As gnolls.org has become more and more widely read, I am receiving more and more questions from my readers in comments, on the forums, and over email—and a significant number of them boil down to “I have [a list of problems], what should I eat?”
First, let me be absolutely clear: I am not complaining! I work very hard every week to write articles that are not only worth your time—they’re worth forwarding to others using the social media buttons at the end. I’m glad you’re here.
However, I need to correct a common misconception. And though this article is mostly addressed to those new to paleo or the paleo-curious, it’s worth all of our time to briefly remind ourselves of a basic truth.
Getting Lost On The Path To Better Health
Most of modern medicine treats physical and mental dysfunctions as medication deficiencies.
Acid reflux? You’ve got a proton pump inhibitor deficiency.
Can’t sleep? A classic sign of Ambien deficiency.
Insulin-resistant? Your metformin intake is inadequate.
Depressed? Clearly your blood levels of Prozac are too low.
High blood pressure? That’s textbook—you’re Toprol-deficient.
Obese? Well…actually, we haven’t found a medication that doesn’t make you crap your pants. Maybe you should do some jumping jacks or something.
Even “alternative medicine” takes this approach, telling us we’re deficient in everything from crushed crab shells to olive leaf extract.
According to the labels, every one of these bottles is absolutely necessary for our good health. It's best not to ask how Paleolithic humans survived without them.
Of course this is baloney, designed to sell us pills. But this pervasive approach has a more subtle destructive effect on our thinking: it lulls us into applying the same fallacious analysis to our dietary needs. Whatever’s wrong with us, there must be an individual dietary prescription to fix it. Some magical balance of protein to fat to carbs, some obscure rainforest fruit rich in antiphytocatopolyresistophenolins, a nut butter that won’t make us fat…
Yes, we all want to believe that we’re all beautiful and unique snowflakes, that each of us deserves a personalized fitness plan, our very own roadmap to better health. Even the paleo community falls victim to the weak version of this fallacy, which is throwing up our hands and saying “Since we don’t understand everything, hey, whatever works for you.”
Consequently, it is important to remember the following:
Afflictions that redefine “healthy eating” are extremely rare.
Unless you have one of a few rare and specific conditions like phenylketonuria (for which you were either tested at birth or died of the complications) or seizures (for which ketogenic diets are often appropriate), it’s highly unlikely that eating a functional paleo diet will cause anything to get worse—and it’s highly likely that you will enjoy improved health, relief of some or all symptoms, improved body composition, and higher energy levels after the period of adjustment required by any major dietary change.
At this point it is important to note the disclaimer I’ve had on the left sidebar for some time:
• Your life and health are your own responsibility.
• Your decisions to act (or not act) based on information or advice anyone provides you—including me—are your own responsibility.
Furthermore, if you ask me “What should I do about my GERD/insulin resistance/recurring rashes/IBS/40 remaining pounds of fat”, the first thing I’m going to ask you is “How many of the steps from Eat Like A Predator have you taken?” If you’re still eating gluten grains, cooking with seed oils, consuming packaged foods (especially those labeled “heart-healthy” or “low-carb”), or drinking soda, my first advice will be “Then stop that.”
Occasional cheating is a different matter…I don’t want to encourage orthorexia by blaming everything on half a brownie you had three weeks ago. But you need to be honest about whether you’re really just cheating, or whether you haven’t fully committed to change.
Conclusion: Better Health Is Less Complicated Than You Think
It’s very profitable to make better health seem like a complex undertaking. If we view “health” as an individual prescription difficult to follow, nearly impossible to maintain, and only dispensed by authority figures, we’ll become dependent on the continual assistance of others—and their pills—and we’ll be forever running in circles chasing the next diabetes drug or magical rainforest antioxidant extract.
Don’t believe the hype. Our ancestors survived, thrived, and multiplied for millions of years, using only their wits and sharp rocks. Humans are not born with medication deficiencies—nor are we metabolically dependent on chemicals extracted at great cost from plants that only fruit or flower seasonally in one small region we didn’t even inhabit until perhaps 11,000 years ago.
No, eating like a predator will not fix every problem. (For instance, infections require antibiotics, antifungals, or anthelmintics…and if your beta cells are gone, you need exogenous insulin.) Neither will it fix your problems overnight: damage done over decades won’t heal fully in days, and some damage may be permanent. But as Dr. Doug McGuff once said about medical testing:
“If the number is bad, eat healthy.
If the number is good, eat healthy.”
You may well be a beautiful and unique snowflake—but you’re a human animal, just like everyone else, and your path to health begins just like everyone else’s.
Live in freedom, live in beauty.
Postscript: Your questions are welcome! There is much to discuss, and plenty of room for optimization once you’re following the basic plan.
Rephrased for modern humans: Predators eat meals, prey grazes on snacks. This means you need to eat meals which will carry you through to your next meal, but that won’t make you tired or sleepy.
So why is it so difficult to stop snacking? Why is snack food so uniquely addicting? Why can we demolish entire tubes of Pringles, boxes of donuts, trays of chocolates, and bags of goldfish crackers, when we would never finish the same number of calories in the form of meat and vegetables?
It’s because snack food is a magic trick, played on our senses of taste.
Note: This article will help you understand what’s behind the concept of “food reward” that’s been making the rounds lately.
How Our Tastes Evolved: Understanding The Basic Tastes
Our tastes have been selected, over millions of years, to enjoy foods that are nutritious for us, and to dislike foods that are poisonous or not nutritious. Any humanoid whose tastes were not in accordance with healthy eating—for instance, an inability to distinguish plant toxins, or a lack of preference for calorie-dense fat over lean protein which we have a limited ability to process—would have died out over the hundreds of thousands of generations that separate us from our quadrupedal, forest-dwelling ancestors.
The key to understanding snack food is to understand what foods were available to us in the Paleolithic, so that we can understand what our tastes are for. It’s impossible to overdose on sour or bitter because they’re aversive in large doses, so that leaves us with sweet (which also helps detect fat), salty, and umami.
Let’s examine fat: there was no such thing as “vegetable oil” (actually seed oil) in the Paleolithic. The only year-round source of dietary fat was animals, with nuts a secondary, seasonal source. Therefore, our taste for fat is primarily a taste for animal fat—including all the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K2-MK4) found in animal fat, and for which fat is necessary to absorb.
A wild banana. Small, starchy, and mostly seeds.
Sweetness was limited by lack of availability. Paleolithic fruits were much smaller and more bitter than modern varieties, which have been bred for sweetness and seedlessness to the point of being unable to reproduce without human help—and they would not have always been available at their peak of ripeness, as they’re eaten by many other animals too. Honey has always been rare. And as the Drs. Jaminet note, it is entirely possible that sweet taste receptors do double duty as animal fat detectors.
Salt was difficult to obtain, except for those who lived near the ocean. And as Parmesan cheese and kombu dashi hadn’t yet been created, umami was limited to its natural source—meat.
In conclusion, we can see that our taste receptors are primarily geared towards obtaining fatty meat and salt, with nuts and sweet fruit as occasional bonuses. So it’s not surprising that we enjoy salty, fatty meat and sweet fruits.
Snacking: The Supernormal Stimulus Of Taste
“Supernormal stimulus” is a technical term for something that’s so much better than reality that we prefer it…
…even when it’s obviously fake.
Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz found many examples of this in animals. Mother birds prefer to incubate fake eggs made of plaster if they’re larger and more brightly colored than their own eggs. Male stickleback fish will attack anything with a red underside, including toy boats.
This is because, in the evolutionary history of birds and sticklebacks, there haven’t been enough curious ethologists with plaster eggs and red-bottomed toy boats to make it important for these animals to tell the difference. If it’s egg-shaped and in your nest, sit on the biggest one, because it’s most likely to survive. If it’s in the water and red underneath, attack it, because it’s most likely another male.
Niko Tinbergen painting some supernormal stimuli.
A supernormal stimulus for humans.
Humans are no exception: we’re vulnerable to supernormal stimuli, too. Photoshop gives men rippling abdominals and women exaggerated curves. Comic book heroes are just as unrealistic as the heroines. Round yellow smiley faces communicate emotion more clearly and simply than a picture of a smiling person.
And in the evolutionary time of humans, there hasn’t been enough refined sugar, seed oil, and MSG to make it important for us to tell the difference between them and real food.
Here’s a startling experiment: rats prefer saccharine and sugar to intravenous cocaine, even after previously becoming addicted to cocaine:
“…From day 7 onward, rats sampled lever C [cocaine] almost maximally, though slightly less than lever S [saccharin], before being allowed to make their choices (Fig. 1c). Thus, despite near maximal cocaine sampling, rats under the S+/C+ condition acquired a preference for lever S as quickly as rats under the S+/C- condition.”
“Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals.”
Characteristics Of Successful Snack Food
If you were to design a profitable and successful snack food, you’d want it to have several characteristics:
It would be made of cheap ingredients, allowing a high profit margin.
Since our government heavily subsidizes industrial grain production, you’d make them of grains and grain products…corn, wheat, and soy. Mostly corn, because it’s so heavily overproduced that we’re forced, by law, to feed it to our cars!
It would be shelf-stable and require no preparation, so that it could be kept without refrigeration, taken anywhere, and eaten at any time.
Therefore, you’d make it out of highly-processed ingredients that are shelf-stable, pump it full of preservatives so that it could survive for months in a vending machine, and enclose it in lots of disposable packaging so it wouldn’t get damaged in transit.
It would concentrate the tastes we’ve evolved to enjoy far beyond their natural amounts, and as much as our technology allows.
This would be the supernormal stimuli of fatty, salty, umami, and sweet: MSG, crystalline sugar, seed oils, fruit juices, “natural and artificial flavors”.
Finally, it would not be satiating.
No matter how much you ate, you would never be satisfied.
In other words, you’d create a movie set: something that looks like reality, but even better. More scenic, more exotic or mysterious or futuristic, more dramatically lit…
…and completely, utterly fake. The buildings have no interior, everything in the distance is just a matte painting or computer graphics, and it’s all built as cheaply as possible because it only has to last until the scene has been shot. All a movie set has to do is look nice for a few minutes, or a few seconds, from the right angle. You can’t live in a movie set, because that’s not what it’s built for…
…and you can’t live off snacks, because that’s not what they’re made for either.
The Magic Of Snacks, Part I: Taste Without Nutrition
Just as a movie set’s only constraint is to look good for a few seconds from a limited set of camera angles, a snack food’s only constraint is to taste good until it slides down your throat.
And that’s what technology allows us to do: create products (“snacks”) that tickle our taste receptors far more than real food can ever hope to—but that don’t come with the nutrition that selected us to crave those tastes in the first place.
This is the reason that the concept “eat whole foods, minimally processed” is generally sound: if whole foods taste good to us, it’s most likely because they contain nutrients we need, not because they’ve been engineered to tickle our taste buds. (Note that all modern fruits are heavily engineered products of thousands of years of careful breeding: read Dan Koeppel’s fascinating book “Banana” for a look at one typical example.)
The Magic Of Snacks, Part II: Taste Without Satiety
A pleasing taste isn’t enough to make an addictive snack food: as mentioned above, it must also be non-satiating. Steak and eggs are delicious—but we don’t have the urge to eat them until we’re sick.
There are many parts to satiety, but I’ll touch on what I believe to be the most important issue: protein satiation.
Complete protein is satiating. Our bodies absolutely require complete protein—but they also have a limited capacity to process protein in excess of our requirement. This shows up as what’s called “protein leverage”: people tend to consume food until they’ve ingested about 360 calories worth of complete protein. All other things being equal, if we eat foods high in protein, we consume less calories, and if we eat foods low in protein, we consume more. (You can read more about this issue in this AJCN article, and here.)
“Protein” is just chains of amino acids. “Complete protein” is protein containing all the essential amino acids—the ones we must eat because our bodies can’t make them—roughly in the proportions our body needs them.
Interestingly, egg protein is the standard by which protein quality is measured—probably because it takes the same kinds of protein (and other nutrients, like cholesterol) to make a healthy chicken as it does to make a healthy human. Any dietary advice that tells you to avoid eggs for any reason is, by definition, wrongheaded.
Therefore, if we want to sell an addictive and non-satiating food, we should keep it very low in protein (e.g. candy, cookies, potato chips). If it does contain protein, that protein should be incomplete—deficient in at least one essential amino acid—since the limiting factor for protein utilization is the least abundant essential amino acid.
Guess what? Corn and wheat, the foundation of chips, crackers, cookies, and over 90% of the breakfast aisle, are both deficient in lysine. And both zein (corn protein) and gluten (wheat protein) are prolamins, which are very difficult for our digestive enzymes to break down and decrease the digestibility of the associated starch.
In support of this theory, you’ll note that “energy bars” are more satiating than candy bars, despite having a similar taste and number of calories…most likely because they tend to contain some amount of complete protein. (Though they make up for it by costing twice as much. You could be eating prime rib for what energy bars cost per pound. Think about it.)
Fat: The Satiety Potentiator
Fat is not satiating by itself—but it increases the satiation of the protein it’s eaten with. This is because fat slows gastric emptying and increases GI transit time. (More information here.) This is one reason why we can eat entire tubes of Pringles, but only a few eggs: Pringles contain fat and carbohydrate, eggs contain fat and complete protein.
Unless, of course, you’re Cool Hand Luke…
In support of protein satiation, a large hard-boiled egg contains about 75 calories, so that superhuman (and fictional) feat would involve 3750 calories’ worth of eggs. A can of Pringles contains about 900 calories.
50 eggs is just over four dozen eggs…3750 calories is just over four cans of Pringles. What’s easier to eat…a dozen hard-boiled eggs, or a can of Pringles?
The Nutrient Leverage Hypothesis
We can take the protein leverage hypothesis even farther, by extending it to other necessary nutrients. The unjustly neglected blog Fat Fiction makes the startling claim that nutrient deficiency is responsible for the obesity crisis, and cites (among other sources) an intriguing double-blind, placebo-controlled study of feeding multivitamins to obese Chinese women:
“After 26 weeks, compared with the placebo group, the MMS group had significantly lower BW [body weight], BMI, FM [fat mass], TC and LDL-C, significantly higher REE [resting energy expenditure] and HDL-C, as well as a borderline significant trend of lower RQ [respiratory quotient] (P=0.053) and WC [waist circumference] (P=0.071). The calcium group also had significantly higher HDL-C and lower LDL-C levels compared with the placebo group.”
Anyway, I recommend you read Mike’s “Two Minute Summary”. I’m not sure nutrient deficiency is everything, as he seems to be saying—but I believe he’s got hold of an important piece of the obesity puzzle that has been neglected in the rush to blame everything on insulin, and I encourage others in the ‘paleo’ field to build on his work.
Conclusion: Snacking Makes You Fat, By Design
Another supernormal stimulus.
In conclusion, we can see that “snack food” is designed to make us fat—by giving our taste buds a supernormal stimulus, while withholding the nutrition that has always gone along with that stimulus in evolutionary time. Just like the greylag goose that tries to sit on an egg-colored volleyball, or the stickleback fish attacking a red-painted toy boat, we can’t resist shoving highly processed, brightly packaged non-foods like cookies, donuts, crackers, corn chips, bread, cereal, and candy bars down our throats—
—especially when our rational minds are short-circuited by the label “All-natural!” or “Contains heart-healthy whole grains!” Our livers don’t care if fructose comes from Fanta or apple juice, our pancreas doesn’t care if glucose overload is accompanied by indigestible fiber and plant toxins (“whole grains”), and our eicosanoid pathways can’t tell if they’re clogged with omega-6 fats from Cool Ranch Doritos or Organic Multigrain Rainforest Eco-Chips.
Don’t believe the hype. If it takes multiple layers of brightly-colored packaging and a $multi-million, multi-media ad campaign to sell it, it’s not food. No one has to put meat or eggs in a brightly colored box with a cartoon character on it. I’m just sayin’.
Postscript: For those who want to know more, I explore our mechanisms of hunger and reward in detail in my epic series "Why Are We Hungry?" My older series on carbohydrate addiction starts here and explains some of its pathways.
This article could easily be subtitled “The Study That Tells You Everything You Need To Know About Insulin, Blood Sugar, Carbohydrates, Satiety, And Obesity”. Yes, I admit to a degree of hyperbole—but this study is so well instrumented and controlled, and its results so informative, that I believe it’s important for everyone to read it.
You should really click on the fulltext link above and read the study yourself, because it’s very clearly written…but as not everyone has that kind of time, I’ll cover the important parts.
The design of the study was simple.
Take twelve obese teenage boys.
Admit them to the research center the evening before. Feed them dinner and a bedtime snack (the same each time).
In the morning, feed them one of three different breakfasts, each with equal caloric value but dramatically varying composition.
Measure blood samples and subjective perception of hunger every 30 minutes.
Feed them the same meal for lunch.
Repeat blood and hunger measurements for the next 5 hours.
Allow them to request food at any time after lunch. Measure when and how much they ate.
Repeat after 1-2 weeks, until everyone’s been measured for all three meals.
The three breakfasts and lunches in question:
“High-GI”: Instant oatmeal with 2% milk, a tablespoon of cream, and glucose plus an unspecified “artificial sweetener”. Milk was treated with lactase in order to increase GI. 64% of calories from carbohydrate, 16% from protein, 20% from fat.
“Medium-GI”: Steel-cut oatmeal, prepared as above—but without the lactase, and with fructose instead of glucose and sweetener. Same macronutrient composition.
“Low-GI”: Vegetable omelet made of appx. 1 whole egg and one egg white, low-fat cheese, spinach, and tomato, plus some grapefruit and apple slices. 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, 30% fat.
All three meals contained the same number of total calories, and weighed approximately the same. (And, if anything, caloric availability would have been greater with the instant oatmeal than with the steel-cut oats.)
How “Heart-Healthy Whole Grains” Make Us Fat—In Pictures!
“The mean area under the glycemic response curve for the high-GI meal (284 mmoles-min/L) was twice that of the medium-GI meal (141 mmoles-min/L; P < .001) and nearly fourfold that of the low-GI meal (76.6 mmoles-min/L; P < .001)."
Is anyone surprised that a big pile of high-carb oatmeal spikes blood glucose and insulin, and hammers glucagon?
Do you see the huge epinephrine (= adrenaline) spike four hours after the instant oatmeal, when the sugar hit wears off? (And the start of one an hour later, with the steel-cut oatmeal?) How do you think that makes you feel? Nervous, irritable, and desperately in need of another sugar hit?
Moving on: here’s the subjective hunger level, charted over time, after the three test breakfasts. Again, these results shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone:
Note that there is no time at which the hungriest omelet-eater was more hungry than any oatmeal-eater…and that after five hours (approximately the time between breakfast and lunch), both the instant and steel-cut oatmeal-eaters were approximately 65% hungrier than the omelet-eaters!
What do you think that means at lunchtime? It means the “heart-healthy” oatmeal breakfast will leave you ravenously hungry at lunch (if you even make it there without snacking), whereupon you’ll gorge and suffer an hour or two of “food coma”. Goodbye, afternoon!
Now here’s the punchline: the test subjects were fed the same meal for lunch as they had for breakfast. Over the next five hours, they were allowed to request a snack platter and eat all they wanted, as often as they wanted.
How about that?
These results speak for themselves:
“Voluntary energy intake after the high-GI meal (5.8 megajoule [mJ]) was 53% greater than after the medium-GI meal (3.8 mJ), and 81% greater than after the low-GI meal (3.2 mJ).”
“In addition, mean time to the first meal request after lunch (2.6, 3.2, and 3.9 hours for the high-, medium-, and low-GI meals, respectively) differed between test meal groups (high GI vs low GI; P = .01; high GI vs medium GI, not significant).”
That’s not a misprint. People consumed 81% more calories during the five hours after eating instant oatmeal than after eating the same number of calories as an omelet and fruit—and 19% more calories after eating steel-cut oatmeal than after eating an omelet and fruit. (Note that the hunger curve for both kinds of oatmeal was rising precipitously at 5 hours, whereas the omelet + fruit curve flattened out. Do you ever have to work late? Is dinner always five hours after lunch?) Furthermore, the omelet-eaters took 50% longer to request any food at all.
That’s not all! A modern “heart-healthy” oatmeal breakfast, as mandated for schoolchildren by the new US government guidelines, would use skim milk and no cream (instead of 2% milk plus a tablespoon of half-and-half), driving the GI even higher and fat content even lower. A traditional* breakfast would use whole eggs, butter or coconut oil, and full-fat cheese (or ham, or bacon, or just an extra egg), driving the GI even lower and the fat content much higher! (Recall that between the apple and grapefruit, the low-fat cheese, and the egg whites, the “low-GI” omelet breakfast was still 40% carbohydrate and only 30% fat.) So real-world differences will be even greater than this experiment demonstrates.
* These days “traditional” is confined to a few ghettos called “paleo”, “primal”, or “Weston A. Price”. But less than a hundred years ago, nearly everyone who could afford real food was smart enough to eat it.
Conclusion: Eat Real Food, Not Birdseed
Do you want to be fat, constantly hungry, or both? Keep eating that birdseed. (Known to our overlords as “heart-healthy whole grains”.) The US government pays Big Agribusiness billions of dollars of our tax money each year to overproduce grain—to the point that we’re forced to put corn ethanol in our cars at a net energy loss just to get rid of the excess. Your poor health and shortened life help keep their profits high.
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