The serial-cycling diet: conclusions
Two months ago, I was unable to fall asleep due to chronic pressures, and so I got on Twitter, and fell into a trap set by Saifedean Ammous. Long story short: I questioned his assumption that our Paleolithic ancestors ate meat all the time. He dared me to try a month of plants-only, followed by a month of meat-only, to see for myself why he claims the latter is better than the former. Challenge accepted.
I have since seen him issue the same challenge to others on Twitter, but so far, I am the only one I know who has accepted it. Being an academic, Saif would now like a progress report for “funding” this experiment. (People who know me can vouch that I don’t do progress reports.) For some reason, he finds it “suspect” that I haven’t talked much about it lately. I don’t know what the fuck he is trying to imply, but leaving aside the unnecessary jab to my honor (I suppose that’s just the way he shows affection, and tries to instigate me to action), let me first apologize to my followers for the delay. I have been busy running around the past few weeks handling various work and personal chores. I just graduated after five years of great uncertainty, various setbacks, and hard work. I have personal shit I don’t bother you about. I did this experiment despite these constraints and pressures. Unlike others, I walked the talk. So, fuck off.
With that little note out of the way, let us begin.
The thought of a meat-only diet freaks out many people, even Paleo people like myself. I loved telling people about it, and looking at their reactions. Fortunately, I had tried something similar when I went on something like a ketogenic diet after reading “The Big Fat Surprise” by the fearless Nina Teicholz who decided to find things out for herself. Back then, like everyone else, I remember being terrified of eating too much fat and meat, because scientism. After reading her well-researched book, I was shocked but not entirely surprised to learn that so-called scientists and authorities (some out of malice, others out of perhaps even well-meaning incompetence, but at some point it’s hard to distinguish between the two) have been telling us the wrong things for decades.
I have a history of trying radical changes to my life: moving to New York, PhD, the Paleo diet, CrossFit, weightlifting, etc. I like finding things out for myself, but only if it intrigues me. Now, I was intrigued by Nina’s account of people like Stefansson who experimented on themselves. It was winter then, so I started my own experiment of eating as much meat as I liked, by pretending that all the plants had died out. I found no ill-effects, other than that my total cholesterol went up, including HDL. My single-serving doctor was worried, but Prof. Tim Noakes assured me this doesn’t mean anything.
The hardest thing about the serial-cycling diet was remembering the sudden, cold-turkey regime switches. So, for example, in the first week of my vegan month, I sometimes forgot to drop things like dairy products. I was also eating outside rather than cooking because I was busy trying to graduate. Some of you who are unfortunately chronically stressed at work know that it leads to eating badly, because cooking seems like an unnecessary chore, and there is an abundance of cheap, sweet, artificial food out there tempting you with effects similar to novocaine.
I will repeat only what Art De Vany has taught me: try to eliminate, if not reduce, chronic stress in your life. If you don’t do that, you are not going to benefit as much as you can from positive changes in your diet and training.
Okay, so what was the herbivore month like? It has been a month now since I finished it, so my memory is a little sketchy, but you can find thirty days of my some of my thoughts on this site.
The first thing I will say is that if you must eat vegan, you must eat it cooked. Otherwise, food is simply way too dull. How do some people eat raw salad every day? It is the worst scam ever, and you lose or maintain weight just because your body doesn’t get enough energy. Whether you eat meat or vegetables, the importance of cooking your food cannot be understated. Don’t follow modern fads: look deep into your ancestral culture for inspiration. For example, I am Indian, and we have a long and rich history of delicious vegetarian food. (Don’t worry about “cultural appropriation”: please copy and remix our ideas here.) Of course, the downside to this is that you need to spend a lot of time cutting and cooking.
I found myself eating a lot of food during this phase. I wanted to go Paleo, but that might have been a recipe for disaster. So I ended up eating what Paleo people consider to be “anti-nutrients”, such as rice, beans, nuts, etc. Since I was weighlifting at the same time, more than I was during my carnivore month, I was naturally hungry, and thought that I could use the carbs, but I think there was also the (unfounded?) fear that I would feel hungry if I didn’t eat enough, since there was no meat.
Speaking of weightlifting, I didn’t find my short-term veganism to significantly impede my progress. I was able to break my 1 x 5 x 102lbs shoulder press barrier, but it did take some work to get there. Then again, I was not supplementing with BCAA, or creatine monohydrate. If you are vegan, you probably should take these supplements, if not also whey protein.
The Internet being what it is, some of my, how shall I say, less mature followers have asked me to comment on my bowel movements. Let me just say that, yes, it was a lot more work, frequently so, to digest all that plant material. Sometimes, I couldn’t help being, er, what is the word, flatulent.
As for energy levels, I found it be fluctuating in retrospect. I think I was fine in the beginning, but got lethargic more easily at the end, especially when I began my carnivore month.
It is extremely annoying not to be able to eat eggs or dairy products. I can’t imagine why our ancestors would have been vegan for long on purpose. I have nothing against individual choice of veganism, especially motivated by religious or ethical beliefs. I used to be vegetarian (for nine months, and then two years, respectively), so I understand. But if you are doing it because you think it’s healthier, I urge you to strongly reconsider. Don’t do it for misguided ideological reasons. For more reasons why, see the debate between Nina and John Mackey I happened to witness. It is abundantly clear to me who the real winner is of that debate, despite accolades and awards.
Now, for what everyone wants to know about: what was my carnivore month like? Well, it was a little surprising.
As I have said before during this month, I found that I have to eat relatively little meat in order to be satiated. Four eggs in the morning, and a big fat steak in the evening, goes a long way. Time-restricted feeding seems like a natural fit here. So energy levels were pretty good. I don’t think eating meat is as expensive as some people imagine it to be, although I didn’t keep track of the cost differences between both diets. Anyway, as I’ve said before, I’d much rather pay a premium for my health now than for “healthcare” later.
Don’t be like the silly bodybuilders with all muscles and no brains: make sure to eat lots of fat. As Mark Hyman and David Ludwig say, fat doesn’t make you fat. For more reasons why, see the first few chapters of the “Perfect Health Diet” by the Jaminets. On a more intuitive level, have you ever seen animals in the wild shy away from fat? Nature abhors nitpickers. Speaking of fat, I would liked to have eaten more organ meat. Apparently, real carnivores, like lionesses, unlike us supermarket ones, first go for the viscera. The Inuit are said to have thrown muscles to their dogs. I know bone broth is all the rage now (I like to think of it as the tiger penis soup of Paleo / carnivore people), but you would be amazed how much fat comes out of bone marrow. Make your own, not any of that readymade crap. Go nuts with coconut oil, palm oil, ghee, butter. Ever tried bulletproof covfefe? Just blend black coffee with butter and coconut oil.
On a side note, I hate it when people speak of food only in terms of micro or macro nutrients. It’s like when you go to a burger joint that wants to please everybody: “Mhmm. And what would like for your protein?” Who speaks like that? Oh, right, the Soylent people.
Unfortunately, I didn’t do much weighlifting during this time. However, what I can say that it seems as if I recover faster when I eat meat. More experienced lifters than myself have stressed the importance of always eating and sleeping enough when you train heavy. I couldn’t break my shoulder press barrier this time, emphasizing the importance of good form, and not taking long breaks from training. I didn’t get to break my deadlift PR during this month, but I’m confident I can do it next time.
Addendum: after the experiment, I did at least reach my last PR, this time with much less training.
It wasn’t all gummy bears and unicorns. When I switched cold-turkey from herbivore to carnivore, I did feel some stomach cramps in the beginning. Luckily, it went away in a few days. Afterward, let’s just say my bowel movements have been infrequent and uneventful.
Also, traveling while carnivore is a pain, because most restaurants insist on giving you little meat and lots of sides for lots of money. Ironically, fast food joints might be your best bet in unfamiliar territory. Also, it’s no fun trying to explain to friends or family that you’re a carnivore. It sounds almost as stupid as if you were vegan, but with much stranger looks. Much easier to fit in and make exceptions in these rare events. No need to tell everyone you’re Batman, even if you are. As Jefferson might have said, “In matters of taste when not in Rome, just swim with the current, dammit.”
Someone on the Internet wanted to know whether I noticed any difference to my sexual stamina. Let me pull a Mandelbrot here, who is supposed to have said, “In public I never discuss four things: religion, politics, my portfolio, or sex.” Having said that, let me give you my own potent recipe for building testosterone: weighlifting, meat, and whiskey.
Some people have asked for numbers like weight and blood test results. They seem not to have noticed that I have chronicled them here:
The serial-cycling diet
Herbivore Day, Body weight ( kg), Squat ( set x rep x lbs), Shoulder press ( set x rep x lbs), Bench press ( set x rep…
The most surprising thing is that my body composition seems to have changed while eating meat only. I lost some weight over the past two months, but I seemed to have actually traded off fat for muscle during my carnivore phase. My belt goes at least a notch lower, and what used to be tight jeans (bought before my weighlifting phase) now fit a little better.
My sleeping hours were all over the place during the past two months, due to work. So I unfortunately can’t comment on sleep or dream quality, as some of you have asked for.
Addendum: blood test results before and after the experiment.
Look, I have a theory about why some of the same people who love Bitcoin love the carnivore lifestyle. I am going to get some flak here from those guys, but who cares. I mean, they think they’re these guys:
Here’s my theory. People who are into technology or computers like to think that there is one, best, optimal solution to anything (like CISC vs RISC, functional vs OOP, monolith vs microkernel, etc). They want to simplify everything, because that makes the world more comprehensible. So, Bitcoin is The One True Way when it comes to cryptocurrency (and I’m not saying they’re wrong here). Similarly when it comes to meat and food. It seems to me that optimal solutions make sense in relatively simple domains where your assumptions don’t change. I will return to this point later.
In a way, it’s like the reverse Soylent diet. At least this is a far more sensible default, and you can easily do much worse (like the opposite). Something else I like about the Bitcoin carnivores: at least they put their money where their mouth is.
A most interesting tidbit of history I managed to find thanks to Twitter is a plausible narrative for how this idea reached the Bitcoin community:
All in all, it seems to me that as human beings, we have certainly evolved to crave, prefer, and eat meat. As Richard Wrangram hypothesizes, cooking is the reason why we have shorter guts and larger brains (a trade-off): it is form of predigestion. And if you have to cook something to eat, meat is the best bang for the buck.
For the foreseeable future at least, I plan to continue this zero-carb, high-fat (ZCHF) experiment. I want to see whether it will improve my weightlifting and body composition. At this point in my life, I care about building muscle, and losing fat.
Now, having said that, as much as I enjoy the meat-only lifestyle, I still think variety / randomization / cycling is key. Our bodies respond to changes in input, or information from the outside. Our ancestors almost surely went through variation in what they ate, and how they moved. We may thrive as carnivores instead of herbivores, but I think there’s a damned good reason why we’re opportunistic omnivores. It’s probably what made our species so damned resilient. How many of our Paleolithic ancestors do you think ate the same thing all the time? Nature shuffles the cards for us, whether we like it or not. It’s probably why we took the Faustian bargain of agriculture: trade-off health for some certainty, what Jared Diamond calls “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”
Now, just because our ancestors had to suffer variation, it doesn’t mean that we have to go through it. However, I really do think we benefit from variety, not just because it keeps life more interesting. For example, maybe we benefit from hormesis by eating a portfolio of a small amount each of a wide variety of plants. To take another example, maybe not eating enough meat informs cells to perform autophagy. It doesn’t matter if we don’t yet know what the precise mechanisms are: the point is that variety may have hidden benefits. So, from time to time, I am going to switch regimes. Sometimes, it will be all or mostly meat. Sometimes, it will be the opposite. And by variety, I don’t just mean eating plants instead of meat. I mean simply not eating meat at all. We should fast every once in a while. (Even how often and how long should be stochastic.) So, sometimes else, it will be little or no food at all. Dynamism, not statism. I think the Jaminets were on to something when they said something like, “Any extreme dietary strategy will eventually be exploited by pathogens.” However, even they seem to have missed the benefits of cycling food groups over time. Think of the natural variation that comes with the seasons: e.g., more meat and nuts in winter, more vegetables and fruits in summer.
This is partly why I think “optimal” solutions, especially in complex domains, are fragile. What happens to herbivores or carnivores when there are fluctuations in the food supply? How principled are you going to be then? Enjoy stability while it lasts.
The other thing is that I’m Indian, not Inuit or Masai. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are more genetically adapted than I am to an all-meat diet all the time. People who have descended from agricultural societies, such as Indians or Chinese, could probably very well safely eat more starch (up to a point) than others who are not so well-adapted. I think it is more psychologically effective to convince people to pick the “safe”, “good” parts of their cultural heritage, now spoiled by modernization and globalization, than to convince them to choose something completely unfamiliar. Speaking of heritage, I hope to retire looking like this mace-wielding badass one day:
Here’s another reason why I don’t think our ancestors ate meat all the time. Hunting is hard, hard, hard work. Wait, have you thought about how hard it must be? Think about how much work it takes to go hunting without guns (and even then). I find it hard to believe that a hunt was successful all the time. I don’t think even lionesses succeed all the time. Now, granted, yes, we probably prefer meat over plants, and we ate a lot of meat all at once when we got it, because we didn’t have refrigeration back then. (Although we developed methods for curing meat, perhaps even freezing meat in the extremely cold places.) Do you see the volatility there? So, if you want to be a carnivore, I speculate it’s very important to “compensate” for it by weighlifting. This is to try to reproduce the hunting lifestyle, where we weren’t just scavengers eating rotting meat, but actively looking out for fresh meat to cook. In short, work hard to eat all the meat you want.
One variation you might want to try is ZCHF but low-protein. This probably means going for more organ meat than muscle. Whatever you do, perhaps the most important thing is via negativa: eliminate sugar in all forms (table sugar, honey, agave, stevia, etc.), and all modern / processed /artificial / fake “food”. You can enjoy a little of these things every once in a great while, but don’t live on them.
Okay, now I’m getting bored of writing about this. I might circle back and add some thoughts later, but that’s all for now. I’m also probably going to get some flak from the Bitcoin carnivores for what they consider to be heresy, but I don’t care. Thanks for following me, and keeping things interesting during this experiment. I hope I was able to impart something valuable, but don’t take my word for it. Go on, do your own experiments, find things out for yourself, and tell us about it.
Addendum: if you are interested, you should join the #nequalsmany study.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN....... an N=1 experiment goes viral, when thousands come together with the shared goal of finding out…
Sep 5 2017: there is an interesting study on the benefits of a cyclical ketogenic diet.
Dec 19 2017: there appears to be evidence that “a prolonged ketogenic diet promotes the growth of renal tumors.” Full-time carnivores: caveat emptor.