|Slaves on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica "cutting the grass"...|
My commitment to "keep of the grass" was clinched during a conversation I had last week at Base Camp with National Geographic "Explorer of the Year" Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner -- the first woman to summit all 14 of the earth's highest mountain peaks without supplementary oxygen.
The conversation included her husband and frequent climbing partner Ralf Dujmovits as well as John Francis, vice president for research, conservation, and exploration at the National Geographic Society. And it revolved around the question "what is the best diet for explorers who routinely go into extreme conditions?".
Don't get me wrong -- the conversation didn't take place in extreme conditions, it took place at the National Geographic Headquarters "Base Camp" in Washington DC, a far more comfortable location for discussion than the base camps Gerlinde usually hangs out in for weeks in the Himalayas or other daunting mountain ranges. But it included discussion of my own visit to Everest Base Camp last spring and my recent trip to the base of Mera Peak in Nepal, and the difference I felt this year when I decided to eliminate sugar and starch from my diet, and last year when I trudged up the Khumbu valley toward Mount Everest trying to rely on the daily and generous provision of Mars bars, Snickers and Bounty bars offered to help us get that "quick boost" of energy that sugar is supposed to supply.
My observation was that without the carbs this year the trek up to 5500 meters was immeasurably easier than last year, even though the route in the Hinku valley, with steeper daily ascents and descents, and nights in cold snow bedecked tents instead of the the relative shelter and warmth of the tea lodges in the Khumbu, was technically more difficult.
Gerlinde and Ralf and John confirmed this observation. Gerlinde said "when you are climbing the highest mountains in the world, pushing your body to the limit, blood sugar swings become your enemy. You quickly face exhaustion. Starches, sugars, carbohydrates, they are the worst thing. When we climb we focus on eating protein. The body turns it into the necessary glucose for the brain and body to work most efficiently but it also keeps muscle from being lost."
Ralf chimed in, "We train and train before we climb and we would go onto the expedition with very strong, big muscles, but we noticed that when we returned we were always thin as a rail, having lost a lot of muscle mass. This is because your body digests itself when you are undergoing intense exercise and it consumes muscle protein before turning to your fat reserves. But by increasing the protein in our diets and eliminating the starches and sugars we find we can keep our muscles."
Gerlinde said, "we start the treks with a diet high in protein and fat and very low in carbohydrates, but we noticed that at high altitude Ralf was getting bad headaches. It turned out that fat requires a lot of oxygen to burn and above 3000 meters the oxygen gets thinner and thinner. By 8000 meters there is almost no oxygen at all and fat in the diet becomes a problem. So while we normally will not worry about the fat content of our diet, we have to eliminate it for the high points of the expedition. But in general the secret is getting rid of as much carbohydrate as possible, and that means no breads and potatoes, and certainly no sugared drinks or candy bars..."
Ah.... candy bars. In years past I packed my backpack with choclate bars -- Bounty bars, with their coconut filling, are among my favorite. I rationalized it by parroting the same lousy advice I had gotten from my Gym teachers in high school, "when you are doing strenuous sports, you need the jolt of energy they provide and it is okay, because you are working out so hard you'll burn it all up anyway..."
Explorers as well as athletes are beginning to understand, through accumulated experience, that the less sugar they dump in their bloodstream, the more steady their energy feels.
Taking it to the Ends of the Earth
This year, from day 1, I gritted my teeth and politely refused the bowl of candybars offered each morning. At the end of the day, after a hard, breathless, bone aching, muscle burning climb, when I lay in my tent, illuminated by my Solar CITIES aluminum tab torch, I would often discover a Snickers bar sitting in the side pocket, surreptitiously popped in there by a caring guide wanting to ensure that I didn't wake up with hunger pangs when the exhaustion let up. Or was it one of my colleagues, trying to test my resolve and lead me into temptation? I would hold the ever more delicious seeming chocolate before me in the dim glow of my aluminum can flashlight and read the label, dreaming of how good it would taste. Sugar, cornsyrup, modified cornstarch, dextrose, sugar, sugar... and though I knew that nobody would ever know or care if I ate it or not, I would put it back in the pack and tell myself "you can do this, if you just hang on, the cravings will surely go away."
Of course I had a precedent. At Harvard in early 1980s, as a Biological Anthropology undergraduate, I had won a prize with a paper I wrote called "Of Man and Meat: Nutritional Imperialism and its effects on aboriginal cultures". Reading classics like Weston Price's "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration" and William Dufty's "Sugar Blues" I had decided, since I wanted to spend my year after college at the Harvard Research site at Gunung Palung mountain in Borneo, that I would go on what I called a "hunter-gatherer diet". I vowed at the beginning of my junior year that I would eliminate all "non-nutritional cash crops" from my diet, including not just alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and sugar, but all refined and processed carbohydrates and oils. I did continue to eat grains, but only "whole grains".
The experiment lasted for 2 years, right through graduation, until I left for the jungle, and I felt better than I ever had in my life. I also invited a girlfriend on the diet who had been plagued by weight problems. At 5 foot 2 inches she dropped from 150 chunky pounds to a svelt 112 while I maintained the 150 pounds appropriate for my 5 foot 9 inch mesomorphic frame. It was 1985 and I had proven to myself the value of what people now call the "Paleolithic Diet".
John Francis confirmed for me that his experience on the Paleo Diet had given him similarly good results, despite the fact that he was on it for a much shorter period of time.
Still, when I was doing that experiment, I was a mere 21 years of age. When everybody else was suddenly getting old enough to drink I was eliminating the excess calories but I was still young enough that it was hard to say whether the unflaggable energy that got me through Harvard and into the deepest rainforests of Indonesia came from this extreme diet or mere youthful vigor.
During the lead up to my last Nepal expedition I had somehow turned 50, and, apart from 2 years as a vegetarian and 7 months as a Vegan, had spent the intervening years eating all manner of junk food (for more than a decade, while working as a teacher in the ghettos of L.A. and as a grad student at UCLA, I practically lived on the Mcdonald's dollar value meals!). I had gone from my college weight of 150 to a hamster cheeked, pot bellied 180. It was getting to be discouraging to look at my reflection--- I kept checking each day to see if the man in the mirror was really me and if he might be induced to change his ways. I needed to find out if the hunter-gatherer diet would really work for those of us on the near side of the midpoint to the century mark.
Summiting the peaks and valleys of the diet roller coaster
Three things encouraged my decision to go radical again.
The first was the announcement that I would be having a baby girl in October. I started thinking about my desire to see her graduate from college, realizing I will be at least 72 when that happens. Another was my fathers ailing health as a man dependent on glucophage pills and a cocktail of medicines to deal with his type 2 diabetes -- I wanted to be able to act as a role model and ally to encourage him to give up the sugar that is killing him so he can live to see my 4 year old son and my new daughter at the very least grow old enough to appreciate his genius, his kindness, and his treasure trove of fun and exciting information about film and circus history -- particularly Disney lore -- which are his fields of expertise. The third was the desire to prove something I had started in Guatemala in the year 2000 when I lived for almost a month on nothing but Maya breadnuts, avocados and lemons from our rainforest research site. I wanted to show that we can live happily and successfully without the agriculture that is currently destroying our planet's complex ecologies.
I had a precedent that gave me courage: my UCLA colleague Angel Orozco, a Guatemalan friend with whom I had formed an NGO to promote agroforestry at the end of the 1990s and with whom I had lived at the Los Angeles Eco-village, had embarked on the hunter gatherer diet during the years I was overseas and hadn't seen him. I remembered him as a heavy, round faced, large framed man; he was always my "big friend Angel". When I finally got together with him to deliver a speech about my work with biogas as one solution to deforestation, I had to be reintroduced to him. He sat smiling at me through my entire speech while I wondered, "why isn't my friend Angel here at my talk? He said he would be..."
At the end of my talk this tall, thin, muscular, thin faced and handsome man who had been smiling shook my hand and said, "I am Angel. I'm so glad you didn't recognize me". The transformation was astonishing. He said, "I didn't go on any weight loss program or take any pills, I just did what we had discussed years ago in the rain forests of my homeland -- I adopted a strict hunter gatherer diet. But to do so, I abandoned all vestiges of food from agricultural economies -- no sugar, no corn, no wheat, no rice, no oats, no barley.. "
"Sounds like you're avoiding all the grasses" I told him, impressed.
The problem with the Poaceae
On our long bus rides from Mexico City to the Peten Rainforests of his homeland, Angel and I used to discuss archeologist Dennis Puleston's idea that the Maya couldn't have based their lowland civilization on corn because of its destructive impact the grass we call "maize" has on tropical soils. We used to reflect that in general the planting of agricultural grasses is among the most destructive practices we humans have been engaged in for the past millenia. My Master's Thesis focused on "tree cereals" that, through agroforestry, could replace the "weed cereals" that society depends on.
Working in horticulture at the Los Angeles Zoo for 4 years I had come to regard human reliance on the family Graminae/Poaceae as one of the biggest mistakes our species ever made.
Think about it -- there are approximately 463 plant families on the face of the earth (experts estimates vary slightly but all are close to this number). But the lion's share of the plants upon which civilization has come to depend belong to only one of them: the grass family. This includes sugar cane, wheat, rice, corn (maize), oats, barley, sorghum, and millet. When you look at our supermarket shelves almost every product is a product of the top 4 -- wheat, rice, corn and sugar. Corn syrup and sugar make up the bulk of the beverage section. And vast areas of the landscape are being transformed to a monocrop monocot factory to feed our hunger for these few members of this one family. The devastation grass family cultivation and processing has on entire cultures was recently brought home to me while working with Maasai leader Kakenya Nataiya in Kenya, where the entire Maasai way of life is threatened by the transformation of the traditional grazing lands into sugar cane plantations. Where once there were thousands of species interacting with the Maasai and their cattle, what some people naively called a "grassland savannah" is now become a true grassland -- home ot only one species of plant, the grass called Saccharum officinarum in the Poaceae.
It would be as if the Rockefellers or the Kennedy's made up 3/4 of the world's population. When one family comes to dominate culture and commerce in an age of diminishing biodiversity, the prospects for maintaining a healthy ecosystem become nil to nothing.
So the quest to maintain a healthy body suddenly became linked to the more vital quest to maintain a healthy planet for our children and grand-children.
As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, dedicated to preserving our environment, and reasonably expected to walk our talk the decision became natural. I decided to adopt a new and very rigorous diet to complement the one I was on back at Harvard before my first Borneo expedition. It would be a diet I would maintain not just when out exploring, but every day, at home and in the field. It would be a diet that, through its complete dismissal of our "daily bread", would complement my desire to eschew the "non-nutritional cash crops" that destroy health and local economies. It would be a diet that I will continue for the rest of my life to model for my son and daughter as they grow to appreciate their role in this marvelous and fragile blue planet three rocks from the sun. It is a diet that served me very very well on my last expedition with Alton Byers and Chris Rainier and Anrita Sherpa to explore "last mile technology" in some of the remotest places on earth. It is a diet I have decided to bring home, out of the cold and into my own kitchen. I have decided from now on that I will...
KEEP OFF THE GRASS.
As with most explorations, we'll have to wait and see what we discover...