One bicyclist's take on nutrition

Most of us who bicycle or walk do it, at least in part, for our health. Even those whose primary motivation is economic appreciate the health benefits. Perhaps your favorite jeans fit better, you notice the flight of stairs doesn't leave you quite as breathless, and you discover muscles that had been hiding away. You find yourself thinking about the next logical step to better health: your diet. (Well, for many of us, the next step is to quit or cut back on smoking and drinking, but after that comes diet.)

At least, that's my rationalization for going a little off-topic today, from bicycling and walking to nutrition.

Everyone seems to be an expert in nutrition or at least has an opinion. I'm no different. Here's my well researched, if not truly expert, take on the topic.

For decades, nutrition dogma was simple: Fat and sweets are bad. Protein and carbs are good.

Then the low-carb diet craze hit. Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, Low Carb. Eat all the meat and fat you want, but no carbs. No sugar, no sweets, no bread, no potatoes, no rice. Lots of weight-loss studies were done, many with the intent of discrediting the crazy new fads. But surprisingly, they showed the opposite. Maybe there’s something to this low-carb thing after all.

Truman professor and nutrition expert Dr. Brian Snyder sums it up: “Earn your carbs.” The more active you are and the more calories you burn, the more carbs you can eat. Or you can be sedentary, avoid carbs, and maintain better health (but not, of course, as healthy as if you were active).

He’s not against carbs. Carbohydrate-rich foods exploded into our diet when agriculture was invented. These crops allowed our population to expand and they sustain our population. Without carb-rich crops, most of the 7 billion people on this planet wouldn’t survive.

But for the sedentary individual, carbs—especially simple carbs like sugar—are unnecessary and promote chronic illness.

Gary Taubes, author of “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It”, covers the general concepts underlying the low-carb diets and explains the politics behind the vilification of fat.

He also questions salt in a New York Times article, “Salt, We Misjudged You”. As I have discovered, replenishing salt while sweating is just as important as replenishing water. Salt has been reviled because it is thought to cause hypertension, but more recent research challenges assumptions about the negative health consequences of salt.

In my own personal food philosophy, refined sugar and corn syrup (particularly HFCS, high fructose corn syrup) are the villains. Soda is “liquid poison”.

The great thing about my food philosophy is that just about every diet agrees with me, from vegan and macrobiotic to Paleo. (By the way, “Paleo” is a complete misnomer. There is literally nothing in our grocery store that resembles anything paleo-era humans ate. Everything has been domesticated, bred, hybridized, and engineered beyond recognition. I’m not for or against the diet, but it is wrongly named. Furthermore, I completely appreciate agriculture, with some concerns about the lack of variety being a potential vulnerability to disease and the social repercussions of Monsanto vs. the small farmer.)

Because HFCS is in everything, if you eliminate that from your diet, you automatically eliminate processed foods. You make your own food and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables--another common tenet of every diet is unlimited fresh fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, quitting sugar and HFCS is hard. I know, because I’ve done it dozens of times.

By the way, we get hammered with the "diet and exercise" message when it comes to our health, but more and more research suggests that there is a third leg that is equally important: sleep. In fact, it is easier to get a handle on diet and exercise if you tackle sleep first and focus on being well rested.