Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dress Down

Lots of folks seem to think that the body is quite poorly designed and that technology must come to our rescue. Bullshit, say I.

See here for a discussion of the need for a new kind of shoe.

I'm always skeptical when I'm told that my body doesn't work correctly as designed and that I need to spend money to fix it. You should be too.

We evolved without shoes. Our feet don't need them. Our feet certainly don't need the monstrosity of the MBT (or any similar shoe). It changes our gait. Is the natural human gait really so defective that it must be fixed? Did humans really not know how to walk until scientists in the 21st century taught them? Bullshit.

Now, I do recognize that society doesn't approve of bare feet in many contexts. I also recognize that feet do need some protection in a modern environment. I don't recommend that we all just chuck our shoes. But I do recommend that we wear only those shoes that mimic as closely as possible the bare foot experience. Trust your body. It's fine as is. You don't need to fix it.

Many praise the MBT or equivalent; they've told us what problems it has fixed. Please place this in context. The fact that they're better doesn't imply that the MBT is optimal. It only implies that it's better than what they wore before. Also keep in mind that the problems ameliorated by the MBT might well have been caused by the inferior shoes that most of us wear.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Evolutionary Test

The so-called Paleolithic diet asks us to make our dietary decisions from an evolutionary point of view. It does not require that we simply copy a hunter-gatherer diet. (To do such a thing would be impossible in any case. There was not a single hunter-gatherer diet. There were many. They were different at different times and at different places.) Recapitulation is not the goal. Instead we are asked to consider the sorts of nutrients - both macro and micro - on which hunter-gatherers seemed to thrive and to incorporate these into our diet in the same proportions as did hunter-gatherers.

The Paleolithic diet also does not condemn all neolithic and modern foods. Rather it would have us consider carefully which we choose to eat. Of some of these "new" foods, it is not at all skeptical. If they are of the same sort as foods eaten by hunter-gatherers, this is good prima facie evidence that they are acceptable. But if some new food is unlike anything eaten in quantity by hunter-gatherers, it would have us be quite skeptical of it. Grains are of this sort, as are refined sugars. Even if we did not know of the pernicious consequences of these so-called foods, the Paleolithic diet would have us eschew them. It is possible, of course, that a new food unlike anything eaten by hunter-gatherers might eventually absolve itself. But the burden of proof would be high.

The Paleolithic diet thus imposes a kind of evolutionary test. Certain kinds of foods nourished us as we evolved into the creatures we are now. Eat foods of this kind, the Paleolithic diet tells us, and eat them in the same ratios as they were eaten by hunter-gatherers.

I find that this evolutionary test quite helpful. It can help to weed out dubious claims.

For example, nutritionists will often tell us that carbohydrate is necessary to our diet and that we should eat it many times a day. This is how we're supposed to keep up our energy levels. That's bullshit. Primates first climbed down out of the trees over 2 million years ago. We did so to hunt, and for millions of years we thrived on a diet high in animal protein and fat. Now, just how plausible is it that we need the energy burst that carbs provide every few hours? Not so very damn plausible at all. What kind of hunters would we be if we couldn't keep up a hunt for any length of time? Dead ones. Extinct ones.

The simple fact is that we can go for long periods with no carbs at all and still maintain our energy levels. And how is this possible? When we burn fat instead. When we are primed to burn fat (as we will be if we eat a low-carb, high-fat diet), we can access our own fat stores easily and without any drop in energy level.

Indeed the evolutionary test suggests that we need little or no carbohydrate at all in our diet. Early humans spread all over the globe and came to live in places that experience harsh winters. There would be nothing to gather in the winter months. There would be no plant-foods stored, for humans did not yet cultivate crops. Instead the only food supply would have come from the hunt. And we must suppose that the quality of that food would have been very high. It allowed us not only to simply live but to hunt another day. This means that it allowed us to thrive, for the only successful hunter is a healthy hunter.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Diet and Obesity: What Causes What?

Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes' attempt to bring down the current nutritional paradigm, should be read more than once. I'm on my second time through.

Let me attempt to distill the argument down to its essentials. It has both a negative and a positive aspect. The negative is its criticism of current nutritional science. The positive is its construction of a causal arrow to explain the explosion in obesity and its associated diseases. I'll lay out the positive first. (I will simplify but will take care to say nothing flatly false.)

Let us consider the so-called SAD - the Standard American Diet. It is a diet rich in sugars and starches. The root cause of obesity in those who eat the SAD, Taubes argues, is the quality of the calories ingested. When we eat carbohydrate-rich foods such as sugar, wheat, rice and potatoes, this leads to a spike in insulin. This spike in insulin results both in an increase in fat stores and in an too-early onset of hunger. This hunger is again sated through ingestion of sugar and starch, and thus we circle back again to fat storage and resurgent hunger.

If this is so - if, as Taubes argues, the root cause of obesity (and its attendant diseases) is the quality of the food we eat - then to attack the root of the problem, we must change not the amount but the kind of foods we eat. We must, in a word, cut out the carbs. The sugars must go; the starches must go. They must be replaced by an increase in fat and protein. (Just how much of each? This is not the place to answer, but I will say that we must lose our fear of fat. Fat does a body good.) If this is so, the body will no longer find itself in fat-storage mode. Fat stores will be released; pounds will be shed. Moreover, the body will seek out its proper weight, and the maintenance of that weight will be just as much a matter of homeostatic equilibrium as is body temperature. If we give the body the proper sort of food, then the body will adjust to fluctuations in caloric intake so that it might maintain an ideal weight. Less than is necessary and it will raid its own fat and protein stores; more than is necessary and it will "turn up the thermostat" and simply burn the excess calories off.

Now let's consider the negative aspect of Taubes' argument. This is his brilliant critique of the diet and nutrition and status quo. That status quo would have us believe that the body does not seek out an ideal weight, that it will always put on extra weight if fed an excess of calories. It will not adjust. It will burn calories at the same rate no matter what we eat or how much. If this were so, then to attack the root cause of obesity, we must simply convince the obese to eat less, and indeed this would be the only way to attack the obesity epidemic. Obesity is, on this view, a matter of behavior and behavior alone. The obese choose to overeat, and as a result they grow fat.

Taubes' objection to this is that it gets the direction of the causal arrow wrong. Of course the obese eat more than they use; if they did not, they could never have gained weight. But that this is so does not imply that their overindulgence is the cause of their obesity. Indeed another hypothesis has much stronger empirical support. The other hypothesis flips the direction of causation. On it, we aren't fat because we overeat. Instead it would be much closer to the truth to say that we overeat because we are fat. The same mechanism that drives fat accumulation - spikes in insulin production - is the very same mechanism that drives us to overeat. This mechanism is the product of the quality of the food we eat. It comes about because we eat too little fat and protein and too much carbohydrate.

Here's a little suggestion. Give a low-carb diet a try for two weeks. Cut out all sugar (except for the minimal amounts contained in low-carb vegetables). Cut out all grains and potatoes. Eat meat and fat to satiety, and make certain that those fats are of the "old" sort - tallow, lard, butter, olive oil and nut oils. Observe your weight. Compare your new energy levels to those from before. (You might feel unwell in the first few days. Some do, some don't. The body has to undergo a basic metabolic transformation. It has to transform from a machine that burns carbs to one that burns fat.) I do believe that you will find that Taubes' arrow of causality is the right one. You won't be hungry, but you will begin to burn off your fat stores and lose weight; and if you're anything like me (or the thousands of other folks who've done the same) you'll feel great.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


I feel as if we here in the U.S. have gone astray. I feel that something has gone very wrong.

I take myself to know that the Standard American Diet (SAD) has been a disaster. We're fatter and sicker than we've ever been. We're weak and indolent. We're fearful. We're resentful. This is all due in part (in greater part I think) to our diet.

But it's not only our diet that's gone far off track. There's much else wrong too. I see it in my students. Many are passive. Many don't value their education; many don't take an active role in it. Many just sit back, listen a little, work a little, and hope for the best. They seem to have little idea of what it means to actually learn a thing. You can't just sit back. You've gotta get up off your behind and get to work, and you've gotta get help if you can't do it by yourself. Lord have mercy! I don't know how many times I've begged students at risk to come to me with their questions only to watch them miss even the most simple problems on test day. Was it that they didn't really know that they didn't get it? Probably not. It's just that they didn't really care.

Why didn't they care? Why do I watch my foreign-born students work their little brown butts off while their many of their peers from the U.S. just sit there? Here's my guess. We here in the U.S. have come to take our prosperity for granted. We take it for granted that, no matter how much we screw around, everything will turn out fine. This was true for awhile - perhaps from 1945 until just a few years ago. But it ain't true anymore. The economy has tanked, and it's not gonna come back anytime soon. What was true before has become true again: If you screw around, you might just be screwed. My students from India, Mexico and China know this. My students from the U.S. don't. They figure they'll be fine no matter what. I'll predict that they'll suffer for this.

Here's a list of other deep problems in our culture. I'm sure that you could add to the list. I'm sure that I could too.

The sexualization of youth
The proliferation of pornography
The scourge of drug and alcohol abuse
The endless hours spent inside in front of a monitor or television
The endless hours at work and the resultant neglect of family
The millions of children born out of wedlock

But why focus on the negative? Isn't there some good here too? Of course there is. But the good is on the retreat. The bad is ascendant. We have to get hold of the bad and beat it back down. But this we'll never do until we know where it comes from.

I have an idea about the source of our problems. There's a thread that runs through all the problems, a thread that binds them all together. We've come to embrace fakes! Take, for example, the crap that we eat - all the bread, pasta, candy, soda, and all the rest. It's all fake food. Yes, it's food-like. Yes, the body can run off it (not well, of course, but it does at least prevent starvation). But it's not the real thing. The real thing is what we were made to eat. The real thing is meat (and a bit of fruit and vegetable). Grains are new food - a mere 10,000 years old at most. Refined sugar is new food. Soy is new food. Moreover, we've come to find that they're not good food. They rot the body from the inside. I'd call them fakes.

Another example. Students today don't know what it is to really learn a thing. They think that education is something that just happens. Of course that's as wrong-headed as wrong-headed can be. They've accepted a sham, a mock-up, for the real thing. Education is an active, focused endeavor. It's work. Many students don't get that. They've accepted a sham, a mock-up, for the real thing. I suspect that they don't even know what the real thing is.

Pornography is obvious fakery.

Drugs cause fake experiences. Yes I know that the highs are intensely pleasurable. But the mind wasn't made to experience that sort of pleasure whenever we happen to want it. It was meant to be rare, and when we make it common we've created a sham. (We destroy ourselves too, just like with SAD.)

I'll end here. But I have a challenge for you. Look back over my list. In every case we've allowed ourselves to be fooled. We've fallen for the allure of an easy fake. Try to explain why. (It shouldn't cause you too much trouble. The fakery is plain.)

Here's the moral if you missed it. Don't accept fakes. They make you sick, stupid and miserable. Demand the real thing. Do what's necessary to get it. It's out there. Find out what it is and got after it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


My 42nd birthday is near. I figure that I'm now somewhere near half-way done.

When the summer began, I weighed in at 240. I am 6'2'', but that's just too damn fat.

I wasn't just fat. I was weak too. And tired, always tired. And when 5 o'clock would roll around, the call of the bottle was irresistible

I'm down to 205, but I figure that I've lost more than 35 lbs. I've put a bit of muscle on. And I'm not tired all the time. I only begin to feel tired when it's time for bed, and I'm out within a few minutes after my head hits the pillow.

My mind is sharper too. My memory is perhaps better than it's ever been, and I find it much easier to focus for long periods. How much that I would have attributed to age would have really been the result of poor health? How much loss of mental acuity, how much diminution in strength and flexibility, how much disease is not an inevitable concomitant of age but is rather the result of the accumulated ravages of malnutrition?

When I think back and ask myself why I made the change when I did, I can answer only this: I didn't want to hit 42 in a state of decline. Perhaps it is a fear of death, or a fear of frailty. I don't know. (We all have depths that we never plumb.) But I do know this: I needed a change.

And what was that change? The change was dietary, nothing more. I'm still astounded by how much one can change about one's life with a change of diet. Mood can change. Energy level and thus activity level too can change. Skin, hair, teeth and nails can change. Sleep can change. (Change for me went very deep indeed. I've undergone a profound shift in world-view. More on this in a later post.)

What was the change in diet? What did I begin to do differently? I began to eat the diet that evolution shaped me to eat. (The idea that there is an evolutionarily optimal diet is a powerful one. I'm persuaded that there is such a thing, and that it's very different from what many would suppose it to be.) Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. They are meat (and not only the lean parts). They ate vegetables. They are fruit. They ate nuts.

But let us be clear. They were nomadic, and they followed the herds of their prey. Meat - and I mean the whole of the animal, nose to tail - was prized above all else. When they could get enough of it, it would comprise all or nearly all of their diet.

Thus I began to eat much more meat, and I radically increased my fat intake. I do eat a bit of fruits and vegetables, but they comprise no more than 10% of my caloric intake. I don't run off carbs. I run off fat. It is my primary source of energy.

It should be clear by implication what I do not eat. I do not eat grains, whether refined or whole. I do not eat sugar in any refined form. I eat no rice. I eat no potatoes. Starches in all forms I've banished from my diet. I've not had a bite of bread in 3 months, nor even a single grain of rice. I've not had corn in any form, or the least hint of sugar added to any of my foods. (I have been rather strict with myself.)

And I feel better now than I ever have before. For once, I don't feel sick and tired.

Does it seem like too great a change? Does it seem like too much to give up? What would you give up for your health. What would you give up for constant energy? For good sleep? For freedom from disease? For greater equanimity? For increased acuity?

Of course it can be difficult. But I believe that you will find that the new way is, all things considered, easier than the old. You'll no longer have to battle fatigue as you once did. The fog in your brain will clear. You won't crash and then stuff yourself with carbs. (Lord God in heaven! How many times I did that!)

So I'll say what I have said before. Give it a chance. Treat it as an experiment if you like. Give it 2 weeks. If you get better, keep it up. If you don't, turn elsewhere. But don't just dismiss it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

We'll Fix You!

A certain pernicious idea seems to have taken hold here in the U.S. The idea is that human life - the typical life we all lead - is pathological in a variety of ways and that we must turn to the experts to fix us.

We were told that our diet - a diet high in nutrient rich foods like animal protein and fat - caused heart disease and that we must therefore give it up. The inevitable result? Carbohydrate consumption skyrocketed. This has been a disaster. A low fat, low protein diet is one on which we are never sated. Insulin spikes after a high-carbohydrate meal. The body lays down fat. Glucose levels drop plummet. The body cries out Starvation!, and we eat another high-carbohydrate meal.

Ignore the experts, say I! Go back to a human diet, the diet for which the human body is designed, the diet that fed our first ancestors. (This is the core idea behind the Paleolithic diet.) Eat traditional fats and animal proteins until you reach satiety. Make them your primary fuel source. Add a bit of fruit and vegetables as you like. It's as simple as that. Ignore the expert who tells you to eat a low-fat diet and to restrict calories. They've told you to do the impossible. They've told you not be human.

We're also told by the experts that we need to exercise. Ignore it! Activity is not a duty. It isn't a treatment. It's the natural human condition. If you think that you must exercise to be fit, you've damn near got it exactly backwards. In early human communities, fitness would be absolutely essential to survival. But do you think that evolution would leave anything essential to survival up to something so fickle as human will and intention? The idea is absurd of course. Whatever is needed for survival is something that will come automatically if conditions are right. But what conditions must obtain if we are to be fit? What is of greatest importance here is what we put in our bellies. Put the right fuel in and the body will be fit. You know by now what I think the right fuel is. It's meat, baby. It's meat.

Don't think that I counsel sloth, that I think that we will be fit if we sit on our asses all day. Not at all. Of course activity and fitness are closely linked. But the causal arrow doesn't run from activity to fitness. Rather (to a first approximation) it runs the other way around. Fitness causes activity. If you are fit, you will feel a need to get the body in motion.

Let me try to drive the point home. The experts would have us believe that fitness is a consequence of a steely will. We must make ourselves get up and exercise, they say. We must whip ourselves into shape. That just ain't true. If you find that activity take an effort of will, something has gone wrong. Fix the problem, and activity - often strenuous activity - becomes just as natural as to breath or to eat. How do you fix it! Eat right! Grains ain't human food! Sugar ain't human food!

One final example. I was quite dismayed to find that a number of psychiatrists have come to the conclusion that at most a few weeks of severe depression should follow the loss of a loved one. What a terrible, terrible idea! Again the idea seems to be that we can't allowed to be human, that we can't love deeply and thus mourn deeply. The experts know better! They'll fix us!

My advice here is to cast a skeptical eye upon the pronouncements of an expert when it contradicts what you take to be plain common sense. Don't let them control you. Don't assume that they always know better. They're just plain folks like you.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Unexpected Changes

I've experienced all of the expected changes now that I've begun to eat Paleo: increased vigor, weight loss and increase in muscle mass.

But I've also experienced a number of very welcome unexpected changes too.

1. Better Sleep. I sleep better now than I ever have before (at least since I've been an adult). I'm asleep within 10 minutes after my head hits the pillow and I sleep soundly through the night.

2. Greater Mental Acuity. I'm sharper that I I've ever been. I can focus for longer periods of time, and I can follow through on more complex lines of thought. This is welcome indeed.

3. Greater Power of Memory. I find it easier to recall facts. Names of people I know come to be more quickly than before. I also find it easier to lay down new memories. When I was young I never needed bookmarks. I could simply remember the page number when I left the book. When in my 20s, I lost this ability. Now at 41 it's back. I don't even have to try. I simply glance at the page number and then can easily remember it when I come back.

4. Get-Up-and-Go! I did expect that my energy would increase. But I was surprised to find that I now feel a strong need to get up off my ass and get in motion. It's not just that I now find it easier to get up and go. Rather I find it hard to stay in one place for an extended period of time.

5. Fewer Symptoms of Disease. A few weeks ago I had a cold. But I didn't realize that I had a cold until a few days in. The only symptoms were a bit of fatigue, a mild headache and just a tiny bit of a stuffy nose. That's much less severe that I used to experience.

6. Difference in Appetite. I used to crave carbs of all kinds: alcohol (more on that in a moment), candy, chips and all the rest. That thankfully is a thing of the past. They almost don't seem like food to me anymore. I don't like them.

7. Aversion of Alcohol. I used to drink. Late in the afternoon, oh about 5 or so, I'd begin to crave a drink; and I always indulged. Now I don't crave it at all. In fact most days I don't even think about it. What a relief that is. It saves money and brain cells too.

8. Acne. It's almost all gone. For the first time since I was 12, it's almost all gone. Hurray!

9. Helio Philia. I used to dislike the sun. Now I love it. I seek it out, and if I can't get into for at least a good half hour I feel deprived. I have much greater tolerance for the sun now too. I'm quite fair-skinned, and the sun used to bother me. Now it doesn't.

10. Clean Teeth. My teeth used to remain clean for only a little bit after I brushed. Most of the time they were covered with plaque. (I know, I know - Yuck!) Now they're slick and clean all of the time. Moreover (and this was a very great surprise to me) old stains have begun to disappear. My teeth are whiter now than they've been in years.

11. Greater Patience. I'm still no Gandhi, but I don't anger nearly as quickly as I used to. At one time I took my quickness to anger as a sign of a moral failure, as a sign of failure of will. Now I'm suspicious of that. I was prone to anger because I felt bad most of time. Now I feel good most of the time because I put the right fuel in my body.

In short, I had no idea that the belly and what's put in it are so important. A calorie is most certainly not a calorie. Not all calories are the same.

Sometimes I just say to myself "Goddamn I feel good!"