Our community’s top goals are to feel healthier, look better, be fitter, and excel in our sport(s) performance.
We are motivated to find the perfect diet for these goals.
Unfortunately, as one expert exclaimed at an Integrative Healthcare Symposium, “nutrition is a hot mess!”
- Nutrition experts have intense yet totally contradicting opinions on an optimal diet.
- Yet their opinions are backed by wildly different research conclusions.
(Nutrition research is fraught with issues. Accurate studies require keeping subjects in food labs and precisely tracking every calorie. The expense, time and difficulty keeps many studies from meeting these standards.)
This is why foods like eggs, coconut oil, red meats, dairy, cereals, nuts, fruit juices and macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) swing between “healthy!” and “avoid!”.
As a result, we are faced with an overwhelming list of diet choices, many extreme and contradictory, with new choices springing up every year.
It is clear there is no “silver bullet” nutrition plan that works for all of us.
This shouldn’t be controversial. We don’t believe we should sleep, exercise, work or even educate ourselves the same way.
After all, we differ in our genetics, epigenetics, environment, mindsets and goals.
Let’s get to our personalized and highly effective plan for diet optimization, using simple tools like HRV tracking.
The Basics (the most important dietary elements)
All the confusion, hype and agenda around diets have taken attention away from a few important and universal nutrition principles.
If you do nothing else, these basics still form the critical foundation of a healthy diet, for everyone:
- Cook food at home. Not only do we avoid processed nutrient-poor hyper-palatable artificial ingredients, but we are more likely to engage in healthy social behaviors like communal cooking, eating and celebrating.
- Avoid relying on supplements. Whole foods are extremely complicated. Even the simplest contain millions of molecular ingredients. But research is limited to tracking only the impact of a few. This inevitably misses the complementary relationship between ingredients, and is likely the reason why supplementation does not generally work – despite all the marketing hype. If life gets too crazy, try to find supplements made with care to preserve whole foods.
- Mindset matters. Constant anxiety over dietary choices is inherently unhealthy. Sometimes a brief meditation session in our app is more effective than worrying about that extra dessert or fast food meal. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.
- Food is only part of the answer. More sleep, physical activity, social support and stress management all have remarkable impacts on our health, weight loss and physical performance. Plus, there is little confusion – the research almost universally agrees!
If you already follow these steps, check out the sections below to optimize a personalized nutrition plan, with simple experiments using heart rate variability.
Hint: Your personal answer depends on not just your body weight and activity levels, but on your immune system, microbiome, and overall stress load from other sources.
Find the Right Dietary Building Blocks
If our body was a “house”, most of us think of diet as the materials that build and repair this “house”.
This is true: we all need a minimum of macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) and micronutrients (essential vitamins, minerals) to keep our “house” in good shape.
The minimum depends on our age, energy needs (activity, growth), healing needs and overall stress load. As these increase, we typically need more protein. If we indulge in intense exercise, we typically require additional carbs as well to re-fuel depleted muscle glycogen.
In some disease states (neurodegeneration, metabolic dysfunction, cancer, etc) the ideal mix of macronutrients may be extreme – but the research still runs into controversy. In these situations, it is best to work with an expert clinician.
Try This Simple HRV Experiment:
- Modify protein, carb or fat proportions while sticking to the basics, like cooking unprocessed nutrient-dense meals. Remember to consider your goals when modifying (don’t cut protein and carbs if exercising intensely).
- Monitor your morning HRV as usual, and wait at least 1 week to account for a metabolic transition period.
- After 1 to 3 weeks, if you feel better and your HRV hasn’t dropped, you’re on the right track!
- If you don’t feel better and your HRV is dropping, the experiment is not likely to be working. It might help to monitor subjective measures like energy, mood, motivation, muscle soreness, and mental clarity.
When these experiments fail, the culprit is often macronutrient quality instead of quantity.
These and other over-processed foods actually cause more damage to your “house” than their limited value as building blocks.
We like to think of them as “pests” that once inside your house, cause all kinds of damage.
Let’s explore how this damage occurs, and how HRV can be a powerful tool to help you identify and eliminate them.
Remove Hidden Inflammation From Your Diet
The real (and overlooked!) impact of diet is far more complicated and profound than just building blocks.
This is because the food you eat interacts intimately with your immune system and the trillions of bacteria, viruses, archaea and other microbes in your gut (your gut microbiome).
Let’s explore the latest research findings on the impact of both interactions.
Diet and your immune system
Experts agreed that up to 80% of your entire immune system is contained within your gut, in close contact with your food through an intestinal wall with sometimes limited protection.
The science is still in its early stages, but it is clear your immune system acts in your body as:
- The “police”, to neutralize identified threats.
- The “fire fighters” and “garbage men”, to heal and clean up injury sites.
- The “diplomats”, who make first contact with outsiders and decide whether they are harmless or should be neutralized.
Unfortunately, the “diplomats” can be trained to make the wrong decisions, and mistake harmless food particles as dangerous. The resulting “police” action (an overactive immune response) causes inflammation.
Chronic inflammation from constantly eating these “wrong” foods is linked with autoimmunity, when the immune system damages its own host tissues.
In this manner, a permeable gut and an over-active immune system is likely linked to allergies and intolerances to foods like peanuts, glutens, dairy, grains and soy. For many of us, these are hidden obstacles to our peak performance and health.
So it’s best to avoid the foods our immune system “diplomats” and “police” identify as harmful.
Diet and your microbiome
The second important interaction of our diet is in feeding our gut microbiome.
(your gut microbiome is huge – its cell population and DNA material exponentially dwarf your own)
Based on what you eat, they produce an enormous variety of chemicals that influence the functioning and health of your immune system, brain, skin, lungs, liver, sex organs, joints and blood vessels (with new interactions at the heart of your health and performance being discovered every day).
Your gut microbiome is really a giant pharmaceutical factory – whose drug output you decide with your dietary choices.
The wrong foods feed the wrong microbes that generate the wrong drug output, whose function triggers inflammation and:
- impaired recovery (muscle and joint repair)
- immune dysfunction (allergies, IBD, arthritis)
- diabetes and obesity
- neuropsychiatric disorders
- and even cancer
(a new research field called microbiome “metabolomics” is using cutting-edge sequencing technology to understand the functions of your microbiome “drug” output)
But we do not need to wait for such sophisticated analysis. We can use heart rate variability (HRV) to screen for foods that trigger an inflammatory response.
Try This Simple HRV Experiment:
- Take a pre-meal “open” HRV reading and then eat a good amount of the food you suspect.
- While in the same position (eg. seated), take readings immediately and 30-60 minutes after finishing eating.
- A lasting drop in HRV likely signifies an inflammatory response. Compare this to subjective measures like digestion, energy levels, headaches, allergic symptoms (congestion, runny nose) and ease of breathing.
- For stronger evidence, eliminate the food(s) for 30 days, then test immediately after re-introduction.
If you’re curious how HRV can measure an inflammatory response from diet, our top-rated course at the Elite Academy (link) digs deeper into the science and mechanisms behind HRV.
Meanwhile, there are many simple steps to nourish a diverse gut microbiome, which can “fine-tune” your immune system from attacking in unnecessary situations.
- Eat a large variety of fiber. Not the industrial psyllium husk supplements but long-chain carbohydrates found in many vegetables, roots, nuts, seeds and certain fruits.
- Lower your intake of sucrose (glucose, fructose) and artificial sweeteners that tend to feed the wrong kinds of microbes.
- Remember that better sleep, stress management, social support, and more sunshine and movement (i.e. being active) also nourish your gut microbiome.
(If you have SIBO or another type of gut dysbiosis, please do not follow these steps without the advice of an expert practitioner.)
By occasionally doing this simple food-sensitivity experiment, and with adopting a gut-nourishing lifestyle, your training and health improvements should progress much faster.
Frequency and Timing of Meals
If you’ve already “dialed-in” some of the above aspects of your diet, here are two surprising aspects of eating that will further enhance your performance and health.
“Grazing” – typically expressed as eating 5-6 meals a day – is popular in the news media. Unfortunately, the research on grazing is unconvincing on weight loss or hunger reduction benefits, likely because there is no expected increase in metabolism.
(this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as evolution has optimized our bodies to avoid increased energy expenditure)
By contrast, periodically limiting meal frequency or fasting intermittently (going extended periods of time without eating) seems to improve body weight and fat loss while slowing down biological aging.
Intermittent fasting can also work well with your training and performance needs – when fasts and re-feeds are timed properly.
In fact, exercise and re-feeds are critical to maintaining your metabolism, which could otherwise slow down with periodic fasting.
But what if the benefits are actually not related to meal frequency?
Eating timing (circadian rhythm)
What if you might gain most of the benefits of intermittent fasting by just eating normally within daylight hours?
“Chrononutrition” is a growing body of cutting-edge research uncovering the benefits of eating within circadian rhythm.
(Your circadian rhythm is a profound biological process tied to light/dark and temperature cycles. It is shared between nearly ALL organisms, including single-celled, as a powerful evolutionary survival mechanism)
Maintaining our eating (and we know, sleeping and exercising) within a proper circadian rhythm seems to have major health benefits for humans and other organisms.
Try This Simple HRV Experiment:
- Ensure you have a solid HRV baseline
- Try a 12-14 hour overnight fasting schedule, being mindful of your exercise and activity needs (the more active, the fewer/shorter the fasts).
- Also be mindful of your circadian rhythm, particularly by not eating a late dinner (and avoiding major jetlag!)
- Measure your morning HRV on days after fasting. If HRV is lower, it is likely that the fasting was too severe and introduced too much stress. If HRV is the same or higher, keep the experiment going!
- After 2-3 weeks, compare your new HRV baseline as well as subjective measures like mental clarity, hunger levels, body weight and composition.
Extra credit: support your circadian rhythm by avoiding extra blue light from screens and lighting after dark.
There are more diet tips we haven’t explored (like the neurobiology of processed hyper-palatable foods that make us overeat). The latest research at the intersection of gastroenterology, microbiology, neurobiology and immunology will no doubt uncover more surprising findings.
But we are confident 90% of dietary benefits for most of us will come from:
- Cooking at home, ideally in fun social occasions
- Eating (not too frequently) during daylight hours
- Avoiding sensitive foods
- And not getting over-anxious about diet
By doing these simple steps, you might be surprised at the positive impact on your performance, health and wellbeing.
“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”
(the Elite HRV team agrees!)