Hilda Labrada Gore: My guest, Lindsea Willon, studied nutritional sciences and was a college athlete at the University of California, Berkeley. She also has a master’s degree in kinesiology and is certified as a nutritional therapy practitioner. She is on the staff of the Biodynamic Wellness Group in San Diego. All of these experiences have helped Lindsea put two and two together to understand the importance of a nutritionally complete diet. She gives us insight into how we should fuel our bodies to stay strong and how to avoid ending up on a sugar roller coaster. She says we don’t need to get “hangry” or suffer from sleeplessness or premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Lindsea, how did you get into the dietary field? I understand you were an athlete in high school and college.
Lindsea Willon: Yes. In high school, I was blessed to have a mom and a neighbor who fueled me with Wise Traditions food and the most wonderful diet a high school athlete could have. I was a wonderfully healthy lacrosse player, able to be a starter and play the whole game with no exhaustion and no injuries. It was great. In college, however, I began eating a less-than-optimal Standard American Diet in the dorm, and I quickly regressed. During the second year of eating on my own and not being very well-informed, I tore my meniscus and my MCL (medial collateral ligament) and was so exhausted after exercise that I had to nap between classes and after practices. I felt sick.
HG: You could tell the difference because you had been fed the Wise Traditions way, and suddenly you’re away at college and not eating well.
LW: Absolutely. Of course, college is a totally different environment, but the biggest change was the difference in the butter that was served and the processed food that was in the dorms. The food that I had been used to in high school was unavailable.
HG: Were you looking for that food you were used to? Or were you a typical teenager who thought, “Oh mom, what does she know?”
LW: I actually went to college to figure out what my mother knew. My mom became a nutritional therapy practitioner when I was in high school. I went to college to study nutrition to figure out how all that worked, but I didn’t start to practice what I was preaching until later in my college years.
HG: I feel for all those college athletes who haven’t been raised on a diet like yours. They’ve been eating badly all the time. I’m sure they were prone to injury and fatigue.
LW: Absolutely. I saw the health of my entire team improve as soon as we started to follow what I was learning and had learned from my mom. Everyone on the team improved as athletes. It was such a strong example of how important our diet is.
HG: I only wish you had taken pictures like Dr. Price did.
LW: I wish I could have documented that. I think that our junior year national championship win—after we started eating better—can be attributed to our diet. But yes, I really wish I could have interviewed all the girls and asked them how they were feeling and how much better they were once they started eating what I was making for them or after they listened to me when I said that butter was really good for them.
HG: I like the fact that you can speak not only to the experience you had, but also to the science. You have studied all this deeply. As a matter of fact, you are going to be a professor in the spring, right? Tell us a little bit about what you’ve studied and the impact that’s made on what you have to share with people.
LW: My undergraduate degree was in nutritional sciences, with a focus on biochemistry. Because of my experience playing lacrosse as a collegiate athlete and afterwards in the world of CrossFit, I decided to focus more on the kinesiology aspect of health. My master’s degree is in exercise physiology or kinesiology. It was very biochemistry-focused to understand the fuel utilization of the skeletal muscle cells. I focused on how we use sugar, how we use fat, what happens post-exercise as we are trying to recover and how important it is to feed the body well to improve not only our entire health, but specifically the health of the cells.
HG: I’m glad you are going to speak to this, and I want us to go in depth because I find a lot of people thinking that they just need to up their intake of fruits and vegetables. They think that’s what their body needs to function best. What do you think of that?
LW: It is such a good question. I feel like in our history, in our political food history, so many food groups have been villainized but fruits and vegetables have been spared. They are widely considered fresh, vibrant and full of antioxidants and really the best food for you. Everyone can agree that fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy diet, no matter what side of the political nutrition spectrum you come from. The problem is that we overeat fruits without regard for the fact that in the body, fruit is just sugar. Our body does not have a separate biochemical energy pathway for fruit or starchy vegetables. Our body breaks them completely down into glucose. So when you fill your plate with yams, potatoes, beets, carrots, apricots or bananas, your body sees that as one big pile of sugar.
HG: Wow. That is eye-opening. I think one thing that threw us off was the food pyramid, because at the bottom were all the starchy grains, breads and pasta. Higher up, they had fruits and vegetables in a separate category. That might have added to our confusion.
LW: Absolutely, they are completely separated in everyone’s brain. They are and they should be considered separate food groups but, at the end of the day, our body does not see food in nine different food groups. It sees it as “this is fat,” “this is sugar” or “this is a protein” and that is what it breaks down to. Of course, we want to have a holistic view of food. I don’t want to look at my plate and see macronutrients. I want to see where the food came from and what animal made it. For our bodies, though, we need to avoid overloading our plate with just sugar.
HG: Let’s say I start my day with some bananas and berries. What is happening inside my body when all that sugar is coming down the pike?
LW: When you start your day with fruit, you think you are doing the “right” thing, but at the end of the day—or unfortunately, at the beginning of your day—this is what begins the blood sugar roller coaster, particularly if you are eating all that sugar with very little fiber, protein or especially fat with it. Think of fruit juices, even fresh fruit juices. Juice is just the fruit sugar taken away from the fiber. If you want to enjoy fresh-pressed juice, make sure you’ve got some raw milk to add to it or a nice dab of raw cream, because the fat will help slow the absorption of that sugar into your bloodstream.
The reason the rate at which sugar hits the bloodstream is so important is because that is what determines how much insulin you produce, or whether your body has to overproduce insulin in response to your sugar. If you start your day with fruit juice, your blood sugar is going to increase very quickly. Your body is going to produce insulin to compensate. Then comes the sugar crash. It’s 10:00 AM and you are reaching for coffee, because you’re tired. Or you reach for a muffin to get you back up, to keep you going until lunch.
That is the sugar roller coaster. Your blood sugar increases. Most people are insulin-resistant so they have to overproduce insulin in order to get the proper effect of lowering blood sugar. And then it decreases the sugar too much.
Imagine you are in the desert in Arizona, and your air conditioner is super sensitive. Let’s say the air inside the house goes up to eighty degrees. The air conditioner kicks on, but instead of bringing it to a nice seventy degrees, it takes it to fifty degrees. Suddenly you go from being slightly uncomfortably hot to grabbing a blanket because the air conditioner is too effective. Basically what is happening in the body is that an overly reactive pancreas is overproducing insulin. We’ve got sugar coming in, and if it is coming in quickly, our body gets nervous: “Oh, there might be a lot more sugar behind it.” Even if it is just a banana, if it hits our blood sugar quickly, the body is going to overreact. You just went from eighty degrees to fifty degrees too quickly; the air conditioner kicked on too strong. The insulin you produced was too much for what you ate, and now you have low blood sugar.
HG: I know people who are on this sugar roller coaster. They will grab a banana for breakfast and then a couple hours later, they will be “hangry,” as they call it, meaning they are irritable because of hunger. I understand that something else should be eaten with that banana, because the banana alone is going to cause a problem. I don’t understand all the science behind it as you do, but I can see what happens to them isn’t good.
LW: Absolutely. It is so common, and it plays out in the entire day. You grab sugar for breakfast, no matter what it looks like, then you get some kind of sugar mid-morning. By lunch, you are craving carbohydrates, so you have what turns into sugar for lunch. I don’t know how people stay awake from 2:00 to 4:00 PM if they are on this sugar roller coaster. That is when it hits the hardest. That is when you see everyone in line at a coffee shop trying to get themselves through the work day. Then they expect to sleep through the night and have energy. It is a terrible vicious cycle.
HG: When I think of insulin, I think of diabetics. Can you help us get a better understanding on what it means to be insulin-resistant?
LW: My favorite way to think about insulin resistance is to compare it to a car alarm. Hearing a car alarm is really annoying. Immediately, you get up and shut your windows. You may try to figure out where the noise is coming from and try to make it stop. In our body, insulin is a signal that says, “Hey, there is too much sugar in the blood. Muscle cells, liver cells, brain cells, whoever you are, take up this sugar and get it out of the blood because there is too much there.” It is alarming, so all of our muscles, our cells, everyone listens. They get the blood sugar back to normal.
Now, imagine you are that person who is eating fruit for breakfast, drinking a lot of coffee and eating a lot of carbs. You are on a blood sugar roller coaster, which means you are hearing that car alarm all day long. You’ve become accustomed to it, so it is not alarming anymore. It is slightly annoying, but it isn’t causing you to take action. When your body sees the insulin, it now thinks it doesn’t need to do anything. Your cells stop listening and that is what insulin resistance is, which usually leads to your body having to overproduce insulin. This form of insulin resistance is subclinical. Your doctor isn’t going to see this on labs. You are not diabetic or even prediabetic. You are just insulin-resistant on a sugar roller coaster heading down the road of gaining weight, with effects on your cortisol, your adrenals and all of your hormones. Often insulin resistance results in high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sometimes polycystic ovary syndrome. Obesity and diabetes are the end game, and this can happen in this resistant state long before you are ever diagnosed with anything.
HG: What we really want to do is wake up and get off that roller coaster, but unless we have a physical condition or some crisis that the doctor can measure, we often just ignore that car alarm.
LW: Absolutely. It happens with so many aspects of health. We think that the symptoms we are experiencing are normal because “Everyone gets tired at 2:00 PM” “Everyone gets ‘hangry’ before they eat.” “Hangry” is a funny term now. It seems so normal because everyone deals with it, but this is a symptom of dysfunction. We need to view these symptoms as a sign of dysfunction, and then we can start making a change.
HG: My podcast guests often say, “We think what is common is normal, but there is a difference.” In other words, just because everyone is “hangry” doesn’t mean it is normal or how things are supposed to be.
LW: That is so true. The “hangry-ness” is just a symptom of blood sugar dysregulation. We need to get out of the habit of normalizing these health symptoms—from headaches to PMS to being “hangry” to sleep problems. These are things that no one should be experiencing.
HG: And from what you’ve studied, these things are all interrelated?
LW: Of course, absolutely. Our body is so much more advanced than we give it credit for. Everything is so interconnected, and sugar is our body’s energy source. It is what feeds our heart, it is what feeds our brain. So of course, this is important to the body. Everything is tied back to sugar because it is a fuel source in the body. The sugar issue is going to affect all systems in the body and all aspects of health.
HG: Let’s talk about some solutions now. Let’s talk about ways to attack and avoid this insulin resistance and blood sugar roller coaster.
LW: The easiest one is to eat more fat. When we pair sugar with fat, we slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, thus letting the body see the sugar in a more reasonable way so we don’t overproduce insulin. Eat the banana with some soaked almonds. Now the sugar is basically time-released into the bloodstream and the body does not need to produce as much insulin. I think that most of your podcast listeners understand the dietary piece, but what a lot of people don’t understand is how important exercise is to the insulin and sugar discussion.
HG: I’m glad you bring that up because with the Wise Traditions diet and the Weston Price principles, we are focused a lot on the food we eat. But movement is critical, too.
LW: Absolutely. Most people don’t know that even if they are diabetic and are having blood sugar regulation issues, if they were to test themselves and find high blood sugar—higher than normal—instead of using insulin they could exercise. What that does is tell the skeletal muscle cells that they need food, and their food is the sugar in the blood. Those cells will start to take up that sugar in a way that is not related to insulin. So we are bypassing the problem that diabetics have with insulin by exercising, and still getting the sugar out of the blood. HG: Do conventional doctors give this advice? It sounds great that instead of injecting yourself with insulin you could move.
LW: Yes it does and I wish more people did it. I don’t think it is a conventional treatment plan. A lot of what we studied in kinesiology is how we can use exercise prescription as a support for health and how important it is for doctors to talk about not only diet but also exercise as a prescription, as a recommendation to better one’s overall health.
HG: I like “prescription” better than “recommendation” because I think doctors are already recommending movement and many people say “not today.”
LW: Exercise prescription is definitely a big thing in the kinesiology world. We are hoping to make a change and improve the amount that is recommended. I think people think that if you move a couple times a day for 20 minutes, you’ll be great. If people understood not only the importance of aerobic exercise, but also how important resistance training can be for the body long-term and for this insulin situation, more people would be doing it.
HG: So not just cardio, but some strengthening and toning with resistance weights.
LW: Absolutely. When most people talk about improving insulin immediately, we are looking at cardiovascular-type exercise—that is the type of fuel that your body needs in those movements. But when we are looking at the effects of training long-term, if you have worked out for twelve weeks, there are significant changes at a cellular level that can improve the way your skeletal muscle cells listen to that car alarm. They start to listen to the car alarm again. Part of my graduate student research was on how squatting, resistance training and running or aerobic training can have long-term positive effects on how your body manages sugar in the blood.
HG: That is fascinating. So adding fat to our diet can help slow down our absorption of sugar and the shock to the body. And then movement can help. Are there any other tips you can give us on how to address this issue?
LW: Eat less sugar. No, really, the idea is basically helping your body manage blood sugar in a way that it is used to. Our bodies have not evolved to deal with the two-hundred-some-odd pounds of sugar per person, per year, that we are consuming. Our bodies are well adapted to go without sugar. Our bodies evolved to withstand starvation and to withstand the lack of fruit in the diet. We have not evolved to deal with too much sugar in the bloodstream. This is new to our body. Look around at the health statistics and you see that we are paying for it. When we start treating our body like it should be treated, giving it the food it is used to, evolutionarily, then we are going to be a lot better off long-term.
HG: But aren’t there people, even dietitians, who say, “Eat your fruits and vegetables”? They are giving a different message than you are. What do we do with these conflicting messages?
LW: It is such a good question, and I think that most practitioners like myself encounter this all the time. We spend so much time educating our clients and then at the end of the talk, they ask, “Well, to whom do I listen, whom do I trust?” We live in this information age where you can google topics and come up with fifteen different opinions on anything related to health. Usually, what I’ll say to those people is, “Don’t listen to me, don’t listen to the science where we don’t even know who funded it. Listen to great grandma.” Listen to the cultures, to our ancestors and to traditions. They had wisdom for a reason. It was life or death for them. If they were not eating properly, they were not growing up healthy, they weren’t finding mates and they were not growing up strong enough to fend for themselves. They weren’t healthy enough to feed their families. They weren’t living long enough to have babies. It was life or death for them and when they found something that worked, they put it in their songs, in their religious texts and in writing. They told it to everyone they knew—and that is the type of wisdom that we’ve lost.
Now, we say, “Oh, this has six grams of sugar, therefore my dietitian thinks that it is okay for me to eat.” We’ve come so far from listening to the wisdom about what is good food. We are misinformed and gullible walking down a grocery store aisle and thinking that all the things that say “natural” and “organic” are healthy. We fill our carts with total disregard for what the items look like, where they came from or whether they are even real food.
HG: That is such a good point. I went to a foodie conference recently and every single meal was served in a plastic container. I expected to get some pictures of good food and get some good food in my body. I was so disappointed. It wasn’t real food even though the conference was supposedly focused on nourishing food.
LW: It is so true. We go into these grocery stores where their whole brand is about healthy food, and yet when we start reading the list of ingredients that is a mile long, we very quickly realize that this was not made on a farm but in a lab. That is not what we should be eating.
HG: We really need to pay attention to what we are putting in our bodies and to the wisdom of the past. But also, we need to pay attention to how our bodies are responding, because your body told you as a young person in your second year playing lacrosse in college, “Something’s not right.”
LW: And I had the benefit of knowing how my healthy body felt. Not a lot of people know that. They just know how their body has felt their whole life and, therefore, they think that is normal. We are always told that our temperature is unique to us. We are all biochemically different people. So yes, your temperature runs a little high, but it is not the case that you “just have cramps.” You don’t just “get injured easily.” These are things that we take as temperatures for ourselves. We say, “It has been like that forever” and totally disregard the fact that it just means that you’ve been sick forever. I had the benefit of going into college knowing what my healthy body felt like, so when it broke down, I was very aware. And I knew that this was not a normal thing despite what the trainers were thinking. “People injure their MCLs all the time” or “People tear their meniscus all the time,” no problem, no big deal. Okay, but why? That is what we need to figure out. At the end of the day, our body is fit for survival. If our lungs and our brains and our heart are working, we survive. The body doesn’t care about your meniscus. As an athlete, all you care about is your musculoskeletal system, but your body doesn’t get that memo. Unless you have perfect nutrition, your body is taking all of the nutrition you eat and giving it to the organs. Let’s say you are getting 50 percent of the nutrients you need. That will go 100 percent to the organs your body prioritizes, and zero percent to the muscles and tendons that as an athlete you care about. As soon as your nutrition falters, it is your musculoskeletal system that takes the biggest hit because it seems superfluous to the body’s survival, despite what the huge checks that NFL players are bringing in would like to argue.
HG: That is such a good point. I’ve never thought about that before.
LW: It is not something we think about. Instead we think, “You are an athlete, you are a high-performance machine and need high-performance fuel.” But we don’t talk about why that is so important and the biology. I hate to be blunt, but the body doesn’t care that you need your knees.
HG: It is going to save what is most important, the internal organs, the heart, the liver. The other stuff is gravy. But if you had your gravy, that injury wouldn’t have happened?
LW: Exactly. If you had had your gravy, that is the difference between a season in which you’re injured and a season in which you play the entire season and get brought up to the next level of your sport, where you get the accolades, you score the touchdowns, you score the winning goal. That is the difference. It is that 95 percent to 100 percent, and those are the inches in which professional athletes function and fight over and fight for. It is that last bit of nutrition that is going to make that difference.
HG: I think that this conversation is really going to appeal to those who are trying to improve their athletic performance, but also to the everyday Joe who is stuck on this sugar roller coaster and is having insulin resistance. If people could do only one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend they do?
LW: Okay, if I can fudge and say two things, first is always to pair your sugar with fats and eat more fat. That is going to get you off of the blood sugar roller coaster. The second suggestion is to move. If you don’t like to run, lift weights. If lifting weights intimidates you, go for a walk, surf or do yoga. Go do something. Move your body like it is meant to move and eat your food in proper combinations.