Robb Wolf, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet. Victory Belt; 2010.
Interview with Robb Wolf (55 min; right-click to download in mp3 format)
I don’t know about the rest of you, but some time in the last few years I hit a serious state of diet fatigue.
It all seemed so… complicated.
X grams of carbs after training, Y grams of protein x Z lb of body weight per day.
Is coffee good or bad for me?
Should I eat at night or in the morning?
When the hell did eating become brain surgery? (Possible smartass answer: When you become a zombie.)
Ask the average person what to eat and when, and their eyes will glaze over. Facial tics and twitching will appear.
The consumer-on-the-street simply cannot make sense of the conflicting, cryptic, often overblown nutritional advice (eggs are worse than a Double Down! soy is good! no, wait, soy is Satan!) that appears in the mainstream media.
And no surprise.
Much of what we “know” to be “good nutrition” is purposely misleading.
Researchers such as Marion Nestle have busted the nutritional cabal of Big Ag food producers and agencies such as the USDA. These days, “healthy” food recommendations and much of clinical research have a lot more to do with the needs of the commercial food production and processing industries than with actual human needs.
In other words, the diet advice you read probably came from the marketing department of an agricultural or retail consortium… and won’t make you any healthier.
Ever wonder why all of a sudden we’re being told to eat hydrogenated, bleached, rancid vegetable oils (aka margarine) instead of butter, and that machine-extruded, nutrient-stripped cereals and pesticide-laden, chemically reconstituted orange juice are part of a healthy breakfast?
Eggs are the least of our problems when we’re chowing down Nutella smeared on white flour bagels, feeling smug because we’re eating “an important serving of dairy and grains”.
How did it all go so wrong?
It’s understandable to yearn for the good old days when food was anything you smacked in the head or nibbled from a tree branch.
Understandable… and luckily, says researcher Robb Wolf, a pretty smart idea.
A couple hundred years ago, scientists were stumped by what appeared to be nature’s randomness.
Steam-powered travel and global exploration were offering all kinds of strange things to researchers. Biology was still a bit of a bastard discipline. Specimens from all over the world, when brought back to home shores, prompted head-scratching.
Gee, these apes sorta look like people! (Ha ha! I betcha it’d be hilarious to put a chimp in a sailor suit!) Why don’t pineapples grow in England? What the hell is this platypus thing? Seriously, what is that about?
In its thoughtful, world-changing (and the time, shocking) description of Nature’s semi-random master plan, Darwin’s Origin of Species offered an elegant, basic solution to the puzzling weirdness of biology:
- Organisms adapt to their environment.
- Over time, those organisms change.
Nearly two centuries of scientific investigation and one discovery of DNA later, evolution is still a pretty darn good theory. (We’re all lucky that Darwin didn’t follow his father’s advice to become an accountant.)
So here’s the deal: No matter how many iPods you own, and despite your corneal lens implants, evolution applies to us too. And in terms of how we evolved to eat and live, we aren’t too far from naked apes (also possibly hilarious in sailor suits).
It ain’t glamorous.
We evolved as omnivorous scavengers.
That means we probably ate bugs or a lion’s semi-funky carcass leftovers as often as we ate the proverbial mammoth filet mignon.
But the point remains:
We evolved in a natural environment. We are no longer eating and living as if we were in that natural environment.
Many folks argue that our physiology hasn’t caught up to this new situation.
Problems ensue: heart disease, diabetes, stress, cancer, and other chronic health conditions.
Thanks to the research of folks like Loren Cordain, Art DeVany, Staffan Lindberg, and now Robb Wolf, we’ve realized that, as Blur sang, modern life is rubbish.
These folks argue that our bodies haven’t kept pace with modern diets, and we’re getting fatter, weaker, and sicker as a result.
Luckily, like Darwin’s theory, the solution — as Wolf outlines in his book — is simple.
The idea of ancestral diets offers a gentle, palate-cleansing sorbet of clarity to nutritional debates: WWCE?
What would a cavewoman eat?
Riffing on Dan John’s “meat, leaves, and berries” concept, cavewomen are simple creatures. They’d eat whatever they could kill, dig out of the ground, or pluck from a shrub or tree.
They would NOT eat the foods that form the basis of our 21st century diet: sugar, grains, dairy, and beans/legumes. And Splenda? Diet Coke? Gummibears? C’mon.
Wolf’s CV is impressive.
He’s a former research biochemist and review editor for the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, is co-founder of the nutrition and athletic training journal The Performance Menu, co-owner of NorCal Strength & Conditioning, one of the Men’s Health “top 30 gyms in America”.
He’s also a former California State Powerlifting Champion (565 lb. squat, 345 lb. bench, 565 lb. deadlift) and a 6-0 amateur kickboxer.
He coaches athletes at the highest levels of competition and consults with Olympians and world champions in MMA, motocross, rowing and triathlon.
He’s provided seminars in nutrition and strength & conditioning to various military entities including the Canadian Light Infantry and the United States Marine Corps.
Wolf is a voracious and wide-ranging researcher and a hell of a funny guy. (Ladies, if you like your men smart and buff, look no further than this poster boy for geeks gone swole.)
And he believes fervently in the power of ancestral diets to help real people feel, look, and perform better.
But it’s not just his belief.
Studies of indigenous populations worldwide, from the South Pacific to the Arctic, confirm that when people live on ancestral diets, they live long and surprisingly healthy lives free of the chronic diseases that we now take for granted.
(Although as Wolf notes, “our ancestors lived a rough and tumble existence that left their skeletons looking like equal parts Olympic athlete and rodeo clown”.)
The Paleo Solution is a meticulously researched, coherently argued, and occasionally sphincter-looseningly witty book.
Wolf guides the reader gently through the basics of metabolic derangement that accompanies a standard Western diet, explains the chemical mechanisms by which Paleo-style/ancestral diets work, and occasionally brings out the big guns on faddish modern dietary foolishness with bon mots such as: “If you do not sleep you will completely cock-block your fat loss.”
Whether it’s sleep, sex, sunlight, or how to make a NorCal margarita, no element of modern life nor oversight of nutritional science is spared in Wolf’s unflinching analysis (including the great philosophical question, “Won’t my bum forget how to poop without grains?”).
He offers sections on how to exercise (run fast for short times, lift heavy stuff, and amble or scamper), how to understand your bloodwork, and what to make for a daily menu.
You already know how to eat Paleo.
Ever had a salad with chicken on it? Ever had an omelet with veggies? Ever had a steak with grilled veggies?
Perfect. You’re well on your way. However, Wolf also provides lots of handy tips about how to make the eating plan work.
Bottom line, he says: Try it.
Try it, it works.
Try it like you’d try on a sweater.
Give it a shot and experiment.
You can do the whole-hog (so to speak) approach: full-on, no screwing around with gluten-free bread or sneaking in some spelt cakes — for 30 days and see how you look, feel, and perform.
Or you can ease in gradually, seeing what happens. Check out my article: How To Go Primal (Without Really Trying).
Don’t get rigid or try to do this “perfectly”. (Remember: omnivorous scavengers.) Some Paleo eaters have chosen to turn this into a cult. Don’t go there. Keep it loose and flexy. Your ancestors weren’t picky eaters or high-maintenance special-kibble eaters. Neither should you be.
Just get the general idea, play around and take notes, and have fun.
Either way, trying at least some elements of ancestral-style eating is a valuable experiment that will teach you about your choices and your own body.
I’m not rigid about my own practice (you could call it “Paleoish”), but thinking consciously about aligning my lifestyle and choices with what my evolutionary past might have offered is, generally, a pretty solid strategy.
How to find out more
Check out Wolf’s book. Listen to his podcasts.
Download the free stuff such as the Quick Start Guide on his website.
Give this way of eating a shot for a month or so, and see what you discover — about yourself, your modern lifestyle (or lack thereof), and your own biology.