26 October 2014

Primal Living Part 2 - Ancestral health in the modern world

Last week in Part 1, we introduced the key principals of the Primal Lifestyle -- namely, what to eat and how to exercise. This week, it may serve helpful to discuss some of the background of the Primal Blueprint and where it fits in with life in the 21st century. In doing so, we examine the analogy of "Ancestral Health" by which we mean, emulating the habits of our ancestors whom existed for thousands of years without any of the "lifestyle diseases" plaguing us today. The goal is to understand how to adopt these principals and live primal in the sedentary, highly processed, over-worked world the majority of us live in . 

Ancestral Health

A common misconception about wanting to live like our paleolithic counterparts is that it's about actually turning back time. It's not. Being paleo or primal isn't about camping in your backyard, producing all of your own food, or hunting stray animals. The idea is to use what we know about evolutionary biology through the use of modern science and marry it with the principles and concepts of our ancestors that evolved and lived in optimal physical condition for hundreds of thousands of years. Now, I've explained this to a few friends and the usual question is “isn’t life expectancy much longer now than it was for cavemen?” While the logic behind this question may be understandable, it's still misguided. Yes today, odds are, we will live pretty long lives - much longer than people did 5000 years ago. However, this is because we don’t have to worry about dying from the flu, an infected cut or the shock of a broken limb, not because we are more physically fit and healthy. Plus, we don’t have to worry about being attacked by bears, hyenas, snakes or crocodiles as much as we once had to. What we do have to worry about is obesity, heart-attacks, Alzheimer's disease  and strokes.

Our declining health is absolutely the most important wide spread societal problem there is. Public health care budgets are ballooning so much that it's becoming general consensus that in 30 years such support will cease to exist. Billions of public and private dollars are funneled to providing health care. What makes this worse is that all of these leading conditions creating this drain on facilities, professionals and resources are generally agreed upon to be preventable. The problem is that most people have just been given the wrong information. Fat-free, carbohydrate rich foods do not make up a healthy diet.  The truth of the matter is, outside of the last 300 years, the modern western diet wasn't even possible for our species to survive on - let alone thrive on.
Sugary foods at the base of the pyramid? Crackers healthier than Broccoli? This is crazy. 
The reality is that our ancestors simply didn’t regularly  have the carbohydrate heavy foods that have become the basis of the modern western diet. Rice, bread, corn syrup, pasta, sugar and fruit weren’t routinely eaten because they were incredibly difficult to gather and produce (impossible in some cases depending on the region). Animal meat and fresh vegetables were the staple foods that have sustained humans for hundreds of thousands of years. Fruits were seasonal, in tall, difficult to access trees  and competed for with more nimble animals and thus only available in relatively small amounts. Even honey was protected by bees. Where today we can have something sugary sweet whenever we want in large amounts, foods full of glucose and fructose were a rare treat for our primal brethren. Nevertheless, thanks to a combination of poor science, selfish economics and shortsighted governance, we have the USDA approved Food Pyramid above. Odds are, anyone who went to school after the 1960s learned this as the key to a healthy diet. I bet I didn't even need to include the image, everyone knows it. How could we have been so wrong? Not only is it backwards in term of carbohydrates, but look at those tiny little white triangles representing sugar. How on earth can the foundation of a healthy diet include sugar? If you want to refresh your memory, click here to see the Primal food pyramid. The one that is actually good for you. 
Eat less carbs, be more healthy. This is the most important rule people need to know.
This chart shows the simple relationship between the bodies natural ability to burn fat efficiently, which is what we all want and need to be able to do in order to maintain good health. It also shows the disruption carbohydrates do. Generally, and if we're speaking entirely of weight control, there is a range between 100 and 150g of carbohydrates per day that the average person can eat without gaining any weight. Any more than 150g and you enter the "Insidious Weight Gain" zone. Here, your carb intake is high enough that your body looks to them for all energy conversion rather than fat. If you train hard enough (60 minutes of intense daily workouts), then you can offset the insulin boost. If not however, any carbs not used are converted to fat and packed away, leaving a trail of sugar behind. 

Most of us aren't performance athletes
If you love it, go ahead and train like a marathon runner, but if your goals are just to look and feel good, and fight off disease, it shouldn't be that difficult. 
The reality is that food and activity are the cornerstones of any approach to improve health and the Primal way is no different. What is unique, is the principles of what you eat and why, and the significance this has on overall health. It’s a common belief that living healthy is mostly based on what you eat relative to how much you exercise. Most diets and workout plans will say this. Primal Living uses a ratio of about 80:20. Why is it then, that so many people spend 45 minutes to 2 hours of painful, boring and expensive time exercising on most days just to be healthy? Is that really necessary? If you’re a competitive soccer player or triathlete, all the power to you, it’s commendable that you have a passion and are so dedicated to it. Most of us don't have that passion. Most of us just want to feel better, look good , and reduce our chances of having a stroke while we still have a mortgage. 

Another big benefit with Primal is that I can miss workouts pretty regularly without feeling any effects. Sick, tired, busy or just not feeling like it isn't a detriment to my weight, energy levels or performance. 
Besides, this is isn’t about the triathletes. This is about the everyday worker that has a family history of heart-disease and wants to be able to play with their grandchildren. Why do they need a a carb-boost every 3 hours? Just so they can workout every afternoon? Or, do they work out every afternoon so that they can eat that jam bagel every morning and bowl of pasta every night? Is the point of eating and working out to ensure that we can and need to do both, or is the point of both to live a healthy life that satisfies us? Personally, I know I'm pretty lazy. Whether it's because of work, entertainment, leisure or rest -  I don't want to have to spend 1 hour a day exercising just to be healthy. I also don't want to feel like a failure and put on weight if something happens and I can't work out for a few days or weeks. It shouldn't be that hard and it doesn't have to be. 

Next week, I will discuss some of the similarities and differences between the other noteworthy high-protein/low-carb diets - Paleo and Atkins. I will also  try providing some insight into my personal habits and daily routines for those that may want a practical, real-world picture of an average person and how they go about maintaining their health long-term without trying very hard.

For any more information, or the scientific research behind any of this, head to MarksDailyApple as a starting point. On that note, just so we’re clear, this is heavily backed by current and increasing bodies of academic research based on health, nutrition and evolutionary biology. What I’ve tried to do is provide a very simple, layman's description of what this all entails.