Here’s my problem: the more research I do on different nutritional recommendations for diet and lifestyle, the more I am convinced that the internet is broken.
Everyone—myself included—has an idea of what constitutes an ideal diet, fitness plan, or lifestyle, and we proclaim it ad nauseam on our platforms of choice, which is all well and good, except for the fact that other people then read our proclamations and take them to heart.
And I’m not necessarily talking about the templates we advocate—Paleo, vegan, etc. etc., but the sweeping recommendations of nitty gritty details to everyone, as if they’re the kind of gospel that will always apply.
The problem here is that we’re all right. Also, we’re all wrong.
How’s that? Well, let me give you a few examples:
Is your metabolism broken? Then you might want to restrict carbs or try a ketogenic diet. Are you an athlete? Then, for the love of god, eat a sweet potato after your workout.
Are you a man? Great, give intermittent fasting a try—I’ve heard good things. Are you a woman? Think twice: you might be protecting your ovaries if you just eat breakfast.
Did your recent ancestors drink milk? Great—enjoy your genetically inherited ability to produce lactase, and go shake your local raw dairy farmer’s hand. Ancestry not of the milk-inclined? Coconut milk ice cream it is.
Get my drift? I could go on, and get even more specific with context, but we’d be here forever, and I’d like to make my point:
What gets people into trouble is that they get very up-in-arms and protective of their “one true way of eating and exercising” because it worked for them/saved their life/restored their health/rescued a kitten or whatever—and they assume that it’s the only way of eating or exercising that anyone should be doing ever.
I’ve been there—I’ll own it. And, frankly, I’ll continue to advocate a traditional/Paleo/Primal/Weston A. Price-inspired template until the grass-fed cows come home.
HOWEVER, we really have to take into account the nuances—not just on the genetic, anatomical, or metabolic level, but also in terms of past experiences with food and exercise, budget, proximity, and even knowledge level in regards to nutrition/fitness.
Let’s look at some examples from schools of thought to which I personally have subscribed (and am not criticizing—just using as a means for emphasizing how they may work for me, but may not inspire others in the same way):
There is a school of thought about food that goes like this: Just Eat Real Food.
For someone following a Paleo/traditional template like me, real food is meat, veggies, fat, and fruit. Simple. The nuances, obviously, follow from there, but anyone who has listened to Sean Croxton’s show (Underground Wellness) for any length of time is a nutrition geek who doesn’t bat an eye when confronted with questions from ketosis to kombucha.
For someone coming from a vegan/vegetarian template, real food pretty much begins and ends with a saying that includes the words “mostly plants,” and usually means lots of fiber, few calories, and negligible fats. Animals are not considered to be real food, but sometimes Tofurky is.
For someone coming from a standard American diet, real food includes pasta and garlic rolls. When they transition to a less-processed food template, they may not even have the knowledge base to make choices about what “real food” actually is right away. These are the people who sometimes spend hours scouring forums and Facebook groups, just to find out whether chickpeas are real food and if they can call whole wheat unprocessed.
There is a school of thought that goes like this: Eat the Food.
For someone who is ready to give up disordered eating like me, eat the food is a godsend. You mean we don’t have to restrict ourselves or follow super-healthy diets or punishing exercise regimens to such an extent that our lives become unmanageable and we end up with eating disorders (restrict/binge/yo-yo) or major burnout/injuries? Sign me UP. Anyone who has followed Amber Rogers’ writing (Go Kaleo) for any length of time knows that mindset is the name of the game, and that it’s possible to make peace with your body—and with the dessert at your next family get together.
For someone who is coming from a standard American diet, however, “eat the food” is what’s been causing them to gain weight, lose muscle mass, and develop a whole host of health problems from diabetes to alzheimer’s, right? You can’t suggest to someone who has never had a concept of health food that Oreos are always fair game, and expect them not to look at you like you’re nuts.
In other words, CONTEXT MATTERS.
I can tell a vegetarian to “just eat real food,” and we’ll probably get into a heated discussion about why we can’t share a “healthy” tofu-based appetizer for lunch. I can tell a Jillian Michaels fan to “Eat the Food,” and she’ll laugh in my face because, to her, that’s a one way ticket to The Biggest Loser.
And that’s just a very, very brief look at the macro level. When it comes to the micro, things get even more complicated.
For example, those of you who have been following on my methylation journey know that a single nucleotide polymorphism in my genes (MTHFR) makes it hard for my body to process folate. And digging deeper into the methylation story, I’ve discovered that I also can’t process several forms of B12 or B6.
While I don’t recommend veganism for a whole host of macro-level reasons, I’m learning now that possibly one of the biggest reasons that veganism didn’t work for me wasn’t just that legumes contain lectins, but that my body can’t process all forms of B12—and I was literally poisoning myself while taking synthetic B12 supplements to make up for the fact that I wasn’t getting any of the natural stuff in my diet.
Following someone else’s general guidelines for health destroyed my health because it wasn’t right for my body.
Does that mean we should all be making ourselves crazy and getting PhDs in nutrigenomics? Probably not, but a good first step would be to stop taking sweeping health recommendations for personal panaceas.
And that includes “Paleo” too. The more I learn about this way of eating, the more I see it as the palette from which we can choose the highest quality paints with which to paint the canvases that tell our health story. Some colors look better with others and some just don’t look good at all. But, as with any art, one brush stroke doesn’t appeal to everyone—you have to experiment with the tools you have to make your canvas something you can enjoy every single day for the rest of your life.
So the next time you decide to retweet an article on the 5 super-foods we should all be eating, the next time you spend hours researching whether you’re either Paleo or Primal if you use ghee, the next time you sneer in derision at the “schmuck” on your Facebook who thinks quinoa and white potatoes are real food, stop. Just stop.
Think about the context on both the macro level and the micro level. Are those super-foods super for you, or will they cause you health problems? Does it matter how you label the way you eat, or does it matter that the things you eat give you the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to run optimally? Are that “schmuck’s” beliefs wrong, or wrong in the context of YOUR body’s needs or where you are on YOUR journey?
I’m not saying we need a free-for-all; I’m saying we need to stop reading and writing blog posts as if they are the ultimate gospel about health and nutrition, end of story, case closed. If they were, then we’d all have adopted them, started living better, and gotten the heck off the internet anyway.
While I will always share the latest articles, opinions, research, and resources related to the basics of ancestral diet templates, primal fitness, and the style of eating, moving and living that I advocate and try to model, I hope that you all remember to take everything with a grain of pink Himalayan salt.
I’ve learned, while studying to be a health coach at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, while dealing with my own health problems, and in talking with others, that we have to be advocates for our own bodies before we become advocates for a dogma.
That means understanding that the person you’re arguing with in your Facebook group about how sugar addiction affects your life may not think that sugar addiction exists because she’s never dealt with it. That means understanding that even though saturated fat is awesome and coconut oil is a great “super food,” your friend might be sensitive to coconut, so it’s not the best option for him right now. That means understanding that ketogenic diets AND high carb Paleo diets are BOTH part of a great template for eating, moving, and becoming healthier, depending on the person who is practicing each one.
I encourage you all to stop Googling “The 5 Best Foods For…” or “Is X Food on the Y Diet?”—and stop sniping at each other in the comments section of the latest controversial blog post—and start asking the questions that hit home for you where you are right now.
Things may work today that don’t work tomorrow; diets that once made you feel great may now be slowly destroying your gut; the calorie counting that once helped you lose weight may now be slowly introducing you to ED; the 5 amazonian berries that everyone’s juicing for health may actually making your genes express themselves incorrectly. To quote Kurt Vonnegut: And so on.
Make sense? Okay then.
Are you ready to listen to your body? Are you willing? Do you have support?
Let me know how I can help you stop Googling and start looking inward for health. I’m always listening!