As I mentioned in my two posts last week, Passionate Sex in Monogamous Relationships and How to Get Lean Without Counting Calories, last month I went to Austin for three glorious lecture-filled days for the annual PaleoFX conference to learn as much as I could about health in a short period of time.
Today I’ll talk about the last of the three most interesting talks I attended.
Experiments in Quantified Self by Robb Wolf
Robb Wolf is somewhat of a legend in the “paleo” world.
Like most people who come to embrace the teachings of ancestral health, Wolf went through his own personal health challenges, as outlined in his NYT bestseller The Paleo Solution. Not to mention the early death of both of his parents from largely preventable diseases. He never got a chance to help them. I have to imagine the pain from those experiences have driven him to persevere in the face of so much adversity in this field (but perhaps I’m projecting my own personal experience dealing with the aftermath of my mother’s suicide onto Wolf).
In any case, I was excited to hear Wolf’s keynote talk!
Wolf kicked off his talk by recounting his experience recording a reality show where he’d be in the wild for 10 days, with nothing to eat but the animals he hunted (with bow and arrow) and any food he gathered.
He knew that he would be going long periods (possibly several days!) without food during the experience, so he prepared by consuming a ketogenic diet for the weeks leading up to the TV show. By doing so it would limit his hunger pangs during the lean periods.
[As an aside, ketogenic diets are high in healthy fat and if they’re followed for a long enough, they cause the body to go into a state known as ketosis, where the body is primarily burning body fat for fuel. Yum!]
He did go quite a few days without any food, but eventually he successfully shot (I believe he said a deer?) with his bow and arrow.
After the 10 day experience they tested his blood sugar, and you know what it was? TWENTY-FREAKIN’-THREE – 23.
If you’re not a health nut like me that probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but let’s just say THAT’S INSANELY LOW.
Most people probably couldn’t form coherent sentences with such low blood sugar.
Even though he said he was glad he did it, the challenging experience took a toll on his health and it took several months of continuous monitoring and modifications from some of the top doctors in the paleo world to get him back to optimal health. Just a reminder that even if a paleo diet is substantially healthier than the junk food most people eat, that doesn’t mean living a true paleo lifestyle can’t take a toll on your health!
With that said, it’s impossible to actually recreate such an environment in today’s world, his experience was probably A LOT more challenging and stressful than an entire community of people living like that 10,000+ years ago.
The Master Metric Every Health Nut Can Track
After that Wolf talked about the state of research when it comes to health and performance. His general take away was that we are going to know A LOT more about personalized nutrition and performance in the next 10+ years. At the moment there are a lot of promising avenues of research, but unfortunately many of them will turn out to be fruitless – we just don’t know which ones yet!
With that said, there is one important metric that comes back time and again as one of the most useful metrics to track when it comes to general health – blood sugar (glucose).
And thankfully, it’s also one of the easiest and cheapest metrics to track by yourself (it doesn’t take anything more than a glucometer, lancets, and some test strips to get started – less than $40 total).
All foods that you consume cause your blood sugar to rise. As a result of that increase your body releases insulin causing your body to shove that blood sugar into your body’s cells (mostly fat but some muscle too, particularly if you’re strength training).
In general, the more a food spikes your blood sugar, the more insulin your body releases, the more of those calories get shoved into your fat cells. So the idea is to primarily consume foods that spike your blood sugar as little as possible (for most people, this means their diet should consist mostly of healthy fats, proteins, and veggies, and if they’re active they can add in some more healthy carbs).
What’s interesting is that foods that spike your blood sugar cause A LOT more problems other than just unwanted gaining weight (although it also causes that).
The list of problems is almost endless, so I won’t even include it. Suffice to say, if you have some nagging health problem, you can probably improve it by eating healthier foods that don’t spike your blood sugar as much.
The interesting thing is that not everyone responds the same to every food. And sometimes the results can be particularly surprising!
Check out the following example from his book (which he also included in his presentation):
Blood Sugar Surprise!
Wired to Eat (pg. 80)
In this graph we’ve got two different people eating the exact same foods (a banana and a cookie) while wearing a continuous blood sugar monitor.
The person on the top part of the graph, surprisingly, had a WAY bigger blood sugar spike when he at a banana than a cookie!
The person on the bottom had the expected reaction, his blood sugar spiked more when he ate a cookie than when he ate a banana.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!
Now, before you go and shovel 14 cookies down your gullet like the cookie monster, odds are you’re NOT the guy on the top. I suspect very few people are.
But let’s say you are, let’s say your blood sugar actually spikes less on cookies than bananas. Does this mean you should eat cookies instead of bananas?
No – it means you should probably avoid bananas!
And when it comes to cookies, well, they’re still junk food, so consuming in moderation is the only viable strategy.
Nonetheless, I think this is worth thinking about.
Most people are looking for the good enough solution, they want to know “what’s the least amount of effort I can put into this, what can I get away with.” And that’s fine, not everyone wants to make nutrition a big focus in their life. If they have a health problem that needs to be addressed, this would be a valid approach to addressing it, when the time comes.
But if you’re like me, and you’re looking for that edge to produce optimal health – tracking your blood sugar in response to various foods is an experiment worth conducting sooner than later.
An example may clarify things.
One thing I’ve discovered about myself is that if I follow a strictly ketogenic diet (consuming primarily healthy fats for calories), I start to drag BIG TIME in my workouts after a couple weeks.
To combat this, after strength training workouts, I make sure to consume a healthy carb to replenish my glycogen stores (quick access energy that’s located in your muscles and depleted during strength training). My standard post-workout carbs are regular potatoes, sweet potatoes, and rice, based on nothing more than what I feel like at the moment.
But it’s likely that one of these three is much better for me than the other two – as of this moment I simply don’t know which one!
I realize to most people this seems like total minutiae, but when it comes to habits, small changes add up in a big way over time.
Kind of like how savings snowballs due to the power of compound interest. Or at least, it used to, back when banks paid interest!
Wolf’s Mea Culpa
Wolf also mentioned in his presentation that he’s been humbled by his experience since publishing his first book The Paleo Solution. He said that a number of people had come to him and said something to the effect of (I’m paraphrasing here), “You seem like a really nice guy Robb, but I followed your plan and it just didn’t really work for me.” After hearing this enough times he said he finally came around to realizing that as much as he wanted a one-size-fits-all approach to exist, there simply isn’t one.
With that said, it would have been nice to understand EXACTLY what wasn’t working for people (other than their desire to consume junk food, especially in social settings, which is common).
The impression I got from his presentation was that some people, particularly people who regularly engage in strength training, found that they do better on higher carb diets than Wolf recommended in The Paleo Solution.
Personally, I feel he’s being too hard on himself here.
The vast majority of Americans have absolutely abysmal diets. I’d rather see them err on the side of going too low-carb for a little while than continue their habit of jelly-filled doughnuts and coffee doused in Coffee Mate for breakfast.
But self-criticism is the norm for Type A guys like Wolf.
Even so, the general principle of eating high-quality, unprocessed foods still applies, as he describes in his most recent book:
Ancestral diets show a remarkable spread in macronutrient profiles. Some are rather low carb, while others may be as high as 70 percent carbohydrate. This spread in macronutrients appears to have little if any impact on health so long as the foods are largely unprocessed and the carbohydrates come mainly from fruits, vegetables, and tubers. – Wired to Eat (Page 63)
So Robb, if you’re reading this, relax and give yourself a pat on the back : )
More About Robb Wolf’s Work
Ultimately, Wolf’s approach in his new book boils down to eating foods that don’t spike your blood sugar too much as well as avoiding immunogenic foods (foods that cause your immune system to turn on, e.g. wheat and processed dairy are common triggers for people). And once you’ve done that for a month, you test out which higher-carb foods you do best with.
I think it’s worth checking out, Wolf specifically mentioned in his presentation that 80-90% of people with health problems will have their issues resolved by following the recommendations made in his new book. It’s a big claim, but definitely one worth testing out.
Here’s a link to his new book Wired to Eat, let me know what you think if you read it!