*Note from Sarah: Jason Seib is back with another great post!
Whenever I speak to a new group of people, my first order of business is always to define “diet” and help everyone to understand that paleo is not a diet, or at least not just a diet. I know you have heard the word “lifestyle” thrown around ad nauseum, and we are as guilty as anybody (Everyday Paleo Lifestyle and Fitness), but I think that word falls short, too. Perspective or point of view come closer. “Seriously, Jason? Is this really a post about semantics?” No, not really. Bear with me. This stuff might be keeping you from reaching your goals.
Paleo asks one simple question – what is the natural human diet? Therefore, the answer to this question can be called The Paleo Diet, and following the Rules of The Paleo Diet will deliver us from the evils of poor nutrition and give each of us the body we want with nary a second thought, right? Not always. Avoiding grains, legumes, dairy, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, soy, and all processed foods while liberally partaking of meat and vegetables (and a bit of fruit) will be a huge step in the right direction, but it probably won’t be the solitary key to your desire to look, feel, and/or perform better. This is why paleo is much more effective when it is painted in broader strokes and the question it asks is reworded to something along these lines: can we identify all the ways in which our modern lives are at odds with what our bodies expect, and can we rectify those discrepancies? In other words, use the paleo concept to help you form the right questions.
Let’s say, for example, that you eat a standard American diet, you are 50 pounds over weight, you sleep from 12 AM to 6 AM each weeknight (provided nothing interesting is happening on Facebook), you hate your stressful job, you sit at a desk all day, your low back and knees hurt most days, and the most exercise you have performed in years is walking a few hundred yards in the parking lot at the mall. Switching to The Paleo Diet will probably feel like a miracle. You will lose some fat, you will have more energy, you will manage your stress a little better, and your mood will improve. This might even be enough for you, especially if you didn’t have high hopes after all the other diets you tried, but it falls short of what’s possible.
Now let’s take a look at this lifestyle through the paleo lens. The standard American diet is badly broken, but you probably are already convinced of this fact since you’re reading this blog. 50 pounds of excess fat is a clear indication that at least one, and most likely many, of your inputs are way out of whack because we don’t tend to see overweight indigenous hunter/gatherers. What it does not mean is that you have horrible genetics and would be overweight even if you had always made all the right decisions. Poor choices got you here, but good decisions can get you out.
Sleeping from midnight to 6 AM each night is really only possible with electricity, for artificial light as well as for the things you are probably trading for sleep. You are a diurnal creature. Deciding to act like a nocturnal creature will not change your physiology, but it will create a stress response in your body and create insulin resistance. Applying the same logic to questions regarding sleep that the paleo concept applies to nutrition will always point you in the right direction. The right question: Is my body best adapted to 6 or 7 hours of sleep beginning many hours after sunset? Nope.
From your body’s point of view, work stress, and all other neolithic forms of stress for that matter, is no different than survival stress. Running for your life from a predator produces cortisol, your primary stress hormone, which helps you find the quick energy necessary to escape. This kind of stress is acute, completely natural, and your body has evolved this specific response to deal with it. However, stressing over your job, bills, relationship, etc. produces cortisol, too, except that these things have nothing to do with survival and they are not acute, often lasting for days, weeks, months, or years. Too much cortisol will keep you squishy and make it hard to gain muscle. You may not be able to avoid stress entirely, but putting some honest effort into stress management is well warranted for most of us. The right question: Does my body understand all this craziness I put it through each day while we all play society? Nope.
There is a good chance that you are sitting in a chair as you read this, and there is a good chance that this is not the first chair you sat in today. I’m not pointing fingers, I’m sitting as I type this and I sit here for some portion of every day. Think about this for a moment: how many times have you encountered a completely natural structure that would allow you to sit the way you are now (feet on the ground, weight on your rear, back supported, bent at roughly a 90 degree angle at the knees and hips)? I feel like I have probably come across a situation like this before, but I may be imagining it. It would require the perfect placing of rocks/logs/stumps/somethings and the odds are slim of it happening very often. Sure, there are plenty of places to sit down on the ground or on objects, but not in the shape that we spend and enormous chunk of each day in our modern lives. Then, after maintaining an unnatural position for so much of our time, we ask our bodies to perform work and we are rewarded with aches and pains. You probably aren’t in a position to quit your job and spend each day moving like a hunter/gatherer, but some damage control, through mobility work and proper exercise focused on correct movement patterns, is absolutely possible for everyone I have ever met who made these things a priority. The right question: Are the movement patterns most common in our modern world conducive to a body that looks, feels, and performs great? Nope.
No, paleo nutrition alone is not enough. Doing another diet, even if it is The Paleo Diet, misses the mark when it comes to getting as healthy as possible in our neolithic world. Living in a way that our ancient genetics can understand is essential. Don’t let this realization overwhelm you, though. A little effort can go a long way. Go for a walk. Go to bed earlier. Learn how to manage your stress, maybe in as little as 8 minutes per day. Take a moment of your life to learn how to move properly and then pick up some heavy stuff. Move at maximum effort for very short durations, also known as sprinting. And regain the range of motion required for a pain free journey through life. Add these simple things to a solid paleo diet and watch how easily you attain health and fitness that exceeds your expectations.
Go forth and be awesome.