Our Crossfit gym recently ran a group Whole 30 Challenge and invited us to join. It was a way to get people motivated and excited about eating healthy in the setting of a supportive community.
They created a private Facebook group where members could pose questions, show off their latest Whole 30 approved culinary creations, or just whine about all the goodies that we missed while doing the challenge.
The BJJ Cavewife and I were both enthusiastic about participating. While we generally ate healthily, we had been getting more lax with our eating habits since the cross country move.
There were weddings and holidays and birthdays to attend and we celebrated by eating lots of delicious yet non-paleo/primal foods.
This challenge was a way for us to get back into the swing of things as a couple while meeting more people in our gym.
Also, I wanted to learn more about the Whole 30. A few of our friends tried it out and spoke glowingly about it. While I didn’t know anythign about it, I suspected that it was a sort of a paleo-type diet. I would just nod along like I knew what they were talking about whenever they discussed the rule the rules they were trying to follow.
The rules of the Whole 30 are:
Follow these guidelines for the entirety of your program. No cheats, no slips, no excuses.
YES: Eat foods that make you more healthy—meat, seafood, and eggs, lots of vegetables and fruit, and natural fats.
NO: Do not consume added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, or dairy.
NO: Do not attempt to re-create junk foods, baked goods, or treats with “approved” ingredients.
NO: Do not step on the scale or take any body measurements during the program.
DAILY GUIDELINES Eat three meals a day. Start with breakfast. Don’t snack, if you can help it. Stop eating a few hours before bedtime.
Hmmm, seems pretty paleo to me. Even though I’m a regular follower of Mark Sisson and Robb Wolf, having read both of their books, The Primal Blueprint and The Paleo Solution, and felt like I already had a good understanding of things, I figured I owed it to this challenge to read the source material.
I ordered, It Starts with Food, by the Hartwigs, and got to reading.
I originally didn’t intend to write anything, but the BJJ Cavewife wanted me to give her a quick summary. She wanted to understand the WHYs behind all the NOs in the diet. When I tried to explain things to her, I found that my understanding wasn’t as good as I thought… so it was time to dig into the book.
This post is dedicated to helping the BJJ Cavewife understand WHY.
My initial thoughts on this diet being a paleo template was spot on as the Hartwigs were heavily influenced by Robb Wolf.
The entire premise of this diet can be summed up by my favorite line in the book:
While calories do count for something, good health depends on far more complex factors—and simply reducing calories (or fat) isn’t the answer. The foods you eat exert a powerful psychological influence, stronger than any act of willpower. They influence your hormones, silently directing your metabolism. They affect your digestive tract, your body’s first line of defense. And they impact your immune system and your risk for any number of diseases and conditions.
The Hartwigs do a wonderful job addressing the psychological and physiological effects processed foods can have on our bodies and how they can lead us astray.
A lot of our problems stem from the mismatch between the environment our bodies have evolved to thrive in (hunting, gathering, foraging, constant low level activity interspersed with periods of rest) and the environment we actually live in (cars, tv, office work, smartphones, twinkies, donuts, high fructose corn syrup). This is the entire hypothesis behind the paleo and primal diets.
This is my second favorite section in the book where they do an absolutely phenomenal job of describing this evolutionary mismatch:
ANCIENT SIGNALS IN A MODERN WORLD If we were hunting and foraging our food in nature, our bodies would need some way to signal to us that we’d found something useful. For example, bitter tastes signify toxic foods, while sweet tastes signify safer choices. Thanks to nature and our biology, our brains have been hardwired to appreciate three basic tastes: sweet (a safe source of energy), fatty (a dense source of calories), and salty (a means of conserving fluid). When we came across these flavors, neurotransmitters in our brain would help us remember that these foods were good choices by sending us signals of pleasure and reward, reinforcing the experience in our memories. These important signals from nature helped us select the foods best suited to our health.
But there is one very important point to keep in mind with respect to these signals from nature. They weren’t designed to tell us which foods were delicious—they were designed to tell us which foods were nutritious.
In nature, pleasure and reward signals led us to vital nutrition.
The trouble is that in today’s world, the ancient signals persist—but the foods that relay them are anything but good sources of nutrition. And that creates a major disruption in our bodies and in our brains.
Over the last fifty years, the makeup of our foods has dramatically changed. Our grocery stores and health food markets are packed with shelves of processed, refined food-like products—which no longer look anything like the plant or animal from which they were derived.
Food scientists caught on to the fact that our brains respond strongly to specific flavors (such as the aforementioned sweet, fatty, and salty), and, armed with this knowledge, they began to modify our whole foods. They sucked out the water, the fiber, and the nutrients and replaced them with ingredients like corn syrup, MSG, seed oils, and artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors. All of this with the specific intention of inducing cravings, overconsumption, and bigger profits for food manufacturers.
They’ve turned real food into Franken-food.
In nature, sweet tastes usually came from seasonal raw fruit, rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Today, sweet flavors come from artificial sweeteners, refined sugars, and high-fructose corn syrup. In nature, fatty tastes usually came from meats, especially nutrient-packed organ meats. In modern times, fats come from a deep-fryer or a tub of “spread.” In nature, precious electrolytes like sodium came from sea life or from the animals we ate. In modern times, salt comes from a shaker.
Why No added Sugars and Artificial Sweeteners?
Because of our evolutionary history, sweetness can be addictive for our systems, which can lead to overconsumption. Eating too many of these empty calories can lead to conversion to fat. Artificial sweeteners are bad because they are 100-1000x more sweet than sugar and can over-stimulate our brain’s reward centers.
Also overconsumption of sugar and artificial sweeteners can be bad for our gut biome.
Why No Alcohol?
Alcohol is addictive and can inhibit executive function which makes it easier to eat badly among other things. It provides no nutritional value and impairs glucose metabolism. On top of all this it can increase gut permeability and be toxic to our gut bacteria AND toxic to or neurological system.
Why No Seed Oils?
Industrial seed oils are by themselves unstable and easily oxidized which can lead to free radicals and inflammation. In addition, they are high in Omega 6 fatty acids which also promote systemic inflammation.
Why No Grains?
This includes breads, cereals, pasta, rice, or quinoa, which are essentially empty calories, bad for blood sugar, and can be overly stimulating to our reward centers.
They also contain phytates which can prevent our GI system from absorbing important nutrients.
Of course, there is also gluten which can promote systemic inflammation and induce gut permeability.
Why No Legumes?
Legumes contain phytates which can prevent absorption of important nutrients and also contain sugars that aren’t absorbed in the GI system. Instead they feed the gut bacteria and if there are any ‘bad’ gut bacteria, this can cause overgrowth and GI inflammation.
Why No Soy?
Soy products contain plant-based estrogens, phytoestrogens, that our bodies can react with our normal estrogen receptors which is something we don’t want.
I’ve been scared of soy products ever since I read a Men’s Health article about a guy who consumed so much soy, and was therefor exposed to so many phytoestrogens that he developed breasts.
Why No Peanuts?
They contain lectins that can slip through our intestinal lining and enter our blood stream causing an immune response.
Why No Dairy?
The two primary proteins in dairy are casein and whey. Casein can cause an inflammatory reaction called a histamine response.
Whey can send very powerful growth signals to the body and can stimulate the release of insulin and insulin like growth factor.
There’s also the sugar component, lactose, which can be bad for gut bacteria, especially in people who lack the enzyme to break it down, lactase.
I was surprised to learn that the Whole 30 also forbids grassfed milk, which some other paleo circles are ok with. Despite all the benefits including omega-3s conjugated linoleic acid, more vitamins and antioxidants they feel that:
However, simply sourcing dairy from cows that roam freely sidesteps only some of our concerns. Pastured, organic dairy still contains the same lactose, milk proteins, growth factors, and hormones as conventionally sourced dairy, which means it’s still not such a healthy option.
Why No Butter?
Butter still contains milk proteins. Clarified butter, ghee, however is ok since those proteins are removed.
You Should Still Read The Book
Despite my brief overviews here, I still highly recommend the book. I now have a better understanding of the why’s behind the different rules of the particular paleo type diet.
The chapter on the psychological effects of what we eat is by far my favorite chapter and is something I think everyone with any interest in nutrition should read.
They also delve further into the science about some of these things. For example, they actually break down the various components of a grain, from the husk to the endosperm to everything in between and how each of those components affects your body. Good stuff to nerd out on.
Of course, as with any diet book there’s the obligatory recipe section at the end of the book, which I normally skim over. I’m sure there’s a lot of good stuff in there, but our paleo cook book library is already pretty full.
You can pick the book up from Amazon here:
*Image found here