not only that, but our large brain is also evidence of our diet. By consuming nutrient-dense meat, instead of large amounts of vegetation (like ruminants or gorillas), humans were able to trade stomach mass for brain mass, allowing us to become smarter. An added benefit to this is that, due to a smaller stomach, humans gained mobility advantages compared to other species. All of these things were critical to our survival as a species.

So, Is The Paleo Diet Healthy?

A plethora of research in biology, biochemistry, and other disciplines indicate that the Standard American Diet (SAD), or any other similar diet which contains large amounts of refined foods, sugar, and unhealthy trans fats, is the root of modern disease and health complications such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and autoimmune disease. Some reasons why the SAD is detrimental to our health?

1) Chronic consumption of high carbohydrate foods leads to metabolic dysfunction

Our genetics are not adapted to consumption of large quantities of carbohydrates. As mentioned above, we were never continuously exposed to high carbohydrate foods. Consuming large amounts of carbohydrates leads to elevated blood sugar levels and thus elevated levels of insulin (insulin helps bring glucose into cells so that it may be used for energy). If we consistently consume large amounts of carbohydrates over time, chronic insulin release can make us become insulin resistant (resistant to the action of insulin). This leads to the development of metabolic syndrome. Not only that, but chronic insulin signaling (i.e. the effects that insulin has on other cellular processes) can impact the expression of oncogenes and thus the increased risk of cancer development. Higher carbohydrate diets have also been associated with higher mortality rates. By consuming lower levels of carbohydrates, we can improve our blood-sugar and insulin sensitivity, help prevent the expression of oncogenes, and potentially improve our lifespan.

2) Grains, legumes, and dairy, which are common staples in the Standard American Diet, are immunogenic foods

Grains are seeds of grass and don’t have fight-or-flight mechanisms. Anything without a fight-or-flight mechanism of protection evolutionarily develops other means of defense. In plants and seeds of grass, these are chemicals called lectins. Research is starting to show that all autoimmune diseases are linked to the gut somehow. The reason for this is that lectins from grains and legumes can, over time, punch holes through the gut, resulting in what’s known as a “leaky gut”. Our gut houses the largest concentration of immune cells in the body because the gut is the only area where the outside world can come into contact with our insides. Once the gut is penetrated, large particles of undigested food can pass through the intestinal lining where they don’t belong. These large particles of food show a striking resemblance to our own bodies proteins, but are just ever so slightly different that they trigger an immune response. And because the immune system is triggered, antibodies are formed. But, since these large particles show resemblance to our own bodies proteins, these newly made antibodies not only target these large foreign particles, but they can also go on to attack our own bodies proteins.

Finally, microRNA’s and certain peptides found in dairy and milk (other than breast milk), are foreign to the human body and are also recognized by our immune system, triggering inflammation.

By adopting a Paleo Diet lifestyle, we automatically remove these offending items from our Standard American Diet, putting us in a better position to improve our healthspan and lifespan. A brief outline of all of the health benefits of the Paleo Diet are listed below (there are a ton of references & stated benefits of the diet, too many to list in this one post, so we will list some of the most important and relevant ones here, and save the others for a more in-depth analysis in another post):

BENEFITS OF THE PALEO DIET

Wait, but didn’t our ancestors live brutal lives and die young?

Yes, they led brutal lives, and most died quite young, but this is not due to what they ate. The ones that did survive youth were free from modern degenerative disease in old age and had strong bones (as evidenced by fossil records), and likely lived quite long.

For a simple explanation, check out this video by John Durant on The Colbert Report.

For a more detailed explanation, check out this paper by Dr. Loren Cordain.

The Bottom Line

Adopting a Paleo Diet can be a very wise and healthy lifestyle choice. To get started right away, here are a few pointers:

  • Eat meat (preferably grass-fed), fresh vegetables and fruit (preferably organic), nuts, and fish (preferably wild-caught).
  • Avoid grains, legumes, potatoes, carbs, and sugar. Limit alcohol consumption.
  • Skip one meal every now and then (perhaps once a week).
  • Add variation in everything you do:
    • Don’t jog for hours, but go on walks with bursts of sprinting in between.
    • Exercise briefly with varying intensity. Lift weights, and go to the gym a few times a week (30 minutes – 1 hour each time is more than enough)
  • Relax, keep stress low, and get plenty of sleep.

Final Parting Thoughts

There is something important to be said about Paleo. We are human. We should align our lives with our genetics. We should work with nature rather than against her. And it just so happens that nature did not intend for us to eat sugar in high quantities. And a high quantity doesn’t just mean the candies, sodas, etc. in addition to our base diet. It also means the carbs, because carbs by definition are sugar (i.e., multiple sugar units linked together). Nature also didn’t intend for us to eat immunogenic foods like grains (which are seeds of grass), or large amounts of grassy foods for that matter (humans can’t digest cellulose, one of the primary components of grassy foods, while ruminants like cattle can do this, as they have specialized machinery in their gut to do this).

Finally, while by nature the Paleo Diet is low carb and aims to minimize carbs and sugar, it’s also important to recognize that you can’t avoid carbs and sugar altogether. You invariably get some carbs and sugar from vegetables and from fruits (especially modern fruits which are bred to be very high in sugar). The point here is that quality and quantity matter. Keep the carb/sugar intake very low (to prevent chronic insulin release and blood sugar spikes), and get the carbs (and fiber) you need from non-starchy vegetables and fruits (note: fiber is an important staple of a healthy diet, but it is a common misconception that you need grains to get fiber).

Even if you did try to avoid all carbs, it turns out your body compensates by making sugar! It does this by breaking down glycogen stores in muscle, and by synthesizing glucose from other building blocks in a process known as gluconeogenesis, but more on these topics in another post! For now… Peace, Love… and Paleo!

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Other Links & Resources

  1. Research & Clinical Trials supporting the Paleo Diet:
  2. Paleo Diet Books:
  3. More introductory Paleo resources:
  4. “How to Keep Feces Out of Your Bloodstream (or Lose 10 Pounds in 14 Days)” – https://tim.blog/2010/09/19/paleo-diet-solution/
  5. The Paleo Diet for Autoimmune Conditions – https://www.thepaleomom.com/start-here/the-autoimmune-protocol/
  6. “How to Reverse Aging with Art De Vany” – https://tim.blog/2017/05/12/art-de-vany/
  7. “Art De Vany on The New Evolution Diet” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsLyp8XloCE
  8. “De Vany on Steroids, Baseball, and Evolutionary Fitness” – http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/03/de_vany_on_ster.html
  9. Robb Wolf on Evolutionary Medicine – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NglsDFJVG8&t=4231s

NOTE: Nothing in this post is written or intended to be medical advice or to replace medical advice. We are not doctors. We are merely individuals with a passion for health, fitness, nutrition, and scientific research.

What Is The Ketogenic Diet?

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This will be the first post in a series of posts about the ketogenic diet. We hope you enjoy!

The Ketogenic Diet: Low Carb + High Fat

The ketogenic diet has been around for quite some time now, one could argue as early as 400 BC when the physicians of ancient Greece noticed that epilepsy could be treated by altering diet and by fasting. Over recent years, it has become increasingly popular due to its health benefits (from treating epilepsy to starving cancer), thus prompting scientists to study it more in depth.

In a nutshell, the ketogenic diet is a diet that is low in carbohydrates, high in fat, and moderate in protein. When consumed in this particular ratio, the body is forced to burn fats for energy instead of carbohydrates. This is a process known as ketosis. The ketogenic diet essentially mimics fasting (which also induces ketosis), but you don’t actually have to fast. [Note: the ketogenic diet induces ketosis, NOT ketoacidosis, which is a very different condition. You can learn more about the differences in this article by Dr. Peter Attia.]

How does the ketogenic diet work?

There are three main macronutrients that each of our cells utilize for energy: 1) sugar (a.k.a. glucose), which comes from the breakdown of carbohydrates, 2) amino acids, which come from the breakdown of protein, and 3) ketones, which come from the breakdown of fat. Our cells are metabolically flexible, which means that they can use any of these three compounds for energy at any time, depending on their availability (which turns out to be an incredibly useful feature, but we’ll save this for another post). Normally, our cells primarily utilize glucose and fat for energy, while amino acids are used as building blocks to make other vital things like enzymes and muscle protein.

When we consume a diet with large amounts of carbohydrates (like the Standard American Diet), we end up becoming heavily reliant on burning carbohydrates for energy. As we’re now discovering, this is not so good. Consumption of large amounts of carbohydrates leads to elevated blood sugar levels and thus elevated levels of insulin (insulin helps bring glucose into cells so that it may be used for energy). If we consistently consume large amounts of carbohydrates over time, chronic insulin release can make us become insulin resistant (resistant to the action of insulin). Not only that, but chronic insulin signaling (i.e. the effects that insulin has on other cellular processes) can result in the expression of oncogenes and thus the increased risk of cancer development.

However, when we consume a diet that is low in carbohydrates, high in healthy fats, and moderate in protein, our body is forced to burn fat for energy. When fat is burned, ketones are produced. Ketones are miracle molecules. Our cells can use them for energy in a much more efficient manner than glucose (for the science fans, ketones are directly imported into the mitochondria and used for energy, and don’t need to go through the Krebs cycle preparation process like glucose does). In a sense, we get more bang for our buck when using ketones instead of glucose, in terms of energy.

Eating low carb and high fat is not the only way to produces ketones, however. Anytime we fast, we actually trigger the production of ketones, since in a fasted state our blood levels of glucose are low which triggers the body to mobilize stored fat for energy. This is the process that keeps us alive in times of starvation. This is also why we stated above that the ketogenic diet mimics fasting.

What are the health benefits of a ketogenic diet?

There are a plethora of health benefits of ketones and thus a ketogenic diet. Research has shown that ketones can suppress oncogenes, decrease inflammation, promote healthy cell metabolism & cell signaling, promote healthy body weight and physiology, improve good cholesterol and other cardiovascular markers, and enhance cognitive ability. The famous Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams successfully treated his son who had severe epilepsy with a ketogenic diet and started a foundation about ketogenic diet therapies as a result of this. The ketogenic diet has also been shown to reverse cancerous tumors (see Dr. Dominic D’Agostino’s website for a plethora of resources and references).

In conclusion, the ketogenic diet is a very healthy diet with many benefits. It is also a very promising therapeutic regime for certain diseases and health conditions. Here at HealthSnap, we actually follow a ketogenic diet (we cycle between Paleo diets and Ketogenic diets, and have been doing so for the past 5 years or so).

What about the fat? I’ve always heard fat was bad for me?

If you’re worried about eating fat, don’t be. We will go into more detail on this in another post, but for decades, fat has been demonized as a culprit for obesity and cardiovascular disease for no good reason as there is no good scientific evidence to support these claims. Only recently has the mainstream science and nutrition community started to recognize that fat isn’t the issue, sugar is. Here are some resources to check out in case you are worried about fat:

  1. A major scientific study released last year in 2017 found these results: “High carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality. Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke. Global dietary guidelines should be reconsidered in light of these findings.”
  2. An excellent review article highlights that there is no link between saturated fat and heart disease.
  3. A talk by Dr. Peter Attia – “The Straight Dope on Cholesterol”.
  4. Gary Taubes on “Why We Get Fat”.
  5. Gary Taubes on “Fat & Sugar”.

Other Links & Resources

  1. Dr. Dominic D’Agostino’s Website – Ketogenic Diets for cancer, brain tumors & epilepsy
  2. Dr. Peter Attia’s Website – Ketosis & Ketogenic/Low Carb Diets, Heart Disease, Cholesterol (and why fat/cholesterol isn’t bad)

Interested in learning more about the ketogenic diet?

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NOTE: Nothing in this post is written or intended to be medical advice or to replace medical advice. We are not doctors. We are merely individuals with a passion for health, fitness, nutrition, and scientific research.

Why Do We Sleep? Why Is It Important and How Do We Improve It?

Why do we sleep

Why do we sleep?

At first glance, “why do we sleep?” seems like such a silly question to ask. It’s obvious, we need sleep in order to 1) stay sane, and 2) to survive. We all need to rest and recover if we want to be as healthy, functional and successful as possible when we wake up every morning and face a new day.

But why exactly do we need to sleep, rest, and recover in order to stay sane and survive?

If you really think about it, sleep is an incredible phenomenon, and by diving deeper into the question “why do we sleep?” we can gain some important insight into how our bodies work, thus giving us more appreciation of the process of sleep, as well as giving us insights into how to better improve our sleep.

So, why DO we sleep? Why don’t we just continue on with our merry lives uninterrupted by this pesky process? Each cell in our body, throughout the course of our life, is always in the “on” mode, on “active duty”. It’s always doing things; synthesizing proteins, metabolizing compounds for energy, communicating with other cells, etc. It’s always on. But, since we as humans in total are nothing but a big clump of cells acting together in synergy, why are WE not always in the “on” mode, the “active duty” mode? The reason lies in the control center of the body, the brain. It turns out that, in order to be an effective control center, the brain needs specific periods of rest. Sleep is rest occurring in 4 consecutive stages followed by a stage called rapid eye movement or REM. REM is critical to successful sleep, and these cycles are often repeated many times at night. While our cells are always on, our brain rests. And since our brain is the master control center, when our brain rests, so do our vital organs and muscles.

Why does the brain do this? Well, the reasons are a bit unclear, but it is known that during these phases, very important things occur in the body. In a sense, the body’s repair mechanisms kick on during this process. The body recovers from the day’s activities and carries out certain vital functions: healing damaged cells, boosting our immune system, recharging our heart and cardiovascular system.

Not only that, but successful completion of adequate sleep cycles also helps the brain function properly by maintaining connections between neurons (i.e. preserving the neural network). Thus not only brain function, but also memory, is improved.

We can actually physically feel the repercussions of this “recharging” mechanism of sleep: when we experience a good night’s sleep, we feel refreshed and energetic (albeit usually with the help of a cup of coffee), and when we experience a poor night’s sleep or lack of sleep, we feel deeply fatigued, and can even feel depressed.

So, now that we have some understanding of why we sleep, how do we obtain good sleep? What factors are responsible for our quality of sleep? Why do we sleep at night?

Why Do We Sleep At Night? Circadian Rhythms

We each have a “master clock” which is a biological clock based on circadian rhythm. The clock is regulated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus of the brain, which controls our biological state based on the incoming light that is processed through our eyes. However, the SCN doesn’t respond to all light equally, and it turns out that the SCN is particularly sensitive to a certain frequency of light, blue light. Blue light is the primary component of daylight from the sun. However, we also are exposed to blue light from artificial devices like LED lights, or the screens of electronic devices.

As light traveling to our eyes diminished, our master clock releases chemicals that trigger changes in activity levels in different parts of the brain in order to prepare us for sleep. This set of chemical reactions also sends signals to an area of the brain called the pineal gland to notify us that it is time to let our guard down and relax. The pineal gland, in turn, releases a hormone called melatonin.

Melatonin

Melatonin is not only a hormone, but also an anti-oxidant, and is found in all forms of life in varying concentrations. It is produced in the brain and helps regulate our master clock and our adaptation to light-dark cycles. During the daytime, the light that enters our eyes triggers a sequence of events that prevent this hormone from being produced, making us stay awake and attentive. During the night, darkness stimulates its production and helps us wind down.

The production and release of melatonin is thus critical for proper functioning of our biological clock and circadian rhythm. Anything that disturbs melatonin production and function can throw off our master clock, and thus impact our sleep. For example, using cell phones, computers, and tablets in the evening before bed makes it difficult for us sleep since we constantly perceive the blue light from these devices, which impedes melatonin production.

Light isn’t the only thing that affects melatonin production, however. Our environment, nutrition, toxins, and stress, all can impact how melatonin is produced and released in the brain. Thus, it is no wonder that, in a modern world where electronic devices and stress abound, most of us likely experience poor sleep due to an altered production of melatonin and/or alterations in melatonin signaling.

GABA

The SCN is responsible for regulating another region of the brain called the Ventrolateral Preoptic Nucleus (VLPO). The VLPO is a small cluster of neurons situated near the hypothalamus. Depending on the information received from the SCN and from our environment, the VLPO stimulates the production of a neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Just like melatonin, this neurotransmitter is involved with our sleep/wake cycles. GABA’s primary function is to reduce the excitability of our nervous system. However, while GABA can reduce the activity of our nervous system, external activity like physical activity can prevent the SCN from triggering the production of GABA via the VLPO.

Thus, blocking blue light is not enough to get a good sleep; it is necessary that before bed we stop working, exercising, or overthinking about our day. That´s right, when you are laying down thinking about all of the embarrassing moments of your day, or your stressful job experiences, you’re impeding the production of GABA.

While getting enough sleep is important, the quality of sleep also matters. So, once we do finally fall asleep, we need to ensure that we’re actually getting high-quality rest. Enter heart rate variability.

Heart Rate Variability

Heart-rate variability (HRV) is the variation in time interval between heartbeats. It is a complicated topic, beyond the scope of this post, but by closely monitoring our HRV, we can gain insight into our quality of sleep, and ultimately, our health.

From the moment we fall asleep we lose control over our motor and sensory systems. When this happens we enter into a state where our brain is at the mercy of our autonomous nervous system. The autonomous nervous system controls things that we normally don’t have to “think” about, like heart rhythm, digestion, breathing and more. The autonomic nervous system has two entities: the sympathetic, which is responsible for the acceleration of heart rate (e.g. by adrenaline), and the parasympathetic, which is responsible for heart rate deceleration.

To obtain the best quality of sleep, we need to ensure that these two parts of our nervous system are in balance. If there are imbalances, our HRV will be altered. For example, if we are stressed and constantly reminiscing over the hectic activities of our day, the sympathetic nervous system will dominate and our heart rate variability will be reduced. A reduced HRV can imply that we lack optimal sleep, are sleep deprived, and can even give us clues that something may be wrong with our health.

So, What Should I Do If I’m Not Getting Enough Sleep?

If you´re having trouble falling asleep, or feel like you aren’t getting the best quality sleep possible, here are ten things you can do right now to help:

  1. Stop working at least one hour before going to bed: e.g. stop checking emails and working online etc.
  2. Avoid physical exercise or strenuous activity at least two hours before bed.
  3. Minimize any emotional activity a few hours before you lay your head on the pillows.
  4. Eliminate sugars at night, including fruits.
  5. Eat a big meal at most four hours before going to sleep (no later).
  6. Relax your mind to wind down before bed by doing soft activities like reading a book, solving a crossword, doing yoga stretches, sharing time with your partner, or listening to music. These are activities that help the brain understand that it is time to sleep.
  7. Reduce the entrance of blue light to our eyes at least three hours before going to bed. You can do this with eye masks (such as our Premium 3D Memory Foam Sleep Mask), and/or by placing blue light shields on your smartphones or electronic devices.
  8. Eliminate all other light illuminations, e.g. from lamps. Even though they’re not a significant source of blue light, these light sources still can stimulate the brain.
  9. Prepare your day in such a way that the most stressful activities, or those which demand the most energy, are reserved for the earliest part of your day (the farthest from bedtime).
  10. Take a small dose of a high-quality melatonin supplement. You can find great quality supplements on labdoor.com, which is a third-party services that extensively tests supplements by a variety of brands to ensure accuracy and safety.

Improving our quantity and quality of sleep is the best strategy to enhance our health in both the short term and long term. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimulation (smartphones, social media, etc.), and experience an ever-increasing stress from our jobs and daily life, we must take extra precautions to protect our sleep, adopting habits that facilitate and improve our sleep. In the end, doing so helps make our body the best tool to reach any goal we desire.

Other Links & References

For more info on sleep and how to improve, see the links below which are great posts by Dr. Kirk Parsley, Robb Wolf, and Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (a.k.a. “The Paleo Mom”):

  1. How We Are Wired To Sleep, Part 1
  2. How We Are Wired To Sleep, Part 2
  3. How We Are Wired To Sleep, Part 3
  4. Trouble Sleeping?

Interested in our Premium 3D Memory Foam Sleep Mask? Check out our product page for more info.