Going Paleolithic

Because medieval and postal have been overdone...

I like to conduct experiments from time to time. It's one of my defense mechanisms against the monotony of suburban/corporate life. Here's my latest. Consider this a review of two interesting books, my feeble attempt to summarize them, and my resulting action plan.

It all started with an article by Robb Wolf with the innocuous sounding title "How to Keep Feces Out of Your Bloodstream". Who wouldn't want to read that?

The article was an excerpt from Robb's book The Paleo Solution. The excerpt was about gluten (and grains in general) and their role in disease. It was interesting - especially the notion of grains conducting chemical warfare against predators (a.k.a us), but didn't seem that applicable to me personally. On a whim some weeks later I ordered it anyway.

The Paleo Solution turned out to be a quick and engaging read. It begins by describing Robb's battle with a number of serious health issues. He did a trial of a "paleo" diet out of desperation and reversed his symptoms. What got my attention was after 6 weeks his triglycerides went from 380 to 80. More on that later.

The book has essentially two sections, the Why and the How. The Why section, which Robb admits can be skipped for the non-geeky (I read it twice, and still didn't get it all) explains in excruciating detail the biochemistry behind digestion and what effects different dietary components have during and after digestion. The How section includes advice on exercise, sleep, stress, and most importantly a 30-day meal plan with ingredient lists available as PDF downloads.

Robb mentioned Art DeVany in the book, so I looked him up. Art is an interesting character. He is 72 and built like a tank. He is also one of the pioneers of the "paleo" movement, and also has a new book called the New Evolution Diet, so I had to read that too.

Art's story resonated deeply with me, as he didn't develop his ideas on diet and lifestyle theoretically. It was an empirical exercise resulting from living with a diabetic spouse and child. He rigorously observed and measured what they consumed and which items caused erratic blood sugar and the resulting complications. My father is a brittle type 1 diabetic and I have lived those complications. His family relentlessly culled problematic items from their diet and what they ended up with is the basis for the "paleo" diet. The paleo stuff came afterwards as Art looked for explanations for why these items caused issues. Art spins a compelling story of where we came from and how and why aspects of our current diet and lifestyle lead to problems. His exercise plan is particularly interesting (and counterintuitive).

So what is a paleo diet, anyway? The main premise is that for 99.9% percent of human history we were hunter gatherers and our genetics are optimized for that lifestyle. Only in the last 10,000 years or so was agriculture developed and hunting and gathering were gradually supplanted by static agricultural societies. That's not much time for genetic adaptation.

We are adapted to have a predisposition for sweet flavors, as they were a marker of an unusually dense energy source (say, honey) for a forager. That's fine and dandy when you almost exclusively subsist on meat, vegetables and nuts. Grains weren't really a factor until domestication - agriculture changed the game forever. Enter Neolithic man, with a steady (relatively speaking) supply of carbohydrates and a new more sedentary lifestyle.

Cut to today. The average American diet probably consists of 60% carbohydrates. Carbohydrates = sugar. Some types require more digestion than others, but when they hit your bloodstream, it's all the same. To add insult to injury, most grains contain gluten which has its own set of undesirable baggage. Between themselves, sugar and gluten arguably cause or contribute to most of the "diseases of civilization" - heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, etc. Fat has gotten a bad rap for much of this, but you'll have to wait until I review Good Calories, Bad Calories to get the skinny on that. So we have a disparity here.

In addition, hunter-gatherer activity patterns (which our genetics are also optimized for) are radically different than ours. A forager spent most of his time in relative inactivity (sleeping, idling, walking), punctuated by short intense bursts of activity (killing a prey animal, running from a predatory animal). Bedtime was sunset. Mealtimes were unpredictable - when you had it, you ate it. Or not. Stress was intermittent and acute. Sound like your life? Me neither.

That was quite an abstract summary, and I glossed over pretty much all of it. Here's the one-leg version:

  1. Eat foods our genes are optimized for (Paleo Diet)
  2. Sleep more
  3. Exercise differently
  4. Stress less

So begins the experiment. I'm taking it one bullet point at a time. Step one for me is to take Robb's meal plan as a start and eat paleo for eight weeks. My specific objective is to see if I can reduce my triglycerides (currently off the chart) with diet alone. No exercise, no supplements. I'll add those in later. It's not exactly a controlled experiment, but I don't want to change too much at once.

I think of eating paleo in two ways - choose whichever you prefer depending on if you like your glass half-full or half-empty. If you're a stoic and you're just amazed that you have a glass, then use both.

Half-Full

Eat as much as you want of meat, seafood, vegetables, when you are hungry. Fruit should be eaten sparingly, as modern fruits have been selectively bred to maximize sweetness and have drastically more sugar than they did historically.

Half-Empty

Don't eat crap. This means carbohydrates (grains, legumes), dairy, and processed foods of any kind.

I've been eating on the paleo plan for five weeks now, and am sold on it. I will post a detailed write-up of the experiment results after I get my lipid panel done in March. In the meantime, if any of this interests you my recommendation would be to read the books mentioned above. They complement each other particularly well. I'd start with New Evolution Diet first for a good conceptual and historical overview and then hit The Paleo Solution for the heavy duty biochemistry.

Maybe you'll try an experiment of your own. If you do, leave a comment and let me know how it goes.

Jeremy Ulstad

Dad, IT Architect, Hack Musician, Sailor

Minneapolis, Minnesota http://jeremyulstad.com