Why do we keep talking about dieting and special diets?

Dieting, Diet, Food, Movement

What shall we eat? No more pixie dust, that’s for sure…

Recent posts by one of the very few sources I consider reliable on nutrition prompted me to revisit the theme of diet. So I hope you can stomach one more post on this topic. I’m going to try to make it worth your while by presenting a hint of a solution.

If you have not yet read what Dr. David Katz has to say on the subject, stop reading this right now, and go read a few of his posts instead. I won’t mind. Really.

Still with me? Perhaps you only have a few minutes, so allow me to summarize the current status. (And provide links to his most recent and relevant posts; some are on LinkedIn and may require an account to access.)

Let me make something clear right off the bat:

Dieting does No Good

Dieting does not work. It’s that simple. I’ve written about it myself, and this post by Dr. Katz is quite entertainingly showing that all serious nutrition experts, those not trying to sell you something, say so.

This video about a much-publicized recent study does what journalists always (erroneously) think is better journalism: providing statements from both sides, even though it is a non-debate.

Even having a good overall diet, eating food (not too much) and mostly from plants, is not enough if you are trying to lose a lot of weight, and/or remain healthy for a really long time. For that, you need to exercise, to move, on a daily basis. It is a lifestyle issue, not a diet issue.

But that’s hard work. Are we sure there’s nothing we can do about the food we eat? (Or so we keep asking ourselves.)

In the absence of successful “mainstream” diets, people turn to even stranger diets, like the would-be paleo diet. But even that, as I’ve indicated previously, and as Dr. Katz has put it time and time again (as reported here as well), is part of repeated attempts at making believe we can get fit and slim without doing real work.

So despite dieting not working, why do we keep talking about diet as if it is the solution? Why is it that every so often a new kind of special diet starts and claims to be the solution we’ve been looking for?

Basically, the question is:

Why do we keep focusing on dieting?

Because it is appealing to us.

Most (all?) of us have a tendency to seek easy fixes, magical solutions, silver bullets. I feel this is primarily due to our innate tendency to assign simple cause and effect relationships to phenomena: if this bush moves, that’s probably because there is a tiger ready to jump on me, sort of thinking. In this case: I’m getting fatter, so it must be what I’m eating.

To some extent it is, but that’s not the point. We focus on the wrong culprit at the expense of the white elephant on the couch.

The main aspect of our lifestyle that is different from what our ancestors of even a hundred years ago had to deal with is lack of movement.

Yes, it would be harder to move a lot more; it is effort. But there is more at play:

We are constantly bombarded by good stories that, even though they are scientifically unsound, appeal to our innate need for those causation narratives. Those stories are how modern snake oil salespersons get us time and time again.

If, as I surmise, this is a big part of the problem, it also suggests a way to fight.

A way forward?

While I generally agree with Dr. Katz that we should “grow up” about it, and that we must make the effort to eat well, along with exercising, not smoking, etc., I think we need a pro-active approach as well.

Since the ease with which stories can be created about special diets is part of the problem, perhaps a good story could be part of the solution. We need new narratives to replace those of the pixie dust diets, successful precisely because, although they don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, they appeal to us through simple (simplistic) stories. We can keep telling ourselves, and others, the well-articulated lies we were told by the dieting peddlers precisely because they are simple enough.

On the other hand, the “I eat food, not too much, mostly from plants” story requires more explanations when you try to discuss it with others, and few of us have the knowledge to feel comfortable doing that.

There should not be a need for more explanation; our ancestors did not feel such need. They just ate what food they had.

The problem nowadays is that we have way too much, and it is all way too rich for our own good. In a see of contradictory advice and the occasional about-face of scientists themselves (which is even harder to explain for non-scientists), we all feel a need to justify our choices.

What better way to justify those choices than a good story?

So that’s the narrative, the story, we need to work on, instead of just de-bunking the others (not that there’s anything wrong with de-bunking). Allow me to have a go at a first draft.

A proto-story for healthy living

Begin Story

I am a human being, an animal that has evolved over millions of years to actively seek and eat a wide variety of plants and other animals.

Lately I’ve been extracting even more nutriments from my environment by cooking and domesticating my food sources. That’s great progress.

But my body has not yet evolved to remain healthy by staying put all the time and eating heavily processed stuff. Yes, stuff: there is no better word for some of what our modern society provides.

So I need to move on a daily basis, a lot, and eat foods that are as close to their natural forms as possible. That means different things to different people, but to me it means plants and some animals that have not strayed very far from their natural lifecycles. When I eat that way, I find that I eat less because I feel full sooner. And the more I move, the more I crave good food, and the better I feel.

If machines and chemical processes other than the digestive systems of other animals have been involved, I am very careful with how much I consume.

And always, no matter what I eat, I make sure to move a lot. Everyday.

End Story

That’s it. C’mon, it’s not that hard to memorize. Give it a try. You can even substitute something for “plants and animals” if you are so philosophically inclined. No problem.

Or comment with suggestions to improve it…

But, in any case, I have a final piece of advice for you about the claims of Diet Peddlers:

Diet, Exercise, Movement, Everyday

What to do when somebody tries to convince you their dieting approach is going to work…

Top picture from Pixabay.

Revisiting the “The Paleo Thing”

Paleo, Diet, Movement, Daily

Hunting appears to have defined us, but it is only part of the (pre)history.

Since writing the “Let’s do the Paleo Thing (yeah!)” post a couple of weeks ago, I came across a highly relevant article from National Geographic.

So I thought I would share the link, and cherry-pick some of the key passages to save you time. It is well worth the read, so I urge you to not just read this post.

Now, although the article was actually published before I wrote my blog post, I must insist that I had not read it.

It just so happens that the article makes pretty much the same arguments I did, only with more smart people being quoted in the process:

1) The Paleolithic is defined by more than what humans ate, and the main problem is the change in lifestyle, not what we eat:

“Studies suggest that indigenous groups get into trouble when they abandon their traditional diets and active lifestyles for Western living. Diabetes was virtually unknown, for instance, among the Maya of Central America until the 1950s. As they’ve switched to a Western diet high in sugars, the rate of diabetes has skyrocketed. Siberian nomads such as the Evenk reindeer herders and the Yakut ate diets heavy in meat, yet they had almost no heart disease until after the fall of the Soviet Union, when many settled in towns and began eating market foods. Today about half the Yakut living in villages are overweight, and almost a third have hypertension, says [biological anthropologist William Leonard of Northwestern University]. And Tsimane people who eat market foods are more prone to diabetes than those who still rely on hunting and gathering.”

“Many paleoanthropologists say that although advocates of the modern Paleolithic diet urge us to stay away from unhealthy processed foods, the diet’s heavy focus on meat doesn’t replicate the diversity of foods that our ancestors ate—or take into account the active lifestyles that protected them from heart disease and diabetes.”

2) Knowing exactly what our ancestors ate is nigh-impossible:

“But is it true that we all evolved to eat a meat-centric diet? Both paleontologists studying the fossils of our ancestors and anthropologists documenting the diets of indigenous people today say the picture is a bit more complicated. The popular embrace of a Paleo diet, [paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas] and others point out, is based on a stew of misconceptions.”

3) While meat was indeed part of the diet of our ancestors, the use of fire to cook food was perhaps more important in the greater scheme of things, and we definitely were eating plants, including grains, to survive:

The real Paleolithic diet, though, wasn’t all meat and marrow. It’s true that hunter-gatherers around the world crave meat more than any other food and usually get around 30 percent of their annual calories from animals. But most also endure lean times when they eat less than a handful of meat each week. New studies suggest that more than a reliance on meat in ancient human diets fueled the brain’s expansion.”

“So how do hunter-gatherers get energy when there’s no meat? It turns out that “man the hunter” is backed up by “woman the forager,” who, with some help from children, provides more calories during difficult times. When meat, fruit, or honey is scarce, foragers depend on “fallback foods,” says [paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks of George Washington University].”

““There’s been a consistent story about hunting defining us and that meat made us human,” says Amanda Henry, a paleobiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “Frankly, I think that misses half of the story. They want meat, sure. But what they actually live on is plant foods.””

“If [Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham] is right, cooking not only gave early humans the energy they needed to build bigger brains but also helped them get more calories from food so that they could gain weight.”

Oh, and by the way, we have kept evolving, as can clearly be seen by looking at the various populations around the world, and things like lactose tolerance into adulthood:

“All humans digest mother’s milk as infants, but until cattle began being domesticated 10,000 years ago, weaned children no longer needed to digest milk. As a result, they stopped making the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the lactose into simple sugars. After humans began herding cattle, it became tremendously advantageous to digest milk, and lactose tolerance evolved independently among cattle herders in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Groups not dependent on cattle, such as the Chinese and Thai, the Pima Indians of the American Southwest, and the Bantu of West Africa, remain lactose intolerant.”

“What’s more, she found starch granules from plants on fossil teeth and stone tools, which suggests humans may have been eating grains, as well as tubers, for at least 100,000 years—long enough to have evolved the ability to tolerate them.”

In conclusion (because this is already getting long):

“We have gotten so good at processing foods that for the first time in human evolution, many humans are getting more calories than they burn in a day. “Rough breads have given way to Twinkies, apples to apple juice,” [Wrangham] writes. “We need to become more aware of the calorie-raising consequences of a highly processed diet.””

“It’s this shift to processed foods, taking place all over the world, that’s contributing to a rising epidemic of obesity and related diseases. If most of the world ate more local fruits and vegetables, a little meat, fish, and some whole grains (as in the highly touted Mediterranean diet), and exercised an hour a day, that would be good news for our health—and for the planet.” (Emphasis mine.)


The Evolution of Diet, by Ann Gibbons, National Geographic, September 2014, p. 35-53

Picture from Pixabay.

Let’s do the Paleo Thing (yeah!)

(The above title needs to be sung to the tune of “Let’s do the Time Warp” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.)

Paleo, Diet, Movement

Here’s a picture of something “Paleo.” But is it reality?

This post is not what you think it is.


Because the Paleo Thing, is not what you think it is.

Bear with me. It will all become clear.

The Paleo Diet is dead…

If you are even remotely interested in health and fitness, you have heard of the Paleo Diet by now.

Most likely than not, what you think you know about it, or what you have been told, is false.

How can I make such a bold statement? Very simply:

1) For starters, we don’t know for sure what our ancestors ate on a daily basis.

What we have is a picture, incomplete at that, of their overall dietary intake. We get this from the analysis of archeological sites dating back many thousands of years, and of human remains when they are available (and often much more recent if they are complete enough to provide information).

To a lesser extent, we get some data from the current diets of so-called “primitive” people that somehow manage to exist in this day and age. So we have bits and pieces, hints scattered all over the place. And we “reconstruct” the most likely scenarios based on that.

But the complete, precise picture will elude us until we have time travel capabilities. (As a physicist, I feel pretty confident about making the equally bold statement that we never will.)

2) More importantly for this discussion, there is hardly any food nowadays that are still exactly the way they were when our ancestors of the Paleolithic were around.

Over thousands of years of selecting, breeding, and, yes, engineering plants and animals, you can be certain that what you eat nowadays is related, but not the same, as what our ancestors ate.

And if you go out of your way to select foods that have not been changed in some way, you are back to the first point I made: chances are very slim that those food items were actually eaten by our ancestors. You can be pretty sure that our ancestors, smart as they were, picked the foods they preferred when they started domesticating things. They would not have spent what little energy and time they had available on the things they did not enjoy eating.

So what you eat nowadays, no matter what anyone tries to sell you, is not what our ancestors ate. It is not, therefore, “Paleo.”

This idea of “eating a Paleo diet” must die once and for all. (Yeah, I know, good luck with that.)

…long live the Paleo Lifestyle

Now, given there is no such thing as a “Paleo Diet”, what is the big fuss about?

There is another reason why adherent to the “Paleo Diet” get it wrong: They pretty much get stuck on the notion that diet is the key to healthy living.

But our ancestors of the Paleolithic had something else going for them that makes all the difference:

They moved more than we do. A lot more.

Just eating well, whatever you call the diet, is not enough if you are entirely sedentary.

On the other hand, moving a lot, even if your diet is less than perfect, makes a huge difference in your health and fitness to survive in this world.

That’s why instead of a “Paleo Diet,” we had better embrace a “Paleo Lifestyle.” A lifestyle that puts emphasis on what contributes most to our health: movement.

So I’m arguing we should embrace the “Paleo Lifestyle” by exercising and moving all the time.

That’s a lot more reasonable that pretending to be eating what our ancestors were eating while taking our cars to the corner store to buy some meat…

But, what about diet? you ask

Good question.

The “thing” in the “Paleo Thing” of the title is that when I talk about lifestyle, I do mean making choices about diet that make sense as well.

Without being “Paleo,” the diet part is actually quite simple, and something our ancestors were indeed doing: eat real foods, mostly from plants, and as close as possible to the way they are found in nature.

To put it another way: seek foods that are not processed, or that have been processed as little as possible.

By the way, that does not mean raw food. Our ancestors had discovered fire for cooking well before agriculture. It also does not mean vegetarian or vegan, though there are excellent ethical and philosophical reasons to embrace such diets.

But keep in mind that we are still physiologically very much like our ancestors. Incidentally, they were opportunistic omnivores, and ate just about what they could find as they moved about and over the seasons. That included roots, fruits, animals, plants, and even insects. At least, that’s the part of the picture that scientists are pretty sure about.

Therefore, the “Paleo Lifestyle” I’m suggesting consists of moving a lot more, on a daily basis, and eating unprocessed foods. (Though I’m still not touching insects.)

I realize that even that, given our current society, is like turning back the clock on a lot of modern comforts and energy-saving technology. It is not easy.

But does it make any more sense than pretending to be eating what our ancestors ate?

At least we know for sure how our ancestors moved: they used their feet!

Movement, Exercise, Paleo, Daily

Embrace the Paleo Lifestyle: use your feet more!

Pictures from Pixabay.

From the Library of No-brainer Fitness

Books, Exercise, Diet, Willpower, Happiness, Paleo

So many books, so little time…

A really short post, for a change. You probably did not think it possible coming from me, yet here it is.

Here are books I’ve recently read, or am currently reading, and that I highly recommend. Perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon…

The Paleo Diet for Athletes: The ancient nutritional formula for peak athletic performance. By Loren Cordain, Ph.D., and Joe Friel, M.S. Not exactly a day-to-day guide to nutrition since I don’t subscribe to everything that is “paleo”, but certainly an inspiration for reducing carbs and eliminating processed foods and NOT FOOD (a work in progress). I particularly like the pragmatic approach to eating paleo when doing endurance sports, which is of course not a strict paleo diet.

The Willpower Instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. By Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. This book is structured like the lecture series she gives at Stanford University, and contains exercises to be done week after week, so it takes a while to get through it in order to really benefit from the material. But it is worth the effort. One of the key elements for having more willpower is to be fit (exercise, sleep well, etc.), and of course some willpower is useful to keep us moving everyday. So it is a positive feedback loop.

Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. By John J. Ratey, MD. I just started this, after first encountering him in a FranklinCovey lecture and then listening to his TED talk, so too early to give a review, but very promising.

Eating on the Wild Side: The missing link to optimum health. By Jo Robinson. This is from an investigative journalist in the field of food (agriculture, nutrition, “field”, get it?). What’s really interesting is the discussion about changes some 10,000 years of human selection and hybridization of plants have made to what we put in our digestive systems. Basically, a truly paleo diet is impossible nowadays, because the food that existed then no longer exists. Case closed. A quick read, and quite enlightening, and many interesting tips that can be consumed over time.

The Happiness Advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. By Shawn Achor. A bit of a personal thing, but highlighting how important it is to have a balanced life, to exercise, eat, and sleep well. Let’s face it: it is all inter-related.

All of the above are easy to find in either paper or electronic versions.

Next on my list is to read Dr. David L. Katz’s book on nutrition and health; once I’ve done that, I’ll likely spend much more time talking about it.

Good reading!

Photo from Pixabay.