The effect of diet on energy & focus

I’m opening this thread to continue a conversation that started elsewhere on the forum about tracking diet and energy/focus. I’m embarking on my own attempt to answer some questions about this, and I’d appreciate any advice about what has worked for others.

Background: After interviewing Tim Ferriss for Wired last year I dramatically reduced the amount of carbohydrates in my diet. I cut out grains entirely and cut back on fruit, which I had been eating a lot of. (I never had much of a sweet tooth, so this wasn’t an issue.) To make up for the loss of calories I increased my consumption of beans, meat, eggs, and dairy. (I quickly lost the 10 pounds I’d put on in the 2+ years since the birth of my daughter.)

However, I noticed some effects I didn’t like. When I had very low carbs often I felt an unpleasant sensation of agitation, and a mental fogginess. I also had waves of tiredness, and occasional flushing. When, influenced by Seth Roberts, I added flax seed oil to my diet, the symptoms got worse, and when I went back towards a more typical diet, with some grains in moderate quantities, I felt better.

I count this as a successful experiment: I tried something, discovered one positive effect (lost weight) and some negative effects, and I now feel that I know myself better. But my curiosity is piqued, and I’m starting to track my diet and energy in detail, to see what else I can learn.

PS: Seth’s theory about food familiarity predicts that I would lose weight from a sudden change in diet, regardless of the foods chosen. Interesting to speculate whether the weight loss associated with low carbs was caused by lower appetite due to less familiar foods. Again, I wasn’t gorging on carbs before, this was more a case of trying to change one type of calories for another.

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I’ve been doing a similar experiment recently, but haven’t done my data analysis yet to see whether it has been working. As of last week I was traveling and ate much more like I used to before the experiment, and I noticed brain fogs, headaches, energy dips, and lots of gas. Now I realize that I had probably always had those symptoms, but I hadn’t realized it until the experimentation made me pay more attention and notice that they aren’t actually normal!

I’m looking forward to getting more exact results, as I think this will be a huge productivity boost.

Great thread, Gary! I’m always doing dietary experiments, and most recently tried adding flax seed oil (just 1/2 tsp/day). I started 4 days ago, and have noticed such a consistent increase in happiness and energy each day that my husband asked who I was and what happened to Alex, without knowing about the flax oil. But going along with that seems to be a decrease in productivity, as well as a lack of concern for the lack of productivity!! :slight_smile: I guess I’ll see if the effect continues, and play with the dose to find a good balance.

My blog is flaking right now thanks to dreamhost, but there’s a video of a talk I gave about mycotoxins you should see.

The longer most people are on a low carb diet, the more likely they are to have problems with energy, tiredness, flushing, or headaches. I won’t do the disservice of naming him, but one of the top proponents of paleo type diets has the same problems. I was on “paleo” before it was named, because I derived it from biochemistry principles, and ended up at a lower toxin diet high in the right fats - which mostly overlaps with paleo, but with key differences.

I spent years quantifying the changes in my awareness - usually using the margins of my work notebooks to record awareness level and Freecell performance - and tracing them back to what I had eaten in the preceeding days. I also correlated anger/irritability and joint pain.

The real pisser is that it’s not a single variable problem. Eating meat isn’t the problem. Eating grain-fed meat is a part of the problem (well known omega 6 probs). Eating meat that ate mold-contaminated grain may be part of the problem, if you’re allergic to the molds that grow where the grain was grown. Eating meat that was slaughtered in a mold-contaminated slaughterhouse and sat in vacuum pack, culturing meat-eating infectious fungus, DEFINITELY a problem (for cancer, heart disease, cognitive decline, anger)…but even grass-fed meat can have that last problem. Then there’s the issue of how you cook it, which introduces another class of toxins that affect cancer and cardiovascular/blood pressure things (flushing…which can also be an allergic response…)

My experience and correlations and biochemical research all say that the #1 reason you get fat is that your body is storing mycotoxins (and other classes of toxins) in fat when your liver can’t oxidize them fast enough to excrete them. That’s why the Bulletproof Diet works - why I can eat 4500 calories a day without gaining fat. I don’t eat toxins in anything I eat, and when I do inadvertently, I know how my body responds so I can avoid that source again. This is the only explanation for half the studies showing meat is bad for you, and the other half saying its good for you. Or chocolate. Or coffee. Or almost any other (non-processed) food that has well designed studies with differing outcomes.

You can explain Seth’s theory with the notion that inflammatory responses to normally eaten foods are higher than unusual ones, and normal allergies to mold contaminants (a trigger of food allergies themselves) are not the same in the new foods. It’s a major reason people do well for a month or two on raw vegan diets - it’s a major change in the toxin profile of foods.

The good news it that you can block most of these toxins or avoid them by carefully choosing your foods as described on my diet!

This is really common - in another blog post on my site, Ben the CTO of Zeo called to ask me about why he had a major decline in energy and productivity in the evening. A mycotoxin-aware scan of his food that day showed he ate cashews, a very high risk food, a half hour before the symptoms. He skipped cashews and the problem went away. But not ALL cashews have that problem, just the 70% that are probably contaminated by poor storage and harvesting processes.

Multivariate challenges are horrible to troubleshoot with foods. Years ago, I had hives. Turns out they only came out from a combination of red pepper flakes (common mold source that lowers liver function) combined with dry-cleaned clothes. Neither variable by itself caused symptoms. Took 18 months to track that one down, before I learned how to fix liver function instead.

Anyway, I could go on, but hopefully this is food for thought! [hr]
I forgot the other big variable - flax oil is very unstable in air and light. The impact it has on you will depend on how it is pressed and stored. Most people I have worked with who were long-term flax oil users benefited greatly, especially skin dryness, from giving it up. My wife was unable to gain any bodyweight (she was 20lbs too light when I met her) until she gave up flax oil and soy milk. We tested them separately - flax was a big part of the problem, but not the only one. After giving up both, she gained 20lbs in 2 months and stopped gaining at exactly her target weight, without any calorie counting then or ever.

Alex, have you compared flax vs krill oil or salmon oil or EPA/DHA blends? Knowing what you do, I suspect you have, but from what I know people tend to do better on phosphorylated fatty acids vs flax or borage. Worth comparing your alertness on all forms of EFAs.

I’ve been keeping an energy and food journal with Tonic for one day now, and have already learned one thing: it is very easy to identify the problem episodes. I was worried there would be some ambiguity, but I am never in doubt. I use a 3 point scale: 1=good, 2=medium, 3=poor. I moved through all three points on the scale today.

One interesting note: I had one extreme tiredness episode, at 12:39 pm. So tired that I had another cup of coffee, which normally try not to do after noon because afternoon coffee affects my sleep and I tend to have insomnia. But I couldn’t take the exhaustion I suddenly felt; it was either strong coffee or a nap, and I really wanted to keep working. Interesting to come on this board now at 11:30 pm and see Dave’s note about mycotoxins and nuts. The last food I ate before the tiredness episode was 1 cup of organic, unsalted peanuts from Trader Joe’s. Another interesting factor: when I cut out grains and reduced my fruits under the influence of paleo friends, I started to eat a lot more nuts.

Of course, now that I’ve read this I’m primed to feel tired after eating nuts. So the logical thing to do is to eliminate all nuts for a few days at least and see what happens. (I’m tracking all food.)

Gary, that’s too funny. Peanuts are the single moldiest nut - the highest risk of all. I suspect you will be surprised at what you learn from eliminating nuts. :slight_smile:

Thanks for your question, Dave! Yes, I’ve experimented with various kinds of fish oil, and always end up feeling no change in mood (or possibly worse) but also pretty intense orthostatic hypotension (blacking out when I stand up). I already have really low blood pressure to begin with, so it’s easy for new things to tip me into blackouts.

Flax oil doesn’t make me black out AND makes me feel amazingly happy, so it works for me for now! :slight_smile: And when I look back objectively at the week, I did get a lot of work done even though I didn’t feel like I was working hard. But yes, very important to keep it fresh, dark, and cold.

Interesting thread!

Linking these posts because they belong in this thread:

… continuing:

I’ve been doing the Slow Carb diet to the letter since 29 April 2011. It’s been 12 weeks and I’ve lost 12 lb. On the way to my weight loss goal (-11 lb) I learned (realized?) that body fat percentage is a much better measurement of fat loss – but that’s for another thread. To the point in this thread:

About two days into the Slow Carb diet I had a rush of boundless energy, as if a heavy fog had lifted and I could see and think and focus “again”. Very cool. After a few days that feeling lessened, but I continued to consistently feel “level”, well, and clear-headed – not perfectly, but much better than I had been feeling before I started the diet. This feeling of well-being and clarity has stuck with me since, except on binge day (once a week), when I eat whatever I want; I feel awful on binge day.

Binge day aside, and to comment on Gary’s feeling bad on Slow Carb: I find that if I let myself get very hungry on Slow Carb I get mild headaches and I’m irritable. I think this is pure hunger. So I don’t let myself get very hungry on Slow Carb by eating a LOT of the allowed foods. As Tim Ferriss mentions in the “4 Hour Body” you’ve got to eat a lot more than you’re used to for the calories, since the allowed foods tend to be lacking in calories. Examples: I routinely eat a 1 lb steak with half a bag of broccoli and maybe even an egg for dinner. For lunch I eat “half a chicken” with black beans and coleslaw. As long as I eat as much as I want (maybe a bit more) of the allowed foods I find that I do not experience the headaches and mental fatigue episodes, I keep losing about a pound a week, and I feel consistently much more “level” and clear-headed than before I went on the diet. This is not some big push for Slow Carb, it’s just that I’ve felt so much better on the diet as long as I eat the allowed foods like a pig. :slight_smile:

Gary: Were you eating a lot of the allowed foods? Has anyone else noticed the headaches and irritability on Slow Carb and found that eating more of the allowed foods helped?

I loosely tracked some metrics for a week or two but that trailed off as I saw less and less reason to track them…

Hi - thanks for your detailed post. I’ve heard this from others; my experience is not exactly the same. I was eating very large amounts of these foods, especially meat, eggs, and beans, and I still lost weight. So to this extent the diet worked well for me. But the feeling of mental fogginess was too high a cost. I have returned to a more normal diet and have noticed some weight gain - not good. But mentally I feel much better. Dave Asprey, above, suggests that specific food allergies may be the cause, thus the more extensive tracking I’m doing now. But I’m not taking brown rice (about 1 cup), some whole wheat bread (1-2 slices) or some pasta (perhaps 4 ounces, cooked) and daily fruit (1-2 cups) out of my diet again without assuring myself I won’t return to a mental foggy state.

Gary, specific food allergies may well be the cause, but quite often, it’s not just allergies, and that was a key breakthrough that led me to make the Bulletproof Diet. Allergy rotation diets (4 days avoidance of a class of foods) combined with journaling are HUGE to determine if you have allergies. But it sucks if you have allergies, avoid the foods, and STILL get energy dips. That’s why my diet also accounts for toxins that are sometimes present in foods you are not allergic to, toxins that cause mental fog and weight gain (in addition to athersclerosis and cancer).

Gary, a “safer” way for you to experiment is to see if you replace your wheat-based carbs with either more rice or yams to see if you benefit. Wheat is bad for you for lots of reasons (lectins, gluten, etc.) but baker’s yeast has even worse effects. Eliminating bread is unlikely to cause brain fog. If you find you eliminate wheat while maintaining your carbs and can lose weight, great! Then take a look at the fruit and see if eliminating fructose will help more, esp with blood chemistry.

If you start to feel bad, add some dextrose to see if it’s a blood glucose problem vs an insulin problem. On The Bulletproof Diet, you can eat “safe” carbs (ie yams, sweet potatoes, and white rice) as you feel you need them as long as your eat lots of grass-fed healthy saturated fat and coconut oil, and for purists or people who have energy issues or are looking to maximize fat loss, the high-caprylic MCT oil I recommend (it’s different from generic ones in its composition).

If fog comes during your experiments, you can reverse it very quickly. Here is the “kitchen sink” recipe for undoing brain fog: 20+ grams L-glutamine, 5-10 grams D-ribose, 1-4 tbsp dextrose, 1 Tbs this MCT oil (disclosure: I run that site, but it’s the only way I could get the inventor of it to put it online, and it sells at breakeven - it’s there because I want it to exist!), plus acetyl-l-carnitine. At a different time of day, do the detox from my mycotoxin video, and I’d bet $50 that your fog is gone in less than a day.

BING! Sounds like the exact reason this site and movement exists, yes?

Have you done any blood work?

What is the reasoning for indulging in gluten verses eating sweet potatoes/yams as a carb source?

Really great advice. Today, no wheat at all (substituted rice). So far, no severe episodes of brain fog, one mid-afternoon dip… Dave’s detailed post offers a bunch of great ideas I’m going to try. Will report back with graphs of energy by end of week. (Keeping a detailed food log.)

Super excited to see how you do, Gary. Keep in mind that gluten also breaks down to gluteomorphin, a morphine-analogue, in lots of people (maybe 70% depending on how good their digestion is). It triggers opiate receptors in the brain and leads to cravings and withdrawal symptoms when you give up wheat. You may feel weird for 4 days or so, after which it will dissipate. Even one piece of bread will bring cravings back, very subtle ones, where you tend to convince yourself that just one piece the next day will be ok. It’s a fascinating effect, if you’re one of the gluteomorphin-generators like I am. I haven’t quantified the craving curve, but I could draw the shape of the curve from experience…

Thanks Dave! The trial continues. Will post some numbers Friday.

This is an interesting recipe to try: I will. My attempt to improve concentration and focus has < 1 day time span. When I was on the low carb diet, the brain fog was hard to predict. Once I went off it, conditions improved, and now tiredness/lack of focus episodes typically last 2 hours at most, and they often come on within 30 minutes of eating, which suggests something more or less directly related to diet. An interesting side note, and a nod to complexity: there is clearly a relation also to overall sleep deprivation, and also to insomnia patterns; and the whole package of issues really appeared for the first time after our daughter was born and sleep was disrupted. One of the illusions of the self-optimization scene, as I’ve encountered it in many discussions, is the belief that identifying an ideal pattern (x amount of sleep, certain kinds of dietary and behavioral “hygiene”) is a sufficient answer, when if fact our lives are imbedded in patterns that involve others. This embedding is a feature, not a bug. There isn’t an ideal “life” somehow next to our “real” lives. Even if we think we can turn behavioral patterns on and off to match a theorized optimum, our actions often tell us otherwise. This is why really lightweight answers are so appealing.

Take, for instance, the “slow carb” diet. One of Ferriss’s important recommendation is that you eat the same simple meals over and over again. But if you live in a family, this may not be so easy. A family, after all, is not necessary a bug in the system. Nor are friends and colleagues who refuse to be treated as engineering components of an optimizable system, even if you were tempted to treat them that way. Usually, I’m not tempted.

Thus advice that includes large changes is often impossible to implement. Or let’s just say: “very difficult and not appealing.” The applicability of Seth’s ideas about appetite control, and Dave’s advocacy of MCT oil, are worth figuring out, because they don’t require major changes in the patterns of our lives.

Gary, I couldn’t agree more with you. On a private call with Tim Ferriss, he expressed that he thought he could have written 4HB if he had a family. It made me laugh - it’s easy to live 4HB without kids. Kids make it a lot harder to control your biochemistry on all sorts of levels, from nutrition to sleep to cortisol to psychology! That’s why I like small changes that fit into complex life too.

Given your 2 hour fog description, another experiment is to take 4 activated charcoal capsules with meals consistently to see if the incidence of fog goes down. If it does, you’re looking at mycotoxins most likely, or less likely an allergy. If it has no effect, you’re probably looking at food allergies, not mycotoxins.

That is a massive line.

Dave, your input sparked something in my head that I was unaware of, my judging of patterns other than mine to be out of sync/ridiculous. An attitude that says, “You just wait until you have a teenager/baby/are married/turn 40.” Perhaps quantifying AND sharing data can lessen this tendency. Maybe it will breed an attitude of awe, compassion, and…I am off topic.

The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (It has been over a decade since I read that book) speaks to some of this. Systems theory or better yet, our environment plays a massive role in change and this quant biz. At least, it does for me.

I found it incredibly difficult-meaning I kept starting again-to quit smoking when I was hanging around with smokers. Most of my friends were smokers. I had to change many relationships in order to do what I thought best for me. Some of those friends stuck and understood. Several did not. I then had to deal with frustration, guilt, other issues that surrounded what I thought was a good choice for me. That change made me want to do what I was trying to quit doing.

Per usual I have Digressed.

Sweet potatoes and Yams. 100 grams a day is what I needed for mental sharpness AND to keep my adrenal function stable along with keeping depression/anxiety at bay.

During the summer months, and if I increase sleep I can get away with 50 grams or less.

That’s funny, Jscott. Until 4 years ago, I said the exact same thing, along the lines of “shut up and stop whining, you chose to have kids…” (my oldest is 4). I was completely unprepared for how disruptive kids were, both to biohacking and to personal wellness. I had to adjust a lot of my routines to stay sane. Now I have more compassion for other parents…and a bit of envy for my friends who don’t have kids and have all that free time to biohack. :slight_smile:

It’s interesting that you can reduce carbs and get more sleep in summer - lots of paleo-friendly theories say that you should eat more carbs and sleep less in summer (longer days, fattening up) before winter (longer nights, less fruit naturally).

[quote=“Dave_Asprey, post:17, topic:141”]
I had to adjust a lot of my routines to stay sane. Now I have more compassion for other parents…and a bit of envy for my friends who don’t have kids and have all that free time to biohack. :)[/quote]
Sanity is optional. Come on over to the dark side. The water is perfect. (My oldest is 8 btw. So I hear ya)

Lots of people say lots of things that MIGHT be true for the general public to operate at an average level. Does not mean it is right for an individual nor the genetic group that once would have been eliminated in a survival of the fittest model (I am one of those). you know this of course. In short, like you, I pledge my loyalty to no Church of Nutrition.

(I have not heard the more carbs in the summer–have read more carbs in winter to deal with S.A.D. though. )

What is your experience and research in dealing with carb numbers and adrenal function? If you could point to sources it would be of great help.

A quote that struck me about the race to the elite diet that came to mind after rolling Gary’s point about about systems and social life:

Bud Fox: “How much is enough?”
Gordon Gekko: “It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses.”

-Wall Street, the movie[/QUOTE]

I love where this discussion has gone, and though at some point we’ll certainly return to our practical effort to connect diet and focus (for instance, I am going to try yams as you suggest), I can’t resist this digression into the question of why so much advice that seems to make sense is actually useless. Jscott’s quote about zero sum reminds me of Hugh Dubberly’s excellent (abstract, but useful) paper on “Bio-cost: An Economics of Human Behavior.

And if that’s too dry, here’s Tolstoy:

[quote]For an order to be certainly executed, it is necessary that a man
should order what can be executed. But to know what can and what
cannot be executed is impossible, not only in the case of Napoleon’s
invasion of Russia in which millions participated, but even in the
simplest event, for in either case millions of obstacles may arise
to prevent its execution. Every order executed is always one of an
immense number unexecuted. All the impossible orders inconsistent with
the course of events remain unexecuted. Only the possible ones get
linked up with a consecutive series of commands corresponding to a
series of events, and are executed.

Our false conception that an event is caused by a command which
precedes it is due to the fact that when the event has taken place and
out of thousands of others those few commands which were consistent
with that event have been executed, we forget about the others that
were not executed because they could not be. Apart from that, the
chief source of our error in this matter is due to the fact that in
the historical accounts a whole series of innumerable, diverse, and
petty events, such for instance as all those which led the French
armies to Russia, is generalized into one event in accord with the
result produced by that series of events, and corresponding with
this generalization the whole series of commands is also generalized
into a single expression of will.[/quote]

Yes, I recognize that Hugh’s microeconomics of human behavior assumes a (limited) will power that the quote seems to deny… but I don’t mean to plunge us into the depths of philosophical conversation as much as to note that confidence about executing explicit plans involving human behavior is often - if not always - unjustified. Attempting to mark the scale at which we have some “pull” is interesting and worthwhile.

I’m going to be away from this forum for much of August, so I thought I would post a quick report of what I’ve learned so far, from just under a week of tracking focus and diet together.


I noted my alertness and focus (one score, 1-3 scale, 1 is best) several times during the day, and always within an hour of eating. I used Tonic to make a quick note. There was no attempt to do this according to a strict schedule. I simply pulled out my phone whenever I remembered. But I always noted when I had a bad episode of mental tiredness/fogginess during the daylight hours. I think I caught all of these as they occurred. Whenever I noted my mental state, I also noted my last meal. I know that alertness and focus are not the same, but I used one number to represent my overall feeling of mental “tone.” The goal wasn’t to take apart the subtleties of my mood, but just to note when I felt good or bad.


Easy to score

It was not hard to notice or score my mental state. Using a 3 point scale was useful because I didn’t have to make subtle judgments. If I felt great, I gave myself a one. If I felt bad, I gave myself a 3. Anything in between, I gave myself a 2. This counts as a lesson, because I wasn’t sure I would be confident of my self-evaluation.

Clear pattern of afternoon fogginess.

Here are the dates times on which I scored “3.” The times before 9:00 are before my first cup of coffee, sometimes after late nights, which isn’t my concern at the moment. (I’m trying to find out what slows me down during the day.) I noted that with exception of the pre-coffee scores, my problem was mostly in the afternoon and early evening. I did track my alertness a bit in the evening, and there were a couple “3” scores very late, but I threw these out because I noted that they came just as I was going to bed, and I want to be sleepy then.

7/22/11 12:39
7/22/11 18:26
7/23/11 12:38
7/23/11 13:39
7/23/11 14:04
7/23/11 20:12
7/24/11 8:51
7/24/11 13:19
7/24/11 15:00
7/24/11 18:19
7/25/11 12:53
7/25/11 20:25
7/26/11 14:01
7/26/11 19:37
7/27/11 13:01
7/28/11 7:12

Some days are a lot better than others

On the afternoons of Saturday the 23rd and Sunday the 24th I had several bad periods.

On Monday the 25th I had one bad period in the early afternoon and one in the early evening.

On Tuesday the 26th I also had one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

On Wednesday the 27th I just had one in the afternoon and one later in the evening (perhaps moving into sleep time already because of late nights previously.)

Then, yesterday, there were none. Today, none.

Without concluding anything about the specific cause yet, I still count finding out that some days are a lot worse than others as valuable. If the days were always more or less the same, I’d be less likely to think it was caused by something that was changing in my behavior or environment, and more likely to think it was just “the way I was.”

Diet is a plausible explanation

The fact that so many of the episodes come either just before mealtime or within an hour after eating is consistent with the idea that it is related to my diet/metabolism. Perhaps not as simple as “this food makes me tired,” but the fact that the pattern matches the meal pattern makes me continue to thing this is good to explore.

My notes have some ideas to pursue. There were three different general conditions that seemed to precede a crash: lack of food, OR very little carbs, OR pasta or bread in the meal. This is not certain, just a hint, because my diet is varied, and the time I eat is varied also, and I only have a week of tracking.

The proof of a pudding is in the eating

After some of the discussion above, I decided to try a few changes. I cut out nuts, and I cut out gluten. I continued to eat the carbs I wanted otherwise, including fruit, oats, and rice. On Wednesday the 27th I didn’t eat much in the morning after a late night of work, and had one afternoon dip. After a short (20 minute) nap I felt better. On the 28th, great day, no crashes. Today, also good. And I noticed that I’ve slept better for two nights in a row.


I feel I’ve got a few ideas it would be great to try. Nuts are a good source of protein, very satisfying, and I’d hate to cut them out of my diet. How important a factor are they? If I can get to a point where I’m not regularly crashing, then I can reintroduce them and find out if they have any relation to my tiredness or not. Same for gluten; an important factor, or just a coincidence? Again, if I can get to a point where I typically have good energy through the afternoon, I can find out.

I hope to pick up this conversation when I return. And I’ll hope I’ll hear something of your experiments in diet and mental focus also!