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508: Simon Hill on Plant-Based Eating, Saturated Fat, and Personalized Nutrition

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the “Wellness Mama Podcast.” I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and wellnesse.com– that’s wellnesse with an “E” on the end. I’m here today with Simon Hill, who is the founder of the very popular “Plant Proof” podcast and blog of the same name, and he is a nutritionist and physiotherapist. And on top of his formal education, he spends a lot of hours reading and deciphering scientific studies, as do I, and so, really breaking them down and isolating variables to explain them clearly. And that’s the reason I wanted to have him on today.

It’s also important to note that Simon is vegan and eats completely plant-based. And I know that I have not had a lot of vegan guests on, and I wanted to bring some diversity into this conversation. And I think his perspective is very valuable, even though he and I have arrived at different dietary approaches, after a lot of the same research, we really delve into some of those commonalities today and talk about some of the specifics of what we’re actually seeing in research when we isolate based on diet quality, things like timing, and also just circadian biology.

So we go a lot of different directions in this one, largely what we can see in the nutrition science research and the importance of considering things like what someone is eating instead when we’re looking at one specific food or variable in research, why he thinks that saturated fats are problematic, especially for heart health, and what he thinks the research says on this. We talk about ApoB and how this affects health, the role of lipoproteins, certain types of cholesterol, low carb versus high carb, low fat versus high fat, and what the data actually says when we isolate all these different variables.

So, like I said, I think it’s a really fascinating conversation. I really appreciate his in-depth look at the research, as well as his approach to all different dietary approaches, even though he’s personally chosen a plant-based approach. And I think it’s a really constructive conversation that I am excited to share with you today. So let’s join Simon. Simon, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Simon: Hey, Katie. Thank you so much for having me. I saw that you’ve now recorded 500-plus episodes. So I feel very honored to be here with you and your guests, your listeners.

Katie: Well, I am excited to chat with you today. I know there’s a lot we’re gonna to get into. Before we do, I have a couple of fun-notes in my show-notes that you are quite the skateboarder for one. So I’d love to hear a little bit about that. And also that you have a dog named “Gnocchi,” which I think is adorable. I’d love to know what kind of dog?

Simon: Yes. So, well, I’m not sure I’m much of a skateboarder anymore. But I did a lot of skateboarding as a kid. And I did well at school. But early on at school, I actually spent a lot of time skateboarding and not attending school, which my parents weren’t too pleased with. But I did become quite a good skateboarder to the point where I thought about trying to make a career out of that. And through a few conversations with my parents, I ended up going down a different path, which I guess I’m fairly thankful for today. And regarding my dog, I have a sausage dog. And I’ve two actually, and one is called “Gnocchi,” and the other is “Giuseppe.” And both of their names were kind of, I guess, inspired through some travels in Italy, and I have a lot of friends in Italy. And I just love gnocchi. So it was a fitting name.

Katie: I love that. I have a dog named after my, at the time 2-year-old, named “Lollipop.” And then my dog is Hemingway, so.

Simon: Beautiful.

Katie: Always fun to hear about dogs. Well, in today’s episode, I love that we’re gonna get to maybe touch on a little bit of controversy, but in a respectful way, because I think you and I come from probably a little bit different perspectives, but probably actually align in a lot of ways. And that’s one thing I’ve said for a long time. And when it comes to health, if we focus on the stuff we agree on, rather than hyper focusing on our differences, I think we would collectively get a lot farther. And I feel like often it becomes this very polarized low-carb versus low-fat, or carnivore versus vegan. And I think we’re setting up what seems to be false dichotomies that are maybe taking away from the big picture. And you have such a good, balanced voice on this. I thought it would be really awesome to have this conversation and to hear your perspective. So, to start off, I guess, broad, I’d love to hear just a little bit about how you got into this world and how you came to your specific approach.

Simon: Sure. So my initial interest in science really stems back to when I was a very small child, 3, 4 years old, it’s probably as far back as I can remember. And I would always see scientific papers printed out around the house in my dad’s car. And he would always highlight and write notes on them. And my dad had done his PhD in physiology, and has gone on to be a professor, and published hundreds and hundreds of papers in journals like Circulation. And sell, for example, leading journals. And his interest is in how our arteries function. And looking at risk factors for type-two diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. His specialty is in vascular stiffness, I won’t go into the details of that.

But for me, being surrounded by that, I developed this deep appreciation for science from a very early age. And of course, I couldn’t make much sense of it then. But through discussions with my dad, I began to see that science was this beautiful method where we can investigate and test certain hypotheses, and test our intuition in an objective manner, and reduce uncertainty. And I think that’s a really critical learning, because science is not black and white, and you sort of spoke to that just earlier. It is very nuanced. And it is not about finding definitives and absolutes, but more about reducing that uncertainty, so we can make better decisions.

So growing up being surrounded by that, I kind of always knew that I would end up exploring science in some way. And at one stage, I wanted to be a doctor. And then at another stage I wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps and end up wearing a lab coat and working on a microscope, and looking at cell tissues under a microscope. I ended up exploring physiotherapy. And that was my undergraduate degree. I finished, and started working with professional footballers in Australia, and was really enjoying that. But I always had this feeling that there was a large gap in my understanding of human health and nutrition. It was something that I was very interested in. And so, following my physiotherapy degree, some years later, I enrolled back into university and did a master’s in nutrition science. And really was very interested in how we can fuel ourselves to live healthier for longer. So to improve, not just our longevity, but also our health-span. And it was going through that and developing the skills to read the literature, which then essentially informed what my thesis is today. And the information that I’ve put into my book.

Katie: That makes sense. Some of my, I think, evolution of understanding as well, is like coming from a little bit more of a background in nutrition, and along the way, finding things that worked so well for me, and then being so excited to tell everybody else about them. And then, coming to realize over time, like you said, it’s so individualized and so personalized, and I’ve now come to a place of where I hope is like a childlike curiosity, where I think there’s wisdom and something to learn in all of these different approaches. But that at the end of the day, we each have to take the responsibility to do the experimentation for ourselves, to your point, and to kind of figure out what those specifics are that are gonna work best for each of us. And I know you’ve talked about how there isn’t necessarily a specific, you know, dietary brand, or one size fits all that works for everyone, when it comes to human health, but how this is actually a great thing. And this gives us choice versus becoming overly dogmatic. So can you kind of delve into that a little bit?

Simon: Sure. And I should maybe wind back and just say that a lot of my motivation to go back and do the master’s in nutrition science was because my family has a history of cardiovascular disease. And actually, when I was 15 years old, I watched my dad have a heart attack in front of me. And it was just him and I, and of course, that was a very frightening experience. And you know, he was very, very lucky, he was flown by helicopter to the nearest hospital, they saved his life. But for many people, they don’t get a second chance. You know, the 50% of all deaths from cardiovascular disease, which is a leading cause of death around the world, are sudden cardiac death. That is that, people develop symptoms, and usually die within an hour of the onset of those symptoms, and they have no clinical diagnosis before that event. So obviously, that’s very scary.

And for a number of years, I thought that, well, I’ve just been dealt these genes, and that’s a very disempowering feeling. And so, it was through my studies where I started to feel much more empowered when I was able to see, well, in fact, through our lifestyle, including our diet, which is arguably the most significant contributor to chronic disease, we can really take back some control. Now, with regards to my kind of stance on what a healthy diet looks like, I think we’ve grown accustomed to wanting the silver bullet, or the absolute. And there are new books every month coming out, and they’re very conflicting, and we see headlines that are very conflicting. And the reason for this is that there is no single dietary brand that has been shown by science as the single most optimal diet for human health. Instead, what we see is a set of characteristics that define a healthy diet. And these are consistently associated with people that are living healthier for longer. They’re avoiding these diseases that are plaguing our communities, cardiovascular disease, type-two diabetes, various types of cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc., or at least pushing them back significantly.

And so these characteristics are a diet that is low in ultra-processed foods, first and foremost. Low in saturated fat. Provides a really good amount of unsaturated fats and is rich in fiber. And essentially, when you think about those characteristics, it tends to point towards very plant rich diets. But it certainly can include animal products. And there are certain animal products that are better than others. But when you zoom out and you look at that thing, that could be a very thoughtfully constructed Mediterranean diet, which is an omnivorous diet. It could be a well-planned pescetarian diet, or vegetarian diet, or it could be a well-planned vegan diet. And so, it does give people choice. There is a number of ways to achieve good health. And perhaps it’s not as sexy as going out and saying there is one single diet that is best. And maybe that’s why it doesn’t get as much air-time. But in my view, if you do look at the research with a very objective lens, that’s where you land.

Katie: Yeah, I think that’s such a really important perspective. And I’ve noticed…like you mentioned, I’ve done 500 podcasts now, and I’ve noticed some key themes that everyone regardless of how they got to their approach seems to agree on. And one of those things is certainly that there does not seem to be a need at all, or really much room in a good diet for processed meats, processed foods in general. That’s a very common point. And I think one that’s often missed, and maybe some of the reason for some of the confusion in the different studies, because often those things are all lumped in together. And so we don’t have actually like, to your point, really good, clear objective data that has isolated these variables really well, at least from what I’ve seen.

I’d love to also go a little bit more into the saturated fat equation, because that one has been trendy over the last few years. And I know for a long time in the mainstream realm saturated fat was completely demonized. And then there was a phase of, “No, wait, maybe it’s not as bad as we thought or some types can be good.” And it seems like now maybe that pendulum is coming more back towards center. But I would love to hear, kind of, from your research, what those numbers actually look like, what is the role of saturated fat and these other types of fats in a healthy diet, and how can someone personalize? Because I’ve been very outspoken against processed fats like vegetable oils for a long time in their processed form. But I think even in a lot of the fat studies, like I said, those things have kind of been completed. So I’d love to hear more of your research and perspective.

Simon: So, the most important thing to understand here when we’re talking about a single isolated nutrient is compared to what, and this is why there’s so much confusion when it comes to saturated fat, because you can look at one study and it shows that. Well, in that study, people eating more saturated fat did better. And then if you look at another study, people eating more saturated fat did worse. And it comes down to what they’re being compared to. So if you’re not eating saturated fat rich foods, what are you replacing them with? And this is often overlooked in headlines. And just in general, this is a very important principle, one of kind of a series of principles that I like people to learn about nutrition science, is you should never just think about, is a food or a nutrient healthy or not, unless you’re considering, what would someone be eating instead. That is critical.

Now, overall, it is pretty clear that reducing saturated fat in our diet can reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, which is the most common cause of a heart attack. It is the fatty plaque buildup in the artery that leads to a blockage, which ends up disrupting the flow of oxygenated blood to the heart tissue. What we see is, when you swap saturated fat in the diet, for polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats or unrefined carbohydrates, like whole grains, you see a reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease. But when you swap saturated fats for refined carbohydrates, it’s really a lateral move, or it may even increase risk of cardiovascular disease.

So all in all, the guidelines to reduce saturated fat are good. However, the benefit is largely determined by what people replace it with, and what we saw post-1980s, you know, when the guidelines came out and said, “Let’s eat less saturated fat.” Well, instead of eating more nuts and seeds, for example, we saw a huge increase in ultra-processed foods and a giant jump in total calories consumed. So we can’t look at what’s happened to health since the 1980 guidelines and blame the science for being wrong or the guidelines for being wrong, because the guidelines are one thing, but whether people follow them is something completely different. And we’ve had a food environment that by and large has been set up for people to fail. And so, the data around saturated fat is, it is good, it’s solid, it stems back from very tightly controlled metabolic ward studies. There’s large observational studies. And we could go into the kind of mechanism if you wanted. But it’s largely driven by increasing atherogenic lipoproteins in the blood, people will have heard of LDL cholesterol. And in doing this, more of these particles end up getting retained in the artery wall, which is what leads to that fatty plaque buildup.

Katie: Yeah, I think the point you made about considering what someone’s gonna eat instead, that’s the piece that seems to get overlooked so much when we get into these dietary wars of what’s best. And to your point, since the 1980s, it seems like we’ve seen actually a mild reduction in saturated fat consumption, like you’ve said, but of course, we all know we’re seeing still a rise in heart disease and obesity and a lot of these metabolic factors as well. But you’re right, because when you try to isolate a variable and pull correlation when it doesn’t necessarily relate to the cause at all, we end up with these kind of misconceptions. And we also can look at the data and see that processed food consumption is definitely up across the board. And I feel like that, to your point, is a really, really important part of this conversation.

I’d also love to hear a little bit more about the sugar and processed refined food part, because I feel like this part is often left out, when we talk about, “Okay, this variable is down, but processed food consumption is up.” And I am yet to see any study that says, you know, saturated fat and sugar together are a good thing, like, that seems like a very clear, like, refined foods and saturated fats together do not work at all. But I’d love to hear your perspective on the rise of refined grains and refined processed sugars, and what we’re seeing and how that’s playing out.

Simon: Mm-hmm. For sure. I think one thing worth noting there as well, and is a sort of combination of factors is, it’s often overlooked that since 1960, death from cardiovascular disease has actually reduced greatly. It peaked in 1960s. The incidence of cardiovascular disease is still high. A lot of people are developing cardiovascular disease, but we’re actually getting better at stopping people from dying, at least until the last 5 or 10 years where it seems to have plateaued off. But there are multiple reasons for that, including smoking incidence has gone down and lipid-lowering drugs and things like that.

Now, with regards to refined carbohydrates, probably it makes sense here to kind of explain, what’s the difference between a refined carbohydrate and an unrefined carbohydrate? And I’m probably telling a lot of people what they already know. But it can be good to kind of go back over this stuff sometimes. And I often like to think about a grain…there’s sort of three sections, if you imagine it kind of as an egg cut in half, there’s the outer kind of shell, that is the bran. And that contains a lot of the fiber and some minerals. And then you have the endosperm, which is that next sort of layer inside, you could imagine that as the egg white. Now, in a grain that is largely just carbohydrate. There’s not a lot of other nutrition in there. And then when you get right into the middle, imagine the yolk, that’s the germ. And that’s kind of like the life force of a grain. It’s where a lot of phytonutrients, and so antioxidants and vitamins and minerals are. And so that’s a whole grain, it has those three components.

Now, when we refine that grain, and it turns into a refined cereal, we essentially just strip out that middle part, that carbohydrate-rich endosperm. And we’d lose a lot of the fiber and a lot of the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and sure, some companies will fortify some of those back in. But it’s never at the level that it was as a whole unrefined grain. And one of the main reasons why this is important is that, when you start to separate out the carbohydrates from these other compounds, it changes the way that the body metabolizes, and absorbs and metabolizes the carbohydrates. And so you can kind of think about those carbohydrates, instead of wearing their clothes, they’re naked. And they’re absorbed much more rapidly into the blood. You get a much higher blood glucose excursion that directly affects appetite. It’s likely to leave you feeling more hungry. And it also can lead to damage to our blood vessels, which is very important when we’re considering a disease like cardiovascular disease. But actually, when we’re looking at many diseases, because, of course, it’s blood vessels that are supplying the oxygenated blood and nutrients to all of our organs. So this can have detrimental effects throughout the body.

Now, I guess if we’re thinking more about atherosclerosis, so what we were talking about before, a heart attack, for example, having elevated blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, it is a risk factor. It’ll increase your risk. But I think we need to understand. And the reason why there’s so much focus on high cholesterol, particularly LDL cholesterol, is that, raised cholesterol is absolutely necessary to develop atherosclerosis in the first place. All these other things like inflammation and hyperglycemia, they will compound that risk. But if you do not have high cholesterol, if your LDL cholesterol is down at say 70 or 80 milligrams per deciliter or lower, these people literally cannot develop atherosclerosis. So it is a necessary component of that disease. And so, to answer your question, adding refined grains and having poor blood glucose control is a compounding factor in heart disease. But unlike LDL cholesterol, it’s not a necessary component.

Katie: That’s a helpful perspective as well. I’m glad that you mentioned this specific type of cholesterol, because I think that’s another thing that’s been lumped in without enough understanding of the different types and what they mean. And the idea that all cholesterol is bad, which we’re now understanding isn’t necessarily true, because certain types are correlated with longevity. But we have a lot of good data, to your point, on LDL, and what that means. And I think that’s another really important thing to understand is that those variables together with elevated blood sugar, and that specific marker of cholesterol are important ones to watch in the heart disease equation.

I feel like some of the things we’re talking about also kind of point toward this debate that’s been happening, especially in the last few years, between the low carb and low fat communities. And I think what you’re hinting at, and what I’d love to delve deeper into is the idea that it’s not necessarily probably specifically about either of those approaches, or an all or nothing approach to either fat or carbs. But like we’re talking about the quality and what it’s being replaced with. But I’d love for you to go deeper on that one.

Simon: Sure. So maybe I’ll zoom a little bit more in first on LDL cholesterol, and that will help us walk through this. So in actual fact, we measure LDL cholesterol regularly. It’s part of a blood panel test. People will be familiar with that. And we do that because measuring LDL cholesterol is really a surrogate for what’s called ApoB, which is an atherogenic protein. And I won’t go into too much details here. But cholesterol and triglycerides, they’re not able to be transported in our blood just by themselves. They can’t dissolve into the blood. They have to be carried by a protein. And they’re carried by lipoproteins. And it’s not actually cholesterol that is causing the atherosclerosis, the buildup of the plaque. What it is, is a specific type of protein that is attached to those proteins carrying the fat, the triglycerides and the cholesterol. And that protein is called ApoB.

And so, we have now…research has now evolved over the last 10 years to realize that while LDL cholesterol is a pretty good marker, what’s actually better is ApoB. And I just wanna make that point clear, because if you’re going to your doctor, and you’re going to request a laboratory test, if they can run ApoB, that is a much better predictor of your risk of developing atherosclerosis. And the reason for that is that LDL cholesterol is not the only atherogenic ApoB containing lipoproteins. It accounts for about 90% of them, but there are a couple of others called VLDL and IDL, that are also atherogenic. And when you order the ApoB test, you actually get a summation of all of those.

Now, with regards to low carb versus high carb, really the data has been pretty clear that there’s not a benefit to one or the other on the aggregate when it comes to weight loss, which is usually where this conversation sort of zooms in on. And there’s a big study called “DIETFITS” that went for about a year, that was led by Professor Christopher Gardner. And they randomized about 600 people into a low-carb diet and a high-carb, and made sure that these were very high-quality diets. And this is important, because often in science, you know, you test one diet that you’re interested in, and you compare it to a really crummy diet, so that it can win. And they didn’t wanna do this, they wanted to really see if we just test a very high-quality, low-carb diet against a very high-quality, high-carb diet, is there a difference in weight loss? And the aggregate showed that there was no difference. But what was really interesting was that in each group, some people did really well, and some people did really poorly. They looked at whether this could be explained by certain genes, or whether it could be explained by insulin resistance. And they were actually unable to identify why someone may do better on low-carb, and someone may do better on high-carb. Perhaps further research will be able to elucidate that. But for now, I think the take-home message is that certain people will do better on a diet made up of a different macronutrient combination.

What I like to remind people when it comes to low-carb diets is that, you can construct that in many ways. And what we see when people construct that diet in a way where there is a lot of saturated fat coming particularly from animal foods, is we see LDL cholesterol and these ApoB containing lipoproteins shoot up. And in a subset of these people, it will skyrocket to the same levels of what you would see with familial hypercholesterolemia with just shockingly high levels. And the research so far suggests that that is a very dangerous thing, that’s putting you at higher risk of developing atherosclerosis. So what can you do?

Well, you don’t have to abandon the low-carb approach, you can just modify the foods you’re eating, that contain different types of fat. So instead of eating so much butter and red meat, it’s eating more fish, and more nuts and seeds. And what that will do is, it will reduce the saturated fat in your diet, and it’ll increase polyunsaturated fats. And we haven’t spoken about this yet. But there are a lot of metabolic ward studies where they bring people in, feed them different foods, monitor their cholesterol levels that have shown while saturated fat will increase these ApoB containing lipoproteins, polyunsaturated fat actually decreases them. So that’s why when you make that modification to your low-carb diet, you’ll see your ApoB levels decreasing, which is reducing your risk of developing this fatty plaque buildup.

Katie: And you also mentioned the fiber component, which I know that this also probably will kind of jump us into a conversation about gut health, because it’s what we eat, but it’s also feeding the bacteria in our gut. I’m glad that this is becoming so much more of the conversation. But what does the data actually say about fiber consumption and sourcing?

Simon: Sure. So we consistently see that increased level of fiber intake is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type-two diabetes, various types of cancer, and also total mortality. So, people that are eating more fiber tend to live longer. And I guess on this, while we’re talking about cholesterol, one mechanism…and fiber offers many benefits, but one mechanism in particular is that it helps clear bile from the body. And in doing that, the body requires cholesterol to manufacture bile. So, fiber drags it out of the body, and then the body has to use up cholesterol to make more, and the net effect of that is a drop in your cholesterol levels.

So fiber will, like polyunsaturated fats, help lower your cholesterol levels. But it’s doing much more than that. You know, you spoke to the fact that fiber is feeding our microbiome. You know, we have 38 trillion odd microbes in our colon, in our large intestine. Well, they rely on us to thrive. And so, the more dietary fiber that we’re eating, particularly from a wide variety of plants, the more of these helpful bacteria, we are looking after, and it helps them proliferate and grow in numbers. And when we do that, they reward us. They produce various metabolites, there are thousands of them. Some of the more commonly spoken about ones are short-chain fatty acids, like butyrate. And these compounds help maintain the integrity of the gut lining. They help reduce intestinal permeability, help reduce inflammation, both in the gut and throughout the body. And inflammation being a hallmark feature of a number of these chronic diseases that we’ve been speaking about. So, I mean, there are many, many things we could discuss about fiber, but that’s probably a bit of an overview.

Katie: Got it. And another point that I know you’ve talked about is that, not just what we eat matters, but so does when we eat. And I know we’ve seen some really cool research coming out in the past few years about things like time-restricted eating, and intermittent fasting has become very popular. So I’d love to hear your perspective on that and what you recommend.

Simon: Sure. I just realized I should add one point to that last question. It’d be remiss of me to leave that out. It’s important to understand that these bacteria in our large intestine, they have different taste buds, like you and I do. And so, this is why, you know, the whole eating the rainbow, and eating with diversity makes so much sense. And there was a large study done by Dr. Rob Knight, who leads the microbiome gut research project. And he was able to show in this study of over 10,000, people who had submitted the foods that they were eating and also submitted stool samples. He was able to show that those who ate 30 or more unique plants a week, compared to those who ate 10 or fewer, had a much more diverse microbiome. And we know diversity of the microbiome is associated with less risk of allergies, less risk of autoimmune conditions, and lower risk of various chronic diseases.

So the take-home message there, and something that can be a bit of fun for people to think about, is tracking the number of unique plants that you eat in a week. And you know, myself included, I think, many of us will find that, when you get to sort of day three, four, you’re beginning to repeat a lot of the same plants that you were eating earlier in the week. So it can be a fun exercise to see. And, you know, herbs and spices, counting that, they’re incredible for the microbiome. So play around with that and see how many unique plants you have in your diet. And if you’re down around 10 or 12, don’t stress out but at least it’s a baseline for you to work from. And a really good way to straighten up your diet in, you know, focusing on one simple thing.

Regarding the fasting, there’s been great debate around what is the best fasting method. And I’d say that the research I’m most interested in is looking at time-restricted eating. And a lot of this work comes out of Satchin Panda’s lab, the Panda Lab. And what they’ve shown is, firstly, the average American or Westerner eats across about 16 hours a day. So, that’s kind of like eating as soon as you wake up to as soon as you go to bed. And what I think is neat about their research is that, you know, when we’re thinking about all of these different fasting protocols, we also have to think about how easy is it for someone to adhere to. And what they’ve looked at is, what are the benefits of just narrowing that eating window down to sort of 10 to 12 hour period, as opposed to 16? And I think that’s a nice sort of eating window, because it allows people to still have three meals, three main meals through the day, which from a social point of view, and thinking about the context of eating at home with your kids and your family, it’s going to be much more achievable for more people.

What they showed in their studies was, by just limiting that eating window down to 10 to 12 hours, which for example could be, waking up at 7:00, starting eating at, say, 9 a.m. And having your last meal, your dinner at 7 p.m. What they showed was, people that were limiting their eating window to that 10 to 12 hour period, had lower cholesterol, better blood glucose control, some people lost weight. They saw decreases in blood pressure. So, improvements in a lot of these biomarkers that are useful for thinking about risk of chronic disease, and also if you’re thinking about longevity. And some people will look at that research and say, “Well, maybe those biomarkers moved in that direction, because subjects lost weight.” Is there actually an independent effect here that is responsible for benefit outside of weight loss?

And I think there needs to be a lot more research done on that too, to really answer that question. And there needs to be more research done on this in different populations, healthy adults, both male and female, of different age groups, people with disease, people without disease. But there has been one other study that did look at without weight loss, can you see any of these benefits, and that was by Katherine Sutton, I believe is her name, I can send you the study. That one came out 2020. And they did show by narrowing the eating window, even without weight loss, you did see improvements in many of these biomarkers.

So, all in all, that research out of Panda Lab currently points to two important things. One is that if we can slightly shorten our eating window, there does seem to be some benefits. And their research suggests starting that eating window at least a couple hours after waking. And the reason for that is that the timing of these meals around our circadian rhythms seems to be responsible for some of these changes in these biomarkers. So when we wake up, for example, we still have very high levels of melatonin, our cortisol is starting to increase. And it seems like it takes a couple of hours until our body is really at a point where it is better able to utilize nutrients. So, opening that window a couple hours after waking, and then having your last food a couple hours at least before going to bed. And then, there is some other interesting research that has looked at more so around the distribution of food and calories throughout the day. And whether there is an advantage to eating more of your calories in the first half of the day, or the second half. And I think this is super, super interesting.

Again, this is early days, there’s been, you know, a few studies out over the last couple of years. But I expect over the next 5 to 10 years, we’ll get much more information. But what it suggests is that…and again, this ties back to circadian rhythms, is that, we are better at utilizing our nutrients, metabolizing lipids, fats and also glucose in our most active parts of our day. And so, they’re seeing better changes in biomarkers where people are eating more of their calories around the middle of the day, as opposed to right at the end of the day when people are less active. So, if we were to kind of add all this together, it points to restricting the eating window down a little bit to 10 to 12 hours, and where possible, trying to have more of your calories in the active part of your day, and perhaps a lot at dinner.

Katie: I’ve been following Satchin Panda’s work for years as well, and it’s exciting to see. I know we’ve seen in long-term data, for instance, that caloric restriction seems to be correlated with longevity. But getting people to actually do that is difficult when it just means eating less food. And so I think, his work has been a lot of really good insight into that you can shorten the eating window and often get some of those same benefits, and naturally reduced calories without having to calorically restrict every time you’re eating, which makes compliance easier for a lot of people I feel like.

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And to your point also, I think it’s really interesting, the data we’re seeing about circadian rhythm and hormones and that signaling mechanism you talked about, and how food and light seem to be very big needle movers in that. And so, if we can manipulate light and food effectively, even like you said, without losing weight, or even reducing calories, we still get to see those benefits, which is one of the reasons for years, I’ve been saying, you know, one of the easiest, most inexpensive things you can do for your health is go outside as soon as you can, after waking up and get natural light.

Simon: Yeah. And, you know, again, speaking to the importance of sleep and light, there was a study out just last week, and this was researchers from a study called “PREDICT,” they showed that people who went to bed late or had disrupted sleep, or didn’t sleep for long enough, actually had poor blood glucose control the next morning. So all of this stuff is tied in together. I think we, for a long time there, were kind of siloing out various aspects of our health. And I think this is an important reminder. Our food is one component, it’s important. But the exercise we do, the light exposure we get, the sleep routine we have, all of this comes together, coalesces and actually influences how our body will utilize the nutrients in our food.

Katie: Yeah, such a great point. And that would be another commonality, I would say, of all of these health experts I’ve ever talked to, nobody has ever said sleep is not important. That’s a very common theme across the board is sleep, amount of sleep and quality matters a lot when it comes to health, and could actually be one of the more important factors. Like, to your point, people we see, people have blood glucose of a pre-diabetic from one night of poor sleep. And it’s also an area that if we’re just looking at the data, we’ve seen a decline in sleep quality over the last few decades, certainly. So I think…and like this has been a theme of our whole conversation, as far as, it’s never a single factor. It’s multifaceted, and it’s looking at all the variables in relation to each other. But finding those commonalities like sleep, and like diet quality that matter so much.

And I don’t want to end our conversation without going a little bit deeper on the plant-based versus animal-based, and the role of those in a healthy diet. Because like I said in the beginning, I think you and I have come to very much similar conclusions, but have a little bit different dietary approaches. And I think an important thing to really like vocalize out loud is that, there is a role for both of those. And I think when we have these kinds of conversations, it can help people find their thing that’s gonna work for them. So, I guess on a personal level, I’m a little curious, you mentioned that you aren’t dogmatic as far as what everyone should eat, and that you think there can be a role for animal products, whole foods, ethically sourced ones in a good diet. I’m curious why you personally have gone completely plant-based if you don’t mind me getting a little personal?

Simon: Sure. Well, firstly, I have unconditional love for everyone, no matter how they eat. And I can tell you that many of my friends and family members eat very differently to me. So, I come at this from a place of no judgment. I think when we’re looking at the science from a human health perspective, it’s different to when we open up the aperture, and look through the lens of planetary health and animal welfare as well. And so for me, personally, the shift to eat a diet that is plant exclusive, that doesn’t contain animal products, is a decision that also considers the effects that our food choices have on the world around us. And I’m also acutely aware that I have the means and live in an area to adopt this way of eating, and do it in a way that is healthy, and works with my budget, and all of that stuff. So, you know, that’s the personal kind of decision that I’ve made. And those are the various things that I’ve considered.

Katie: I love that. That’s how you started out. I echo what you say, I have unconditional love for everyone, no matter what their dietary choices, or any choices truly, like, I think that is a very important starting point. And just to echo what you said, I agree, I think diet quality is hugely important and often ignored in a lot of these studies. To your point, they’ll compare it to a really crappy diet to get the data they want. And that happens in both directions, certainly with way more than it should. And I think these commonalities, like sleep quality, and food quality and timing and light, and all of these factors are so important. And I think it’s also important to do that end of one study for each of us on our own. To your point, you found a way to do this and you have the means to do this.

And I take a very…I eat a lot of plant foods, but I also eat some ethically sourced animal foods and eat quite a bit of protein actually, with my athletic goals. And that’s been working for me. And my cardiovascular risk is very, very low. And my LDL is very, very low. But I think, some of these points we’ve touched on are really important for everyone, no matter what their dietary approach is. And I think you’ve given us a lot of great insight into how to know, in your body, what to test, how to understand the data. Because so often, we see all these studies coming out constantly, and it’s both interpreting them and then applying them to your life. And you’ve talked about this as well. It’s not just knowing what to do, it’s actually doing it. That seems to be the stumbling block for most people, no matter what approach they take.

Simon: Yeah. Look, I think, you know, kind of circling back to what I said at the start. Animal products can absolutely be a part of a healthy diet. You know, I would never argue against that. And, you know, even if you go back and look at some of the literature written by the founders of the paleo diet, for example, Loren Cordain, who wrote the paleo book, back in, I think it was the early 2000s. He’s published a lot of literature, talking about the fact that hunter gatherers, and including tribes that are still around today, actually have very low cholesterol levels. And so the main point that I always like to make when it comes to eating animal foods, is that often the way the paleo diet is adopted today, is actually very different to how people would have been eating tens of thousands of years ago, when they were eating, you know, meat, like woolly mammoth, or deer, for example, these were very low-saturated fat containing animal products, very lean meats. And they were within the context of a diet that was usually quite rich in fiber. So, I think it’s important for us to sort of distinguish between what is marketed as paleo today, which, you know, seems very far removed from what the data sort of shows.

Katie: That’s a great point. Yes. And I think that the biodiversity in the gut is a really important factor. And I think you’re right, all the earlier people talking about paleo, there was a really big emphasis on that, and it’s kind of gotten confused. And now we have all these “Paleo Processed Foods.” And I think that’s been a great theme of this conversation is getting back to focusing on quality and also looking at the sourcing of where these things are coming from, and the timing, and not hyper-focusing on a dietary dogma, but focusing on all these other factors that really play out in the labs. And I know we’re getting to the end of our time, for people who wanna keep learning from you, I know you have so much good evidence-based research and work out there, where’s a good starting place to keep connecting with you?

Simon: So I host a show called the “Plant Proof Podcast.” And you can find me on the socials at “plant_proof.” And of course, if you want to read more about this stuff, then my book “The Proof is in the Plants,” which is published with Penguin, and it’s on shelves across America and Canada, etc.

Katie: Perfect. And then lastly, a question I love to ask every guest at the end of episodes is, if there is a book or a number of books beside your own that have had a profound impact on your life, and if so what they are why?

Simon: Gosh. It’s a big question. I’ll step away from nutrition. I read a lot on that. So, that’s probably a boring answer. I would say “The Alchemist,” for anyone who hasn’t read it. I presume a lot of people have read it, is a book about a young boy who is brave enough to pursue his dreams. And along the way, he sort of learns not only to focus on the end result, but also the importance of soaking it up and being present. And it’s a story, that’s a beautiful reminder about the non-linearity of achievement. You know, almost always achieving something comes with curveballs or red lights as Matthew McConaughey calls them, and these wrong turns. But all of that really is part of it. That’s to be expected. And the key thing to remember is that, those wrong turns are just an opportunity. And just as a GPS in our car, the Sat-Nav would reroute when you take a wrong turn on your drive. You can also personally reroute and still get to the same destination. So, a beautiful message that we are in control of our destination. And just to soak up all of those red lights.

Katie: I love that. What a perfect place to wrap up. I will put a link to “The Alchemist” in the show notes as well as to your book and your podcasts and all of your work, so people can stay in touch. And I really appreciate your time today and all of your deep-dive research and how clearly you explained it. Thank you so much for being here.

Simon: Thank you, Katie. As I said, an honor to be here and spend time in your company and with your listeners and forever grateful. Hopefully we can do it again soon.

Katie: I would love that. And thanks as always to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did, and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the “Wellness Mama Podcast.”

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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