Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sometimes, Conventional Wisdom Is Bullshit

Case in point: after heart surgery, I lost 80 pounds and improved my cardiovascular health to an extraordinary degree by taking on a radical vegan diet which essentially consists only of vegetables, beans, mushrooms, and fruit. No meat, no fish, no poultry, no bread, no rice, no flour, no grains of any kind, no high-fructose corn syrup, no ridiculous industrial chemicals, no salt, and no oil.

("No oil," whenever I told people about it, would always provoke shocked remarks about olive oil being "healthy." The healthful status of olive oil is conventional wisdom. Olive oil is not healthy at all in the context of this nutritional regimen.)

Eating this way is expensive, and in 2010 I undertook a series of entrepreneurial experiments, seeing some successes and some failures. The failures cost me money, and had me resorting occasionally to eating the way I used to eat. This, plus the isolating effects of this way of eating, led me to break the rules of the diet, first occasionally and then frequently. After a while I was eating meat, fish, rice, and bread, just like anyone else - but I still ate more fruit, vegetables, and beans than anyone I knew.

I recently read Tim Ferriss's Four-Hour Body and decided to start getting my cholesterol checked on a regular basis - monthly, every six months, something like that - and rather than wait until I had determined the precise periodicity, and charted out a complete plan, I went and got my cholesterol checked for the first time in almost exactly two years, because the big thing I learned from my entrepreneurial experiments is it's almost always more effective just to leap into action immediately, even if that kind of bravado produces a few run-on sentences here and there.

Here's what I found:

TargetFeb 2009
Apr 2009
Apr 2011
Total CholesterolUnder 200254154238
LDL CholesterolUnder 100193113172
HDL CholesterolOver 39262126
TriglyceridesUnder 15017698202
WeightUnder 160254?210

The most important thing to realize is that conventional wisdom is putting my life in danger.

Caveats: these are isolated numbers and you'd see much better accuracy if I'd been doing systematic checks over regular intervals, which is something I plan for the future. Also, I haven't been tracking blood pressure, but I remember it was vastly improved during the vegan period, and I will be. Of course, these numbers represent an unscientific sampling of data about me, not a scientific survey of the entire human population.

Finally, conventional wisdom around heart disease is actually that if you have heart surgery you need to get your cholesterol checked a lot, and see a cardiologist a lot; after discovering my diet, I decided that all cardiologists were idiots and I had nothing more to say to any of them. This was almost certainly overkill. Sometimes, conventional wisdom is not bullshit at all.

However, looking at these numbers, we can draw a few conclusions about my health. The only area where my post-vegan compromise "diet" can be considered useful at all is in weight; and even there, the system I had been using was superior, because I got my weight down to 172 and kept it there for a long time. In fact, the only place where the post-vegan approach looks decent at all is the one where the numbers are missing for the vegan period. I may have lost as much as forty pounds in my first two months on this diet - it's actually a common result - so it's possible the post-vegan advantage in weight is only slight.

Either way, for cardiovascular health, the post-vegan compromise approach is easily as bad as the full-on mostly-junk-food approach of the pre-vegan period. It's slightly better for LDL cholesterol but substantially worse for triglycerides. I don't have anywhere near the substantial reserves of giving a fuck that I would need to have on hand if I was going to be giving other people dietary advice, but for my body and my health, the best choice is obvious.

It seems like common sense to say, "well, if you're eating more vegetables, beans, and fruit than anyone else you know, and you're less heavy than you were when you ate junk food, the fact that you're not at your pinnacle of vegan health is not that bad." In this instance, common sense is wrong, and the conventional wisdom is so bad that if I listened to it I'd probably not live to see forty years of age.

You can probably guess exactly how I'll be eating in future. (Hint: broccoli yes, burgers no.) Also, I've been tracking my weight daily for months now; I think I'm going to get my cholesterol (etc) checked monthly, and blog the results, along with a snapshot of my dietary calendar (a variant of my calendar system, which I'm using to track my fidelity to my vegan diet's rules).

For the record, here's how it looks today:

I think it'll look a good deal more solid in May.