Today I want to share something that isn't a topic in health and fitness, but rather a philosophy for viewing our health. We receive health tips all the time... so many that it becomes a random collection of lists in our mind. After a while the lists become endless. This is due to the analytical way we approach most issues. We attempt to deconstruct things into independent elements. We do this so that we can then reconstruct things the way we see fit. It's an approach that has served us well in fields like technology.
Unfortunately, when we apply the technique of deconstruction to human health we disregard the wisdom stored in our bodies that has accumulated over millions of years. Think about that. Imagine your car had an issue, and you had the choice between a mechanic who had been fixing your particular car model for millions of years (a very sage mechanic)... or a PhD student who had been studying your car for the past year? No contest, right? You'd go with the mechanic.
It's a similar situation with our body. Evolution involves a concept called natural selection. Random mutations occur in a species, and if a mutation proves beneficial for survival, it proliferates in the descendants. This process creates a species that is optimized for its environment. Problems of the past are solved, and their solutions are built into the circuitry of our DNA.
But how do we access these solutions that are coded into us? Well... we don't have to. All we have to do is give our bodies the environment for which they were optimized, and then get out of the way. It's a two-part challenge. First we have to think about how humans spent their lives thousands of years ago. Then we have to apply those principles to our current life. The world has changed so drastically that it's impossible to live exactly as we used to, but we can find pretty close facsimiles for the ways we used to eat, move, and spend our days.
The beauty of this approach is that we don't have to understand everything from a scientific point of view. We simply need to emulate key aspects of our ancestral environment, and let the coded solutions inside us work their magic. I'll give an example. We know that ancient man spent most of his day outdoors. If we emulate this behavior we find it's beneficial to our health. We don't need to know why. It's just a simple habit that we can practice. But now along comes the scientific approach which concludes that the reason being outside promotes health is because our skin produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. So we say, "OK, just take a vitamin D pill, and don't worry about spending time outdoors. Problem solved!". However, it turns out there's a lot more to the story than vitamin D. Sun exposure also increases the oxygen content in our blood, stimulates the conversion of cholesterol into testosterone, and increases white blood cell count. In addition to those immediate effects, getting sunlight during the day helps to set our circadian rhythm allowing us to fall asleep more easily at night. Also, spending time outdoors reduces stress levels.
This is just one example of how emulating an ancient behavior can be much simpler and more beneficial than trying to outsmart ourselves with science. This approach is often referred to as ancestral health. One of the leaders of the movement is Mark Sisson. He has come up with a list (yes another list, but it's a short one) of practices that emulate our lifestyle from days of old. He calls it the Primal Blueprint. Check it out. I find this approach to health empowering.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the four pillars of health are food, exercise, sleep, and minimizing stress. Today we're going to look at food. It's arguably the most important of the four categories. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most confusing. There are so many warring factions out there claiming one diet is better than another. I look back on my own journey in fitness and think about how many times I've changed my thinking on this subject.
My experience has taught me that there is no ONE magical diet. This is actually a relief. We don't need to be searching for the holy grail of nutrition. There is a simple principle which solves most dietary issues. Eat whole foods. That's literally it. What are whole foods? They are foods that don't have an ingredient label because... the food IS the ingredient. The short list of these foods is vegetables, fruit, meat, nuts, seeds, eggs, and full-fat dairy. If you think about the layout of most grocery stores, these foods are generally located on the perimeter.
So, why is eating whole foods such a panacea? To answer that question, let's look at the characteristics of a healthy diet. In order of importance, they are:
- Energy Balance
- Adequate Supply of Nutrients (vitamins, minerals, plant phenols)
- Positive Hormonal Activity
Energy balance means not eating more food than what our body uses on a daily basis. Our bodies have evolved to be very in tune with what we eat. Whole foods maintain the natural feedback loop in our digestive system that signals us when we've had enough. Processed foods are like a Trojan horse that packs a hidden payload. Our bodies aren't able to properly gauge the amount of calories we're getting from them. Eating whole foods helps us avoid the Trojan horse!
Adequate supply of nutrients is pretty self-explanatory. Whole foods (especially vegetables) provide the wealth of micronutrients our bodies need. A multivitamin may provide vitamins and minerals, but vegetables provide a whole slew of plant phenols that drive cellular regulatory processes and promote positive gene expression.
Positive hormonal activity has to do with how our body responds to carbohydrate-rich foods. In order to process carbohydrates our body produces a hormone called insulin. Insulin stimulates fat storage. A lifetime of over-exposure to insulin causes our fat cells to become resistant to it. This condition is known as diabetes. A diet of whole foods is naturally low in carbohydrates since grains (bread, pasta, etc) and processed foods are not a part of it.
There's a catch with whole foods. You have to cook! Actually that's part of why it works. Everything we do in life is connected - one habit influences another. If you're cooking there's a good chance you won't be watching as much TV, and it's likely your family will gather together for a communal feast. Balance is so important... but that's for another post! In the meantime you can check out a detailed example of a whole food diet, and let me know if you have any questions.
Yesterday I listed the four basic areas we need to consider when addressing our health - diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management. Over the next few days I'm going to delve further into each of those categories, but first I want to discuss an important concept: your genes - or rather, what else there is to the story of you besides your genes. I'm going to get a little technical in the paragraph below, but stay with me. The reason I'm doing this is because it's empowering to know that you're not merely stuck with a set of characteristics handed to you at birth. You have a say in how your genes are expressed.
Many people think that genes determine all of our characteristics - that our fate is etched in stone. This is not the case. It's true that our genes hold a set of instructions, but first the instructions have to be transcribed onto a protein molecule which serves as the owner's manual for the cell. This owner's manual governs all of the cell's behavior. The process looks like this.
Here's the interesting part. The transcription phase doesn't simply copy the DNA's instruction set. The environment experienced by our body plays a role in determining whether or not each instruction is copied and to what degree. Things like diet, exercise, sleep, and stress influence whether a gene instruction is turned on or... expressed. It's kind of like a card game where you may be dealt a certain hand, but you get to decide which cards to play and when. Geneticists refer to this as gene switching, and it is the mechanism whereby healthy behaviors protect us from disease.
The take-home message is that your lifestyle plays a huge role in how your genes are expressed. This is great news. It means that you are not relegated to the sidelines when it comes to your health. You are master of your fate.
Welcome to my blog! The fitness world is filled with so much information that it can be dizzying. It’s easy to get caught up in implementing all the different advice you come across - much of it conflicting. I rode that rollercoaster in the beginning of my fitness journey. Trying new ideas is fun, and there is no better teacher than experience, but our time is limited. At some point you want to know that your efforts are based on solid principles and will bring results, so it’s important to have a set of guiding principles you can always refer back to.
We receive a seemingly ever-changing stream of health and fitness advice. Eat this, don’t eat that. Oh, wait a minute... eat THAT, don't eat THIS. Here’s the thing. It will always come back to four areas: diet, exercise, rest, and stress management. Applying common sense and being mindful of your habits in these areas goes a long way. Are you eating mostly whole foods? Are you getting a good mix of intense exercise and gentle movement in your days? Are you getting sufficient sleep? Are you aware of sources of stress in your life? These questions are the starting point.