My “health” journey started approximately 15 years ago. As a freshman in college I had been on a number of yo-yo diets. I remember distinctly walking into a local supplement store and beginning a discussion with one of the employees. He was a very fit (looking), middle aged guy that also happened to work at the University as a coach and trainer. After a few minutes of introductions and a quick discussion on lifting, he looked me up and down and immediately said… “You’re chunky. You should really cut out sugar immediately in order to lean out.”
Perhaps I should take a step back a bit, and explain some more details. Since I was very young (12 – 13) I remember being concerned with my weight. I was always heavy/chunky. And despite eating just like my leaner friends and in many cases, much less, and much healthier than many of them – I was always bigger. So beginning in high school, with the aid and guidance of men’s fitness magazines, I began to up my protein, limit my calories, and work out like a mad man. At my leanest I was 160 at 6’1, and proud of it. But if wasn’t a fit lean. I was always tired and moody. I would go many days without eating in order to prevent weight gain, but that always ended in a massive binge of pizza and a terrible stomach ache.
Once I hit college, I continued my “regime” not really knowing what I was doing, but paying attention to my protein intake and work out regime. I started cross fit and was the “fittest” I had ever been in my life. Now in my mid-30s I understand it’s actually pretty hard to not look good when you’re in your twenties and work out modestly. Now that I’m older I look back on what I’ve done to my body with a care-ful eye.
Drinking was a huge part of my twenties. I was absolutely a binge drinker/alcoholic. I loved the way it made me feel, and I could throw them back with the best of them. As I approached my late 20’s though, it started to catch up with me and I began to see-saw between large binges, and long periods of sobriety and “excellent” eating. By this time I had been introduced to the “Paleo” diet through crossfit and was militantly Paleo, making sure to get my fish oil. By my late twenties things started to catch up to me. I was gaining weight (going from 190 – 225) and decided to go deeper down the Paleo rabbit hole and began intermittent fasting and doing low carb paleo (often consuming less than 30g of carbs/day).
Then in 2015 my health took a drastic turn for the worse, and I would balloon to 265 despite my best efforts to keep my weight down.
I then found Ray Peat’s work and feel I’ve finally found an answer in this crazy world of yo-yo diets and exercise.
About Ray Peat
According to Ray’s own words on the RayPeat.com website:
Concerning my background, I have a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Oregon, with specialization in physiology. The schools I have taught at include: the University of Oregon, Urbana College, Montana State University, National College of Naturopathic Medicine, Universidad Veracruzana, the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Mexico, and Blake College. I also conduct private nutritional counseling….. My approach gives priority to environmental influences on development, regenerative processes, and an evolutionary perspective. When biophysics, biochemistry, and physiology are worked into a comprehensive view of the organism, it appears that the degenerative processes are caused by defects in our environment.
I’ve now been studying his work and applying his principals for about 4 years, and it’s been an interesting journey. In that time I’ve tried to conceptualize/distill the main tenants of his work and communicate it to friends and family and even doctors and have come up with the following:
As Ray himself states: The key idea is that energy and structure are interdependent, at every level. Ray’s work is a holistic framework to understand an organism and he asks and answers basic questions about health, nutrition, and physiology that turns much of conventional health/medicine on its head – often using historical and modern medical studies to prove his point. And it’s only through an understanding of history, incentives, and business can we understand why things are so inverted. Going a bit further, and into specifics, optimizing the thyroid and optimizing the bodies production of CO2 are some of the main components of his work and doing that (through diet, supplementation, or pharmaceuticals) can heal and help a number of downstream processes and issues. Some specific markers you can look for to measure your own health include a high(ish) heartrate (80 – 100 bpm) and high daily body temp (98.1 upon waking and 98.7 – 99.3 temperatures during the day).
Let me give you a couple of examples of how mind blowing his work is.
In his article “Vegetables, etc. – Who defines food?” he asks and answers the basic question of why do we eat what we eat? Why do we think one thing is food (spinach) and another thing is not (mud):
Poor people, especially in the spring when other foods were scarce, have sometimes subsisted on foliage such as collard and poke greens, usually made more palatable by cooking them with flavorings, such as a little bacon grease and lots of salt. Eventually, “famine foods” can be accepted as dietary staples. The fact that cows, sheep, goats and deer can thrive on a diet of foliage shows that leaves contain essential nutrients. Their minerals, vitamins, and amino acids are suitable for sustaining most animal life, if a sufficient quantity is eaten. But when people try to live primarily on foliage, as in famines, they soon suffer from a great variety of diseases. Various leaves contain anti-metabolic substances that prevent the assimilation of the nutrients, and only very specifically adapted digestive systems (or technologies) can overcome those toxic effects.
This makes perfect sense. In a world where we’ve been sold the idea to “eat like our ancestors” there’s a lot that gets left out and this new found nature-ism is quite scary when you take a step back and begin to analyze all of the processes involved (human body and physiology of plants/animals). Peat continues:
A particular plant will have a variety of defensive chemicals, with specific functions. Underground, the plant’s roots and tubers are susceptible to attack by fungi and nematodes. The leaves, stems, and seeds are susceptible to attack by insects, birds, and grazing animals. Since the plant’s seeds are of unique importance to the plant, and contain a high concentration of nutrients, they must have special protection. Sometimes this consists of a hard shell, and sometimes of chemicals that inhibit the animal’s digestive enzymes. Many plants have evolved fruits that provide concentrated food for animals, and that serve to distribute the seeds widely, as when a bird eats a berry, and excretes the undigested seed at a great distance. If the fruit were poisonous, it wouldn’t serve the plant’s purpose so well. In general, the plant’s most intense toxins are in its seeds, and the fruits, when mature, generally contain practically no toxins. Roots contain chemicals that inhibit microorganisms, but because they aren’t easily accessible by grazing animals and insects, they don’t contain the digestive inhibitors that are more concentrated in the above-ground organs of the plant.
So it stands to reason (and observation) that indeed many above ground vegetables make for poor food – in fact that can (if ingested in large quantities and as a staple of the diet) cause all kinds of problems (thyroid issues, digestive issues, etc.). Outside of meat, a low carb diet is
As Peat references in many of his articles one can’t explain the reason for why things are the way they are without incorporating both history and economics into the picture. And from this it’s been my observation that the little we’ve gained from modern medicine and science pales in comparison to the metaphorical wisdom handed down over hundreds of generations. For example, it’s only been within the last couple of months that I’ve begun to understand the “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” saying. Science has only now been able to explain it in that Apple’s have unique fiber that is extremely good for your thyroid, and also only allows the colonization of important and ONLY helpful gut bacteria. So we’ve lost nearly everything in terms of practical knowledge on health, wellness, and “diet” in the last 100 years (20th and 21st centuries). There is no “need” for practical, inexpensive, solutions to major diseases – there is very little money or acclaim for these kinds of solutions.
About the Ray Peat “Diet”
There is no “ray peat diet.” In fact all of Ray’s work would be in complete opposition to anything like that. However, there are some simple foods/ideas I can quickly communicate, to help save someone from hours and hours (even years) of research:
- Fruit – Fruit is encouraged, and in particular the citrus fruits, and fruits for which you can easily avoid the seeds (ie a cantaloupe is better than dragon fruit as it’s harder to avoid the seeds). With that being said – and as you’ll see from much of this list – it’s not one size fits all. For a period I loved cantaloupe and was able to digest it easily. But then (I believe) I ate enough beta carotene and lost a taste for it. Also for a time, I couldn’t eat apples raw. So I would stew them with some butter and sugar, and was easily (and happily) able to consume them in large quantities. Now that my digestion has improved I can eat them raw easily. I can’t eat watermelon though – it causes me issues. So experiment with what works.
- Starch – Generally Peat directly recommends avoiding or minimizing starch. However, for a lot of people, me included, it is/was an important part to healing and is a great source of fiber and glucose. Personally I love baking potatos in large quantities, and then reheating in a pan with butter. Easy, inexpensive, and very hearty. Served with plenty of salt is a great way to get in calories.
- Dairy – Dairy is highly recommended by Peat for a myriad of reasons (he mentions it frequently in his articles) and the main reasons include, easily digestable protein, great source of minerals and other items, and calcium. To get the same amount of calcium as a couple glasses of milk or pieces of cheese you’d literally have to consume pounds and pounds and pounds of vegetables. Nothing compares. But, dairy is complicated for many people. I wasn’t able to digest dairy until I was able to find sources that worked for me (local, raw, grass fed, jersey cows) and still struggle with proper calcium utilization (vitamin D and A are both involved as well as a host of other metabolic processes). The best information I’ve found on this topic is in Nathan Hatch’s (long time Peat follower and participant in the RayPeatForum.com site) book – Fuck Portion Control. Buying Nathan’s book and doing some coaching with him has been some of the best money I’ve spent to improve my health.
- Eggs – Eggs, particularly the yolks, are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and cholesterol. Eggs can cause digestion issues (particulary the whites) so you’re mileage may vary. But, 1 – 2 eggs/day have been consistently recommended by Peat for people that can tolerate them.
- Cholesterol – Cholesterol is very misunderstood. Unfortunately I’m not as well versed as I would like to be just yet on this topic, but as I understand it a) cholesterol is a prerequisite for all hormones (so having enough, and being metabolically sound enough to convert it into the hormones is important) b) high cholesterol is not necessarily a bad thing, but is often implicated in hypothyroid individuals (they can’t convert the cholesterol into down-stream steroids, so it remains high) c) similarly there’s a correlation between high cholesterol and longevity.
- Gelatin – Gelatin’s amino acid profile is such that it’s a great source of protein, but doesn’t come with some of the other anti-metabolic amino acids that Ray Peat has correlated to a host of diseases. And it’s been researched that up to 70% of one’s daily protein intake could come in the form of Gelatin with no nutrient deficiencies. It’s recommended to consume gelatin daily, in particular with muscle meat to help balance out the amino acids in meat. Personally I have struggled with eating store-bought gelatin so I make my own by boiling/simmering bones in water for about 2 hours. This generally provides enough for the week for about $10/batch and the low cook time keeps glutamine/glutamate low (I have a problem with glutamate).
- Offal – Another major component of the Ray Peat style of eating is eating offal and gelatinous/non-muscle meat proteins. Offal – in particular liver, provides a host of extremely digestible and usable vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. I struggle with beta carotene, but do extremely well with and have developed a taste for liver which is arguably the best source of vitamin A.
- Meat – Although meat is generally minimized by many peaters, I find it a helpful staple in my own diet as I try to hit high protein numbers daily. I also feel best when I consume 170+ g/day of protein.
- Seafood – Fish is generally not a huge part of “Peat-eating” but I don’t think there’s much problem with it (particularly if fresh/wild), although typically seafood is a weekly part of the diet as many consume shrimp, oysters, molusks, as they contain great sources of protein and other vitamins/minerals (zinc, selenium, taurine, etc.).
- Vegetables – As we explored above, vegetables are a tricky thing. Raw vegetables are generally out (although as a small salad they can help improve digestion as they aren’t easily digested and act as a brush). Eat what you like here, and personally I would just make sure it’s cooked thoroughly and properly (for example adding a little baking soda to spinach decreases oxalates that cause lots of issues for people – or making “creamed spinach” increases the bio-avability of calcium in spinach.
- Sugar – With dairy, fruit and starch, you get a lot of sugar. But, Peat isn’t opposed to consuming sugar in the form of candies/sugar in your coffee. I’ve found moderation is key and prefer getting sugar from whole foods, and can generally only consume lots of sugar when I’ve hit enough calories/my macros are high. For example as I write this it’s mid-day and I’m at 2300 calories, and am drinking a chocolate milk shake with plenty of sugar.
- Salt – Salt has been demonized for years (although it seems there’s a sea change happening). Personally my digestion and health only improved when I started heavily salting my food and supplementing with salt (1/4 teaspoon/hour). Don’t be afraid of salt.
- Calories – This has been one I’ve learned on my own, but I don’t feel great unless I’m consuming 3000+ calories/day.
My main take-a-ways… eat what tastes good, make sure to get enough macros in, eat to satiety (or beyond) and make sure to get enough calories and listen to your body/cravings. Right now, I’m not very active (a little walking and a little light weight training), but I don’t feel right if I’m under 3000 calories/day. On some of my more ravenous days I’ve consumed over 5000 calories, and generally wake up looking lighter and fitter than the day before.
This is the first of many articles I plan to do on my own health journey and what I’ve learned about my body, and simple techniques one might be able to implement without breaking the bank.