Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Holy Primal

I was watching one of the videos from the Ancestral Health Symposium a while ago, in fact, it was a video of Robb Wolf's presentation and he said something that really resonated with me. He said (to paraphrase) how we must work to avoid the Ancestral Health Movement becoming a religion because once it does we will lose much of the audience we are trying to reach. It becomes self-serving, dogmatic and essentially the same as so many other approaches to diet and lifestyle that ignore reality and cherry pick studies or conventional wisdom to support their belief system. Brilliant. It's so true and it's what drew me to Primal in the first place. I noted how what is allowed and not allowed has been changed over the years based on research and experience. In Primal, everything is viewed through the lens of evolution but that doesn't mean it's a form of tunnel vision because that evolutionary lens is just one way of filtering information or framing approaches to nutrition and lifestyle. Although dairy is clearly not a "Primal food" it's fine if you tolerate it well. It also encourages an n=1 perspective meaning it's about finding out what is right for you so it becomes more of a framework to help you discover what is your optimum milieu rather than a rigid set of rules based on a narrow view of the universe. In my opinion this is what a nutritional framework should look like.

So I become concerned when I see people say "that's not primal", or "we couldn't have eaten that prior to agriculture so I'm not going to". In my mind, that's not the point. There is nothing to say that us big-brained homo sapiens couldn't divine the perfect synthetic food although it's seems like we haven't as yet. The point is that we can use evolutionary theory, paleontology, anthropology among other disciplines to help filter and sort the massive amounts of information regarding nutrition and health. It's a tool, the primary tool it just so happens for those following a Primal lifestyle, but it's still just a tool. It's not dogma to be followed and applied at all costs. In my opinion, Primal should be about what the science tells me is optimal for me in my specific circumstance informed by and shaped by how it fits into the evolutionary history of our species. It should be based on deep science and always be open to change. That is what will really set it apart from the myriad of other diets out there.

We should also consider that the "lens" of evolution is a dirty, smudgy one, we'll never know with absolute certainty what our Paleolithic ancestors consumed (unless some older, advanced alien race built a time machine at least a few thousand hundred years ago but no more than 1-2 million years ago - but I'm being really geeky right now). Beyond that it's likely that there wasn't a single world wide Paleo diet it would have varied based on the local flora and fauna. However, we do know some things for sure, we could not have eaten twinkies and loaves of white bread every day there simply wasn't the technology necessary to create these foods. I do find it odd how many people scoff at the idea of the ancestral diet, calling it the "caveman diet" when if they were informed they would know that much of science is viewed through the lens of evolution. It's a seminal theory that has a myriad of applications and applying it to nutrition science is brilliant and long overdue. Another interesting factoid is that Cordain's work determining the hunter gather diet was used to support the lipid hypothesis back in the 70s because his original conclusion was that we ate a relatively low saturated fat diet (think he was trying to appeal to the status quo?). He later reversed that finding when they recalculated the nutritional profile based on eating the entire animal. I find it interesting that an approach to nutritional science used to justify the lipid hypothesis accepted by so many is then rejected by the same people when used to justify a Paleo diet. Taubes discusses this briefly in Why We Get Fat. Never the less, it's not easy to determine what we ate all those millenia ago, although we have some sophisticated tools at our disposal such as stable isotope studies, it's still a stab in the dark. So we always need to think critically, ask ourselves could this all be wrong and be willing to accept change.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I'm not perfect and I like it that way

I have been thinking a lot recently about the pros and cons of following a strict diet and optimizing myself to the nth degree. Optimization involves experimentation to determine the optimal diet, testing to confirm the diet is having the right impact and then having a positive mental attitude. As a regular poster on MDA often says, to paraphrase, "Our thoughts change our DNA". By optimizing we can expect to reap a plethora or benefits including weight loss, looking good naked, more energy, better longevity. Sounds great, but despite that long list of benefits something is missing. The way I see it, life is messy and in many ways it's more fun that way.

Recently I completed 6 weeks following a strict Primal diet with specific meal timings as part of the Leptin Reset prescription as laid out by Dr Kruse. I'm glad I did it, I felt a great sense of accomplishment, I set out to follow it strictly for 6 weeks and I did, kudos to me. I lost 11 lb in that time, not bad, that's more consistent than my normal weight loss efforts and I noticed a whole host of changes as predicted by the good doctor. However, I found myself wondering at times whether I could eat that way forever and the answer I always arrived at was a big fat NO. I also felt this kind of fatigue, a deep-seated, mind-numbing, subtle fatigue that gnawed away at me. I didn't realize it at first, especially when I was losing 3 lb a week but over time I gradually felt just tired. Not physically tired but mentally fatigued. Then my wife mentioned that I had seemed unhappy for some time in fact, she said it to me multiple times. At that point I had to ask myself, why am I feeling this way, I'm normally a level headed, overwhelmingly positive dude so why had that changed? It could be the diet but then the food I was ingesting for the most part was the same as before just different timings. It could also be the lack of sleep due to our beautiful baby girl doing decidedly ugly things at 3am or maybe it was the cold turkey from diet soda. It then dawned on me that perhaps it was everything, a combination of numerous factors that conspired to remove much of my mental support structure.

I have heard of the concept of "tent poles" used in terms of important events that are part of a relationship that add strength to that relationship. The shared experiences that can support a relationship for the long haul. Another commonly referred to mental support is that of a "crutch", a habit (often a bad one) that provides a buffer or strength when dealing with adversity. My minor (okay, very minor) epiphany was that many of my psychological crutches had evaporated either because I removed them or because life and circumstances had a meeting and decided they would remove them too. Some examples of that support structure are small things like reaching into the fridge for that can of ice-cold diet soda that says "you can drink me and enjoy me guilt free" or dinner on a Saturday night with my wife in a warm coal fired pizza place, the bub sound asleep and some delicious food on order. So without those support structures I found myself with no mental breaks, no refuge and that was taking it's toll.

I should take a moment and clarify that we're not talking about a mental break down here. People deal with far worse on a regular basis, I'm fortunate to live a pretty good life, but nonetheless I obviously wasn't happy at a time when I had many reasons to be be happy.

After my minor epiphany and my wife pointed out that I seemed unhappy I decided it was time to step back a little. The reality was that the diet I was eating was probably more optimal, not having cheat days meant more consistent weight loss (probably) and skipping diet soda was definitely a good thing. So what could I change? How could I put back some of those mental crutches I removed? I decided to bring back lunch and cheat meals and to adjust my attitude slightly. Skipping lunch was just my attempt to do the best job of the diet possible but what I lost was a welcome respite during the day which often would include an enjoyable meal and maybe reading a few blogs or watching part of a DVD or even just sitting outside cooking something on the BBQ. Next up was cheat meals which I have had regularly for the last 6 months or so every Saturday night. That meal is often so much more than just some extra calories and shock horror, some grain, it's a couple of hours of turning off the nutrition-Nazi and just reveling in good company and good food. The meal is also a time to reconnect with my wife because there is just something different about hedonism shared. That doesn't mean every Saturday night should be an exercise in gastronomic debauchery, the meal can be a slight cheat or sometimes a pretty big one, the point is, the choices are wide open.

The attitude change involved just thinking a little differently in reconnecting with something I've always believed. You see, I believe life is meant to be a little messy, sometimes we should just enjoy the ride and if that means I'm not 100% optimal all the time then so be it.

Once I arrived at this conclusion is was like a great weight was lifted from shoulders. I'm still just as devoted to my health and fitness goals but there is little point in pursuing them if the process results in a degradation in mental health. I will reach those goals eventually and at some point I may not need some of those crutches but I will choose to walk without them when the time is right. I have noticed that I'm developing new ones like spending a few minutes with my daughter at times throughout the day. I suppose we adapt and find new survival strategies, but it's probably better done gradually than all at once.

Sorry Dr K and everyone on the MDA Leptin Reset thread, I'm not optimal, I'm not perfect, but I like myself better that way (and so does my wife).