At the Ancestral Health Symposium, I met two Whole Health Source readers, Aravind Balasubramanian and Kamal Patel, who were interested in trying a simple diet to lose fat and improve their health. In addition, they wanted to break free of certain other high-reward activities in their lives that they felt were not constructive. They recently embarked on an 8-week low-reward diet and lifestyle to test the effectiveness of the concepts. Both of them had previously achieved a stable (in Aravind's case, reduced) weight on a paleo-ish diet prior to this experiment, but they still carried more fat than they wanted to. They offered to write about their experience for WHS, and I thought other readers might find it informative. Their story is below, followed by a few of my comments.
In the summer of 2011, Aravind and Kamal were intrigued by the possibility of achieving a healthier mental and physical state based on ideas presented by Dr. Guyenet in his Food Reward series. Both wanted to lose weight and disconnect from the Internet. Additionally, Aravind wanted to address long-standing sleep issues and a severe diet soda addiction, while Kamal wanted to explore the potential benefits in dealing with chronic joint pain issues (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). After attending AHS11, we embarked upon a Low Reward Lifestyle experiment on August 15, 2011 to unscientifically test the ideas discussed with respect to Food and Technology Reward.
● Age – 31
● Target weight – 150 lbs
● August 15, 2011 – 169 lbs
● September 12, 2011 – 159 lbs (Week 4)
● October 10, 2011 – 157 lbs (Week 8)
● Age - 42
● Target weight – 160 lbs
● August 15, 2011 – 180 lbs
● September 12, 2011 – 172 lbs (Week 4)
● October 10, 2011 – 168 lbs (Week 8)
Prior to the experiment, both of us were eating a “Paleo” diet with occasional cheats. Aravind started 2011 at 195 lbs and lost 15 lbs within 6 weeks, transitioning from a SAD vegetarian diet to an Archevore vegetarian diet. For the next 6 months, he remained weight stable at 180 lbs. Kamal started Paleo in 2009 at 170 lbs, and was fairly weight-stable during the past two years.
Using the concepts outlined, we essentially implemented Levels 1-4. Elements of Level 5 were implemented to the extent there was monotony day over day. Within any given day, however, there was variety. We kept a food diary of everything eaten, though did not count or deliberately restrict calories. You will note that we followed radically different protocols in terms of diet composition and macronutrients. Metrics have been calculated ex post.
Representative Daily Diets
● Breakfast - Berries, Milk protein isolate (unflavored)
● Lunch - Beef stew (beef, carrot, celery, salt, pepper), Banana
● Dinner - Steamed fish (fish, salt, pepper, lemon juice), plain spinach, plain squash, Tiny bit of walnuts
● Snacks - None. Started eating sushi during re-feeds later on. Ate more seasoned Paleo foods with added fat on rare occasions (e.g. BBQ, travelling, hot date)
● Calories ~ 1100-1200 per day, 3000-4000 on 1x/week re-feed days with added rice
● Macronutrients ~ 50% protein, 30% carbohydrates, 20% fat (high % protein was to minimize muscle loss due to extremely low calorie consumption)
● Breakfast – boiled eggs, sweet potatoes (or whole milk with whey protein if rushed)
● Lunch – White rice with ghee, green vegetables (okra, spinach, broccoli) cooked in little ghee without spices, full fat (homemade) yogurt
● Dinner – White rice with traditionally prepared lentils, white potatoes, green vegetables, and yogurt; Or spinach salad with mixed veggies, boiled eggs, and “ghee vinaigrette”
● Snacks – 85-90% dark chocolate, macadamia nuts, bananas (eliminated once diet soda addiction overcome)
● Calories ~ 1700-1800 per day
● Macronutrients ~ 55% carbohydrates, 25% fat, 20% protein (pre-experiment ~45% carbs, albeit higher overall calorie consumption)
● Dietary staples remained unchanged, however seasonings, salt, spices, added fats significantly reduced. Diet soda eliminated. Very limited alcohol consumption
Adaptation and Satiety
After adapting to a lower reward diet, satiety was not at all a problem. However the time to adapt was radically different for the two of us.
Kamal was able to transition almost immediately, and in spite of running a significant caloric deficit, was not hungry at all. Kamal ate essentially the same thing every single day (except for a day of re-feed every week or two that consisted of 3000-4000 kcals for leptin resetting, with extra carbs in the form of rice). Prior to the experiment, he did not have any liquid addictions-- only consuming one cup of coffee in his whole life, and drinking alcohol once every couple of months. Perhaps most important was the use of a slow cooker. Every three days, he would make a simple beef stew, which anchored the following days meals without exerting any effort at all. Occasionally, a turnip or taro would be thrown in to add some “excitement” but would prove to be too disgusting or irritating to the gut.
Aravind, however, had a very serious addiction to diet soda (3 liters per day) prior to the experiment. The week before starting, he titrated down to address caffeine withdrawal symptoms. The first 10-14 days of the experiment, Aravind was RAVENOUS, much to his surprise. Compliance was maintained strictly though willpower. Perhaps the extreme hunger was similar to chain smokers that stop smoking. However, after the psychological withdrawal subsided at the end of week 2, hunger levels returned to normal in week 3 and satiety was no longer an issue. Snacking was eventually eliminated as well given reduced hunger. Aravind has not consumed any diet soda since August 15th after a decade+ addiction.
After physically and psychologically adapting, adherence has been easy as long as the environment is controlled. In our typical daily lives (home/work), the ability to cook simply-prepared food made it easy to comply. However social settings are particularly challenging since rewarding foods and drinks are EVERYWHERE, along with overcoming the many years of conditioning where emotionally challenging situations result in stress relief via comfort foods, even if high quality “Paleo approved”. It should be noted that for all intents and purposes, we did not cheat over the course of the 8 weeks.
Notwithstanding social and emotional pressures, our experience is that it is very difficult to overeat on a truly low reward diet. Paleo diets irrespective of their macronutrient composition can still be very rewarding and while we do not wish to engage in a debate about the tautology of calories in / calories out, the bottom line is that the First Law of Thermodynamics still applies. Physics is not just a good idea, it’s the law!
The other key component to adherence was the support system we had in place. We spoke to each other daily and kept a shared Google Doc diet log. Co-sponsoring one another was the start of Rewardaholics Anonymous. The majority of the support was to address Tech Reward (see below), but in the early on, this was beneficial all around. We realize that having a support system has nothing specifically to do with Low Reward, but wanted to point out that both of us have derived a lot of strength from “RA” so as to not cheat.
Additionally, during the course of the experiment, there was a notable shift with respect to the role of food. Food has transitioned from a source of entertainment to fuel. Some people have commented that they find this highly objectionable. Being “epicurious” or a foodie seems inherently incongruent with an ancestral dietary approach. This is not a re-enactment argument being made. Perhaps those that have plateaued after a substantial weight loss (but above a healthy set point) consider this if additional weight loss is desired. It has worked for us. YMMV.
Aravind’s current diet is expected to the core of his long term diet. The only expected change is occasional cheats (mostly alcohol) but has no intention to go back to a substantially higher reward diet as he feels it is completely sustainable. He structured his experiment diet as such to avoid a difficult transition later and possibly regain the weight. Kamal’s future diet is unknown. He embarked on this experiment to both lose weight and adapt to a simpler lifestyle. Kamal is not a natural at Paleo though - he is not a big meat or vegetable fan. This diet has notably improved on the vegetable part though. Kamal is now satisfied eating plain spinach, broccoli, and squash. His future diet will likely be similar to the current diet but with added fat and starches and much less protein. The amount of seasoning and cheats is still up for pondering.
Reward is not synonymous with palatability, though correlated. Aravind finds his diet rather palatable or it would not be his long term diet. Related to this, previously unsatisfying low reward foods have become satisfying after the adaption occurred. This is not to say that hyper-rewarding foods have become unsatisfying or undesirable – it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Therefore, there will be always be an element of willpower to step away from the cake, cookies, pizza, etc. However, this is no different than any other diet where previously desirable foods need to be avoided. Like an alcoholic, the rewardaholic needs to consider his/her trigger foods and abstain, or be willing to accept the consequences.
To the extent that reward centers in the brain are not food specific, we thought it made to sense to address other aspects of reward in our lives. The technology component was added to address the excessive number of hours we were spending on the Internet. These hours included reading nutritional blogs, social networking sites, and other surfing. We hypothesized a synergistic effect with Food Reward.
Some key aspects of the Tech Reward experiment, also tracked in our Google Doc log
● In bed by 9:30 PM - to eliminate the late night surfing, which also compromised sleep
● Meditation – this was to assist with both facets of the experiment
● Removing ourselves from Facebook and Paleohacks as active members, and also scouring the various nutritional blogs
Adherence to a low reward diet is a (Paleo-friendly) piece of cake compared to Technology Reward!!! It was incredibly difficult to be without the social “rush” of the Internet. We had varying levels of success over the course of the 8 weeks.
When we did truly disengaged, it was very liberating. Life did not come to an end when we were no longer was abreast of each post on the various websites. Aravind was off Facebook for 3 weeks and completely off the Internet for 7 straight days (excluding utilitarian things like going to his banking site). Until recently, he was off Paleohacks for approximately 6 weeks. Regarding his chronic sleep issues, the elimination of the late night surfing and consistently going to sleep early (in addition to dietary changes and meditation) neither positively nor negatively impacted his sleep. As of week 9, he started magnesium citrate supplementation, which initially seems to be positive, but the jury is still out.
Kamal’s Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome issues were not noticeably different during the experiment. It should be noted that when his joint pain flared up, there was a tendency to get on the Internet (sometimes excessively) for stress relief. Perhaps this is similar to emotional situations leading to consumption of rewarding comfort foods. Kamal will continue to test his hypothesis that over time with a Low Reward Lifestyle, the nervous system might become better equipped to deal with noxious stimuli and chronic pain cycles. As pain researchers say, “All pain is in the brain”.
The bottom line is that we tasted some of the fruits of a low Tech Reward “diet”, but have a lot of work to do before declaring it a “lifestyle”.
“Focus and simplicity” is our current mantra. We intend to continue the dietary component indefinitely until we achieve our target weight and likely beyond. Regarding technology, as noted we are far from declaring “mission accomplished” and need to increase our efforts.
We would like to thank Stephan for giving us the opportunity to share our experiences from the last 8 weeks, as well as the off-blog support provided. Stephan asked us to be very candid and not “fructose-coat” our experiences even if the assessment was unfavorable. We are completely sold on Food Reward as a therapeutic measure to address weight issues (coupled with an Ancestral diet for general health). The debates regarding the usage of the word “dominant” and causation of obesity are an academic exercise from our point of view since we are not biochemists, nor do we play one on TV. Our objective is simple – to show up Mark Sisson at AHS12 with our abs of steel. You’ve been served!
Both Aravind and Kamal lost fat eating simple food without deliberately restricting calories (calorie intake declined naturally due to a reduction in appetite). Kamal's simplified diet was high in protein and relatively low in carbohydrate, while Aravind's centered around carbohydrate. Although weight loss was modest (12 lbs each), keep in mind that a) they were scarcely overweight to begin with, b) they are now within 7-8 lbs of their ideal weight and may continue to lose, and c) they broke through a weight loss plateau that they had reached eating a paleo-ish diet. Given those caveats, I think their weight loss is actually pretty impressive. Point (c) is highly significant in my view, because it offers hope to people who feel that their fat loss efforts have stalled out on other diets prior to reaching their target weight.
I want to be clear that I'm not trying to devalue or replace the paleo diet in any way-- I'm trying to refine it. "Paleo" is a useful concept, and it can benefit from incorporating simplicity, an important aspect of ancestral diets.
Both Aravind and Kamal adapted well to the simplified diet, however their experiences differed considerably. Aravind had to overcome a major diet soda addiction and this may have contributed to his initial difficulties. Kamal adapted immediately. After adaptation, both consumed fewer calories than they required for weight maintenance, spontaneously and without hunger. Aravind was able to eliminate snacking due to a reduction in hunger. It's very common for people to have trouble adapting to simple food for the first 1-2 weeks (which I think is very informative because it shows just how attached we are to high-reward food), but most will adapt and grow to be satisfied by it. A less painful alternative to the "cold turkey" approach is to gradually simplify your food over a period of weeks or months.
I also want to be clear that I never made any claims about the reward concepts being a treatment for Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which is a heritable connective tissue disorder. I suggested that a simplified diet may help with fat loss, and a simplified lifestyle may help with clarity/calmness (and perhaps sleep issues).
The technology reward aspect of their experiment was interesting as well. Although they benefited from the change, it did not help Aravind's sleep problems. I still think it can help some people sleep better, particularly those who don't sleep well due to stress, an overactive mind, or light exposure from a computer screen at night. But not everyone sleeps poorly for the same reasons.
I'd like to thank Aravind and Kamal for offering to share their experiences with the WHS community.
I'd like to thank Aravind and Kamal for offering to share their experiences with the WHS community.
Does anyone else have a food reward experience they'd like to share (positive or negative)? Please post it in the comments!