Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 30 Day Challenge

I just got Robb Wolf's new book The Paleolithic Solution in the mail.  I haven't read enough to provide a full review, but it reads really nicely so far.  He really starts with the basics - what fats, proteins, and carbs are, the hormones involved in metabolism, and goes from there, so you don't need to have a biochem background to understand what he's talking about.

I'm a fan of Robb's (he was a Hero of the Week for me a while back).  His podcasts are phenomenal, his science is fantastic, and his experiences are worth his weight in gold.  Today I want to address one particular idea he comes back to often - the 30 Day Challenge.

Let's say that you, for example, want to get healthier, maybe lose a few pounds of fat or add some muscle, and improve your performance in the gym.  Suppose you recognize that you should change your diet to help this happen - you know you're not eating great.  So perhaps you read my blog, where I recommend you eat more meat (from grass fed animals), more fat, more saturated fat (butter, coconut oil, lard), and no grains at all.  Then your mom or coworker or friend or personal trainer or sensei or another blogger gives a talk or publishes an article telling you to become a vegan and base your diet on whole grains, soy products, and vegetables to improve your performance.  Who do you believe?

First, you could listen to the arguments or justifications that we offer to our plans.  You could be convinced by my point that we were predominantly meat eaters for 2 million years, grain eaters for fewer than 10,000, and that we just haven't evolved that much in 10,000 years to tolerate our grain based diets.  Or that hunter gatherers are always healthier in every measurable way than their farmer cousins or descendents.  Or you could be persuaded by whatever arguments the vegans come up with - maybe they'll convince you that you have a gut like an orangutan, despite all evidence to the contrary.

If the arguments leave you feeling bewildered you might start to look at the science.  There are tons of studies showing that meat gives you cancer and heart disease, aren't there?  Except that the people who ate meat in those studies also ate a ton of sugar, flour, and often smoked and did other unhealthy stuff.  So maybe that's not so convincing.  Then you look for studies comparing people on paleo diets and vegan diets... except there aren't any.  The closest you'll come is to primitive populations who start to adopt western diets - they always get much less healthy very quickly - and you might be convinced, but you might be confused even more.

So what can you do that doesn't require putting blind faith in somebody (like me, or even Robb Wolf for that matter) or spending a year of your life poring through scientific journals and doing statistical analysis on raw data from the China Study?  Well, a simpler option might be the 30 day challenge.

The 30 Day Challenge is a very simple concept.  Suppose you're trying to evaluate a new diet.  Try it for 30 days.  Keep your training, sleep, etc. roughly the same - if you suddenly go from 4 hrs a night to 8 hrs a night of sleep you won't know if your increase in energy is from the new diet or from getting enough rest.  Same with training - keep roughly the same training schedule.  At the end of the 30 days, see how you feel and how you perform.

This is a pretty good example of why I'm frustrated at my participation in an activity where progress is hard to measure.  If we were powerlifters we'd just just check our lift totals after 30 days and see where they were - how much they went up or down.  As karateka we don't have numbers to work with.  If you're trying to lose fat or gain muscle you could do a body comp analysis.  You could go by feel as well.  Neither is ideal, but we work with what we have.

Why 30 days?  Why not 10?  Well, if your trial period is too short you might get some results colored by an adaption period.  A great example is someone switching from a high carb to a low carb, high fat diet.  They often experience a real loss of energy for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks because their bodies aren't used to burning fat for energy.  It takes times for the enzymes involved in lipolysis to ramp up to handle a low carb diet.  Does that mean the diet sucks?  Well, many people find that once they've made it through that adaption period they feel and perform better.  So the results after just 10 days may not really represent how one would do long term.  Why not longer than 30 days?  Well, I could propose any number of days or weeks, but it's pretty unreasonable to ask you to try a diet for 10 years, suffering all along, to evaluate how it works for you.  So 30 days is a random amount that seems longer than the adaption period for lower carb intake but short enough to be a reasonable thing to ask people to do.

The same plan would work for evaluating a new workout as well.  Try interval training for 30 days and see how your fitness improves.  Wear Vibram Fivefingers for 30 days and see how much better they feel.  You get the idea.

Remember, regardless of what the science says, if some diet or workout strategy doesn't work for you, don't do it!

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