Fitness Focus #4:  Food!  (Summer 2011)


Our Dietary Guidelines

    Read on if you’ve been wondering about our fuel...otherwise, skip this whole piece.

Our Diet In a Nutshell:

    About 2,500 calories/day (lucky Barb: she weighs 20-25 lbs less than Bill but eats about the same amount).

    High carbohydrate, vegetarian-leaning menu.

    Eat only ‘real food’ that is minimally processed vs bars, shakes, drinks, gels.

    Target 10 servings/day of fruits and vegetables.

    Organic products when convenient.

    Nutritional supplements: multivitamin/mineral, Vitamin D, magnesium, CoQ10, ALA.

Carbs, Protein, & Fat

    We both prefer to eat a hi carb diet so that’s what we’ve done for 20+ years. Occasionally when we are really exerting hard, I’ll boost our protein intake over a number of days with the addition of salmon or something similar because it seems like the right thing to do. But neither of us has ever detected an improvement in our performance with the infusion so we’ve concluded that we are getting enough protein from our basic diet. Several times a year I’ll run the numbers to calculate the grams of protein in the current rendition of our vegetarian-leaning diet and we usually are meeting or exceeding our targets of about 45 g protein for Barb and 55 g for Bill, based on our body weights (0.36g/lb/day).

    For a number of years I had us on ultra-low fat diets and we drove our cholesterol levels into the basement: 116 mg/dl for Bill; 125 mg/dl for me. But for over 10 years, we’ve put no limit on the quantity of fat in our diet and I can still drive my cholesterol level just as low, though it has popped up as high as 208 mg/dl when we were eating in restaurants a lot during our first year overseas.

    Ultimately, the secret for us in sustaining low to moderate cholesterol levels has been limiting the kind of fat consumed, not the amount.  We’ve eliminated the trans fats and have severely trimmed the saturated fats from our menu, with chocolate being our only regular source of saturated fats.

    Beyond those fats, we are very liberal with our fat intake, primarily in the form of olive oil. I consider 1Tbsp of olive oil a minimum amount to splash around per person when adding it to a meal and we do that 2-3 times per day. The last couple of years, we’ve added increasing amounts of walnuts to our diet, which has increased our polyunsaturated fats. When in the States, we get about 20% of our daily calories from walnuts (about 25g nuts/meal/person), which is about 45 g of fat each.

    I know I need at least 100 calories from fat at each meal, especially breakfast, and the 25 g of walnuts (a handful of pieces) gives me about 165 fat calories--a nice buffer. If I don’t get sufficient fat with each meal, I go crazy with feeling hungry but the ‘dose’ of fat keeps me calm enough to focus on life beyond the next meal. When on the bike and I’m desperate for food, I’ve been known to hold my nose and swig a mouthful of olive oil from the bottle stowed on my down tube. Not very palatable and definitely not quickly available calories, but at the end of a long day that is going from bad to worse, it will keep me going until we drag in for the night.

Glycemic Index

    For over 15 years, we’ve been adherents of a low glycemic index diet. The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly the carbs in a specific food are converted into glucose that is surging through your vessels. Sugar, white bread, and carrots are examples of high GI foods whereas fats, pinto beans, and nuts are low glycemic index foods. What you eat with the food matters too. Eating carrots at the end of a meal with fat in it will effectively lower the GI of the carrots whereas stirring sugar into a caffeinated coffee on an empty stomach will rev up the GI of the sugar, raising, then crashing your blood glucose level.

    Paying attention to the GI of foods has a number of benefits. For people like me, it is a huge help in calming my ravenous appetite. Snacking on a half pound of carrots was precisely the wrong thing for me to do when I was hungry because it spiked my glucose levels--now I eat a single carrot at the end of a meal. It is also hoped that eating a low GI diet and thereby keeping one’s glucose level more moderated will keep one’s insulin levels more even and perhaps reduce the risk of developing diabetes. For me, the appetite control is worth it alone though the suppressive effect isn’t as profound for Bill.

    A high carbohydrate, low glycemic index diet has us favoring fat with every meal and snack; whole grains over processed grains; beans; non-tropical fruits (which tend to be lower GI); and scouring food labels to dodge items with gratuitous added sugar.

Avoiding Boluses

  We are still formulating our latest strategy, which is to avoid a bolus or a single big dose of anything other than chewable food. One hundred percent juices and calcium supplements both came on the radar for us this year as bad things to ingest all at once. The evolving concern with juices is that the fructose separated from its fiber overloads the liver and causes the sugar to be processed in an unhealthy way that can contribute to damage the liver, gout, and do other nasty things. Two recent studies also implicated the much revered calcium supplements as significantly increasing the risk of adverse cardiac events (like death) in post-menopausal women. The best guess for a mechanism in this new research is that the bolus of calcium degrades the health of the cardiac vessels.

    Both of these findings triggered menu chaos for me because for over 20 years we’ve chugged 1-2 glasses of OJ every morning and I’ve been taking calcium supplements for about 25 years. We immediately switched from OJ to oranges and I dropped the calcium tablets after reading the research findings.

    Seeing that both the fructose and calcium problems were probably in part related to “too much at one time” has made us rethink our recent addition of potassium chloride crystals to boost our potassium intake when in the States. We had settled on adding 1/4 tsp of the crystals or about 15% of our RDA to a glass of water before breakfast. In respect for this new bolus issue, we switched to adding a 1/4 tsp to a pint of water that we sip over several hours--just to be cautious.

Individual Issues

    No milk, little yogurt because of lactose intolerance for both of us.

    Barb avoids soy products for fear of them competing for receptor sites with prescription estrogen medications.

    Bill drinks soy milk.

    Barb limits her egg intake because of mild intolerance.

    We limit our alcohol intake to a few sips several times a year because of medication/medical issues.

    We no longer consume caffeine (and no, chocolate doesn’t have caffeine in it but theobromine’s).

Specific Components

Potassium: minimum of 4.7g/day from fruits and vegetables (boosted with 1/4-1/2 t potassium chloride crystals/day for an additional 700-1400 mg when available).

Sodium: target 2.0-2.5 g /day; we both become ill on the recommended 1.5 g sodium limit (dizzy, depressed, no energy).

Fructose in ‘fiberless forms’ like 100% fruit juice and as a component of the sucrose in chocolate: maximum of 13g/day for Barb; 18 g for Bill based on the American Heart Assoc. recommended limit of added sugar: maximum of 26 g for Barb; 36 g for Bill.

Menu’s (units per person)

    We’ve abandoned menu variety in favor of economy, ease of shopping/preparation/clean-up, and predictability of feeling well after eating. The menus below represent about 90% of our food eaten in a year though items like walnuts, bulgur, and canned beans often are not available to us overseas. We make a point to have something especially pleasing with each meal, like berries with breakfast, chocolate with lunch, and a quality red pesto sauce with dinner.



250 g dry bulgur

25 g walnuts

1/2 can beans (pinto, black, garbanzo)

1 chopped fresh tomato

turmeric, salt, 1+ Tbsp olive oil

or Cereal (cold or hot)

1 c mixed rolled grains or triticale

25 g walnuts

1/2 lb frozen berries or fresh fruit

1 Tbsp/2 people cinnamon if cereal is cooked


A “to go” #4 Lunch Special ready for a day in the city.

#4” (It was a joke that stuck.)                            

     250 g bulgur

     1/2 can beans

     25 g walnuts

     1 small chopped tomato

     ½ avocado if available

     turmeric, salt, olive oil

40 g dark chocolate

1 carrot

or Tuna

50 g canned tuna in olive oil

200 g whole grain (as available) bread

1 carrot

40g dark chocolate

Dinner (occasionally with 3-4 oz salmon)


125 g ‘al dente’ (to reduce the GI) pasta or whole grain couscous

45-50 g red pesto sauce (usually 1/4 of a jar)

1/2-1 lb cooked broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage

1/2-1 lb turnip or mustard greens (when at home, for the calcium and vitamin K)

Comfort Food at Home

300-350 g baked potato (high GI food simmered down with fats)

1+ Tbsp olive oil

2 Tbsp low (not ‘no’) fat sour cream

1/2-1 lb broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage

1/2-1 lb turnip or mustard greens (when at home, for the calcium and vitamin K)


  fruits: especially higher potassium choices like grapes, oranges

  nuts (walnuts, almonds)

  tortilla’s (‘clean’ ones like from Trader Joe’s--no lard, trans fats, or sugar)

  hard cheese, in measured portions for the calcium and vitamin K

1/2-1 lb white bread when biking for hours up a pass: quickly available glucose (high GI) plus extra sodium

For Something Special when at home:

Kalamata olives, marinated artichoke hearts, and prepared hummus for lunch with tortillas

Trader Joe’s cheese enchiladas served with brown rice, beans, & TJ’s frozen sweet corn

quinoa for our dinner starch

roasted vegetables

green salad with a low-sugar dressing

dried fruit


    After reading our seemingly absurd diet, many may wonder how we stay motivated to conform to this fairly rigid and limited diet. It’s both hard and easy.  The hard part is the direct and indirect social pressure; the easy part is the flood of medical literature validating our decisions.

    A perfect example of the direct social pressure was when checking into a pension in the Austrian Alps in 2011. The Dutch proprietor spoke good English and started pressuring us before we crossed the threshold to eat dinner and breakfast there as well as drink lots of beer. “You’ll have barbecued spare ribs with us tonight” he said. “Uhh, no...I have trouble with my stomach and have to be very careful about what I eat (also true)” I replied. “You can eat our potato salad and bread” was the come back. “You can do all of your drinking here with us...” and so it went. We already had our pasta, pesto, broccoli, muesli, oranges, and carrots in our overflowing bags and were intent on sticking to our diet. Part friendliness, part marketing, he leaned on us hard. And indeed, the other guests had a jovial evening at his outdoor tables. But his menu was deadly and we knew it and he looked it.

    The indirect social pressure was in full force the day after being squeezed by the pension proprietor to eat, drink, and be merry when I strolled the charming center of Lienz, Austria on a hot, late-June afternoon. Ice cream cones were in every other hand; shaded side walk cafes were doing a brisk business in pastries and beer; and the American tourists I overheard were looking for a mini-market to buy sodas. I steeled myself and looked forward to a nice glass of tab water soon and hoped Bill had started cooking our dinner broccoli. Again, I knew what others were doing was delightfully fun and pleasingly indulgent but I resisted the temptation one more time. 

    Sticking to our diet gets easier with reading the medical literature. I recently learned that the reason we feel like outcasts is because we are members of a minority: non-obese and non-overweight individuals in the US represent only 1/3 of the population. That 1/3 would also include low-weight, chronically ill or dying people so normal-weight, healthy folks like us represent even less than 1/3 of the population.

    And it got even easier the day we read that obesity in and of itself can cause liver toxicity to the point liver failure and need for a liver transplant. Obesity and its related metabolic changes are expected to be the leading cause of liver transplants in the US by 2020 because obesity damages the liver in a way similar to alcoholism. Sadly the liver specialists predict that there won’t be enough donor livers to meet this skyrocketing demand. Adults are leading the way but tubby kids are already dying because of irreversible, obesity induced liver failure. Yikes! I’m going to go eat another orange....